Saturday, July 31, 2010

Delightful scientific romp...without costs (Books - Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne)

I re-read Jules Verne's delightful scientific romp (for the first time since I was about 12 years old) in connection for a project at my lab. The connection between the book and my lab is a long story I won't get into, but I found myself drawn in all over again to the combination of curiosity about the facts that describe the actual we inhabit and a confection of suspense and adventure by the father of science fiction.

The story concerns a nineteenth-century German geologist and his naive nephew on a journey they try to make to the earth's core when they uncover an ancient cipher that gives them directions via the crater of an icelandic volcano (ring any bells?). Many of the details of the book are faithful to the mid-nineteenth century understanding that Verne's contemporary measurers and thinkers possessed. But there are also flights of sheer fancy that don't remotely conform to anything that could be possible. Progressing that far, I found that I was invested enough in the progress of the narrative to believe in them for the sake of the story.

Two things struck me about this fantasy. One was the preponderance not just facts we know and the hypotheses that flow from the knowledge naturally curious minds possess, but also the quality of thinking which we would term today "critical." For example:
"There is a positive pleasure even in feeling one's self getting into a denser atmosphere. Have you noticed the wonderful clearness of sound here?"

"Yes, indeed. A deaf man would soon get his hearing again."

"But this density will of course increase?"

"Yes, according to a somewhat indefinite law. It is true that the intensity of the weight will diminish in proportion as we descend. You know that it is on the surface that its action is most felt and at the centre of the globe objects have no longer any weight..."

"How shall we descend then?"

"Well, we must put stones in our pockets."

"I declare, uncle, you have an answer for everything."

I did not dare to go any father into the field of hypothesis, for I should have been sure to have stumbled on some impossibility, which would have made the professor start out again.

But it was quite evident that the air, under a pressure of possibly a thousand atmospheres, would pass at last into a solid state; and in that case, even supposing that our bodies might have held out, we should be forced to stop in spite of all the reasonings in the world.

But it was no use advancing this argument. My uncle would have met me with that everlasting Saknussemm, a precedent of not the slightest value, for even quoting the truth of the learned Icelander's narrative, this simple answer might be made to it: "In the sixteenth century neither barometers nor manometers were invented, consequently, how could Saknussemm know that he had reached the centre of the earth?"
There is a propensity to question, to doubt, out of respect not disrespect, that is evident in this book. There was a time criticism was deemed valuable to the accumulation of knowledge. I was also struck in this novel with this fact. When faced with a wall of granite that stood between them and the knowledge they sought, the solution of the professor and his nephew was dynamite. Symptomatic of all that is good but also all that has been destructive in our acquisition of knowledge - they blew it up. The result is that they gain the knowledge they seek but much havoc has been wrought in our attempt to understand the way the world works. Nuclear energy is one such example. With the hindsight of nearly 150 years, this novel offers clear examples of this urge naively pursued. Journey to the Centre of the Earth remains a fantastical entertainment but is unwitting about the potential costs of such exploration. However, these were salient to me in the light of the recent BP disaster, although this being what one would define in a literary sense as a comedy - there are no lasting consequences.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Novelties IX

Haven't done this in a while:


Since they are available in abundance right now - zucchini sauteed in olive oil, cook until just tender, a little green onion for the last two minutes, then lots of mint and some basil mix it in for a minute, juice of a lemon, mash with a potato masher, eat on toast with ricotta or feta cheese or on pasta w/ parmesan and some pasta water. Mmmmmmm

Drinking: Lately I've been going for strong, black iced coffee - no sugar, no nothing.

Looking: My obsession with Almodovar's films has led me to the wonderful singer Caetano Veloso. Here he is singing Cucurrucucu Paloma in a scene from Almodovar's Talk To Her

Listening: I don't know if you ever listen to The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR, but he had on a panel discussion last weekend about the non-violence movement and the likelihood of a peaceful world in this century. Follow the link above. What I found most interesting about it was hearing a room full of adults talk with idealistic passion. It reminded me of something I have lost. In my late teens and early twenties I shared this same hope. My expectations of human nature, unfortunately, currently predispose me toward a more cynical view.

Surfing: 1, 2, 3, 4


It's sex week at The Loom so go and learn something!

Don't believe everything you read.

And in the No... really department. Who can resist: MRI scans of fruits and vegetables? Not I. This is canteloup. Veggies are not just for eating any more.

Hat tip: Better Health via The Happy Hospitalist.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chronicling our lives (Books - The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman)

With the amount of writing I have to do in the rest of my life right now, my reading and writing are both a bit curtailed. However, I did manage to finish one book this steamy Friday evening.

Tom Rachman's debut novel The Imperfectionists is about the lives of those who work for an American-owned, English-language newspaper in Rome and the progress of paper from an age of literary print-journalism to the electronic age. His writing is specific and observant:
Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks. He steadies himself on the knob and shuts his eyes. Chill air rushes under the door; he curls his toes. but the hallway is silent. Only high-heeled clicks from the floor above. A shutter squeaking on the other side of the courtyard. His own breath, whistling in his nostrils, whistling out.

Faintly, a woman's voice drifts in. He clenches his eyelids tighter, as if to drive up the volume, but makes out only murmurs, a breakfast exchange between the woman and the man in the apartment across the hall. Until, abruptly, their door opens: her voice grows louder, the hallway floorboards creak - she is approaching. Lloyd hustles back, unlatches the window above the courtyard, and takes up a position there, gazing out over his corner of Paris.

She taps on his front door.

"Come in," he says. "No need to knock." And his wife enters their apartment for the first time since the night before.
Come on. Don't tell me you're not interested. The soap-opera that is that lives of his characters, who range from the veteran hack journalist to the obituary writer, from the CFO to a board member, to a reader, is passionate and often quirky. The way the set-pieces that constitute each chapter intersect with their era of newsmaking, and with each other, is the captivating accomplishment of this novel.

The themes - memory, loss of past, the need to chronicle our existence and, at times, the seeming waste of that activity too.
"What I really fear is time. That's the devil: whipping us on when we'd rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won't hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past - it doesn't feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It's as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There's that line of Heraclitus: 'No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.' That's quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories."
The chapters are stand-alone pieces. The choice detail capturing character or situation, the efficient passage of time, the perfect little twist that comes at their endings (occasionally a little too perfect) - all feel very much like short stories. I wouldn't say that every story is equally successful, but their final accumulation is quietly affecting and entertaining. I was particularly taken with the story **SPOILER ALERT** of the obsessive widow of a diplomat who has read each copy of the paper since the day in 1976 her husband was posted to Saudi Arabia, only it takes her so long that in the present day of the story, around 2007, she is still stuck on April 23, 1994 unable to move on because the following day was a traumatic landmark in her own life. **SPOILER OVER**

It is evident from this intelligent and somewhat nostalgic book that Tom Rachman places great value on the way that we record the events of our lives. His own move from journalist to novelist is an interesting coda to it. I would enjoy hearing him speak about the difference between the values a journalist and a fiction writer each bring the job of chronicling our memories and why he switched forms.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Artistic attempts to render the void and then fill it (Theatre - Teorema & Film - Up in the Air)

The two works of art I saw this weekend could not have been more different, but they both concerned people with lives of outer perfection but inner emptiness for whom a key event shatters their complacency.

One of the theatre directors I admire most, Dutch director Ivo van Hove, has a love of raw emotion exploding into unsuspecting lives and an interest in adapting either classic theatre works in provocative multi-layered ways or turning great film into theatre. I have seen many of his works - Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler, Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions, Tennessee Williams's A Streecar Named Desire, Alice in Bed by Susan Sontag, and one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen, his adaptation of John Cassavettes cruel film Faces. Last night, members of his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam and a live string quartet, Blindman, performed his adaptation of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema as part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival, one of the opportunities to see really interesting cutting edge international performing arts in New York every summer. Pasolini was an Italian avant-garde filmmaker, poet, and political activist who both led a life and composed work of passion and complexity. In Teorema a mysterious visitor enters the lives of a wealthy suburban family and shakes their empty routine to the core - for some of them this means awakening them to their basic drives for connection and sex, and for others it means stripping them clean of their trappings of wealth so that only their naked need remains. A large, grey, carpeted modern-home-like set was plopped into a large warehouse on Governor's Island in New York. So, as with many van Hove productions, the space played an important role in the theatrical experience. One had to take a Ferry and then walk 20 minutes on an Island with a compound that used to belong to the Coast Guard and now houses various artistic venues - it looks a little bit like something out of the Others compound in Lost.

In the Pasolini film, Terrence Stamp played the visitor, and his power was very much a religious one and the urges he released divine. In van Hove's adaptation, the visitor is a young vigorous man with the darker complexion and tight curls of someone who could be of Arab descent, his exact place of origin isn't all that important, what is important is that he is the "other" to the white, upper class family he visits. It is this otherness that seems to encourage these protected suburbanites to see this force in their visitor. In this production the force is more animal than divine, represented in this production by a scene the visitor enacts with a ferocious looking German Shepherd.

The visitor undoes each character in turn, but while the actors describe the acts he performs on them, in actuality it is they themselves that manipulate the visitor. He seems to become an excuse for them to release themselves, though they don't have to blame themselves for it, they can blame the unruly "other," unlike them with his darker skin, his freedom from possessions, his ease with his body. This is frequently a role "others" are given in societies. The magic and wealth that have been fictitiously given all Jews to possess, the violence and sexuality credited the black male, the bacchanalian carnality credited gay people, it seems to me that they project upon their other the force in themselves they desire most and are therefore most afraid of releasing (how Freudian of me). In any event, I found this choice a very effective one.

The text is a poetic, third-person narrative spoken by each character about himself over a microphone, creating a distance between them and their story. Yet while they narrate themselves they participate emotionally in what the character experiences in the story, so there is an alienating meld of voice-over and character, of closeness and distance that seems very much the point of the production. The people walk about holding themselves at arms length never entering their story, yet they are filled with fierce passions lying just beneath the surface. Once he has unburdened each of them of course he leaves. The cast then rip up the walls and the floor of the mod set, creating a passion-torn landscape. Then each ritualistically perform an extended monologue of where their unleashed passion took them after he had left, how they searched for him and never found him. Each character is liberated but finally undone, except for the servant, who I will discuss in a moment. Some of the images were quite effective. As the father walks naked through the rubble of his house, which is also the train station in his city, and tries to unleash a scream that can be heard above the roar of complacency, the stage picture evoked the violence of a Francis Bacon painting. Visceral, bloody like a piece of meat, a single agonized person in a space where modular walls are often visible against a larger and less clear background. I also very much enjoyed the use of a live string quartet, a rich sonority contrasting the otherwise cold palette of sound, lighting, and set, whose repertoire moves from becomes ever more atonal as the evening's dissolution progresses.

Unfortunately, I found the production somewhat undone by its own ideas. It was tied too slavishly to its pictures and theatrical rituals and shortchanged the story telling too much for my taste. The formality of having the visitor first encounter each of the family in turn and then having each of them ritualistically take turns in describing their unraveling (in the same order) became too predictable. The monologues' length did not sustain their interest given the repetitive structure and the familiarity of the physical trappings in this production which, although they partook of the language of experimental theatre, were well used cliches of the form. I have found many of van Hove's productions startlingly original, but this was not one of them. Van Hove also chose to depart from Pasolini's more religiously infused ideas, but with the character of the servant he never succeeded in replacing them with anything else. In the film, she goes home to her village and performs miracles, in this adaptation, she climbs stairs behind the set to theatrically approximate floating on a cloud, but then returns to the rubble of the set and sits smiling beatifically. I loved the performance of Frieda Pittoors, who played her, but bringing her back into the world seemed a poor choice. The cast was adventurous and I loved how generously and undemonstratively they brought themselves to the large passions of the play while speaking third-person narrative. This is a play about transformation and the actors did just that, they transformed inside and out. It gave a piece about emptiness a great deal of fullness which was very much the opposite experience that I had of Jason Reitman's film Up in the Air.

Everyone has been discussing this film as a break-through performance for George Clooney who plays Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living while delivering them a cock-and-bull spiel about this being the first day of the rest of their lives opportunity. His only ambition in life is to become a 10 million mile frequent flyer. What are they talking about? I found this film a vapid exercise that never made a choice to reveal a character through complex dialogue or idiosyncratic behavior if it could do so through edited montage or cliched mannerism. And if Clooney ducked his head and shyly grinned one more time I was going to go for a long walk.

Although I don't choose to live in Omaha or Des Moines, I spent ten years in the middle of my large and various country and I thought Reitman was incapable of depicting what he put forward as average American life without mocking it. His characters perform empty rituals whether they fire people for a living or hold average jobs and aspire to fill condos and cars. Then they get married and everyone is filled with emotion for a day. No wonder all these loonies talk about the "sanctity of marriage," it seems to be one of the only times they're alive, if we are to believe this film. The combination of being the brother of the bride, discovering that his freewheeling-on-the-road-occasional fuck-buddy who he thought had the same values as he actually has a family, and the threat of becoming professionally redundant himself by a call center is supposed to humanize Clooney's character, but if he changes I didn't see it. And if he doesn't - what's this film about anyway?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hot enough for you...?

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Well, folks, I don’t know about where you are, but right here, it’s HOT. So … when you think about “hot reading,” what does that make you think of? Beach reading? Steamy romances? Books that take place in hot climates? Or cold ones?

It's hot here too and that doesn't lead me to think of a particular genre but rather of just one book and one scene in that book:
The next day was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer. As my train emerged from the tunnel into sunlight, only the hot whistles of the National Biscuit Company broke the simmering hush at noon. The straw seats of the car hovered on the edge of combustion; the woman next to me perspired delicately for a while into her white shirtwaist and then, as her newspaper dampened under her fingers, lapsed despairingly into deep heat with a desolate cry. Her pocket-book slapped to the floor.

"Oh my!" she gasped.

I picked it up with a weary bend and handed it back to her holding it at arm's length and by the extreme tip of the corners to indicate that I had no designs upon it - but every one near by, including the woman, suspected me just the same.


"The master's body!" roared the butler into the mouthpiece. "I'm sorry Madame but we can't furnish it - it's far too hot to touch this noon!"

What he really said was "Yes,...Yes...I'll see."

He set down the receiver and came toward us, glistening slightly, to take our stiff straw hats.

"Madame expects you in the salon!" he cried, needlessly indicating the direction. In this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life.

The room, shadowed well with awnings, was dark and cool. Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols, weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans.

"We can't move," they said together.

Jordan's fingers, powdered white over their tan, rested for a moment in mine.

"And Mr. Thomas Buchanan, the athlete?" I inquired. Simultaneously I heard his voice, gruff, muffled, husky, at the hall telephone.

Gatsby stood in the center of the crimson carpet and gazed around with fascinated eyes. Daisy watched him and laughed her sweet exciting laugh; a tiny gust of powder rose from her bosom into the air.

"The rumor is," whispered Jordan, "that that's Tom's girl on the telephone."

If you hadn't realized it at first, you have probably figured out by now that this is from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It is THE hot scene in a novel, in my estimation. As I was walking in the 103 degree heat last week, I thought of Daisy and Jordan lying on their sofa with the fans whirring saying, "it's too hot to move." Later they all decide to drive into town (New York City) and go to the Plaza Hotel and Daisy wants to "hire five bathrooms and take cold baths," and that turns into an idea to have mind juleps. The heat, not only of the weather, but of the story with Daisy's dangerous affair with Gatsby coming to the boiling point. Such a fantastic book; there are scenes in it I can touch they are so real to me, and this is one of them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A knowing heart and a forceful pen... (Books - Little Monsters by Charles Lambert)

Charles Lambert's 2008 debut novel Little Monsters is about how the quality of love we receive in our formative years can impact the love we express to others in the rest of our lives, whether that is in personal relationships, creative art, or political acts. I began writing my thoughts about it here. Through the book, we observe Carol, whose father murders her mother in parallel time periods: in the future immediately following the murder when she lives in the pub owned by her resentful Aunt, and forty years hence, when she seems forcefully compelled to rescue a young refugee at a 'humanitarian' camp where she works. This book's prose has a driven quality, although its pleasures are quieter than Any Human Face, Lambert's recent thriller-love story. His strength is an unflinchingly sensitive eye for the deepest layers of his characters' psyches.
For the first time in our lives together, we have made love in a greedy, selfish way I'd never imagined possible with Jozef, as though we have been starved and are fighting over food. Or maybe not selfish, but self-centred, when we have always been so aware of the other, of the other's pleasure, even at the cost of our own. Now I find what we do both exciting and repellent and these are somehow the same feeling; there is no contrast between them, as there should be. But what I feel, when we have finished and turn our backs to each other to sleep, consumed, is loneliness. I feel I have never known him and will never understand him; that my love for him has been built on gratitude, because he was there when I needed him, and looked after me. And I wonder, with a resentment that borders on despair, why he has never told me the truth about his life.
Lambert writes of the pain of existential longing with a knowing heart and a sure, forceful pen. He knows, as one character says to another in Little Monsters, that 'people are not simple,' and that's why I loved this beautiful novel. I feel I've discovered a deep well in Lambert. Sometimes his work evokes Hermann Hesse for me, although he is less of an innocent. How can it be so plain to an outside eye how we live out of the circumstances that formed us, while we are such a deep mystery to ourselves, he asks?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Books on becoming... (Books - Microcosm by Carl Zimmer, The Statue Within by Francois Jacob, & Little Monsters by Charles Lambert)

Crazy week. I've been writing a paper in the lab (which means a lot of work-related reading), and it has been hot enough here in New York City to fry an egg on my face. I have read for fun here and there, on my commute and before I go to sleep, but not enough to finish anything. Here's what's at the top of the pile at bookeywookey:

Carl Zimmer writes eloquently in Microcosm of the biology, particularly the evolution, genetics, and the experimental manipulations applied to the single-cell microbe E. coli and what we can learn about our own species by studying it.
The threats faced by a starving E. coli are much like the ones our own cells face as we get old. Aging human cells suffer the same sorts of damage to their genes and ribosomes. People who suffer Alzheimer's disease develop tangles of misshapen protein in their brain - proteins that are deformed in much the same way some proteins in starving E. coli are deformed. Life not only grows and reproduces. It also decays.
Zimmer's writes writes a different kind of popular science book than many of those that gain popularity today. He fashions an elegant narrative line while not holding the reader's hand. If his story includes the role of the ribosome in protein synthesis or the notion of a genetic switch and you don't know what that means, he expects you to look it up. He also doesn't adhere to the scientific paper model of writing - say what you're going to do, do it, and then say what you have done - I appreciate this because it affords his narrative less excess verbiage and a greater sense of flow.

I've particularly enjoyed learning about the ways in which E. coli fashioned of identical DNA in the identical environment develop individual differences. Zimmer also makes the important point that it is E. coli that has allowed us to study the process of evolution directly. To see it before our eyes and collect evidence for it. We don't live tens of thousands of years and were not around for the entire process described by Darwin and his scientific descendants, and so we have relied on the evidence left behind in fossils. However, in an average month E. coli will produce more than 500 generations. We can see them reproduce, replicate their DNA, produce random mutations, and generate more of those mutations over time that favors their more effective survival in that environment, and this can happen on the scale of years rather than millennia.

Biologist Francois Jacob was one of the team who uncovered the mechanism by which genes regulate the production of proteins by studying E. coli. He trained as a doctor, fighting in the free French forces against the Germans in Africa in World War II. The serious injuries he sustained prevented him from work as a surgeon and so he ended up a microbiologist, eventually winning a Nobel Prize for his work. The Statue Within is his elegant philosophical memoir.
My obsession: a life that shrivels up, slowly rots, goes soft as a pulp. This worry about decline grabs me by the throat as I awake. In the brief interval between dream and waking, it flaunts before my eyes the frenzied dance of everything I would have liked to do, and did not do, and never will. As I turn over and over in my bed, the fear of the too-late, of the irreversible, propels me to the mirror to shave and get ready for the day. And that is the moment of truth. The moment for the old questions. What am I today? Am I capable of renewal? What are the chances I might still produce something I do not expect of myself? For my life unfolds mainly in the yet-to-come, and is based on waiting. Mine is a life of preparation. I enjoy the present only insofar as it is a promise of the future... Starting to work in Andre Lwoff's laboratory at the Pasteur Institute, I found myself in an unfamiliar universe of limitless imagination and endless criticism. The game was that of continually inventing a possible world, or a piece of a possible world, and then of comparing it with the real world. Doing experiments was to give free rein to every idea that crossed my mind...What mattered more than the answers were the questions and how they were formulated; for in the best of cases, the answer led to new questions. It was a system for concocting expectation; a machine for making the future. For me, this world of questions and the provisional, this chase after an answer that was always put off to the next day, all that was euphoric. I lived in the future. I always waited for the result of tomorrow. I had turned my anxiety into my profession.
Isn't that gorgeous? Old fashioned perhaps, the prose is purpler than what we would expect in a scientist's memoir today (or any memoir), but what passion and drive he conveys.

Another elegant and thoughtful wordsmith is atop the bedside pile. I wrote last week of Charles Lambert's most recent book Any Human Face, a thrillerish love story with serious moral underpinnings. That led me to finally read his first novel, Little Monsters, which I have owned for a year or more. I have quickly gotten half way into this fictional memoir of a somewhat cruel and isolating childhood. It was obvious to me upon picking up this book that I had never even read the opening paragraph:
When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother. Three days after that, I was taken away from the hospital by two people I had never seen before and would never see again, a man and a woman who used my name each time they spoke to me - Are you warm enough, Carol? Have you got your case, Carol? Carol, come along with us now - as if they knew me, although they didn't tell me their names. I must have shown willing somehow. I expect I nodded and did what I was told. I was put into a car that smelt new and then, when I was sitting alone in the back, they told me I was going to stay with Aunt Margot, who ran a pub called the Mermaid. I supposed I'd known that I wouldn't be taken home, but I was still surprised, and shocked, as I would have been no matter what the destination. They spoke about my aunt as though I was supposed to know all about her. They laughed when the man said I'd be able to get tipsy for nothing. That was the joy, he said, of living in a pub.
Well, he certainly knows how to get one's attention. I would have kept going had I read that paragraph before. The novel evokes for me themes of memory, loss, rescue, and what propels one to become the kind of adult they become. I am excited to read on.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thriller and love story on the surface, serious moral critique beneath (Books - Any Human Face by Charles Lambert)

It was probably a good year-and-a-half ago that Dovegreyreader conducted a wonderful interview with author Charles Lambert where I learned of his collection of stories The Scent of Cinnamon and his novel Little Monsters. I bought the second and for some reason it then festered on my TBR pile unread. Then a few weeks ago I heard described a new novel that Lambert had written set in Italy. I immediately ordered Any Human Face, it arrived this week and I glanced at the first page Thursday evening, becoming instantly hooked. I finished gulping it down this morning.

This is an unusual book in that it has everything - love, suspense, moral conflict, social criticism, psychological acuity, and crack writing - but none of it is expected. It is pitch-perfect on the a fast-paced, ostentatious, brutal beauty of Rome. Who the central character is purposely eludes the reader for some time, although in time the point of view unambiguously settles, but I will let you discover where by reading the book yourself. It moves back and forth between the 1980s and 2008, between Alex, Michel, and Andrew - all young gay men living in Rome. Bruno and Martin - two older journalists - and a wonderful character known as The Birdman, instantly recognizable to anyone who was familiar with the gay scene in the 1980s as the older man who takes in strays and mentors them while harboring an unrequited love - part queen of the bordello, part professor, part nurse, part mama. And three women - Alina, a generous and practical spirit, married to Martin. Daniela - an art critic with terrible taste and worse moral judgment, and The Girl - one of many victims of kidnapping and exploitative sex by higher-ups in Roman and or Vatican politics whose inner monologue Lambert imagines.

Lambert's writing is rich with observations both interior and exterior that imbue character and place with clarity and instantaneous complexity:
It took almost twenty minutes before they could sit down, at one of the tables up against the wall. Bruno told the waiter to bring some bread and a litre of local white. And four suppli. And four filetti di baccala. Alex had his elbows on the table, waiting for Bruno to tell him to shift them, feeling in the mood for a fight, nothing too serious, a touch of friction to remind them both that Alex had a mind and body, and not just body, of his own. He was still smarting from being called Alessandro, his real, despised name, although it might have been worse: Bruno might have said Sandro, as Alex's mother always did. His earlobe was warm, almost sore, from the pressure of Bruno's fingers, the edge of his broken, nictoine-yellowed nail.

Alex was wearing a T-shirt he'd bought that day, white, with Greek letters round the neck, but Bruno, the only person he knew who could read what they said, didn't seem to have noticed...
I love writing like this, a few sentences crammed with sensation that amount to a volume on the experiences to be found in this part of Rome - the sounds, sights, and smells. Alex's inner life is revealed - his youth, insecurity, and how he is different from the typical young man of his neighborhood of origin. The nature of his relationship with Bruno is not explained, but is there to be understood through the details. We learn of the difference classes each come from, and of Bruno's preoccupied state. This is masterful writing - characters and place, inner and outer realities, exposition and plot seamlessly interwoven and wrought through detail not prosaic explanation.

This novel is entertaining to read - a time capsule of 1980s Rome and of a type of gay culture I vaguely knew from New York in that period. Though the book is by no means limited to describing gay culture or relationships - there are loving and unloving people of all sorts in it. It is also a thriller packed with intrigue, sweating with suspense, whose narrative speeds along like a Maserati on the Via del Corso. The plot concerns a collection of photographs which include some sensitive police material and become a mortal threat to anyone who has been in contact with them. Andrew, who owns a bookshop and suffers from artistic pretensions, decides to mount a show together with Daniela (the art critic of doubtful taste) with some of these photographs. There are two outrages represented in these photos - one is the crime exposed by them (and is of such cost to those who would rather not have them on view) the other is Daniela's outlook that when reinterpreted in an artistic context they are rendered anonymous and harmless:
'These images are pure text, Andrew, used, abused, discarded text, crying out to be reinterpreted... She's pixels on paper, darling.'
This novel, though entertaining to read, is an unambiguous critique of the moral hypocrisy that infects the powerful. And the nature of that crime which combines an abuse of power with the dehumanization of innocent people pursuing their mundane pleasures, doing some sort of work, making the little mistakes and the helpful gestures that finally add up to their lives. It is Lambert's accomplishment with this novel that he drives home this point with the juxtaposition of richly imagined scenes rather than with explanation or grandstanding, and that these scenes do double duty as thriller and love story. I also appreciate it for the tender depiction of gay characters both young and old pursuing love and helping each other through the stages of their lives.

This is a superb novel, enjoyable on so many levels. I hope you will seek it out and read it. Now I'm going to try unearth Little Monsters without burying my bedroom and see what Lambert's first novel was like.