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...

btt button

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.