Thursday, January 31, 2008

One man's eccentric is another man's mother...

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This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:

Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

This question depends a lot on your tolerance for eccentricity. One drag queen's eccentric is another person's soccer mom - you know what I mean? Also the flagrantly normal rarely make interesting subjects for novels, not those I read, at any rate. But, let's see, some memorable eccentrics. I'll start with the obvious:

Alma in Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale - a more compelling and touching eccentric would be difficult to find. In fact, Williams was pretty much a master of this category - Laura in Glass Menagerie, Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending and just about everyone in Vieux Carre.

The entire Glass family in Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and Seymour are all pretty quirky and loveable, although occasionally I want to drag Bessie physically from the bathroom to leave Zooey in peace for just five minutes.

One of the strengths of Tell Me Everything is that Sarah Salway makes a heroine of Molly, who begins as one of life's outcasts for her differences, but whom we grow to understand and even love.

Richard Power's The Goldbug Variations features Stuart Ressler, a scientist and music lover in the 1950s part of the story, as well as Frank Todd, a researcher, and Janet (I think, her name is) a librarian from the 1990s part of the story. They're pretty much all eccentrics - marvelous characters! You do want to read this book. You do want to read this book.

Dickens is a master of eccentrics characters of both ilks. Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House is one I simply want to murder. Devotes her life to the poor of Africa at the expense of her own family, needy simply for her love (if not her help with the housekeeping). An utterly infuriating eccentric for her singleminded-pigheadedness.

I could go on and on with this question, but just one more. Turn over an Iris Murdoch novel and your sure to find at least one eccentric. The most embarrassing one that comes to mind is Charles Arrowby, recently retired man of the theater and hero of The Sea, The Sea. The novel was a Booker winner for good reason. It is a gem and features one of the most cringe-worthy heroes you are ever likely to meet.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The colonizer finds herself in the world of her subjects (Book - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is the writer of the talented group that brought us most of the films named for the other two director and producer members of the trio - Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. If you have never seen their film adaptations of A Room with a View (1985) or Howard's End (1992) they are spectacular films - I think I watch A Room with a View at least once a year. They also made Heat and Dust (1983) before they had exploded onto the international film market. I remember seeing it when it was screened at MOMA. It's based on Jhabvala's Booker winning novel of the same title and which I am reading for Dewey's Booker Challenge.

The book is a multi-layered affair in which a young English woman in the 1970s travels to India to learn more about the story of her great-grandmother Olivia, who though recently married to an Englishman whom she then joins in India, runs off with an Indian Prince. This all happened in the 1920s. Muti-layered because it combines a present-day narrative of the young woman's trip, written as diary entries, with imagined memories of Olivia's life in the 1920s that, in turn, are taken from her letters to her sister. The writing style is sparse, almost reportorial. It is very event-driven, I feel like I can see (with my 20/20 hindsight) how Jhabvala's writing suits the medium of film, where the visual details can be lingered upon, if desired. Where we can be shown rather than told. I've read about half of this short novel and much of the early action consists of Olivia's boredom with the social scene in India as a recent immigrant:

He had been in India for over twenty years and knew all there was to know about it; so did his wife. And of course so did the Crawfords. Their experience went back several generations, for they were all members of families who had served in one or other of the Indian services since before the Mutiny. Olivia had met other such old India hands and was already very much bored by them and their interminable anecdotes about things that had happened in Kabul or Multan. She kept asking herself how it was possible to lead such exciting lives - administering whole provinces, fighting border battles, advising rulers - and at the same time to remain so dull. She looked around the table - at Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Minnies in their dowdy frocks more suitable to the English watering places to which they would one day retire than to this royal dining table; Major Minnines and Mr. Crawford, puffy and florid, with voices that droned on and on confident of being listenined to though everything they were saying was, Olivia thought, as boring as themselves.

Olivia seems to be one of those people who fancies herself an adventurer in her head, but when push comes to shove she is skittish, naive, and rather whiny. But the writing is simple and confident and there are some wonderful observations of this strange and interesting culture that was the English empire in India. So I continue.

Next day Olivia went to visit Mrs. Saunders. She took flowers, fruit, and a heart full of tender pity for her. But although Olivia's feelings towards Mrs. Saunders had changed, Mrs. Saunders herself had not. She was still the same unattractive woman lying in bed in a bleak, gloomy house. Olivia, always susceptible to atmosphere, had to struggle against a feeling of distaste. She did so hate a slovenly house, and Mrs. Saunders' house was very slovenly; so were her servants. No one bothered to put Olivia's pretty flowers in a vase - perhaps there was no vase? There wasn't much of anything, just a few pieces of ugly furniture and even those were dusty.

I do enjoy the description and yet feel it fails somehow to come to life. I can't help thinking what Dickens would have made of such a character. But now, as I'm nearing the beginning of the affair (I think) things are beginning to heat up a little. The colonizers have a policy against the tradition of a widow throwing herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband and fail, one day, in enforcing it. It become the subject of a lively dinner conversation in which Olivia finally drags herself out of her protective skin of judgment to enter the world in which she is living:

"...She sat for four days on a rock in the river and said that if she wasn't allowed to burn herself then she'd starve herself to death. In any case she wasn't going to be left behind. In the end Sleeman had to give way - yes he lost that round but I'll tell you something - he speaks of the old lady with respect. She wasn't a fanatic, she wasn't even very dramatic about it, she just sat there quietly and waited and said no, she wanted to go with her husband. There was something noble there," said the Major - and now he wasn't being tolerant and amused, not in the least.

"Too noble for me, I fear," said Beth Crawford - as hostess, she probably felt it was time to change the tone. "Fond as I am of you, dear man," she told her husband across the table, "I really think I could - "

"Oh I could!" cried Olivia, and with such feeling that everyone was silent and looked at her. Douglas also looked - and this time she dared raise her eyes to his: even if he was angry with her. "I'd want to. I mean, I just wouldn't want to go on living. I'd be grateful for such a custom."

Now is she just trying on that sentiment, like a teenager trying on a piercing, a radical haircut, or a new controversial opinion? Perhaps. But she thinks she means it, and rather than stand at a distance any longer from those her country colonized, she dares to step inside. Olivia is waking up to herself. This may get interesting.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Contemplating killing and future reading (Books - Brilliance of the Moon)

I have finished what I thought was Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori TRILOGY but, having discovered that there is now a fourth book, I have ordered it and am waiting for my copy to arrive. As it stands the series was heartily satisfying, thanks Imani, and it satisfied on many levels - romance, adventure, history, fantasy, and battle. In the first book I was really enjoying the theme of the outsider, one that always appeals to me. This book did it justice in a way that wasn't cliched. In book three I was very much taken by the questions the central characters were forced to ask themselves about personal and collective responsibility - especially as it relates to acts of violence - whether isolated or as acts of war. I found the book particularly thoughtful on this subject without being labored or hackneyed.

Only the chroniclers writing afterward can tell you what happens in battle, and then they usually tell only the tale of the victor. There is no way of knowing when you are locked in the midst of it which way the fighting is going. Even if you could see it from above, with eagle's eyes, all you would see would be a quilt of pulsating color, crests and banners, blood and steel - beautiful and nightmarish. All men on the battlefield go mad: How else could we do the things we do and bear to see the things we see?

The series doesn't really need a follow up, but I'm happy to read one given how compelling the writing and addictive the story.

I've been clearing the decks as classes have begun, but I still need a book. Tonight I'm going to sit in bed with a few and try to choose one. It's between:
Among The Russians by Colin Thurbron about traveling through the country in the last 25 years one of my Russian Lit Challenge selections
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy - both on my Booker Challenge list
Moonheart by Charles de Lint, a so called urban fantatsist who I enjoy every now and then
The Last Life by Claire Messud, I had really loved The Emperor's Children so this has been sitting on the pile for a bit.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

The trouble all starts when the object of your fantasy just won't be your fantasy (Film - The King of Comedy)

If you love film you have probably once in your life been crazy about some star or other. Oh come on, admit it - or maybe it was a television star, sports star, singer, prince. But having a relationship with a celebrity, you don't actually know them, you're really falling in love with an idea you have about them. And they might be nothing like that. Nothing at all. So if you finally, unfortunately meet them that experience can be mortifying, often people find they can't speak at all - of course not, it would ruin the fantasy - and you might end up being really disappointed.

Now if your name happened to be Rupert Pupkin, and you lived with your mother in Clifton New Jersey and you were over thirty you might already be very disappointed. And if you have one wish in the world, and that is to be the King of Comedy on the evening talk show hosted by the celebrity with whom you are obsessed, and if he just won't listen to you...well, well, what would you do? I'm not going to tell you what Rupert, played by Robert de Niro, does. He is joined by his pathological fellow groupie, played by Sandra Bernhard, she has, shall we say, a different fantasy. But it is no less intense in its fervent hope and unreality. They are is utterly excruciating to watch. Like a very slow car crash happening over and over. Jerry Lewis is the object of their twin obsessions. The three of them are remarkably subtle - this sounds pretty over the top, doesn't it? The situation is continually over the top and yet they never are and so you are left ricocheting between laughing and gawping in embarrassment. It is so a word. It's a combination of gaping and gawking - look it up. If you have never seen this wonderful film directed by Martin Scorcese, and I hadn't until getting it from the library after Sheila recommended it to me a few weeks ago, get a copy of The King of Comedy and please, be compassionate.

Classes start up again tomorrow so this is my Monday post. I may be posting a little more erratically now, but I'll try and keep up.

Hey, wait a minute!

Here I was, delightedly finishing up Grass for His Pillow, the second book in the Tales of the Otori, so that I might read book three today and finish the trilogy before classes start tomorrow; I read the ending and turned the last page to find marketing for the series, of course, including a fourth book - The Harsh Cry of the Heron! Harsh cry indeed. I will try to read the entire third book today as I am unlikely to have so much free time for reading again until mid-May but, alas, I will not finish the series and tomorrow will have to include titles like Basic Neurochemistry and Applied Multiple Regression/Correlation Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences in my list. No wonder I'm craving fantasy novels. Book Two - Grass for His Pillow ended very satisfyingly, by the way.

Friday, January 25, 2008

To be of two worlds is to be of neither (Books - Grass for his Pillow by Lian Hearn)

"It seems Lord Arai is furious that this person left without permission and refused a marriage that the lord desired. Lord Arai has issued orders for this person's arrest, and he intends to investigate the organization known as the Tribe, which he considers illegal and undesireable. " He bowed again to Kotaro and said stiffly, "I'm sorry, but I do not know what this person's name is to be."

The master nodded and stroked his chin, saying nothing. We had talked about names before and he had told me to continue using Takeo - though, as he said, it had never been a Tribe name. Was I to take the family name of Kikuta now? And what would my given name be? I did not want to give up Takeo, the name Shigeru had given me, but if I was no longer to be one of the Otori, what right did I have to it?

Takeo is a young man of mixed parentage but due to war he must be rescued and then raised by a Lord of a the Otori tribe while in his youth. Two-thirds of the way through this second book of Tales of the Otori, he struggles between the pulls exerted by his mixed allegiances. Being of both clans, he is really of neither. Chapters in this book still alternate between Takeo's story and Kaede, the young lady also ripped from her family in childhood and raised by another. She was a pawn in the political chess game played by warring clans led by men, however now having come to adulthood, she is not content with maintaining this role and intends to be her own master. She too, being neither a helpless girl, nor fully accepted for running her own life in a man's world must forge a new path and this, it seems to me, is the real story lying not at all disguised beneath the a book that also makes its own way - neither being exactly fantasy nor history. The story is compulsively readable. It has its quiet moments yet is at times almost unbearably suspenseful. I read a chapter last night as Takeo had begun to question his loyalties, in which he was asked to perform a task for one of his masters and found myself saying nearly out loud "don't do it!"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Music upon which hangs his very existence (Books - Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks)

Most people I talk to have not heard of my very favorite books - Cloud Street, Hopeful Monsters, The Goldbug Variations, although everyone who comes here is sick of them by now, but if you're still curious about my faves check out my side bar for a list. So I'm going to skip today's Booking through Thursday prompt and continue instead talking about Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks' latest book. This post along with this one constitute my musings on it.

An entire chapter of the book is devoted not to the subject of music per se, but rather to a particular patient's amnesia, and the temporary relief that music provides him. There is not only one kind of memory, but several, or if you asked the memory scientist Endel Tulving, he would say several hundred! Some of the more common divisions of memory you may have heard of are short-term memory and long-term memory - others divide memory into declarative or explicit memory, which requires consciousness for retrieval, and procedural (implicit) which does not. Explicit memory can be further divided into semantic memory (fact based knowledge, for example the name of the capital of Australia), and episodic memory (memory specific to a place and time). Autobiographical memory is often grouped under the explicit category, but it is arguably a maverick category as one could say our identity stays with us, whether we think consciously about it or not. But how can we retrieve memory without thinking about it? You do it thousands of time each day - you don't have to remember how to eat, how to walk down the stairs, what your name is (most of the time!), what the word 'the' means, where it should come in a sentence, etc.. We could not live or think without our procedural memory.

Multiple kinds of memory means many ways the system can break down. Say the word "amnesia" and a 1950s film might pop into view. The blurry screen clears, a nurse in one of those peculiar hats comes into view. She is looking down at a man in pajamas, who is uttering the words "Where am I? Who are you? I don't know who I am." Amnesia is often selective for memories that occurred before the accident or illness, sparing those that come after, or vice-versa, events up to the accident are remembered but the patient cannot form new memories. Generally there is a blackout period around the time of the accident as well. But sometimes, the victim is not even that lucky. Sacks writes of his patient Clive Wearing, a musicologist and musician, who had everything but his procedural memory completely wiped out by encephalitis while in his forties. He wasn't even lucky enough to be given a span of memory that lasted a few minutes, his lasted seconds.
His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem to be able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten...It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before...."I haven't heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything," he would say. "It's like being dead."

One doesn't have direct awareness of one's own amnesia and lacking memory, one makes the most plausible inferences possible to make sense of ones world. Clive is understandably devastated, becomes horribly depressed, is institutionalized for many years but eventually emerges having found some ways of coping moment-to-moment. He develops a constant stream of joking, repetitive chatter - that is an immediate response to whatever is said to him. It consists of puns, rhymes - scripts that are half sense, half nonsense all emerging from somewhere in his procedural memory.
Clive's loquacity, his almost compulsive need to talk and keep conversations going, served to maintain a precarious platform, and when he came to a stop, the abyss was there, waiting to engulf him.

Amazingly, through even the worst of Clive's disorientation, his musical abilities are preserved. He can sing from a score, play the organ:

The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar. Within the structure of the piece, he was held, as if the staves were tramlines and there was only one way to go. He knew exactly where he was because in every phrase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody...when the music stopped Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moment he was playing he seemed normal.

It is as if the autobiographical, episodic, and intellectual framework that is the scaffolding for the rest of us is temporarily supplied for Clive through the music. He still doesn't know who he is, but the context that is the music makes the next moment inevitable, and he can use it as a stepping stone to put one foot forward. It's a remarkable story about a tenuous survival and it alone is worth getting this book for.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In which I take Zooey Glass, Joseph Knecht and Paulina for tapas

Eva apparently had some spare time between reading for about a dozen challenges, or something ridiculous like that, and drew up a her very own reading meme! It's very enjoyable to do, here are my answers (now amended)

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? When a book gets really popular, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, then I’m sure I don’t want to read it. When I finally got over myself and read it, it was terrific. This is just probably my need to be special, or something.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? Zooey Glass (Franny & Zooey), Joseph Knecht (The Glass Bead Game), and Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) - Zooey is smart, cute, and very amusing, but a wise ass, Knecht has wisdom but would not be stuffy, and Paulina is another mind of steel and is resourceful to boot. We’d go for a stroll through the Rose Center at the Museum of Natural History (all about astronomy). These three could really hold their own in conversation and although I would try to steer it toward other things, it would inevitably turn to the current U. S. election, but it would not be boring and no one would use the word 'change.' I think we'd follow that with snacks at the Portuguese tapas bar near by, I had considered theater tickets but I think Zooey might get bored (former whiz-kid, you know) and Paulina might be too critical, so maybe just the theater with JK.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave? I would keep reading great non-boring novels until physically forced, why die when there are good books left to read? Then it would probably have to be something by James Fenimore Cooper, like The Dearslayer, or something…yawn.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it? Troilus and Cressida, it sounds like something you order at a vegetarian restaurant. Many others I’ve hinted at, but only through silence and nodding vigorously.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book? I have known I’ve read a book, really really known I’ve read that book, and re-read it not remembering a damn thing in it. Very sad.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP) It would really have to depend on the VIP. This actually did happen and I recommended The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin. He admitted afterward that he had been skeptical but it was a big hit!

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? That’s hard, I love the French language but don’t really love French lit all that much. I’d probably have to go for Russian. I have a dream of learning Russian before I am forced to be bored to death by James Fenimore Cooper – think of all the reading I could do! German is tempting, but I think I’m way more likely to get through Dostoyevski in the original than Thomas Mann.

A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread one a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? You mean other than Franny and Zooey? Actually, that’s an old habit, haven’t done that in quite a few years. The Goldbug Variations – such depth to that novel, there would be endless things to notice, I’m sure.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)? I’ve always been fairly omnivorous, but I’ve been introduced to so many books – Sarah Salway’s Tell Me Everything, the Tales of the Otori series, Joan Didion’s essays, I learned about Darkmans which is waiting on the TBR pile, I learned of The Stolen Child, The Welsh Girl, The Beginning of Spring, the list is pretty long.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free. Yes, a fireplace, a cushy armchair and also a chaise and a comfy sofa, and a puppy who has been trained not to pee on books. Lots of wood paneling, a place for my red wine or my tea pot, note paper, purple pens to write with. Enough shelves – whatever that means, I still don’t know. A view – a forest and some running water in it. I don’t need valuable books per se, I don’t care about books as far as investment in concerned, but I would like a few beautiful editions of favorites. The original Hogarth Press versions of Virginia Woolf would be nice, particularly The Waves. The complete Arden Shakespeare. Lots of old penguin editions of English writers, including all of Iris Murdoch. They can be old as long as they don’t fall apart. A lot of biographies new and old of absolutely everyone. The complete works of Hesse, Cather, Stegner, Chekhov, De Lillo, Sarton, Mann, Dostoyevski, Dickens (in a beautiful edition please with the illustrations), Tolstoy, those gorgeous old Random House volumes of Eugene O’Neill, all of them, the Brontes, lots and lots of poetry, a bunch of those gorgeous french paperbacks - they're bound in cream colored plain paper with red lettering and nothing else. Maybe I'd get the complete Jules Verne if they've published it.

I just have to add one thing. My dream library has to have a spiral staircase, no two - one at each end- going to the second level, because the shelves will have to be that high. And that second level, will loop around on three sides of the room, allowing me access to the higher shelves. I don't really like ladders. It will have lovely metal railing all around it to keep one from falling off, with an art nouveau design, thanks.

I’ll “soft tag” a few people - i.e. I hope you’ll do it but don’t feel pressured. I can’t tag Dewy because I already know she’s going to do it so, Matt, Verbivore, Sarah (of Sarah’s Writing Journal), Sheila,and Lotus Reads.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Elswhere on the web... A Man Comes Back to Life in a City of Death

Image from the site of Phil Douglis - check out his many lovely photos

Since I could not be less inspired this morning I thought I would send you over to John Coulthart's place for his lovely post on Bruges la Morte, Georges Rodenbach's late 19th century novel which is a symbolist study of the psychology of grief. It is set in Bruges - a small, ashen -colored, gothic town in Belgium, built on a set of canals. The photo at the top of the post is of Bruges. The town specializes in chocolate (as most of Belgium does) and lace, which creates an interesting juxtaposition. As one walks down the streets that are eternally in shadows because of their narrowness or their nearness to the cathedral, the shop windows are sparking with their displays of chocolate and lace. If you visit, there is a 15th century castle of the princes of Burgundy which now serves as a very affordable B&B. I hope you sleep soundly. It is haunted. Everyone at the sumptuously laid breakfast table the next morning had circles under their eyes.

One of my chief reasons for linking you to JC's lovely post on Bruges la Morte - a truly under-appreciated work - is that it is the basis for Erich Korngold's 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt - an equally under-appreciated work. I know it sounds like a downer - it's not. The score is juicily romantic and the story combines compassion and imagination. It's one of my favorites. It's little surprise that Korngold, as a compatriot of Freud in early twentieth century Vienna, was drawn to this strikingly psychological story. Korngold lived in the bubbling cauldron of scientific/ philosophical/artistic change that was post-World War I Vienna. Though he was also a contemporary of Schoenberg's and his music is undoubtedly modern, it is much more accessible and tonal. If you're not familiar with it, I highly recommend checking out a recording of Die Tote Stadt. I still think that the first one is best. Sadly, there is no video of Frank Corsaro's grand production with Ronald Chase's projections enveloping the entire stage.

Korngold was a child prodigy who fled Austria when the Nazis rose to power and ended up in Hollywood writing film scores - the work for which he is best known. His story is an interesting one. The very good biography I link to must be out of print and is pricey, but your library may also have a copy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Music and the Brain (my favorite topic and the subject of Oliver Sacks latest book - Musicophilia)

We get married to it, buried to it, come of age to it, finish our schooling in-step to it, put our children to sleep with it, soothe our broken hearts, celebrate our births, pray to our gods, and woo our mates to it. Shakespeare told us it is the "food of love," Nietzsche said without it "Life would be an error." What is it about certain sounds that make them music to our ears and are they merely, as Steven Pinker proclaimed, "a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear," did music's genesis precede spoken language, did it arise from the cadences of the spoken word, is it the by product of motherese - the sing-songy enhancements of the rhythms and pitches of speech that parents use to talk to their babies. Many scientists feel these exaggerations are they way we acquire language. No one can agree about the origins of music but most seem to agree that it really matters to us.

A little primer on some of the basic knowledge we have about music as a form and how it is processed in the brain, since this is a speciality of mine:

Music has existed almost as long as human civilization and across its many cultures. Archeologists discovered a perforated bear bone in Slovenia that is argued to be a "flute" from the Paleolithic ear, making it approximately 36,000 years old. What is it? A complex and conscious use of sound made by humans for humans. Music is generally characterized as having patterns of pitch and meter, but there are, of course, exceptions. Music exists without pitch in drumming, and without meter in chant or alap, an Indian form.

Through its early cognitive processing, it is collected from the environment as any sound would be but scientists do not agree about its exact trajectory through the auditory system. Processing music involves segregating the sounds from their background and analyzing timbre, pitch, both horizontal progress (sounds happening in sequence, i.e. melody) layered simultaneously (chords), and time (meter and rhythm). Interactions with the music's performance - facial expressions of the performer, context of the performance, text, the listener's own associations with superficial features, and their own life events also make up the experience of music.

Individually sequenced pitches are processed in terms of direction and interval size and referenced to a scale, which will vary with culture. Simultaneously presented pitches are references to their conformity to, or violation of, learned combinatory principles. Like the acquisition of syntax for language, these principles are acquired in infancy by musicians and non-musicians alike and require no explicit training. Temporal information is processed in terms of duration of segments and general underlying beat. Whether processing of these components of music happens in music-specific networks of the brain is a hotly debated topic, but brain damage studies have shown that more and more aspects of this process happens in music-specific networks of brain areas. Melody recognition and tonal perception occur in music-specific networks (Peretz & Hyde, 2003). Pitch discrimination appears to occur in separate circuits in the brain from those which process pitch for language (Peretz, 2002) For a while, the story went that language was processed only on the left side of the brain and music on the right but a study by Robert Zatorre (2002) suggests that the right hemisphere specializations are actually specific to detailed spectral discrimination (which happens to be useful for processing melodies) whereas the left is better for rapidly changing temporal information, as is useful for speech. The brain distinguishes between pitch for speech and pitch for tone early on in processing a sound - although this happens differently for tonally based languages like Chinese.

In terms of function there are clear distinctions between music and language. Music must be sound and must have order, but it does not communicate truth or falsity nor can one order a pepperoni pizza with music or schedule a meeting. Language need not be sound at all (as in sign language or in writing) but it is dependent on order, and its function is communicating meaning. Language is remembered for meaning, rarely for it features (its exact words and their sounds) unless word-for-word memorization is the goal. If the meaning of a sentence is recalled, one can sometimes reconstruct the features of language using logic, whereas music can only be remembered for its features. We would be hard pressed to reconstruct notes and rhythms from the sadness they evoked, but if music possess any content aside from the sounds themselves it would seem to be emotion that gives it meaning.

I am crazy about the intersection of music and cognition - it is to be one of my areas of research once I'm out of school. That is why Oliver Sacks' latest book is such, well, music to my ears. Sacks divides his book into four sections - one on people who become suddenly possessed by music without these having been the case before, the second is about degrees of enhanced or impaired skills in the realm of music - from savants to those who have disorders of pitch or rhythm, the third deals with memory and movement in relation to music, and the last with emotion and identity. I am just completing the second section. If you have never read an Oliver Sacks book, his focus is not the neuroscience of music in general, he is a physician (although his scientific skills and interests span a wide range) but as a clinician he encounters individuals with specific problems. His strength as a clinician appears to be his ability to get to know these people as people rather than as problems, and his strength as an artist is his ability to tell their stories with compassion, and with just as much insight as he has but his stories are not all success stories and sometimes his expression is one of admiration for his patient, or awe, or sorrow for the limits of our knowledge and his ability to alleviate the suffering of a person.

The stories he tells are uncanny. Sacks could just parade his patients oddities around as a kind-of modern day freak show, but his writing shows far more humanity than that. In this book we meet a physician who, as a result of being struck by lightening is possessed by a sudden love of/obsession for piano music. Another chapter is devoted to auditory hallucinations and other forms of internally generated auditory perceptions - like mental imagery- and their frequency of occurrence in all sorts of people. I myself pretty much have music playing in my head all day long. When I think about it I can vary the piece, or the artist, or the orchestration - even if I've never heard a version like that before. Sometimes I can get stuck and become the victim of a sort of demon internal-i-pod, but mostly we have a friendly relationship. An entire chapter of Sacks' book is devoted to this and, while the internal generation of perceptions were once thought to be the province only of schizophrenics it is now found that the phenomenon is much more wide-spread. Sacks' tells of of Jerzy Konorski, a Polish neurophysiologist, who argued in the 1960s that hallucinations can occur because the neurological pathways for sensory information flow two ways rather than one. This was a radical concept then but these feedback connections are now a well-known phenomenon and are known to account not only for images and hallucinations but are part of the way we all perceive our environment on a daily basis (Foxe & Simpson, 2002).

Anyway, I can just go on and on when it comes to music and the brain, in fact I have so I'll cut to the chase. I am enjoying Musicophilia tremendously. It is accessibly written, warm and humane in its outlook - the tremendous curiosity for knowledge and the capacity of this brilliant man to be continually awed by human nature is inspiring, yet he never lectures you about it - he communicates it through his own experience of the world. I have found every one of Sacks' books a compulsive read and find this one to be no different. If I hadn't been working so much in the lab over the last few days I'm sure I would already have finished it. More on this book and some of its stories later.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Maps as psychology, the history of the Kremlin, and the plague of fundamentalism (Books - Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski)

(This post along with three others here, here, and here constitute my review).
Global maps in the Imperium and in the U.S. are an expression of national psychology. Ryszard Kapuscinski's wide traveling, observant eye and wry tongue make the tone of his analysis unique:
One type is disseminated by the National Geographic Society in America, and on it, in the middle, in the central spot, lies the American continent, surrounded by two oceans - the Atlantic and the Pacific. The former Soviet Union is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends of the map so that it won't frighten American children with its immense bulk. The Institute of Geography in Moscow prints an entirely different map. On it, in the middle, in the central port, lies the former Soviet Union, which is so big that it overwhelms us with its expanse; America, on the other hand, is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends so that the Russian child will not think: My God! How large this America is!

These two maps have been shaping two different visions of the world for generations.

In the course of my wanderings over the territories of the Imperium my attention was caught by, among other things, the fact that even in forsaken and tumbledown little towns, even in practically empty bookshops, there was for sale, as a rule, a large map of this country on which the rest of the world appeared to be almost in the background, in the margins, in shadow.

This map is for Russians a kind of visual recompense, a peculiar emotional sublimation, and also an object of unconcealed pride.

It also serves to explain and justify all shortages, mistakes, poverty, and marasmus. It is too big a country to be reformed! explain the opponents of reforms. It is too big a country to be cleaned up! janitors from Brest to Vladivostock throw up their hands. It is too big a country for goods to be delivered everywhere, grumble saleswomen in empty shops.

A great size, which explain and absolves everything. Sure, if we were a small country like Switzerland, everything here would run like clockwork, too!

Kapuscinski's bleak chapter on Kolyma - one of Russia's arctic death camps - sees the camps as a metaphor for the entire country:
The half-naked deportees stood motionless in a blizzard, lashed by the gales. Finally, the escorts delivered their routine admotion: A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an escape attempt - we shoot without warning! This identical formula was uniformly applied throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The whole nation, two hundred million strong, had to march in tight formation in a dictated direction. Any deviation to the left of to the right meant death.

Quite a different story from the romantic one of a utopia whose only price is allegiance to the state above the individual so that no one will live in want.

One of my favorite sections of the book is the one on the Kremlin. Kapuscinski sneaks his way into the Kremlin, normally closed to visitors, under false pretenses. His only motive is the search for a story, to see something few others have seen. For this he might be shot or imprisoned if he is caught. But that is what Kapuscinski seems to live for. His story of being smuggled into Armenia in 1990 reads like a spy novel - he takes terrifying risks.
To walk into the Kremlin just like that, simply to walk in, without a reason or a goal, is impossible. One can gain access for only three reasons: a) to visit the museum as part of a group excursion from one's place of work (it is a form of distinction and reward), b) to attend one of a variety of important congresses that from time to time take place here (delegates and accredited journalists can enter then), c) at the summons of one of the dignitaries who officiate here. In each of these cases, one is required, after having passed the gate, to move by the shortest route possible to the preordained destination - there and back.

Kapuscinski offers as series of other writers' views of the Kremlin - H. G. Wells from 1920, Roy Mevedev's memoir of Stalin's reign, with stories of the build up of of security in the Kremlin as Stalin's paranoia grows, and the horrifying story of Stalin's wife's suicide, Kilovan Kjilas' book Conversations with Stalin, and Nikita Krushchev's Memoirs are also quoted.

The story of his trip to Nagorno-Karabakh in 1990 had me on pins and needles. I'm not going to ruin the suspense of his journey there, it is worth reading of-a-piece. In fact, this whole book views the world from a vantage point which, even with awareness of Russian history, is difficult to imagine in this kind of experiential detail if you have grown up with the western abundance we have grown so used to. That fresh viewpoint, delivered as experience not merely as explanation, is the value of reading Imperium. In fact, to my mind, a new experience of worlds we think we know is one of my chief reasons for reading at all.

This is my last entry on the splendid, wild ride - a mixture of history, psychology, world politics, geography - that was Imperium. It has convinced me, as Sheila said it would, to want to read other works by Kapuscinski. I'll leave with two more of his wonderful this-is-the-way-the- world-works observations from his 1990 trip.

For Armenians, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is a problem. The rest are enemies.

For Azerbaijanis, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is not a problem. The rest are enemies.

The extremism and finality of these positions is remarkable. It isn't merely that among Armenians one cannot say, "I believe that the Azerbaijanis are right," or the among Azerbaijanis one cannot maintain, "I believe that the Armenians are right." No such stance even enters the realm of possibility - either group would instantly hate you then kill you!

Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.
The first is the plague of nationalism.
The second is the plague of racism.
The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.

All three share one train, a common denominator - an agressive, all powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only it sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn't want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist...a mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only - its enemy.

That's why politics and religion must remain separate. I am horrified whenever religious belief enters the political fray. It is no less heinous when it happens in my country than it is in the middle east. 'A government of laws and not of men' is supposed to sidestep some of the influences of irrationality in the application of the law. Not to say that people do not have the right to the comfort of their beliefs - of course they do- but for personal beliefs, whether shared by many others or few, to be legislated for everyone, for 'god' to enter every political address is a crass commercialization of something meant to be sacred. I can't understand why it doesn't revolt the devout. I'd love to hear Kapuscinski on this - too bad we won't get that chance.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A hushed and elegant fantasy-thriller (Books - Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn)

I could hear the Tohan guards at the gate of the inn, and I knew there would be patrols in the streets. With one part of my mind I was aware that what I was doing was dangerous to the point of madness, but I could not help myself. Partly I wanted to test the skills Kenji had taught me before we got to Inuyama, but mostly I just wanted to silence the groans from the castle so that I could go to sleep.

I worked my way through the narrow streets, zigzagging towards the castle. A few houses still had lights behind the shutters, but most were already in darkness. I caught snatches of conversation as I went past: a man comforting a weeping woman, a child babbling as if in fever, a lullaby, a drunken argument. I came out onto the main road that led straight to the moat and the bridge. A canal ran alongside it, stocked against siege with carp. Mostly they slept, their scales shining faintly in the moonlight. Every now and then one would wake with a sudden flip and splash. I wondered if they dreamed.
This post along with this one and this one constitute my review.

Takeo, the hero of Across the Nightingale Floor, possesses several powers, one of which is a heightened sense of hearing. This provides opportunity for Lian Hearn to evoke the world of this fantasy in great detail, but in a fashion not usual for most fictional description - using sound much more than sight. There is something about this that creates an insulating hush about the world, as if it's just snowed heavily. This excerpt begins one of the more suspenseful moments in the book, so I won't ruin it with any further details, but when needed Hearn can write a suspense scene worthy of any spy thriller but it is juxtaposed against the unfamiliar (for me) world of the ancient East -spare panels painted with cranes in flight adorn the palace rooms, green tea is whisked in bowls and enjoyed in elegant ceramic cups. I found the well drawn characters, a story where even though the ultimate scene is obvious, Hearn still succeeds in surprising me with how the events unfold, and several moving love stories combined to make this an immensely satisfying read.

I'm looking forward to the second and third books of the Tales of the Otori trilogy, but until they arrive I have Imperium to finish up. I also want to read Oliver Sacks' latest book on the top of my TBR pile, and I'm seesawing back and forth between reading Darkmans which I've dipped into just a tiny bit, and Heat and Dust which, for one thing, is much shorter. Both Booker books. Even though classes haven't started up yet, I've been working in the lab pretty steadily since the beginning of January. I'm putting together my own experiment right now, and that entails reading a lot of journal articles. It's putting a crimp in my plans to have read five or six books in 2008 before classes begin but it is pretty exciting for me in its own right.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Am I swayed by the critics?

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This week’s question is suggested by Puss Reboots:

How much do reviews (good and bad) affect your choice of reading? If you see a bad review of a book you wanted to read, do you still read it? If you see a good review of a book you’re sure you won’t like, do you change your mind and give the book a try?

If Iris Murdoch came back from the dead to write another novel I would buy it and read it even if James Woods said that death had not helped the quality of her prose. I think I would stand by my man Richard Powers too. Equally, if the Times praised Danielle Steele's next product from now until next Thursday little on earth would persuade me to read it. But reviews frequently convince me to read books that I wouldn't have thought worth it or that weren't on my radar. I first read the Harry Potter books based on a review, otherwise they were so popular that I wouldn't have been caught dead reading them. Scott Pack turned me on to Sarah Salway's Tell Me Everything; I'd never heard of it before. Mary's Library told me about The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Mark Sarvas inelegantly beat me over the head to read The Indian Clerk. I'm pretty sure that The New York Times Book Review turned me on to Phillip Pullmans' His Dark Materials trilogy and the writer John McGahern. The New York Review of Books frequently introduces me to things I've never heard of - particularly non-fiction. It was a review there that introduced me to Revolution on My Mind, about keeping a diary under Stalin's rule and which is now on my Russian Reading Challenge list. It also introduced me to the stories of Mavis Gallant. On the other hand, I didn't read Zadie Smith's second novel because of the reviews it received, even though her first novel convinced me of her talents, and her third blew me away. Although I read many positive reviews of Ian McEwan's most recent book On Chesil Beach, those reviews convinced me that I would have no interest in reading that book, and I haven't. Sometimes a review will persuade me that maybe I should borrow a book from the library rather than purchasing it. So yes - professionally published criticism, blog posts chatty and serious, interviews with authors, and the opinions of my reading friends in particular all sway me, but it depends upon the author, the genre, my mood. The short answer is yes, but...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Metaphysics on the web and lost in the world of the book (Books - Across the Nightingale Floor)

The web was awash with metaphysics yesterday. Love that. The Frontal Cortex, Pure Pedantry, and 3 Quarks Daily all posted on Boltzmann's Brain, as I did here. A lively discussion followed at Frontal Cortex. Eoin Purcell's Blog offered two posts on whether consciousness is changing and, if it, is, how narrative, books, and publishing might change along with it.

In my own plus ca change reading world, I'm about half-way through Across the Nightingale Floor, which offers a fantasy world borrowing heavily from historical Japan with a dash of Lord of the Rings mixed in. The books began with two mirroring stories, one of a young boy separated from his family and brought up in another house, the other of a young girl in similar circumstances. The chapters alternate as they shed their old world, adopt their new, and come into themselves as teenagers. At the same time, I'm becoming aware of two additional mirroring stories in the adults into whose lives they are thrown. As is inevitable in this type of story, they will come together. I'm having a delightful lost-in-the-world-of-the-book reading experience. I don't think of myself as particularly like the young boy, but the author has really allowed me to identify with him. As he is trained by his teacher in sword play, has his mental skills sharpened, and certainly magical skills as well, I find myself in that state where I am the character, I can almost feel myself possessed of that power he is developing. Then when I have to get out of my warm bed where I've been reading to brush my teeth or something mundane like that, I feel disappointed in lacking this ability and long to get back to the book where I have it again.

There's something about learning a deep skill possessed only by few, particularly an intellectual one in my case, that seems the ultimate in a powerful experience. No wonder I'm in graduate school for neuroscience. When do I get my decoder ring?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Brains on the mind

The front page of today's Science Times is a testament to how ubiquitous the brain has become - well it has always been ubiquitous, nothing happens without it, but the brain seems to be on our mind these days. There are no less than four articles in today's Times - one is on traumatic brain injury - putatively the article addresses occupational therapy for TBI - but it's really more about what TBI is and one particular therapist's interactions with some of her clients.

A second article is about the risk we encounter not from terrorism itself but from the policy of keeping us all in a state of high alert (3 out of five). This might be said to be a different kind of security risk. I won't get into the politics of the policy, just the fact that continual fear mongering in only one way of being on one's guard (the tenor of the campaign against the threat in World War II was very different) and in this case it appears to be a source of health risk as well as (some would say) a boon to one political party.

...worrying about terrorism could be taking a toll on the hearts of millions of Americans. The evidence, published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, comes from researchers who began tracking the health of a representative sample of more than 2,700 Americans before September 2001. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the scientists monitored people’s fears of terrorism over the next several years and found that the most fearful people were three to five times more likely than the rest to receive diagnoses of new cardiovascular ailments.

Almost all the people in the study lived outside New York or Washington and didn’t know any victims of the Sept. 11 attacks... About a third to a half of Americans have continued to tell pollsters that they’re personally worried about being victims of a terrorist attack, and that an attack is somewhat or very likely within several months.

This was interesting to me not in light of politics but rather because of the way this report dovetails with the wealth of studies floating around these days pointing to the interaction of our attitudes toward factors like pain, risk, or our own intelligence, and the level of pain we experience, the way we make decisions about risk (not only in gambling games in the laboratory but also in the voting booth), or our performance on tests.

Inside the science section there is a third article about a lab that is able to use a monkey's thoughts to direct the movements of a robot. Although we're still a few years away from bionic men or women this is pretty cool.

...Idoya [the monkey] stepped onto her treadmill and began walking at a steady pace with electrodes implanted in her brain. Her walking pattern and brain signals were collected, fed into the computer and transmitted over a high-speed Internet link to a robot in Kyoto, Japan.

The robot, called CB for Computational Brain, has the same range of motion as a human. It can dance, squat, point and “feel” the ground with sensors embedded in its feet, and it will not fall over when shoved.

Designed by Gordon Cheng and colleagues at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, the robot was chosen for the experiment because of its extraordinary ability to mimic human locomotion.

As Idoya’s brain signals streamed into CB’s actuators, her job was to make the robot walk steadily via her own brain activity. She could see the back of CB’s legs on an enormous movie screen in front of her treadmill and received treats if she could make the robot’s joints move in synchrony with her own leg movements.

As Idoya walked, CB walked at exactly the same pace. Recordings from Idoya’s brain revealed that her neurons fired each time she took a step and each time the robot took a step.

A fourth front page article is really more about cosmology but the concept discussed is one I had never heard of, the Boltzmann brain problem.

The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it’s hard for nature to make a whole universe. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us.

These are the kind of articles that always make my brain hurt. This strikes me as such a ridiculously human-centric sort of theory. Why is a free-floating human brain any more mathematically probable than a free-floating human body, or little finger? If we were actually a bunch of brains floating around in space (and according to this article we may well be) then it would be unlikely for us to even come up with the concept of the world we inhabit now, with our illusory bodies walking around on illusory sidewalks, sitting at illusory desks with illusory bad backs, writing illusory blog posts about brains floating in space. It is only because we're a body containing a brain that we can imagine a universe that contains only a brain. If we were the brain we could not imagine the universe that contained the body. If you are another brain and you are reading this, do you get what I'm saying and does it make your brain hurt too?

Anyway, today's Science Times, illusory or not, is a testament to how much a part of the zeitgeist the human brain is whether our concerns are physical, political or cosmological. And don't ask me who the G. Gordon Liddys are, I have no earthly idea.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Crouching Tiger Hidden Harry Potter (Books - Across the Nightingale Floor)

At the recommendation of your friend and mine, Imani, I have begun reading Across the Nightingale Floor the first part of the Tales of the Otori series, a fantasy set in a historical Japan-like place. Barely twenty pages in, this book is action-packed, the characters compelling, the new set of vocabulary I need to negotiate this fantastical world is seamlessly interwoven with the story, which already has me completely in its grip. The writing is spare and excellent. In the opening (this is a spoiler but happens within the first 10 pages), Takeo, a young boy, returns to his village to find it attacked by a rival tribe:
The village was deserted. I could not imagine where everyone had gone. I told myself they had run away: My mother had taken my sisters to the safety of the forest. I would go and find them just as soon as I had found out who was screaming. But as I stepped out of the alley into the main street I saw two men lying on the ground. A soft evening rain was beginning to fall and they looked surprised, as though they had no idea why they were lying there in the rain. They would never get up again, and it did not matter that their clothes were getting wet.

One of them was my stepfather.

As that moment the world changed for me. A kind of fog rose before my eyes, and when it cleared nothing seemed real. I felt I had crossed over to the other world, the one that lies alongside our own, that we visit in dreams. My stepfather was wearing his best clothes. The indigo cloth was dark with rain and blood. I was sorry they were spoiled: He had been so proud of them.

Bookish New York

If and when any of you bookish types visit my fair city, today's New York Times has an article about the jewels in the crown of our library system. The big 42nd Street branch really is worth a look. Both it and the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center offer exhibits that are usually interesting AND (a big plus in NYC) it's free, free, free. The Morgan Library isn't bad either and they're all way less crowded than the Met Museum or Times Square.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Food and Drink meme - indulge yourself!

As you know if you visit me with any frequency, I like to cross-polinate my reading communities - mix a little literature with my neuroscience, a little cognitive psychology with my theater and, as I have begun reading some wine and food blogs recently, my wine with my....well, whatever - there is a wine for every occassion! Or at least I hope so. So, without further ado, I bring you this meme courtesy of eat drink one woman (slightly altered for my community of readers).

What did you eat/drink today?

A bowl of blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and kiwis w/ a little kefir on top (it's like yogurt), a piece of bread w/ Rochetta cheese (yum), Keemun Panda tea (a black tea), a few almonds, some turkey and mustard and cornichon for lunch, some cerignola olives and a glass of sauvignon blanc for a snack. For dinner and I'm meeting a friend for dinner (Italian) so I don't know yet!

What do you never eat/drink?

Brains, coconut (blech), pink grapefruit in the morning (otherwise ok), bad canned soup, fast food (life's too short), bad wine (why?)

Favorite failsafe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don't:

Pasta with either scallions and tomatoes or sardines, lemon and parmigiano, or some chicken breasts with cumin, lime juice and flat leaf parsley

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find:
Water, mustard, cheese, olives, white wine, tamari, something yogurt-like

What is your favorite kitchen item?

My 9 cm wusfhof kitchen knife, my teapot from Vermont, my gorgeous All Clad stainless steel sautee pan

Where would you recommend eating out - either on home turf or elsewhere?

'ino on Bedford Street, Wallse on W. 11th Street (NYC), Les Olives near St. Paul de Vence in Provence, or this fantastic restaurant I ate in in Rome off a side street by the Coliseum - have the buccatini all'amatriciana (best meal ever)

World ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?

A tomato-peppar martini (only at the Wallse bar), fantastic red wine, really cold water, olives, oysters on the half-shell, tuna tartar, a fantastic roast lamb dish, a cheese course, apricots, raspberries, very dark chocolate something, marzipan, espresso (who cares if I'm up all night? It's the last meal!)

Idealization as exploitation (Books - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood)

Laura herself didn't know it, of course. She had no thought of playing the doomed romantic heroine. She became that only later, in the frame of her own outcome and thus in the minds of her admirers. In the course of daily life she was frequently irritating, like anyone. Or dull. Or joyful, she could be that as well: given the right conditions, the secret of which was known only to her, she could drift off into a kind of rapture. It's her flashes of joy that are most poignant for me now.

And so in memory she rambles through her mundane activities, to the outward eye nothing very unusual - a bright-haired girl walking up a hill, intent on thoughts of her own. There are many of these lovely, pensive girls, the landscape is cluttered with them, there's one born every minutes. Most of the time nothing out of the ordinary happens to them, these girls. This and that and the other, and then they get older. But Laura has been singled out, by you, by me. In a painting she'd be gathering wildflowers, though in real life she rarely did anything of the kind. The earth-faced god crouches behind her in the forest shade. Only we can see him. Only we know he will pounce.

I've looked back over what I've set down so far, and it seems inadequate. Perhaps there is too much frivolity in it, or too many things that might be taken for frivolity. A lot of clothes, the styles and colours outmoded now, shed butterflies' wings. A lot of dinners, not always very good ones. Breakfasts, picnics, ocean voyages, costume balls, newspapers, boating on the river. Such items do not assort very well with tragedy. But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it...

Ah yes, the age old artistic conundrum - the distance between the vision and the creation. Unfortunately it is never quite bridged in The Blind Assassin because of all its fussiness with its form (see my other posts on this here and here). Atwood's toying around with meta-fiction is never quite satisfying because it doesn't seem to be necessary. She is reduced, in the end, to explaining everything that was obscured for the sake of character or the puzzle she wanted to create by playing with form. Ultimately this hopping from article, to a story within the story, to another story within that story would, one hopes, create suspense - you keep delaying the information from reaching the reader. Unfortunately the book did not succeed in doing that because I already knew what it was hiding. Or one hopes that it will reveal something critical about the story that telling it more simply would not have done. Unfortunately this book apparently fails there too because Atwood is left at the end explaining what happened.

The story is not a bad one, I did finish it after all, and it does succeed in bringing out one theme very strongly: the way women of a certain generation could be run by men, infantalized, made helpless, used as props, not allowed to exist for themselves. Atwood writes a scene in which a dinner is prepared using the original The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Merritt Farmer. In it was an epigraph by John Ruskin:
Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all herbs and fruits and balms and spices, and all that is healing and sweet in the fields and groves and savory in meats. It means carefulness and inventiveness and willingness and readiness of appliances. It means the economy of your grandmothers and the science of the modern chemist; it means testing an no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French and Arabian hospitality; and, in fine, it means that you are to be perfectly and always ladies - loaf givers.

My answer to that would be - what a lot of crap, but Atwood's is much cleverer.

I found it difficult to picture Helen of Troy in an apron, with her sleeves rolled up to the elbow and her cheek dabbled with flour; and from what I knew about Circe and Medea, the only things they'd ever cooked up were magic potions, for poisoning heir apparent or changing men into pigs. As for the Queen of Sheba, I doubt she ever made so much as a piece of toast. I wondered where Mr. Ruskin got his peculiar ideas, about ladies and cookery both. Still, it was an image that must have appealed to a great many middle-class women of my grandmother's time. They were to be sedate in bearing, unapproachable, regal even, but possessed of arcane and potentially lethal recipes, and capable of inspiring the most incendiary passions in men. And on top of that, perfectly and always ladies - loaf givers. The distributors of gracious largesse.

Had any one ever taken this sort of thing seriously? My grandmother had. All you needed to do was to look at her portraits - at that cat-ate-the-canary smile, those droopy eyelids. Who did she think she was, the Queen of Sheba? Without a doubt.

This passage reminds me of some of the ridiculous myths believed about Jews (some of them still) - horns on their heads, zionist conspiracy - all products of fear because Jewish culture was unfamiliar. But those fearing them wanted it that way. Let's bar them from all opportunity of employment except a few (like money lending) and then criticize them for being money lenders. Let's keep women soft, uneducated, and helpless so that we can take care of them and then, let's call that helplessness their nature. After a few generations of seeing women as gracious loaf givers I guess you could come to believe it.

Living out the existence of someone else's idealization of you is a form of exploitation and the two sisters in this story are both the victim of it, although each succeeds in escaping it in a way. The meaning of their lives is created by that one event - it makes their lives sad and their compensations are small ones. This story is the product of that escape. And so concludes my first book for both the Chunkster Challenge and Dewey's Booker Challenge.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The impact of ethnicity on politics and the deprivation of the frozen North (Book - Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski) cont'd

Kapuscinski arrives in Baku:
Buses arriving from the countryside crawl amid the deafening cacophony of horns into a dense, bustling crowd, into a swarm welcoming and bidding farewell, amid sellers of tomatoes, cucumbers, and shish kebabs, groups of children asking for baksheesh, sluggish and listless policemen with clubs in their hands. The East, the real East, smelling of anise and cardamom, mutton fat and fried paprika, some sort of Esfahan or Kirkuk, Izmir or Herat, an exotic world, noisy, eccentric, preoccupied with itself and closed, inaccessible to anyone from the outside. Wherever its people come together, there immediately forms a colorful, agitated concourse, bazaar, souk, market; there is immediately lots of shouting, jumping at one another's throat, quarrels, , but then (patience!) everything is transformed into calm, into an inexpensive little restaurant, into a chat, into a friendly nod of the head, into a small glass of mint tea, into a lump of sugar.

This tumult of images is like the opening shot of a film, assisting me in not merely placing myself, but experiencing the character of place upon my arrival.

I enjoy the following generalization not because it is necessarily more true than others, but because of the way Kapuscinski introduces his observations of the soviet people's relationship to nationality becomes the basis on which he builds his story of the dissolution of the Imperium.
Like peasants the world over who begin each conversation with reflections on the subject of crops, and Englishmen who start every exchange with a discussion of the weather, so in the Imperium the first step in establishing contact between people is a mutual determination of one's nationality. For much will depend on this.
Kapuscinski follows this thesis with a two-page history of soviet ethnicity from the nineteenth century to the moment of his travels as the empire dissolves. It's an excellent primer on the role of national identity in world politics and economics, and he does it all in two pages! That lays the groundwork for this simple passage about the leader of the Azerbaijani National Front, Yusif Samedoglu, who, like Kapuscinski, is a writer.

He is trying to navigate between the dictatorship of the local political bosses and the Islamic fundamentalists. But these are difficult times for liberals, for people of the center, for those who would like to reach out and hug everyone. I know what he will tell me about the situation in Baku, so I do not ask him about that; I ask him instead whether he is writing anything. He shakes his head, a resigned no. And anyway - how should he write? He always wrote in the Cyrillic alphabet, and now they are going to abolish Cyrillic. They will use only the Latin alphabet, as in Turkey, or will go back to the Arabic, nobody knows which. And what about the books that he wrote in Cyrillic? Translate them into other alphabets? Who is going to do this? Is it worth it? A writer in the prime of his life is left empty-handed, with work that will be illegible.

The observer and the observed for a moment meet at a common point. It becomes poignant because Kapuscinski can sum up the personal impact of a political upheaval in a way that he himself can feel and thus express (rather than describe) to us.

Vorkuta is north of the 'stans, north of the Urals, north of the Arctic Circle. It is pretty much beyond everything you would ever want to experience in your life. This chapter made me realize why the Russians chose Siberia as their prison. The sheer size of the country and the immobility and cruelty of the regimes that have governed it are magnified tenfold there: not just because it is isolated and has a punishing climate, but the cold is so intense, just to live is difficult - breathing is painful, you can't break the ground to make sewers or bury electricity cables most of the year, it takes ages to communicate with the central government to accomplish anything, just the way you must dress to survive isolates you from others, those who survive look straight ahead, they do not waste energy with becoming irritated, they do not ask questions - what is the point?

On his flight to Vorkuta they land instead in Syktyvkar. Kapuscinski stays with the fellow passengers from his first flight, sweating inside his sheepskin coat in the airport, there are no announcements, there is no food. He looks at those around him:
They stood staring fixedly straight ahead. Just like that: staring fixedly straight ahead. One could see no impatience in their expressions. No anxiety, agitation, anger. Most important, they asked about nothing; they asked no one about anything. But perhaps they weren't asking because they already knew?

I asked one of them if he knew when we would be taking off. If you suddenly ask someone a question here, you must wait patiently. For you can see in the face of the one queried that it is only under the influence of this stimulus (the question) that he seems to awaken, comes to life, and starts the laborious journey from some other planet to earth. And this requires time. Then an expression of slight and even amused surprise crosses his face - what's the moron asking for?


In literature (in Vasily Grossman, for example), scene describing a return home from the camps. A man has come back after ten years of suffering in Siberia. He sits down the first evening at the family table together with his wife, his children, his parents. They eat supper, perhaps there's even a conversation, but no one asks the newcomer where he was during those years, what he did, what he experienced.

What would one ask for?

A wise sentence from Ecclesiastes: "Who gathers knowledge, gathers pain."

Developing this bitter thought, Karl Popper once wrote (I am quoting from memory) that ignorance is not a simple and passive lack of knowledge, but is an active stance; it is the refusal to accept knowledge, a reluctance to possess it; it is its rejection. (Or, in a word,, antiknowledge).

Kapuscinski writes of the cruel deprivation of the lives of the coal miners of a place called Komsomolski Posiolek. He begins though with a desicription of the bus ride to his destination that is hilarious in its description of discomfort and also, somehow, elegant and richly detailed:

A small, old bus, crowded, packed, jammed. People tightly wrapped, enveloped, entangled in sheepskins, furs, scarves, pieces of felt - large, stiff, clumsy cocoons. When the bus stops, the cocoons abruptly tip forward; when it suddenly starts, they tip back. At each stop several cocoons vanish into the darkness, and others appear in their place (that is, I assume that they are others, for all the cocoons look more or less alike). Sometimes something kneads our feet so hard that we feel our bones are cracking - it is some little cocoon that is making its way towards the exit. A question about the hotel must be directed at the upper part of the cocoon - that is, at the spherical object directly in front of us, just as if we were talking into a microphone. One must strain one's ears to hear the reply, for it will not be aimed at us, but will float up from where a voice emerges from the cocoon. The downside of this mode of travel is that one can be riding next to a very beautiful girl and be completely unaware of it - no faces are visible. It is also impossible to see where we are - a thick hoarfrost and extremely rich, rococo bouquets of white flowers cover all the windows.

This entire chapter is one to read on your own, rather than in excerpts. Life in Vorkuta seems the ultimate in a desolate and pointless existence. You are lucky, if you live here, to make it to fifty years of age and yet, to give this description context, many of the people in the coal mining communities came there from elsewhere for a chance at a better life than the one they had somewhere else. Reading this incredibly vivid writing coupled with our watching the film Blood Diamonds last night really let me know how good a life I have.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

From whence came my faves

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  1. How did you come across your favorite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
  2. Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?
I'll go down the list of favorites on my side bar and see if can remember.
I was probably assigned all of Chekhov's plays in one theater class or another in college. I don't remember reading him before that. But I don't remember really loving him until I played him. A friend made a play combining letters among the members of the Moscow Art Theater and scenes from Chekhov's plays. Each person took a role in one of his plays and a historical figure like Chekhov, Olga Knipper, Stanislavski, Nemirovitch-Danchenkov, etc.. I played Kulygin and Chekhov. I don't love all his plays equally. The Cherry Orchard is my hands-down favorite. I read it once a year. The Three Sisters is a close second. I can't stand The Seagull but I keep trying. I've read a lot of the stories but they don't sing to me the way his plays do.

Iris Murdoch I didn't read until well after college, but I believe that my great-aunt Grete really enjoyed her and had given my grandparents some of her books. So I know I saw a few of her books in my grandparents' library. I believe my first was The Book and the Brotherhood and that I picked it up in one of my favorite bookstores in Chicago - either Barbara's or Powell's and was an immediate fan. I haven't yet read all her books. I am saving them up so I have some to look forward to. Please note, I cannot stand the movie Iris; I think it's crap.

At Swim Two Boys was, I believe, a gift from my friend Brad.

Cloud Street (magnificent story) I don't remember how I discovered it but until recently my copies were always used, so it probably was not a gift.

Crime and Punishment I had to read in college for a killer course called Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I was crazy about it from the get-go and have probably read it at least four or five times since then. I have dreams of making a rock opera of it.

I believe my friend Pam introduced me to Wallace Stegner, she loves his writing, and I bought a copy of Crossing to Safety at Three Lives bookstore before going to a B&B in the Hudson River Valley once about five years ago. The rest is history. His is writing to savor.

My grandparents loved Thomas Mann and had all of his books in German and many in English as well. I read Doctor Faustus after college in Chicago. I think I probably read it in connection with understanding modern music better. I also had a thing about versions of the Faust story for a while. I sort of collected them.

I picked up Dombey & Son at my favorite little East Village used bookshop for a couple of dollars and for no particularly good reason and was just blown away by it. It started me reading Dickens again, who I hadn't picked up since that Dickens and Dostoyevsky college course.

For Kings and Planets - I read everything by Ethan Canin. I had read his first story collection The Emperor of the Air and his set of Chekhovian portraits The Palace Thief as soon as they came out. He's a real writer's writer. I think I was initially attracted to his story - Harvard med school student who actually finds enough time to write a book and then, with its success, takes time off to write. I think For Kings... was actually his second novel, the first wasn't that great. But I was nuts about this book right away and have read it many times.

I wish I could remember how I first encountered Franny and Zooey but I don't. I know I was reading it in college. Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and Seymour were my favorite books then. They were my late-teenage angst books. I would read them when I was moody, consequently I read them often. I thought they were utterly brilliant then. I wonder if I still would. I feel Zooey Glass is someone I went to high school with. That's probably because I went to high school with so many snide, hyper verbal, Upper West Side boys who were fresh to their mothers.

Sheila introduced me to Hopeful Monsters. No questions there. We are its fan club, apparently.

I discovered My Name is Asher Lev in high school, as I did all of Chiam Potok's books. It was my bible of the misunderstood, outcast artist and I read it often. Gorgeous story.

My grandparents were big Herman Hesse fans. Having read all of his books in German. In fact, Hesse knew my great-grandfather slightly and assisted in getting him out of Germany in 1933. I read Narcissus and Goldmund right after college when I was pretty much book binging and read all of Hesse. I read it multiple times then. The Glass Bead Game was the last of Hesse's books that I read because it intimidated me. It is now the one I remember the most clearly and I really want to read it again. I had dreams of what it would be like to play the game from which the book gets its title.

I read On Beauty just a few years ago when it came out, having admired Zadie Smith's White Teeth but thinking it the work of a writer who was still coming into her abilities. I reread Howards End first and that's definitely the way to most admire the book. A number of my friends disagree with me about Smith and about this book in particular but I think its a hilarious critique of university politics, an accomplished homage to a great book without being merely imitative, and gorgeous controlled writing (unlike her first book which is more reckless and excessive).

I was visiting my college one year after graduating (the only time I have been back in the 24 years since) and staying with my friend Kathleen, who has sadly disappeared from my life. She introduced me to so much literature and music. That very cold visit was all about sweaters, hot tea, Phoebe Snow and May Sarton. I read Kathleen's copy of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing while on that visit and upon returning to New York went out and bought several other of her books including Shadow of a Man, which was a coming of age story that really suited me at the time. I've since read pretty much everything by Sarton, returning to her Faithful are the Wounds for the Outmoded Authors Challenge.

I discovered The Egypt Game in the P.S. 98 library when I was in either second or third grade. We were on a Zilpha Keatley Snyder kick back then and I also had a group of reading friends who wanted to read all of the Newbery Award winners. I can actually remember the copy of Snyder's The Headless Cupid, voilet colored, with a big gold award seal on the cover and brand new. After that I read The Egypt Game which I enjoyed even more because of the mystery, secret rituals, codes and all those things that I loved when I was around seven years old.

I discovered Richard Powers through reading Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance. Actually, I bought that book shortly after college (I can't remember why) and carted it around with me for years before reading it. I finally did and admired it greatly and then went out and bought The Goldbug Variations in Chicago. I remember parts of it requiring so much concentration to read that I would come to a halt on the stairmaster at the gym. I could either step or read but not both. A book of great intelligence and beauty. I so admire it.

My cousin Sylvia introduced me to Virginia Woolf and by the time we shared an apartment together in Chicago I had become as rabid a fan as she. I have read every word she's written but Orlando and The Waves are the ones I've come back to the most (and Three Guineas). I need to reread The Waves every few years. I is probably among my top five books, maybe my top three. It observes the span of human life, but from the inside out. Brilliant, touching, observant, original. No one previously had done anything like it.

Waiting for the End of the World I found in a used bookshop somewhere, I don't remember whether it was Chicago or New York. There used to be this great bookstore right next door to one of the art movie houses in downtown Chicago. I think it was called Printer's Row. The store is gone now. It's a crazed story - intense. There's a great combination of love and anger in the lead character which really intrigued me. I haven't read again in years. I wonder if I would still be as enthusiastic. Lately I don't have the patience for rereading books or seeing films I've seen again so I probably won't find out.

Thanks for accompanying me on that little stroll down memory lane.