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.