Thursday, July 26, 2012

The passage of time and the creative art of biography (Books - The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst)

Taking place across a span of nearly 100 years, Alan Hollinghurst's recent The Stranger's Child (Alfred A. Knopf 2011) offers simultaneous accounts of how the passage of time has affected both English literary and gay cultures.  Its title, adopted from Tennyson's elegy  In Memoriam, concerns the short life of the poet Cecil Valance (a contemporary of Rupert Brooke's though a fictional creation of Hollinghurst's, and a thoroughly convincing one) and those who survive him.  But it is less about the life of Cecil Valance who is, after all, a second-rate poet who died in his 20s, than about what is made of the life of Cecil Valance.  Sometimes when a life is noticed as remarkable, people take possession of it.  Some wish to live vicariously, others romanticize, demonize, lionize, criticize. That life becomes a symbol whose role it is to fulfill the needs of its creators, but people, like complex works of art, are not so quickly summed up.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One great talent appreciates another

The great rhapsodist of the American theatre, Tennessee Williams, on the fragile yet directed talents of actress Sandy Dennis. 
There is a belief among some--primarily critics--that an actress willfully commits to the commission of a particular set of mannerisms and attitudes...
Check out the whole web site - it has one wonderful clip after another on the personalities and processes of great actors. 

Hat tip: Sheila.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What to do when the cake doesn't turn out the way you expect

A truly lovely tribute to Nora Ephron by Nathan Englander at Page-Turner with excellent thoughts on creative process.
And that to me is a good way to sum up what being a working artist is all about. It’s about being a person who makes real things in a real world. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing in and of the body (Books - Winter Journal by Paul Auster)

It is sad that in America the status of the artist generally has two opposite poles to choose from: one can either be a star or a person who hasn't grown up yet and gotten a real job.  This can make pursuing serious artistic work in the absence of the visible success that comes to few in any field a punishing choice.  One's profession is free of the satisfactions most lines of work confer - regular engagement and challenge in the field one was trained in, a respect for the value of what you do from others, and enough money to make a current living and plan a future one.  I admire American artists of any kind who are able to amass a significant body of work and Paul Auster is a writer who has done so.  At a level of high respect but shy of stardom, he has over his 64 years produced 16 novels, several volumes of poetry, nonfiction, screenplay, and memoir, and he has translated and edited French poetry, so I was excited to be offered an advance copy of his Winter Journal (Henry Holt and Company, to be released August 2012). Being someone who is continually fascinated by artists' creative processes, I looked forward to searching for clues to how he produces his work from the record of his life that he shares with us in this journal.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Two maverick souls struggle for closeness (Books - Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman)

Two maverick American souls travel to Africa 100 years apart.  Each faces an utterly unfamiliar culture and physical hardships that challenge them to change fundamentally or to perish.  In 1899, Jeremy an engineer, is charged with the construction of a bridge in British-held East Africa, employing a crew of Indian workers.  The work is plagued by two lions who have begun attacking humans.  Max is an ethnobotanist hired by a pharmaceutical company to track down a rare vine in Rawanda that could be the source of a valuable hypertension drug.  Her search is pressured by the advancing Congolese rebel army who threaten her with bodily harm, and the mission of her co-workers who study silverback gorillas.  The habitat of the gorillas, for whom Max develops an intense sympathy, will potentially be ravaged by commercial drug development.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Allowing the reader the unfamiliar feeling of having time (Books - A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor)

One of the early chapters of this book touches at some retrospective length on the way things began to change; how I moved from the fairly predictable company of fellow army-candidates into older circles which were simultaneously more worldly, more bohemian and more raffish: the remainder, more or less, of the Bright Young People, but ten years and twenty thousand double whiskies after their heyday, and looking extremely well on the regime. This new and captivating world seemed brilliant and rather wicked; I enjoyed being the youngest present, especially during the dissipated nocturnal ramblings in which every evening finished: ("Where's that rather noisy boy got to?  We may as well take him too").  I had reached a stage when one changes very fast: a single year contains a hundred avatars; and while these were flashing kaleidoscopically by, the idea of my unsuitability for peacetime soldiering had began to impinge.  More serious still, the acceptance of two poems and the publication of one of them - admittedly, only on foxhunting - had fired me with the idea of authorship.
But Patrick Leigh Fermor's self-study period as a writer fails to solidify as he had hoped.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Compelling biography of a monster (Books - The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of all Maladies is an impressive book in two ways.  It is a comprehensive history of cancer made plain for the lay-reader - what science and medicine have understood its mechanisms to be and how, as that understanding has changed, its treatment has changed.  It is also a book about one of the scourges of modern life - 1 in 3 people will likely develop a cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 4 will probably die of one.  It is a monster most of us fear and Mukherjee's achievement is having produced a book that keeps the reader wanting to turn the pages as one does when reading a mystery or a thriller.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Positive Deviant Alert

Two positive deviants attracted my attention lately:

Natalie Angier profiled physicist Dr. Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, a New Yorker who defied the odds for women in science thanks to the encouragement of the Nobel laureate and medical physicist Dr. Rosalyn Yalow.  She studied with Enrico Fermi at University of Chicago and then began her own research on carbon at MIT half a century ago.
Dr. Dresselhaus has also been a prominent advocate for women in physics and engineering, disciplines that are still short on high-ranking female faces and that were outright hostile to women when she began her career in the late 1950s. Even before entering science, she was well accustomed to hostility and hard times, having grown up impoverished in a rough part of the Bronx.


Our favorite design magazine The World of Interiors, an English publication, featured an essay in the latest issue by the blogger and author of the book Spitalfields Life. Check this excellent blog out.  It offers affectionate and energic appreciations of the history and contemporary culture of the hip and energetic Spitalfields neighborhood of London.  The author's mission:
Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you?  This is both my task and my delight.
Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months. Who knows what kind of life we shall be living in 2037 when I write my ten thousandth post?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

An imagined Henry James - portrait of a master by a master (Books - The Master by Colm Toibin)

Writers who cannot seem to tell the difference between fact and fiction have been the source of many a news story, but the lines between events as they occurred, as we remember them, and as we create them anew are far from clearly drawn.  The consolidation of a memory - a recursive neural process that solidifies events in our brain's long-term storage bins - changes the memory as it does so.  Each time that memory is retrieved and played on our mind's internal movie screen, it again undergoes metamorphosis.  Works of fiction based on real events and people (is there any other kind?) create a sense of viewing events through a series of transparent layers, each with its version of the happening.  Seeing one layer through the images of another creates an impressionistic dream-space where all truths are simultaneously visible, creating what some think of as stylized artifice, but I think it a very real depiction of memory.  In The Master Colm Toibin has created such a work out of the life of novelist Henry James.