Saturday, December 31, 2011

My best fiction reads of 2011

Of the 40-odd works of fiction I read in 2011 I'm going to name some favorites. I'm still working on Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, we'll see if I have time to finish it and write about it. This year, I won't break this group into further sub-genres as the representation of YA fantasy, classic literature, or short works are not significant enough. The original reviews are linked to each title, with an excerpt below. My favorite novels this past year were:

Friday, December 30, 2011

BIG books in 2012 - (The Tea & Books Reading Challenge)

For Birgit (and her hero C.S. Lewis) size matters, which is why she has posed the Tea & Books Reading Challenge, which demands that we tackle 2 or more books that are 700 pages in length or

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My best non-fiction reads of 2011

Now it is time for my annual best reads lists of 2011. I will choose from just two categories this year - fiction and non-fiction, beginning here with non-fiction. I read 25 works of non-fiction including the genres of memoir, science, and history/politics. I won't count re-reads, such as two works of Joan Didion's I revisited, as they were re-read because they are favorites. The original reviews are linked to each title, although I excerpt them below. The most memorable given these criteria were:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Living in the World but in Exile from Almost Everyplace (Books - Open City by Teju Cole)

Teju Cole's Open City received strong responses from crack critics and fellow bloggers and made a number of Top 10 fiction lists for the year, persuading me to check it out. In it Julius, a Nigerian immigrant to America who is completing his final year of psychiatry residency at Columbia, walks the streets of New York City. Although the book is short, it does not invite quick reading. The emphasis is not on any sort of plot, but the novel seethes with ideas and scenes of humanity, otherworldly fantasy, and terrific tension.

The form of Open City is a flaneur's diary, only in the case of Julius, his strolls are not idle. He seems to be running from something. Coles's evocation of the

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Taking on the Double-Dare

Hope you have had a happy holiday - whatever you like celebrating - christmas, chanukah, kwanza, the winter solstice. Now enough singing songs, snacking, toasts, and boardgames, let's get down to the business of reading. C.B. has double-dared us to read only from the TBR pile from December 31, 2011 until April 1,

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 - A little end of the year accounting...

In preparation for my soon-to-come best-of lists, I always like to do a little end of the year accounting. I know some people find this ludicrous but I love looking back on the year and categorizing what I have read. I have been aiming for an average of one book per week, which has been a stretch in the past three years with my class reading requirements, however this fall I no longer had classes. The result was that I was able to finish a few more books. Even though I plan to read several more books this year, lets see how the numbers look so far.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A monument to hope in the midst of the apocalypse (Books - The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

It took me two years to work up to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road after a friend recommended it. I just wasn't craving post-apocalyptic winter. The anticipatory cloud lifted one day and I no longer felt that I would not be able to appreciate the writing or story for the setting. This little personal anecdote befits the book, having now read it, as it is about our worst fears realized. The father and son who are the book's main characters live isolated in a cold, damp scab of a world where there is little sustenance, the other beings are few and impossible to predict, but usually violent, and where the only rule is to survive. But, my gosh, the writing is enveloping to the point of blotting almost all else out, the love between the two characters is deeply moving, and the impression this novel left is indelible.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Revolutionary Improvisation in the Theatre of East Central Europe and Vaclav Havel Remembered (Books - The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash)

Amidst daily skirmishes between 'the people' and the armed forces in Egypt, a stunning year of uprising by the people throughout the Middle East including an overthrowing of Gaddafi regime in Libya, and weeks of somewhat more amorphous protests in cities in the U.S., a beacon of such revolutions has died - Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, one of the leaders of the mostly peaceful revolution of 1989 that broke the hold of the Soviet Union on Central Europe. He was a shy man, and so an unlikely revolutionary hero. But, as Timothy Garton Ash's The Magic Lantern, a collection of essays written during the 1989 uprisings in Poland, Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, makes clear, these were civil uprisings lead by intellectuals and so he became one of the key men of these world changing events.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ugly Betty meets Serpico in a parody of a mockery of justice (Books - From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry)

On the last day of American military presence in Iraq, it's appropriate that I should have just finished From the Memoirs of a non-Enemy Combatant an incisive satire, part-political part-social, and the first novel of Alex Gilvarry. Viking sent me a copy in advance of its January release, thanks Viking.

The first level of this novel I was struck by was the narrative voice Gilvarry lends his lead character Boy Hernandez - it is queeny, misquoting Dostoyevsky one minute and Coco Chanel the next. One could say it is over dramatic, were it not for the overly dramatic circumstances Boy finds himself in. This is a voice ready-made for a one man show in a downtown club.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Seeking freedom on multiple levels (Books - The Free World by David Bezmozgis)

The Free World, David Bezmozgis's novel about the immigration of a Jewish family from Soviet-governed Latvia to the West in the 1970s, has made a few of this year's top ten lists. Although I found much in it to interest me, it isn't quite making mine. The Krasnansky family consists of Alec, his brother Karl, their parents, wives, and Karl's children. They come to Rome - which serves as the purgatory between their old lives (Soviet, Jewish, a world where they have possessed some power, some property, and some sense of themselves) and their new (Italian, Catholic, a world of poverty and uncertainty). Here they wait to find out which country will grant them a visa - their hope of salvation. This novel is about the aspiration to be free in both a political sense and a personal one. Even as Alec and the other characters aspire to escape Soviet economic oppression and anti-Semitism, they find they cannot be free of themselves. The abstract realm of this paradox is created smartly and on multiple levels however the tension that sustains a drama, the kind one can feel, remained a distant idea.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A history of volatile Central Europe where the political is the personal (Books - The Ghosts of Europe by Anna Porter)

Anna Porter's The Ghosts of Europe relates the history of a rapidly changing region - Central Europe - that is Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. She focuses on the twenty years since the 1989 revolution which concluded in the fall of the Soviet empire, but necessarily informs this discussion with a good deal of context, including how these countries and their people were impacted by World War II, as this was so much the making of the region, and sometimes reaching back further to include the influences of the Ottoman or Hapsburg Empires. Though informative, her approach makes no pretense at a broad or objective text bookish approach. Her question is focused and it motivation is personal.
In 2006, I set out to discover whether democracy had taken root behind the Iron Curtain. I chose Central Europe because this part of the world had been the dividing space between East and West, or, as Stalin and Churchill deemed, between spheres of conflicting influence. My second reason is that I am a Central European.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finding the power underneath (Books - The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje)

Two qualities are evident in Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table right at the outset. The book involves the memory of a writer named Michael, originally from Sri Lanka, who at age 11 travels without a guardian on a ship across the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean to reach his mother in England, where he will start a new life. On that ship he spends his time with two other boys - Ramadhin and Cassius. The first quality of the story is an instantly elegiac nostalgia, a wistful tone that says - I was never as innocent and happy as I was then.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Georg Grosz meets Bridget Jones's Diary starring Madonna... no really (Books - The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun)

I learned of German, Weimar-era novelist Irmgard Keun from a post by Bookslut about a New York literary event on the subject of her life and work, as I mentioned here. My friend and I each bought a book and I got The Artificial Silk Girl which, we learned, is a staple of a contemporary German High School education. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month, I actually read it in a timely fashion and in the context of lots of other discerning readers tackling German authors. Check out GLM's pages, they're chock full of links.

One might think The Artificial Silk Girl a serious, historical artifact, written as it was in 1932, depression-ridden German against the background of the rise of the Nazis. Indeed, it is revelatory about what it was like for a poor but beautiful girl

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupying Wall Street and what the Left has done for the American dream, (Books - American Dreamers by Michael Kazin)

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. - Oscar Wilde, 1891

Given the recent developments in the Occupy Wall Street movement, Michael Kazin's book American Dreamers is a timely one. It recounts the history of the influence that radical, leftist movements have had upon United States history. He allows that the very definition of the left has been historically muddied, as both Barack Obama and Noam Chomsky, who hold polarized views on many aspects of U.S. policy, would be said to be on it. Kazin's definition:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bookish things...

As avid bookish folk, I thought you would like to know about the following:

Writer Sarah Salway author of the novel Tell Me Everything, a favorite of mine, will have a new book of poems published by Pindrop Press in March 2012. I don't know what it's called, but it is bound to be juicy. Check out her happily sensual Love and Stationary here.

Lucy Caldwell is an Irish novelist (Where They Were Missed, The Meeting Point) and playwright (Carnival, The Luthier, Guardians, Leaves, Notes to Future Self) whose work has been roundly praised in the English press but, I must admit, was unknown to me. Her The Meeting Point has won the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize, a prestigious and generous award for young writers given out

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It may be fantasy but it's not for sissies (Books - Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan)

At a recent party of a friend I will call Radio Woman, the Ragazzo and I met two wonderful writers - Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. Delia and I got talking about fantasy fiction, her genre, and whose books we like and I found myself less than enthusiastic about a certain author she admired. What do you like, she asked me? I like dark works with language that can be either inventive or very straightforward but has a sophistication, and, especially if they're written for younger readers, I like writing that assumes those readers to be smart and resilient. I also generally like, if magic is a part of the story, that its use be integral and expressive about something in the world that we come from, not just a fantasy literary device used out of habit because other successful writers in the genre use it. Well then, she said, I think you will love Margo Lanagan. She was right.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How a two-paragraph document written in 1917 shaped the modern world (Books - The Balfour Declaration by Jonathan Schneer)

The Middle East may at times seem a small and distant part of the world, but with a land area only slightly smaller than the U.S., a population of more than 200 million people, possessing 40% of the world's oil, and the birthplace of three of the world's major religions, its influence upon world politics is not to be underestimated. Yet, today's map of the Middle East did not come into being until recently. The contemporary borders and the names of the countries Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, and Israel were all created in the 20th Century. Imperialist England and France, as well as Russia were highly influential in drawing this map to suit their strategic needs. Jonathan Schneer's 2010 book The Balfour Declaration contends that this 1917 document, a promise to by the British Cabinet to establish a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, was really a means of manipulating Arab nationalists, the Ottoman Empire (which was allied to Germany), and the world's

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The relentless writer under the tyranny of physical paralysis (Books - The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt)

This is the second book I have read in as many weeks in which the writing was a sheer act of will, the other being Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking. The esteemed historian Tony Judt wrote the essays that became The Memory Chateau by dictating them, having become quadrapeligic due to ALS, a degenerative disease of the motor neurons that eventually killed him in 2010. What impressed me nearly as much as his perseverance while looking death squarely in the face was the fact that the form he chose was a new kind of writing for him - memoir. Given that the form of one's writing becomes a signature of our work and could be said to be integrated with our very sense of self, I thought a change in form a courageous leap so late in the game. Although one could say, that the starkly new circumstances of his disease and the mental state accompanying it necessitated such a shift. In any event, it was a highly successful one.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lyrical coming of age story in post-war England (Books - The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam)

Jane Gardam's post-World War II coming of age story, The Flight of the Maidens, features three very different young women who share the honor of prestigious university scholarships as they graduate from a small Yorkshire high school. The time is 1946. Hetty tries to extricate herself from what we would nowadays call a co-dependent relationship with her mother, alternating between childish reliance and virulent rebellion. Una dates a "bad boy" as she is raised by a single mother who keeps a beauty salon. Liselotte is a German Jewish refugee, taken in by Quakers when she arrives via the Kindertransport.

Gardam's book has two strengths. Her observation of character is razor- sharp,

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Writing one's way to the story (Books - Slouching Towards Bethlehem & The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

I went on a quest a week or two ago to try to discover what it is about Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking that makes it such a stunning book. That lead me to re-read a couple of Didion's essays from Slouching Towards Bethlehem prior to re-reading the memoir. Take this essay On Morality.
As it happens I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot. In fact it is 119o. I cannot seem to make the air conditioner work, but

Friday, October 14, 2011

The usefulness of lying, genetically speaking (The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers)

Acerbic critique of Robert Trivers's new book on evolutionary biology Deceit and Self Deception, by Jenny Diski in The Guardian this week (hat tip: Book Slut).
...Now, decades on, he has arrived at a big, new universal theory, also essentially based on the arithmetic of gene selection. Deceit is useful where telling the (unpleasant) truth would hamper your progress. Progress towards what? Trivers would say your fitness, which is defined as raising the chances of replicating your genes into the next generation.
Your genes, apparently, would agree with him; but they would, wouldn't they? That is if they were capable of agreeing. I want to hang on to the fact that the building blocks of ourselves do not want or intend anything.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Crime and Punishment meets Princess Di in Paris (Books - An Accident in August by Laurence Cossé)

I am a huge fan of Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore, so I was delighted to stumble across her 2003 novel An Accident in August at one of my favorite New York haunts. The premise is simple. Lou, who works a simple job and lives a largely uneventful life in Paris, happens to drive into the Alma tunnel on her way home one night as a Mercedes speeds by her, swerves, and crashes headlong into a post killing its passengers. The passengers were Princess Di, Dodi, their bodyguard and driver. When Lou discovers the identity of the passengers she becomes consumed by paranoia. Too frightened to come forward, she begins trying to cover her tracks.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A noisy signal buried among amusing anecdotes and formulae (Books - Noise by Bart Kosko)

Noise, Bart Kosko, tells us, is unwanted sound. In everyday life we might use the word to describe the car alarm we hear blaring off the street while we are trying to sleep, or the background music in a restaurant that obscures the words of the person with whom I'm conversing. The sciences have a specific use for the term noise.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The impermeability of love - an Upper West Side romance (Books - Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman)

A twenty-something man meets a bold and unusual woman named Clara at a christmas party and a spell was cast. For the next week they spend hours of each day with each other, drink at all hours of the day and night, attend Eric Rohmer films, and invent a playful language all their own. In some ways one could say there is nothing new about this spell. It is called love and it has happened to billions of people before these two. What is distinctive about Andre Aciman's Eight White Nights is the way in which reading it echoes the isolation of such a romance.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Inflorescence - Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

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.

Today's Nobel Prize winner in literature, Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer, has long been a favorite of mine.

Dream Seminar
Four thousand million on earth.
They all sleep, they all dream.
Faces throng, and bodies, in each dream -
the dreamt-of people are more numerous
than us. But take no space...
You doze off at the theatre perhaps,
in mid-play your eyelids sink.
A fleeting double-exposure: the stage
before you out-manoeuvred by a dream.
Then no more stage, it's you.
The theatre in the honest depths!
The mystery of the overworked director!
Perpetual memorising of new plays...
A bedroom. Night.
The darkened sky is flowing through the room.
The book that someone fell asleep from lies still open
sprawling wounded at the edge of the bed.
The sleeper's eyes are moving,
they're following the text without letters
in another book -
illuminated, old-fashioned, swift.
A dizzying commedia inscribed
within the eyelids' monastery walls.
A unique copy. Here, this very moment.
In the morning, wiped out.
The mystery of the great waste!
Annihilation. As when suspicious men
in uniforms stop the tourist -
open his camera, unwind the film
and let the daylight kill the pictures:
thus dreams are blackened by the light of day.
Annihilated or just invisible?
There is a kind of out-of-sight dreaming
that never stops. Light for other eyes.
A zone where creeping thoughts learn to walk.
Faces and forms regrouped.
We're moving on a street, among people
in blazing sun.
But just as many - maybe more -
we don't see
are also there in dark buildings
high on both sides.
Sometimes one of them comes to the window
and glances down on us.

Fire Jottings
Throughout the dismal months my life sparkled alive only when I made love with you.
As the firefly ignites and fades out, ignites and fades out, - in glimpses we can trace its flight
in the dark among the olive trees.

Throughout the dismal months the soul lay shrunken, lifeless,
but the body went straight to you.
The night sky bellowed.
Stealthily we milked the cosmos and survived.

Romanesque Arches
Inside the huge romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
A few candle-flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
'Don't be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that's how it's mean to be.'
Blind with tears.
I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
together with Mr and Mrs Jones, Mr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini
and inside them all vault opened behind vault endlessly.

A Page of the Night-Book
I stepped ashore one May night
in the cool moonshine
where grass and flowers were grey
but the scent green.

I glided up the slope
in the colour-blind night
while white stones
signalled to the moon.

A period of time
a few minutes long
fifty-eight years wide.

And behind me
beyond the lead-shimmering waters
was the other shore
and those who ruled.

People with a future
instead of a face.

More of Tomas Transtromer's poems are linked via my side bar under the heading Inflorescence and then his name.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Individual lives caught in the tide of history (Books - The Greater Journey by David McCullough)

I've been seized by a bout of non-fiction reading. I was going to claim this was a rarity for me, but that's really not true. I had been reading plenty of non-fiction the past few years, but most of it was assigned for class. Now that I'm done with classes, I can read the non-fiction I choose and I made a good choice in David McCullough's latest, The Greater Journey - Americans in Paris.

This is an unusual history in that it doesn't so much focus on names, dates, and events of a single place or movement as on a swath of time, 1830 - 1900, in which France underwent great political change, and the influence of that time upon individual American artists, political figures, inventors, and doctors - the men and women of ideas. In that time, France's Second Republic underwent a coup d'etat by Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, resulting in the creation of the Second Empire. The city of Paris was given a grand overhaul under the charge of Georges-Eugene Haussmann, one whose basic plan survives today. Paris underwent a siege by Germany, and the bloody reign of the Paris Commune, liberated by the establishment of a Third Republic, which lasted until the French government collaborated with the Nazis in the formation of the Vichy government. However, none of these events are, themselves, the point of McCullough's narrative. McCullough portrays Parisian culture in that tumultuous time as remarkably stable in its influence. It was a city known for great painters, sculptors and writers, and for the quality of education available in the arts, medicine, law, and the sciences. Paris was the center of a highly developed culture which included not only arts and sciences, but a renowned cuisine. Really Paris was a place devoted to the art of living. In many ways it still is. The thrust of McCullough's book focuses on the ways in which exposure to such a way of life through a visit to Paris was an important component of a good American education. The Greater Journey is the story of the way Parisian life influenced Americans like painters Samuel Morse, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, writers James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and medical students Oliver Wendell Holmes and Elizabeth Blackwell. As well as the mutual influence of the French and American governments and of their statesmen. Charles Sumner, the great American lawyer and early spokesman for the abolition of slavery, was profoundly influenced by his time in Paris studying at the Sorbonne and the free black men and women he encountered both as fellow students and in the rest of daily life, an experience which proved revelatory for him. The diary of American ambassador Elihu Washburne was, until now, an unknown primary source of the Siege of Paris. It is one McCullough relies on heavily in chapters integrating Washburne's life story with the history of that decisive political standoff.

This synthesis is the success of The Greater Journey throughout. It is less a traditional history of government figures, acts, and battles, than it is a series of short, intertwined biographies set in the context of history. Though some of its key figures might be considered secondary characters in the feature film treatment American education, film and television gives to history - painter George P. A. Healy, pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk and feminist Margaret Fuller are not exactly household names - each one of their stories became interesting as McCullough showed them swept up in the tidal wave of nineteenth-century Parisian art and ideas. I didn't even know that I would want to know their stories, but I found myself easily reading 60 - 70 pages in a sitting and eager to return. Sweeps of influence are at least as important to the consideration of the lessons we can derive from the history of a person or time as the toe-nail-clippings-and-all variety. McCullough makes coherent narrative out of a collection of disparate lives as they were influenced by a place that was itself influenced by great changes in its physical landscape and architecture, and its form of government. The Greater Journey is a reminder that, amidst the cataclysmic rhetoric we Americans hear on an a daily basis about our security, our economy, and the danger of the evil other party from our power-obsessed political representatives, great cultures survive strong upheaval. Large parts of Paris were burned to the ground in the 1871 siege and more than 50,000 lives were tragically lost, yet the government reorganized and Paris rebuilt, and the 1889 World's Fair was attended by millions who came to visit one of the most beautiful and influential cities in the world.

My earlier post about this book is here.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

After the revolution, the soap opera continues (Books - The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta)

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor...this was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend's daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God's intrusion into her life couldn't have been any clearer if He'd addressed her from a burning azalea....

"Something tragic occurred," the experts repeated over and over. "It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture."

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the people who'd disappeared on October 14th - Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever they heck they were - hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.
Millions of people disappear without any explanation, but if you've been waiting for the rapture, they're the wrong people. What does life become for the Billions left behind, asks Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers. The novel chronicles the lives of the citizens of Mapleton, one small American town, living in the wake of an event which makes no sense. Is this a life with no meaning at all? Or is it, rather, one with the ultimate meaning? The meaning you provide with your will, your intellect, your heart (or for that matter, your entrepreneurial spirit) from this point forward.

This world becomes peppered with monuments and movements. Healers who hug. A cult in which members take a vow of silence and smoke to show their faith. But amidst all the questions of meaning, life goes on, as it always does. Adolescents still go to high school, are still popular or unpopular. People fall in love, and out, they get diagnosed with illness, they learn to drive. Perrotta gets this exactly right and creates, for this reader, particularly in reading this two weeks ago, a potent post-9/11 metaphor. Some of its potency comes from the satiric tone of the book. Perrotta has not written a laugh-riot. He doesn't mock recent events, but he creates an absurd happening in a rational world which the inhabitants of that world take seriously, and then takes it to its absurd ends. This is the real strength of The Leftovers. Its description of the experience of loss is dead on.

As the holiday season begins, members of the cult Guilty Remnant, watch a presentation "Christmas" is meaningless. "Christmas" belongs to the old world." Claim the slides. Yes, when you lose a central source of meaning in your life - whether that's a loved one, all your possessions, or some essential fact you held on to that helped made life meaningful - everything must be re-defined. Perrotta includes parallels in the story line to send home the point. A woman discovers that her husband had been having an affair, a re-organizing loss on a domestic level, and yet a very similar one. This woman counted on her husband's faith (if not his love) as a fact. Something that she was sure she had. And yet, for months while she continued to feel certain, it was not there. If those things of which you feel you can be certain aren't there - what is?

Tom Perrotta's use of language sometimes, for my taste, was too rooted in the relaxed diction not of easy-to-read writing, but of speech. It's a little TV-efied. I tend not to enjoy this quality in writing, but the flip-side of this style is that it makes reading effortless. In this case, Perrotta writes so that we know his characters quickly and care for them. He is an astute cultural observer, a crack psychologist, a useful provocateur, and he's very entertaining. After the revolution, the soap opera continues, to find out what happens read The Leftovers.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Always have a book...

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Do you carry books with you when you’re out and about in the world? And, do you ever try to hide the covers?

Are you kidding me? I carry at least one book everywhere I go and at pretty much any time. I carry something on my commute to work, if I'm going downtown to meet someone for dinner, to the gym, on a walk. I carry something to read when I walk between the bedroom and the livingroom. One thing to understand is, I live in New York City. Most of us non-celebrity types either walk where we are going or get there by mass transit. To own a car is prohibitively expensive, it takes ages to drive anywhere, and I hate the way cars clog up our already crowded city with noise and pollution. There is nothing like a subway ride for reading! Usually I allow a little extra time to get where I'm going and I'm always sorry if I end up getting delayed, not just because I don't like to be late, but because I won't have those few minutes when I'm on my own at the restaurant bar and I can pull out my book and read! Sheila and I joke that the first time we met, we knew we'd be friends because we both arrived early to the bar with a book to read. We still do.

As for covering the covers - no, why would I? I'm not into bodice rippers or anything. I don't really have time to read stuff I think is too embarrassing. Sometimes I will admit to feeling a little self-conscious about reading something I judge as being too popular, you see, I have a thing about following the crowd. But that's because I have been known to be a little snobbish about my reading. But if I'm reading Harry Potter or some other best seller when everyone else does, I always do the full monty. It serves to remind me that sometimes I'm not all that different from everyone else. Also, a book cover can be a great conversation starter. I remember a great conversation I had when I finished reading The Da Vinci Code in an airport with a man who was certain that the symbols, the sect it describes, the whole thing was absolutely real. He was dead certain. He went on and on about the symbols, he had nearly memorized the thing. I remember a certain point in the conversation with The Ragazzo said: 'You do know this is fiction, don't you?' The man first looked perplexed, then a little defensive, and answered, 'well, sure. But wouldn't it be great if it were real?' Yeah great. We could all be chased by rabid albino priests.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Calisthenics while his empire crumbles.... (Books - The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski)

The Emperor (1978) was Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's first book. It is a distinctive blend of political writing, razor sharp psychological portraiture via oral history, and prose that achieves lyricism. It's three brief sections describe the absurd class structure of Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie, Emperor from the 1930s to the 1970s, the foment of rebellion against it, and its eventual downfall, not exactly the expected forum for poetical insight.

Kapuscinski presents his lyricized version of memories of Selassie's courtiers, servants, and associates, each identified by their initials only, alternating with brief interpretive commentary. What is remarkable about the stories shared in this concise history is the lengths the courtiers went to assure themselves of the King's irrefutable superiority to themselves. The class hierarchy they describe is rococo in its absurdity - it rivals that of the Russian pre-revolutionary civil service parodied by Gogol. Their titles: 'keeper of the third door:'
When His Most Exalted Majesty left the room, it was I who opened the door. It was an art to open the door at the right moment, the exact instant. To open the door too early would have been reprehensible, as if I were hurrying the Emperor out. If I opened it too late, on the other hand, His Sublime Highness would have to slow down, or perhaps even stop, which would detract from his lordly dignity, a dignity that meant getting around without collisions or obstacles.
the 'pillow bearer:'
I was His Most Virtuous Highness's pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth - I say it with pride - His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor's shoes, would not occur. In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas - the plague of our country - would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.
Isn't this like something straight out of satirical science fiction? 'The Minister of the Pen' (necessary as 'his highness' never read or wrote). Evidently, when the king traveled, he hand-selected which of his court members would accompany him. There would be bitter in-fighting for such privilege and each person who accompanied him would know his number in the hierarchy, so that who was above and who below whom would be crystal clear. As rebellion encroaches this elaborately structured society is slow to crumble, so weighed down by greed, ambition, and a simple inability to re-conceive an idea in which they are secure, boggles the mind.

Particularly striking is the emperor's own reaction to the opposition. During the period in which his palace was occupied by invading forces, the emperor employed Swedish physicians who scheduled calisthenics to counteract the 'sluggishness' experienced by the remaining court members. was the desire of His Majesty and the Crown Council, just then, that all the Palace people should take very good care of their health, take full advantage of the blessings of nature, rest as much as necessary in comfort and affluence, breathe good... air. His Benevolent Majesty forbade any economizing in this regard, saying often that the life of the Palace people is the greatest treasure of the Empire and the most valuable resource of the monarchy.
It is notable that even members of the rebellion found themselves consulting the emperor on the steps they were taking as they dismantled his regime. As usual, Kapuscinski brings a relatively recent episode of political oppression strikingly to life. I have yet to read a book of his that wasn't a stunner.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Novelties XI

Fresh tomatoes, anyone? With mozarella and basil, with vinegar and sardine salad (sardines, Dijon mustard, chopped cilantro, and lime juice), or cooked with smashed garlic and pasta.

The air has been hinting at fall this week - how about a red Cotes du Rhone tasting of smoky berries and herbs? We've been drinking this one.

The theatre season has begun! The Ragazzo and I went to the revival of Sondheim's Follies last weekend and the Elevator Repair Service's (they're a theatre company) fantastically energetic adaptation of Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises called The Select last night.

Jeff Buckley Grace. Dvorak Piano Quintett in A major.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5


this super piece by Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera on an a physicist's app that allows one to visualize wavelengths of light in the night sky that are beyond the range our eyes can see. Very cool.

This superb article by David Dobbs on adolescent brains and how they develop to make teenagers the infuriating risk-takers they can sometimes be. (Hat tip: Ed Young)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Its discomfitures become its pleasures... (Books - Good Behaviour by Molly Keane)

I received Molly Keane's Good Behavior as a prize for my participation in the First Annual Anita Brookner Day (thank you, Thomas). The Virago small-sized hard back was a pleasurable format both to hold and to read. It reminded me of the hard backed editions that were available when I was a kid, but enough of showing my age, now on to the contents.

Molly Keane has created in Aroon St. Charles a heroine of striking contrasts. She is a 'big' girl yet she cowers. She is of an aristocratic class and yet poor. She has an enormous and loyal heart, capable of great love, yet offers it only where it cannot be appreciated. Oh, does Aroon want to love and to be loved. It is the force that drives her. In this wickedly perceptive and humorous tale, Aroon grows up and claims her power. Keane creates character and atmosphere with sensuous detail.
Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the distance between us. I knew she ached to censure my cooking, but through the years I have subdued her. Those wide shoulders and swinging hips were once parts of a winged quality she had - a quality reduced and corrected now, I am glad to say.
Keane is an economical writer both by being precise in her diction and by not explaining away every last detail of her story. I suppose some could say she is being oblique, but Keane is not unclear, she maintains Aroon's naivete in making the choice of assuming a first-person narrative voice. This is a sexual innocence, not a lack of sophistication in understanding the minds of others.
'Out for a walk.' She laughed deeply. She was as full of happiness and as eager to share it, as she had been desolate and removed all the afternoon. 'Suppose we have a Marie biscuit and a drop of hot milk.' She bustled towards the spirit stove and her tidy milk jug with the bead-weighted muslin cover over its top. Again, as on the evening by the sea, I knew that a space widened between us. I had felt closer to Mrs Brock, she had been nearer to me when I thought she needed my comfort.
Aroon can be deeply perceptive, however, the progress of her relationships start with a hunger for intimacy, but as others' needs get fulfilled elsewhere, Aroon fills herself instead with food and drink and the space widens, as she observes, between herself and others. Indeed, the primary action of this book is the valiant and unsuccessful attempts of its characters' to conceal their ungainly desires beneath a facade of 'good behavior.' Early on, I found Keane's writing a trifle too neat. Each chapter had a stand alone quality, ending with a short-story-like button. As a consequence, the narrative sacrificed continuity and I found the each characters' through line hard to hang on to. That neatness dropped away as the story accumulated momentum and Aroon blossomed as a character, becoming more desperate and more ruthless. Don't be misled by the bunies on the book's cover. Its discomfitures become its pleasures, and I can recommend Good Behavior highly.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Millenium approaches, then unravells (Books - The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott)

Henry Cage puts forward the picture of an upstanding man - well-spoken, well paid, well taken care of by his housekeeper. He runs the company he founded, he lives in the perfect London House, when his wife fools around on him he cleanly divorces her. He knows where he will eat his breakfast each day.
Most afternoons, Henry was content to stay at home. Over the years, in addition to his photographs, he had built up a collection of twentieth-century British art, without ever owning a single first-rate painting. He had bought the works of Meninsky, Shephard and the like - artists with talent, but no great originality; painters who had needed to teach to pay the rent.

Henry was moved by their work. He admired their tenacity and was comfortable with their status. He viewed his walls with constant pleasure. He often said that he was surrounded by paintings that looked like the work of gifted relatives. He would have been uneasy living the art that was too obviously expensive. A Lucian Freud of Francis Bacon would have been impossible - like hanging your bank balance on the wall. In the same way, he could drive a Mercedes, but not a Bentley - live in Chelsea, but not Belgravia.
Henry complies with what is expected of him, he makes sensible choices because he does not want to stand out. Then, around the turn of the millenium,Cage's departure from his company is orchestrated and thus begins the dissolution of his well-ordered world. David Abbott's The Upright Piano Player chronicles his losses. Loss of loved ones, of dignity, of his illusions, and of his sense of control. Abbott makes the choice to open the book with the most devastating of these losses which, on the one hand, lets us know what the book is all about and, on the other, means he never again lives up to the graphic, gut-wrenching scene that starts the book. We then return to 1999 and the progress of the book reveals how Henry Cage got to where we eventually see him.

The book had one quality that irked me. Occasionally the writer veered off course from Henry's story, certain instead that we needed three paragraphs of insight about the design of a coffee shop. No doubt, having worked most of his life in advertising, Abbott's insights into the subject are expert, but they were beside the point as concerned Henry's story. There were a few others moments that partook of the same advisory tone regarding the most pictaresque road in England or the size of a doctor's bill. With some of them, Abbott makes an attempt to integrate them with Henry's character but unsuccessfully; they startle and distract, derailing me from Henry's narrative. It's a pity no editor had the sense to advise against them. Aside from those moments, the prose, like the man, is dignified, measured, the story memorable, and the results touching.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Trying to get justice done and have lots of sex while your life is a train wreck (Books - Europa by Tim Parks)

I've finished Tim Parks's Europa, which I first wrote about here.
Plato did not believe in the realm of pure forms. That much is clear from any reading of The Republic. Nobody saw more plainly than he that the world was a place of change and betrayal, and if he chose to deny that place any ultimate reality and spoke insistently of an ideal, more real realm beyond, it was perhaps his way of expressing his outrage, expressing a mental space, a place of yearning that is in all of us. For things to be still. Like my wife, like the foreign lectors at the University of Milan, like the visionary architects of our United Europe, he longed for the world to declare its final form and be still, or at least for all motion to be neutralized in repetition, in ritual, as the rigidly ordered world of his philosopher-kinds must reflect the eternal harmony of the cosmos. He longed for each man to assume his definitive station, forever, each role to be exactly defined and assigned, forever, authority imposed, balance achieved, justice done. Thus Europe. Thus our final home. Our permanent job. The end of conflict. The end of poverty. The end of history. The shape of an apple defined. The ingredients of an ice-cream defined. Pure form. Ultimate solidarity in a world where perfected technique will remove all suffering. All wrongs righted. By the effective agency of the Petitions Committee...
After figuring out that Jerry's screwed-up relationships are a metaphor for the European Union I was not sure where to go with this novel. Parks forwards the plot with some impressive word-smithery toward one great big "shocking" surprise (as the book cover's blurbs announce, I suppose to keep us reading) while telling us again and again what the novel is about. In the end, I don't know what all of our divorced, philandering, ex-pat English professor in Italy's stream of run-on consciousness amounted to. I never felt a thing for his characters, with the possible exception of Jerry's wife, who was really shit upon by her sex-obsessed ex. All Jerry seems to walk away with is the insight that:
There is generally no point and above all no merit in telling the truth...
The accomplishments of Parks's narrative leaves me with no doubt that he is smart and talented at putting together prose, but I found Europa jaded, sophomoric, and depressing. I suppose there are many people with lives like Jerry's; maybe they will like this novel better than I did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On the edge of chaos and some kind of order (Books - Europa, The Great Journey, At Home in the Universe)

I have the second of my comprehensive exams coming up. Although this has not resulted in reading nothing at all, it has meant that I have not finished anything. I guess I'm a less constant reader these days. Anyhoo, I thought I'd report on what's in the works.

Tim Parks's Europa (1997) concerns Jerry, a philandering middle-aged English professor and writer living in Milan, who considers the hash he has made of his life while he rides on a bus to the European Petition Committee to air grievances regarding his college's teaching contracts. With an international group of faculty and students who posture, who lecture, who flirt, drink, try to impress, to get into each others' pants, all while Dead Poet's Society plays on the bus video system in the background. It's written as a first-person monologue that switches from interior to exterior perspectives, a sort of string of pathetic parenthetical justifications for his screwed up marriage and loss of ambition, laced with bitter whining about "totties" who will and won't put out.

Ordinarily I detest novels with misogynist characters, set in academia (and that rules me out of quite a few). The fact that Tim Park's is himself an ex-pat Brit living in Milan translating Italian literature while teaching at a university adds an autobiographic layer that turns my impression of this book from a novel about misogynist characters to a misogynist novel, however, what I am finding impressive about the book is a) the ferocity of its voice: high-velocity sentences drive on and on in a rhythm that compels me to keep reading:
You should have a slug of this, boyo, Vikram Griffiths said, turning from trying to bribe the driver to take us into town in the evening of his own initiative without referring the time and expense to the coach company. You look terrible, he said, What's up? So, lying with the instinctive fluency that years of betrayal engender (and if one is lying one owes it to the world to do it well), I said the combination of the coach's movement and trying to watch Robin Williams seize the day had given me the most atrocious headache, and I told Vikram Griffiths, this feckless fragment of Empire (as he himself once described himself), this genius of broken marriage, bizarre manners and interminable good causes, this man who cam to my house just once, his dog only a puppy then, and frightened my wife with his life story - told him that I had come to the front of the coach to speak to him because I had heard, in the Chambersee Service Stations, Dimitra and Georg and her agreeing that he, Vikram, would have to be replaced, because incapable of putting a presentable face, I said (partly inventing, partly quoting), to our claims; he would make us look ridiculous, I said, they had said, with his unkempt baldness, his bushy sideburns and wild gestures.
and b) while this piece often feels grossly personal either about the narrator, the writer, or both, it also manages to be a novel about the European Union. The EU, as you probably already know, is a supra-national body of independent governments charged with negotiating political and economic decisions made for the good of all its members while at the same time maintaining their autonomy. It's an arrangement that is a lot like, well, this narrator's relationships - with his employment, his marriage, his lover, his daughter. That may make it sound trite, but actually, it is a book driven by ideas while not being a book of ideas. Jerry is mostly outraged because his ex-paramour is now having an affair with someone else. The bus (a subset of the institute where he teaches) is polyglot. Everyone speaks a different language, has different priorities, and in the end they are all out for themselves, so no satisfactory union (or at least no easy union) is possible, the book seems to imply.

I am finding it particularly interesting how the interior personal concerns of this novel interact with the exterior, geo-political - exemplified in the seating arrangements on the coach as each rider vies to pair off with a suitable other as their roommate in the hotel that evening. It is striking me as I read that, if this were an American novel, the personal would not interact with the political but rather with the pervasive metaphor of technology or, these days, the brain. It's a different zeitgeist 14 years later. Even as I find myself liking the characters less and less, I am compelled by how Parks makes a dialogue of these two realms, and so I read on.

Speaking of ex-pats, historian David McCullough's latest book The Greater Journey tells the story of mostly well-known American writers, painters, and doctors who came to Paris between 1830 and 1900, that is, post- Napoleon and pre-World War I, what drove them there, and how that visit contributed to what they became. As with his fantastic biography of John Adams, McCullough links places, personages, and ideas with seamless narrative that is a pleasure to read. The experience of the month-long oceanic voyage, the contrasting squalor and splendor of 1830s Paris, the cholera epidemic of 1831, are all vividly portrayed. I am finding the contrast of the shared political influences of France and the United States, what staunch allies we were, and the difference in what French and American culture value in living daily life striking, particularly in light of the recent Strauss-Kahn scandal.

Lastly, Stuart Kauffman is feeding me lots of beautiful narrative about how a certain degree of complexity in a system can perpetuate self-organization out of initial chaos, particularly in the context of biology. In his book At Home in the Universe, Kauffman offers these self-organizing principles as endemic to all kinds of systems - economies, cultures, microscopic molecules, and macroscopic universes. He speaks particularly of when systems, such a the molecular morass that makes up the biosphere, are balanced along the edge of order and chaos and is talented at turning complex mathematical ideas into visual metaphors:
This poised edge of chaos is a remarkable place. It is a close cousin of recent remarkable findings in a theory physicists Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld called self-organized criticality. The central image here is of a sandpile on a table onto which sand is added at a constant slow rate. Eventually, the sand piles up and avalanches begin. What one finds are lots of small avalanches and few large ones. If the size of the avalanche is plotted on the familiar x-axis of a Cartesian coordinate system [that's a conventional graph with two axes], and the number of avalanches at that size are plotted on the y-axis, a curve is obtained. The result is a relationship called a power law. The particular shape of this curve, to which we shall return in later chapters, has the stunning implication that the same-sized grain of sand can unleash small or large avalanches. Although we can say that in general there will be more tiny avalanches and only a few big landslides (that is the nature of a power-law distribution), there is no way to tell whether a particular one will be insignificant or catastrophic. ... At this poised state between order and chaos, the players cannot fortell the unfolding consequences of their actions. While there is law in the distribution of avalanche sizes that arise in the posed state, there is unpredictablility in each individual case...
In other words, you are going to have to do some work to follow Kauffman's argument, he is writing at a fairly sophisticated level. But he combines complex mathematics and biology with a real appreciation for the beauty of the world, which phenomena in it can be predicted, as well as which cannot. I'm finding the reading well worth it and the concepts applicable to all sorts of observable phenomena.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Novelties X

Well, you know what I'm reading, so what else is new?


The farm where we get our vegetables has given us fresh beets several weeks in a row. I used to be afraid of them because they stained everything red - my pots, the sink, the sponge, the cutting board, my hands. Now I've found a super-easy way to prepare them. Take a pound of beets and cut off the ends. Scrub them with a brush under running water. Don't peel them, just stick them in a steamer over boiling water and steam them - 15 - 20 minutes for little ones, 40-50 minutes for big ones. They are done when it's easy to pierce them with a paring knife. While they're cooking, combine 1 finely chopped onion a bowl with several tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar, a little salt, black pepper, and a tablespoon or so of pistachio oil (it's worth the trouble you may have finding it) maybe a sprig or two of fresh marjoram. Let this sit for an hour or more at room temp (covered). When the beets are done, let them cool enough to touch them. The peel will easily come off. Chop them into small wedges or matchsticks and combine them with your onion dressing. Voila. Serve with toast and a nice feta. (Adapted from Patricia Wells's The Provence Cookbook).

Drinking: Super cold tomato juice (one with as little salt as you can find, I've found a Bulgarian brand with only a pinch),some fresh lime juice squeezed in. Mmm.

Looking: Season 2 of In Treatment (the American version - it was created in Israel). This is an HBO series about a psychotherapist and his patients. Monday through Thursday are sessions with the patients and Fridays he goes to his own therapist. The therapist is played by the marvelous Gabriel Byrne and his therapist by Dianne Wiest. The patients are equally good - Allison Pill, Hope Davis and John Mahoney were in this season. It's a strongly made series from both a therapeutic and an aesthetic point of view and other people's problem look so much easier to solve than one's own!

Listening: If you haven't yet listened to Radio Lab they combine well-produced dramatic story-telling with science to create some very interesting pieces. I found this one on how the brain helps us navigate in space interesting, and this one was really touching.

Surfing: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Learning: I finally got around to reading an article by Jerome Groopman in a February issue of The New Yorker about what might contribute to the apparent prevalence of food allergies.

This piece by Phillip Gourevitch about cyclers in Rawanda is also particularly good.

Jonah Lehrer teaches us that there is really no such thing as a spoiler. (Hat tip: Not Exactly Rocket Science)

And in the No... really department: Carl Zimmer's riff on Greenfieldism.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Denial as an art (Books - Angel by Elizabeth Taylor)

I have heard about author Elizabeth Taylor from fellow readers for years now, but Angel is the first novel of her's I have read. Wow - what a smashing, hilarious, disturbed creation. Angel Deverell is fifteen when the story begins. Living in a drab English brewery town over a shop in Volunteer Street, she is the daughter of a widowed shopkeeper, who spends what little she has to send Angel to school. There, Angel writes an essay which her teacher considers vulgarly over-written and therefore, it is assumed, she could only have plagiarized it. It happens that telling romantic, overly ornate tales is Angel's talent. It wins her her only friends in school and provides an antidote to a life of poverty that promises the hope of only modest opportunities - in a secretarial position, or as the maid in a house of means, like her aunt who worked at Paradise House, serving The Lady and her daughter, also named Angelica.
Lax and torpid, she dreamed through the lonely evenings, closing her eyes to create the darkness where Paradise House could take shape, embellished and enlarged day after day - with colonnades and cupolas, archways and flights of steps - beyond anything her aunt had ever suggested. Acquisitively, from photographs and drawings in history-books, she added one detail after another. That will do for Paradise House, was an obsessive formula which became a daily habit. The white peacocks would do; and there were portraits in the Municipal Art Gallery which would do; as would the cedar trees at school. As the house spread, those in it grew more shadowy. Angel herself took over Madam's jewel-box and Madam's bed and husband. Only that other Angelica balked her imagination, a maddening obstacle, with her fair looks and all her dogs and horses. Again and again, as Angel wandered in the galleries and gardens, the vision of that girl, who had no place in her dreams, rose up and impeded her. The dream itself, which was no idle matter, but a severe strain on her powers of concentration, would dissolve. Then she would open her eyes and stare down at her hands, spreading her fingers, turning her wrists.
At other times she was menaced by intimations of the truth. Her heart would be alarmed, as if by a sudden roll of drums, and she would spring to her feet, beset by the reality of the room, her own face - not beautiful, she saw - in the looking-glass and the commonplace sounds in the shop below. She would know then that she was in her own setting and had no reason for ever finding herself elsewhere; know moreover that she was bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape. Her panic-stricken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled to deny her identity, slowly cosseting herself away from the truth. She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.
However, telling fantastic tales creates nothing but trouble. Embittered by the demand that she adhere to the British,middle-class mantra - to know one's place - Angel she vows revenge on her nay-sayers by becoming a published author. And Gilbright & Brace become her ticket to a wildly successful career as a writer.
Gilbright & Brace had been divided, as their readers' reports had been. Willie Brace had worn his guts thin with laughing, he said. The Lady Irania was his favourite party-piece and he mocked at his partner's defence of it in his own version of Angel's language.

"Kindly raise your coruscating beard from those iridescent pages of shimmering tosh and permit your mordant thoughts to dwell for one mordant moment on us perishing in the coruscating workhouse, which is where we shall without a doubt find ourselves, among the so-called denizens of deep-fraught penury. Ask yourself - nay, go so far as to enquire of yourself - how do we stand by such brilliant balderdash and live, nay, not only live, but exist to..."

"You overdo these'nays'," said Theo Gilbright. "She does not."

"There's a 'nay' on every page. M'wife counted them. She took the even pages, I the odd. We were to pay a shilling to the other for each of our pages where there wasn't one, and not a piece of silver changed hands from first to last."

"So Elspeth read it, too?"

"Read it? She devoured and gobbled every iridescent word."
There always has been a reading audience for ridiculous romance with little basis in truth. Look at 'reality TV.' The trouble is, while Gilbert & Brace are ready to milk a joke for all its worth, Angel fails to see any humor in either her writing or her success.

Angel is a brilliant study in self-deception. It is wickedly satiric, and a wonderful psychological study of someone who escapes from the pain of the world with fantasy so successfully that she sees no reason to ever leave her hiding place. On the flip-side, however, Angel is also what happens when education amounts to nothing more than learning the minimal skills necessary to make one's living, rather than opening up the student to the possibilities the world has to offer. The adults in Angel's world were all bashed down to size by their circumstances, so they think it practical to curtail their children's dreams to protect them from disappointment. People will always dream. Repression of those dreams is a pity, but complete indulgence is equally disastrous. Angel is what happens when those extremes are all that is offered.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Standing apart while the parade marches on... (Books - Today by David Miller)

David Miller's Today (another recommendation of John Self's) is set around the death of the author Joseph Conrad, but it is less about his death per se than about the inner life of those affected by it, most notably his younger son, John, and also his typist, Lilian. Although the novel is sharply focused on this one event and brief in its duration, Miller's writing has an old fashioned thoroughness.
Lilian Hallowes was an unhurried, fastidious woman in her mid-fifties who was used to doing what she had been told to do. For this reason amongst others, she was held in high regard. Few noticed her; she was shrouded from most of them by a shawl of gossip, which told all of them nothing. She was happy not to be known.
The novel also offers a contrasting modernist quality - mixing event with inner life in a seamless flow of narrative that evocative of Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room or To The Lighthouse. It was the quality of the novel I found most involving and satisfying.

John is the book's focus because he is changed most by JC's death. Everyone is touched in their way, but he is isolated in a spotlight, his thoughts become arias, and he is ennobled, somehow, moving from childhood to adulthood through his experience of this event.
After the dinner plates had been cleared, Curle said he was going up to see Jessie and Joan followed him upstairs, to check on the baby. Borys stood and walked from the table to the door that led to the small orchard. The sky was bruised with darkening blue, more rain on the way. He glanced behind him and John looked up.

'Jackilo,' he said, quietly, 'come outside with me.'

For the last time in his life John did as his brother told him and stood, following him...
Miller's all-knowing pronouncements match oddly, but effectively with a knack he has for capturing the incongruity of moments that one knows are life-changing as one is in them.
... The garden was fresh, lush, basking in the after-dawn. It smelled of green. He looked down the orchard to the yew hedge, closing the door behind him, his palm still on the handle the grass all fo a sudden shockingly there between his toes. In the garden he saw runner beans and their odd flowers beside them, like starfish dried in the sun, only thinner. My father is to be buried this afternoon.
John stood still by the kitchen table for a while, and then stood, mindlessly tidying the rest of their breakfast things for Audrey. When he opened the door to the store supboard to replace the butter, he looked inside and walked towards the shelves. He touched a jar and looked at the wooden shelf. There, in his father's hand, he saw a label stating Redcurrant Jelly, '22 and in that instant John felt his eyes begin to water again, an involuntary thing, and his whole body seemed as though it had been sliced, and shredded, cut down.
These passages have a very experiential, I would go as far as to say, autobiographical, feel to them. It is certainly John's point of view with whom Miller is most intimate and these are the segments of this novel that feel most real. Least fussed over. That being said, loss is a nearly universal experience and Miller's displays his talent in this ability to so aptly catch its current in a way that resonates. The entire action of the novel, if there is action to be had, could be summed up in this paragraph.
John was there in the world, and the world was continuing, the whole parade was going on: but he was not part of it - none of them were part of it. They all remained inept, in a bubble of respect.
If that doesn't describe mourning, I don't know what does.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The sinister lure of complacency (Books - All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills)

When I finished Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate last week, I just couldn't find fiction that would satisfy. I was more drawn to reading non-fiction, and did take a chunk out of Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe, a fascinating book on the emergent properties of complex systems, but before I go to sleep what I really like to read is fiction. I started both Solo by Rana Dasgupta and The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, but neither hit the spot. Then All Quiet on the Orient Express arrived in the mail. I had ordered it a few weeks back on the recommendation of John Self. Imagine, if you can, the hapless, deadpan quality of Buster Keaton in the guise of a modern-day, well not a slacker exactly, since our narrator can be quite industrious, but keenly passive young unattached male with motorcycle. A go-where-the-wind-blows kind of personality. Happy to eat baked beans from a can for every meal seven days per week. Happy to drink at the only pub in town. Happy with ale if it is on tap. Happy with lager if it's not. Then put him into one of Harold Pinter's plays, in which anything from a birthday party to reminiscences with old chums can take on threatening overtones, and you might begin to approximate the strange, delightfully entertaining world Magnus Mills conjures up in his 1999 novel. It all starts rather innocently.
He opened the palm of his hand and for the first time I noticed he was holding a wooden tent peg.
'This yours?' he asked.
'No,' I said. 'Mine are all metal ones.'
'Do you want it? You can have it as a spare if you like.'
'Is it nobody else's?'
'There's no one else left,' he said. 'They've all gone.'
I glanced around the field. 'Oh yes, you're right. Shame really.'
'One speck of rain and they all flee. Then the sun comes back and they miss it.'
'That's always the way, isn't it?'
'Almost always. Do you want this then?'
'OK,' I said, taking the peg. 'Thanks.'
'Would you like to pay some rent?'
'Oh yes. How much do I owe you?'
He adopted a businesslike smile. 'It's a pound a night.'
'That's six pounds so far then.'
'If you've been here six nights, yes.'
'Right.' I took a five-pound note from my back pocket and handed it over, and then began fishing for some coins.
'That's quite expensive really, isn't it?' he remarked. 'Just for you, your tent and your motorbike.'
'Seems alright to me,' I replied.
'I ought to be giving you a bit of discount if you're staying another week.'
'A pound a night's fine.' I said, giving him the balance.
'Alright then,' he said. 'That's grand.'
Now that the transaction was over I expected him to make his excuses and move on, but after he'd taken the money he replanted his feet and looked up at the sky.
'On holiday, are you?' he asked.
'Not really,' I said. 'Well, sort of.'
He smiled again. 'Which?'
'Well, I'm between things at the present. I've been working all summer to save some money so I can go East during the winter.'
'You mean the east coast?'
'Oh, no,' I said. 'Sorry. Abroad East. You know, Turkey, Persia, and then overland to India.'
"I see,' he said, nodding towards my bike. 'You'll be going on that, will you?'
'Probably not, actually,' I replied. 'There's a train you can catch a good part of the way.'
'Is there now? Well, that's handy, isn't it?'
'Yes, I suppose it is.'
He looked at my tent. 'So what brings you to this part of the country then?'
'Well,' I said. 'I've always fancied seeing the lakes, so I thought I'd have a couple of weeks here first.'
'And do you like it so far?'
'What I've seen, yeah.'
'That's good. You going out today?'
'Not sure what I'll be doing really.'
'We've noticed you go out most days.'
'Have you?'
'Yes, we don't miss much from our window.'
In a way I wanted to throttle our guileless narrator as his watchful host, Mr. Parker, engages him, first for one odd job, then for another, pulling him further and further from his Eastern excursion. It becomes evident, in fact, that Mr. Parker, though he says little and pays nothing, has plans for our narrator and that this is not the first visitor he has so engaged. Despite the mundanity of the dialogue and the action, I got a sinister sense that our man was being manipulated like a puppet, loosing what little will he had arrived with. This lends this brief novel its comedy and an unlikely narrative drive.

Our narrator observes the crowd in the local pub early in the book.
Both junior barmen appeared to be roughly the same age as me, and I felt an affinity with the pair of them. I was unable to tell, however, whether they were permanently attached to the Packhorse. They each seemed the type who would probably have been expected to do something 'better' than just work in a pub, and I liked to imagine they were only doing this until something else turned up. The idea of just staying here for every, and never moving on, seemed quite unthinkable.
But then isn't this just like so many lives? Should have done better, but end up doing a job just for one week, and then the next, and then the next, until one looks back thirty years later and asks - how did this become my life? I was always meant to do something better. In this way, Mr. Parker becomes Nick Shadow to our narrator's Tom Rakewell, only Tom is drawn not to the wild pleasures of London here, but ensnared by a quiet village where everyone knows everyone's business, and every one lives off credit from everyone else. I certainly enjoyed the comedy of All Quiet on the Orient Express but along with the uncomfortable laughter, there is a critique of complacency in Magnus Mill's wry observations, and I enjoyed that most of all.