Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A clear path (Books - The Snow Geese by William Fiennes)

William Fiennes The Snow Geese reads like a contemplative travel book. His writing is precisely observant of the people he meets along his journey and I find these mini-portraits one of the simple joys of this book:
A dark blue sedan pulled up behind us, pausing on the bridge just long enough for an old man to step gingerly on to the kerb, assisted by a male nurse dressed in a shite, dog-collared hospital tunic. The old man wore a dressing-gown over a green hospital smock, and the thin shins visible below the hems of these robes were sleeved in the white compression stockings that prevent deep vein thrombosis in the bed-bound. He wore bright purple slippers with pineapples surprisingly embroidered on their topsides, and his face was gaunt, pared of all substance, with cheekbones showing like stanchions under pink, brittle-looking skin, and a tuft of shite hair like a wisp of smoke off his scalp. He moved shakily with anxious inch-long steps to the edge of the bridge and took his place at the balustrade to my left.
or this:
I boarded a new bus in Dallas, its driver a tall, lean, narrow man, like a cigarette dressed in the grey Greyhound uniform, with sleeves rolled neatly to the elbows and silver hair cut short at the back and siedes, swept back on top and glossed with brilliantine. He wore a brown leather belt embossed with an eagle, laterally extended, and a dated-looking digital watch with a calculator keypad underneath its scratched display. He sucked on a toothpick smoothed his hair back with both palms simultaneously, and addressed his passengers as 'folks.'
His writing picks up like a sudden storm and conveys a more joyous atmosphere at his sightings of the birds he has chosen to pursue on their migratory path:
Small groups of Canada geese kept to the gold fringe of cattail and phrags. The ice was covered with snow geese: a thick-sown crop of white necks, right across the lake. Goose calls resounded in the ice, as if the hollow, metallic din were trapped inside it. Sorties of geese took flight from the assembly; squads returned from nearby fields, coasting down on bowed wings and settling in the midst of the gaggle. Suddenly, the flock took wing, an audience breaking into applause. It was as if the ice itself had exploded - almost a surprise to see the hard, blue-blotched plane intact beneath the birds. The flock seethed, rolling back and forth on itself, its shadow roiling like a turbulence on the ice below. The applause deepened to the sound of trains thundering through tunnels. Scarves of glitter furled through the flock when drifts of birds turned their backs and white wings to the sun, and sometimes the entire sky was lit with shimmer, as if a silver, sequinned dress were rippling beneath a mirrorball, the sounds of goose calls and beating wings pounding the ice below...
This paragraph describes Fiennes's witnessing of more than 250,000 geese on their and his parallel journeys north from Texas to Canada. It is seeming to me as I progress through the book that the lengthy illness uprooted Fiennes. He lost his sense of direction while at University, precisely at the time one is supposed to know what one is going to do, and that his greatest attraction to the snow geese is how certain their path is. Without any knowledge of how they know, these geese are on a clear trajectory from one place to another.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Art and artists of a summer's day... (Art - James Ensor at MOMA & Books - Beautiful Shadow, The Children's Book, and The Snow Geese)

A variety of activities at Bookeywookey central this weekend which all began with seeing the James Ensor show at MOMA. Who? I didn't know his name either. Ensor was a mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century Belgian painter. His worked spanned styles from the impressionism of his early contemporaries to the expressionism of his later ones, and spanned subject matter from domestic portraits with a stunning sense of light to Belgian carnival masks, to satire of both religious and contemporary artistic iconography. Great show and it's just opening in case you're around NYC this summer.

Got a chance to dip back into Andrew Wilson's very thorough, though longish biography of Patricia Highsmith - Beautiful Shadow. In it I learned of her novel The Tremor of Forgery, thought by many to be her best and most serious work. I am going to have to see if it's available at the library. I was struck by this quote from the character of Derwatt, the artist who is the subject of Highsmith's second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground.
There is no depression for the artist except that caused by a return to the Self.
That certainly sounds as thought it were true for Highsmith. The other posts on this biography are here: 1, 2, 3.

I have also made a dent in A. S. Byatt's latest novel The Children's Book, though it's only about 150 pages. It is plain to the eye what her subject matter consists of, but I'm not sure what it all adds up to yet. There is a well-to-do family and their friends, who relate to the world in a more conventional fashion, and there are also a bunch of artistic folks, most of whom seem to be Fabians, who are involved in issues of social justice and free love. The piece is set prior to World War I and seems to pit forces of convention against forces of chaos in all sorts of complicated ways. The cast of characters is broad and the saga is long. So far let's say I feel admiring of Byatt's beautiful prose but rarely propelled by the action. There are several artists among the characters - a pupetteer, a potter, and a writers of children's stories. Byatt is certainly more at home writing about writing than she is writing about artistry of a more viceral nature - like throwing pottery. The writing on the puppet show, however, is lovely:
An illusion is a complicated thing, and an audience is a complicated creature. Both need to be brought from flyaway parts to a smooth, composite whole. The world inside the box, a world made of silk, satin, china mouldings, wires, hinges, painted backcloths, moving lights and musical notes, must come alive with its own lawas of movement, its own rules of story. And the watchers, wide-eyed and greedy, distracted and supercilious, preoccupied, uncomfortable, tense, must beomce one, as a shoal of fishes with huge eyes and flickering fins becomes one, wheeling this way and that in response to messages of hunger, fear or delight. August's flute was heard, and some were ready to listen and some were not. The curtains opened on a child's bedroom. He sat against his pillows. His nurse, in comfortable grey, bustled about him, and her shadow loomed over him on the white wall...

Her writing really can cast a spell. I'm suspicious that the art-making will become a more far-reaching metaphor but I'm not sure how yet.

Finally, having enjoyed William Fiennes memoir The Music Room so much, I tracked down his first book The Snow Geese while in England. Also a memoir of sorts, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is non-fiction, but Fiennes story is not merely of his subject, the geese, but of his discovery of them, his following their migratory pattern, and the effect of that journey on him. While at school, Fiennes falls ill with some illness that demands a lengthy recovery. During that time, he learns of the snow geese and read's Paul Gallico's story The Snow Goose and is moved to pursue them in their natural habitat from Southern Texas to Baffin Island in Hudson Bay. He travels to Texas and awaits his first glimpse:
The first sign was a faint tinkling in the distance, from no particular direction, the sound of a marina, of halliards glicking on metal masts. Drifs of specks appeared above the horizon ring. Each speck became a goose. Flocks were converging on the pond from every compass point, a diaspora in reverse, snow geese flying in loose Vs and Ws and long skeins that wavered like seaweek strands, each bird intent on the roost at the centre of the horizon's circumference. Lines of geese broke up and then recombined in freehand ideograms, kites, chevrons, harpoons. I didn't move. I just kept watching the geese, the halliard yammer growing louder and louder, until suddenly flocks were flying overhead, low over the shoulder, the now geese yapping like small dogs, crews of terriers or dachshunds - urgent sharp yaps in the thrum and riffle of beating winges and the pitter-patter of goose droppings pelting down around me. They approached the roost on shallow glides, arching their wings and holding them steady, or flew until they were right above the pond and then tumbled straight down on the perpendicular. Sometimes whole flocks circled over the roost, thousands of geese swirling round and round, as if the pond were the mouth of a drain and these geese the whirlpool turning above it. Nothing had prepared me for the sound, this dense, boisterous din, the clamour of a playground at breaktime, a drone-thickness flecked with high-pitched yells, squels, hollers and yamps - the entire prairies's quota of noise concentrated in Jack's holding pond by the two-storey house and the raised lake stocked with bass for fishing...

There is a lyricism as well as a straightforwardness to Fiennes's writing that I find evocative and moving, especially given that I was never aware of being interested in geese, indeed in birds of any kind.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Romantic science (Books - The Man with a Shattered World by A. R. Luria)

Before Oliver Sacks made neuropsychology comprehensible to the masses there was a Russian neurologist named Aleksandr Romanovich Luria. He worked from the 1920s - 1970s and while the field of neuropsychology did not yet really exist, his interests in psychoanalysis as well as neurology led him to study the fascinating disorders that can effect language, the ability to engage the will to use the muscles, or strange afflictions of perception, attention, or memory in a new way. Oliver Sacks tells us in his introduction to The Man with a Shattered World:
What was distinctive in his approach from the start, and formed a constant thread in all his explorations, was his sense that even the most elemental functions of brain and mind were not wholly biological in nature but conditioned by the experiences, the interactions, the culture, of the individual - his belief that human faculties could not be studied or understood in isolation, but always had to be understood in relation to living and formative influences.

Luria prefigured Sacks in writing what he termed "Romantic Science,"
Romantic scholars' traits, attitutdes, and strategies...do not follow the path of reductionism, which is the leading philosophy of the classical group. Romantics in science want neither to split living reality into its elementary components nor to represent the wealth of life's concrete events in abstact models that lose the properties of the phenomena themselves. It is of the utmost importance to romantics to preserve the wealth of living reality, and they aspire to a science that retains this richness.
So Luria wrote neurological novels (his term), The Man with a Shattered World being one. His approach created, in essence, the newish science of neuropsychology. This style of writing was purposefully accessible, painting a portrait of the patient as a complete person, revealing through a literate synthesis of behavior, brain anatomy, and being a new analysis of the unusual cases that Luria saw, with the dual aim of creating both a new understanding and a deeper compassion for this patient.

The tools of neuropsychology have advanced considerably, allowing us to peer inside the human brain in multiple ways with a much finer resolution. Decades of study have led to a far more nuanced understanding of the way brain influences behavior, but the job of a good neuropsychologist (for which I am studying) has remained essentially the same.

If this field interests you at all, even as a tourist, Oliver Sacks's essay length portraits of his patients are long on compassion and readability and short on technicalities and follow in the footsteps of Luria. They are a great place to start, but it was interesting for me to finally go to the source of it all and read one of Luria's narratives. The Man with a Shattered World is an accessible account that alterrnates between the patient's own painstakingly executed diaires and Luria's commentary. The victim of a gunshot wound in 1943, Zasetsky begins with almost no language at all. He ends up regaining some of his power to communicate but only with great effort. He can perceive the world only in small fragments, as many of the parts of the brain that synthesize the parts into wholes have been obliterated by his bullet wounds (isn't war wonderful?). His ability to identify objects is preserved, but his ability to name those objects is compromised and his sense of where those objects are in space or, often, how to use them, is destroyed. He retains memories of distant childhood, but his ability to learn new information consciously is severely limited, coming only after long labor.
Again and again I tell people I've become a totally different person since my injury, that I was killed March 2, 1943, but because of some vital power of my organism, I miraculously remained alive. Still, even thought I seem to be alive, the burden of this head wound gives me no peace. I always feel as if I'm living out a dream - a hideous, fiendish nightmare - that I'm not a man but a shadow, some creature that's fit for nothing...
Due to the patient's memory, the narrative is necessarily repetitive. As literature that might become tedious but taken as the product of his behavior, this become a tool - the only tool available to the neurologist of 1943 - to identify the location of Zasetsky's brain injury, the kinds of problems he was likely to have, and some notion of the skills he might have had a chance of recovering. Sad though it is, brain injury has been one of the chief tools we have had to confirming our understanding of normally functioning brains. We might believe through experimentation that a particular part of the brain functions in a particular way, but it is only by losing that part of the brain, and consequently that function, that we can confirm that hypothesis. When patients come to a neurologists office, it is exceedingly rare that we will drill a hole through the scalp to peer inside. Even the pictures we can make with MRI are limited in what they tell us. Behavior is still the chief measure of the neuropsychologist in diagnosing complaints. In any event, to return to The Man with a Shattered World, whether experienced as a strange sort of memoir-biography or as an artifact of a science in its infancy, makes for interesting and quick reading and I now want to read Luria's other neurological novel, The Mind of a Mnemonist some time soon.

Friday, June 26, 2009

When low-tech is the highest choice you can make (Theatre - Coraline)

After the very enjoyable 3-D animated movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline released less than a year ago, how can the lowly theatre possible answer the heights of imagination made possible by computer technology? Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan's off-Broadway musical adaptation in a production by Leigh Silverman at MCC Theater finds just the right answer - a deliciously low-tech musical adaptation that makes all the right choices. In it a young girl with overly busy parents moves to a new house with 21 windows and 14 doors (13 that open and close and one that doesn't) is as unexpected a take on the story as you are likely to see. It creates its physical universe as well as its musical score from toy and full-sized pianos, a veteran Broadway and regional actor well into middle age plays the title role and the actors playing her parents are easily 25 years her junior, her "other mother" is played by a man, there are no cat-suits or masks, the magic 14th door through which Coraline passes into an alternate universe containing another house and another set of parents is about 2-feet square and is carried on-stage by an actor, and the sophisticated lyrics find a rhyme for the word 'zaftig.' The production is nearly pitch-perfect. There are no special effects, no dancing teacups, the actors do not wear microphones. They tell this story with words and talent. When Coraline walks from inside to outside, she tells us it is so and it is. It worked for Shakespeare. The actor playing the cat sits atop an upright piano, contributing to the musical score by stepping on the keys.

There are so many delightful touches to this swift-moving, imaginative production. The cast is basically great and David Greenspan's Other Mother (he also wrote the book) delivers a spendidly evil performance with a tour-de-force sung monologue as she falls down the well. A few of the actors cannot seem to resist mugging, they seem a little too used to the stereotypical cutsie Broadway idiom. Francis Jue, thought he is energetically talented, cannot seem to resist guilding the lily a lot with most of the roles he plays. Jane Houdyshell is marvelous, although she does that thing that adults playing children sometimes do (particularly for the first 30 minutes of the show) that screams not just "I am a child" but "I am a loose limbed idiot-child." Cut it out Jane. It's insulting to children and it's not cute. The whole beauty of this terrific production is that it is theatre. No excuse has to be made for the casting and production choices. They are perfect. People play multiple roles without regard to race, age, or even species and acting is all you need. You don't have to play the fact that Coraline is seven, or whatever age she is. Trust that you're good enough. Children can be adult-like too, you know. Aside from these occasional attacks of the cutsies, this is a wonderful show, well worth seeing if you are near NYC before it closes on July 5. My hope is they will extend. Meanwhile, tickets can be found here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Escape the heat...

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Now that summer is here (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), what is the most “summery” book you can think of? The one that captures the essence of summer? (I’m not asking for you to list your ideal “beach reading,” you understand, but the book that you can read at any time of year but that evokes “summer.”)

I'll answer this way.

If summer is heat then I'll douse myself with:

Jamie O'Neill's At Swim Two Boys is a rich novel, part love story, part history of the Irish rebellion of 1916 and deeply steeped in the Irish tradition of letters. It's Oscar Wilde meets James Joyce. A real stunner.

Charles Arrowby of Irish Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea is one of the most impossibly embarrassing central characters you will ever meet in a novel. This is a hilarious dramatic romp.

The Waves is liquid gold. It has the long, wandery rhythm of a childhood summer summer day, filled with warmth and mystery. Its structure also follows the path of the sun on one complete day.

If summer includes the anniversary of American independence then I'll tuck into:

David McCullough has written a really masterful and readable biography of John Adams, but if biography is not your speed for summer, dip into the letters between John and Abigail Adams, one of the most beautiful correspondences ever. A lesson in love and history.

If summer is escape then I'll give myself one comic one and one serious one:

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis has written an irresistible story that is part science fiction, part screwball comedy, with a little wartime romance thrown in. Lots of fun.

I haven't thought of Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark for a long time, but this question brought it instantly to mind without my knowing why. In it Thea Kronberg find that her personal life can no longer live up to the richness of her artistic life, so she escapes there more and more. Cather herself calls the novel a reverse The Portrait of Dorian Grey.

Enjoy the pleasures of summer reading!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Asking the reader to imagine the lives of others (Books - One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden)

Having been wowed by Deirdre Madden's latest book, Molly Fox's Birthday, which I read on my recent vacation in England, I immediately went in search of her earlier books, finding One by One in the Darkness in an independent bookshop in Chipping Norton. Written in 1996, this is a broader work than Molly Fox's Birthday. It encompasses a familial drama of three sisters, their parents and grandparents in both the present and the past, in parallel we read an account of how the armed struggle in Northern Ireland in the same time periods affected individual lives. The sisters have chosen very different paths, or perhaps the paths have chosen them but, at any rate, Cate finds herself in a glamorous editing job in London, while Helen works as a lawyer in Belfast dealing often with work related to the political struggle. Sally lives in the country with their widowed mother, teaching primary school.
She woke early in the morning. Not surprisingly, she'd been sleeping badly in recent weeks, and she lay now for more than an hour thinking about her family. She like to imagine them still asleep, each of the three women lying in the warm darkness of her own room: Helen in her house in Belfast, Sally and her mother at home in the country. Late when Cate rose and moved about her flat making coffee and preparing her luggage for the journey, she thought of her family waking. Helen would stretch out her hand and switch on the radio, would like there drowsing and listening to classical music. Sally would go downstairs, and, still in her dressing gown and lseepy-eyed, would stare blankly at the cloudy sky while she waited for the kettle to boil. She would make tea, and bring it upstairs to her mother's room...

A common theme between the two Madden books I just read is this practice of characters imagining others' lives, not a surprising activity for a writer, and one that seems to form the backbone of her narrative. Madden's writing is straightforward but it does not spoon-feed the reader. She asks that you pay attention. Character is developed through uncliched and idiosyncratic details, such as Kate changing her name to Cate when she moves to London to either escape her past or seize her present (take your pick). The first shift from the present day narrative to the past is accomplished without fanfare, the only differences being the details of the action and a slight shift in tone. The beautifully subtle give-away was the spelling of Kate's name, suddenly beginning with a 'K.' The novel is full of delicate touches like that one that demand attention of the reader.

But imagining other's lives is not merely stock-in-trade for the writer, it is the necessary ingredient for empathy, moreover it is Madden's charge to her reader. As such Madden's novels, and indeed all art that makes this endeavor, serve a vital purpose in a world in which so many relationships are selfishly motivated and violently expressed. This book's events are the stuff of lives everywhere - the current generation disturbing the traditions of the past, sibling rivalry, school, work, illness, death and birth - but that doesn't make this book ordinary. The writing is observant, touching and would be eligiac if it didn't include the present-day narrative off-setting the one in the past. This interplay asks the reader to ponder influences and consequences rather than let sentimentality color the past either with too rosy a complexion or one that is too maudlin. One by One in the Darkness is a deeply felt but contained narrative, sophisticated in its brevity but simple in its diction, sending me in search of yet another novel by a writer I am coming to love for her clarity, passion, and humanity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An undisturbable sense of wholeness (Books - Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden)

Funny thing, birthdays - the anniversary of the day we met the world for the first time. Most of us celebrate this day - a little narcissistic pleasure our culture seems to indulge - however, Molly Fox, the celebrated actress does not. Here is a woman who delves deep into what makes up a 'self.' Whose profession it is to create selves from that knowledge through the medium of her own self and yet, when it comes to letting others know her, even those who are close, she does not. And the day on which most of make an acknowledged public celebration of self is not a celebration for Molly Fox. That is the subject on which our narrator, playwright and friend of of Molly Fox, ruminates as she lives in Molly Fox's house in Dublin.

Molly has escaped to New York prior to beginning her next project in London. The friends swap homes so that Molly has a place to stay in London and so that our narrator may begin to write a new play in fresh surroundings, as the writing is giving her some trouble. Realizing it is Molly's birthday leads her to remember Molly, their mutual friend Andrew who becomes an art historian, and other key people who make up their emotional and practical lives. The playwright also creates selves in her work, and in the absence of her friend and of any good ideas for a play she ponders who we are. Who we are to ourselves? Who we are to others? How do past events form us? How do our families? How does our nationality? Can we transform ourselves or is our identity inherently unchangeable? How, indeed, do our house and possessions inform us?
What kind of woman has a saffron quilt on her bed? Wears a white linen dressing gown? Keeps beside her bed a stack of gardening books? Stores all her clothes in a shabby antique wardrobe, with a mirror built into its door? Who is she when she is in this room, alone and unobserved, and in what way does that differ from the person she is when she is in a restaurant with friends or in rehearsal or engaging with members of the public? Who, in short, is Molly Fox?

I was reluctant to pursue this line of thought because I suddenly realised that, lying in my bed in London next week, she might do exactly the same thing to me. Given her particular gift she would be able to reconstruct me, to know me much better than I might wish myself to be known, especially by such a close friend.

'Can we ever know another?', this novel seems to ask. Is it as they know themselves? Is that pursuit worthwhile? The Irish novelist Deirdre Madden fashions a deep and beautiful book of these potentially abstract musings that is redolent with the pain of the distance we have from all others - even those we love most - and simultaneously rich with the rewards of the communion we can make through long acquaintance. One could examine the details of lives and their motivations so deeply that what one accomplishes amounts to dissection, leaving us with knowledge of these people in bits torn from each other. Somehow Madden tears apart muscle from bone and yet leaves us with insight into lives that is richer and more whole than when we began. She is particularly good at using the processes of the actor, writer, and arts scholar to reflect on the ways we can inhabit this inherent contradiction of knowing another, but the mechanisms are so integrated with the events of this narrative (if one can call them events) that it is difficult to reveal them without ruining your own reading of this book which is as slight in pages as it is long in humanity.

The greatest pleasure of reading this book is this sense of integrity, the life of the narrator and the work of Deirdre Madden seem inextricably fused. This may be an illusion or it may be fact but the important thing is that it feels true.
'Thanks awfully. It's a hot day.' I agreed and for a few moments we made small talk about the weather, about the solstice, about heat and light. He looked very like Molly, but Molly at her most nondescript, Molly as she was when she didn't want to be recognised and refused to project her personality. Fergus was incapable of that transformation that could make his sister such an electrifying presence on stage, and indeed in her private life, when she so desired. He was a small man, lightly built with brown hair and the same olive complexion as Molly. He reminded me of thing so much as a little wild bird, a sparrow or a dunnock, and in dealing with him I always felt I had to behave as if he were indeed such a creature. Anything sudden or abrupt would startle him; he needed stillness and calm, He took out a packet of cigarettes and lit a new one off the stub of the one he had just finished. 'Isn't the cow dreadful?' he remarked unexpectedly, indicating it with a toss of his head. 'I said to Molly, "What possessed you? It ruins the whole garden." But she just laughed.'

I forgot to mention the voice. Like his sister, Fergus is blessed with a magically beautiful voice....
In this passage, the description of Fergus is accomplished by Deirdre Madden the writer but seems like our narrator's private musing. The sentence 'I forgot to mention the voice,' could seem unnecessary, Madden could have edited it out and just described the voice, but the writer/narrator follows the flow as one thought breaks into the stream of another. Calling attention to this process doesn't remove me from the reading experience but, rather, pulls me deeper in as the thoughts are not cleaned up for me. I get the whole flow seemingly the way it came. This could be the way the narrative unfolded for the writer or it could be a deliberate creation, but once used in this published narrative it necessarily assumes an identity as artifice, and it is artifice of the best kind in that it helps me believe in the identity of someone who does not exist, the playwright - a character created by the writer Deirdre Madden.

The subject of this narrative could, I suppose, be seen as indulgent. 'Oh, yawn, a writer writing about writing.' But its transparency is rendered gold by this seeming fusion of narrator and writer I have been going on about. I don't know if Madden herself was writing her way out of a dry period or if this is artifice too, but the narrator-character's creative process around beginning the creation of a new play is pitch-perfect. This is a period which, for many creators of art, is frought with tangential thought and a period of collection during which one must be patient and not fritter away the good stuff by talking about nascent ideas and then, when one notion alights on the brain with the delicacy of a grasshopper landing on a leaf, one must follow that notion with greedy energy to make sure that it doesn't escape and then, often, we hit a point where the effort seems to produce an inevitable path and the words, dance, music, painting flows. But prior to that conception, a new beginning can often seem unobtainable. We are sure it will never happen again.

I had a dual awareness of writer-character and writer-creator converging and diverging as I read. They converge perfectly for the experiential reader while they diverged for the part of me that analyzes artistic structure and process. This plays with the separateness and fusion between selves that is the subject matter of this novel and simultaneously with the integration of artifice and narrative that are the engine of this novel. The result is a powerful work of art with an undisturbable sense of wholeness. I finished Molly Fox's Birthday only last week (thank you dovegreyreader for leading me to this book) and already I want to read it again. While in England I bought two more copies to give to friends and picked up Deirdre Madden's earlier novel One by One in the Darkness and read that too (my thoughts on that one are here). It is rare that I add books to my favorites list, this one is going right up there.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Following your greatest sensation by preceding it (Books - The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon)

I was a big fan of The Shadow of the Wind, I don't know about you, so I was awaiting this sequel with bated breath. Actually, the action of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game precedes his first book, making it a prequel, but both the reading and the writing of this book must follow the proverbial tough act. I think that colored my reading of this book and it no doubt must have colored its creation as well. Like its predecessor, The Angel's Game is long on atmosphere:
With no other family to my name but the dark city of Barcelona, the newspaper became my shelter and my world until, when I was fourteen, my salary permitted me to rent that room in Dona Carmen's pension. I had barely lived there a week when the landlady came to my room and told me that a gentleman was asking for me. On the landing stood a man dressed in grey, with a grey expression and a grey voice, who asked me whether I was David Martin. When I nodded, he handed me a parcel wrapped in coarse brown paper then vanished down the stairs, the trace of his grey absence contaminating the world of poverty I had joined.

Once immersed in this dark tale, the action moves quickly. I will not reveal any plot details because the driving force of this book is plot. Again, Ruiz Zafon creates a world that lovers of books and writing will adore. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books again figures in this tale.
'Everything is a tale, Martin. What we believe, what we know, what we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated. Don't tell me you're not tempted by the idea.'

'I'm not.'

'Are you not tempted to create a story for which men and women would live and die, for which they would be capable of killing and allowing themselves to be killed, of sacrificing and condemning themsleves, of handing over their soul? What greater challenge for your career than to create a story so powerful that it transcends fiction and becomes a revealed truth?'
Juicy, huh?

I couldn't help thinking as I read, that Ruiz Zafon was writing this tale not merely "to order," that is, he had to accurrately match up to the plot he created before as well as not disappoint the expectations created by the sensation that was his first novel, but that he also was deliberately writing this story out of that experience. In other words, writing this book could be nothing but a burden to the act of creating a follow-up tale to a literary sensation, but one could take that onus and write about it and out of it, make it one's coded subject matter. In some ways, the assignment that the character David Martin receives in the excerpt above serves double duty. It is not only the fantastical subject matter of the novel, but it is Ruiz Zafon's own challenge - to write another book that is the be-all, end-all narrative. I think he is a smart artist to write from his all-but-impossible task of following his own great success with another greater success.

Ruiz Zafon writes an entertaining and romantic book-lovers tale that did not quite live up to the wild-fire expectation set by his previous book. However, I will say that after about page 200 I stopped even marking pages to look back at for this post and just read at break neck speed to find out what would happen next. The tale is suspenseful and even moving at times even if I felt some of the pressure the writer was under to dovetail neatly with his previous novel.

Lives past, present, future (Books - The Biographer by Virginia Duigan)

I began Virginia Duigan's The Biographer before I left on holiday and so it sustained me across the Atlantic. I provided a little plot set-up in my first post, so check back if you would like a lengthier re-hash. Basically, Greer, an Australian woman, is swept off her feet by Mischa, a Czech painter whose work is being shown at the gallery at which she works. 25 years later they live in Italy and Antony, an American, is writing Mischa's biography and comes to stay. Greer is uncomfortable about Antony uncovering her past, so the biographer's visit precipitates a spate of going through an old diary, which is how we learn her back-story. The driving question of the novel - is there some big, dark secret troubling Greer, or is she merely uncomfortable because she left her husband to be with Mischa? The initial strengths of this book remained its strengths. Duigan creates recognizable and detailed characters. She sets up their differences well - this is particularly true for Mischa and Greer. The structure of the book means that we slowly earn our information about the past, filling in holes in our understanding of the present people.
She had put her hand into her capacious coat pocket and encountered a bulging plastic bag.

'I nearly forgot. Close your eyes and open your hands. I've got a present for you.'

She pulled it out and spilt a slender arc of ivory sand and a could of fluttering tropical petals, scarlet and gold and purple, into the capacious bowl of his cupped hands.

'The sand was very important to me. It brought back the feeling of being with you, for some reason.' She caught his eye. 'It was so silky and soft, but that's got nothing whatsoever to do with it.'

He looked down at the pyramid of sand and petals and closed his eyes again, 'It is my first and best present.'

She was reminded of the look on his face the day she had first met him. That afternoon he'd been loudly singing and gazing at his own painting of an Aboriginal girl on a piano in a paddock. He had the same expression now. In her diary she had called it beatific, a look of blissful happiness.

'It can't be the best if it's also the first.'

'Yes it can, and don't argue. It is the first proper present I have ever been given. Therefore it is also the best.'

On the point of leaving, she had looked over at the painting on the table under the window. 'Do you always take this long to finish something?'

'Are you always so non-observant?'

'Unobservant, if you don't mind.'

Only then did she see that all along the balncony wall, under the frowzy French windows where he had rubbed a few cursory holes in the dust, the floor was littered with discarded drawings. Limbs, breasts, buttocks, hair, torsos, crossed out, drawn and redrawn, and finally a face she knew. Her face. She circumnavigated them in growing amazement...
I like the movement through time in this sequence. It is set in the past, referencing the even more distant past and yet, at the same time, referencing the present time of the narrating of the story, in the future. It is an intimate scene late in the novel and uses everything we have learned of how these two people behave and think. It is intimate, like overhearing pillow-talk. It also introduces some of the weakenesses of the writing - the repetition of the adjective 'capacious' seems unnecessary or careless and Duigan's diction is often fussy in a 'writerly' way.

Duigan also creates a sexual frisson between the young, blond American biographer and several of the characters, including Greer. This device was effective and seemed to cleverly play out the compound terror and allure of having one's self be the subject of intense interest for another. If terrifying it is still thrilling, flattering.

While the strengths of Duigan novels ran consistantly throughout the book, so did the problems. Antony, the biographer, was supposed to be American. Unfortunately his dialogue was not always convincing. Either Duigan wrote more Aussy-Brit diction than is likely for an American or she wished to write a character who automatically apes the diction of the people he is speaking with, but if the second choice is true, she never told the reader about it. The biggest weakness of this novel is that, for too long a time, I couldn't tell if Greer's problem with revealing herself was simply an aspect of her character that provided this novelist with an opportunity to explore the idea of 'self.' Or whether there was some real deep dark secret that most anyone would be anxious of bringing to the surface. The first could make an interesting novel but would require more depth of insight than Duigan was able to muster to let us know what precisely it was about Greer that made it so difficult to face herself. Or if the second choice it would require more suspense to be drummed up - a la Sophie's Choice. ** SPOILER ALERT** Indeed this second choice was the case, but for a long while I couldn't tell, and by the time it was revealed the story no longer held me. Finally, I liked the characters enough that I stuck around until the conclusion, but that was because I had invested so much time already, not because the writing compelled me to do so.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hiking, opera, tea, theatre, book shopping, friends, and home again...

This is the B&B we stayed at in the Cotswolds and its garden. Some rain gave us lots of time for reading, but we also took several hikes on the wonderful network of pubic footpaths that cut through fields and woods across the U.K. Unlike the U.S., where keeping other people off one's land seems a priority, in England, although the farm belongs to the farmer, its beauty is shared with walkers. One can walk for hours uninterrupted and mostly skirt main roads, enjoying a quiet walk in a natural setting. It appears that hikers are respectful, we did not see a single piece of trash along the way. After one of our hikes we had a great afternoon tea in Chipping Camden. I love meeting artists and visiting their studios and try to do this wherever we visit. Our hosts introduced us to a local artist whose work we we found interesting and we had some coffee with her and checked out her work. Our long hike from Chipping Norton took us to an ancient stone circle known as the Rollright Stones. Chipping Norton also boasts a very nice independent bookshop and Cafe - Jaffe and Neale. As you can soon read in a future post, I was pretty wowed by Molly Fox's Birthday and was able to find a copy of her earlier novel One by One in the Darkness there.

We also attended the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in Sussex, seeing our friends there, 2 completed productions, and 1 in rehearsal. Giulio Cesare, a revival, has justifiably been a great sensation. I had seen it on DVD but it's much more fun live. Our friend, Danielle de Niese, sings, dances and acts Cleopatra (pictured below left) in a performance of gob-smacking energy and beauty. Falstaff is a wonderfully conceived production by Richard Jones set in World War II England. Christopher Purves blends great singing and detailed acting into one unified whole is the title role and Marie-Nicole Lemieux is fantastic as Mistress Quickly. The Fairy Queen, which we saw in rehearsal, looks like it is going to be great fun as well. It features The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the always strong direction of William Christie and I thought the choreography by Kim Brandstrup particularly strong.

We stayed in the big house at Glyndebourne (pictured above left) which was a lot of fun. Sussex was also the stomping grounds of some of my favorite Bloomsburyites. We visited Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's house - Charleston (above right) - and it is well worth a visit. Having worked on a play about Virginia Woolf and her circle for years, finally standing in those rooms next to the wall paintings, their studios, and garden was amazing. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Monk's House. Maybe next time.

We also visited Oxford, just strolling around for a few hours. The Blackwell Bookstore there is amazing. Having enjoyed William Fiennes The Music Room so much, I found his The Snow Geese there and picked up a copy. Finally, we spent several days in London. We found the Wellcome Collection's exhibits about mental health and art very interesting and they have a great bookstore as well! We also saw Sir John Soane's Museum, which we missed on our last several visits. His collection includes the Hogarth A Rake's Progress and many antiquities. It's quite a house to spend a few hours in (and it's free). We also attended two productions, both at the National Theatre, J. B. Priestley's Time and the Conways - certainly a play before its time in terms of cinematic use of time. The productions is, sadly, an unimaginative bore - lazily substituting screaming and cliches for acting, actors working from the neck up only. The production would have required some sort of physical language to reveal the special qualities of this play. Sadly, they never didn't come up with one in the first two acts and I wasn't waiting around for the third. The second play we saw was a very hot ticket - Hellen Mirren is playing the title role in Phedre in a strong and accessible translation by Ted Hughes. The production also features Margaret Tyzack and Dominic Cooper. There were some nice moments here and there. I thought John Shrapnel as Theramene turned in the strongest work of the evening. Dominic Cooper's peformance was pretty intelligent and centered and Stanley Townsend had a couple of moments where he was filled with the pain of Theseus's circumstances, but sadly those did not a Phedre make. I found most of the actors substituted vocal technique for real connection with these extreme circumstances. Mirren told us she was moved, horrified, devastated, but rarely succeeded in actually showing us that that was so. When she did her connection seemed banal, theatrical, rarely human. We attended the production with my cousin and his fiancee and heading off to the restaurant, he said to me that he couldn't understand why anyone would want to mount Greek tragedy (via French neo-classicism) as it had no meaning today. This seems to me the one reason for mounting any play - that it has some meaning in the context of our own lives. This production has a clear financial motivation for its mounting and one that would fascinate fans but it did not ably communicate to me any esthetic one. We didn't luck out with our theatre-going in London this time but our visits with friends and family and walking around the beautiful city were pleausures enough.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

On holiday for a bit but I may check in from the road

We will be here, here, here, and here...

doing some of this, this, this, and this...

and taking along this, this, this, and this...and probably acquiring a few more.

I'll try to check-in and post from time to time. I'll see you soon.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The sweetness of memory without the bathos (Books - The Music Room by William Fiennes)

William Fiennes's The Music Room evokes the childhood memory of growing up in a medieval castle that is not merely the setting, but a character in this tender reminiscence. While told from Fiennes's point of view, this memoir is, uncharacteristically, a book about someone else - Fiennes's older brother Richard - who suffered from brain damage as the result of epilepsy. As I mentioned in my other post about this book, Fiennes alternates between memories of Richard, his parents and their unusual home, and descriptions of the work of the earliest neuroscientists who sought to understand the brain, its parts, and how they either function or fail to do so. The passages about the castle and his family are rich with well-chosen detail - the kind that evokes memory:
He arranged white pipe cleaners and scraping tools on his bedside table; he insisted we stop at the tobacconist's on the way to the station so he could stock up on tobacco and lighter fuel. A long curtain wall tupped with battlements ran out at an angle from the gatehouse and you could tell if Rich was walking on the far side by the steam-train clouds of smoke his pipe produced. Inside, he banged the pipe on the earthenware bowl, abrupt auctioneer raps to clear the last flecks of ash, to get the thing clean. Soon the pipe's repertoire of new sounds (the rap rap rap of the chamber on the earthenware dish, the lid flip and rasp of the angle-flame Zippo, the scratch of the cleaning tool, the blasts he blew through the stem to clear the airway, cheeks puffing like a trumpeter's) included a distinctive cough...

The mini-scientific histories have a contrasting character, more factual:
Berger proposed the name electroencephalogram for the curve he had demonstrated for the first time in human beings. 'We see in the electroencephalogram,' he wrote, 'a concomitant phenomenon of the continuous nerve processes which take place in the brain, exactly as the electrocardiogram represents a concomitant phenomenon of the contractions of the individual segments of the hear.' ...

'In the characteristic potential curve of the EEG of man,' Berger writes, 'which is composed of the action current of the various nerve cell layers and is woven into a homogeneous whole, the total physiological and psychophysiological activity of the human brain finds its visible expression.'
This may seem cold in comparison to what one expects from a memoir, but EEG is the metric we employ in our lab, and I don't only find learning about the birth of the measurement interesting, I found it exciting and moving to see Fiennes struggle to do what many of us thinking creatures who ponder people and behavior (whether through art or through science) do every day - find a way to understand what is going on in the brain to make a mind, an active body, a soul. There is a third, rarer category of narrative that combines the two, attempting to lay bare this struggle that people who love someone with a mental or a neurological illness go through each day:
A psychologist's report listed his 'problem behaviors': great difficulty with motivation; severe problems with impulse control, leading at times to aggressive behaviour; lack of personal hygeine; difficulty in getting started; difficulty once started, in stopping; inability to plan and sequence behaviour; disinhibition; unable to problem-solve; insensitive to social cues; inability to learn from feedback; perseveration; tunnel vision; rigidity. 'He cannot take into account the effect of his behaviour on others,' the report noted, 'nor can he always exercise sufficient self-control to behave appropriately.'
'R does not have brakes,' Mum scribbled in the margin.
The combination of these three narrative strategies, and the beauty of Fiennes's writing produced for me a book both touching and thoughtful, indulging in the sweetness of memory but never tumbling into maudlin longing. A very worthwhile read.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sticky books...

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I saw this over at Shelley’s, and thought it sounded like a great question. “This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.”

Bleak House & Nicholas Nickleby (Dickens) - Aside from it's wide-ranging story and amazing comedy, I remember Bleak House most because I hated it the first time I read it and loved it the second. Nicholas Nickleby I will always remember, if for nothing else, for the death of Smike which has got to be the saddest thing I have ever read, next to the finale of Sula. Sula! I should have put that on the list too.

Hopeful Monsters (Nicholas Mosely) - I have gone on and on about this remarkable meditation on social revolution, politics, science, the 20th century and love. It is so worth the admitted effort of reading it.

The Gold Bug Variations
(Richard Powers) - This is brilliant. Mystery and love story. Science and music. Past and Present. Can't say enough about it. Sheila and I have read it enough times now that we can refer to scenes in shorthand, as though we were there when they happened. I think Sheila might have one more re-read than I.

For Kings and Planets -
(Ethan Canin) - A beautiful story by a psychologically astute writer. I have read it multiple times and find myself thinking of the friendship that is at its center again and again.

Narcissus and Goldmund -
(Herman Hesse) - It was hard to choose just one of Hesse's books since many of them hang around in my consciousness and serve as emotional touchstones.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas -
(Gertrude Stein) - This book defined Paris as the city of the artist for me, and its conceit is really hilarious.

Crime and Punishment
(Dostoevski) - This book ate me alive when I first read it. Dostoevski creates an incredible sick tension that infects the reader like a flu.

Cloud Street
(Tim Winton) - This is a magical saga set in Australia. The characters have stuck with me like people I've met.

The Chosen
(Chaim Potok) - It also was also tempting to put more Potok books on the list. This was the first I read and I have come back to it repeatedly.

The 1st book I read as an adolescent that had a sex scene in it - I don't remember the title or the author, but I sure remember reading that scene!

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) - This was assigned reading for school. I had my parents old pocket book copy (see picture above). I ruined the spine, I read it so many times.

The Microbe Hunters -
(Paul de Kruif) - The book that introduced scientific research to me as a romantic pursuit. Clearly it made some impression.

All Creatures Great and Small
(James Herriot) - I just loved Herriot's books when I was in High School. Such a different world than growing up in New York.

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (Erving Goffman) - I don't know what brought this particular book to mind today, but it was very influential on my thinking as Goffman, a sociologist, presented social encounters with the perspetive and the language of theatre. I read it just once, in college, and still remember it. Time for a re-read.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Elegiac memories of the old family castle and stimulating the motor cortex (Books - The Music Room by William Fiennes)

William Fiennes's memoir of growing up in an English medieval castle that has been in his family for six centuries sets the perfect gentle, elegiac tone to usher in summer and our upcoming trip to England. It begins:
The school assembly hall was closed for renovations and on Sundays we walked to a church for our weekly service. We spread rumours along pews and daydreamed through sermons until one visiting preacher secured our attention by hoisting a bag onto the pulpit rim - a scuffed black leather bag with accordion pleats at each end, a bag a doctor might take on night visits - and unpacking metal stands and clamps we recognized from science labs, and various jars and packages he ranged along the shelf in front of him. He was in his fifties, dressed in a grey suit and a black shirt with a white dog collar, and he didn't say anything while preparing his equipment. tightening a clamp on a retort stand, fixing a cardboard tube between the jaws. He struck a match; a fuse caught and sizzled; he shook the match out and stepped back to watch the lame. Then we understood that what he'd clamped to the stand was a firework. The tube flared with a soft, liquid rush, sparks and white embers falling to the stone floor, the preacher's spectacles glinting in the brightness. The fountain died with a last sputter like someone clearing their throat, the after-image burning in our eyes.

'Light,' the preacher said.

There are so many pleasures in Fiennes's writing. His words choices are specific, not general, for example he has bothered to find out (or knows) the term 'retort stand' rather than employing a more general word. He is sparing in his use of commas, a choice I stylistically appreciate. His use of verbs is active and unexpected. They are not 'sitting' on pews but rather 'spreading rumours along' them. Metaphor and simile are used but not overused. The fountain died 'like someone clearing their throat.' Lovely. His precision leaves room for the reader to think, it doesn't grab frantically at our attention, desperate to hold on.

The tone of his memory calibrates our brain to the age at which his senses are taking in the information that he now writes of as an adult. For instance, I feel that he is a young boy in this next paragraph without his explicitly saying so. There is something in the diction - his 'haunting' the greenhouse and his having to 'dare' himself to approach the boiler room. There is the sense for me that these details of the scene are treasures. His voice communicates the wonder with which his eye takes in the visions of his childhood world.
Often I crossed the bridge over the brook and pushed through the iron gates into the kitchen gardens. I haunted the long, low Victorian greenhouse with broken panes, wasps crawling the windfall from apple trees, cobwebs sagging off the roofwork, a debris of smashed pots and a narrow brick walkway between rotten, mossed-over work-benches, rich plant gas coming off the nettle clumps. I had to dare myself to approach the musty half-underground darkness of the boiler room at the far end...

I am enveloped in his sensoral world and yet the perspective of his current age penetrates the memory:
What I liked best was the sound of her tuning the viola, the way she'd loosen the peg a fraction before bringing it up to the correct pitch, as if it was only by being first slightly mistaken in something that you could see the right answer clearly.

These warm but not sloppily sentimental memories are juxtaposed against the violence of his older brother Richard's epilepsy and the brain damage suffered by him from the seizures. Interspersed among the wasps,the wafting music, his mother oiling the armor with WD-40, and his father giving historical tours to visitors to the old castle are passages about Fritsch and Hitzig's applying electrical stimulating the cortex of animals and uncovering the motor cortex. Fiennes uses a more intellectual approach and contrasting textures to write about his brother's illness and the counterpoint its rhythms created against those of the medieval castle that was his family home.

Despite the level of detail I am relating to you about reading Fiennes's The Music Room, half of it whipped by in a couple of sittings and I hope I will finish it today. While in England, I will try to pick up his first book, The Snow Geese, as well. By the way, my order from the The Book Depository did come in, so let me sing their praises. If you do not live in England but are looking for books published and released there (as well as elsewhere), they are well-stocked, reliable, and fast, they deliver worldwide for FREE, and they have nifty bookmarks.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The official portrait artist of those society would prefer to ignore - Diane Arbus (Film - Fur)

The 1950s are used again and again in American movies to depict an era of icy, repressed, normalcy. It seems like the icons of this time were given some stamp of approval and the suburban house with lawn, mom-in-the-kitchen dancing about her new appliances, 2.2 children are, in many parts of the U.S., still thought to be as wholesome and desirable as Wonder Bread. But some people don't fit the mold, have never fit the mold, and photographer Diane Arbus was certainly one of them. She began the daughter of wealthy socialites who sold furs, married a commercial photographer, had children, a conventional marriage, and tried to play the role expected of her, but, in Fur, an imagined film biography of Arbus by Steven Shainberg, a masked stranger moves in upstairs who is covered from head to foot in hair. All of his acquaintances are extraordinary people - little folks, giants, a woman born without arms who performs most ordinary tasks using her feet - and he introduces Diane to a world of marginalized people which encourage her to burst from her upper middle class chrysalis and begin to find herself. She turns out to be a great and singular photographer. What I love about this film is its message: you can look like everyone else and yet not be able to do as they do and feel like you. There are some people for whom 'normal' isn't normal. They feel freakish. One of those people was photographer Diane Arbus, and she became the official portrait artist of those in society marginalizes because they do not look or behave as they are 'supposed to.' Director Shainberg and his excellent team try to imagine what steps led up to the first photograph we know of Arbus's. The bare facts of her life up until that time are the starting point, but everything else is imagined - not as a realistic biography but as a sort of beautiful fever-dream. This film has a stunning visual esthetic, its imagery frequently references Alice in Wonderland. Arbus is, surprisingly, played by Nicole Kidman and, even more surprisingly as far as I'm concerned, she is great. I have found Kidman to be an unfeeling, cipher in every film but one - The Others. Here I find her work penetrating and expressive as the straight-appearing girl who feels a freak inside. We can see her itch to get out. Her hairy Svengali is played by Robert Downey Jr. who is, as always, a superb, antic, risk-taker. I didn't hear about this film when it was released. It is a marvelous surprise.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I cannot imagine... (Film - Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)

The semester is finally over, my last paper handed in, and five films I had requested all came in to my local library at the same time, so we watched Le Scaphandre et le Papillon last night. Based on the memoir by the journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby who was paralyzed by a stroke yet able to understand everything that went on around him - locked-in syndrome. Scaphandre is French for diving bell, which is Bauby's metaphor for what it is like to be trapped inside himself. He got up each morning at 5, thought about what he wanted to say and memorized it. His helper came in at 8 and he dictated one letter at a time, blinking his one working eye as someone read each letter of the alphabet. What a devotion to words. Locked-in syndrome is the kind of horrible experience I hear about and think "I cannot imagine..." but the film is so vividly directed by artist/film maker Julian Schnabel that I feel like he has given me a glimpse. There are some wonderful actors in it. Mathieu Amalric, one of my favorite French actors, plays Jean-Do. I don't remember the name of the actress who played the wife but she is wonderful, silently registering the bitter triumph of a wife who has won her husband back from his younger mistress, but only because he has been completely paralyzed. In a wonderful scene, she takes a call from the mistress on Jean-Do's birthday, reading out the alphabet so he can respond, so subtly played!. His elderly father is played by Max von Sydow, who must, at 92, reckon with the fact that his active, successful son has suddenly become as reduced in capacities as he is. A really touching performance.