Saturday, January 30, 2010

Neurons and pastimes (Books - Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki, The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble, Gratitude by Joseph Kertes)

Classes have started up again and with them lots of assigned reading. In addition I have been reading three books simultaneously and had three false starts, so I haven't managed to complete anything new this week. On the false start front, I gave up on The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik after a brief try. It's claims were too absurdly broad for it to be a serious work about science, even if it is written for a popular audience. General readers deserve well supported and well reasoned arguments too. It might have gotten better if I had waited it out, but I didn't have the patience. I also thought I might re-read Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, a book I really love, but found that I was not in the mood for it. Lastly, I got a copy of Margaret Drabble's novel The Realms of Gold from the library, but someone had highlighted words they did not understand. Write in your own book, ok. Some can't stand that practice but I consider it a form of dialogue. But writing in a library book is defacing public property. It really angered me and I couldn't enjoy the book as a physical object, and as that is part of the pleasure of the reading experience for me I will have to get another copy. That leaves my ornery self with what I did manage to read this week:

I continue to wend my way through Gyorgy Buzsaki's Rhythms of the Brain. It is a carefully reasoned, highly technical thesis about the role of oscillations in the workings of the brain. He has been building his case via an examination of the different tools neuroscience has of observing the brain, what they measure, and, as a result, what kinds of rhythms we will see. Then he gives an overview of the types of oscillations seen in nature; the ways we might characterize the rhythmic behavior of individual neurons as well as large groups of them; and his observation that the brain is in a state in which it generates lots of independent rhythms from internal sources. The relationships among these rhythms appears chaotic but can be described mathematically and furthermore, they exist in a mathematical relationship seen throughout nature. This might be thought of as semi-organized chaos. These states alternate with more organized rhythms which, when there is enough energy built up or when there is input from outside, coordinate the activity of the groups into regular patterns for brief periods of time. The brain, it seems, teeters on the edge of this organization, but lives just outside it, disposing it toward being able to carry out coordinated actions when required, but not live in a state of constant activity. This is important as the variety of patterns of coordinated activity are the alphabet of the brain's language. Neurons communicate in bursts of these. Just as the computer has a binary language (represented of 1s and 0s what we'll call for simplicity's sake "on" and "off" states) and the human mouth has periods of sending air through the vocal cords while making various shapes with our mouths alternated with periods of silences, the brain's language must be capable of making on-off contrasts in order to communicate. Anyhoo, I find stuff like this fascinating, but a book like Buzsaki's isn't merely conceptual, it asks the reader to be well acquainted with neuronal physiology and the measures of neuroscience to reap the rewards of his carefully structured case. Even with a few years of neuroscience under my belt, I have to read it slowly, so it will be a while before I finish it, but I am finding it worth the work.

I am alternating the worthwhile exercise of Buzsaki with a less aerobic, indeed completely contemplative, read - Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet. As I said about this book when I first started it a few months back, this is a thinly veiled memoir (Drabble protests that she doesn't care for writing that is directly revelatory of self or family members) of her beloved Auntie Phyl, her own life-long relationship with writing and with depression, and the solace she finds in doing jigsaw puzzles, combined with a history of puzzles, board games, and other pastimes.
The human capacity for fear of boredom must have an evolutionary significance. Animals in nature do not seem to get bored, even when (like gorged lions) they have plenty of time for boredom. Domestic animals have caught the habit from us, and caged animals clearly and visibly suffer from it. So do horses in small wet fields. It has been experimentally demonstrated that laboratory rats, given stimulating activities such as a treadmill, retain their joie de vivre much longer than those deprived of these entertainments, and also retain a capacity for neurogenesis. Jigsaws and treadmills renew the brain cells. Activity is good for you, lethargy is bad for you. So the human intolerance of very long periods of lethargy is in itself an evolutionary stimulus towards invention, creativity, discovery. Playing games to pass the time is connected with intellectual development, just as funerary rites are connected with an apprehension of mortality.
While not exactly a hard scientific look at her claim, Drabble's exploration of the value of pastimes in light of her own malaise is a sort of behavior-level literary analogue of Buzsaki's discussion of alternating rhythms among neurons. Just as bursts of oscillations are the result of an accumulation of energy while in a disorganized state, so too is creative human activity born of the quiet that surrounds it. (I love relating ideas across the books I am reading). At any rate, Drabble offers us a quietly enjoyable collection of bits and bobs: mentions of the jigsaw puzzle in literature from Wordsworth to Austen, where she likes to get pizza near the British Museum, the London taxi driver who broadened her thinking about jigsaws, and details of her writing process (something I particularly enjoy) and why a writer like Drabble would be drawn to a pastime such as puzzles.
One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me... is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can't be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience. (The French used to call puzzles les jeux de patience, and the Germans called them Geduldspielen. Now they both call them puzzles.) In this aspect, the jigsaw in the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day's work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day's work, but the work of hte preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening. Some novelists find the safety of a reliable formula, but I never did, nor did I really wish to.
But she did find puzzles, and so the connection that brings us this original memoir cum history. The experience of reading The Pattern in the Carpet evokes that quiet, rainy afternoon with time spread out before you feeling. None of the information contained in it is, shall we say, necessary to me. I am not writing a paper on Margaret Drabble, nor am I fiendishly interested in puzzles. Drabble's integration of her topics is not even particularly graceful, but journeying with her as she places side by side these two stories and methodically searches for her way to make of their intersection satisfying literature, is proving a quietly enjoyable pastime of its own.

I cannot manage a week's reading without fiction, so finally the novel in the group - Joseph Kertes's Gratitude. This is an epic novel set during the Nazi occupation of Budapest that came out last year. I am drawn to the subject matter as well as the setting. The book jacket is studded with glib hyperbole by best-selling fiction writers. I have barely started the book and already its set-up is cliched and made for the movies. I am hoping as I get into it, that either the story or the writing (dare I hope for both) will grab me by the neck and that something original to this author will emerge to make me read on. Now it's off to some school reading about the relational-self and diagnosing learning disorders.

Monday, January 25, 2010

From a boy to a man - a creation story (Books - In the Beginning by Chiam Potok)

Singing the praises of Chaim Potok the other day in Booking Through Thursday sent me straight to the shelves for a re-read. Having re-read My Name is Asher Lev, The Chosen, and The Promise several times, this time I chose In the Beginning. As its name suggests, this is a creation story. The creation of the man, David Lurie, from the boy with the combined influences of his physical and mental qualities, his family, his schooling, his friends, his Judaism, and the events taking place during his formative years both locally in his neighborhood in the Bronx, New York and in the world at-large, which include everything from the Russian Revolution and pogroms against the Jews in Poland, to the stock market crash and World War II.
I spent my early life growing a little and being ill a lot. I thought and dreamed a great deal. I lay in my bed and watched and listened. I turned my long lonely days and nights into nets with which I caught the whispers and sighs and glances and the often barely discernible gestures that are the real message carriers in our noisy world. But it was years before I could shape what I saw and heard into a pattern that made some sense of the lives of my aunt and uncle and cousing, the alternately withdrawn and volatile natures of my parents, and the mysterious comings and goings of the now ubiquitous, now vanishing Mr. Shmuel Bader.
David is a prodigy with an abnormally observant mind, a photographic memory, and is reading three languages before his tenth birthday. Destined to become a great rabbi or teacher, his schools promote him ahead, which still does not prevent him from boredom in class and simultaneously does little to make up for his immature social awareness. David has the propensity for a certain kind of dreaminess that is unusually developed because he spends so much time sick in bed. He takes the pictures and ideas that revolve through his daily life both real and imagined and turns them over and over, making images of them in his mind's eye so that he might "enter" into them, as he explains. He tries to make sense of the crazy world he lives in through empathy. This is a world in which his relatives are senselessly murdered simply for being Jewish and even at the level of his neighborhood, he often faces the anti-Semitism of some of his non-Jewish peers. So this method of understanding is a painful one for his sensitive and idiosyncratic sensibility. Potok is particularly good at creating the feeling of being inside the point-of-view of this unique child's mind. And this point of view is particularly useful for probing the challenge of living with any sense of purposefullness or more traditional religious faith in a world of senseless and repeated cruelties.

David is named for his mother, Ruth's, first love, who had, it seems, a similar brilliance as well as a similar frailty. He was the brains and his brother Max the organizing force in a resistance movement among Galician Jews. When David (the elder) is murdered by the Cossacks, Ruth marries Max and they emigrate to America, where Max uses his strength to save hundreds of lives and becomes a hero to his community. Living up to the ghost of his unseen uncle is a tremendous burden to David, but one of the chief lessons of this book is the value of challenging beginnings.

The chief idea of this deep and powerful novel is exemplified through the two brothers - David and Max - as the fictional realizations of two ways of apprehending the world's challenges - action and thought. These natures are experienced by our protagonist through his childhood as irreconcilable qualities. What makes this more than simply another long tale of a childhood hardship is the richness of detail Chaim Potok gives these two men. He doesn't create simple caricatures that summarize their qualities to make for expedient symbolism. Rather, he struggles through the novel's pages as David struggles through his childhood, to understand the complexities of these men. This is an analogue for the exhaustive study of the torah and its many interpretations that David and his peers go through in their Yeshiva education. This study is the center-piece of an active, practicing Jewish life. Judaism is not a tradition of accepting the most obvious explanation of anything, least of all its primary texts and Potok's fiction is no less probing of human beings and their qualities.

The beauty of In the Beginning is the way Potok combines the twin strengths of David's "fathers" into thought-as-action through the character of the younger David. It is this marriage of approaches that is David's coming-of-age and makes clear the usefulness of his iconoclastic mind. And it is the hardness of his beginnings that gives him the strength to endure life as a ground-breaking scholar - a tradition anathema to his community's way of life. Potok's writing is simple and evocative, the world he creates believable and enveloping, and the ideas he brings to life intelligent and complex, confirming my memory of this book as a moving and deep reading experience.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Novelties V (Including Carl Sagan's explanation of the 4th dimension and my favorite culinary tv)

Eating: Lately, I've been enjoying the simple pleasure of fresh raw honey on toast. Mine is from the Champlain Valley Apiaries. The folk wisdom is that local honey has benefits for those with allergies as one is eating small amounts of digested pollen from whatever grows nearest you.

Drinking: Umathum Zweigelt, 2007 - a dry, medium-bodied red wine from Austria with the taste of purple fruits, herbs, and stones.

Watching: I've been enjoying my favorite cooking show from the BBC on You Tube. Ready, Steady, Cook! Really the full-length segments one can stream on You Tube (but cannot be embedded here) are much more enjoyable to watch than those that can be found divided into parts.

Listening: The trio from Act III of Der Rosenkavalier (this audio from the recent Met broadcast):

Surfing: BLOG, A Home for Paper Trimmings, Good God! There's writing on both sides of that paper, My Porch

Learning: I learned from the wonderful Carl Sagan not how to imagine the fourth dimension per se, but how at least to think about it:

hat tip: BLOG

So, what's new with you?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Publishing with a heart... (Books - The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire)

Gregory Maguire's latest, The Next Queen of Heaven, is an ultra-lite bit of amusement that, if I were to unfairly armchair-psychoanalyze the author, attempts to make some rapprochement perhaps between his Catholic half and his gay half? In any event, it offers some very funny moments wrapped inside a predictable bit of fluff with a terrific bunch of nuns, a singing trio of gay men, and a woman who appears to undergo a conversion after being knocked on the head by a statuette. Aside from the laughs, the reason I really stuck with it is that it is the fruits of a philanthropic publishing venture by the Concord Free Press. They offer their books for free as incentive for you to donate to a charity of your choice. Once you have read the book you then pass it on to someone else. Either Lambda Legal or GLSEN will be the lucky recipient of a donation from me and I have a so-called recovering-Catholic friend who Im sure will get an enormous kick out of the book.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Underappreciated author pep rally...

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Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of. You know, not JK Rowling, not Jane Austen, not Hemingway–everybody’s heard of them. The author that you think should be that famous and can’t understand why they’re not…

I had to think about this one, because although for a while people had not heard of Australian novelist Tim Winton, I think that Breath changed that. Richard Powers seems to be on the map too since The Echo Maker and Deirdre Madden with Molly Fox's Birthday (but if you say 'who?' to any of these names, then that's my answer to you - go out and read them .) Iris Murdoch also achieved popular fame, unfortunately more for a movie about her Alzheimer's disease in which she was played by Judy Dench than for her books (so read her too!). I almost answered Nicholas Mosley, but the last sentence of your question changed that. Mosley's work is dense as well as stylistically challenging. His masterpiece - Hopeful Monsters - is a wide ranging novels of ideas spanning history and biology across the 20th century (as well as being a love story). If you can get through this brilliant book then read it. But I cannot say, as the last sentence of your question stipulates, that I don't understand why he's not famous. His work is very demanding. So if I am to include that last sentence, then I would answer with Chiam Potok and Herman Hesse, who have both had their moments of fame, but they have passed. Potok wrote all his beautiful works about Orthodox as well as secular Jews living in a little corner of Brooklyn, N. Y. I think his stories are all set between the 1940s and the 1970s, but the human content of his stories could not be more universal or his writing more accessible. His books include The Chosen, The Promise and my favorite, My Name is Asher Lev. A beautiful author whose works deserve to be widely read. I'll also campaign for Herman Hesse, the German author from the first half of the 20th century who wrote Siddhartha and Steppenwolf which may currently doom him as an author of classics. Funny enough, in the 1960s, he was embraced as a writer who connected with the Eastern mysticism popular at the time and who was willing to be a critic of the institutions of his day. Really, he is a wide ranging author of immense passion and humanity. Beneath the Wheel is a wonderful example of his early work. I am also a fan of Demian, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game. And just for good measure - I will also put in a plug for reading the wonderful novelist and diarist May Sarton and one of my current but underappreciated favorites - Sarah Salway. You must read her Tell Me Everything.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Writer as magician (Books - The Magicians by Lev Grossman)

Lev Grossman's The Magicians might be called the anti-Harry Potter. It is at once a fantasy novel and criticism of the fantasy novel, an entertainment and a tragedy. In reading it, one is diverted but it is not escapist. Its writer might be thought the love-child of J. K. Rowlings and Herman Hesse. This is the first book in a long while I was compelled to read late into the night until I had finished it.

The protagonist, Quentin, is highly intelligent, nearing high school graduation, the third wheel to a relationship between his best friend and the girl he is crazy about (actually Quentin feels third wheel to just about everything). He is discovered by a school for young people with aptitude for magic. He passes the test and is subsumed into a world that is all about learning to use that power. The school is in upstate New York and is cleverly masked from the ordinary world. Spells are woven so that Quentin's clueless parents believe their son is away at a prestigious college. Yes, this is a magic school just like Hogwarts, it is called Brakebills, and even a game played with a small ball and magic spells called welters. And yes, it's hero comes of age through hardship, traffic with evil, and disappointment in love. But The Magicians has more subtlety, more intelligence, and way more grit than Rowlings's made-for-the-movies fairy tale. Grossman's narrative voice is more disgruntled and more wry - you could say Salingeresque - and is more frank about its violence, its drugs, and its sex - this is a story about contemporary teenagers after all.
He would have thought he'd gone all the way to Seventh Avenue by now. He shoved his way even deeper in, brushing up against who knew what toxic flora. A case of poison fucking ivy, that's all he needed now. It was odd to see that here and there among the dead plants a few vital green stalks still poked up, drawing sustenance from who knew where. He caught a whiff of something sweet in the air.

He stopped. All of a sudden it was quiet. No car horns, no stereos, no sirens. His phone had stopped ringing. It was bitter cold, and his fingers were numb. Turn back or go on? He squeezed farther in through a hedge, closing his eyes and squinching up his face against the scratchy twigs. He stumbled over something, an old stone. He suddenly felt nauseous. He was sweating.

When he opened his eyes again he was standing on the edge of a huge wide, perfectly level green lawn surrounded by trees. The smell of ripe grass was overpowering. There was hot sun on his face.

The sun was at the wrong angle. And where the hell were the clouds? The sky was blinding blue. His inner ear spun sickeningly He held his breath for a few seconds, then expelled freezing winter air from his lungs and breathed in warm summer air in its place. It was thick with floating pollen. He sneezed.
Grossman is great on creating atmosphere, momentum and point-of-view with his narrative - not just in weaving story. So all the necessary elements are in place - who, where, and what. Now what is he up to?

This is a book about the interplay of three things - power, love, and fantasy. It tells a story about a magical world, but at the same time it openly mocks escapist fantasy. Sometimes Grossman zings a few cute barbs at Harry Potter, but that's just a way of acknowledging that the similarities are intentional but they are not all. Quentin and all his circle at the magic college read in their youth a series of fantasy books that Grossman obviously means us to associate with C. S. Lewis's Narnia series. Quentin, in particular, with his desire to escape the real world as he cannot discover his place in it, was an expert in this fictional one. Re-reading these stories and escaping into them long after most of his acquaintances were tentatively experimenting with sex and drugs. If the magical world is the foil to the real and non-fantastical world of most grown-up people in Grossman's novel, the world of Fillory and Further (Grossman's Narnia) is the counter-foil to the real-magical world Grossman creates and his reader comes to believe in. These layers of fantasy are important because Grossman wants us to accept the magical school and powers as a reality that exists alongside our own.
"Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic," Fogg said expansively. "It doesn't really make sense. It's a little too perfect, don't you think? If there's a single lesson that life teaches us, it's that wishing doesn't make it so. Words and thoughts don't change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart - reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn't care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn't. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

"Little children don't know that. Magical thinking: that's what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded.

"But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.
The layers of fantasy are also important because literature itself bridges this separation of word and thing, making worlds where none existed before. It is not surprising that children, adolescents especially, figure so frequently in fantasy literature - they still move between the worlds of word and thing with less to-do. However, their power to link word and world is tied up in the maelstrom of their very strong feelings - their love, loneliness, and pain. It is only supposedly mastering oneself as an adult that one can harness the powers called magic in these stories.

Grossman mercifully does not play simple-mindedly with the notions of good and evil in this story. His fanstasy within a fantasy creates an Escherian narrative - a hand writing a story of a hand writing a story.... - the creatures who do good are not all good, nor are those who wreak havoc all bad. Grossman's critic's eye (he is the book critic of Time magazine) never leaves him in this novel. He comments on books like the Harry Potter and Narnia series because he is writing a fantasy that will not let us escape. One will hopefully love in this life, this book says, but then one will not escape from the pain of loss. And while it may be attractive when one hurts to simply envision oneself as a character in the narrative of an all-powerful author, characters are themselves authors of multiple narratives, each with their own characters. We are not merely victims we also all have power over others and as adults we must be mindful of whether we use that power for good or evil.

Grossman has a fantastic imagination. One of my favorite scenes in this novel was a segment during their magical education when Quentin and his friends were turned into swans to migrate to special training site. The visceral reality of this segment was powerfully enveloping and marvelously fun. The writer I associate Grossman mot with is Herman Hesse. A romantic sensibility fueled with a critical point-of view about the culture he lives in and expressed in a narrative that is entertaining, intelligent and inevitable. Occasionally he can not resist gilding the lily, with one too many a curly-cue in a sentence or the use of a word that stops this reader to make him say - what a smart guy this Lev Grossman is. With five pages left to this fantastic book at one am., did I really need to stop to look up the word aeruginous? But this is one of a few rare glitches that occasionally reminded me that Grossman is a human writer, not a real magician. Fantastic stuff. It's nice to write a rave so early in the year!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Charleston, Charleston...

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Suggested by Prairie Progressive: Do you read the inside flaps that describe a book before or while reading it?

Am I a flapper, you ask? Sure. I'll read a hard cover's book jacket or a paperback's rear cover (or the quotes and blurb on the book's on-line page) as one criteria if I'm considering whether to buy it in the store or borrow it from the library. If it is giving away too much of the plot I will skim over it lightly, just looking to see if my appetite is whetted by theme, setting, a description of the writing, or anything else. If it is peppered with obviously over-the-top hyperbole I will usually put it down. I'll also read reviews and blog posts and I love it when bookstores have employees who read and who post their own recommendations. I will also dip into the book for a page or two - usually the opening and one other page - and see if the quality and tone of the writing are what I'm in the mood for. Books are very much a thing of the moment for me. I have to be taken by the right book at the right phase of the moon, or something. Some days I want Buddenbrooks and some days I want Harry Potter and I'm not beneath flapping to figure out if a volume has my name on it. I will break into a Charleston if I have to. I also have such a, er, generous TBR pile, that I will often read the book jacket a second time, along with several pages, when I am deciding what to read next. Then when I settle down to read a book, I will read everything. The the title page, the copyright page, the dedication, the acknowledgments, and will often skim the book jacket again, just to increase the anticipation as I begin!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Two and two and a neat publishing venture (Books - Rhythms of the Brian, The Philosophical Baby, The Next Queen of Heaven, and The Magicians)

In the weeks prior to classes starting I am reading four books, two novels and two non-fiction. I started Rhythms of the Brain on New Year's eve and I am still finding it a densely learned book, particularly strong for its insights in relating the structure of the brain's cells, the patterns of activity they produce, and how those patterns contribute to making predictions about the world and carrying out behaviors in the context of those predictions. It's wonderful stuff and I am finding myself updating some of my most basic notions about the relationship of brain structure to brain function.

Yesterday the library informed me that The Philosophical Baby was ready for pick-up. As I had to wait for the subway, I began reading the introductory chapter. Psychology professor Alison Gopnik has writes in a chatty style full of grandiose hyperbole, at least in the first chapter. The subtitle should have warned me: What children's minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. Oh please. But I know it's fashionable to write such nonsense and no doubt her publisher pushed for it. But its her rickety scientific claims that are putting me off. For instance, she claims that heretofore the importance of childhood has been given short shrift because.
Some psychologists and philosophers argue that most of what is significant about human nature is determined by our genes - an innate hardwired system that makes us who we are. We're endowed with a set of fixed and distinct abilities, designed to suit the needs of our prehistoric ancestors 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene.... But this view doesn't capture our lives as we actually live them and as they chance and develop over time. This view also can't explain the radical historical changes in human life. If our nature is determined by our genes, you would think that we would be the same now as we were in the Pleistocene.
Why? First of all, in the individual the influences of nature and nurture interact, so lets stop with this either/or discussion. It's old hat. Genes are present as a blueprint for protein synthesis and environmental factors may allow them to be expressed or not (turn them "on" or "off") so that they perform their function vigorously, weakly, or not at all. Secondly, on the phylogenetic level, there is nothing that says that whatever genome humans were endowed with 200,000 years ago is the genome we're stuck with. Genes generate chance mutatations in every generation. Those useful to a particular creature in their ever-changing environment are statstically likely to survive over time, allowing creatures to adapt. No doubt many features remain in the course of 200,000 years but I am not sure why Gopnik implies evolution in that time has somehow ceased. This sensationalist beginning didn't go over so well with me, but I know Gopnik is a respected psychologist and the book was well reviewed so I am going to assume I have something to learn from her and will keep on reading.

On the fiction front, I have a similar duo. One which I am very enthusiastic about and the other less so. I began Gregory Maguire's latest venture, The Next Queen of Heaven, after receiving it from a friend on Sunday. I have enjoyed many of Maguire's other novels, particularly his first - Lightening Time. This one is a pastiche set in a town in Upstate New York. It concerns a trio of gay men trying to rehearse music for an AIDS benefit in a nuns retirement home and a poor, thrice-married woman with three children conked on the head by a statuette who winds up with a nasty aphasia that makes her speech sound like ambiguous biblical pronouncements. There are some laugh-out-loud-funny scenes, and some merciless mockery of nuns which I can only imagine would be even funnier if I had survived Catholic school, but I haven't. So the reading experience for me is something of a silly lit-lite excursion. What I do like about this book is that it is part of a new publishing venture. The Concord Free Press publishes books that are free. Accepting a copy means you donate some money to a cause of your choice, registering that donation on their website. Once you have read the book, you pass it on to someone else and spread the love. There is a roster in the back of the book which each reader/donor signs. Isn't that a great idea?

I also started Lev Grossman's The Magicians last night. It concerns Quentin, a very gifted boy who is about to finish up high school. The intellectual prowess has not conferred much happiness upon Quentin, who at 17 escapes into the same Narnia-Harry-Potter-esque fantasy literature he did when he was nine years old. Only this time, he really does escape into it one day, as he walk around Brooklyn on his way to an interview for Princeton. I like the mixture of real and fantasy that Grossman is going for and the writing is sophisticated, if a bit showy. I'm getting that I-can't-wait-to-get-back-into-the-world-of-that-book feeling about it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

To reveal or not to reveal (Books - Authenticity by Deirdre Madden)

Upon finishing Authenticity, Deirdre Madden's novel built around two visual artists and their encounter with an attorney in the midst of a mid-life panic who turns to painting, I stand with my mid-point analysis - it is a book about the consequences of imagining. As I have mentioned in other posts about Madden's work, her characters frequently cast their minds out upon the currents and try to place themselves inside the experience of others. This is certainly many artists' stock-in-trade, but people of all kinds imagine the lives of others. Those who do not have much knowledge of or use for the arts consider such activity the stuff of children or mere frivolity but it can have many uses. This imagining can be a pleasurable escape, an exercise in empathy, or it can be a provocation of the most unsettling sort. As the painter, Roderick, observes of the attorney, William:
"If painting had been only a pipe dream, then there'd be no problem. It would be enough for him to have it as a hobby. Unfortunately William really has made a huge mistake. He's done the wrong thing. It isn't just that he thinks he's wasted his life, he knows he's wasted his life. But what can he do? His situation is all but set in stone. He needs to keep his family - and himself, mark, and himself - in the style to which they're accustomed. Nor am I saying for a moment," he added quickly," that I think he ought to walk out on his family. I don't consider that kind of behaviour a prerequisite for being an artist."
Funny this coming from Roderick, who did walk out on his family while in an alcohol sodden crisis of his own several years prior, and exacted many emotional costs of his wife and daughters as well as paying all sorts of costs himself. Imagining alternatives can be an expensive activity, and one whose price not every person can afford. One point Authenticity seems to make is that, artistry may extend to many an allure of either heady nobility or fame and grandeur, but the actuality of the artistic life is not for sissies. It is not an easy way to live despite the fact that many people outside the artistic professions associate the daily activities of the artist with play.

Another exploration in Authenticity is the nature of that art. Madden makes that conversation tangible through the contrasting work of Roderick, a middle-aged, "mid-career" painter whose process emphasizes how he sees objects and rendering what he sees with both freeness and precision resulting finally in what most art critics would call abstract painting. A certain kind of painting has become an end in itself for Roderick. His encounter is with paint and canvas, with painting itself, and though he may be expressed through the work because it is his vision that is rendered on the canvas and because his technique and his freedom allow something unique to himself to be deposited there, his painting is not intentionally autobiographic or self-revelatory. Whereas Julia is younger and at the start of her work's trajectory. Her art is not only more wide-ranging in media - using three-dimensional objects, collecting stories and impressions from people, building fabric constructions people slide through - it is also explicit in its mission to reveal the what is most private and personal. To some degree, these different philosophies of art are expressive of the different people who make them and the process of art making really contains all those ingredients to a greater or lesser degree. This dichotomy is set-off by the work of William who, if not painting for his livelyhood is painting for his very life.

As Madden observes the interaction betwenn art and artist, she also explores the experiences of their loved ones - the pleasures for some of sharing the passion for art and ideas, the incomprehension of others about why they work so hard if the costs are so high and the apparent rewards so small, and the costs exacted of still others who suffer along with their husband, parent, lover, or as is the case in Authenticity, brother. Madden writes a most sympathetic character in Roderick's older brother Dennis, although I find her usually fine eye for believable character clouded here by sentimentality. There is a certain generality to lone and long-suffering Dennis that smells of Hollywood neatness, particularly in his early childhood promise to "look after him always." I also found a self-helpy quality to some of the writing around Roderick's divorce and alcoholism that may be hard to avoid these days but was surprisingly cliched coming from Madden's relentlessly original pen. Ultimately I found the five shorter novels I read of Madden's more clear-eyed, more idiosyncratic, finer works of art than Authenticity. I feel Madden got a little literal here, explaining the ideas she wanted this novel to express rather than writing from them and letting them be expressed. Oddly, in a book about the very idea of the struggle to live unconventionally, Madden has written her most conventional novel. Still, this is a compelling story about making art, highly recognizable to me from a life lived among artists. Madden has rendered this world with complexity, verisimilitude, and great intelligence and while I admire her other books more, I am happy to have spent time in the company of more of her characters.

My earlier thoughts about this book can be found here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Courting Eternal Dissatisfaction (Books - Authenticity by Deirdre Madden)

Deirdre Madden is doing it again. I am captivated by the characters - the painter Roderick, his frightened brother Dennis - who trained as a pianist but works a regular job and looks out for his brother - and the rest of their disapproving family. The conceptual artist Julia. William the attorney in mid-life crisis who wishes for the thrills of the artistic life. Madden creates the swirling eddies of their individual lives - Roderick working odd jobs while trying to establish himself as a painter, Julia growing up with a single Dad. William is the one character whose story remains in the present, as is true when we are in crisis. The swirling forces of these lives converge, or really it is not as calm as that, they crash together and this book maps the origins and consequences of that crash.

This book has many traits in commons with the other five novels of Madden's I recently read. It moves between past and present events without comment, allowing consequence to intersect with antecedent, and vice-versa, in provocative ways. Roderick's early career receives a boost when he wins a 6-month artist's residence in Italy. That 6 months turns into 11 years as he eventually marries an Italian woman and they begin a family, although when we discover that in the narrative, we have only met Roderick as a 50-year-old long after his marriage has dissolved, or as a 20-year-old, prior to his meeting his future wife. We discover the fact as he tells it to Julia when they first meet, an event that takes place several years prior to the novel's present time frame. Madden renders the experience of the flow of time more than the actual fact of when in the conventional narrative time line events may have occurred. She has this trait in common with Virginia Woolf, and like Woolf makes much that is both beautiful and consequential out of the abstraction of time.

What I have come to think of as Madden's trademark is the most common narrative action running through all of her novels - a character imagining the circumstance or experience of another or at least imagining themselves in circumstances other than those they currently inhabit. This activity is the meat and potatos of the artist and is in some ways what distinguishes shall we say the artistic soul from other types of human creatures. It is germane to this novel in that so much of most artists' lives are given to struggling against cultural forces that keep them from creating via lack of opportunity, lack of tangible reward, or simple lack of respect and therefore much of one's formative existence as an artist can be taken up with imagining oneself actually working some day (it can be a tremendous creative energy drain, in fact). William, the attorney in mid-life crisis, has decided upon the artist's life as the escape route from the trap he feels his life has become. In so doing he is imagining a present different from the class-bound, suburban, repressed one he finds himself in. One of creativity, one in which he enjoys courting risk, one in which his friends look different, and his living circumstances look different. The artist's life may be seemingly full of thrill from the outside, but it is an existence empty of the things most of us are taught to aspire to - regularity, predictibility, security (even if those are in fact illusory) - it is a life full of constant adaptation to changing fortunes, little hope of retirement accounts or insurance, a deep dependence on other's fortunes to earn what little money you do earn, and every picture you have of days of the great creative ahas can be balanced with 50 days of empty pages and frustrating struggle. It is a life of, as Agnes deMille told Martha Graham, eternal dissatisfaction. (Not to say it is all misery by any means. There was so much joy in the 25 years I spent as a theatre artist). At the half-way point in this novel, I am seeing this as a story about the consequences of imagining - for those who do it for a living and for those who don't. For those whose imagined existences are close to the truth and for those whose are far, far away.

What is interesting in reading Authenticity is that it is twice as long as the other Madden novels I read. Molly Fox's Birthday, One by One in the Darkness, Remembering Light and Stone were all compact and tightly focused books. The story is more sprawling and that gives the writing a different character, but not in the way one might imagine. The other books had a great calm, in this one the spring is tightly wound. Although Madden can take longer to develop her characters, she does not use that as an excuse to write lazily. More detail is packed into more layers that make up the individuals and the characters also interact in more various ways. In the other books I wished I could spend more time with the characters. In Authenticity I can, and am not dissapointed. Some of the themes that characterized Madden's other novels - moral responsibility, the influences of the church, and of the political turmoil in Ireland - are absent here. Authenticity expends all its energy on contrasting the conventional life with the artistic one. I am enjoying it heartily and am sure I will have more to say once I have finished it, as well as an excerpt or two to share.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Recent Acquisitions Department

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Barbara wants to know:What books did you get for Christmas (or whichever holiday you may have celebrated last month)? Do you usually ask for books on gift-giving occasions or do you prefer to buy them yourself?

Not that the holidays are merely acquisitive, but they did yield some lovely book loot. I love to get people books as gifts but many people are nervous of getting me books, so this year I had made a list on Amazon that included a number of titles I was hoping to read. The Ragazzo gave me a lovely design book that was not on the list - Jacques Grange Interiors. His parents got me How To Cook Everything, a cookbook by Mark Bittman that I had been wanting and had put on the list. I needed to buy myself everything else bookish that I wanted. Some were professionally related and rather expensive: Geriatric Neuropsychology, Diagnosing Learning Disorders, Brain, Behavior, and Learning in Language and Reading Disorders, and The Human Frontal Lobes - sounds fun huh? I'm actually really looking forward to them. Then, given a little holiday money and time off from school to actually read book reviews and favorite book bloggers more thoroughly, I ordered a book of poetry: Sakura Park by the late Rachel Wetzsteon, Jonathan Lethem's new novel Chronic City, Deirdre Madden's Nothing is Black, The Magicians, Reading in the Brain, and The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. So much to look forward to! And yourself?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Reaching out from ourselves towards others (Books - The Birds of the Innocent Wood by Deirdre Madden)

The waning days of my winter break have unfortunately been occupied with taking care of The Ragazzo, who has had been impressively sick. Great fun has been had by all and plans for seeing friends, household projects, and museum visits were abandoned. At least I got to continue my exploration of Irish novelist Deirdre Madden's body of work with her The Birds of the Innocent Wood.

This is the most unusual in form of her Madden's books which I have read so far. It alternates chapters about the lives of Jane and Jane's twin daughters, Sarah and Catherine, criss-crossing back and forth through time as it reveals its small surprises. I read it as a story of the price of isolation, either by having love witheld from you or witholding love from others. Not to say that that witholding is performed out of malice, most of the self-imposed isolation in Madden's characters is out of fear of loss or fear of being touched. The alternating chapters are almost stand-alone pieces, yet the information they yield as regards the story is incomplete. The reader knows they are incomplete because the daughters' stories occur almost 20 years after the story of Jane's years as a young woman and through their details imply the missing information. With this structural device, Madden succeedes in creating a good deal of suspense, even though the events of this novel are largely interior and the settings entirely domestic.

Madden's narratives most conspicuously occupy the inner lives of their subjects. Her evocation of this flow of thought naturally (in my observation) intertwines imagination of worlds outside the present time, space, or life of her character with the present moment to achieve a verrisimilitude of inner experience. As I have described in my post about her novel One by One in the Darkness, her characters often imagine themselves inside the lives of other characters (or at least struggle to do so) - an act that is de rigeur for writers, actors, and other artists:
Sarah has only ever loved her family, and her family has made her suffer. Looking through the open door to where her father is sitting is like looking into a seashell which is coiled and chambered. Each chamber is a memory, its size and brightness in accordance with its position on the coil of time which stops with the shell's sharp apex: the moment of her birth. But beyond that there is a wide yellow shore scattered with shells, and she can see but she cannot touch the huge shells which contain her father's secret memories. She cannot imagine what it would be like to move through those vast coiled systems of chambers, seeing with her father's eyes the eighteen years which make the sum totaly of her own brief life, and then before that those early, mysterious years which lie beyong the scope of Sarah's memories: the years of her parents' marriage prior to the birth of their children; the years of his life before his marriage, spent on the farm alone with his father; the years of his boyhood and youth spent with both his parents, prior to his mother's death, and then these shells also come to the still point of his birth and are ended. But before this were the lives and memories of his parents, and their parents before that, and their parents before that: the shells of these memories have been sucked back into the sea by the tide, and some have been dashed by waves against the rocks and have been broken, some have fallen to the sandy bed of the sea, and some will drift forever and forever. And Mama: she wonders what has happened to the poor misshapen shell of her mother's life, and she wishes that she could have saved it above all from the cold blue infinite sea.
This paragraph summarizes the action of the entire novel, whose narrative voice as I copy it out reminds me intensely of Virginia Woolf's, particularly in my favorite novel of hers - The Waves - to get inside another's life, making it as palpable and important to oneself as is one's own life. Certainly that struggle can be the act that allows one to break free of self-imposed isolation (when another's needs become more important than one's own fears). This novel embodies that struggle on multiple levels - the isolation of an orphan (Jane) who struggles in a life without parental love, later the mutual isolation of Jane and her husband as they try to break through themselves to become vulnerable with each other, the lives of their daughters who as twins have their own unique version of sameness and separateness not experienced by most siblings, and the closely detailed diaries kept by Catherine to know herself.

One of my favorite moments in the book is a visit that Jane makes to her neighbor Ellen's house. Ellen has known Jane's husband all of her life and Jane is jealous and insecure of her. Ellen probes Jane for the story of her life, which Jane shares in all its horrid detail of the deprivation of life in a convent orphanage but is sure that Ellen did not believe her and did not like her.
Jane's antipathy towards Ellen was mixed with a considerable degree of curiosity, and she wanted to know all about her background. James would tell her nothing, but his father was happy to oblige. One winter's night as they sat by the stove, he told her the story of Ellen's past. Jane listened attentively and later she would run over it again and again in her mind, embellishing the tale with little added details of her own, imagining certain scenes with particular intensity. Every time she saw Ellen thereafter, she would think of what she know, conscious always that it was partly truth and party her own invention...

When Ellen was twelve, her father, overwhelmed by debts, took an ornamental revolver out to a ruined gazebo in the grounds of the house. His wife heard the report, and it was she who found her husband with half his head blown away. (The deed was, of course, in reality performed with a shotgun in the back yard: the revolver and gazebo were gothic fancies which Jane could not resist adding.)
I love this scene particularly because we all must knows others somewhat through the veil of our own narratives, and this is not confined only to people we love but also to those we dislike. I think that people who live largely interior lives and get used to living in their own minds, and Jane exemplifies this, in their isolation can interact not so much with others as with the characters they have made of them.

I found the many ways in which Madden writes about people reaching out from themselves towards others in The Birds of the Innocent Wood, and how this informs their experience of the own lives, particularly insightful. The beauty of the writing and the asymmetry of the structure, given the incompleteness of the lives we become acquainted with, are brilliantly suited to the content. The narrative acquires an intensity through the suspense evoked by the alternating time frames and the secrets the characters, in their isolation, withold from one another. The Birds of the Innocent Wood is a stunning and unusual piece of writing from a writer who, in the past year, has quickly become one of my favorites - Deirdre Madden.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Rhythm on the brain (An Inflorecence - Poet Rachel Wetzsteon)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

Since I appear to have rhythm on the brain these days (see below), it would be remiss of me not to include a little poetry in ushering in our new year. Sadly, my acquaintance with New York poet Rachel Wetzsteon has been occasioned by her death. I thank fellow blogger and excellent poet Mark Doty for the introduction nonetheless. I admire local artists - those who pursue deep knowledge of a subject, a place, a color - through their medium as the magnificent playwright Horton Foote did for his corner of Southern Texas, or as Agnes Martin's deep investigation of feeling through her minimalist expressionist paintings in fields of gentle color. That is what Rachel Wetzsteon seemed to be doing in her intense, wry, urban compositions largely set in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York. I want to read more.

As both Mark and the New York Times offered her poem "Sakura Park" I thought I would post these two - the first an unseasonal invocation to autumn, the second a playfully intelligent evocation on longing:

Commands for the End of Summer


leaves, not with what
has made us sorry but
with what was profound about that


Make me
gathering winds, but don’t
blow so giddily I teeter
too much.


Songs I
listened to all
summer long, accept my
thanks: to regress is not to move


Splash of
patchouli on
my wrist, remind me that
in this cauldron there is a world


Smile! Those
days of humid
agony have earned you
the right to a hundred purple


Come, fall,
I can feel you
stirring, I can hardly
wait for the things that will happen
come fall.

Five-Finger Exercise

When things get hot and heavy this weekend or one August
twenty years from now, and I start tapping hexameters
up and down the shoulder-blades of my beloved (insert
auspicious, trustworthy-sounding, stolid but fun name here
for I can conjure none), I hope I do it right,
never losing sight of the skin whose golden toughness
allows the counting, never moving my fingers so briskly
that I can't hear his breathing, and never forgetting, even
in the lonely heights of sublimest inspiration—
What is your substance?... O rose ... and grey and full of sleep—
to flip the warm flesh over and whisper, It had to be you.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The music of our brain (Film - The Music Instinct & Book - Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki)

Typically, the new year is rung in here with friends and fondue but The Ragazzo has been so sick that he was in bed and I celebrated by doing the laundry, watching a video, and going to bed at 10:30. Woo- hoo. Hope you brought in 2010 with more appropriate pomp.

The Music Instinct: Science and Song
is the video I watched. It is a film by Elena Mannes first aired on PBS. I received it from The Ragazzo's brother and sister-in-law this christmas and it is about the latest research on music and neuroscience - one of my pet topics. It features all the usual PBS-type folks - musicians Bobby McFerrin and Yo-yo Ma, Oliver Sacks, and physicist Brian Greene - but it had pretty decent coverage of the major researchers in the relatively small field of music and cognition. It begins with a discussion between scientist Daniel Levitin and musician Bobby McFerrin asking - "Why music?" Levitin was the most well known researcher in the film because of his book This is Your Brain on Music, but they also had John Sloboda, Robert Zatorre, Isabelle Peretz, Sandra Trehub, and Aniruddh Patel (among others) - all respected researchers in the field. It was better than some pop-science I've seen in presenting more than one side of an argument, but it did not offer a narrative that clearly told the inexperienced viewer that that is what it was doing. It wanted, like most television fare, to make grand claims that could not be supported by the research presented. They ended with the Audra McDonald's voice-over saying - "Why music? It is written into our very being. Science is showing us that song is at the core of life." The film is straining to tell us that music is tied in some essential way to our DNA, although in actuality the film ended with a few differing opinions about why humans make music and it would have been more honest to have told that story. However it makes for an engaging primer on the subject for the lay-person and I found the inclusion of Brian Greene useful in that the program discussed not just the esoteric musings of a small group of specialized researchers about why music might have evolved in human culture whether as an adaptive feature or as a useless adornment, Greene discussed music as a physical phenomenon - a patterned disturbance of air - or a wave - and Levitin stressed music's ability to coordinate the firing of neurons and that reminded me of a book I have been meaning to pick up for the last six months - Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki - so I unearthed it and began reading last night (we really know how to party here at Bookeywookey central).

Buzsaki book does not address music per se, it focuses on rhythm, particular oscillatory patterns or periodic disturbances to a system or state as they occur across time. This phenomenon is found throughout nature and Buzsaki is particularly interested in groups of neurons that fire in patterns, establishing a temporal metric which could then organize larger patterns of activity among cells in the brain. This is seen as a self-organizing action that subsequently impacts the brain's cognitive and motor functions and whose temporal nature is essential to what may be the brain's primary reason for existing - predicting what will occur next in the environment.
Predictions and relationships are constructed by ordering the succession of events according to elapsed subjective time. We are usually able to say which of two events happened before the other...the cause precedes the effect in time.
If one observes how reactive systems evolved from single-cell creatures to nerve nets in hydra to complex mammalian brains over millenia, the substantial adaptation offered by a brain like ours is that of predicting events before they occur and the ability to more sophisticatedly collect data from our environment and use it to intercede in what would otherwise be an automatic repertoire of responses.

Buzsaki's range of knoweldge is broad - bringing in chaos theory, electrophysiology, mathematics and biology. His language is the language of science - when he day dreams he tells you so and when the information he presents has been measured via experimental means and expressed as a probability (as all study conclusions are) he tells you that. His writing is down-to-earth and very engaging and since he writes about the phenomenon of rhythm, I find his thinking stimulating for relating one of the features of music (which evolved along with the rest of the natural cultural word) with brain function. A superb book so far.

Buzsaki and my continued exploration of the superb Irish novelist Deirdre Madden with her The Birds of the Innocent Wood make up my reading as 2010 begins. And yourself?