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.