Thursday, July 30, 2009


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What’s the funniest book you’ve read recently?

I didn't read To Say Nothing of the Dog all that recently however, it's the first book I thought of when I read today's question. Connie Willis is funny, fun, and imaginative. This book is delightful - part science fiction, part love story, part wartime adventure, and of course there's the dog. I tend to expect more belly laughs from shorter pieces like some of Woody Allen's essays in Without Feathers or Steve Martin's amazing spoof on side effect inserts in medications, which was in The New Yorker quite a while back and is probably the funniest thing I have ever read.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Holding a single moment up to the light (Books - The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch)

As I mentioned in my previous post, Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good begins with a shot, followed up by a body. For another writer that would herald the arrival of a detective and activities focused on the solution of the crime, followed by a gathering, usually in a drawing room, during which said detective reveals all. Not for Murdoch. I'm fifty pages in and nary a detective in sight, although I am suspicious that one of the characters I have met will become one. Rather, we are gradually drawn in to the imbroglios of the extended household of Octavian and Kate Gray, in which figure Uncles, friends from University recovering from broken marriages, and multiple children.

One of the features I like best about Murdoch's writing is her love of taking a simple action between people, and turning it in her capable hands, seeing what is is made of, holding it up to see how it catches the light.
He had a serious staring gaze which, together with a slow pedantic habit of speech, gave him the air of an intellectual. In fact, though clever, he was idle at school and far from bookish. Mary, still unseen, moved closer and saw that Pierce had covered the table with a complicated pattern composed of hundreds of shells arranged in spirals, tiny ones in the centre, larger ones on the outside. Adjusting the outer edge of the pattern he stopped to select a shell from a heap at his feet.

Pierce became aware of his mother and turned slowly to face her. He rarely moved fast, He looked at her without smiling, almost grimly. He looked at her like an animal, cornered but not frightened, a dangerous confident animal. And Mary apprehended herself as a thin dark woman, a mother, a representatibve somehow of the past, of Pierce's past, confronting him as if she were already a shost. This came to her in an instant with an agony of possesive love for her son and a blinding pity of which she did not know whether it was for him or for herself...

This is typical of Murdoch, this deep insight into a simple moment that later might end up motivating a simple action whose consequence may not be at all simple and whose intersection with other people performing many other simple actions is, in fact, likely to be complicated and a source of great entertainment. Murdoch may like to plumb the depths but I never find her heavy. Her entertainments tend to revolve around a moral theme, goodness and niceness come to mind in this case, but I haven't yet read enough to find out.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Goldoni the modernist (Theater - Trilogia della villegiatura by Goldoni)

I'm so glad each time that the Lincoln Center Festival rolls around because NYC gets a taste of some of the world's best theatre companies. Piccolo Teatro di Milano and Teatri Uniti di Napoli together brought Toni Servillo's adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's Trilogia della villeggiatura this year and the Ragazzo and I took his parents yesterday afternoon. That Goldoni was a contemporary of Mozart and his best librettist da Ponte is evident from the style of this play. Goldoni's work makes reference to Italy's commedia del'Arte tradition, with the traditional characters peeking their heads through, but it is a more sophisticated and socially critical comedy of manners. This production added another layer of modernity, darkening the classical comedic mold considerably. The play spoofs two families trying to impress each other during a weekend in the country while they are dead broke because they have lived on credit (if that is not a contemporary comedy of manners I don't know what is!). As with any classic comedy, it ends with a wedding, but not a happy one, as the bride of one broke family brings a mortgaged farm as a dowry to her equally broke fiance (whom she does not love) so that their union can produce income for her father. It is a reminder in all the political talk about how supposedly holy marriage is supposed to be, that the state got into the marriage business because it is a contract conferring ownership of land, property and, oh yes, a wife. That's what everyone who says they are defending traditional marriage is upholding. In any event, Trilogia's modern veneer steered this production clear of becoming a museum piece as so much classical theatre ends up. The production's thoughtfulness put the character's experiences front and center and gave the play contemporary resonance but without explicitly updating it. It was exemplary in its minimalist production values, a smart choice for a tour. Two simple flats, a couple of ground cloths, a few pieces of wooden furniture, some greenery, and a scrim were the sum total of their stage machinery. That accomplished two houses in town in the first play, the house and garden in the country in the second, and yet another house in the country in the third play. A few pieces of music accompanied the simple and very effective set changes. Most of the production's emphasis was put on the lighting design, which was subtle and effective. The acting varied from a subtly realistic Guglielmo played by Tommaso Ragno, to a hilariously flamboyant Ferdinando played by the production's director (who obviously type cast himself as the self-centered scrounger, given the absurd length and braggadocio of his program bio), and everything in between. Neither the three-hour length nor the fact that we listened to the play in Italian, reading a translation in projected supertitles detracted from my enjoyment of it as theatre. This production reminded me how traditional theatrical forms play out the same characters and similar situations again and again in endless permutations and that artists can find in these forms the stories of their own times and really good artists can convey to us that these are our stories.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mishmash (Books - David's Revenge, The Manual of Detection, The Nice and the Good, and The Mind of a Mnemonist)

I haven't been sticking to any one book lately, so this is going to be a mishmash-post. I have continued reading David's Revenge by Hans Werner Kettenbach and marketed on the cover, unfortunately, as a "terrifying novel from a leading thriller writer." It concerns the visit of a Soviet Georgian man to a German school teacher's home, I do a complete plot set-up here. It's a pity it was pitched as a thriller, because that may have given me false expectations. The book is clearly playing with interesting themes of racial and nationalist politics, the relationship between immigrants and their host culture, and what happens to one man's cherished liberal beliefs when he feel threatened in his own home, but that threat is more intellectual than it is physical. I kept waiting as I read for the intense level of tension that I associate with a thriller to kick in. It didn't. Half-way through, I feel like I know exactly where the plot is heading and I find the writing clumsy and so have lost interest. I'm going to abandon this one.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry continues with its playfully childish tone and its surrealist set-design, it is more of an amuse-bouche than a serious meal and its entertaining but I never want too big a portion. I finally gave in and started Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good. She is one of my favorite writers and I wanted something substantial but amusing and that is exactly what she usually delivers. This book actually flirts with the mystery genre as well, a first in my experience of Murdoch's many books, but with her usual eye for detail and head for philosophical resonance:
A head of department, working quietly in his room in Whitehall on a summer afternoon, is not accustomed to being disturbed by the nearby and indubitable sound of a revolver shot.

At one moment a lazy fat man, a perfect sphere his loving wife called him, his name Octavian Gray, was slowly writing a witty sentence in a neat tiny hand upon creamy official paper while he inhaled from his breath the pleasant sleepy smell of an excellent lunch-time burgundy. Then came the shot


Octavian noticed the neatness of the recently clipped grey hair upon the warm vulnerable neck. He had an impulse to touch it, to touch the material of Radeechy's jacket, to pulp it timidly, curiously. Here were the assembled parts of a human being, its clothes and carnal paraphernalia. The mystery appalled him of the withdrawal of life, the sudden disintegration of the living man into parts, pieces stuff. Radeechy, who muffed most things had not muffed this.
I'm looking forward to my first Murdoch in a while and am glad Cornflower Books has ended up choosing it for the August book club.

Finally, having read A. R. Luria's The Man with the Shattered World earlier this summer, I was tempted to read his other "neurological novel" called The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory. I actually found a copy sitting around my lab this week, so I borrowed it. It concerns a famous patient of Luria's whose curious condition gave him an unlimited memory as well as synesthesia. Synesthetics regularly merge information from one sense with information from another sense, even though the second sensation is not actually part of the stimulus in nature. Say, every time they see a shape it is accompanied by a taste or every time they read a letter it is a certain color (even though all the ink is actually black). Luria's writing about his famous patients is fascinating.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'm not an either/or kind of guy...

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Which do you prefer?

Actually, I prefer not answering either/or questions. Complexity and nuance is the name of my game so I hate questions like this but I'll try to be a good sport.

  • Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
Generally seriouser than frivolouser, though I have been known to read a Harry Potter
  • Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
I answered that one here and here in the kind of depth to which I am accustomed. It depends on the book.
  • Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
Fiction, hands down.
  • Poetry? Or Prose?
I read more prose because there is more of it and a diet of pure verse would drive me mad, but I love poetry. Reading each is a different activity, it's not truly an either/or question, the activity of reading poetry and reading prose should simply be assigned different verbs and then there wouldn't be all this confusion.
  • Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
I think there are probably way more well written biographies than autobiographies, but when an autobiography hits the mark, nothing touches it.
  • History? Or Historical Fic tion?
If I am reading to learn something about a time, then I would prefer my history neat, thanks. If it's a good story I am in the mood for I will read fiction, but seriously, if it is good fiction then why isn't it just called fiction? What's with the sub-genre,? I've never understood that.
  • Series? Or Stand-alones?
Stand-alones, series make me feel a sense of obligation.
  • Classics? Or best-sellers?
Classics, I'm a snob, but not all the time. I resisted reading The Time Traveler's Wife for the longest time because everyone was reading it but, when it was finally recommended by a reading friend I trust, I read it and loved it.
  • Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
I drink my coffee black no sugar, my tea black no sugar, my scotch is single malt and I prefer wine to mixed drinks...what do you think?
  • Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
Generally plots, but it depends on the writer and you can have both, you know.
  • Long books? Or Short?
It depends on what else is going on in my life. I love a good long read if that many words were really required to tell the story.
  • Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
Doesn't matter.
  • Borrowed? Or Owned?
I love to own the books I really enjoyed reading and I love buying books, but I don't end up loving everything I read by a long shot, so I make use of the library too.
  • New? Or Used?
I love going to used bookstores and buy used, particularly when price is an issue or when I want a beautiful old edition of something (like Eugene O'Neill's plays). I also buy used because I love reading other people's book inscriptions. In terms of cleanliness, I prefer my books new. I hate wondering what that stain is on a page. Also, I like reading so much, I feel it only right that authors earn something from me for what they do, so I buy new too.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Encounters.... (Theatre - Les Ephemeres by Theatre du Soleil and Ariane Mnouchkine)

The Theatre du Soleil in Paris directed by Ariane Mnouchkine is, in my view, one of the most important theatre companies producing today. They work collectively, developing their stories for theatre through improvisation, and live collectively, eating their meals together at the massive Cartoucherie a complex of old factory buildings on the outskirts of Paris.

Les Ephemeres is their latest piece - a 6 1/2 hour collection of vignettes, some seemingly unrelated in the language of any conventional plot, taken from the company's own stories and memories - that chronicles life's most essential encounters, those where one person is good to another. What binds them loosely together (in retrospect) is a story related to Mnouchkine's own life, in which a young Jewish girl is taken in by an Armenian woman during the Nazi occupation of France. Many of these encounters happen in context of great grief or callamity - a war, a car accident, an illness, a divorce - perhaps the times when we notice other people's goodness the most? Along with each scenes is Jean-Jacques Lemetre's musical score (as always in Mnouchkine's pieces). This music - part recorded and part live - has the feel of a Baroque pasacaglia played on musical instruments from all over the world. It is intensely, even repetitively elegiac. The scenes take place on circular platforms, moved about by the company. As many as four or five can be on the stage at once - each a little world, a planet in revolving continuously during the scenes played on it - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. This creates a dreamy rhythm for the piece, an ability to see the vignette from all sides, and suggests each episode is somehow its own complete world but constantly interacting with other worlds. I sometimes found the unrelatedness of the pieces a little frustrating but, when experienced in light of the final episode, they converged. Seeing both parts of the play in one day is a long ordeal, but one that one goes through together with the company. I would not want to see them separately. I found the pleasure of this piece was the essential humanity of the encounters, the elementality of the performances filled with, as the title suggests, the ephemera of daily existence that finally accumulates into that thing we call a life just as the bits and pieces of character and scene accumulate over the hours into a play whose meaning and value become more and more evident and continue to deepen in retrospect.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

We're all Pinocchio (Film - Pinocchio by Roberto Benigni)

Italian clown Roberto Benigni has created a charming film version of the classic story Pinocchio with one foot planted firmly in the Italian commedia dell'Arte tradition and the other in contemporary film making. First off, choose the Italian version and suffer the subtitles. It has a way more authentic feel; it makes no sense to get a film with specific live actors cast in it and then to listen to someone else. Children will enjoy and understand the film but it seems to me that he made it for adults. Benigni has cast himself as the little puppet made of wood. In fact, he casts adult actors in all the children's roles - Kim Rossi Stuart is particularly fun casting for Pinocchio's friend Lucignolo - it's a choice that really works. Thankfully, these adult actors play the essence of children, particulary their decision-making behavior, their understanding of consequences, and their ability to make choices which delay gratification or consider morals or society's mores, but do not play-act their superficial characteristics. (That's a choice I always find insufferable. It's so insulting to children). As I watched intially I thought - Oh! Benigni and his wife have a recently had a child, because this film makes delicious comedy, as well as a moral fairy tale, out of children's (of a certain age) ability to only see what is right in front of them, their inability to consider future consequences if they want the cookie NOW, their willingness to lie like a rug to get it, their absolute devastation at being denied it, and their equally enthusiastic remorse for having done something wrong, or complete love for someone who shows them love. But then I thought, that's not just children, that's adults too. Look at the way we have used energy without concern for consequences for decades and suddenly when sources dry up and people are sick from the resulting polution people get cranky and cry. Then they reduce energy use, but only because they've been forced to by the expense. Look at the credit crisis. The banks were just like Benigni's Pinocchio - ooh look what we can get! I like that. Let's get more right now, and more, and more. So were the investors who thought that large amounts of credit that you never pay back were endless. So are those who now think that a few months of economic stimulus should have solved all the problems - they must really belive in fairies, just like Pinocchio. In any case, this film has a point to make about human decision making and its consequences that is not subtly made, but is fashioned with great imagination and sense of play into a delightful film.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Words by Paul Auster, sets by Magritte (Books - The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry)

I have just begun Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection, billed as an existential mystery and structured, as the title announces, as a manual with each chapter devoted to a pertinent topic such as shadowing, evidence, clues, and so on. The narrative voice is somewhat formal, giving the book a Dickensian air. It opens:
Lest details be mistaken for clues, note that Mr. Charles Unwin, lifetime resident of this city, rode his bicycle to work every day, even when it was raining. He had contrived a method to keep his umbrella open while pedaling, by hooking the umbrella's handle around the bicycle's handlebar. This method made the bicycle less maneuverable and reduced the scope of Unwin's vision, but if his daily schedule was to accommodate an unofficial trip to Central Terminal for unofficial reasons, then certain risks were to be expected.
and yet, the structure lends the book a playfulness. I'm not sure if the book is in the YA genre or not (not that it matters and probably not) but the cleverness of voice sets that tone, even if the content suggests otherwise. Think Paul Auster's subject matter, Daniel Handler's cleverness, with sets by Magritte. It's funny how beginning to read something I find myself trying to compare a book to something else, but our brains seem to be structured to categorize our knowledge. The book this reminds me most of is Sebastian Beaumont's Thirteen, which I loved, but there I go with comparisons again - perhaps it would be safe to say that this is pure Jedediah Berry and leave it at that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mountains, molehills, and proud towers...

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Follow-up to last week’s question: Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

There are some of each. There are unread psych and neuropsych books sitting together on a shelf in my home office next to ones I have read. Then there is this vast land mass next to my bed which grows upward as it spreads out. Those are all unread books which are loosely grouped into categories - fiction is separated from nonfiction, science from other nonfiction, there are a few books on Russian history together, a few books on genetics. The structure is also somewhat archeological - books are naturally organized by when they were received. Those books received more recently are nearer the top and those books I have had for a while but haven't had time for or have lost interest in get buried. Then as something rekindles my interest they rise to the top. For instance, Cornflowerbooks bookclub recently chose Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good. I have had a copy of that book for a few years, in fact I have started it twice but never got very far. When she announced it as the next bookclub read, it got promoted to the top of the pile and some rearranging took place so that the whole structure wouldn't come crashing down. There is also a small pile on the top of one of my shelves that is proposed rereads - The Magic Mountain, Jude the Obscure, and His Dark Materials trilogy sit there now. And there is that little tower, artfully arranged, on one of the side tables in the living room that technically is composed of books I haven't read or books I just dip into from time to time - a few volumes of short stories: Mavis Gallant, Edith Templeton, and John McGahern - Semus Heaney's The Redress of Poetry lives there, so does a design book on Parisian apartments, an odd volume of rarely produced Ibsen plays, Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, which I have never been able to finish, Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower which I have already read but long ago, and yet another Chekhov biography. There can never be enough books on Chekhov!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I won't grow up! (Books - The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt)

A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book is one of those reading experiences where the last 25 pages makes a huge difference. You can read here my reaction yesterday as I neared the end. It is in the final pages that Byatt gives the book its compass.

All through the book, Byatt decorates the domestic dramas affecting the many characters with details about the historical/political landscape. Victoria dies and Edward ascends the throne, Kaiser Wilhelm vies for position, Fabians meet in England, anarchists riot in Germany. Byatt continually reminds us of the context but she keeps it light and distant, like a voice-over. She focuses especially on the revolution struggling to redefine the role of women and the working classes in European society. But as I read, I was always aware of World War I looming on the horizon, and every one of these events and the characters is subsumed by the horror of the war. The final chapters seem to start as a coda, but they are really the center of this novel. The social changes fought for as well as the worst tribulations of the characters become child's play next to the behemoth of the War.

Olive Wellwood, one of the novel's characters, is a writer of children's stories. She is a
contemporary of J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. This work and Olive's own becomes the central metaphor for England, which Byatt's novel characterizes as a child that won't grow up, that prefers to live in a fantasy. Byatt pairs social and political forces with artistic ones to examine the consequences of living in fantasy:
...human beings had constructed a social structure no longer directly subject to evolutionary pressures and checks. Man was a creature who made beliefs and myths about the world, and morals, and treated them as things, not as words and thoughts.

Byatt's book tells the story of the convergence of the strongest forces of human creativity to push human beings off their course, in the end almost inevitably. People fashion ideas that compell them through narrative - history, colonies, border lines if they are empire builders, traditions if they are members of a society. These are high accomplishment to be sure, but they are narratives, fantasies - they are not the messy reality of life and they cannot be put in the place of life without consequences.
This book asks us to consider the roles played by men and women, business and art, upper and working class, revolutionaries, creators of art, and its consumers, when those consequences are destruction, both in 1914 and now. The vastness of this narrative is finally given its center and although 575 pages is a long time to wait, there is nothing about the preceding pages that isn't worth reading, I just found the elements lacked synthesis until very late in the game. Perhaps that is because the glue that held them together resided initially in fact or concept rather than feeling. Byatt knew the war was to be a part of the narrative, I didn't. When this novel rallies, it is because of the emotion generated by the devastation of an entire way of life. It almost makes me want to go back and read the book again, but I will save that experience for a later date. Here are my previous thoughts about The Children's Book 1, 2, 3.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The growing up of Europe (Books - The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt)

I am just pages away from the end of A. S. Byatt's latest novel The Children's Book . Technically, Byatt's writing skill has sustained my attention to multiple lines of plots both philosophical and domestic even while it has deepened my interest in the panoply of lives that are this book's characters. It has done so across several decades and all against the backdrop of the seismic shift taking place in the worlds of art and social ideas as England and Germany move inexorably toward World War I. The subject of this book is nothing smaller than the growing up of Europe.
A concomitant, but not consequent, backwards stare was the intense interest in, and nostalgia for, childhood. The men and women of the Golden Age, Hesiod wrote, lived in an eternal spring, for hundreds of years, always youthful, fed on acorns from a great oak, on wild fruits, on honey. In the Silver Age, which is less written about, the people lived for 100 years as children, without growing up, and then quite suddenly aged and died. The Fabians and the social scientists, writers and teachers saw, in a way earlier generations had not, that children were people, with identities and desires and intelligences. They saw that they were neither dolls, nor toys, nor miniature adults. They saw, many of them, that children needed freedom, needed not only to learn, and be good, but to play and be wild.

The greatness of Byatt's book Possession was in its synthesis of love story, mystery, literary scholarship and the social role of women. Even though there were two time periods and not a small cast of characters, it accomplished this with a tight focus on the search for a single manuscript and was, at the end of the day, great entertainment. The Children's Book, on the other hand, is vast by design. If its warp are the ideas: the waning of the great British Empire, the new art of Bloomsbury, James Barrie's Peter Pan, the rise of the Fabians, and a shift of social structures in a rising awareness of the subjugation of women and of the working classes, then its weft is the lives of an author of modern fairy tales, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, a German Puppeteer, a great potter, and even more importantly the lives of their children. Their weaving together is nothing short of a feat and yet somehow, this reader was never able to be subsumed by the narrative
. I was not disappointed in the quality or drive of the writing - the plot was rich and the backdrop both familiar in subject matter and unfamiliar in presentation - I was just never permitted to forget it. This work reminds me of some of Iris Murdoch's larger books (I am a great fan of her's) in its goal of this sort of massive synthesis, and yet Murdoch's best books succeed in entertaining the reader whereas with the reading of The Children's Book I am impressed, but left with the sense of a dour pall. This is appropriate, I suppose, as it heralds the encroachment of World War I and the end of childhood, as this book would have it. I admire this as a book of ideas, I will remember the characters and their stories, but I don't turn the last pages loving this book as a work of fiction. As I have a few pages yet to go, I may come to revise this a bit. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A lot to look forward to...

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Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, ‘No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!’"

My TBR pile isn't even a pile any more. It's more of a clump, a mass, it may soon become its own continent, but no matter. That's what that empty space next to my bed is for. And I don't really ever find myself saying something like "No! Don't give me another book to read." Why on earth would I say that?! Bring em on.

There's the school-related pile that occupies part of a shelf near my desk:
Emotional Development, Pscyhoanalysis, Attachment Theory and Neuroscience
Thought and Language
Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of Self
Attachment, Play, and Authenticity
Three Case Histories
Cognitive Development
Child Psychopathology
Handbook of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience
Brain Fiction

And there's the small country of books threatening to engulf my bed:
Tennessee Williams Collected Stories, The Pickwick Papers, Rhythms of the Brain, Self-Organization in Biological Systems, On the Origin of Stories, Scientific Life, The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily, Pigeons in the Grass, The Hothouse, Death in Rome, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, A Game of Thrones, Predictably Irrational, The Gulag Archipelago, Season of the Rainbirds, The Flight of the Maidens, The Harsh Cry of the Heron, Heavy Sand, Revolution on my Mind, Natasha's Dance, Life and Fate, America America, Lunar Men, Bozo Sapiens, The Road to Xanadu, Hello Americans, American Sphinx, Wll in the World, Elia Kazan: A Life, The Logic of Life, Side Effects, Travels With Herodotus, Beware of Pity, The Chateau, My Life as a Dog, The Manual of Detection, Night Train to Lisbon, Buddenbrooks, The Gate of Angels, Arrogance, Bruno's Dream, The Secret of the Chess Machine, Symbolic Species, Darkmans, At Swim Two Birds, Hopscotch, The Unconsoled, The Nice and the Good, The Pleasures of Time, Soul Made Flesh, The Ascent of Money

And some re-reads:
Jude the Obscure, The Magic Mountain, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, His Dark Materials

Not to mention the pile of books I am in the process of reading (some are on my sidebar, right).

Don't think of it as a pile. Think of it as having a lot to look forward to.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Friend or foe? (Books - David's Revenge by Hans Werner Kettenbach)

I was glad to receive the surprise of an ARC of Hans Werner Ketttenbach's David's Revenge a week or two ago. It's put out by Bitter Lemon Press which specializes in literary crime and romain noir (mostly in translation) and has an interesting list.

A middle class German school teacher, Christian Kestner, visits Soviet Georgia some years back and has an entanglement with the wife of a man named David Ninoshvili, his host. Now, during the violent civil war in Georgia, David contacts Kestner for the first time to stay with him. Kestner's fear and guilt surface as he perceives David's involvement with his wife and growing relationship with his teenage son (who is involved in extremist right wing politics). It is evident that David's Revenge is a Dostoevskian sort of thriller, building the threat mostly in the mind of Kestner. At the same time, its plot is a metaphor of the relationship of Germany (or any Western country) to its refugees - are they innocents in need of shelter and should we as a humane nation always be welcoming hosts? Or does their involvement in violent political activities (encouraged by the West's peddling of democratic ideals) and their poverty give us some reason to fear for our safety?

The themes and plotting are generally very well handled (so far) however, I am finding the writing stiff and the dialogue especially clumsy and unbelievable, particularly those passages involving Ralf, the teenage son. I have no way of knowing if this is Anthea Bell's translation or Kettenbach's writing, although judging by Bell's other competent work on Stefan Zweig and Sasa Stanisic's novels, I would guess it reflects Kettenbach's writing. I am going to stay with it as I find the story involving and fast-moving.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Today's Science Times has an article by Benedict Carey about why unwanted or rude impulses seemingly arise at the worst possible times:
Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

One cannot perform a negative task. There is no such thing (for the brain) as not thinking about something or not eating that chocolate cake, or not looking at the little spit bubbles collecting in the corner of the mouth of the person interviewing you for an important job. This brings up one of my favorite misunderstandings about the brain. The brain produces thought, but its processes are not thought-like, they are computational. As an acting teacher it has long been evident to me that, if one want to perform a negative action one has to translate it into a positive one.
Soccer players told to shoot a penalty kick anywhere but at a certain spot of the net, like the lower right corner, look at that spot more often than any other.
To not kick the ball to the lower right corner of the net has no meaning for the brain. What one can do is aim with extraordinary concentration and extraordinary interest for the upper left corner. To not think about the white elephant one must think of something infinitely more compelling to us than that elephant. In fact, I think one of the chief ingredients of great talent involves these 3 feats - learning how to translate useless instructions (fears of failure, negative criticism, performing impossible tasks...) into things we can do, knowing oneself well enough to know which doable tasks are the most compelling to us, and long practice at performing these tasks relentlessly no matter what else passes through our minds. The most talented sports players, artists and surgeons know how to re-direct themselves relentlessly.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The reach of the British Empire, local & global (Books - The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt & Film - The Wind That Shakes the Barley)

I am half way through A. S. Byatt's latest novel The Children's Book. This is a vast narrative spanning art and politics over Queen Victoria's later decades and King Edward's first. It's central story is that of a wealthy family discovering a poor young man from the North English coal fields sketching in the Victoria and Albert Museum (its director is among the book's cast of characters). They see great talent in the young boy and give him first clothing, a place to live, and instruction in reading and later find him employment with a master artist. There are multiple interactions in this story between members of the wealthy upper class, middle class working people - that is, writers or school teachers - and the poor like Philip the young potter and his sister Elsie. Between ideas of the British Empire's role as steward of the world - civilizing vast swathes of the uneducated and unwashed as they try to preserve the old ways - versus rising notions of anarchism in Russia and socialism in Germany and England, spreading notions of free love, higher education and suffrage for women, birth control. And between art and, 'life,' I guess you could say, or 'fact.' Byatt plays out this last interaction in multiple ways. For instance, there is Philip, the budding artist - a meeting is being held at his mentor's home of a way to use his pottery designs to make money for the family - into this meeting arrives Elsie Warren, Philip's sister. Olive Wellwood, a writer of childrens' stories, is present.
That left Olive, who was a grown woman, and Frank Mallett, who was a clergyman. He consulted Olive, and it was agreed that Miss Warren should be found a place to rest, and perhaps some temporary fresh clothing. Oliver bent over Elsi and said it was very odd to be present at the discovery of two runaways in one family. She was thinking what a good story it would make, the girl who walked across half England to find her brother. She smiled at Elsie, absently, studying her intently...
Firstly, the very fact of Philip and Elsie's class means that 'life' is infringing on 'art' all the time. Poverty, the way the issues of mere existence force themselves again and again upon someone with no money, does not allow for a life steeped in the pleasures of creation - no matter how talented the artist. Seconds, Olive is sewing seeds of a narrative she will create based upon the facts of the life of Elsie Warren. Thirdly, this interaction between the classes - those with means figuring out how they will provide for Elsie ( she will become a servant, of course) just as they have for her brother Philip, plays out in miniature the role of Empire and colony.

Another example of this interplay:
Prosper Cain came when he could, when the business of the Museum allowed it. He gave a talk on the craft of art, and the art of craft, and of how - even in painting and sculpture - the two were inseparable. You needed design, and you needed basic physics and chemistry, or your pain would not dry under its varnish and your clay would not hold its glaze. And you needed also something - a sharpness of vision - which couldn't be taught, but could not be acquired, in his view, without incessant practice.
Here is the interaction of art and craft, art and commerce, art and science. Byatt returns to this refrain again and again as a way to characterize the complexity of this burgeoning modern world and how it is different from the stiff though also more simplistic fiction that came before it.
The Prince of Wales carried out his own family rebellion, and let it be known that he proposed to reign as King Edward. Victoria and Albert had named him Albert Edward, but he chose to follow the six earlier English Edwards...He was not, in Albert's way, a good man. He was immediately named 'Edward the Caresser'. He like women, sport, good food and wine...There was a sense that fun was now permitted, was indeed obligatory. The stiff black flounces, the jet necklaces, the pristine caps, the euphemisms and deference, the high seriousness also, the sense of duty and the questioning of the deep meanings of things were there to be mocked, to be turned inot scarecrows and Hallowe'en masks. People talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously about sex. At the same time they showed a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.

At the book's center (literally) comes a story penned by Olive. In it a little girl discovers a race of tiny people living beneath a tree. She enjoys them and so takes a few for her very own to live in her doll's house. She tries to feed them and provide for them and expects them to play with her but they are unhappy with their imprisonment and will not. The little girl cannot understand this, until a great hand reaches down through her window and does the same to her. This rather bald metaphor is played out again and again through The Children's Book, whether through the literal events of history played out in the changing British Empire, through the wealthy banker finding employment for the poor potter and his sister, whether it is the protection of the child by the parent which usually originates in loving intentions but which can also produce unintended damaging results, or whether it is the artist who manipulates her characters in an Empire of her own. I haven't decided yet whether I am finding this interplay of ideas - on the macro scale and the micro, in the fictional world and the real, in the political world and the artistic - overly simplistic or whether their interplay will make for satisfying complexity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Right now, the many strands of this narrative feel unintegrated but there are another 300 pages to go.

And if stories of the mis-expressed benevolence of the British Empire is your cup of tea, you might appreciate Ken Loach's extraordinarily passionate film The Wind That Shakes the Barley - a naturalistic account of the British occupation of Ireland in 1920 and how the treaty between Britain and Ireland ended up pitting brother against brother. It is a wrenching story and the acting is first rate. Loach is a distinctive and underappreciated director whose films really bear viewing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A long journey home (Books - The Snow Geese by William Fiennes)

William Fiennes's The Snow Geese comes to a quiet and satisfying conclusion. The book is well structured - with Fiennes's personal journey paralleling his physical one as well as that of the snow geese he follows from Texas to the Arctic. It is also narrowly focused, that is, it tells this story and only this story, veering off on no tangents, offering no conclusions or advice, just the facts of this movement and what is encountered through it.
We tend toward home. Migrant birds don't travel for the sake of it. They move between winter and breeding grounds because the Earth's axis is not perpendicular to the plane of its orbit round the sun. They migrate in reponse to the tilt, to the seasons and seasonally variable food supplies that exist on account of the tilt. In any species, an individual that remains within a familiar environment has more chance of finding food and water, more chance of avoiding predators and exposure, than an individual that strays into unknown territory. Homesickness may simply have evolved as a way of telling an ape to go home.
I'm not sure I completely buy his theory about the adaptiveness of homesickness, since the gene pool benefits so much from variation, but this theme of homesickness does becomes a beautiful refrain during the latter part of Fiennes's book. Here are my other thoughts about The Snow Geese 1, 2.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lurid details...

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Suggested by Callista83: Do you read celebrity memoirs? Which ones have you read or do you want to read? Which nonexistent celebrity memoirs would you like to see?

I love biography, autobiography, diaries, letters... insight on lives through narrative and particularly on artists' lives and their processes is a great curiosity of mine. Alec Guinness's memoir, My Name Escapes Me, is wonderful. I haven't read his others A Positively Final Appearance or Blessings in Disguise yet. John Guilgud's A Life in Letters is also great. I've also read Laurence Olivier's Confessions of An Actor. Like the title, they are a little more sensational. I suppose one day I should compare them to Joan Plowright's And That's Not All just to see how the stories match up. I bought Christopher Plummer's In Spite of Myself and Julie Andrew's Home for my mother and at some point I am hoping to read them myself. I understand from Sheila that Charles Grodin's It Would be So Nice if you Weren't Here and Ellen Burstyn's Lessons in Becomming Myself are great. American composer Ned Rorem made an alternate career as a writer, producing multiple volumes of memoirs and diaries that are lots of fun to read. The Paris and New York diaries from the 1950s are probably my favorites and while moving in elite circles they disclose their share of lurid secrets.

I did a lot of research on the artists of Bloomsbury at one point in my life (celebrities of their day), an easy task since they were so interested in writing about themselves and each other. Virginia Woolf has multiple volumes of letters and diaries as does her husband Leonard.

I learned tons about the development of the American theatre from reading the memoirs of John Houseman. The diary of Clifford Odets is a passionnate document of the best kind, and I loved Lee Strasberg's Dream of Passion, Harold Clurman's The Fervent Years, Arthur Miller's Timebends, and Alan Schneider's Entrances.

Kathrine Graham's Personal History is an out-of-this world life story and Oliver Sack's memoir Uncle Tungsten is fun too (assuming they count as celebrities. I certainly celebrate them).

If Meryl Streep and Geena Rowlands decide to reveal all (or even some) one day, I'll be on line to get my copies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Meditations in an Emergency (Poem by Frank O'Hara picture by me)

The day's musings are by Frank O'Hara, not me. His warped angle was necessary to counteract all the rain and all the talk. This poem has the best opening line.

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara

Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there'll be nothing left with which to venture forth.

Why should I share you? Why don't you get rid of someone else for a change?

I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don't I? I'm just like a pile of leaves.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they're missing? Uh huh.

My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still. If only i had grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I would stay at home and do something. It's not that I'm curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it's my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth. And lately, so great has their anxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep.

Now there is only one man I like to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How best discourage her?)

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How I am to become a legend, my dear? I've tried love, but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, "to keep the filth of life away," yes, there, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and slanders and pollutes and determines. I will my will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in that department, that greenhouse.

Destroy yourself, if you don't know!

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you've set. It's like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

"Fanny Brown is run away—scampered off with a Cornet of Horse; I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho' She has vexed me by this Exploit a little too.—Poor silly Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her.—I wish She had a good Whipping and 10,000 pounds."—Mrs. Thrale.

I've got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans. I'll be back, I'll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don't want me to go where you go, so I go where you don't want me to. It's only afternoon, there's a lot ahead. There won't be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns