Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Tale of horror, of hatred, and of desperate love (Books - We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

How can such a little volume be about so much? We Have Always Lived in The Castle by Shirley Jackson is about what people do when they love each other deeply, what people do when they hate each other, and what people do when they fear each other. It is about the role that imagination can play when you need to have enemies, and also when you need to have order and love in your life. It's about seeing things from the outside in versus seeing things from the inside out. It is such a remarkable and elemental story I scarcely want to breathe a word about it to you so that I don't ruin your experience of it. This is at once a cozy little story, simply written, a tale of desperate love, and a horror story. Here's a taste.
Helen Clarke said, "Do you suppose that people would really be afraid to visit here?" and Uncle Julian stopped in the doorway. He had put on his dandyish tie for company at tea, and washed his face until it was pink. "Afraid?" he said. "To visit here?" He bowed to Mrs. Wright from his chair and then to Helen Clarke. "Madam," he said and "Madam." I knew that he could not remember either of their names, or whether he had ever seen them before.

"You look well, Julian," Helen Clarke said.

"Afraid to visit here? I apologize for repeating your words, madam, but I am astonished. My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visitng here now."

Mrs. Wright made a little convulsive gesture toward her cup of tea and then set her hands firmly in her lap.

"It could be said that there is danger everywhere," Uncle Julian said. "Danger of poison, certain. My nice can tell you of the most unlikely perils - garden plants more deadly than snakes and simple herbs that slash like knives through the lining of your belly, madam. My niece - "

"Such a lovely garden," Mrs. Wright said earnestly to Constance. "I'm sure I don't know how you do it."

Helen Clarke said firmly, "Now that's all been forgotten long ago, Julian. No one ever thinks about it any more."

"Regrettable, " Uncle Julian said. "A most fascinating case, one of the few genuine mysteries of our time. Of my time, particularly. My life work," he told Mrs. Wright.

"Julian," Helen Clarke said quickly; Mrs. Wright seemed mesmerized. "There is such a thing as good taste, Julian."

"Taste, madam? Have you ever tasted arsenic? I assure you that there is one moment of utter incredulity before the mind can accept - "

In both my lives as a theater artists and as someone who wants to learn about how the human brain produces our behavior, our psychology, I have felt it my duty to try imagine for a moment what it must be like to be inside the experience of someone else. Especially when I am considering the everyday experience of someone with a syndrome like autism - but really this applies to any phenomenon - it is most easy to come at another person (or a character in a work of theater) from the point of view that, faced with situation x, they probably experience it like me. Wrong. Wrong assumption. Dangerous assumption. It is the assumption that is at the route of most bad choices about relating to other people. It is the reason working to understand the person inside any form of suffering needs two things - hard science that makes rules and tests to check the innocent assumptions we all tend to make as human beings, and compassion that stops us from doing harm when we can't fix the problem.

This post along with this one constitute my review of We Have Always Lived in The Castle.

Leading ladies

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Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

I certainly know who would not be my favorite - any of Dickens' perfect little heroines like Nell or Ada from Bleak House. As great a writer as he is, I find them paradigms rather than characters, they are just too insufferably good. Hmmmm, thinking on the keys here... As I mentioned in Eva's meme a few weeks back when she asked which three characters I wanted to hang out with, that I would invite Paulina from Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale to the planetarium and for tapas afterwards. Paulina is the woman you want in a pinch - she cares, she is bright, resourceful, and does not give up. I'm sure she registers people to vote, helps the hungry of Darfur and can whip up a mean spaghetti and meatballs for her friends. If your significant other went off the deep end like Leontes did, wouldn't you be lucky to have Paulina around? In a patriarchy she still rules the situation changing a very bad situation into a good one for all - she exacts revenge, teaches a lesson, and saves a life. Since I'm not restricted to just one, I'll also say Virginia Woolf's Orlando - although she's only a woman for part of the book. She is irrepressible and lives for 400 years, I bet she would never run out of good stories to tell! Orlando makes me smile. And for good measure I'll add E. M. Forster's Margaret Schlegel, from Howards End, although I'm not totally sure if that isn't just because Emma Thompson played her in the film adaptation. I think I remember loving her in the book as well when I last re-read it. She is lives passionately, loves deeply, values things that have real value, and doesn't care a damn about nonsense. Wonderful character.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Acquisitions department

If you haven't read Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy it is an unsurpassed fictional history of the impact of World War I on the human psyche - great, great book (mine is in one volume) - so I am really excited to read her latest - Life Class. Danielle's mention alerted me to its publication.

I wrote about the imminent arrival of Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational in yesterday's post, it's all the stuff that us geeks who study the interaction of mind and behavior get a kick out of. I especially enjoy reading about it when it is applied in a behavioral context that I may engage in every day (economics, I'm a one man boon to the book economy) but don't study.

I have a tiny cloth bound copy (3" x 5" to be exact)of A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad that belonged to my grandparents. It was published in 1936 in England so I would bet that either his brother or her sister, who had both already emigrated to England, sent it to them while they were still in Germany. When I saw The History Boys a few weeks ago (see my rave, linked) he is quoted and I thought, it's been too long since my last Inflorescence (see side bar) perhaps some Housman is in order. Yes, that's exactly what I thought.

Finally, speaking of geekdom, Developing Individuality in the Human Brain is subtitled a tribute to Michael Posner, who is one of the reigning kings of cognitive and developmental neuroscience. Posner's experimental designs are seminal to the way this science has evolved to measure cognitive functions. The book is a series of essays looking particularly at where and how developmental difference can lead to functional differences, which might sound byzantine to you, but It's my bread and butter.

That said I have a fellowship application to attend to today and we have a meeting tomorrow to discuss the the series of experiments my lab is conducting and I'm supposed to present on the evolution of my own experiment, my first actually, so I'm not going to be reading any of these new treasures today.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How to make up your mind

In the last several years, when inviting friends to a dinner party, I have often received the response "I don't know." Not "I don't know, I have to ask my whoever and get back to you," just "I don't know." Sometimes it's weeks before hearing a definitive answer. One potential guest said she couldn't tell us because her husband was out of town on the date of the party and did we want her to come alone or not? Why must I make that decision for her, I wondered. So I was interested to read John Tierney's article in today's Science Times entitled The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors.

Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B. C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops' cooking pots and burned their ships.

He explained this was to focus them on moving forward.

Evidently this story is taken from Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational which is on its way to me right now. Ariely is a behavioral economist from M. I. T. and studies decision making. I'm excited to read his new book which has been excerpted all over the place, but to return to today's science story, it speaks to the difficulty subjects in an experiment have in limiting their options, even when that exacts a price. So maybe it's not just our friends. I wonder if it's a generational thing. I don't remember it being so difficult to have a dinner a my house twenty years ago. Or maybe it's being at a stage in our lives when we and our friends are older and busier with kids and work. I'm curious how varied in age and culture the experiment's subjects were. Is this inability to limit our options really universal?

Makes me think of the Saga of Jenny
Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree
Christmas Eve she lit the candles, tossed the tapers away
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas day

Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
She lost one dad and mother, a sister and a brother,
But she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up when she was twelve
That into foreign languages she would delve
But at seventeen to Vassar, it was quite a blow
That in twenty-seven languages she couldn't say no
Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
To Jenny I'm beholden, her heart was big and golden
But she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up at twenty-two
To get herself a husband was the thing to do
She got herself all dolled up in her satins and furs
And she got herself a husband--but he wasn't hers

Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
Deserved a bed of roses, but history discloses
That she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up at fifty-one
She would write her memoirs before she was done
The very day her book was published, history relates,
There were wives who shot their husbands in some thirty-three states

Jenny made her mind up at seventy-five
She would live to be the oldest woman alive
But gin and rum and destiny play funny tricks,
And poor Jenny kicked the bucket at seventy-six
Jenny points a moral with which you cannot quarrel,
Makes a lot of common sense--
Jenny and her saga prove that you're gaga
If you don't keep sitting on the fence

Jenny and her story point the way to glory
To all man and womankind
Anyone with vision comes to this decision--
Don't make up your mind

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A guy walks into a bar... a girl walks out of the library... (Books - The Forgery of Venus & We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

Several weeks ago I was waiting for my friend, Mary, at a bar. Great wine list and killer chili-covered almonds. A guy walks in, 50ish, sits down, looks around him, spots a nicely dressed woman who is reading, loudly orders a drink, and in what I assume was a completely failed attempt to pick her up insults her book, makes embarrassing comments about her hat and his ex-wife, brags about how anti-intellectual he is, talks about how much money he has, and yammers on refusing to take any kinds hints that she had no interest in talking to him. It was three-quarters of an hour before he finally stumbled back out into the cold and the entire bar applauded the poor woman and bought her another glass of wine. The Forgery of Venus is that guy.

The egoistic, cazh (as in cazhual) voice takes way too much for granted. In the first three pages Michael Gruber manages to make snide, insulting comments about New York, come up with the following description for another character's parents: "They were actual refugees from Hitler, with dense accents, almost parodically overdressed..." what does he mean "actual" refugees? Are there people out there posing as refugees? Or has this character actually never seen one before? Are the dense accents a problem for him? Clearly their style of dress is terribly amusing in some way that eludes me. Finally, this is all done in a chapter that frames a story that happened in flashback. Yet when Gruber calls attention to that frame - bringing us into the present with his narrator who refers to actions in the past that had stopped long ago - he is unaware that the past-perfect tense should be used ('had been' ) rather than the past tense ('was'). I'm not offended a grammatical rule being broken, but with writing that jumps around in time and in which we have no reference because the book had only just begun, verb tenses are actually helpful. The writing finds many ways to be clumsy. Take this sentence : "I have sketched my life here, a singularly bland existence strung around the cusp of the century, and I supposed I wanted a taste of, I don't know, extravaganza, which is what the life of an artist, which I had declined in terror long ago, had always represented to me." Whew. I should have said "take this sentence, please."

This narrator finally leaves around page twenty or so and another character takes over. It is like walking out onto a breezy terrace at an unbearably stuffy party. The second voice, that of the "artist" in the story (dare I guess the forgerer?) is far more convincing. I stayed with him for a while - but unfortunately by that point the story had taken me too much for granted and had lost my interest. Actually he had never had it to begin with and didn't consider capturing my interest part of the job, he assumed he was owed it. Like the guy at the bar, and since I was not waiting for my friend I could walk out on this story. I am sorry to only because I was given this copy so that I might share my reactions with you in advance of its official release and I wanted to find something nice to say. Well, that second narrator is better and perhaps if you stay with him you will end up liking the story. I don't know. Life is too short for mediocre wine or books. Furthermore, this book is marketed as an "intelligent" and "sophisticated" thriller in the vein of The Da Vinci Code which I did read and kept my interest on a flight to California. If mentioning Velaszquez, Beckett and Columbia University in the first ten pages are supposed to earn this book its intelligence - think again. The story seemed fascinated with fanciness but its art seemed solely in the service of bravado and is anything but sophisticated.

To wash the taste of this one out of my mouth I began reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, an enthusiastic recommendation of superfast Annie. This reading experience is the polar opposite. Shirley Jackson establishes a macabre atmosphere, clear characters with inner lives and outer behaviors that distinguish them from one another. In fact, she has peopled an entire town and explained its internecine relationship with a certain Blackwood family that occupies the "big house" in a scant ten pages. Wonderful writing. Here's a sample.
It was a fine April morning when Ii came out of the library; the sun was shining and the false glorious promises of spring were everywhere, showing oddly through the village grime. I remember that I stood on the library steps holding my books and looking for a minute at the soft hinted green in the branches against the sky and wishing, as I always did, that I could walk home across the sky instead of through the village. From the library steps I could cross the street directly and walk on the other side along to the grocery, but that meant that I must pass the general store and the men sitting in front. In this village the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home. I could leave the library and walk up the street on this side until I was opposite the grocery and then cross; that was preferable , although it took me past the post office and the Rochester house with the piles of rusted tin and the broken automobiles and the empty gas tins and the old mattresses and plumbing fixtures and wash tubs that the Harler family brought home and - I genuinely believe - loved.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Turn the page (Film - The Page Turner)

I am an enormous fan of French film and The Page Turner is crap, if you're in the mood to be generous it's a good idea gone wrong. Here's the gist. A young girl auditions for a conservatory in her youth. During that audition someone walks into the room to request an autograph of the famous pianist who is the head of the review board. The young pianist stumbles and loses confidence. She does not gain admittance. Years later as a young woman, she becomes an assistant in a law office, gains the trust of her boss, and is eventually hired to care for his child because the regular housekeeper is on vacation and his wife is preparing an important concert. Guess who his wife is? Revenge is sought. Revenge is taken. This could be a good idea but a film is more than a good story, and it is so predictably carried out there is no reason to be interested in what happens. Dialogue between the characters and indeed the human behavior that comprises their actions seems incidental to concept at every step of the game. The director is a musician and, according to the interview with him in the special features, he directed the film in terms of rhythm and tension. Now don't get me wrong, drama in any medium can be thought of in terms of rhythm and tension but that is not an exhaustive list of its contents, and if it's the only vocabulary you have you may run out of ways to communicate to your team what you mean to realize on film. Apparently this director did. One of the first things I learned as a director and teacher of acting is that having ideas or thinking that you know what is working in a performance or what is not, is not enough to direct successfully. The success of your job is the eventual success of people other than yourself. It's your job to help them get there through any combination of their own abilities and your's that you can muster. Almost always that means a balance of translating abstract ideas you may have into something that can affect the human beings collaborating you. It also means NOT messing them up by saying everything that comes into your head. A similar thing is true for the actor. Usually actors are drawn to the profession through transformative experiences they had as audience members. However, when they step into the rehearsal studio or onto the stage, that terminology is no longer sufficient. Being on stage is not the same is being in the audience, that may seem obvious, but many actors are surprised that what moved them as an audience member ceases to work when they get on stage. They may struggle for years to get beyond the viewpoint of an enthusiast. It means developing a whole new vocabulary. It requires a different way of thinking about everything - the character you are playing, the things that happen to and around him or her, the physical actions that may reveal it, and the intellectual or emotional life that lies beneath those actions - whether it is immediately apparent to the audience or not. The director of this film seems trapped it in the perspective of a listener. Despite lovely photography, straightforward and inoffensive performances, and some clever ideas he evidently had about tension and rhythm The Page Turner was empty of any sense of life or, frankly, even of music. I found it caught up in itself and completely vapid. As one character says, quel domage.

Life by fits, starts, and blackouts (Electricity - by Ray Robinson)

An orphaned, fiercely determined, poorly educated, epileptic named Lily tries to solve the mystery of her missing brother, and discover love - an unlikely subject for a book? Cynics might say it's already been done with Asperger's (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and Tourette's (Motherless Brooklyn) so why not epilepsy - but Electricity is better than that. As a tale it is almost Dickensian, not in length but in theme - the down-and-out kids living in doorways in London, the soft-hearted junk-shop dealer who serves as surrogate father, the saintly corporate girlfriend who pulls her off the streets, the crooked detective. Like Dickens, Robinson offers up a tale of a life we have never lived (or I haven't anyway), but lets us be touched by the loss of our central character. The mystery part of the plot offers suspense that really carried this reader through the novel with interest. The writer plays virtuosically with language in a way that helps to reveal Lily's state of mind around her seizures. Finally that Dickensian hope of being reunited with her family offers the possibility of real redemption. I won't tell you if she finds him or not, for that you will have to read the book yourself. Lily's disease seems an apt metaphor for her life - something against which she is powerless comes in and shakes her up and she is left with black-out periods on either side of her seizures for which she must fill in the gaps in her existence. It is a dark life that Lily lives, but Robinson resists the temptation of simply sensationalizing the grit - there is a point to it all. I found this book a most satisfying read - thank you Scott for another good recommendation. This post along with this one and this one constitute my full reactions.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A vintage New York and reading under the covers day (a little of everything and the Film Sky Captain)

Everyone, I mean everyone seems to have the flu - if they're not coughing and spluttering then they've just spent a day throwing up. Lovely. I just got the flu shot a couple of days ago to try to fend off the dreaded bugs, but I found out this year's vaccine only has partial coverage. You just can't win. We have a little person who is supposed to come into the lab this morning for testing, but it's snowing like mad out, so who knows if they will make it. What I really feel like doing is sitting in a big lump under the covers today watching the snow from indoors, drinking tea and reading. I'm even willing to read for class and lab, though I wouldn't mind mixing in a bit of fun. I'm nearly finished with Electricity, which has been a very satisfying and energetic read, I have many chapters to go in The Stuff of Thought before I sleep, and I just received an advance copy of The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber, which the promoters are putting into the "intelligent suspense novel" category. We'll see about that.

Last night The Ragazzo and I ordered-in and watched Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It's not a brilliant film - it's a bang-bang adventure movie with an Indiana Jonesish score played by the London Symphony, a dashing but somewhat unlikely hero played by Jude Law, a beautiful but irritating heroine, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and two resourceful sidekicks played by Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi (I've always liked Ribisi why don't people cast him more often?), and some cool mechanical villains. But what is original about it is, well a few things, a revised historical setting of around 1941 almost-New York City, and an absolutely ravishing visual aesthetic which takes the feel of a 1940s film - with that bold use of chiaroscuro contrast -and puts it into a contemporary color film with lots of up-to-date special effects. It's robots have a bit of a cyber-punk feel to them - both old and new. The cityscapes in the amazing fighter plane chase sequences down the streets of 1940s NYC are Art Deco packed. There is also a crazed uber-villain played by, and no I'm not kidding, CGId images of Lawrence Olivier. This film was the flip-side of a colorized film of the 40s - it was a black-and-white-ized color film of the 00s. Very cool look. If that's your thing it's a fun evening with take-out.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Paperback vs Hardcover

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All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

Whether I buy hardcover or paperback depends on many factors - and it is truly impossible to answer the question without taking price and space into account as those are two of the biggest. There are certain writers whose books I want to get soon after they come out - if Ethan Canin has a new novel or Pat Barker (just bought her new one - can't wait) I want to read them right away, I want my purchase to impact the book's sales, and I want them to be paid for their writing. They're both probably deeply and personally grateful to me for the 11 cents they receive from the sale of a hardcover edition to moi. When each new Harry Potter book came out, I didn't want to wait until everyone else had read it and ruined the ending for me, so I bought it. There are other books where the hardcover edition is beautiful enough that I want it as an object - The Invention of Hugo Cabret was such a book. It had beautiful paper, lovely illustrations - it was a satisfying object to hold. If I get a book from the library I tend to want it to be hardcover. Library paperbacks generally show their age more. The covers are all wrinkly and the pages coarse and yellowed. They often look to me as though they been used as a teething ring or a hanky. Yuck.

However, there are some books I prefer in paperback. I usually buy my Iris Murdoch books in one place - the antiquariaat boekmarkt on the Spui in Amsterdam on Friday mornings. On my way to work, I stop off and browse the stalls. Usually there are at least one or two that have a good selection of old English paperbacks - usually the old Penguin editions. Those are my favorite Murdoch editions to have. It's fun to read the blurbs from the British literary critics and to read how the book was sold when it came out in 1967. Often the books were sold on her writing prowess, her last success rather than now when they can be sold upon her iconic status as a famous dead victim of alzheimers who was played by Judy Dench. Yawn. The old Penguins have held up pretty well, they look nice on the shelf and their easily portable. I also enjoy the New York Review of Books paperback editions - they're printed on beautiful paper and have lovely covers. They are simply nice objects. I have never seen a new Tolstoi or Dostoyevski translation by Richard Pavear and Larissa Volokhonsky in hardcover - do they exist? All of mine are attractive, large format paperback - and it's probably just as well given their length. I've had my edition of Anna Karenina for at least 15 years and its still in great shape - not yellowed or creased.

I own a lot of Dickens in paperback because I have picked them up in used bookshops but I'm not happy with any of the editions I own. The bindings are in bad shape because they've crammed so many pages into them. The text is squeezed onto the page with the tiniest margins as if the publisher thought if there were ten more pages no one would ever buy it. I want to start getting my Dickens in hardcover - despite the price - because I want to keep those books and I want to re-read them - and with some of the editions one more reading was all they could take. If I read my edition of Dombey and Sons again I would just have to discard each page after I read it because they detach from the binding as I turn them. So I want my Dickens in hardcover now. Preferably in nice editions, if you're considering getting me one for my next birthday.

But price and space are a big issue. If I'm traveling I always read a lot, but I prefer to bring paperbacks. They're lighter in weight. If I buy books while traveling, I'm more likely to buy paperback for the same reason. I live in an apartment, so space is an issue - all things are NOT equal regarding hardcover and paperback. Price can be an issue, but with plenty of opportunity to buy books at a discount or to borrow them from the library, it's usually more an issue with textbooks than any of the other stuff I read. I can save $40 or $50 with a paperback edition. And some of them are badly enough written that I will probably never consult them again after the final exam. And the prices for textbooks are nuts! Instructors get free copies and students pay over $100 - who made up that system? Thank god for India which is now producing cheap paperback copies on newsprint of many textbooks which, although they are illegal to sell, are readily available and have saved me tons of money. Another issue is not space on my shelves but space in my bag. I want to have a book with me at all times, but having suffered one incredibly bad case of sciatica, I have to limit what I carry with me. Most people still think my briefcase weighs a ton, but I refuse to be caught somewhere without something to read, so long live the paperback edition. But ultimately a book is a book, and provided it doesn't fall apart and isn't too greasy with something that sets my imagination running, if it's good to read I'll like it whatever the binding.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dishy design

In this day of recommendations I must add this totally sexy architecture and design site - green design and a great installation.

Hat tip: Daily Dish

I don't have a thought in my fingertips so...

elsewhere on the web:

From a Happy Antipodean - a view of the world that stands everything on its head (for us in the Northern Hemisphere).

Curious Expeditions show off their loot from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

New York Magazine had an interesting piece last week by Po Bronson about why and how children learn to lie (white lies included).

Discover New York City's Ward's Island Bridge at New York Daily Photo.

Aunt Jane (that's Jane Austen to you) offers some literary advice to her niece.

and, hey, what do you think about those Castros...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Corrupted innocence and a lifetime of longing (Books - The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley)

This post along with this one constitute my review of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.

Leo Colston is the only child of a middle-class widow. About to turn a very green thirteen, he spends a very hot summer vacation in the well-staffed home of a wealthier, more worldly school chum. He is eager to succeed in this unfamiliar world and it charmed into becoming the messenger between his friend's older sister and a local farmer, even while she is engaged to a viscount. The narrator's voice is an interesting one, because it teeters precariously and completely successfully between the worlds of his summer childhood of 1900 and his life fifty years later. This later voice darkly colored by the submerged memory of that time. Hartley maintains the knowledge and a deep regret of an adult held back by something he cannot quite remember, along with the innocence of the child - quick to fantasize, quick to crush, desperate to know and be part of the secret society of adults. He finds the music of Leo's inner child voice without condescension and moves handily between that voice and the later perspective without making much noise about it. The adult suddenly finds himself in that world again, led there by a childhood diary and now able to remember, he does and discovers who he has been all these years.

I just watched Alan Bennett's beautiful The History Boys this weekend, another story of childhood turning to adulthood, and adults who live with intelligence as a stand-in for the passion they cannot bring themselves to live out in their lives. In the case of The History Boys, set twenty-five years ago, the homosexuality of several of its characters is expected to live out its days quietly unrequited, if ever fulfilled it is expected to be in secret, if ever not in secret it is condemned for its blatancy, its flagrancy, its offense. Homosexuals became professionals at doing longing (although we are by no means the only ones to actually be unfulfilled, it is just that we were expected to be so to be acceptable to others. It was a way to be open without being troublesome, to be useful, even to be honored sideways). I found my own knowledge that Alan Bennett the writer and Nicholas Hytner the director are both gay, both living openly, both flagrantly successful a welcome post-script to a story I would have otherwise found tragic. What a difference twenty-five years makes.

In the case of Leo in The Go-Between, he was expected to be a messenger because he was a child, also he was of a lower class than his summer hosts and not expected to refuse. Leo became party to doing something thought wrong by this society he wanted to be part of. Unable to comprehend sexuality and yet beginning to feel it, he was both unequipped to make his own judgment and drawn to be a part of the events. So he became immoral in the eyes of this society into which he was thrust. This all happened as he was trying to create his own identity - to learn who he was. A time when one can be made or one can be broken. Was he like the admired Viscount, with his easy-going aristocratic license, his sturdy lineage. Or was he more taken by the farmer - with his strength, his awkwardness, his self-sufficiency, his blatant rage? What kinds of values should drive his future actions? The summer's events are indeed formative for him. I was not surprised to find out from Colm Toibin's introduction that the author, L. P. Hartley, was homosexual. Although that is not the subject of this story, the tale of corrupted innocence and an adult life suffused with longing was familiar.

There is a 1970 film adaptation by Harold Pinter directed by Joseph Losey that stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates that I now very much would like to see. The way in which the writing flowed in and out of the narrator's present and past and the internal dialogue resulting from events which could have otherwise have been quite small was highly cinematic. I am interested to see what kind of voice Pinter finds for this story.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Education for school or education for life? (Film - The History Boys)

Alan Bennett's play and film The History Boys is the battle between the kind of education that prepares you for life and the kind that prepares you to do well on exams at school. That battle is played out in the lives of eight bright young men at a grammar school who have passed their A-levels and are preparing to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, and their educators. The real crux of the play is the struggle to build a life of satisfaction and self-respect. The boys are not of the privileged classes, but are otherwise as different as can be - Christian, Muslim, Jew and non-believer, black, Asian and White, gay and straight, fat and skinny.

The script is a gorgeous one. I stupidly never made it to see the play when it was on Broadway, but I had read it. Alan Bennett is known both as a writer and an actor. Some of his more familiar pieces are Talking Heads, The Madness of King George III, or Prick up Your Ears. He was one of the threesome that created Beyond the Fringe. His novella The Uncommon Reader was quite a hit this past year and his memoir Untold Stories is quite good as well. The script has a real easy sophistication. It preserves the feeling of a play even while being a film. Some of the scenes did not translate well to the screen, they had a canned, stagy sound to them - as though the actors couldn't get away from the patterns they had established in its long run. Others found a subtle intimacy, but I found the meaning of the story such an important one and the love among the company for each other and their script so evident that it really didn't matter when a scene didn't fully hit the mark.

It was directed as both a play and film by Nicholas Hytner who runs England's National Theater and has directed dozens and dozens of plays and musicals as well as a few films. Most of the boys were fresh faces at the time of the film's release, you might recognize a few of the grown-up-types, as few of the better known stage and film actors escaped without playing someone in Harry Potter. Richard Griffiths is beautiful in it, and a lot of the boys are really good but I'll save my special praise for Stephen Campbell Moore, I found his performance particularly real and moving. Full of longing and insecurity - beautiful work. If you don't know his work, rent this film or Bright Young Things in which he was equally good.

There was a whole tradition of closeted homosexual school teacher in British grammar schools, who liked being around other men and perhaps couldn't find a way to be socially acceptable in the world they were supposedly prepared for, so they stayed in school - their sexual longing sublimated into a love of a subject and their intimacy played out in intellectual exchanges between them and their students in the classroom rather than in bed. Given the fact that most of the world is coming out of the closet now, I hope it is a dying breed. No one should be forced to be unhappy because it is more comfortable for other people, and it is far from the only way to assure passionate pedagogy but it did make for some very memorable teachers. This film is an homage to them but it is more than that too. Seek it out if you haven't yet seen it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Advice for aspiring writers

Here is sage advice for writers aspiring to be published, fresh from the typing fingers of a literary agent... and a good laugh, courtesy of The Swivet.

Words as power (Books - The Stuff of Thought and The Go-Between)

Psychologist Steven Pinker's new book The Stuff of Thought and L. P. Hartley's 1952 novel The Go-Between many seem unlikely bedfellows but not only are they perfectly happy together in my bed, they share a common theme - the power of language.

Steven Pinker's latest appears to be the coming-together of two series of books he has written, one on language the other on the mechanisms behind human behavior in general. His first chapter begins with a discussion of the ways in which semantics seems to construe reality itself. But language is an interwoven and self-referential web of symbols, he cautions those who crave certainty through language, don't expect too much of names. He best illustrates his point, as he often does, by making a joke:

endless loop, n. See loop, endless.
loop, endeless, n. See endless loop.

Finally, a riff on the relationship between words and emotions, particularly as used in profanity.

It is a real puzzle for the science of mind why, when an unpleasant event befalls us - we slice our thumb along with the bagel, or knock a glass of beer into our lap - the topic of our conversation turns abruptly to sexuality, excretion, or religion. It is also a strange feature of our makeup that when an adversary infringes on our rights - say, by slipping into a parking space we have been waiting for, or firing up a leaf blower at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning - we are apt to extend him advice in the manner of Woody Allen, who recounted "I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words."

Indeed, the first chapter heralds this book as one of relationships between words and worlds: words and reality, words and community, words and emotions, words and social relations. Pinker doesn't stint on the complexity of his subject but manages to convey his ideas in accessible prose with an easy narrative flow, illustrated with contemporary and humorous examples. His work can be a great introduction to the rigors of the science of language and thought. I'm really looking forward to it. If you have never heard him speak, here is one of his talks - they can be a lot of fun.

The Go-Between, a recommendation from Matt, is by a 20th century English writer I had never heard of - L. P. Hartley. He is a contemporary of E. M. Forster and this is his most well-known novel, although it hadn't been to me. A sensitive English boy of a bourgeois family attending public school comes of age at the home of a wealthy school friend by becoming the messenger between lovers. Much of his education in this vacation is about losing his innocence about the mysteries of the adult world and to try to figure out where in it he might belong.

I was aware of something stable in his nature. He gave me a feeling of security, as if nothing that I said or did would change his opinion of me. I never found his pleasantries irksome, partly, no doubt, because he was a Viscount, but partly, too, because I respected his self-discipline. He had very little to laugh about, I thought, and yet he laughed. His gaiety had a background of the hospital and the battlefield. I felt he had some inner reserve of strength which no reverse, however serious, would break down.

All the same, driving back on the one unoccupied box seat (the footman had the other), I was aware (though I did not admit it to myself) that I found the coachman's factual conversation more satisfying than the trifling, purposeless, unanchored talk that I had been listening to before I fell asleep. I liked giving and receiving information and he supplied it just as did the signposts and the milestones - to the appearance of which, as every few minutes they hove in sight, I eagerly looked forward. Sometimes he couldn't answer my questions. "Why are there so many by-roads in Norfolk?" I asked. "There aren't any where I live." He didn't know, but generally he did, and with him I felt I was getting somewhere. With them there was nothing to catch hold of: gossamer threads that broke against my mind and tired it. The conversation of the gods! - I didn't resent or feel aggrieved because I couldn't understand it. I was smallest of the planets, and if I carried messages between them and I couldn't always understand, that was in order too: they were something in a foreign language - star-talk.

I guess Leo, our narrator, is one of those people Pinker writes about, who craves certainty in language. I won't hold it against him. I find Hartley's prose really captures the innocent boy's train of logic without being condescending by rendering it childish. The flow of his language really moves this story along. I just barely started it and am already half-way through.

There is a wonderful sequence at the beginning of the novel that made me think of it as the companion piece to Pinker's book, not merely because I am reading them at the same time. Leo is a delicate and not altogether popular boy at his school. He keeps a diary to which he confides his thoughts and tries to work out his identity. He confides to his diary his feelings about a match in which the rivalry between his school and another is settled - "Vanquished!" he writes. He is mercilessly mocked by two older schoolmates and decides to gain control over the situation by writing a series of curses in his diary that will befall any illicit readers. The two bullies read the diary again and promptly both take damaging falls from the roof, giving them concussions and broken bones. Immediately Leo's currency rises at school. He gains fame as a magician whose very words have the power to maim and to cause sudden school holidays. This story is told through the veil of another layer. The narrator is the grown up Leo fifty years later. He finds this magic diary and pieces together from the book in which he created his identity through words years before, how he became who he is today:

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: "Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people's books instead of writing your own? What has become of the Ram, the Bull, and the Lion, the examples I gave you to emulate? Where above all is the Virgin, with her shining face and long curling tresses, whom I entrusted to you" - what should I say?

I should have an answer ready. "Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tall you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me."

As a school-aged boy, I too remember feeling an outcast and trying to conjure up spells to lend me power, to vanquish my rivals. I found that power in theater rather than writing - another ritual of creating identity through words. I am finding this story very close to home. Hartley writes perceptively, and reading as its companion piece a story about language and its interactions with thought feels, well, almost magical.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A valentine to books...

Rather than do any more studying last night, I lay in bed and looked at this lovely book At Home with Books, which The Ragazzo gave me a few years ago. Picture after people's libraries, or some who have some many books that their homes are their libraries. If you love books there couldn't be a more gushy love letter to them. Happy valentine's day - who needs bonbons when there are books?

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf or Richard Powers?

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I had a post ready for today, but I liked this suggestion from Chris even better, so … thanks, Chris!

Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.

Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

Not exactly, but Richard Powers is one of my very favorite authors and there are two books of his I simply cannot read: Prisoner's Dilemma and The Time of Our Singing. However, they have not deterred me because he is still the author of The Gold Bug Variations. I have bought his later books, read them, and enjoyed them heartily. I loved The Echo Maker. After all, as Shakespeare tells us, "love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds."

I also had read pretty much everything Virginia Woolf had ever written or written about her, while directing a play about her. Getting the play produced took five years and the play then ran for the better part of a year. When it was all over I couldn't stand to even look at one of her books. I packed them all in a couple of boxes and relegated them to the basement, where they sat until I moved back to NYC. Then I unpacked the boxes and she and her Bloomsburian friends pretty much rule their own bookcase now in my dining room. I reread her books more often than just about anyone else's.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Peculiar crimes and peculiar detectives (Books - Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler)

The post along with this one constitute my review of Full Dark House.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit that Bryant and May, the lead detectives in Full Dark House, belong to, was started during World War II to field everything the more traditional bureaus don't know how to deal with - that refers to the recruits as well as to the crimes. While the motley crew assembled there gives author Christopher Fowler some good opportunities for humor it also lets him create crime solving methods that are less hackneyed than your run-of-the-mill gum-shoe. In a way I guess all the best literary detectives - Miss Marple, Sherlock, VI Warshawski, Morse - are non-traditional creations. But I find the set-in of Arthur Bryant (and this book is the first of a series) a particularly effective combination of literary smarts, belief in the paranormal, and personal circumstances that drive his desire to know.

'When I was a child I sued to believe that bad people always acted for a reason. Now I'm starting to think criminal behaviour is inexplicable,' said Bryant, disconsolately stirring his tea. 'There have always been individuals who are prone to murder. They're methodical, but not logical. Look at Crippen, Wainwright, Seddon, Jack the Ripper - they weren't driven by quantifiable needs but by aberrant impulses. And now the world has become an irrational place. That's why the Sherlock Holmes method of detection no longer works; logic is fading. The value system we were raised by in the thirties has little relevance. Beneath this toic attitude of "business as usual" there is madness in the very air.'

'I don't know how you can think that.' May wiped a patch of window clear with his sleeve and watched the sheets of obscuring rain slide across the road like Japanese paper screens. 'Throughout history, human nature remains unchanged. The world's oldest questions are still being asked. Medea, Oedipus, we're not adding anything that the Greeks didn't already know. If you believe our knowledge has no relevance, why have you become a detective?'

And there you have it. The essential conflict that is going to drive the relationship between Bryant and May. I hope Fowler stays true to it. It works well.

Fowler set up some good red herrings in this plot that had me believing I had everything figured out when I hadn't. He also had a couple plot points I caught onto pretty early and which did not turn out to be terribly surprising, but all in all, the ending of Full Dark House was very satisfying. The next time I feel like a mystery, I'll try to track the next one down, I wonder if it is written yet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Your neurons love!

© Paul De Koninck,

Neurons in science news again this Tuesday. Nigella Lawson's neurons cook quick gourmet chicken. Virginia Woolf's wrote The Waves and went a little wonky. What is it the little buggers won't do? Evidently, according to a fluff piece in the Science Times by Tara Parker-Pope, they will also revive tired marriages. That's right, and novelty is the key.

The theory is based on brain science. New experiences activate the brain's reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner. (They are also the brain chemicals involved in drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

Novelty will reignite your romance-associated brain circuits, folks, which will in turn re-fluff your flaccid marriage or other relationship. That's brought to you by brain science, the new psychology.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The search for enlightenment, release, forgiveness (Booker Challenge - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala)

This post along with this one constitute my thoughts about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 1974 Heat and Dust - Booker prize winner, and it contains a spoiler. Heat and Dust is a story of differences. The English and the Indian, the intellectual and the spiritual, the servants of the empire and the 'natives.
Yes, concluded the Major it is all very well to love and admire India - intellectually, aesthetically, he did not mention sexually but he must have been aware of that factor too - but always with a virile, measured, European feeling. One should never, he warned, allow oneself to become softened (like Indians) by an excess of feeling; because the moment that happens - the moment one exceeds one's measure - one is in danger of being dragged over to the other side.
Or of losing one's wife, I guess the book would say. Perhaps for its time this book read more profoundly than it does now. Perhaps it performed literary atonement for political sins and awarding it the Booker showed the English really meant it? I don't know. I found the story predictable, the writing style admirable but reportorial. I was interested but never moved. Perhaps it is because I saw the movie (although that was many years ago), but I was left feeling a little empty.

When Olivia, the wife of a British official, and a local Indian prince begin their relationship he asks her:
Olivia, do you also hate and despise orientals? Of course you do. And you are right, I think. Because we are very stupid people with feelings that we let others trample on and hurt to their hearts' content. English people are so lucky - they have no feelings at all.

The British characters in this book search for power, for love, for enlightenment, for their roots - with all this longing surely there is some feeling too - however disguised? Conversely, the married Indian prince toys with and seduces a stupid and idle British woman and gets her pregnant. She aborts her baby and lives in the mountains in India for the rest of her life. If the prince felts any remorse, in fact, if he felt anything at all, I was unaware of it. So I guess the finally irony is that the British made true subjects of the Indians after all.

I did find the descriptions of life in India interesting. One of the primary reasons I read is to get inside difference - whether of individuals, cultures, times, geographies, what have you. It is curious, the draw this country, of poverty, of harsh caste hierarchies, has to people seeking release from themselves. I hope to travel there one day and in the meantime will, I guess, visit through literature.

A mystery in war-torn London and some cheese (Books - Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler)

Some kiwis, this wonderful fresh, buttery Italian cheese called La Tur - made from the milk of cows, goats and sheep - on whole grain toast, and a pot of white darjeeling tea. I'm all set for a Sunday at home. Lots of homework, a little yoga, and I'm going to try to finish both Heat and Dust and Full Dark House, another Scott Pack recommendation, whose big mouth has really been turning up some good reads for me.

Full Dark House is a mystery by Christopher Fowler set in the twin time periods of the more-or-less-present and 1940s London during the blitz. I'm enjoying everything about it. There is a great cast of quirky characters, both among the detectives, and the members of a production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld that remind me a bit of J. B. Priestly. The setting in a London Theater is well researched, the history of blitz-torn London is provided in just the kind of detail I appreciate. It makes me feel what it must have been like to live there. Fowler' moves deftly between his two time periods. He is not only NOT heavy handed, but he finds a way for a character to move their attention back in time in order that we seem to slip seamlessly there with the minimum of telegraphing. He also creates two detectives who are not just charmingly eccentric but very quickly have touched me. I haven't been in the mood for a mystery in a long time and this one has won me over. I echo Scott's recommendation.

Come up and see his etchings (Lucian Freud at MOMA)

I had an invitation to go up and see someone's etchings yesterday and I actually went! To be honest, the invitation was from my mother for a member's night at MOMA, and the etchings Lucian Freud's and were part of an exhibit that looked at the relationship between his painting and etching of the same subjects. It was mostly portraiture, which I love, although there were also a few still lives. I really love Freud's work (the grandson of Sigmund, by the way - another generation is creating myths of identity - and I don't mean that at all insultingly for either generation). I always see Freud's work if it comes to a New York gallery and this is my favorite kind of exhibit, small and focused on something particular the curator sees rather than an assembly of every splotch Seurat or someone committed to a surface. Here it all is, those exhibits seem to say to one, memorize it; more is better. Here's the headphone. Learn your lessons well. What a dreary way to look at art. No headphones here. Very few placards with explanations at all. And there weren't hoards of thousands to compete with to see them either. I don't know if it is touring to anywhere else but if you have an opportunity to see it, it's a terrific exhibit.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Trolling around...

Some new additions to my blog roll. Some are new to me and others I've been stopping by for a while:

50 Books
she makes me laugh

books and the book world

Reading matters
Aussie reader/editor in London - book fanatic

Ready steady blog
all things literary

Sarah's writing journal
the wonderful writer Sarah Salway, I've raved enough

The swivet
La Gringa on books, publishing and her cats

The genre files
genre fiction

Vulpes Libris
a cooperative book blog with fur and big teeth

and I think it is important that you know the meaning of the word hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, but don't worry, if it's new to you (and it was to me) you can find out all about it at The Engine Room. - a blog on language use in the media
hat tip: blogright reading

So come on, procrastinate with me, you know you want to.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Note to self (Books - Electricity by Ray Robinson)

Lily, the narrator of Electricity, is a young women deserted by her family, epileptic, put into foster care, and eventually set up in an apartment at 18 to survive on her own. It has made her hard but it has also made her practical. Her landlord suggests she work calling out bingo numbers at the arcade:

So I put the flowers in the sink, thinking what could I say? I heard him go you're a tidy bugger. I knew what he was looking at: the graffiti on the walls, the tiny pillows on the corners of everything. He never asked. Never said anything. Just gawped and looked confused. It was just another way I coped. Notes to myself. No sharp corners. Notes about my tablets and how to make food the safest way. What I should and shouldn't eat. Sounds stupid. I started doing it soon as I moved in. Had no one to remind me what to do any more. And the words - they made me feel safe, that's all. The biggest was the one I'd written with a black marker pen. It was on the wall facing you when you came in. I wrote it there because sometimes I forget who I am or where I am. I forget where I live.


I'd even put some kisses to myself XXX

Sometime these things are a comfort.

That note breaks my heart.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Inventive and evocative (Books - Electricity by Ray Robinson)

Electricity is totally live - may I just say, this man can write. I almost wrote this girl can write, because his narrator's voice (Lily) is so convincing. There is nothing particularly fun about the life Lily is leading. Her neglect as a child and her violent epilepsy have left her a little wary of how much she can expect to control in her life, but it has made her scrappy. The book is like a combination of Mary Gaitskill's world and Tim Winton's language. The writing is inventive and evocative. It has a music completely its own.

...I imagined men's roving sex-eyes and I liked the feeling it gave me. I haggled the guy on the stall down to fifteen quid. He said he wished he could see it on and I went in your dreams mister. It was short and hugged me in all the right places, showed off my legs. I have great legs. They make up for what I lack in the boob department.

I necked my two evening pills (picture of two pills here) early.

It's what I measure my days by. Six a day. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon, two at night. You can't miss them. Like full stops and my days are three sentences. Awake, two pills, two pills, two pills, asleep.

You just hope life happens in between.

I brushed my hair so many times that it popped with static. I looked electrified with the heat inside me. It made me look even taller than my six foot. I could feel my frizz bobbing soft on my shoulders as I took long-legged strides along the seafront. I had the surprise of a thrill-knot dancing around my belly, and the beam across my face was on full power. The dress felt like something explosive hidden under my coat. I couldn't remember a time when I'd felt better, more alive.

There is another passage I want to share with you but I'm going to be late for class! So more later.

Eating through Thursday

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Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?

Leisure time? What leisure time? I'm in grad school. But there are some other things I do in order to avoid doing what I should be doing. Walking, yoga (when I'm a good boy), cooking and eating really yummy food, or eating it out, or just eating in general (but it has to be good), making and drinking tea, exploring wines, going to the theater (but I used to much more), watching movies - mostly from the library and so mostly at home, listening to music, playing the piano.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Novel and insistent (Books - Electricity by Ray Robinson)

Amid the violent storms and election returns I received a nice package including the final book in the Tales of the Otori series, highly recommended by both Annie and Sheila, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, A Private Affair which the Dovegreyreader wrote about recently, and Electricity which I heard about from Scott Pack. I also heard from the library that three of my requests are ready for pickup - The Bone People, one of my choices for the Booker Challenge based on Sheila's enthusiasm, Season of the Witch, I don't remember who lead me to that one, and finally Full Dark House, also recommended by Scott Pack. I'll walk over and pick them up today. Whew - an embarrassment of riches.

Last night, after that bright blue book in the pile pictured above had weighed my eyelids down, I looked forward to paging through my new arrivals to find the next book. I opened Electricity by Ray Robinson and it grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go. Uncle! Lily O'Connor is the epileptic narrator - edgy and tough - her voice insistent. The electric jolts of her disease find their representation in print in a novel way. From what I've read so far, time appears to proceed backwards. It looks like this will be a good one. That's 2-for-2, Scott!

Now it's time for some more of that bright blue book. Come on, I say to myself, you can do it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Lots of delegates up for grabs today in the United States. We talk a lot about our rights in my country. Today is about one of our responsibilities. If you live in one of the "super Tuesday" states get out and vote. No excuses.

Am I an imposter?

Sometimes a fraud is a fraud, that is sometimes those who say they are not confident are not telling the truth, according to Dr. Mark Leary and his study on self deprecation and self evaluation that is the subject of an article in today's Science Times.

...they adopt self-deprecation as a social strategy, consciously or not, and are secretly more confident than they let on.

The bit I found most interesting was the differences another study conducted at Purdue by Shamala Kumar and Carolyn Jagacinski found between men and women on their confidence and feelings of being an imposter vs their desire to compete.

women who scored highly also reported a strong desire to show that they could do better than others. They competed harder.
By contrast, men who scored highly on the imposter scale showed more desire to avoid contests in areas where they felt vulnerable. "The motivation was to avoid doing poorly, looking weak," Dr. Jagacinski said.
One more nail in the coffin of the myth of male superiority - no wonder most members of my sex are always watching football, carrying big guns, and going to war.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Becoming unmoored (Books - The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley)

This post and this one constitute my full review of The Master Bedroom.

The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley is full of people who have become unmoored, one because of a freak accident she was involved in on the highway, one by dementia, one by impending death, one by love. They all are experiencing a kind of loss. Hadley puts the inside of these experiences on the page with acuity, whether they are happening to a middle aged woman or a teenage boy.

The French windows were pushed open onto the garden and couples were moving about out there in the close gray evening; the chopped-off grass lying about on the lawn smelled heavily sweet, and colored lanterns, still pale in the late daylight, hung in the trees. Children were taking turns to roll down a sharp slope at the far end of the garden, into the fence. David had an instinct that if he and Suzie once went outside they'd be lost, they'd never be able to join in the party; after strolling round and round pretending to smell the roses they'd simply have to make a humiliating escape through some back gate or over a wall. They looked around them instead with exaggerated interest and talked about the house; filled up with life like this it didn't look so much eccentric as privileged.

I love that paragraph because it captures that feeling one can have of being sealed off from everyone and everything going on around one. A teenage boy has a similar experience, but of all of life:

- Before I knew you, it was like looking at real life - people actually feeling things and being things - through a closed window.

- The people on the other side of the window, of course, were looking back enviously at you.

- I was afraid of never getting to be actually real. Having Dad and Suzie's life: driving round picking the kids up from things or dropping them off, booking a two-week holiday each year, machines at home to do everything that nobody uses. It's like a picture of life. Only in here is real, because it doesn't pretend to be. That's a paradox...

- You know how to do things, he said. Everything you touch, you know how to do it. As if there's a hidden pattern.

- If only you knew.

The Master Bedroom probes big experiences like love and others like listening to music or the routines of daily life, all from a perspective of loss and does so meaningfully and quite beautifully. A satisfying read but not a comfortable one - one that made me feel my own life differently.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A little necrophilia to go with your incest? A rave for Stratas as Salome.

I thought with my adulterous literature kick (Heat and Dust and The Master Bedroom) I would add a dash of incest and a little necrophilia, so on Alex Ross' suggestion we got the 1970s film of Struass' Salome with Teresa Stratas. Wow! Thank you Alex. If you are not familiar with Oscar Wilde's script, it's classical epic meets bad horror film. Pretty over the top. Add Richard Strauss' music and then that raucous lyricism can really, well, sing. Strauss loved those crazy women - Elektra, Salome, Helen, Ariadne. He had a taste for the overwraught. His music is gorgeously lyrical and sort of cacophonous at the same time. In Salome, Elektra and Die Frau Ohne Schatten, all Strauss operas, you can hear Vienna but the machine is broken and has been repaired with parts from the junk shop - a sort-of steam-punk classical music. It's gorgeously right for this material. He wrote more strictly lyrical stuff too - check out his Four Last Songs if you don't believe me. More ravishing songs do not exist.

Anyhoo, Salome, the production by Gotz Friedrich is in a sort of 1970s biblical epic style. I expected Charlton Heston to appear at any moment. Everyone is a bit over-the-top, even Stratas but she is also perfect. Astrid Varnay, one of the reigning Wagnerian sopranos from the 1940s and 50s plays Herodias - Salome's mom, like a drag queen. This is a role typically played by over-the-hill sopranos. It's not supposed to sound nice. And she really gets into it. The crunching of the scenery can be heard for miles and she probably used the conductor's baton as a toothpick afterwards. Speaking of which the conductor Karl Bohm produces sweat-producing theatrical tension in the famous final scene that, with Stratas' singing, brought it home in a way I've never heard in any other version. Bernd Weikl sounds gorgeous as Jokhanaan. All in all this DVD is a really satisfying blend of film and opera and features the most committed and sumptuously sung performance of this sex-starved girl-woman you are every likely to see. Stratas really gets her. This is a rave-worthy film.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Leaving life behind and returning to the scene of one's childhood (Books - The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley)

About 100 pages in to The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley I realized that I am now reading two books about adulterous relationships (Heat and Dust being the other). Hmmm. I'm sure Dr. Freud would have something to say about that. I had read a review of this book a while ago and something had made me put it on my library request list but I no longer can remember what it was. I went to pick up the book on such a windy day in New York that on my way through the park I was practically blown off my feet and had to do a little dance with a three-foot-high trash basket that was blown into my path. I looked at the cover and thought, this could be pretty trashy, but I decided to go ahead anyway, although with lowered expectations. Perhaps that's one reason I'm enjoying it so much. The quality of the writing drew me in in an instant:

No one was going very fast. She had meant to time her journey to miss the rush hour, but the minutes and hours of her morning, taken up with returning keys and dropping off graded exams at the university, had drifted off evasively as usual. Her life would never fit inside the lucid shapes she planned for it. So here she was in the middle lane in a queue coming out of Newport in dreary winter dusk and rain, shrunken among towering lorries whose wheels fumed with wet, gripping the steering wheel with both hands, longing to smoke but not daring to fumble a cigarette out of her pack on the dashboard. The cat in his basket, strapped into the passenger seat beside her, slunk round in circles with his fur flattened, expressing precisely the mingled unease and ennui that she felt.

That's from the book's second paragraph and already I have so much information about character and situation. In addition, the story is a good one - Kate leaves behind a successful academic's life in London and returns to her home town of Cardiff to take care of her mother who is succumbing to dementia. She meets an old childhood acquaintance who is in a problematic marriage and - voila - as Emma Bovary might say. Although here it seems there may end up being a problem with the paramour's son. We'll see.

Hadley plumbs her character's inner reaches as a matter of course. Though the novel does have events - action, as they say - it is a characters' experience of that action appears to be what Hadley is most interested in.

She kicked off her shoes and lay on her bed, smoking and giving herself up to hollowness, staring at the Pied Piper in the nursery frieze, who loomed with his jaunty up lifted beckoning trumpet through the purple paint, in such promise of adventure and pleasure. How could she have imagined for one moment that she mattered except as an occasional Sunday-morning friend to this David whose other life was so actual, so unalterably good-looking, so substantially made flesh? She must have thought he was a man with a paper life to screw up and throw away, like some of the people she knew in London. She had screwed up her own professional life as if it didn't matter and stepped outside it into where she was no one.

Hadley is favorably compared to Anne Tyler on the book's cover, and I would agree. The story has a similar feel of recognizable modern life details, interesting characters who are taking some uncharacteristic risk or who are slightly quirky by nature. There's one thing that is distracting me about the modern life details in this book. That is its occasional need to make a highly specific reference, like naming the news program that a character watches on television. I'm not sure why it bothers me. My initial reaction is, oh - that will date this book as soon as the program is off the air - but is that necessarily bad? Sometimes I do read a "period" book and come across a detail no longer of my own era and it jars me. Other times it is simply interesting or charming - a piece of the period, even if that period was sooooo last week. For some reason this one jars me, perhaps just because the rest of the book, although it can be placed specifically in time, is not nailed there irretrievably. As I read of the characters and their actions I get pulled in and it is simply happening right now. Can you come up with reasons you think time-specific references have either 'help' or 'hurt' your reading of something specifically or in general?