Friday, November 30, 2007

Choice Morsel (Film - Delicatessen)

I had forgotten what a great film Delicatessen is. The Ragazzo got it from our version of netflicks (The NYPublic Library), as he had never seen it and I requested something in French. Written by Gilles Adrien (The City of Lost Children) and directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), it is set in a nameless post-apocalyptic city that looks a lot like Paris. We don't know what the apocalypse was, but what is left of society is pretty desperate in ways I won't get into so as not to spoil the fun. The film is full of the blackest macabre humor. The aesthetic is gorgeous trashy-artistique - think the lavish delightful imagination of Amelie meeting the mechanistic baroque vision of horror of Brazil (one of my top 10). The opening credits remind me some of the fascinating short films of the Quay Brothers, which I also cannot say enough about - chills and thrills, with an emphasis on the chills. The image from Street of Crocodiles, below, is one of their's. It is thoroughly imagined in gorgeously grizzly detail and if you haven't seen it, I recommend it highly.

Check out Dewey's Man Booker Challenge

Dewey is offering a Man Booker Challenge that includes not only the winners but short and long listers as well. I'm joining. The song Crazy is now playing through my head, as sung by Patsy Cline, but since Darkmans (I bought my copy in a good, old fashioned, bricks and mortar, non-chain bookstore just yesterday) and The God of Small Things were both already on my list, why not?

Here is the complete list of winners since 1969, courtesy of The Complete Booker, because I thought and see how many I had read already - and you? Red ones are, well, read, yellow ones I would like to read, and as for everything else, feh.

2007 - The Gathering (Enright)
2006 - The Inheritance of Loss (Desai)
2005 - The Sea (Banville)
2004 - The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 - Vernon God Little (Pierre)
2002 - Life of Pi (Martel)
2001 - True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)
2000 - The Blind Assassin (Atwood)
1999 - Disgrace (Coetzee)
1998 - Amsterdam: A Novel (McEwan)
1997 - The God of Small Things (Roy)
1996 - Last Orders (Swift)
1995 - The Ghost Road (Barker)
1994 - How Late It Was, How Late (Kelman)
1993 - Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Doyle)
1992 - The English Patient (Ondaatje)
1992 - Sacred Hunger (Unsworth)
1991 - The Famished Road (Okri)
1990 - Possession: A Romance (Byatt)
1989 - The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro)
1988 - Oscar and Lucinda (Carey)
1987 - Moon Tiger (Lively)
1986 - The Old Devils (Amis)
1985 - The Bone People (Hulme)
1984 - Hotel Du Lac (Brookner)
1983 - Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee)
1982 - Schindler's List (Keneally)
1981 - Midnight's Children (Rushdie) - I have tried, honestly!
1980 - Rites of Passage (Golding)
1979 - Offshore (Fitzgerald)
1978 - The Sea, the Sea (Murdoch)
1977 - Staying on (Scott)
1976 - Saville (Storey)
1975 - Heat and Dust (Jhabvala)
1974 - The Conservationist (Gordimer)
1973 - The Siege of Krishnapur (Farrell)
1972 - G. (Berger)
1971 - In a Free State (Naipaul)
1970 - The Elected Member (Rubens)
1969 - Something to Answer For (Newby)

And my choices for the challenge are:
The God of Small Things
Heat & Dust
The Gathering
The Line of Beauty
Inheritance of Loss
The Bone People
The Blind Assassin

(w/ a few extra, I'm sure to drop one or two)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

An Inflorescence, a flowering of poetry every Friday (Robert Hass - American contemplative)

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.

Robert Hass is an American poet born in 1941. He has published around five volumes of poetry and translated and edited many works as well by Czeslaw Milosz, Tomas Transtroemer, and some of the classical Japanese poets, whose work I feel Hass's resembles. It seems to move about in a little bit of everything until it lights on something that has the zing of the kind of insight you can get walking alone in nature or meditating. It find a kind of rhythm of the world like that you can come upon when engaged in simple tasks.

Here is a post about him which includes biographical information, and links to several more poems, and poets sharing their thoughts about their favorite poem of Robert Hass, including Dan Chiasson, whose poems I featured on An Inflorescence a few weeks back. And here's the poem he liked, one that feels to me like quintessential Hass.

Dragonflies Mating


The people who lived here before us
also loved these high mountain meadows on summer mornings.
They made their way up here in easy stages
when heat began to dry the valleys out,
following the berry harvest probably and the pine buds:
climbing and making camp and gathering,
then breaking camp and climbing and making camp and gathering.
A few miles a day. They sent out the children
to dig up bulbs of the mariposa lilies that they liked to roast
at night by the fire where they sat talking about how this year
was different from last year. Told stories,
knew where they were on earth from the names,
owl moon, bear moon, gooseberry moon.


Jaime de Angulo (1934) was talking to a Channel Island Indian
in a Santa Barbara bar. You tell me how your people said
the world was made. Well, the guy said, Coyote was on the mountain
and he had to pee. Wait a minute, Jaime said,
I was talking to a Pomo the other day and he said
Red Fox made the world. They say Red Fox, the guy shrugged,
we say Coyote. So, he had to pee
and he didn’t want to drown anybody, so he turned toward the place
where the ocean would be. Wait a minute, Jaime said,
if there were no people yet, how could he drown anybody?
The Channelle├▒o got a funny look on his face. You know,
he said, when I was a kid, I wondered about that,
and I asked my father. We were living up toward Santa Ynez.
He was sitting on a bench in the yard shaving down fence posts
with an ax, and I said, how come Coyote was worried about people
when he had to pee and there were no people? The guy laughed.
And my old man looked up at me with this funny smile
and said, You know, when I was a kid, I wondered about that.


Thinking about that story just now, early morning heat,
first day in the mountains, I remembered stories about sick Indians
and—in the same thought—standing on the free throw line.

St. Raphael’s parish, where the northern-most of the missions
had been, was founded as a hospital, was named for the angel
in the scriptures who healed the blind man with a fish

he laid across his eyes.—I wouldn’t mind being that age again,
hearing those stories, eyes turned upward toward the young nun
in her white, fresh-smelling, immaculately laundered robes.—

The Franciscan priests who brought their faith in God
across the Atlantic, brought with the baroque statues and metalwork crosses
and elaborately embroidered cloaks, influenza and syphilis and the coughing disease.

Which is why we settled an almost empty California.
There were drawings in the mission museum of the long, dark wards
full of small brown people, wasted, coughing into blankets,

the saintly Franciscan fathers moving patiently among them.
It would, Sister Marietta said, have broken your hearts to see it.
They meant so well, she said, and such a terrible thing

came here with their love. And I remembered how I hated it
after school—because I loved basketball practice more than anything
on earth—that I never knew if my mother was going to show up

well into one of those weeks of drinking she disappeared into,
and humiliate me in front of my classmates with her bright, confident eyes,
and slurred, though carefully pronounced words, and the appalling

impromptu sets of mismatched clothes she was given to
when she had the dim idea of making a good impression in that state.
Sometimes from the gym floor with its sweet, heady smell of varnish

I’d see her in the entryway looking for me, and I’d bounce
the ball two or three times, study the orange rim as if it were,
which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing

the power in my hands could summon. I’d bounce the ball
once more, feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.
It was a perfect thing; it was almost like killing her.


When we say “mother” in poems,
we usually mean some woman in her late twenties
or early thirties trying to raise a child.

We use this particular noun
to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view
and to hold her responsible.


If you’re afraid now?
Fear is a teacher.
Sometimes you thought that
Nothing could reach her,
Nothing can reach you.
Wouldn’t you rather
Sit by the river, sit
On the dead bank,
Deader than winter,
Where all the roots gape?


This morning in the early sun,
steam rising from the pond the color of smoky topaz,
a pair of delicate, copper-red, needle-fine insects
are mating in the unopened crown of a Shasta daisy
just outside your door. The green flowerheads look like wombs
or the upright, supplicant bulbs of a vegetal pre-erection.
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us.
That they mate and are done with mating.
They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood
and then go looking for it everywhere.
And so, I think, they can’t wound each other the way we do.
They don’t go through life dizzy or groggy with their hunger,
kill with it, smear it on everything, though it is perhaps also true
that nothing happens to them quite like what happens to us
when the blue-backed swallow dips swiftly toward the green pond
and the pond’s green-and-blue reflected swallow marries it a moment
in the reflected sky and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers
from every color the morning has risen into.

My insect instructors have stilled, they are probably stuck together
in some bliss and minute pulse of after-longing
evolution worked out to suck the last juice of the world
into the receiver body. They can’t separate probably
until it is done.

Read 'n Roll

btt button

Booking through Thursday this week asks:

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?

I don’t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that… Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors…

I might get on a roll about books I acquire inspired by the book I'm currently reading - put on my list something else by that author, or be attracted to something set in the same country or time period - but generally I do not enjoy reading something too related as my next book - particularly if it's a series. It took my about two years to read the Bartimaeus trilogy. I liked it, so I didn't want it to end that quickly. I find that if something has a particular tone, a particular style of language - say Virginia Woolf or E. M. Forster - I get that voice in my head. If the book is very strong I'm almost having internal monologues running through my head in that voice and then when I begin to read something else I'm often disappointed if it's not exactly the same. I've learned it generally won't be the same, so it might as well be different. With genre, I don't like to get on a roll, it's too boring. I don't want three mysteries in a row. One is fine, two can be ok, but that's the max. There too many things I have to do in life. I don't want my reading to make me feel obligated. I read to be interested and I read to be free. I like to mix things up while adding to the TBR pile. Then as I'm sitting in Victorian England in one book, I can gaze longingly at some fantasy novel on a distant planet, or a book about the Russian revolution and think - I wonder what happening in there! I think I'll go there next.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Magical realms (Books - Sabriel by Garth Nix)

I'm enjoying Garth Nix's Sabriel. I have read many of his The Keys to the Kingdom books for somewhat younger readers and enjoyed them very much. It's that typical YA story: youngster who is a little downtrodden, less than popular, or less than capable, discovers or is thrust into some imaginary universe where he or she becomes a hero. Nix's fantasy realm is the work of a prodigious imagination, and they are lightening-quick reads.

is for a slightly older reader. In it, the daughter of a famous necromancer - a person possessed of powers and or talents that allow them to walk between the realms of the living and the dead - finds upon her graduation from boarding school that her father has been taken by a dark force to the death realm and she decides to pursue him. Two things I'm liking about it are - that it deals with death, not in gory detail, but as a concept. It really spends some time pondering it as any inquiring mind does, and that includes teenage minds. Our culture really shies away from death and often wants to protect children from contemplating that it even exists. But teenagers certainly have figured that out, even though many of them imagine they will live forever. We traffic with what life means in part by creating some sort of relationship to death. So an imaginary work that walks around in that territory is, I think, a useful one and not just for a teenage reader. Secondly, the magical rituals and implements of the necromancer, and the design of the "other" world are imagined in rich detail. There is a combination of classic mythic elements - a river runs through the death realm, gates mark off successive levels - but they have a fresh rather than a cliched feel in the way Nix writes about them. The necromancer studies a particular text and makes use of a meditation-like state, symbols that are both drawn and focused upon while in meditation, swords, and a series of bells each with a different power.

I always need fantasy around the final weeks of the semester. I suppose one about walking among the threatening shadows with magical powers to protect one from evil is something out of which Dr. Freud could get a lot of mileage.


I just wanted to let you know that I had not forgotten my promise to post some observations derived from the reading survey, but first I have to do the analyses for my paper for class and hand it in. We're in the home stretch leading up to the end of the semester so things are a little busy around here. I'll do my best to post it soon.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The roots of communication are the roots of esthetics

Natalie Angier muses today in the Science Times about art - from whence it came and why. Is it the product of oversized brains that have too little to do? Some theorists have deemed art a way of preening. Having worked in the field for twenty-odd years, I can certainly see the connection. It starts with putting pictures up on the refrigerator and tales of great divas let us know where it can end up. Others see art as a social glue - like religion. Ellen Dissanayake, a scholar of evolution and art, believes that, given the amount of time and resources art consumer, it must be an evolutionary adaptation. Unfortunately this article skims along the surface of the subject without really getting into it. Does that mean if one person makes art then it uses a lot of their time or does that mean that it uses a lot of an entire society's time? Is that statement supportable? By resources does she mean material resources or cognitive ones? She also asserts :
Art also gives us pleasure...and activities that feel good tend to be those that evolution deems too important to leave to chance.
Stated this way, it seems spurious to me. Ice cream gives us pleasure, we are not evolutionarily adapted to it. We are adapted to consume calories where we can get them, a by-product supposedly left over from when we were roaming the earth more dependent on the whims of nature than on Safeway. This would point more to art being a by-product of our evolutionary attraction to bold colors and sounds, or to pattern recognition. Additionally, art is not necessarily just pleasurable - it is sometimes more deeply involving, intellectually stimulating, a complex synthesis, a way to represent things that are meaningful to us, a way to commemorate death, a way to leave a mark. However it may be all these things because it is the essence of what is engaging and attractive to us and that is exactly why Ms. Dissanayake has begun studying the communing rituals between mother and infant for signs that they might evolve to become the building blocks of choreography or music. It's an interesting notion that Ms. Dissanayake's book Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began no doubt gets into it in more detail. It is interesting to ponder that we might be hardwired to be engaged and attracted by themes and variations on sound and movement and that that is the origin of our finding a textile design or a church spire esthetically pleasing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Revolution, personal and social (Film - Sunday Bloody Sunday & Angels in America)

This weekend we watched John Schlesinger's 1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday and Mike Nichols made for television version of Tony Kushner's Angel's in America, two films about living in a time of changing social mores, each as distinct in its subject matter and techniques as are the times they describe.

Although I lived through most of the 60s and all of the 70s, this was the first time I had seen Sunday Bloody Sunday. I have seen Glenda Jackson act many times (including on stage in a brilliant production of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude) and she seems the perfect choice for Schlesinger's subtle, verit├ę peep through the keyhole as staid, middle-class England, barely recovered from the hardship of their post-World War II deprivation, began twisting and shouting with John, Paul, George and Ringo, away from their nice cup of tea by the electric fire and toward a world that embraced marijuana, rock 'n roll, and free love. In this film, set to a soundtrack of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, another piece about saying goodbye to an old way of loving, a Jewish doctor, played by Peter Finch, and a middle class employment counselor (Glenda Jackson) both fall in love with an artist, and he with them (separately). We watch her walk the line between an old way of living, with a traditional marriage, Sunday dinner with Yorkshire pudding and strawberries with cream, and life in which you can possess no one. Yet Jackson's character cannot completely tow that line, she wants him all for herself. Peter Finch's character is gay in a society that criminalized homosexuality. He moves between worlds where he is closeted - his medical practice, his family - and those in which he lives openly: with some of his friends. He tries, in this changing society, to find happiness in love, if not complete openness. The film's visual language and its script are as down-to-earth realistic as you can get - no acting here - very much counter to the theatrical tradition that you can see on British stages and in British film, you seem to witness real life. Contrastingly, at the end, Finch has a direct address soliloquy to the film audience, breaking the mold of cinematic form just as the society Schlesinger is describing is trying to break free of its form.

Tony Kushner's epic play in two parts, Angels in America, rocked my world when I saw the original production on Broadway. Mike Nichols' film made for HBO a couple of years ago has quite a cast - Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, and Ben Schenkman are all magnificent. In some ways this piece is really made for the live theater. It's poetic language is like an operatic aria, it's fantasy works better with rolling platforms and when you can see the wires on which the angel flies in. It's virtuosic flights of fancy - bringing together Roy Cohn (the lawyer) with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (whom he helped condemn to death for treason), she sings him a lullaby in Yiddish as he dies of AIDS - have a, well... theatricality about them. They're loud, un-real, or really anti-real, deliciously so, and the million dollar crane shots of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park and the trip to the Antarctica in Harper's mind (Harper is the valium-popping wife of a mormon, Republican lawyer who figures out he is gay - you see what I mean?) well those shots seem wrong. Unlike Sunday Bloody Sunday, this film does not try to be verite, the shots are more rhapsodic. But its cinematic story telling is fairly conventional and somehow in trying to show what these fantasies "really look like," they end up looking silly. This might have been a very different film if someone like Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep) had directed it. But most of the acting is so wonderful I found myself moved and captivated by this visionary work all over again, especially in Part II where the film seemed to find its footing. Or maybe I just got used to it.

Angels in America, like Sunday Bloody Sunday, is looking at a world where the old stories about life and love aren't holding up any more. Roy Cohn cannot live the lie of being straight with Kaposi's sarcoma lesions all over him. Joe Pitt, the Republic mormon lawyer cannot come out to himself, but his wife knows he does not love her. Her loneliness turns into anxiety about the ozone layer and finally to psychosis. Joe comes out to his mother in a moment of desperation on a pay phone and she comes to New York a world completely alien to her life as a mormon in Utah. But the beautiful thing about this work is that no one is who you think they will be. Republicans are not all straight, mormon moms are not gay-hating religious fanatics unable to survive in the big city, drag queens are nurses AND can hold a serious political conversation, sick men with AIDS can be prophets, the fearful can be courageous, and the dying can come back to life. If you have an expectation about how life is supposed to turn out, prepare for it to be broken, and beautifully. Because is you have to be traumatized, it might as well be gorgeous.

This film too ends with the central characters breaking the "fourth wall" and speaking to their contemporary audience, here it is a little less startling because a theatrical language has been established, but it is still unusual for film. These thematically similar but stylistically diverse films both use this technique because they were trying to help their own day's audience see a social revolution they were a part of. It was moving to observe how, no matter what that particular time looked like, the way humans experience change doesn't change. A society may plan a revolution, or one may erupt, but in each person an evolution must occur in its own fashion, usually with some pain and some blood. Even though it was unintentional, I found it fascinating to watch these two films side by side - one slice-of-life, the other high fantasy. They both tell us that world has not yet arrived. It will continue to change. Continue to surprise us.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I won't be suckered into reading

I tried some more of Eoin Colfer's franchise, Artemis Fowl, last night and it is not for me. One thing that doesn't work is that it takes us for granted. It doesn't put us specifically somewhere with someone to tell a story, it starts joking with us first and assumes, because it's so damn hilarious that a genius gangster could be twelve, that we'll be along for the ride. It tries to sucker me in like television instead of letting me know why I should care. This twee, cheerleader-ish voice assumes I'm going to read because it's cute and clever. I'm not.

I started Garth Nix's Sabriel and was gently drawn gently into the vortex of its world - even though I felt burned by the last fantasy. There were two characters I really knew something about, by being shown as well as told and, twenty pages earlier than in Artemis Fowl, I wanted to know what would happen.

Friday, November 23, 2007

YA fantasy was all this tryptophan-logged brain could take

If you cooked yesterday, or celebrated, or somehow managed to do both (I commend you) I hope it was a good gathering. We had a very small gathering this year chez bw, but it meant the cooks could actually relax and enjoy it. The organic turkey was stuffed with fresh lemons and onions and turned out perfectly (we don't eat the lemons etc, they just flavor the meat), our now traditional salad - mixed greens, dolce gorgonzola, fresh pears, and olives - started us off, the brussel sprouts were roasted with a little olive oil and herbes de Provence, the Ragazzo made smashed potatoes and a perfect sherry gravy, I did a green apple, onion and celery stuffing, and a tart greek yogurt with mashed raspberries topping for the pumpkin pie (I can't take cloying sweet without something to counter it), and it was well lubricated with a fruity but dry Austrian white by Weininger - gruner veltliner, riesling, and sauvignon blanc blend - yum!

After lugging our carcasses around the hilly streets of our NYC neighborhood for forty minutes to circulate the blood enough to push some of the butter through our arteries, we threw the other carcass in a pot with a bunch of veggies a made the stock, which will become our Saturday dinner with friends.

I started Artemis Fowl last night, wanting some comforting YA fantasy. I have to say, so far its tongue is so firmly planted in cheek that I'm finding it cutsie. It moves very fast, so I'm going to give it another fifty pages. Today it's lots of homework and homemade turkey salad with fresh parsley, celery, mayo and lemon juice for lunch.

An Inflorescence , a flowering of poetry every Friday (Michael Ryan, voice of American memory)

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.

Houghton Mifflin was kind enough to send me a copy of Michael Ryan's New and Selected Poems. I was not familiar with Ryan, a contemporary American poet born in 1946 in St. Louis, and who now lives and teaches in California. Author of several volumes of poems and of memoir, his style is masculine, taut, and feels very mid-western to me - uneffusive. The poems have an easy-speaking diction but a rhythmic formality, they lie in neat columns on the page. Often they are narrative in substance with an impact like an American black and white art photographer - say, Robert Frank. (I just looked him up, although I know Frank's photographs well, he was born in Switzerland and lives in Nova Scotia, but his book The Americans is so quintessentially 1950s America. And he collaborated with Jack Kerouac and the beat poets, so he qualifies). I'll accompany some of Michael Ryan's poems with Frank's photographs, why not? The photo directly below, however, is a portrait of Ryan and not by Frank. If the length of some of the lines ends up overlapping the side bar, just open this post in my reader by clicking on the icon at the bottom of my side bar and you will be able to read the whole thing.

I think The Past a remarkable poem - direct, the images so precise - whether it does or not it feels like it stems from direct experience. The past is a character - in a coat - even on this steamy day. Yet it is also a storm blowing through the house, and the narrator was one of those children and sees his child self, but is also a grown up man now and whispers into his father's ear knowing now what he could not have known then. Or maybe you see something else, but it does its work so efficiently, its few words are very evocative.

Tourists on Paros

If I die or something happens to us
and a stray breeze the length of the house
takes you alone back to that June on Paros
when we wrote every morning in a whitewashed room
then lay naked in the sun all afternoon
and came back at dusk famished for each other
and talked away the night in a taverna by the water -
I hope the memory gives you nothing but pleasure.

But if you also suddenly feel the loss
snap open beneath like a well covered with grass,
remember our stumbling in T-shirts and shorts
onto that funeral party in the cafe at breakfast:
not the widow, barely sixteen, in harsh wool cloth,
nor the grief that filled the air and seemed boundless.

but the brawny, red-haired Orthodox priest
whose shaggy orange beard over his black-smocked chest
was like an explosion from a dark doorway
of a wild, high-pitched laugh.

The Past

It shows up one summer in a greatcoat,
storms through the house confiscating,
says it must be paid and quickly,
says it must take everything.

Your children stare into their cornflakes,
your wife whispers only once to stop it,
because she loves you and she sees it
darken the room suddenly like a stain.

What did you do to deserve it,
ruining breakfast on a balmy day?
Kiss your loved ones. Night is coming.
There was no life without it anyway.

Gangster Dreams

Who made gangster dreams?
The old moss on the brain.
Who calls to you upstairs?
One in winter without a fire.
Who won't listen to you talk?
I won't listen. You can't talk.
What's that face in the bedroom mirror?
That's the gangster. He's the gangster.

What's trapped beneath the cellar?
That's the gangster underwater.
Where's the house wrapped in fire?
No one's house, with no one there.
What slim victim cries for air?
That's the gangster. He's the gangsterr.
Who made gangster dreams?
The old moss on the brain.

An Old Book in Florence
Ancient Art and Ritual by Jane Ellen Harrison, London, 1913

It smells like water from a rusty pump
I drank as a child on my grandmother's farm
in Bellflower, Missouri - this old book
from a British subscription library in Italy.
The water it absorbed from basement air
minute by minute, year after year,
browned the edges of the pages
and fades toward their centers to a faint rust color;
specks of darker rust blot words and letters;
and, on the insides of both covers,
squiggles the shade of dried blood
have made a kind of topographical map
that shows only rivers.
A modern scanning x-ray machine
might have seen a splinter of flame
like a votive candle in the underground stacks,
and the book salvaged with sponges
and tweezers and chemicals.
But no technology can save it now:
the touch of its paper is the skin of hands
dried out by work and crosshatched with veins.

The life it had was in people's hands.
Someone's earnest marginalia
by someone almost erased -
fragments of a dead man's opinion
in a book that's almost dust -
buy they must have been alive in him
when he returned the book
to the British Institute and stepped
out onto a gray stone street in Florence
bordered by a wall where you can rest your elbows
and watch the river change with the light
like a heavy shot silk. Here's
one passage in the book he marked:
"It's what the tribe feels that is sacred.
One may make by himself excited movements,
he may leap for joy, for fear;
but unless these movements are made by the tribe
together, they will not become rhythmical;
they will probably lack intensity
and certainly permanence."
To this he shouted "No!" in the margin,
addressing the author, Jane Ellen Harrison:
"Madame, you are an islander as I am."

In our family, my grandmother was famed
for gentle toughness that yielded to no one.
In 1913, a teenage bride on an Ozark dirt farm -
did her life already somehow contain
the deaths of her husband and son,
my father, who had just been born?
I had heard the phrase "gentle toughness" spoken
by grownups when she left the table after holiday meals,
and spoken by my parents in the dashboard-lit
front seat during the long car rides back to St. Louis,
and I understood what they mean by it,
but to me, "gentle toughness" was the way her hands felt
when she passed me the dented tin cup
to hold under the spout while she pumped,
saying "Look for bugs before you drink!"
before she'd rough my cheek and tell me
I was her special one. Often as not,
there would be a fat red beetle
floating in the cup, which she'd pinch out
and hold right up to my nose -
its six tiny thorny legs still trying to swim in air -
and say, "That's never going to hurt you"
and flick it away like a speck of lint.
Then she'd tell me I could drink, and that's when
I'd tip the cup and smell the water
and see the silver bottom battered into craters
and drinking was being face to face with the moon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Changing minds - seismics shifts in thinking due to deviant minds (Books - The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson)

I've finished Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map. This post as well as this, this, and this one constitute my thoughts about it. While the putative subject of this excellent book is the London cholera epidemic of 1854, it is actually about something far less specialized and more far reaching - changing minds. Johnson tells us of the slow but seismic shift from the theory that diseases were caused by foul air to germ theory in general and, in the case of cholera, the notion that those germs infected our drinking water via its contamination by waste water.

The narrative relates this in a series of stages that move from - the original miasma theory, the counter-theory of waterborne infection, the logic or wisdom that supported the miasma theory, what made it compelling and why people held onto it for so long. Then, rather than any sort of eureka moment of discovery - such a popular way of characterizing scientific discovery - the eventual change, due to the dogged persistence of one man, Dr. John Snow, and his eventual winning over Henry Whitehead, the clergyman of the neighborhood most impacted by the outbreak.

The press and Board of Health were staunch defenders of the miasma theory but Johnson observes:
So often what is lacking in many of these explanations and prescriptions is some measure of humility, some sense that the theory being put forward is still unproven. It's not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it's the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. An investigator looking for holes in the theory could find them everywhere, even in the writings of the miasmatists themselves. The canary in the miasma coal mine should have been the sewer-hunters, who spent their waking hours exposed to the most noxious - sometimes even explosive - air imaginable. And yet, bizarrely, the canary seemed to be doing just fine...

As Snow observed many times in his writings during the period, there were countless cases of groups sharing the exact same living environment, breathing the exact same air, who seemed to have entirely opposing responses to the allegedly poisonous vapors. If the miasma was truly killing off Londoners, it seemed to choose its victims in an entirely arbitrary fashion...

Miasma had the support of the Chairman of the Board of health, Florence Nightingale - the nursing revolutionary, Charles Dickens, Engels - leading maverick minds of the day. It was an entrenched understanding that the noxious fumes produced when organic matter decomposed cause disease:
those telltale molecules - hydrogen sulfide, cadavrine - were clues pointing to a threat...methane and putrescine and cadavrine were the smoke. Microbes are the fire...

The committee begins with the assertion that cholera is transmitted via the atmosphere. When it discovers evidence that contradicts this initial assertion - a clear case that cholera has been transmitted by water - the counter-evidence is invoked as further proof of the original assertion: atmosphere must be so poisoned that it has infected the water as well. Psychologists call this type of faulty reasoning "confirmation bias":the tendency to force new information to fit one's preconceptions about the world.
John's Snows tireless interviews of residents lead a list of the address of each cholera victim and where they got their drinking water. He illustrated the connection by creating a map which won over Whitehead. Whitehead's insider-status and knowledge of the neighborhood residents lead to the discovery of the index case - the original case to which the infection can be traced. These two contributions together helped tip the balance and also pioneered our modern approach to epidemiology. But it took years longer for the general public to be swayed and John Snow died with little recognition for his work and without seeing that shift happen.

Johnson concludes the book by connecting this slow but important change in thinking to his favorite subject - the nature of cities and other networks. I think the value of this book in in this story of how a network of minds possessing an idea creates a different force than the possession of that idea by any one individual. Consequently, the force needed to change it is different too. It is tempting to ridicule those who held on to the false miasma based theory of infection given our knowledge today. Even the eventual discovery of the cholera bacteria could not convince Edwin Chadwick, one of the leading Victorian physicians. However, no age is free from popular ideas supported only with arrogance, circular reasoning, and cemented in place by confirmation bias.

I'll connect this story to two of my own favorite concepts: 1- the idea that what you see is not necessarily what you get - it is more true to say that "seeing is believing." Our sense of sight is thought of as a great window on objective truth but in actuality, perception is strongly guided by our knowledge so it is not surprising to me how difficult it is to see a "new truth," if the old one not only guides our thinking but how we take in information with our senses as well. I post in depth on that notion here. Favorite idea #2 - It is the function of what Atul Gawande terms positive deviants (people who are in some way different from the norm in a useful way) to see through the miasma of faulty reasoning and to persist in telling us how we may look at old things anew and see clearly, see my post on Gawande's book and that notion here. In other words, the world does not benefit from everyone being alike. Many people are most comfortable when they are in the company of like minds and like beliefs, but eternally doing nothing but confirming what we already know makes us less able to see challenging truths, even when they are true, and less able to change. It is a sure recipe for halting our individual or societal progress - that is why Johnson's book is valuable. It is not a book about cholera, it is a book about ideas - hanging on to them, changing them, and letting them go when they are found to longer be useful or true. It is a human tendency to think in shortcuts and rest comfortably on common wisdom. Sometimes a deviant thinker has to jolt us out of our stasis into a new awareness. Dr. John Snow's ability to see a new pattern in the face of ridicule has since saved millions of lives. Positive deviants may be our world's most useful assets.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The "uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures"

Today's Science Times has an interesting piece by Benedict Carey on denial, and no it's not just a river.

For Freud, denial was a defense against external realities that threaten the ego, and many psychologists today would argue that it can be a protective defense in the face of unbearable news, like a cancer diagnosis.

In the modern vernacular, to say someone is "in denial" is to deliver a savage combination punch: one shot to the belly for the cheating or drinking or bad behavior, and another slap to the head for the cowardly self-deception of pretending it's not a problem.

Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships...And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for the most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.

Michael McCullough has written what sounds like a fascinating book - The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, discussed in the article. Much of the research written about in the article looks at the balance between unreal idealization and the necessary social guides of tact and taboo - unhealthy lies or greasing the wheel?

Music and the Brain

Michiko Kakutani reviews Oliver Sacks new book Musicophilia in the NY Times today, which is high on my list for a read over Christmas break.

Dr. Sacks underscores the resilience of the human mind, the capacity of some people to find art in afflictions, and to adapt to loss and depreviation.

Sacks writes on the relationship of Williams syndrome and music, of music's ability to aid memory, and of the way music therapies can help those with aphasia and Parkinson's disease. Although critics feel that Sacks' essays are more dramatizations than case studies, I have always felt that his knowledge as a neurologist could be shared with so wide a public because he was a humanist first.

Research Update

Thank you. You are all tremendous!! I had so many people respond - nearly 100 in the past 36 hours - that I have closed the survey for now. There is a chance I will need to add some data and re-open, but what is more likely is that I will analyze the data now for two things: some of the trends that your responses suggest, and the quality of the questions I've devised. At some point I may revise my questions and re-open it. This analysis may take me a little while. But I will give you a report as soon as I am able.

What a generous and spirited community I have found in bloggers and blog readers- thank you!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The comfort of a good autumn spook (Books - The Owl Service)

I finished reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner over the weekend. A spooky-cozy read - a fantasy book that's part mythical and part domestic. It has an odd voice. It's the Slaves of Golconda read this month, so I'll refrain from writing any more about it now until that conversation begins.


Twenty participants completed the survey yesterday and this morning - thank you!!
That is about 1/3 of the minimum number I'm hoping for, so keep on coming in. It only takes about 6-10 minutes (I sound like a public radio pledge drive).

The women are winning 2:1 (just kidding) that is, twice as many men have responded as women - I don't know if that is a reflection of my readership or the fact that women are more generous (or that they're used to silly surveys from the magazines in dentist's offices). Also Canada is responding in disproportionate numbers - what's with that?! So if these numbers make you feel under-represented, now is the time to make your voice heard.

Thank you to everyone who has responded so far. I appreciate it.

Here is another link to save you scrolling down to yesterday's post:

Click Here to take survey

Sunday, November 18, 2007



As many of you know, I am a graduate student in cognitive neuroscience. I am beginning to conduct some informal research on the experience of reading fiction. I am collecting responses at Survey Monkey - a site that helps one conduct on-line surveys. If you are visiting my blog I wouldn't be surprised if you were interested in books and reading yourself. It would be so helpful if you would be willing to click the link below and participate! It should take about 6-10 minutes. There is no identifying information collected with these responses - I am collecting no identifying information and have disabled anything that lets one trace email addresses or IP addresses - so your answers are completely anonymous. I hope to share some of the fruits of your labors and my analyses here at my blog, which should be fun for all you book fiends. Finally, no organization or corporation public or private is sponsoring this survey.

I am looking for at least 60 participants, although I wouldn't mind more! So feel free to direct friends and family here to click the link below, or share this url with them:

Participants do not have to be avid readers, they can be occasional or even unenthusiastic readers - I would like as broadly representative a sample as I can find.

Click Here to take survey

Thank you!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Reading Research - Help Me out!

I'm doing some research on the experience of reading for a class. I've discovered there are services on the web that allow one to design surveys and collect the answers anonymously. I will be posting a link to that survey in a couple of days and I hope all you fabulous readers will give me the 5-8 minutes it will take to respond. I'll not tell you what the exact subject is now so you are not biased, but I will post any interesting results here for those of you who are interested in what I learn.

Apropos of reading...this meme has, like that nasty upper respiratory infection, been going around. I caught it from Danielle at A Work in Progress.

1. Do you remember learning to read? How old were you? I know I learned to read before I went to school. I remember being read to - particularly "I am a bunny, my name is Nicholas, and I live in a hollow tree" and also Lyle, Lyle Crocodile. I do remember a slip of paper sitting on my mother's night table on which she had written my name and I was trying to practice it. I don't remember any 'aha' moment of connecting letters to sounds. However, I very clearly remember Suzanne in first or second grade impressing everyone by writing script when we were all still printing. Some of us were very jealous and demanded that she teach us, so a little group was set up and Suzanne taught us these lovely little curly-cues which turned out not to be script letters at all - just scribbles. Suzanne was just pretending to write script and then couldn't admit it, so she taught us all a fake alphabet. I, for one, felt terribly cheated. I still blame her for my hatred of handwriting and my horrible penmanship.

2. What do you find most challenging to read? Non fiction for which I have no context. For example, my neurophysiology textbook at the beginning of this semester. Polemics - anyone's. Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre.

3. What are your library habits? I reserve books and DVDs and pick them up when I get an email telling me they're ready. I only occasionally drop into the library to browse as I did when I was a kid. I use the library to borrow books I know I will not want to keep. I also sometimes preview books at the library but end up buying them anyway because I simply love to possess the books I've read.

4. Have your library habits changed since you were younger? I used to live very close to the library and go there at least once or twice a week. I would borrow armloads of books. I remember going to the school library several times a week as well and waiting for the latest Newberry Award winner or something a friend had gotten his hands on first. I remember first encountering From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Watership Down, The Headless Cupid, and The Egypt Game from the school library. I remember going through an Agatha Christie phase when I was about 12 and taking out 7 or 8 books which my parents told me was too many. To prove them wrong, I read them all in a week, so I could return the entire stack.

5. How has blogging changed your reading life? I'm not sure that I read any more than I used to, but I read more widely, with all the great recommendations from other bloggers and visitors. I also read knowing I'm going to probably write something, which gives me a certain added attentiveness.

6. What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand book stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other? I do buy books from new book stores but almost never from the chain stores, although I'm happy to browse there on occasion. If I do buy from a new book store, it's from an independent store with character - a small stock that is driven by a point of view and a staff who actually read. Or it's because I'm visiting some town on a trip and I pay a visit to their local bookstore. The Waterstone's in Amsterdam regularly gets my business when I'm there, because they have a lot of stuff that is released in Britain before it is released in the U.S. I haven't done the online exchange sites. I do frequent second hand bookstores a lot. As much as I can. I love them. Any new place I visit, I track one down. I know pretty much every one in NYC and pay them a visit whenever I'm in the neighborhood. And I use online bookstores a ton, particularly Alibris, ABE and Books-a-million.

7. How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book? Sometimes I'm reading something trashy just for diversion - some mystery or thriller and, even if it's good, there's nothing to say. I'll just stick it on the books read list and move on. Sometimes I'll not finish something and also have nothing to say. That's my only reason for not writing about it. I don't have any qualms writing negative things if that's the way I've reacted. Mostly I only finish books I like and then I want to write about them.

8. What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books? If they don't ban them and they don't burn them, and they don't ruin the ending for me, I don't much care what other people do with their books. They can bake one into a chocolate brownie for all I care.

9. Do you ever read for pleasure at work? Sometimes I'm running someone at the lab in an experiment and there's nothing much for me to do - I'm in a little sound-attenuated booth and some kid is pushing buttons with a bunch of electrodes on their head and I'll pull out a copy of something from my bag. But mostly I don't like reading for such short periods of time - that's not pleasurable for me and I usually have something due for a class and have an article or textbook in my bag rather than the book I'm reading for fun, which is probably waiting by my bed. Sometimes though, in periods of high stress with lots and lots of school work, (like now) I will carry a fun read around with me and take a break on my subway or bus ride.

10. When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them? I frequently give books as gifts unless I know someone doesn't like to read. They are one of the objects I value most and I think a good gift is an expression of the giver, not just a favor to the recipient. I give books that I have read and liked. Of course I would like it to be a fit for the recipient but trying to guess the taste of someone else can make you a skittish gift buyer. The gift is in the giving, if I value it and have been thoughtful then it's a good gift, even if it's not a favorite read. Sometimes I'll give a book I have liked that I suspect the recipient would never buy for themselves. Or I might give a book I've read some reviews of and would like to read but don't have the time. Or a book that sounds fascinating but I don't like reading that genre and so would end up not reading it. Sometimes too I'll just come across a book that I know for sure a friend would like. I bought my friend Pam a book a couple of months ago that had her name all over it. In a used bookstore several years ago, I came across a volume of Abigail and John Adams' Letters and bought it for Sheila, not knowing she practically knew them by heart.

If you've read this and you have a blog, you're it - don't shirk.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Last Seen Leaving my bookshelf....Owls for autumn

I tried to give Last Seen Leaving by Kelly Braffet the old college try as Houghton Mifflin very kindly sent it to me, but it was not my cup of tea. It had a tantalizing prologue but as the body of the novel started, the characters failed to grip me. Part of that was the mileu - a new age bookstore - despite what seemed like a comic take, I checked out. Also, aside from the central character, everyone else seemed a cliche - much like the casting of those big romance blockbuster movies like Sleepless in You've Got Mail. You know, there's Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan or whomever valiantly doing their decent thing... and then there's everybody else - the spinstery store keeper-type, the gay friend-type. I hate second-rate on purpose. But back to the book, there was a present-tense narrator delivering exposition in a voice I found so self-conscious, I kept wondering if I would find out this part of the book was actually a police report or a lawyer's brief. A scene in a central character's kitchen in the early part of the book is interrupted by this reportorial voice with the name of the town in which she was born , her parents' names, and their causes of death. It felt so clinical and out-of-place and if that had a point, I couldn't tell what it was. Finally, the whole connection with the "other worldly" element of this book - the central character's trying to connect with her supposedly dead husband or out-of-touch daughter, her sandalwood oil, her meditation - the rendering of it was hackneyed. Sounding more like yoga journal than a novel "trying to empty her mind of all thought...She almost never go it right." I'm being kind of hard on this book, but after 50 pages I knew it wasn't my thing. Chalk it up to my taste, the story might have been great if I had stuck with it a while longer but there are too many books to read between papers on neurotransmitters so it has been preempted by The Owl Service, which I noticed Slaves of Golconda is reading this month. I'm not a member but I'll be reading it in admirable company and it's just the thing for the swirling leaves, cold melancholy days, and ginger tea.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Imagination - the counter factual existing within the factual (Books - The Rational Imagination by Ruth Byrne)

Ruth Byrne heads the psychology program at Trinity College, Dublin. Her book, The Rationale Imagination, explores the mechanisms behind people's excursions into the realm of what she terms the counterfactual. Her thesis is that even though people depart from what is truly happening in the present, the realm of the imagination is not irrational. It follows rules that closely resemble rational thought. The propositions "if only..." or "even if..." discover:

"joints" in reality, junctures that attract everyone's attention. There are point at which reality is "slippable."

These openings permit a person to mentally change reality and explore what would happen or would have happened if something had altered an action one performed - verbs are often the lynchpin - if only I had (or had not) done...something - stopped for a drink, left earlier, not left the window open. These departures allow one to mentally explore cause and effect. An awareness of what Byrne calls "fault lines in reality" permit one to mentally rehearse alternatives. Potentially this provides a way to learn - it's like replaying part of a chess game and saying, what would have happened if I had not taken her knight - then what might have followed? However, pining away for lost love, nostalgia, and other regrets are the same mechanism gone slightly south - they generally do not provide an opportunity to learn and revise, and as such have no use. Actually I suppose sometimes they offer comfort, but they can also be very destructive.

Byrne describes this possible role for counterfactual thought as an ordinary and effortless one, which got me thinking about actors - who are constantly responding to the proposal "what if..." except they exert effort in doing so. It is practically the same action except often the actor doesn't personally need to do so. Then their excursion into the propositional realm becomes tinged with ambition - which is often what makes it difficult (to do and to watch). The "technique" of acting is often some ritual, trick, means of either getting that ambition out of the way or, at best, discovering the personal need that turns effortful action into natural effortless departure from the facts.

I am only a few chapters in so far, but I already see myself taking issue with one element of Byrne's thorough and cogent book - must it be a complete departure? Is it all or nothing? I too think we make these alternatives but I think we do it while interacting with the facts of reality, using those facts - each realm influencing the other. I think in a certain way we deal with the "counterfactual" very frequently but don't necessarily leave the factual behind to do so. We see a square drawn on a piece of paper and we relate to it as an "object." It exists in only two dimensions but we propose to ourselves that it stands for something more and accept it as such. We interact with a friend by protecting them from the truth. This is based on how we think that friend will react when hearing this truth - our expectation is a counterfactual reality. It hasn't even happened yet. I think there are ways in which the factual and the counterfactual can co-exist.

In any event, it's a fascinating analysis and I'm enjoying it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Helpful books for writers

Process maven that I am, I just came across a great list of helpful books for writers complied by Tom Christensen at blog.rightreading and couldn't resist. It includes some classics like Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and several I had never heard of that have me curious by Madeleine L'Engle and Wallace Stegner.

Monkey Mondays...

Bottoms up ! -or - how water carries disease so its best to drink alcohol (Books - The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson)

One of the side benefits of reading Steven Johnson's history of the 1854 London cholera epidemic is the all the facts about other phenomena that one can learn along the way. That's not because Johnson's writing is desultory but rather because he knows that a scientific story is not just a parade of chronological facts about bacteria or the epidemiologist who tracked them down. The single microorganism that causes cholera doesn't exist in isolation, but interacts with hundreds of thousands of other organisms which, in turn, interact with hundreds of other factors including where we choose to settle or what we eat and drink. The disease spreads when the system that transports human waste away from our homes in running water (a commonplace fact most of us with internet access take for granted) somehow gets tangled with the other system that is bringing running water to our homes. Not an appetizing thought, but when thousands of people started living within close proximity of one another in cities, systems that transported water in two directions for these two uses became a necessity. Building them were huge urban construction projects in an age of burgeoning technological industry, they both made use of the sources of water already flowing - rivers - and, if you think about it, it all happened underground in the dark.

The prevailing theory at the time contented that disease spread through the "miasma" and was signaled by bad smells. A fascinating part of the book is Johnson's explanation for why intelligent people hung onto this notion for so long, even after the invention of the microscope?

It was as much a crisis of imagination as it was pure optics. To build a case for waterborne cholera, the mind had to travel across scales of human experience, from the impossibly small - the invisible kingdom of microbes - to the anatomy of the digestive tract, to the routine daily patterns of drinking wells or paying the water-company bills, all the way up to the grand cycles of life and death recorded in the Weekly Returns. If you looked at cholera on any one of those levels, it retreated back into the haze of mystery, where it could be readily rolled back to the miasma theory, given the pedigree and influence of miasma's supporters. Miasma was so much less complicated. You didn't need to build a consilient chain of argument to make the case for miasma. You just needed to point to the air and say : Do you smell that?

This is a story of interconnecting influences on multiple scales and Johnson is adept at switching between the microscopic and the macroscopic views. This is not just necessary for the truth of the story to emerge, it is also a technique that keeps us interested - it's one writers and filmmakers use all the time - shifting perspective.

My favorite bit of apparently tangential but actually integral piece of information was Johnson's brief history of drinking. He starts by telling us that the history of civilization is interconnected with the search for sources of clean drinking water:
For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol. In a community lacking pure-water supplies, the closest thing to "pure" fluid was alcohol. Whatever health risks were posed by beer (and later wine) in the early days of agrarian settlements were more than offset by alcohol's antibacterial properties. Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties. Many genetically minded historians believe that the confluence of urban living and the discovery of alcohol created massive selection pressure on the genes of all humans who abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Alcohol, after all, is a deadly poison and notoriously addictive. To digest large quantities of it , you need to be able to boost production of enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases, a trait regulated by a set of genes on chromosome four in human DNA. Many early agrarians lacked that trait, and thus were genetically incapable of "holding their liquor." Consequently, many of them died childless at an early age, either from alcohol abuse or from waterborne diseases. Over the generations, the gene pool of the first farmers became increasingly dominated by individuals who could drink beer on a regular basis. Most of the worlds population today is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol...The descendants of hunter-gatherers - like many Native Americans or Australian Aborigines - were never forced through this genetic bottleneck, and so today they show disproportionate rates of alcoholism. The chronic drinking problem in Native American populations has been blamed on everything from the weak "Indian constitution" to the humiliating abuses of the U.S. reservation system. But their alcohol intolerance most likely has another explanation: their ancestors didn't live in towns.

I had never heard this before, and found Johnson's ability to connect genetics, biology, and the history of settlement in cities in one long paragraph a real testament to his ability to synthesize multiple ideas into one inexorable narrative stream. So what does this all have to do with cholera?
Ironically, the antibacterial properties of beer - and all fermented spirits - originate in the labor of other microbes, thanks to the ancient metabolic strategy of fermentation. Fermenting organisms like the unicellular yeast fungus used in brewing beer, survive by converting sugars and carbohydrates into ATP, the energy currency of all life. But the process is not entirely clean. In breaking down the molecules, the yeast cells discharge two waste products - carbon dioixide and ethanol. One provides the fizz, the other the buzz. And so in battling the health crisis posed by faulty waste-recycling in human settlements, the proto-farmers unknowingly stumbled across the strategy of consuming the microscopic waste products generated by the fermenters. They drank the waste discharged by yeasts so that they could drink their own waste without dying in mass numbers. They weren't aware of it, of course, but in effect they had domesticated one microbial life-form in order to counter the threat posed by other microbes. The strategy persisted for millennia, as the world's civilization discovered beer, then wine, then spirits - until tea and coffee arrived to offer comparable protection against disease without employing the services of fermenting microbes.

Aside from my admiration for Johnson's lucid rendering of a complex set of facts, a more compelling case for drinking has never been made. 'Bottoms up' never had so many meanings.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tuscany without love. (Film - Under the Tuscan Sun)

Signora, between Austria and Italy, there is a section of the Alps called the Semmering. It is an impossibly steep, very high part of the mountains. They built a train track over these Alps to connect Vienna and Venice. They built these tracks even before there was a train in existence that could make the trip. They built it because they knew some day, the train would come.

This brilliant bit of dialogue says every there is to say about Under the Tuscan Sun. If you are looking for a movie to surprise you, you won't find it here. If you like a film built by committee, a film where you can predict every line before they say it, where you could predict the color of every costume, and the profile of the Italian lover. If you are looking for a film where you know the ending within a minute of its beginning, then this is your cup of chamomile tea. It's certainly not mine.

An early scene is set in an expensive urban restaurant with New Yorker magazine dialogue. It features a post-divorce Diane Lane being comforted by her best friend, who has cashed in her tickets on a gay tour to Tuscany for her. It said absolutely everything I needed. Now granted, two movies in two days is a near record for me (it used to not be the case), and The Science of Sleep was the last movie I saw and one of the best movies I've seen in a very long time, so the contrast may have been too much for me. This film's tragedy is a victim of it's process. In one way, the product is simply gorgeous. I want that house. They all hit their marks. The scenery is gorgeous, Lindsay Duncan is delightful fun, I laughed out loud more than once - but there's no humanity. A shame in a film about love. They spent millions on that scene in New York and it looked like it was written in three minutes and shot it in 2 hours. The Science of Sleep was shot on what it cost to shoot this one scene, but they took two months prior to shooting just to prepare the animation so that the actors in the real-life scenes could have something to react to." A gorgeous view is not a film.

They begin the "making of" segment on the special features menu of the DVD of Under the Tuscan Sun with the line: "this film is structured..." It sure is.

Friday, November 9, 2007

When dreams are better than reality why wake up? (Film - The Science of Sleep)

It's about the experience of feeling one will not succeed somehow - at work, in love, in being responsible - and resorting to fantasy for escape. Stephane creates such alluring fantasies, his imagination is so prolific, that all of his expertise is developed in that arena. He has no skills for most experiences in ordinary life and experiences the inability of reality to be like his fantasy as a rejection. That is the ultimate trajedy of The Science of Sleep, an utterly magnificent film, written and directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It features Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal, the hunky Latino actor who played Che Guevara in Motorcycle Diaries and the troublesome nephew of the housekeeper in Babel would seem an unlikely choice for a character suffering from pathological shyness, but his performance is flawless - gliding seamlessly from fantasy-world television host to a boy-man nearly paralyzed by insecurity. He doesn't put a foot wrong.

I love Gondry's work because he likes messy art. Most of his special effects are low-tech. He animated this film himself with whole cities built out of toiletpaper rolls (for instance) on his vacation with friends helping him and his aunt cooking them meals. This happened months before shooting with the actors began so that he could project the completed footage of this fantasy realm onto screen for the actors to play off of. He understands the advantage of actors having real things to react to. Despite the fact that he built his idea for this film over more than five years, he also trusts the accident of improvisation to mix with his careful plans to create something that will tell a story about human being instead of characters. He says that he depends upon "chaos." Human beings are messy and that's why Gondry's art, along with that of his great cast and designers, reveals their inner life with such accuracy and tenderness. I can't think of a better film I have seen for several years. Utterly beautiful. I think I'll watch it again before it has to go back to the library.

An Inflorescence - A flowering of poetry every friday (Timothy Donnelly - exuberant , flirtatious dream-maker)

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.

I don't know very much about Timothy Donnelly except that he is a doctoral candidate at Princeton, teaches at Columbia, and has published one book of poems: Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit. I posted the title poem, which I love, as my contemporary selection in this past summer's poetry challenge. Donnelley's poems have a manic, theatrical edge, his diction is refined, sometimes recondite, his rhythms vary - in An Inflorescence, which I post today, they are almost sing-songy. He has been compared to John Ashbery, but while he has a playful touch with words, I don't feel myself shut out of his poems as I can with Ashbery. There seems to be less private encoding of events, they are more accessible.

Here's a link to The Driver of the Car is Unconscious, it a marvelously nightmarish poem. I love the dissolution of the sequence of words "ash in the eye/and the nose, and the mouth, shit in the pants" as the poem's grip on consciousness gets slipperier. Since I have named this Friday visit to poems and poets An Inflorescence, I might as well post the poem it came from. I love the queeny luxuriousness of An Inflorescence, I hear it read in a southern twang, maybe New Orleanian - and who is it? - a very old man (I see someone like Tennessee Williams or Quentin Crisp), an invalid, or perhaps he's already dead - but still flirtatious and seducing a young lover, though perhaps just in his memory. What do you see? Some of the lines at the end may run into my side bar, you can read them poem in its entirety by clicking on the logo near the bottom of my side bar that says 'subscribe in a reader,' it will access my feed.

An Inflorescence

A rumbling, a spark; an inflorescence -

Aloha, Hibiscus! You glow through the gloam
in the blank of my soiled and grandiloquent
head, from a bed spread fertile with waste
that has waited too long for your purpose, churned
over and over by the seeking worm,
the nocturnally restless. A torment ago.
I made love to a form; I festooned it
with adjectives: beauteous, consummate, dulcet, plum.
A player is forced to make love
to a vagueness, a layer of foam. A torment ago,
I would not have presumed
your aroma, your nimbus, your ruby conundrum, but a riot
develops in the sluggish blood-pump,
and the cleaving of mist betokens a romance.

Hot ukulele! How do you do?
And you: beamy, beamy.

Where do your come from?
What fire, what flood?

What wild effluvium?
Did your kernel pass

through the tract of an auk
as it flew overhead?

You nod to me yes,
but the bird is flightless, pink coquette,

and I can't believe you.

Hibiscus, mon ame! You are governed by Venus ambiguous,
frilled, and aware of your charm;
should the governor throw
a ball you will be there, the mistress
of many, but pinned to my arm.

I know a valley fair,
I know a cottage there
Hibiscus aroon!

A breeze is released
from your tropical pockets
Hibiscis aroon!

Stay, my irruption.
Will others excite you? There's divan enough

for the pair of us only -
and paradise, paradise.

Come to me now with your exclusive stalk,
with your enciphered leaves. There are parts of me

naked and the tambourine grows rust impatiently.
Show me your rootsock, windlass, lavolta: mouth

phrases of fuchsia and the South Pacific into my deeply
attenuated ear. A torment ago, I made love to a form, I festooned it

with adjectives: curious, high-stomached, plausible, smooth.
A player is forced. There's fossil enough to grease any engine,

but a storm develops on the azure plain, but the blathery palms
will down us out that crowd us in, and I will not release you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The fact of narrative - fiction is no lie (Books - Experiencing Narrative Worlds by Richard Gerrig)

I am nearly finished with Richard Gerrig's book about the cognitive psychology of the reading experience. He provides ideas about the experience of being transported and what constitutes absorption in a narrative, which I am finding both provocative and useful for my own work. The chapter I really loved most was one in which he muses on how authors and readers use language to accomplish fiction.

In "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse," John Searle observed, "It is after all an odd, peculiar, and amazing fact about human language that it allows the possibility of fiction at all. Yet we all have no difficulty in recognizing and understanding works of fiction."

Gerrig examines this phenomenon not by dichotomizing fact and fiction and dissociating dissimilar techniques - one where fiction's is the creation of pretense and where non-fiction's is the assertion of facts - but rather by examining them both as narrative. In experiencing a narrative as valid and meaningful it does not necessarily equate with its truth in the sense of corresponding to external reality. If that were true, we would never be able to believe in a metaphor.

Gerrig gives the example of the sentence "It is raining in Singapore." Most readers would not believe as a result of reading it that it was indeed raining presently, nor would they interpret it as a lie. Gerrig builds his case in this chapter, by distinguishing between when the writing directly informs and when it is overhead, and variations upon those themes - such as when the overhearing is intended by the writer and when it is accidental. He also writes about what research suggests about how readers acquire the ability to negotiate multiple layers of meaning and multiple voices.

The chapter made me think even further about this almost natural dichotomy we have established between fact and fiction - very similar to the one we use about 'mind' and 'body' - and what is both convenient and presumptuous about them. I have always bridled at being told that what I do as an actor or a director is to create a 'lie.' I have always considered it my duty as an artist to tell the truth, lack of correspondence in the theater with what is happening outside its walls is no more a lie than it is to consider my next door neighbor's laughing a lie when I am in a bad mood. In fact, in some ways all language is a lie - the word 'apple' cannot be eaten. It is a symbol, a convenience we use to both refer to something whose shared meaning must start out as superficial - we might place it in the same category of fruit, or an object we can both see in the bowl on the table. But our associations for apple, the image that is first called to mind when we each hear that word could be radically different. To communicate, to warn, to share we must have a tool. It is not so peculiar really that language creates fiction - the individual narrative trapped inside our own minds is an unreal world to everyone else. A stream of words provides the starting point if those private intentions are to be first received, then believed, and finally experienced.

Punch and Judy or The Sad Comedy of Medicine under Queen Victoria (Books - The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, on the London cholera outbreak of 1854 is non-fiction that reads like a novel. It's not all descriptions of Dickensian filth, he sets the scene for us by giving us some insight on Victorian medicine:
Reading through the newspapers and medical journals of the day, what stands out is not just the breadth of remedies proposed, but the breadth of people involved in the discussion: surgeons, nurse, patent medicine quacks, public health authorities, armchair chemists, all writing the Times and the Globe (or buying classified advertising there) with news of the dependable cure they had concocted.

Some doctors treated cholera with laudanum - essentially, heroin -another with linseed oil:
Sir, Induced by the very favourable results of the use of castor oil in cholera, as reported by Dr. Johnson, I have just put his practice to the test of experience, and I regret to say with signal failure...

Sir, Let me entreat your metropolitan readers not to be lead by the letter of your correspondent into the belief that smoke is in any way a preventative of cholera...

Punch responded to the tennis match with an editorial:
It really is nauseating to witness the quantity of doctor's stuff that is allowed to run down the columns of the newspapers. It will be neccessary at last to proceed against the public press as a public nuisance if we have much more of the "foul and offensive matter" circulating under our noses every day at our breakfast tables to an extent highly dangerous to the health, the patience, and the nerves of the reading community. If the doctors who write to the papers would agree in their prescriptions for cholera, the public might feel grateful for the trouble taken, but when one medical man's "infallible medicine" is another man's "deadly poison," and the specific of to-day is denounced as the fatal drug of to-morrow, we are puzzled and alarmed at the risk we run in following doctors' contradictory directions.

This is not unlike what one can see today during a one-hour episode of ER - easily half-a-dozen commercials for prescription drugs. Drug companies trying to ride on the credibility coattails of fictional doctors. A real ethical violation of the consumer. There are active turf wars between several of the leading treatments for autism that echo the above feuds. But curing some illnesses will always exceed our best knowledge, no matter how much we know, and although medicine is served by science it is itself a practice, some say an art, that must negotiate between the limits of what we know and the desire of the sick to feel better.

The sad irony is that the treatment of choice for cholera today, Johnson tells us, is water.