Monday, March 31, 2008

An invitation to dream (Books - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje)

I have three books in progress so I don't know why, as I got into bed to read at 11 last night, I found Michael Ondaatje's new book Divisadero tempting me from atop the TBR tower. Was it the loaf of french bread and the tin of tea in the black and white photograph on the shiny new library dust jacket? Was it the French portion of the setting? After a day of chores and school work, was it the freedom to choose completely as I wished? What ever it was, the opening paragraphs masterfully drew me in, letting me know this would be a book that is ruled by imagination, not a strictly linear story, that art has an important place in the character's life, and that she is a romantic - she transforms her life through imagination. That opening line is such an invitation to do just what I hope a good book will do when I open it.

When I come to lie in your arms, you sometimes ask me in which historical moment do I wish to exist. And I will say Paris, the week Colette died... Paris, August 3rd, 1954. In a few days, at her state funeral, a thousand lilies will be placed by her grave, and I want to be there, walking that avenue of wet lime trees until I stand beneath the second-floor apartment that belonged to her in the Palais-Royal. The history of people like her fills my heart. She was a writer who remarked that her only virtue was self-doubt. (A day or two before she died, they say Colette was visited by Jean Genet, who stole nothing. Ah, the grace of the great thief...)

'We have art,' Nietzche said, 'so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.' The raw truth of an inicident never ends, and the story of Coop and the terrain of my sister's life are endless to me. They are the sudden possibility every time I pick up the telephone when it rings some late hour after midnight, and I wait for his voice, or the deep breath before Claire will announce herself.

For I have taken myself away from who I was with them, and what I used to be. When my name was Anna.

I read those three paragraphs and knew so much about what I was about to read. Not least of all that I really wanted to be in this book. I wish I could have stayed awake long enough to read a little more. I'm so tempted to dump the articles on ADHD medications out of my bag this morning and take this book for the long train ride to school.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Know thy shelves

It occurred to me while getting a glimpse of Dani's precarious piles of read and unread books over at A Work in Progress, that we folks who read book blogs are probably the same folks who, when we go to a person's house for the first time, check out their bookshelves. When I visit a blog for the first time, I'm checking out the blogger's shelves to find out who this person really is and whether I want to be friends. I supposed one could say that it is snobbish to base my decision on books, but reading is about both the heart and mind and knowing what someone reads and, if they tend to do this, what kind of books they keep company with, tells you a lot about what they care about. What are their passions, their arcane interests? It tells you what they're thinking about when they're alone with the company of their own mind and it does so without the person explicitly needing to describe those things, which is easy for some and hard for others. I love meeting someone who is on the more socially awkward side and kind of closemouthed about themselves and finding out what they read. Aha - bodice rippers and swords dunked in dragon's blood - now I know the real you!

Aside from the fact that the images of Dani's book room also made me feel much better about the state of my own shelves and TBR pile which are paltry compared to her's (ha-ha-ha), or actually it's more likely that they're more spread out around my apartment and appear to be. You can be the judge, a few of my shelves can be seen above.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Good News

Fel-low-ship - [ME felauship] companionship; friendly association.

It sure is! Some good news to share with my regulars (or anyone who cares, I'm in the shout-it-from-the-rooftops kind of mood). I just found out that I will receive a five-year fellowship to support my doctoral studies and research. Whoo hoo, not to mention thank goodness for that.

Now I guess I better do a good job, or something resembling one.

Treasures from the library

We had an evening out at one of our favorites - a portuguese tapas bar - to celebrate our anniversary last night, so I'm getting a late start. I did make my way through the raindrops this morning and came home with some enticing goodies from the library.

Music, In a Foreign Language - the idiosyncratic work of Scotsman Andrew Crumey was recommended by John Self at Asylum. Like Richard Powers - one of my favorites - Crumey likes weave science, music, and philosophy through his fiction. This is set in an alternative British police state in which the publishers of an underground magazine - one a physicist and one a historian - are investigated.

I was not familiar with the work of Patrick Gale when Mark Johnson wrote about his Notes for An Exhibition over at 5th Estate. While I wasn't particularly drawn to that one, I was to Rough Music which seems to be an across-the-generations story of family relations.

Finally, after reading a rave over Divisadero at Ex Libris, I put it on my library reserve list. The dual time and place device is one I usually enjoy in fiction. Sometimes Ondaatje can put me to sleep, other times I've really liked him, so I'm willing to give this one a shot.

Time to get to work.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

History happens to us one at a time (Books - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith)

I was so wound up yesterday at 11pm when I was done with the day's assignments that I had to read some of Child 44 to wind down. Not to say that this book exactly has a calming influence. What I admired in it yesterday was the way Tom Rob Smith integrates his knowledge of Stalinist Russia - everything from interrogation techniques of the secret police to the internecine competition between officers:

- Why is it you're such good friends with Anatoly Brodsky when everyone else in this building disliked and mistrusted him?

Zina was caught off guard: her sense of discretion blunted by her indignation at this lie:

- Everyone in this building liked Anatoly. He was a good man.

- Brodsky is a spy. Yet you call him good? Treachery is a virtue?

Realizing her mistake too late, Zina began to qualify her comment.

- All I mean was that he was very considerate with the noise. He was polite.

These qualifications were stuttering and irrelevant. Leo ignored them. He took out a pad and wrote down her ill-chosen words in large visible letters.


He wrote clearly so that she could see exactly what he was writing: he was writing off the net fifteen years of her life. Those words were more than enough to convict her as a collaborator. She'd receive a lengthy sentence as a political prisoner. At her age she had little chance of surviving the Gulags. He didn't need to say any of these threats aloud. They were common currency.

What interests me about this excerpt is how political history is integrated with the experience of a specific person in a specific situation. This is the kind of detail that I always crave in learning about the world. I know Stalin was terrible, yes I know many people were imprisoned in the gulags, but what happened to one of them exactly?

Leo's second-in-command, Vasili, will seemingly stop at nothing to advance himself. He tries to sabotage Leo's plan as they go to Kimov, a small town during the Russian winter, to pursue Brodsky. Vasili's techniques are simple - hire an incompetent driver, choose men for the mission who would already not be disposed to respect Leo.

By the time they were on the correct road, traveling west, on an approach to Kimov the storm had passed. A weak winter sun began to rise. Leo was exhausted. Driving through the snow had drained him. His arms and shoulders were stiff, his eyelids heavy. They were passing through the rural heartlands - fields, forests. Turning into a gentle valley he saw the village: a cluster of wooden farmhouses, some on the road, some set back, all with square bases and high triangular roofs, a vista that hadn't changed for a hundred years. This was old Russia: communities built around bucket wells and ancient myths, where the health of cattle was decided by the grace of the Dvorovoi, the yard spirit, where parents told their children that if they misbehaved spirits would steal them and turn them into bark. The parents had been told the stories as children and they'd never grown out of them, spending months stitching clothes only to give them away as offerings to forest nymphs, the Rusalki, who were believed to swing from the trees and could, if they so chose, tickle a man to death. Leo had grown up in the city and these rural superstitions meant nothing to him, baffled as to how their country's ideological revolutions had done little to dislodge this primitive folklore.

Leo stopped the truck at the first farmhouse. From his jacket pocket he took out a glass vial filled with small, unevenly shaped dirty white crystals - pure methamphetamine - a narcotic much favoured by the Nazis. He'd been introduced to it while fighting on the Eastern Front as his country's army had pushed the invaders back, absorbing prisoners of war and also some of their habits.

The passage about spirits makes clear why the conversion of Russian hearts was, at the same time, so difficult and so unquestioningly absolute. There are two examples in 100 pages of older women fearlessly standing up to Leo as he tries to carry out he duties. And Leo finds their opposition untouchable some how. There seems to be more than a shred of decency in Leo which is what is making the moment-t0-moment action of this novel so interesting. I also never knew that there was a history of methamphetamine use in the Russian secret service, inherited from the Nazis in World War II - it would be interesting to learn how wide spread its use was was, not among the elite, but among the rank and file.

There is another chapter about Lubyanka, the Moscow headquarters of the secret police, that I also wanted to post on, but I will have to save that for another day.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Elsewhere on the web...

Neurochem midterm today. Oy. Wish me luck. At one point during our lovely two-day get-away I looked up at The Ragazzo from my pile of articles and study notes on the gargantuan sleigh bed and said, this is it for two months, meaning this is the last break. I think I was right. I was lucky to read twenty pages of Child 44 last night before falling asleep, so nothing new there.

I was delighted to learn that Jumpha Lahiri has a new book of stories coming out. Here's an interview with her at Book Forum. Hat tip: BookFox.

And here's the latest on the arcuate fasciculus. What? Not heard of it? And you call yourself a language buff? Hat tip: 3quarksdaily.

May your day be rich in neurotransmissions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mystery in a state of fear (Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith)

Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She'd already cared for it beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love - something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That was today. Shed' already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums. Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed, refusing to show itself even as she knelt down, calling its name, trying to coax it out. That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing to eat and nothing to love.

With an opening paragraph like that, what are you going to do for an encore? Tom Rob Smith's debut novel Child 44 is not for the faint of heart. In the first fifty pages we encounter two young brothers in the 1950s in Moscow. One of the brothers dies. An MGB official must tell the unbelieving family that their son's death was accidental, but they won't believe him. They claim to have evidence to the contrary. Or do they? Is it only grief that is making them believe they have evidence? The MGB official is told to investigate the matter no further. Somehow this death may be connected to the death of a young boy in the Stalinist era during the 1930s in the Ukraine but as yet we don't know how. This story has me in its grip from the start. Smith's lens is finely focused. His descriptions sift the sand for the sorts of details that I find fascinating - he writes what it is like living life in that room, in that time, in that body, in that mind moment-to-moment, rather that simply telling us what happens next. I'll report on my progress as I read but I'll try not to spoil it for you.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dogs and cats and tortured but magical teenagers (Lirael by Garth Nix)

Lirael did not end completely as I expected it would -which was a relief. I've read a bunch of Garth Nix's work, and he seems to have an interest in and a knack for, capturing the torture of the insecure and outcast teenager and placing them in an enjoyable fantasy world. That was one of the most positive aspects of Lirael, he really captured that experience accurately. And the companions of both our teenage heroes are magic-charmed animals, which he uses to some comic value. The last 200 pages of this one really moved liked wild fire - I woke up in the middle of the night on our Berkshire getaway and this book kept me engrossed through an action packed ending. Here and here are my other thoughts about it.

I'm now really looking forward to reading Child 44, which Simon & Schuster UK has graciously provided me for a look-see. We'll look and we'll see.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

While the rest of you chickens are hunting eggs...

We'll be here this weekend for a little rest and recuperation, and a lot of studying for a neurochem midterm. Hasta la vista or Happy Easter, should that apply.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Elegiac craftmanship (Books - The Last Life by Claire Messud)

...Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within.

Wherever we have come from, there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. The guilt does not evaporate: I live - how can I not? - with my burden of Original Sin. But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed...

The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me. In this way every story is made up, its shape imposed: the beginning was not really then, any more than was the day of my brother's birth, or indeed, of mine. Nor is it strictly true that my grandfather shot at me: I was not, by chance, in the line of fire; he did not know that I was there. But it was an event, the first in my memory, after which nothing was the same again.

I'm only 40 pages in, but the story of The Last Life, Claire Messud's second novel, seems a song of betrayal, escape and the remaking of oneself. It is one of those books written after the fact by an older, wiser narrator who was also a character in the events, sees them anew, and now must write about them. The form uses the writing as a framing device - not an uncommon technique in writing or theater by any means - often it is meant, I think, to eliminate self consciousness - if we own up to the artifice upfront and it won't call attention to itself when we don't want it to because it is part of the story.

Now I was one who really enjoyed The Emperor's Children, Messud's more recent novel. I've heard lots of criticism, though never of the writing, most of the criticisms I can remember faulted the novel for the fact that its characters were privileged, which I found feeble. Who were most of those readers, by any meaningful standards, if not privileged themselves? No one faulted Allan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader for being about the queen of England or Brideshead Revisited for being about members of the aristocracy with tons of power and money. There is no dearth of art about the rich and famous, they are potentially as conflicted and full of the range of human experience as the rest of us. The work need only compel us to be interested to succeed - and it did me. In any event, The Last Life is again about a man of influence - the grandfather mentioned above - but he is a small man, a big fish in a little French pond. We don't know it yet, but I have my suspicions that the book's secret lies with him, I won't share them so as not to spoil the plot. The first two paragraphs of the excerpt are part of the first short chapter, a frame about the narrator's current existence. The third is the opening of the second chapter, which I would bet dollars to donuts was originally the first chapter. It smells of a writing workshop opening sentence to me:

The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me.
Is that not a killer opening? Messud sings the narrator's song of memory and has so far managed to sustain the elegiac tone of the opening pages for 40+ pages. But I am not sure that that is entirely a good thing. And good lord is she the queen of the adjective, take this picture she paints of the outdoor market in a southern French town:

There were vegetable men and fruit women and stalls selling both, blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants, exuberant fronded skirts of frisee salads cozying next to succulent crimson cherries, pale, splayed organs of fennel pressing their ridged tubes and feathered ends up against the sugar-speckled, wrinkled carcasses of North African dates. There were florists whose misted anemones and roses glistened as if it were dawn, and the cheese vendors' ripe piles, wares which, from behind the glass, leaked their fetid and enticing stinks out into the crowd...

There is not a passage here that isn't a gorgeous but I am having a hard time getting past admiring her craft. I am not uninterested in the story, but every time I start to find myself in it, I am jolted out by some majestically crafted sentence. In this book, that framing device of calling attention to the writing seems to accomplish only that and no more. This seems the flaw of an early work bent on impressing its readers. I can certainly take pleasure in talented writing, and since the story is not uninteresting, and since I did like Messud's The Emperor's Children I am going to give this one some more time.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Getting to the end

btt button

You’ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’re going to read? What?

No dog, no kids - sometimes I am actually thinking about the next book I'm going to read before I'm finished with the current one. That is one of my greatest pleasures - sitting in bed with four or five anticipated reads and choosing! I remember reading a thriller having figured everything out before the end. The book wasn't bad but I kept thinking 'ok, ok, I get it. I know what happens. How can there possibly be thirty pages left? I'm in school. I don't have that much time to read. I should be reading something better than this.' When that is not the case, there are two factors, one is how good a read it was, the second is where I am. If I've finished a book on the subway and it was really good, I might sit and space out for a second. With Pat Barker's recent book, I sat and thought about what I was going to write here. Sometimes I bring a book on my commute thinking I will finish it, but find I am still still twenty or thirty pages shy of the end when I arrive. I'll usually sit down and tear through to the end no matter what I have to do. But that means that as soon as I'm finished, I'm late to start studying or to run errands, or make dinner. Then I can't sit and muse. I just have to get busy. Very often when I finish a really good book I want to tell The Ragazzo about it. Writing about my reading here has also structured the end of my reading because now I must ask myself when I finish a book - what do I think? How do I feel? Why do I feel or think that, what about the writing or the story makes me think that? Or what does this evoke for me that relates to my current world, to my personal memories, or to my obsessions - artistic process and brains. Sometimes quiet must descend when a book ends. That's where Stegner's Crossing to Safety left me. Luckily I was in the living room of a b&b in upstate New York, looking at the trees and listening to the stream by the house and that was exactly the setting I wanted to think about everything that book meant. When I finished The Go-Between recently, my first thought was - oh no, what can I read now? That will be a hard act to follow! Then I headed over to my laptop to write and I had thoughts about it that interplayed with seeing The History Boys and those two experiences talking to each other charged me up to write. If I've read a series of books in sequence - like Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy or Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, even if they are really good, I will often be relieved to finish my 1000 pages in that world and move on to a new one. Other times as with The Master Bedroom I just sigh with the pleasure of everything it accomplished and stared at the ceiling for a while. Other times I'm sad to reach the end of a book because I know I will miss the characters. Ethan Canin's For Kings and Planets was like that. Brideshead Revisited is so sad, when I get to the end I have to read the first few chapters so as not to get depressed. I remember leaving home last January for a week to workshop a project and I had about five books to take with me but I was just 40 pages from the end of The Book of Lost Things, I didn't want to drag it with me so I read as I packed. The Ragazzo's friends were coming to visit for a few days while I was gone. They insisted that I read so I could get to the end. I sat in a chair in the living room with my coat on reading the last ten pages, slammed the book down when I was done, grabbed my keys, kissed The Ragazzo and friends goodbye, and flew out of the door late for my train. It wasn't until I was on the subway that I could think - what did I just think of that?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Today in Science - Your funny face

Westerners may "see emotions as individual feelings, while Japanese see them as inseparable from the feelings of the group."

That was the conclusion of a study in the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Takahiko Masuda. comparing Japanese and Western groups of students responding to drawings of five children, according to a story in today's Science Times. They were asked to rate only the person in the middle of the picture for happiness, sadness and anger. If two drawings featured the same person with the same happy expression in the center, Japanese participants lowered their happiness rating if the other faces in the picture were angry or sad. The Western students did not. A device that tracks eye movements also noted that the Japanese students spent more time looking at the children in the background of the pictures who were not to be rated.

Evidently there is a large body of work looking at perceptual differences between East and West. I taught acting for many years and I noticed a big difference between Eastern and Western students in their interpretation of emotions of their characters and the importance they gave those emotions in their performances. These groups of students were probably given their directions in two different languages, I would assume the similarity of those directions was carefully controlled, although cultural differences would lead to language differences too, no matter how faithful the translation. Have you observed East/West differences that support or refute this study's observation?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Books and Magic (Lirael by Garth Nix)

Lirael is a teenage member of the Clayr, a sect of seers. She has not come in to her power to see by seventeen, as she was supposed to. That is only the worst among many things that make her different from her community and are experienced by her mostly as a burden, something that makes her self conscious. She copes by isolating herself and using her magical powers to create a dog to be her friend. Sameth is the teenage son of Sabriel, the Abhorsen - the magical leader of a magical region of a land otherwise similar to our's. He too is posessed of magic powers and, like his mother, is a necromancer - can walk between the worlds of the living and the dead - demanding obedience of dead spirits by use of a set of bells. He is to begin to learn this art as he must one day assume the post of Abhorsen from his mother. Both of Garth Nix's teenage central characters in Lirael must assume the mantel of adult responsibilities, of one too little is expected, and of the other too much.

I'm enjoying the fact that Nix creates a world in which the Clayr can see not the future but possible futures - it's a nice twist on the classic theme of looking into the future that bows to our current models of time in the world of physics. The future exists in the realm of probability rather than certainty, so the Clayr's skill is an art rather than an absolute science.

If this gate was the beginning of a path named for her, it had been made at least a thousand years ago. Which was not impossible, for the Clayr sometimes had visions of such far-distant futures. Or possible futures, as they called them, for the future was apparently like a many-branching stream, splitting, converging, and splitting again. Much of the Clayr's training, at least as far as Lirael knew, was in working out which possible future was the most likely - or the most desirable.

I'm also enjoying the fact that, although Sameth will inherit the proverbial throne some day, at this point he is a moody teenager and, to his dismay, a younger brother. His sister is put in charge of the kingdom in his absence and forces on his all sorts of chores and activities for his betterment when Sam would rather tinker in his workshop. Nix describes his sullenness with accuracy and enjoyment.

One more item and I'll leave you for the world of neurochemistry, Lirael has discovered a magic book that appeals to my booklover's imagination:

Most of all, there was magic and power in the type. Lirael had seen similar, if less powerful, books, like In the Skin of a Lyon. You could never truly finish reading such a book, for the contents changed at need, at the original maker's whim, or to suit the phases of the moon or the patterns of the weather. Some of the books had contents you couldn't even remember till certain events might come to pass. Invariably, this was an act of kindness from the creator of the book, for such contents invariably dealt with things that would be a burden to recall with every waking day.

Sounds very Borgesian, no? I could really use that book that holds off on burdening you with some of its contents until you need it in my neurochem class! I don't know if I love or fear the notion of a book you can never truly finish. It's romantic on the one hand, torturous on the other. In a way, though, aren't some books just like that?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Culpability - It Takes a Village (Spitzer and the new Peter Grimes at the Met)

In this week of scandal mongering over Eliot Spitzer's frailties, it seems to me the entire press corps and the finger-wagging public could use a dose of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which I saw in a very effective new production at the Met yesterday. I've linked you to the Met's website which offers lots of background on the opera and production - video interviews, music clips and the like if you are interested. Britten was always a champion of the social outcast, whether from a comic angel with Albert Herring or a majestic one with Grimes. I wish Britten's work were programmed more often in New York's opera houses. His music is contemporary but accessible. You can tell it's of recent past (as opposed to, say, hearing strains of a Viennese waltz wafting through it) it pulls on the sonorities of hymn, folk tune, and the sounds of nature in such a way that you can nod with familiarity. It is definitely modern but its harmonies are not so cacophonous that you must merely endure them and each opera offers some memorable melodic themes if not exactly humable songs. They are written in English that is usually made understandable to the ear by the way the words are set in the music. The stories he chooses can be surprising and many have a message - often one about the responsibility assumed when judging others. Britten also does fine adaptations of great literary works - Melville's Billy Budd, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Finally, all his operas are real music dramas that are complex not because you can't follow the stories, but rather because they cannot really be pulled off without complex human beings in the central parts rather than the usual opera stick figures.

This production directed by John Doyle who just did the recent Sweeny Todd revival on Broadway, creates a looming landscape of blacks and greys that is visually really effective. A front "curtain" the entire width and height of the Met stage - and that is big - is a facade of wooden houses that is reminiscent of a Louise Nevelson sculpture. It is intentionally monolithic and non-realistic and yet you clearly know what it is. Doors and windows pop open and the town's people stand in them. Doyle makes good use of the narrative nature of the libretto by having this facade force both principles and the town's people well down stage (near the audience) addressing their narration full-front to the audience. He suggests the atmosphere of a fishing village rather than trying to recreate it in excruciating detail. As I mentioned, I found the opera's themes of individual and collective culpability as timely as ever. I don't think Doyle and Anthony Dean Griffey (Grimes) entirely solve the dramatic problem of who Peter Grimes is and from whence springs his violence, particularly in the first two acts. Griffey's performance in the third act has some moments of vulnerability in it that I wish he could dramatically "trace back" to the earlier part of the opera rather than relying on a histrionic sort of disorientedness. Even if Grimes doesn't know where his behavior comes from, it would help if we saw the seeds of his Act III behavior in Acts I and II. Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford had a nice moment or two. She is a very open performer which I always appreciate amidst the overwrought antics usually seen at the Met. Her music lies low for a soprano, and Racette has a rich voice, however I thought all that full singing low in her range compromised the beauty of her singing later in the opera. There were so many overtones in her sound by Act III that I could no longer hear the actual center of the pitch. There is also some "stage business," as people like to call it, that reeks of convention, with no roots in the drama of the moment. Auntie, her nieces, and other principle characters suddenly leap onto boxes to deliver solo lines in crowded scenes. While this may temporarily solve a problem of drawing attention to them on a crowded stage, the director and artists have made no sense of what they are doing from the point of view of their character's behavior in the story. This type of lazy stage craft removes me temporarily from the experience of the story. Ultimately it was usually the music in this production that drew me in. The tremendous sweeping tide of this score was captured in all its grandeur by conductor Donald Runnicles and the fantastic Met orchestra.

P. S. I hope the Met can find a way to silence the squeaking of the heavy set as it moves on its track after the quietly emotional exit of Grimes at the end of Act III. It is rare that an audience can be drawn in to respond with pure silence that hangs in the air for a moment. That build up and the entrance of the opera's narrative epilogue are squandered as we listen to the horrible tearing and squeaking sounds of the set.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


The Ragazzo, The Mom, and I are planning a trip to Sicily in June. Any advice, must sees, or don't bothers about travel logistics or the sights would be helpful. The Ragazzo and I are both Italian speakers.

Countering the Snark

I have been tagged by the Incurable Logophile for a meme about being nice. NICE! What was she thinking? Snarl, snarl. Here are the rules:
  • List five kind things you do for yourself.
  • List five kind things you do for your closest friend, partner or child.
  • List five kind things you have done for a stranger.
  • Have fun!
  • Tag five people.

Given my snarky proclivities it may be tough to come up with five.

Let's start with me, me, me (this is a meme, after all)
These could probably all be culinary but I'll try to mix and match
  1. Have really good olive oil, organic butter, cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, tea and wine as often as possible
  2. See my old friends at least several times a year, which sounds pathetic but a few times a year is pretty good at this point
  3. Travel somewhere interesting, new, and beautiful once a year
  4. Read something non obligatory every day.
  5. Walk a lot - New York is a great place for it! I walk to do most of my errands and very often I walk to or from the lab or school, which takes an hour. I'd love to do an hour per day, but sometimes that's not possible.

For The Ragazzo
  1. Put away his shoes which would otherwise be scattered throughout the apartment
  2. Play piano for him when he wants to sing (he was an early music and baroque singer)
  3. Get the paper delivered to our door every morning
  4. Make tea every morning and bring it to him in bed, in fact I need to do that right now
  5. Let him know I love and appreciate him every day
and I'm going to add something - one nice thing they do for you:
  1. He's really learned when to try to get me out of a mood and can often do so, or when to not try to 'fix' me and just let me have my feelings, funky or not.

For a stranger(s)
  1. There is a blind woman in our neighborhood who I sometimes walk to the subway. I used to volunteer an arm whenever I saw a blind person on the street, but one fellow I offered to really resented my thinking he needed help so now I wait to be asked
  2. When I visit a new country, I try to learn at least a little of the language and say something in it, because English is not the only language in the world
  3. Give obvious strangers to New York directions - in their language when I can
  4. Try to give generously to a few pet social causes rather than scantily to many
  5. Some lucky devils will get my heart and liver someday, but I don't intend to rush the matter. Given all that organic cheese mentioned above, I hope they will still be usable.
  6. Use deodorant and stay relatively slim - let me tell you, on the NYC subway it matters.
And I am adding - one nice thing a stranger has done for you:
  1. One of my neighbors, who is almost a stranger, used to have a few cigarettes a day out on his fire escape to relax. Given the shape of our building, and the fact that I like to have the windows open, the smoke came sailing into our apartment every time. Both me and The Ragazzo really hate cigarette smoke, but of course he was on his own turf. We sent a note explaining the situation and from that day forward he went downstairs and outside to have his smoke. While you could make the argument he was also being nice to himself, he didn't actually stop smoking and he was totally within his rights to do smoke if he wished. I thought it was a particularly considerate gesture.
Have fun! - must I really?

Five Tags - I will leave this to your discretion.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Refuge in books for both our heroes (Books - Lirael by Garth Nix)

Regular readers probably know that I've been doing graduate classes in neuroscience over the last couple of years after a 20+ year career directing, acting and teaching in theater and opera. I find cognitive neuroscience a fascinating area. It examines what we can learn about cognition - perceiving the world around us, reasoning, remembering - both when they work well and when they breakdown or achieve the same ends differently - by studying the intersection of behavior and the workings of the nervous system. The field is multidisciplinary and quite broad, ranging from those that build computer models of cognitive processes, to those who look at the chemicals that course through the nervous system to encourage cells to fire or hold their fire, to the study of the structure or electrical properties of those cells, to the traces of electricity left behind by the those cells that can be made into pictures of neural activity, to those who look at behavior by incorporating measures of motivation, intention or reaction time.

In any event, I applied to a doctoral program here in New York and found out formally yesterday that I was accepted! Woo-hoo! I'll start in the fall, continuing work at the same lab at which I've been working this past year. Since I will be taking classes within the same university system, I will merely change which office does the bookkeeping but that will probably mean going through some ridiculously byzantine process to transfer credits between programs after being told in 100 ways that it isn't possible. Anyhoo, today I should probably just rejoice and worry about how bureaucracy will screw up my life later. I hope I will have more good news about fellowships shortly.

And all this sturm and drang explains my comfort reading. Lirael is the second book in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy recommended by your friend and mine, Imani. It falls into the YA fantasy genre and this second book, like the first, features a young heroine in a communal environment who does not fit in. She has not yet come into her powers as a daughter of the Clayr - a sect of seers. I am enjoying the metaphor Nix has set up for a late bloomer. Lirael is suffering with the a passion few but teenagers can muster. She contributes heartily to her own misery by isolating herself but eventually finds a way out of herself when she works in the library. So the romance of books and knowledge provides a refuge for a societal other - a story that is close to my heart. Fans of Harry Potter will find satisfying similarities - a big fat book, a young and unpopular central figure, magic charms - but this series has a very different feel to it. Unlike HP it is a little more classical-fantasy in its language and characters. The Rowling series struggled hard to make its world feel contemporary. This doesn't have that Harry-and-his buddies feel - so far this heroine is on her own. Even over 100 pages into the story she has encountered only a handful of people, only two have been particularly helpful. Interestingly, although this is a series, there have been few mentions of the characters and activities in the first book. There are some, but we aren't back to Hogwarts, as it were. This book has an entirely new setting and even central character.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spreading the Snark - amended!

Dewey has created a meme on negativity in book blogging to which I give my best review - I steal it.

1. When you dislike a book, do you say so in your blog? Why or why not?

Oh yes, absolutely. I blog to interact with a community and to write from the flow. Neither of those can happen without honesty. I hope I don't go out of my way to be snarky, snarky can be too easy but there are times a book or a film just piss me off. Arrogance and ignorance do that most often. That can be the downside with having lots of author interviews, hype, and DVD extra features. When I sense a certain smugness and then the work fails for me, I tend to express that in no uncertain terms. I also think that writing is more exciting when it is filled with real feeling. When a work angers me, when I scream about it, that can, in its way, be a compliment. Sometimes I will rail that I feel a writer, actor, or director just hasn't done their job well. That's my opinion - love it or leave it. I was a creative artist for years. I got lots of reviews and other less professional opinions, thankfully none in the form of fruits or vegetables. I got some really negative reviews that I actually learned something from. Others were by jerks with no taste. Others mystified me. Whatever. I had a rule as an actor and I shared it with my students - it's not honest to insulate yourself only from bad commentary. Either put yourself in a place where you can hear criticism, or have someone clip all the reviews for you and save them for a time when you can. And if you're an artist, you need to find a reason to do your job other than other people's good opinion of you.

But there's a flip side to this in terms of the experience not of that artist but of those who read the criticism - when a work's theme produces a strong feeling in me - isn't that good? I don't read or go to films or theater to be sedated, alcohol or chamomile work just fine for that.

2. Do you temper your feelings about books you didn’t like, so as not to completely slam them? Why or why not?

It depends on the arrogance factor. A good honest failure can be an artist's ultimate triumph, it's part of the process. It can also be revealing to see how a great artist fails and valuable (to me). It depends how it hits me. I tend not to indiscriminately slam someone who has tried honestly to do a good job. But I see no reason to temper my feelings on my own blog. When I taught creative artists for years I tempered my feelings in that arena, but I'm not offering that service here; I charge by the hour for that. And I'm not offering feel-good therapy either for the creators or my fellow intelligent readers. I'm expressing something about my experience of their work. I try to keep my comments to the work, but other times it can be difficult to separate those two things and out it comes. My vast readership (ahem) is free to disagree or even ignore it.

3. What do you think is the best way to respond when you see a negative review about a book you enjoyed?

I usually don't respond. A person's opinion is a person's opinion. If I'm encouraged into a dialogue by knowing the reviewer or have a useful point to make, I might try to provoke that person to look at the work differently, or probe the point further to learn what lead them to that opinion, but mostly I just shut up and read.

4. What is your own most common reaction when you see a negative review of a book you loved or a positive review of a book you hated?

It's their right - honestly. When I really like the writer of it and have other points in common - like with my good friend and fellow blogger Sheila, I try to learn something about them. Sheila put a pretty negative comment about Anne Enright's book on my post about the the first 100 pages of The Gathering just the other day, when I really raved about the strength of the writing. I found it interesting and it made me read deeper. Also, when someone really raves about something, it usually perks me up. I think, wow - there must be something really important going on to get their dander up like that. I wonder what it is! It's fun to have friends you don't agree with all the time. If they always order what you order in the restaurant, how can you ever try any new foods?

5. What is your own most common reaction when you get a comment that disagrees with your opinion of a book?

I guess I just answered that. I haven't had to delete anyone for that reason...yet. Only because they are selling crap. Usually, I'd like to leave them up because I've been deleted not for being obnoxious but merely for disagreeing with the crowd on a couple of blogs. I found it narrow minded and felt it reflected a certain insecurity of their own opinion. But it's their real estate and their atmosphere, so it's their right.

6. What if you don’t like a book that was a free review copy? What then?

I have no qualms at all about giving a free review copy a thumbs down, and even an intense one at that if I think it's really deserved. I always tell the publisher, writer, or publicist that up front. This is my blog, I write my opinion here, this may be marketing for you but my writing is an extension of my soul and, as the song don't own me.

Actually, I'm amending my answer to this question because I don't feel more of an obligation to "be nice" with free review copies, in fact, I think it is even MORE important to deliver the content straight, no chaser. And it is more respectful too. If I'm writing a post about a book I chose I may not like it because it didn't live up to my expectations of it, or I may have not been in the right mood to receive it. Boo hoo, I lose. But if I'm given a copy for the purposes of publicity then, let's be honest, books are sold (like most things) on hype, sometimes not too infrequently, on ridiculous hyperbolae. I feel then that I'm not only responding to the book, but when received from the publicist, to the marketing. If they've trumpeted the book as the next DaVinci Code or the next David Copperfield then I'm going to respond - yes you have reached high and you have succeeded or - you know what, um, no. No, you're not the next Dickens. If a writer sends me the book, then to write less than my honest response is disrespectful and I have tremendous respect for creative artists. Sometimes when artists ask my opinion I turn around and ask them what they would like the feedback for. If I read an early draft of a play I may send the writer comments that constitute my first impressions, and couch them as such. Sometimes I'll say - do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know that I liked it. If the answer was the second, I will often decline to offer anything but general emotional support, because that is actually what is being requested. Sometimes as a director reacting to preview performances I will not offer my opinion at all, aside from a brief appreciation of the person, because I feel it could have unintended consequences as the work is not finished and I am not actually part of the creative team. But when a professional artist or publicist sends me a finished piece of writing asking to use my forum and to express my views then I respect them by doing just that as honestly as I can.

7. What do you do if you don’t finish a book? Do you review it or not? If you review it, do you mention that you didn’t finish it?

If I haven't finished a book I might still write something about it. I will always be clear about how much I read and exactly why I stopped. Life is too short for bad books or bad wine.

Now it's time for school - which some days can be one endless bad review. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so steal this if you wish.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Reflective or merely distracted? (elsewhere on the web)

I adore browsing this site occasionally, lovely pictures. I particularly love two reflections - one in a cup of coffee (reflection in java) and the second of a neon sign in a puddle on the street (paysages d'hiver 2). Perhaps I'm in a reflective mood. Or perhaps I'm dreading the results of my midterm tomorrow and can't concentrate on what I'm supposed to be doing!

All Bets Are Off (Books - The Gathering by Anne Enright)

I had my statistics midterm yesterday at 8 am and it was scary hard. I have no idea how I did but it didn't feel like I did well. It didn't matter much what came after that - a two-hour memory class, lunch with a friend, a couple of hours in the lab, and an hour-long walk home - I was too exhausted to do anything for school. So I finished The Gathering instead. This post along with this one constitute my thoughts about it. **Some spoilers follow. **

My opinion of the writing didn't change, it is luminous, but I was less interested in certain aspects of the story as the book went on. It gets into some childhood abuse issues in a way that didn't really interest me and rendered the story rather formulaic. I also found the novel's treatment of sex odd, I'm not sure I can place just how it was odd, but it was an appendage to the story while the issues of grief and family were the story. Maybe that was the narrator's relationship to sex, but somehow it made the story feel less of-a-piece. However, when it comes to grief and regret Enright is a master.

I make my way up to the top of the church and am drowned in the emotion, whether love or sadness, that floods my chest. My face sets into the mask of a woman weeping, one half pulled into a wail that the other half will not allow. There are no tears. My head twists away from whichever side of the church is more interested in my grief, only to show it to the other side. Here it is. The slow march of the remaining Hegarty's. I don't know what wound we are showing to them all, apart from the wound of family. Because, just at this moment, I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.

What does not feel in the least formulaic is the way her fiction captures the oddity, the pain, the wrongness, of an important moment of being alive. A moment which follows none of the rules of TV, the formulas of picture books - it's not the way it's supposed to be but is, rather, the way it is - and she not only gets it just right, but makes art of it. I have had moments exactly like the one described above. One where I have thought - why didn't someone tell me it would be like this? Enright tells us in a paragraph, and that paragraph has the clarity and violence of Picasso's Guernica.

I thought about this, as I saw in the Shelbourne bar - that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go 'home' where I could 'have sex' with my 'husband' just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn't seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.

That seems to me to be the gift of shock, of grief, of any kind of radical life change that most people try to avoid like the plague. It makes us question everything, all the habits we have set up for the convenience of living. We don't necessarily want to notice that our FEET are in our SHOES all day long. It can make you feel suddenly as though you are walking in scuba diving flippers. Our nervous system helps us to not notice everything and to prioritize newer things, or louder things, or more dangerous things. We also have the ability to harness what we call attention to our will. There is too much information around us at any one moment to pay attention to everything, so attention helps us prioritize and saves us cognitive resources. To choose certain of those things instead of others. We also bundle the steps we take to perform ordinary activities - walking down stairs, driving to work - in one automatic series of actions we don't even think about any more. But these heuristics, though they save us time and cognitive resources, can get us stuck. We try to get efficient about everything we do. This can keep us from asking any questions at all. From noticing our world - whether that be to appreciate it or to detest it. Emergencies help us notice everything again. The really big ones make our brain say "all bets are off," that is probably what can be so disorienting about them. Enright's book captures that state beautifully.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What's in a name? Today in Science

Today in the Science Times two pieces caught my eye. One by David Kohn writes about the prevalence of depression and anxiety not only in afluent societies but also in what is referred to as the "developing world." In this case they refer to India. With a burgeoning stock market and a larger share of jobs in technology come the perils of the West! The focus of this article is an innovative program:

Instead of doctors, the program trains laypeople to idenitfy and treat depression and anxiety and sends them to six community health clinics in Goa, in western India.

The workers screen every patient who arrives at the clinic, for both physical and emotional symptoms. Those with symptoms of depression or anxiety are not referred elsewhere, but are offered therapies at the clinic. The program, started by Dr. Vikram Patel of Mumbai evolved out of his research, which hypothesized that Western concepts of mental illness did not apply in the developing world. To his surprise, he learned that these two conditions were as common and as treatable as they are in Western countries.

A second article by J. Marion Tierney asks what's in a name. He looks at what the research has to say about children with cross-gender names or other names seen as undesirable - are they destined to flunk school, develop poor self esteem or get into fights? Not according to the research:

They have found one major positive factor: a better sens of self-control. It's not that you fight more, but that you learn how to let stuff roll of your back.

One might say that this study showed them that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'd like to know whether their sample were all university students or if some of them were at local prisons, in street gangs, or in psych wards. I'd bet not.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Writing with inevitability but without predictability (Books - The Gathering by Anne Enright)

My brother Liam loved birds and, like all boys, he loved the bones of dead animals. I have no sons myself, so when I pass any small skull or skeleton I hesitate and think of him, how he admired their intricacies. A magpie's ancient arms coming through the mess of feathers; stubby and light and clean. That is the word we use about bones: Clean.

As I sit here with my tea this morning, trying to think of what to say about Anne Enright's The Gathering, the 2007 Man Booker Prize winner, I end up with the sentence - it is an act of remembering. The reason I am finding that remarkable is because in the 100 or so pages I have read so far, the feeling that this book is a single act about a single person hasn't stopped yet. It is a song of painful memory of a woman for her brother sung from one deep single breath. The writing is exquisite. We know up front that she is trying to get at a memory of a certain event and through the rest of the book she retraces her steps. Her observations occur always as specifics, never as generalities, and as a result you are always right with her, wherever she is:

I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kettle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air.

My mother looks at this strange scene, as if it reminds her of something. Then she starts forward to where her tablets are pooled in a saucer, on the near counter. She takes them, one after the other, with a flaccid absent-mindedness of the tongue...

The reader knows right from the beginning that this is a scene in which the narrator is going to tell her mother that her brother, Liam, is dead. It is filled with the small details that make this an experience of people living life, rather than a story created of ideas about those people. I know so much about this narrator, knowing that she would finish filling and plugging in the kettle before taking off the wet coat. The events unfold with a life-like inevitability, but never with predictability and that's what I am loving about the writing so much.

Just one more excerpt for now. The chapters remembering Liam alternate with chapters imagining the early life of the narrator's grandparents. Without saying why it is important, here is one more excerpt that doesn't seem to turn this single moment of life into writing, it rather plops it on the page, still hot and breathing.

It is Lent. Nugent has given up rashers, sausages and all kinds of offal for the duration, also strong drink. His body has been cleansed by the workings of his soul - so the smell that rises from under his shirt has something of the spring air in it, a whiff of early morning soap, the quiet ming of a day's toil. The cloth of his suit is decently worn and the collar of his shirt is decently clean, and his life stretches ahead of him decently waxing into a solid middle age.

With one small interruption - because there is nothing decent about the glint in his baby eye, looking at Ada Merriman in the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Maverick spirits (Film - Carrington)

My reading Pat Barker's Life Class this week and seeing the film Carrington again this weekend (it was one of The Ragazzo's Valentine's gifts), I was reminded of some of my favorite Bloomsburyites. Ottolline Morrell figures in Barker's book and Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington are the central figures in the film, along with Vanessa Bell and Morrell. In fact, Dora Carrington and the three central characters in Life Class attended the same art school - The Slade - in the same period - the 1910s. With the exception of Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury is now known more for their unconventional domestic arrangements than for their art, but I very much enjoy seeing the work of Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell when I can. The Courtauld gallery in London had a wonderful show of the fine and decorative art of the Omega workshop artists several years ago. (The Omega workshop was a design movement started by the Bloomsbury artists, not unlike the Bauhaus in Germany or the Weiner Werkstatte in Vienna, it was interested in the integration of modern decorative art with everyday life.) Its output included pottery, furniture, fabric, and the original book jacket designs for Virginia Woolf's books, by her sister Vanessa. I particularly love seeing photographs of Virginia and Vanessa's homes because their furniture, their dishes and even their walls were decorated by Omega.

One of the pleasures of the film Carrington is seeing the designers' renditions of the spaces Dora Carrington created for her life with Lytton Strachey. Another are the incredibly fine performances of Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce playing these two maverick spirits. Gorgeous acting. Dora Carringont is now something of a ghost hovering on the fringes of Bloomsbury, however she lived and painted with passionate originality. If you look at some of the paintings I've linked to above, her landscapes are not unlike O'Keefe's . Strachey is now a barely remembered as an eccentric wearer of floppy hats, but he was author of the influential book Eminent Victorians and an eminent debunker of Victorian values, the descendant of a long line of military officers, a sexual pioneer, and a staunch critic of the upper classes.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The madness of love and war (Books - A Private Affair by Beppe Fenoglio)

The senselessness of love is matched only by the senselessness of war, A Private Affair seems to say. Despite a translation that occasionally feels stiff in the dialogue sections, Beppe Fenoglio's novel is thoughtful, suspenseful, and amusing. For the most part the story is one big internal monologue, and the ending is absolutely killer - a bravura performance that is worth the whole little book.

This entry and this one constitute my entire review of A Private Affair. Thank you, dovegreyreader, for the recommendation.

An oriental picture palace and a chinese box (Film - Tristram Shandy)

Sheila was showing off Chicago's lovely 1920s picture palace - The Music Box - yesterday, where we spent many a happy evening. In addition to her fun reminiscences on the evening we went to see Harold and Maude, I remember two great festivals, one that introduced me to Pedro Almodovar's work and the other to John Casavettes'. Prior to living in Chicago, I lived in Milwaukee which boasted an equally impressive picture palace - The Oriental. The Oriental drugstore, complete with its lunch counter, was still also intact. As the Oriental was right around the corner from my theater, I saw many many films there including Drugstore Cowboy, Koyaanisqatsi, Torch Song Trilogy, and The Dead Poet's Society.

Staying with the theme of cinema, I saw Michael Winterbottoms' adaptation of Tristram Shandy last night with The Ragazzo at ye olde living room couch theater. As someone in the film says, this book did post modern before there was modern. It is indeed astounding how contemporary the framing devices seem, on how many levels the piece comments on itself, and the good laughs it delivers in the process. The book is an ode to the impossibility of ever writing a memoir that does its subject justice. This film, however, does its subject great justice. Winterbottom wisely decides to add yet another frame to the already cluttered gallery - he makes a film about the impossibility of making a film about a book that is about the impossibility of writing a book.... He doesn't try to literally stick the book on to the screen, he discovers the film equivalent and one-ups the book, in a spirit I could only imagine that Laurence Sterne would have admired.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

What's your comfort?

It's World Book Day in the UK and Ireland, don't you know, and in it's honor Cornflower asks about our reading comfort zone. In lieu of Booking Through Thursday, who is missing in action this WBD at 6 AM, I will present Cornflower's question. If you want to share answers, please leave a comment on her site and here or post at your own blog, copy the url for that specific post, and leave that link as a comment here and at Cornflower's:
Do we all have reading comfort zones, I wonder - that is genres or specific types of authors or periods or subjects within which we like to stay, knowing that our reading experience in that chosen sphere will most probably be a pleasurable one? Or do we read much more freely, never saying "I don't touch science fiction/chick lit./poetry/etc." but choosing our books as we happen to find them, unrestricted by preconceptions?

Fiction in English written in the last 100 years tends to be the area to which I gravitate. I seem to often like thoughtful and emotional fiction written by women - Woolf, Murdoch, Fitzgerald, Sarton, Byatt, Atwood, Olivia Manning, Munro, and now Sarah Salway, Claire Messud, and Hiliary Mantel. I especially love fiction with the romance of books or bookshops or libraries built into them - The Thirteenth Tale, The Book Shop, Parnasus on Wheels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Inkheart, The Little Country.... I tend to like stories set more recently than, say, in the Middle Ages or Tudor times. But every rule I could claim I could just as easily break. For every cozy novel I like, I could claim a thriller. For every book written by a woman I could name a book by Herman Hesse, Ethan Canin, Charles Dickens, Potok, or Tim Winton. For every English book I could cite the pleasures I had reading Rohinton Mistry or Anatoli Rybakov. For every smarty book I could admit to some fun with a good mystery, young adult fantasy , or an all-nighter with The Secret History, and for every novel I love I can think of a play by Caryl Churchill, a poem by Tomas Transtroemer, a biography - Merle Miller's bio of Truman is the first that comes to mind - or other non-fiction read that I have not only anticipated with pleasure but that has delivered - Imperium by Kapuscinki really fits that category.

The short answer is, sure I have my comfort zone, but I don't read only for comfort. I read for escape, because I'm an information hoarder, I read to be shaken up, I read to travel, I read for romance, I read because I love the sensation of a narrative winding its way through my head. And that has to be the end of this one - I'm late!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Obsession - when the past or the future coopt the present (A Private Affair by Beppe Fenoglio)

Unwittingly, I seem to be on a theme. Beppe Fenoglio's A Private Affair, which I am reading thanks to an enthusiastic response from Dovegreyreader, is also set during war, but this time it is World War II. And, as its title suggests, the story he tells does not so much take war as its subject as use it as a backdrop for a much more, well, intimate matter. Italy has surrendered to Germany. Milton, a member of the Partisans who are resisting the fascists, comes across the house where the lovely and willful Fulvia had lived before the war. While their relationship seems to have been chaste, it was clearly the formative love relationship of Milton's life. He takes a moment to visit the house, intensely reliving his memory of Fulvia and their friendship. This is one place where Fenoglio's writing excels. He skims lightly in and out of the past like a dragonfly. You barely know when he's shifted, the one realm is as richly experienced as the other:

The woman had lit just one bulb of the chandelier. The light fell on the inlaid table without casting a reflection, and in the surrounding gloom the white cushion covers on the armchairs and sofa glimmered like ghosts.

'Don't you feel like you're entering a tomb?'

He laughed stupidly, like someone forced to conceal a serious thought. He obviously could not tell her that to him this was the brightest place in the world, that there was life here, rebirth.

'I'm afraid...' the woman began calmly.

He ignored her, perhaps did not even hear her, saw Fulvia, curled up in her favourite corner of the sofa, with her head tilted back slightly so that one of her plaits hung in the air, glistening and heavy. And he saw himself sitting in the opposite corner, his long thin legs outstretched, talking to her, talking on and on for hours while she listened so attentively she hardly breathed, her gaze almost always somewhere in the distance. Her eyes would soon mist over. And when she could no longer hold back the tears, she would turn her head abruptly to the side, hiding her eyes, fighting the emotion. 'That's enough. Don't talk any more. You're making me cry. You're wicked. You talk to me like that, you look for that kind of subject to talk about, just to see my cry. No, you're not wicked. But you're sad. Worse than sad, you're sullen. If only you cried, too. You're sad and ugly. And I don't want to become sad like you. I'm beautiful and happy. I was.'

'I'm afraid,' the housekeeper was saying, 'Fulvia will never come back here again when the war's over.'

'She'll come back.'

'I'd be happy if she did, but I'm afraid she won't. As soon as the war's over, her father will sell the villa.


He walked to the little table against the back wall, next to the fireplace. He bent a little and with his finger traced the outline of Fulvia's phonograph, 'Over the Rainbow,' 'Deep Purple,' 'I Cover the Waterfront,' Charlied Kunz's piano medlys and 'Over the Rainbow,' 'Over the Rainbow,' 'Over the Rainbow.'

'She really played that gramaphone a lot,' the woman said, waving her hand.


'They were always dancing, they really overdid it. And dancing was strictly forbidden, even indoors. You remember how many times I had to come in and tell you to keep quiet, because they could hear you outside, halfway down the hill?

'I remember.'

'You didn't dance, though. Or am I wrong?'

No, he didn't dance. He'd never tried it, never event tried to learn. He'd watch the others, Fulvia and her partner, he'd change the records and rewind the machine. In other words, he was the technician. That was what Fulvia called him. 'Wake up, technician! Long live the technician!' Her tone of voice when she said that was not exactly pleasant, but he would rather hear that voice than all the voices in humanity or in nature. Fulvia often danced with Giorgio Clerici, they would dance five or six records in a row and hardly separate during the pauses. Giorgio was the handsomest boy in Alba and also the richest, which meant of course that he was the best dressed. No girl, in Alba was good enough to be seen with Giorgio Clerici. Then Fulvia arrived from Turin and the perfect couple was formed...

Milton becomes obsessed. His visit to the house creates an urgent need to know, right now although war is raging, what happened between Giorgio and Fulvia. He is driven on the one hand by his memories and on the other by that day in the future when he will be able to know the truth. The present seems to all but disappear for Milton. The writing has an odd tone that communicates that narrowed focus, driven by an inner rather than an outward vision. The narrative uses simple language. It darts forward, then stops and focuses with a sharp lens on a detail - the brown water in a river - yet seeing it as having meaning related only to Giorgio and Fulvia; and then it makes the next lunge forward. I would like to find a copy to read in Italian too. The novel is short and written in simple prose so I could probably get through it especially having read it in English. It would give me some sorely needed practice.

To add to the pleasure of reading good work by an author I'm unfamiliar with, the book is published by Hesperus with a great cover design on a heavy-weight paperback cover, and really lovely paper, that's creamy smooth to the touch. To keep in the Italian theme, this paperback would be gelato to your ordinary ice cream. They are a new press to me and apparently specialize in works by great writers that are unfamiliar to readers of English - Imani, check them out for authors for next year's outmoded challenge if you haven't already!!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Life Lessons and World War I (Books - Life Class by Pat Barker) - Amended!

Young men and women contemplate the vulnerable human form, first painting nudes at Slade art school, and then aiding the wounded and the dying in the ambulance corps on the Belgian front as war breaks out. It doesn't really matter that Elinor, Paul, and Neville are barely our of their teens, those are the arenas in which life's lessons are learned by young English men and women in 1914. Those lessons are quick, deep and cruel. That is, in some ways, true for anyone leaving childhood behind, but for none was is so true as for those coming of age in World War I. The world is exploding both figuratively and literally. It will never be the same and that is the lesson Pat Barker's new novel Life Class seems most adept at teaching.

She pulled the curtain aside and saw Father and Paul talking on the terrace. The bumble and rumble of male voices reached her but only a few distinct words. Germany, Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, mobilization, ultimatum, alliance, triple alliance - on and on it went. She was so bored with it.

Letting the curtain drop, she caught sight of herself in the dressing table mirror and was startled by her fugitive expression.

- I'm happy as I am.
- Are you? I don't think you are.

No, all right, I'm not. She hadn't been happy for weeks. That night in the Cafe Royal, seeing the expression on Paul's face as he stared at Teresa, she'd felt herself diminished. Neutered. Waiting for marriage was all very well, but suppose you didn't intend to marry? What were you waiting for then?...

More to the point, what was she going to wear tonight?

Barker seems to have a comic take on Elinor. She is a spoiled and young woman, sporting the flat, thin body and the short hair that seemed so anathema to her parents' generation. Elinor took up painting to bide her time until marriage could be achieved. She is idle and has no idea what to do with herself. But while war gives us new circumstances quickly, life still does go on.

I'm about two thirds of the way through the book. While much of Barker's prose on the pre-war antics of her characters reads a bit like soap opera, she sure does know how to write about the historic period in general and the war. That is the realm in which this novel really shines. It a shame we must wait over 100 pages for this novel to really begin.

But now I am done with the novel and it is fair to amend my initial take. It seems to me that what Barker is doing with these two realms - before and during the war - is trying to achieve an important contrast. Before there is a sort of aimlessness in its young artists' experiences. Then the war begins and "snap" goes the rubber band of lassitude - they are shot into a world they are not ready for but that fills their lives with necessity. Even the one character who claims to be unaffected by the war, and claims that war has no place in art, is driven by it nonetheless. The central characters of Barker's novel are artists and so, by extension, the novel is very much about the place of the artist amidst the cruelty of war and in this it excels. Barker has a very tough job to do in the novel's first hundred pages because she is trying to make interesting to us events the characters themselves do not find interesting. I have had this exact artistic problem as both an actor and director because the very things she is trying to evoke make art dull. She too is released by the war and can get to her own purpose, this discussion about the artist and art in times of war.

9/11 fell on a Tuesday, the day of the graduate acting class I taught. Classes were canceled for the rest of that week, but when we returned the following Tuesday it seemed impossible to dive back into acting exercises with the same sense of purpose without first looking at our context. I remember asking my young artists the same question as this novel - "So, what is it like to be an artist today?" The answers were as various as the people answering them. In fact, they became the subject of a piece we created that year and reprised on the one-year anniversary the following September.
The final hundred pages of Barker's novel read at a break-neck pace. She ends up reaping what she sowed in the beginning and the book is finally thoughtful and touching on how the things that give our lives value change in the context of war.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Outmoded and overcommitted

Imani's first annual Outmoded Authors Challenge wrapped up yesterday. I challenged myself to read six books by four authors. Unfortunately, I never got to two of them. May Sarton was an old favorite, although Faithful are the Wounds was a re-read, it had been twenty-five years since my first reading and she not only stood the test of time, I think I could appreciate her even more. I was completely unfamiliar with Olivia Manning. The Balkan Trilogy consists of The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. They were marvelous books, set in Eastern Europe during World War II. Reading them made me interested in reading her Levant Trilogy as well. In fact, maybe I'll just put that one on the acquisitions list. There are multiple posts for the trilogy, so I'll leave you to click on the Outmoded Authors Challenge label on my side bar if you would like to read them.

John Galsworthy - Fraternity
May Sarton - Faithful are the Wounds
Ivy Compton-Burnett - Manservant and Maidservant
Olivia Manning
- The Balkan Trilogy