Monday, June 30, 2008

Born bad or just our bringing-up-kee? (Book - The Changeling by Robin Jenkins)

Charles Forbes, a portly Glaswegian school teacher, does more than try to see the best in his clever, poverty-stricken student, Tom Curdie, he decides to take him along on his family's summer holiday and that, in a nutshell, is the story of The Changeling by 20th century Scottish novelist Robin Jenkins. Recommended by Dovegreyreader, I couldn't find this book in the U.S. so I bought it in London while on my trip. Forbes fellow teachers think Curdie is a born thief and that Charles is s mad:

'Good old Charlie. What's biting him now? Last time he was objecting to your unchristian practice of allowing pupils to be strapped who'd forgotten their Bibles.'

'You remember little Curdie? You sent him on to me a year ago.'

'One of my brightest ever.'

'Yes, but would you call him an example of magnanimity and indomitability?'

'Jack, I wouldn't even call myself that if I could get my tongue round them.'

They laughed.

'I don't think I'd even call Charlie that,' he added.

They laughed again.

'He's a nice enough fellow,' said Bob, 'but an awful humbug.'

'Curdie's a sly wee rogue though, isn't he?'

'Isn't he just? Have you met his mother?'

His wife feels that Curdie will be a danger to their children:

'He'll not be clean. He'll have lice. He'll swear. He'll lie. He'll have all kinds of disgusting habits.'

But Charlie is determined. If Tom can only be given the advantages of other children he will prove to be at least as good as them if not better, given his superior intelligence.

I enjoy the way Jenkins constructs his characters. Forbes:

Their garden was tiny, which Charlie regretted in theory but welcomed in practice: he was too big in the belly, and too assiduous a planted of exotic hopes, to be zealous in the cultivation of leeks or even gladioli; but he liked to watch Mary plant, weed, mow, and chase neighbours' cats.

Curdie is every inch the sly wee rogue Forbes's colleagues say he is, but not in the way they think. He is brought up in dire poverty in the Glaswegian slums. As his mother is continually drunk, he is often left to procure food for his brother and sister or sing them to sleep. Yes, he steals an apple but his brother is ill and Tom reckons he needs fruit. He even takes one bite out of the apple to give to a dying neighborhood cat, who Jenkins depicts as Tom's comrade - suspicious of kindness, pity rarely shown him, always hungry:

The cat, not much liking apple, was nevertheless eating. He smiled in approval. Never to whine; to accept what came; to wait for better; to take what you could; to let no one, not even yourself, know how near to giving in you were: these were his principles by which he lived, and he honoured them in this old dying cat.

Tom's is unwilling to feel shame for his circumstances. I marvel at his doggedness. Jenkins is good at getting inside Tom's logic.

He was wondering what Forbes's true reason was for so strange an invitation. The teacher had spoken about good food, fresh air, and scenery; he had said they would do Tom good, physically and morally. Tom had understood very well what he had meant, but he could not see what Forbes hoped to get out of it. He knew that Forbes was supposed to be conceited and rather stupid, and that other teachers laughed at him behind his back. Was this invitation then just an act of conceit and stupidity? Or was Forbes really trying to be kind?
Once before Tom had been befriended by a teacher. It was in the Primary. Miss McIntosh, who was always bothering him with kindness, one day brought clothes for him; they had belonged to her young brother. Tom had accepted them, but he had taken them straight after school to a junkshop where the man had given him ninepence for them. Next morning, when Miss McIntosh had whispered why he was not wearing them, he had announced loudly so that all the class would hear, what he had done with them. He had expected her to strike him with her hand or the strap; indeed, he had wanted her to. Instead she had just stood and stared at him, with tears in her eyes. She had not reported him to Mr. Black the headmaster. He had been nine then. Even now he could not forgive her for her pity. She had come hearest to coaxing him to give in.

Jenkins is tackling an interesting moral subject but he consistently maintains a tone just shy of arch. There is a humorous twinkle in his words that keeps the novel from being heavy. I'm nearly half way through and am enjoying it heartily.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Vacation Reading (Books - The Chosen, Lost Paradise, The Soul Thief, The House on Fortune Street, Netherland

I find sitting for any length of time pretty unbearable, so I have never really enjoyed long plane flights but the enforced reading time almost makes up for it. Two nearly seven hour flights, several train rides, and two weeks away from computers, cell phones, and other responsibilities gave me time to get through five and a half books while I was away.

Sam inspired me to re-read Chaim Potok's The Chosen, when he wrote about one of Potok's novels a few months back. They had been comfort reading for me when I was in high school and college. I had read this novel probably ten times, but had not read it in at least 15 years. My Name is Asher Lev is the only Potok novel I had re-read recently because it is one of my all-time-favorites. The Chosen concerns two teenage boys, Danny and Reuven, both Jews but of a very different kind. Danny is the son of a Hasidic rabbi and heir to the head of his highly devout and segregated mystical sect. Reuven is the son of a Jewish scholar who is a devout and practicing religious man, but whose religion is more integrated with modern life and less profoundly Orthodox. An unusual accident throws them together and an intense friendship ensues. Through the book they grow up together morally, intellectually, and emotionally and learn about who they are.

In case this sounds to you like an exotic book which would have little to do with your own life, think again. Though there are scenes in this book for anyone interested in the details of these two boys very different religious lives, but the real theme here is friendship and love - and learning how to be your own person in the context of ones family and ones broader cultural context. I might add that this all takes place during the 1940s, when the world was in the throws of the second World War - not an easy time no matter who you were, but additionally difficult if you were Jewish. This adds another layer to the novel's events. Certainly developing a sense of who you are and what you think is meaningful to anyone interested in thinking in the first place, but moral and religious identity become particularly charged in this setting. Potok is not a brilliant writer as far as beautiful stringing together of words is concerned, his strength is building strong characters, putting them together in a detailed environment you can perceive with ease, and having them behave with one another in a plot that breathes. The story is intensely human and moving and I cannot recommend it enough. I was excited all over again by reading a book about kids growing up who don't just think about who to date or beat up (although orthodox Jewish children are teenagers too) but who THINK. I would give you an excerpt of two, but my old copy of the book is enroute from Lewes, England to New York City via the slowest of snail mails. That is a story in itself! As I mentioned in my travel posts, we attended the opera at Glyndebourne, which is a formal affair - literally, it's black tie. So we have our evening wear with us but didn't want to lug it around with us through Sicily, so we shipped it home, with anything else we were finished with at that point. It turned out to be a rather expensive affair, so my tux and copy of The Chosen are on the slow boat. Perhaps to China, who knows.

I picked up a copy of Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom at the London Review Bookshop, across the street from the British Museum. This one wasn't on my list, but their tables were just too enticing and I had been curious about Nooteboom after seeing his books everywhere in Amsterdam, where he is a very prominent author. It concerns Alma, a woman in recovery from a cruel attack, who ends up traveling to Australia and befriending an Aboriginal artist. Alma and her traveling companion Almut end up being employed in Perth as Angels in an environmental performance project. This intertwines with a second story about a Dutch writer, who could also be described as being in recovery, who travels to a spa and meets again a woman whom he had once known when she played an angel. The prose of the translation is light and airy, which is a good thing because otherwise I think I would have found this story ponderous. It is self-consciously new-agey and while the book contains a passage which reads

Angels are mythical creatures. In this day and age, however, they are usually relegated to the realm of kitsch, irony or theatre. And yet that tiny curled-up body, those bare feet, the whole of that womanly being...
And yet... and yet for me this book never rose above the realm of kitsch. ***SPOILER ALERT *** While the whole point of book seemed to be the surprise of finding the extraordinary through something hackneyed - finding the spiritual in ones cup of coffee - the redemption attempted in this novel rang wholly false to me. Perhaps if one is more in-tune with new age language in general, or angels specifically, one might find this book more meaningful but it was not my cup of tea. It is, however, compact and pleasantly readable in a two-hour plane flight. The writers shows evident imagination, compassion, and an interesting way with words so I would like to attempt something else by him - any recommendations?

I am a huge Charles Baxter fan, so I was really looking forward to The Soul Thief after reading about it, I think, at Scott Pack's. In it Nathaniel, a graduate student, ends up meeting a intellectual poseur - Jerome Coolberg - who is capable of sounding erudite but is actually wholly empty. Nathaniel seems to have a hidden attraction for poseurs, also forming a romance of sorts with Theresa:

She admits her yearning to inhabit an intellectual realm that she had not by rights acquired citizenship to. "Oh, everyone else around here is so smart." she confesses, "and all I can do is to put on an act." Really, she says, she is just a simple girl brought up in buttfuck Iowa, the daughter of a manufacturer's rep who sold prefabricate silos. She's afraid of being dumb, a silo salesman's daughter - that's her breathy assertion.

She has mastered somehow a tonal mixture of the bogus and the seductive, so Nathaniel interrupts. "But you were quoting Valery last night!" he says. "Who else does that?"

"That line, that's the one line I know," she says. "That one. I always quote it. 'Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regard-moi qui change!' That gets me in the door, that line, it's the key to the city."

The two actors conspire to steal his soul, having none of their own - or do they? This is the interest of this curious little book. It's one of those stories where the characters are really interesting and I end up raising my eyebrows at a lot of the events. The narrative voice is distinctly distancing - Baxter has his reasons for that, which although it is couched as a surprise was rather obvious to me. At any rate, I enjoyed the book well enough, but if you're coming fresh to Baxter, I would say that Saul and Patsy, The Feast of Love, First Light, and Shadow Play are all better than this one.

It is the friendship of Abigail - actress and theatre director, energetic and scrappy survivor of an impoverished and unstable background - and Dara - psychotherapist and unconfident child of a fairly comfortable and loving upbringing, that forms the centerpiece of Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street. The novel is told not only from their points of view but also from Dara's father's and Abigail's boyfriend's. Their lives all end up intersecting at Abigail's house on Fortune Street.

When Abigail was asked about her first memory, what she most often recounted was the afternoon she and her grandfather had gone for a walk and found a Roman plate buried in the muddy foreshore of the River Medway. She would describe herself in her T-shirt and shorts, skipping along beside her grandfather. He was wearing a white shirt, faded gray trousers, and a straw hat that was almost the same color as his mustache. The tide was out, and he had said they should dig for Roman remains, or Saxon as a second best, but only for twenty minutes.

"We can't excavate the entire shore, " he said, "so we depend on luck. Without it, we could dig all day and find nothing but stones and worms."

"I like worms," Abigail said, thrusting he trowel into the mud. What she did not like was her grandfather mentioning the mysterious phenomenon which played such a large and aggravating role in the lives of her parents.

I enjoy this passage not only because it lays bare one of the centers of this book - fortune - but because it gets at what became the chief theme for me - unearthing the past. How we are composed of the stories that lie beneath us. An act can have an effect years later, just as an ordinary plate come become a treasure if it is found. If we do exhume the remains of the past we will all tell a story to complete them and that story is likely to be something slightly different for each teller. This was given particularly interesting context given that I read this book while wandering through the Greek and Roman ruins of Sicily.

There are some tumultuous happenings in this novel, some very dark events, a great deal of loss, but Livesey's story telling is quiet, and eschews the hysterical. While I didn't feel everything necessarily hung completely together satisfyingly as I read it, I finally appreciated how the events collected through different eyes and eyes mounted over time to yield a rich and multi-faceted narrative with material that could easily become preachy and melodramatic.

Hans and Rachel come to New York thinking they will spend a few years of their generously salaried existence living the loft-life of culture and fine food, returning to the sanity of their native London in a few years time. But the world does not always accept payment for delivering on the plans we make.

"We won't be gone for very long," I said, playing down my good fortune. That was, in fact, the plan, conceived by my wife: to drop in on New York City for a year or three and then come back.

"You say that now," he said. "But New York's a very hard place to leave. And once you do leave..." The S.V.P., smiling, said, "I still miss it, and I left twelve years ago."

It was my turn to smile - in part out of embarrassment, because he'd spoken with an American openness. "Well, we'll see," I said.

"Yes," he said. "You will."

His sureness irritated me, though principally he was pitiable - like one of those Petersburgians of yesteryear whose duties have washed him up on the wrong side of the Urals.

But it turns out he was right, in a way. Now that I too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word, somebody once told me, literally refers to a second moving of grass in the same season. You might say, if you're prone to general observations, that New York city insists on memory's repetitive power - on the sort of purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course. None of this means that I wish I were back there now; and naturally I'd like to believe that my own retrospection is in some way more important than the old S.V.P.'s, which, when I was exposed to it, seemed to amount to not much more than a cheap longing. But there's no such thing as a cheap longing, I'm tempted to conclude these days, not even if you're sobbing over a cracked fingernail.

Joseph O'Neill's Netherland is a retrospective look at Hans's time in New York which coincides with September 11th 2001, forcing him and his wife to relocate to the Chelsea Hotel and removing, particularly for her, any sense of certainty. Rachel moves back to London with their child, telling Hans she does not wish him to accompany her. Hans, originally out of nostalgia, takes up playing cricket in New York. Far from the great American past-time, the leagues are mostly comprised of West Indian immigrants and the games played in out-of-the-way greens on Staten Island and in the Bronx's Van Cortland Park. He meets a small-time shyster named Chuck Ramkissoon with a hearty passion for giving cricket in its rightful place in the sports economy, and so begins an almost dream-like existence for Hans and he is drawn further and further into his association with New York cricket while he commutes to London to see his three-year-old son and try to revive his broken marriage. It is amazing to me how much detail O'Neill goes into about the game, how well that interwove with the story, and how interesting it actually was to me, and I'm about as into competitive sports as I am to knitting sweaters.

O'Neill's prose is fluid, intricately descriptive but in a way that is always fascinating, and contemporary but not gimmicky (like its making it easy for anyone who wants to turn it into a film script). He weaves in and out of two time periods - one in the very recent past and the other a few years earlier - effortlessly and that never left me wondering where I was. This is a deeply thoughtful story of a crisis in confidence and a crisis in love both between two people and in the world-at-large. It is an achingly familiar and powerful book about the birth and death of dreams. I can see what everyone is going on about.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Travel Journal III - Pictures Added!


This trip is a study in contrasts, from the damp chill of London and Sussex to the arid and intense heat of Sicily. Our Sicilian trip took us first to Taormina, the Greeks called it Naxos. Ancient Town near Mt. Etna, built on steep hills that require lots of stair climbing - particularly if you are to reach the B&B we stayed in. But it was worth it given the stunning view of the whole town, the coastline, and Mt. Etna (see above - that really was the view from our balcony). Mt. Etna lets off steam by day and at night one can see the lava glowing through the vents. Taormina is the site of the ruins of an ancient Greek theater which is quite spectacular.

We rented a car and drove to Syracusa next. It's a fairly seedy town, but the Greek ruins are not only impressive, one can see Greek plays there. We saw a production of Agamemnon while munching on olives, bread and salami. A day later we drove to the area around Ragusa, stopping in the baroque town of Noto, with all sorts of ornate architecture fashioned of yellow stone.


In this area, we stayed at a vineyard in Vittoria which produces both their own wine and olive oil. Agro-tourismos are nice alternatives to hotels for spending a night or two in rural Italy. Azienda Agricola COS was particularly attractive and very friendly, AND they had a great swimming pool. Their food philosophy is to use only the local ingredients and grapes for their wine. They even use the traditional Greek amphorae to make one of their reds. We had dinner there one night, trying two of their wines - which were really fantastic, particularly the Cerasuolo - a combination of Nero D'Alvola and Frappato. In the heat of their summer, a traditional Sicilian breakfast is granita with brioche (think sherbet on a roll), which sounded funny to me but tasted really wonderful, especially the almond and coffee flavored ones.


We drove from there to Morgantina - an incredibly well preserved Greek ruin and still an active archaeological sight, notable not only for detailed homes, shops, senate and theater (there is a picture of it above, with The Ragazzo closer and Mom sitting all the way up in the front row) but it was a particularly enjoyable sight for me for its being unfrequented by tourists. Not a bus or a postcard shop in sight.

Valle dei Templi

The following day we drove to Agrigento, home of The Valley of the Temples - another spectacular set of ruined Greek Temples that are particularly well preserved and very large, though much more commercially oriented. They are set on a high ridge which has a view of the Sea. Driving to Catania, where we are now, we stopped at the Villa Casale Romana, which is a ruined Roman estate that features really stunning mosaics.

Catania Fish Market

Catania is a lovely town but it is unbearably hot and I am sited-out. After visiting the market, Mom went off visiting a museum but The Ragazzo and I are reading our books and staying cool at the hotel.

Suprisingly, I have gotten in a fair bit of reading too! I've re-read Chiam Potok's The Chosen, read the new Charles Baxter novel The Soul Thief, tried a book of Cees Nooteboom (who I have wanted to read since I started visiting Amsterdam ten years ago). Lost Paradise was heavy on atmosphere but, to be honest, didn't do a whole lot for me. Margot Livesey has a new book out called The House of Fortune Street, which I finished last night. Now I've begun Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which is at least as good as everyone has said it is - strongly written and captivating from the get-go. More complete reactions when I return. We fly back to London tomorrow to visit with friends and family and get in one more night of theater and then...Home, James! Despite the lovely things that have surrounded me every day and the terrific food and wine, I'm looking forward to my own bed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Trip Journal II

Seeing an opera at Glyndebourne is a unique experience. The home of the Christie family is several hundred years old, surounded by sheep pastures, two lakes, a croquet lawn, gardens, and the theater they built to house their opera festival. Formal dress is expected and most people bring or purchase a picnic. We chose our spot on the lawn in view of both the house and the hills, dotted with sheep. A porter carried our table, chairs, and hamper to our spot and we cracked open our bottle of champagne prior to the start of the opera. Dinner is eaten during the long pause, in this case between Acts II & III of Incoronazione di Poppea, and is really sumptuous - asparagus with hollondaise, smoked salmon, traditional English beef with horseradish, English cheeses, and strawberries with cream. Emmanuelle Hahn's conducting really brought clarity to the music and the voices of Iestyn Davies and Tamara Mumford were really strong and Wolfgang Ablinger Sperrhacker was really fun as the Nurse Arnalta and our friend Danielle de Niese (Poppea, and our reason for coming to Glyndebourne in the first place) was full of passion and beautifully sung, but we have to admit to being a bit biased. We partied late into the night and slept too little, but The Ragazzo has made breakfast and it's time to get a little food in me before we take off for Sicily. More later.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Travel Journal - volume I

Trolled around Bloomsbury yesterday, paying my respects to Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville West, Lytton Stratchey, and company. Walked around Tavistock and Gordon Squares and hit a few bookshops in the neighborhood, picking up copies of Rose Tremaine's new novel, The Road Home, Thirteen, by Sebastien Beaumont - a recommendation of Scott Pack's and not yet available in the U.S., and Juan Gabrile Vaquez's The Informers, a recommendation of Dovegrey's.

We attended a production of Bertold Brecht's The Good Soul of Setzuan at the Young Vic in the evening with the fantastic Jane Horrocks. Really splendid production directed by Richard Jones. If I could figure out how to do pictures on this computer I would - but it's not in the cards.

Our first day we took the Tate Museum's boat between the Tate Britain and Tate Modern museums, a lovely way to see London! And the Tate Modern - a converted power plant - is a tremendous space to view modern art and has a terrific permanent collection.

Now I have to get into my tux for this evening's performance of Incoronazione di Poppea at Glyndebourne. We'll have an elegant picnic lunch between the acts - so it should be quite an affair!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Off on a holiday - but check back, I'll be posting as I can

The Ragazzo, the mom, and I are off on our holiday today! Woo hoo! I feel completely unprepared, but I do have a ton of good reading to look forward to (and to drag through airports in my luggage).

We'll be here

Probably doing something like this!

And we'll be here...

and then here!

Do check in with me as I plan to try to do the odd post or two, internet access permitting. But you can be fairly certain you will hear from me by the June 28th otherwise.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Artists feeding artists (Books - Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel & How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

One of the many tales in Sasa Stanisic's new book How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone concerns the 'three-dot-ellipsis man,' so called because this old Rabbi is robbed of the 'breath for saying long sentences' after being tortured for his Judaism. It's a vivid segment, made all the more touching this evening by Stanisic's own reading of it this evening at McNally Robinson Bookstore. Stanisic explained that he sought to reveal some parallels between the Second World War and his own native country's 1992 civil war. (Did any of my New York area readers take me up on my exhortation to attend this reading? If not, you really missed out). Not only does Stanisic do a good job of giving context to the segments he has chosen, his reading style is engaging, exuberant, and warm and his manner full of humor. I really enjoyed some of the creative process nuggets he shared - like that fact that his inspiration for this segment came from Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. Although I know who Babel is, I have never read him and didn't know anything about this set of short essays - part reportage, part literary fiction - that chronicle the Soviet Army's 1920 sally into Poland to spread the Soviet love. Good things readings are held in bookstores. I went to McNally Robinson's well stocked shelves and found the book and bought it immediately. Some of the essays are written from the point of view of a Cossack, others from the point of view of a Jewish journalist who goes under cover with one of the units to witness and report the devastation of his country and his people. I find the whole notion chilling - the importance of being a witness and recording these acts crossed with the horror of watching the murder of your own people while never revealing who you are so that you may do so - never stopping the carnage (I know one person couldn't, but the whole notion makes me choke). But I can see why he felt he served best in this role - the writing is exquisite:

...Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is leaving, heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowery hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hops. The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our head. The stench of yesterday's blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. The blackened Zbrucz roars and twists the foaming knots of its rapid. The bridges are destroyed, and we wade across the rive. The majestic moon lies on the waves. The water comes up to the horses' backs. purling streams trickle between hundreds of horses' legs. Someone sinks, and loudly curses the Mother of God. The river is littered with the black squares of the carts and filled with humming, whistling, and singing that thunders above the glistening hollows and the snaking moon.

Prose so sumptuous it should be set to music and sung by a baritone. The writing tingles the eye, the ear, tongue - it is impossible to be left without a sensory experience of the scene:

Eliza, the Jesuit's housekeeper. She gave me a cup of amber tea and some sponge cake. Her sponge cakes had the aroma of the crucifixion. Within them was the sap of slyness and the fragrant frenzy of the Vatican.

I can't believe I have never read Babel before. I can't believe I was 'this close' to not going to this reading because I have to pack for my trip and I'm feeling kind of crappy. I would never have heard about this book, which is now an addition to my Russian Reading Challenge and is coming with me on my vacation. Thank you, Sasha! I have mentioned before that I am a creative-process freak. One of my pleasures of reading about or listening to other artists talk about how they make work, is learning how they feed themselves. I can understand why this book fed this particular writer and it's very satisfying to have left the reading with a new book recommendation from a writer I admire.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Acquisitions Department

A lovely catch-up session with Sheila last night in our fun, noisy, current favorite Morrocan-French cafe, which meant I was near Three Lives Booksellers and I could pick up some reading for my trip. I swore I would only leave the shop with two books. I guess you could say I was good to my word...twice.

I have really enjoyed Charles Baxter's other work, Shadow Play is a particular favorite but The Feast of Love is pretty great too. And then Scott Pack's big mouth went on and on about him and I discovered he had a new one out - The Soul Thief. A prodigy who steals others' souls because he has none himself! Sounds intriguing.

So many authors I like have new books coming out. Ethan Canin has a new book coming, but sadly it was at not at the shop yet, and I've read quite a bit about the newish Rose Tremain, but that isn't available in the U.S. yet, so I'm going to pick it up when I'm in London.

Tim Winton's Cloudstreet is in my top ten - what a magnificent book. So I am loyal and when he has a new one I'll always get it as soon as I hear about it. Breath is a surfer's coming-of-age story, but it's not so much the subject that has me interested - Winton is an observant and bleak psychologist.

Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage has been everywhere lately, I think I heard about it from Mark Sarvas. In it, a mysterious stranger visits the home of a 1950s American couple and, upsets the understandings upon which their lives were built. It is told from the point of view of Pearlie, the wife. I found Greer's The Path of Minor Planets quite a beautiful book (I think it was his first) so I am looking forward to this one.

Last, but definitely not least, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, has been raved about as the tragedy you didn't know you were missing. Falling under the post-9/11 niche, it concerns a transplanted New Yorker who, after his marriage falls apart, discovers the world of cricket. Cricket is not exactly a New York mainstay, but the Times lets it be known that there is a culture here in New York - it was profiled recently in connection with this book. That's hardly what the book is about but it is the backdrop against which the character's loss is played out.

Don't forget, if you're near NYC Sasa Stanisic is giving a reading from his new book How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone this Friday at McNally Robinson. If you're nowhere near NY it looks like he will be in San Francisco too and maybe his tour will swing by wherever you live. If it doesn't - read this book in any case - here's my rave.

I am so hungry for good reading right now, and with our big trip and a six-hour plane ride fast approaching, I'll have some time, now I've just got to get rid of this pesky sinus thing that keeps hanging around.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Radical identity (Books - The Darling)

Russell Banks is drawn to themes of social and racial inequality, ways in which people control other people, political idealists, and strong, unique female characters - at least those seems to be points in common between The Reserve which I read earlier this year (and have this to say about it), and The Darling which I am reading now. Stylistically they are very different books. The Reserve feels like a romantic 1930s film shot in black and white- Veronica, the crazy heroine, has skin that glows in a flawless silvery white on the big screen - whereas The Darling, although it could be said to feel cinematic too, is shot in hard-edged color with hand-held cameras, and split screens. From the 1970s to the 1990s, we see Hannah, a member of the radical Weather Underground, evolve - wrinkles and all. Banks adopts the first-person to relate Hannah's story. Although we quickly know her as a caring, thoughtful and competent person, we know from the very first sentence that Hannah lives on her intuition.

After many years of believing that I never dream of anything, I dreamed of Africa. It happened on a late-August night here at the farm in Keene Valley, about as far from Africa as I have been able to situate myself. I couldn't recall the dream's story, although I knew that it was in Africa, the country of Liberia, and my home in Monrovia, and that somehow the chimps had played a role, for there were round, brown, masklike faces still afloat in my mind when I awoke, safe in my bed in this old house in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains, and found myself overflowing with the knowledge that I would soon return there.

I am trying to decide whether to characterize Hannah as impulsive. She is not flighty or unable to think things through, one would not think her crazily rash, as Veronica is, but despite planning, Hannah's life has been formed by decisions she has made on impulse, on how things feel. She would be a good actress! During the opening of the book, Banks sets up an atmosphere tense with the possibility of change and Hannah as a character who is sensitive to the augurs of that change.

For a few moments, as I always do, I stood by the window and watched the digs. They are Border collies, father and daughter, Baylor and Winnie, and when they have done their business, the first thing they do every morning is patrol the property, reclaiming their territory and making sure that during the night nothing untoward has happened. Usually I watch them work and think of them as working for me. But this morning they looked weirdly different to me, as if during the night one of us, they or I, had changed allegiances. They looked like ghost dogs, moving swiftly across the side yard in the gray pre-dawn light, disappearing into shadows cast by the house and oak trees, darting low to the ground into the garage, then reappearing and moving on. Today they worked for no one but themselves; that's how I saw them. Their gait was halfway between a trot and a run - fast, effortless, smooth, and silent, their ears cocked forward, plumed tails straight back - and they seemed more like small wolves than carefully trained and utterly domesticated herding animals.

For a moment they scared me. I saw the primeval wildness in them, their radical independence and selfishness, the ferocity of their strictly canine needs...

That last sentence presages the behavior of many of the human beings we meet later in this novel - and not just those waring factions engaged in the bloody revolution in Liberia - but American radicals like Hannah, who is herself capable of fierce selfishness and independence. Another element I'm finding compelling about the character that Banks is constructing in Hannah is the notion of political radical as a personal identity rather than a position one takes or a way to fulfill one's community involvement hours.

There is a crucial transition from radical activist to revolutionary, and when you've made that crossing, you no longer question why you have no profession, no husband, no children, why you have no contact with your parents, and why you have no true friends - only comrades and people who think they're your true friend but don't know your real name. Until Zack showed up, even though I was paying the price of being a revolutionary, I hadn't really made that crossing yet, and consequently my life had come to feel shriveled and gray, boring and pointless. I had the effects, but no cause.

Needless to say, she makes the leap, and this book follows her struggle back and forth between her need to be involved in righting injustices and her desire for a stable life with tangible, hands-on daily tasks, and real human connections. She makes three such crossings that I am aware of 100 pages into the novel. One from Brandeis University radical to Liberian resident, wife, mother, and radical defender of chimpanzees, the second back to the U.S. where we first encounter her as an aging revolutionary who has taken up a stable existence as an organic chicken farmer, and finally her return to Liberia to search for her sons.

Although the circumstances are by no means identical, Hannah's inner dialectic between herself as a revolutionary and herself as a person reminds me of my own internal conversation between my artist self and my engagement with life's other exigencies - my love of the creative process, indeed my acceptance of the fact that that is an inseparable part of my identity, and my frustration or even disgust with the extraordinary amount of self-absorption that process can entail, and the resulting urge to do something more connected to humanity, more tangible. And then the rare flashes of insight when those merge - my process has always been about the daily struggle to make them one and the same. I wonder if Bank's life as a writer, his continual return to themes of social injustice, and his penchant for creating characters like Hannah who do things like farm chickens, or Hubert St. Germain in The Reserve who chops wood and generally takes care of the Reserve's properties for its wealthy inhabitants, is indicative of a similar inner conversation?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

It's all about protein

It's not the number of neurons that increase the computing power of a particular species' brain, and hence the potential complexity of its behavior. Rather it is the structure of the synapses - the microscopic spaces between neurons - how many proteins are present there, and how many different types of structures those proteins combine to construct, according to Dr. Seth Grant and his colleagues. Their recent article in Nature Neuroscience is summarized in Nicholas Wade's article in today's Science Times.

This study is particularly interesting for its comparison of synaptical structure across different species. I find the structure of the neuron a fascinating subject because our behavioral complexity - the difference between humans being able to speak and reflect on their own thoughts versus a slug's simpler cognitive capacities - is the difference between the number of proteins present in their nerve cells, and that influences, as this article puts it, our processing power. Here's why: Our billions of neurons are like strands of microscopic wire strung end-to-end throughout our nervous systems. They communicate with each other both chemically and electrically and if the message is strong enough, those communications result in a behavior - a hand moves, the heart beats, anger is registered on another's face and we run, etc.... Proteins are the building blocks for the various chemicals that neuron's pass between each other to facilitate or hinder the activity of the succeeding neuron. They also help package those chemicals for distribution, they create mechanical devices which propel those packages through pores in the synapse, others which pick up excess chemicals and return them to the cell. Still other proteins are embedded along the membrane of each neuron that allow passage of different charged particles in and out of the cell, which permits the 'firing' of nerve cells that you have probably heard people talk about. All electrical activity, whether it fires up your lamp at home or your neurons, is a result of differences in charge. (Think of how putting the positive ends of two magnets together creates a force that you can actually feel) Simpler species have only evolved systems that use one or two types of charged particles to flow - say, potassium and sodium. Whereas more complex species have additional types - they (we) allow potassium, sodium, calcium and chloride - those channels also have evolved subtypes each of which has a somewhat different mechanical structure and hence a different action. Each of those differences adds a new way one cell can 'fire' or talk to another nerve or muscle cell. Some cells give one big burst of electricity, others give groups of bursts in rhythmic patterns. Some cells produce messages which function only to change the message of another cell. It is the summed action of millions of these cells which ultimately determines whether a behavior happens or not. Does our hand raises and grasp our cup of coffee without looking while continuing to type a blog entry with one hand? Or does it knock it off the desk instead?

The advantage of a complex animal's computing power is like the difference between having an alphabet with three letters and one with 26. With three letters one has a modest number of combinations one can produce: ABC, ACB, AAB, BBA, etc... Those three letters do give us a decent number of combinations and you could think of each of those combinations as a 'message' output by the cell. But then think of our 26-letter alphabet and consider the number of words in our dictionary. An increase of 23 letters (a small number of building blocks) buys us millions of possibilities in terms of how we can combine them. A sea slug with only a few varieties of potassium channels only has a few possible ways its nerves can fire - hence the limited repertoire of behaviors one might expect from the slug. They can move their gill to get oxygen, they can wiggle their tail for movement and avoid danger, they desire nutrition and pursue it, but we don't expect them to suddenly learn to fox trot no matter how much training we might provide. The human brain is capable of a startling number of actions and subtle variations on those actions (it also has an impressive number of ways it can mess up as well). That is because of the inherent combinatorial possibilities afforded us by the way our 1000 neural proteins have evolved to combine. It ain't a perfect machine by a long shot, we have also evolved violence, neuroticism, and schizophrenia, but it is pretty remarkable system nonetheless. Our ability to cook, write poems, and reflect on our carbon footprint have evolved because we have more ways our cells can 'fire.'

Hopefully that added to your understanding of this article and didn't just confuse you. Feel free to ask questions if this subject interests you.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bleak, rugged, and certain (Books - The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy)

We're down here huntin some horses that was stole.

In whose charge were these horses?

No one answered.

She looked at Boyd. She spread the fan. Painted across the folded bellows of the ricepaper was a dragon with great round eyes. She folded it shut. For how long will you seek these horses? she said.

Ever how long it takes.

Podria ser un viaje largo.


Long voyages often lose themselves.


You will will. It is difficult even for brothers to travel together on such a voyage. The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons. If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all. Listen to the corridos of the country. They will tell you. Then you will see in your own life what is the cost of things. Perhaps it is true that nothing is hidden. Yet many do not wish to see what lies before them in plain sight. You will see. The shape of the road is the road. There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one...

For the last 100 pages or so, this novel seemed to me a long voyage that had lost itself. But Billy does indeed come to see the cost of things. And those corridos are sung at the very end of the book, when Billy is more ready to hear them. Billy lives a bleak and rugged life but one driven by single minded purpose, and that purpose in turn, driven by love.

Five pages couldn't go by in this book when there wasn't writing to admire.

Boyd pulled the muslin cover up and lay back and looked at him. His long pale uncut hair all about his and his face so thin. What is it? he said.

Talk to me.

Go to bed.

I need for you to talk to me.

It's okay. Everything's okay.

No it aint.

You just worry about stuff. I'm all right.

I know you are, said Billy. But I aint...

I found the simplicity of that dialogue heartbreaking, but McCarthy is not a one-trick pony, not four sentences later:

He got his things from the house and saddled the horse and rode out. He said goodbye to no one. He sat the horse in the road beyond the river cottonwoods and he looked off downcountry at the mountains and he looked to the west where thunderheads were standing sheared off from the thin dark horizon and he looked at the keep cyanic sky taut and vaulted over the whole of Mexico where the antique world clung to the stones and to the spores of living things and dwelt in the blood of men. He turned the horse and set out along the road south, shadowless in the gray day, riding with the shotgun unscabbarded across the bow of the saddle. For the enmity of the world was newly plain to him that day and cold and inameliorate as it must be to all who have no longer cause except themselves to stand against it.

Who uses a word like 'inameliorate?' I love that sentence. It is so absolute, like rock - I feel certain as I read it that there is nothing more true. I got a little disconnected from this book toward the end, but I am glad I stuck with it. Here are my other thoughts about it: 1, 2.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Why write? (Film: Atonement) - Revised!

Joe Wright's film of Ian McEwan's Atonement is pretty near as good as an adaptation can get. ***SPOILER ALERT*** He successfully captures the non-linear flow of time so that you feel it's logic, feel the fact that a writer is working and re-working her material. Before seeing the film, I thought the casting of James McAvoy an odd choice. He seemed physically wrong for the part, more delicate than I imaged Robbie, but his acting is so free and passionate it didn't matter what he looked like. He is the opposite of Keira Knightley who seems incapable of acting when she is not speaking - she can let you know what she's thinking only when she's saying it or deliberately giving you a physical demonstration - a calculatedly worried glance, a swift turn of the head. While the inner life simply flows from McAvoy and he could be doing anything - or nothing at all. It is all there. And it's a treat that the film features not just one, but two such performances. The other from the beautiful Vanessa Redgrave - such openness, so many layers to her one short scene at the end of the film - but it is worth waiting for. The other highlight of this film was the soundtrack which was a brilliantly layered dream-like score combining tasteful music choices (even though the recording of La Boheme was anachronistic, it was still a great choice), with composed music that deftly interwove key sounds of the action (such as the sound of the typewriter) into the music. A really inspired and artistically integrated choice. The film really skirted tired choices even when it chose tried and true techniques - for instance, the scene at Dunkirk, there was a lengthy montage set to music. I'm usually disappointed when a montage begins and I roll my eyes in anticipation of a string of cliches. Now the filmmaker has to get in a bunch of information for which he didn't end up having enough time, I think. Not here, the same good writing, intelligent camera work, sense of design, excellent music went into that choice as went into every other part of the film. OK, actually, I watched the scene again. It's not a montage at all. It's a lengthy steady-cam shot which makes it even more technically remarkable. It gives the scene an emotional legato (the musical term used when notes are sustained, not sharp, and flow one into the other) - the emotion can run through the scene for the actor, rather than chopping up their experience (and hence our's). It creates this monumental sweep that is almost hallucinogenic. We're seeing Dunkirk ostensibly through Robbie's eyes (though really through Briony's) and he is feverish at this point, so that crazy carnival feel is very fitting and the overall effect of the scene very moving. There are two parts of that sequence that stay with me most, the first is a group of British soldiers singing in some sort of gazebo as the dazed Robbie circles them, although as is usually true with the soundtrack, that singing is layered in with other sounds, juxtaposing the feverishness of his experience, and of war in general, with the elemental sound of these stalwart soldiers singing. The second is as Robbie stumbles about for some place to rest, he ends up walking through a movie theater behind the screen during a film. He stands and watches the lovers kiss and that seems to knock the remaining wind out of him emotionally. Finally, the film reminded me what a great book Atonement is. Particularly after having a discussion with my friend, The Quiet One, today about what he called "the two endings." I love the two endings because they are so revealing of Briony's character - how her desperate human need to put things right ends up being translated into writing. How this was her one book and it took her whole life to write. How the "truth" required not one ending but two and how unlivable her truth was to her. She needed the artifice to survive. I didn't remember thinking Briony quite as pathological when I read the book, but is has been a few years - and the choice works for the film. I really wanted to kill her. I couldn't have any other feeling for her until encountering the elderly Briony as played by Vanessa Redgrave. In any event, I'm very enthusiastic about this one - the book is a stunner and you shouldn't miss it - but the film is a gorgeous piece of work in its own right.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I'm greedy, that's my problem...

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Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

My reading stems from an innate curiosity about people and states of mind and, if I'm honest, from a greed for knowledge. I am greedy to possess knowledge. Sometimes it turns out that I'm more interested in the possession than in the acquisition - if bookstores were smorgasboards I would say that my eyes are bigger than my stomach. I think 'oh, I really do want to know everything there is about amateur telescope use,' but really when it comes to getting through the book, I'd rather read a novel. If anything has changed it is perhaps my knowledge of myself. I know my taste better. I kid myself less. I still love fiction best and still flip back and forth between older works of fiction (more classic literature) and contemporary novels. I'm still a fan of English and Irish writers, and particularly contemporary women's voices. I still love biographies - though I don't read them as greedily as I used to. I still loathe self-help, I don't really like how-to either unless I really, really want to know (and even then I'm impatient), and I have a hard time getting through a book about history or politics no matter how interested in them I originally think I am. Sheila has gotten me to read some Robert Kaplan and some Ryszard Kapuscinski but it is always slower going for me than fiction. Any changes that have evolved in my reading have evolved because my work has changed dramatically. As a theater and opera director and acting teacher I used to read more biographies of composers, conductors, other artists. I read pretty much every acting technique book that came out if it had even the remotest connection to the way I worked. A lot of my reading was driven by research - even the fiction I read was the collecting process for a project's setting, a character's psychology, or I was thinking of adapting the entire work itself to a piece of theater. But when I worked in that field I did read books about science, particularly medicine, psychology, and the brain-mind-body connection. As an acting teacher that's what I was working with. In fact, those interests lead me to my interest in neuroscience, of which I'm now a student. I read more books about the brain now, and I read much more 'hard' science. There are also more books available for the reading public now about cognition in general and neuroscience in particular. It has become a niche. I am continually surprised that I'm actually interested in something that's popular when it's popular.

I used to read poetry more often, but now I think I read it better. My tastes in it have also broadened. I used to read a lot of books about attending medical school, medical practice, the history of medicine, It was the road not taken. Now that I'm living my fantasy of working in a scientific/clinical field I don't dream by reading about it any more. Now I'm collecting information from the science books and dreaming more about artistic work. The two-volume biography of Orson Welles by Simon Callow is on my soon-to-be-read list, thank you Sheila. I love biographies although I used to read them more often when I was acting. But I still go home to fiction. I still like a balance of the light and the heavy, familiar settings and exotic ones, recent works and older classic works. Virginia Woolf, Ethan Canin, Tim Winton, May Sarton, Richard Powers, Chiam Potok, J. D. Salinger, Pat Barker, Herman Hesse, Iris Murdoch, Dostoevsky are some of my old favorites. Hilary Mantel, David Leavitt, Alice Munro, Michael Chabon, Shirley Jackson, William Trevor are some of my newer ones. I'm still greedy to hold experiences in my grubby little brain - more! more! I don't see that changing any time soon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Connecting through food (The Last Chinese Chef - by Nicole Mones)

Food as sustenance, food as salve for the soul, food as poetry, food as history, food as political statement, food as a way for people to connect - these are the themes of Nicole Mones's The Last Chinese Chef. In it, a fortyish widow, Maggie, discovers that her deceased husband may have fathered a child with another woman in China. She is a food writer and, although still in mourning, combines going to China to investigate whether she has any legal responsibility for this child with an assignment to interview a fortyish Chinese-American chef, Sam, who is competing in a national cooking contest. On the downside this book is rather obvious. I knew how it was going to end within about 35 pages. After a while, I was even pretty sure I knew what would occur in each succeeding scene - so suspense is out. However Mones writes a swift-moving novel in which you really care about what is happening to the characters and she has researched her subject - Chinese cuisine - very thoroughly.

"You said Chinese cuisine in China tries to accomplish certain things."


"Things that set it apart from the cuisines of the West?"

"Yes." He thought. "For one thing, we have formal ideals of flavor and texture. Those are the rigid principles I mentioned. Each one is like a goal that every chef tries to reach - either purely, by itself, or in combination with the others. Then there's artifice. Western food doesn't try to do much with artifice at all."

"Artifice." She wanted to make sure she heard him right.

"Artifice. Illusion. Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind. We have a lot of dishes that come to the table looking like one thing and turn out to be something else. The most obvious example would be a duck or fish that is actually vegetarian, created entirely from soy and gluten, but there are many other types of illusion dishes. We strive to fool the diner for a moment. It adds a layer of intellectual play to the meal. When it works, the gourmet is delighted."

"Okay," she said, "artifice."

"Call it theater. Chinese society is all about theater. Not just in food. Then there's healing. We use food to promote health. I'm not talking about balanced nutrition - every cuisine does that, to some degree. I'm talking about each food having certain properties - hot, cold, dry, wet, sour, spicy, bitter, sweet, and so on. And we think many imbalances are cause by these properties being out of whack. So a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner."

"You mean cure illness?"

"Yes, but it's more than that. People have mental and emotional layers to their problems, too. The right foods can ease the mind and heart. It's all one system."

"You cook like that?" she said. "You yourself?"

"Not really. It's a specialty."

"Okay," she said writing it down. "Healing." As if food can heal the human heart. "Is that it?"

Just in case you didn't get it the first time, Mones repeats the theme of the novel and italicizes it.

"One more. The most important one of all. It's community. Every meal eaten in China, whether the grandest banquet or the poorest lunch eaten by workers in an alley - all eating is shared by the group."

"That's true all over the world," she protested.

"No." He looked at her, and for the first time she saw a coolness in his face. He didn't like her disagreeing. "We don't plate. Almost all other cuisines do. Universally in the West, they plate. Think about it."

"Well..." That was true. Every Chinese restaurant she'd ever been to had put food in the middle of the table...

Healing and connection - these are the predominant themes of the novel. Mones pounds them into the reader without subtlety. Her writing style is casual, and while this makes for very natural dialogue, I find "Maggie'd" for "Maggie would" distracting and not worth the ink it saves. However, the writing on food is informative and detailed but also entertaining and get ready to salivate - it's little wonder the pages of my copy have a few food stains on it.

He put down a plate of pink shrimp under a clear glaze. No additions or ingredients could be seen, though she had watched him add many things. The aroma seemed to be sweet shrimp, nothing more.

He took one and held it in his mouth, dark eyes flying through calculations.

Her turn. She put one in her mouth and bit; it burst with a big, popping crunch. Inside there was the soft, yielding essence of shrimp. "How do you make it pop like that?"

"Soak it in cold salt water first. That's what I was doing when you first came in."

"It's great," she said.

"Good," he corrected. "Not great. I can still detect the presence of sugar."

"I can't."

He smiled. "Remember I told you we strove for formal ideals of flavor and texture? This dish is a perfect example. One of the most important peaks of flavor is xian. Xian mean the sweet, natural flavor - like butter, fresh fish, luscious clear chicken broth. Then we have xiang, the fragrant flavor - think frying onions, roasted meat. Nong is the concentrated flavor, the deep complex taste you get from meat stews or dark sauces or fermented things. Then there is the rich flavor, the flavor of fat. This is called you er bu ni, which means to taste of fat without being oily. We love this one. Fat is very important to us. Fat is not something undesirable to be removed and thrown away, not in China. We have a lot of dishes that actually focus on fat and make it delectable. Bring pork belly to the table, when it's done right, and Chinese diners will groan with happiness."

I find Mones food writing luscious, it's no wonder she writes for Gourmet magazine. But there are two kinds of writing about food in this novel that Mones pulls off with impressive command. One are stories within the story - of the child's grandmother and of Sam's father, the son of a famous Chinese chef, who has the bad fortune to come of age under the Maoist regime when fine cooking was considered not just anathema to Communist culture, but preparing or even appreciating it could be a cultural crime. The following excerpt takes place on a crowded train ride as Zhang Guolin rides to her new government-assigned place of living. She carries a tin box of food lovingly prepared by her Nainai.

In our little bay, designed for six passengers, at least twenty had pressed in. Everyone was hungry.

After some hours and the exchange of many revolutionary ideas, it was agreed that anyone who had any food would bring it out for all in our knot to share.

As I dug in my bag I glimpsed the kinds of foods others were drawing forth: peanuts in a twist of newspaper, dried fruit, small packages of crackers. And then I put out my tin box.

All eyes flew to it. It had the weight and size of real food; when I cracked the lid, the aroma rushed out, unstoppable. "What is it?"

"I don't know, " I answered, for I had taken the box from Nainai without looking inside.

Now I lifted off the lid, and drew in my breath. It was Guang-zhou wenchange ji, a Cantonese dish Nainai loved. Velvet-braised chicken breast, thin-sliced Yunnan salt-cured ham, and tiny tender bok choy were layered in an alternating pattern. All three were meant to be taken together in one bit. The arrangement glistened under a clear sauce. As soon as I saw it my mouth longed for it. That must have been what Nainai's friend brought her from the south, Yunnan, ham. So special. It had been meant for me, and now everyone was staring at it. With a plunging heart I realized how opulent and bourgeois it appeared.

"What's that?" someone said.

"She said she didn't know," said another.

"How could you not know?" said a third, this time to me.

I held the tin box, terrified.

Then Huang Meiying, next to me, spoke up with a boldness I had not expected. "She doesn't know because an old lady handed it to her on her way into the station. I saw it. I was right behind her."

"What old lady?"

"I never saw her before," said Huang.

"Did she say anything?"

Silence. It was my turn. Little Huang was looking at me. I cleared my throat. "She said, Long live Chairman Mao."

"Maybe it's poisoned," someone said.

"It's not poisoned," scoffed another. "I'll show you. I'll eat some." He tasted it, lifting one set of the three slices in the incandescently simple sauce and dropping it in his mouth. I wanted to scream at him. I was about to collapse from hunger. And this was ham, from Yunnan, made for me by my Nainai. I wanted it.

Great scene! I appreciated Mones writing much more when it integrated ideas, food, and plot elements in a compelling scene like this than when it pounded one over the head with narrative explanation. The other writing Mones succedes with are the quotes that begins each chapter:

When does the bamboo flower? A man may wait his lifetime for the answer and still not see it. The bamboo might flower only once in a hundred years. Once it begins, all the bamboo around it will flower too, for hundreds of miles all over the region...
- LIAN WEI, The Last Chinese Chef

I found each of these little passages a fascinating bit of culinary or cultural history and and they assisted the movement of the plot, but Mones coup is that The Last Chinese Chef is the name of her novel, but there is no "classic" she is quoting from. She has invented this book and all its passages from scholarly articles she researched. She had me convinced.

Ultimately this book is a romance that is begging to be a big-budget culinary feature film. Sort of You've Got Mail meets Babette's Feast. It's written like film, it has appealing romantic leads you really feel for, it covers contemporary topics - multiculturalism, midlife searches for meaning in life - it has some stories suited for epic historical flashbacks which will be pretty to look at. Despite the fact that the book had no surprises in terms of its plot, I was interested and it made for entertaining reading on a couple of flights to and from Ohio. Now that I know all the Chinese food I've been eating is unauthentic crap, I want to know where (in NYC) I can get the good stuff - I've worked up a taste for it!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Other worldliness is appropriate when you're in another world (Books - How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

Displacement. The other-worldliness of picking up your family by the roots and transplanting them somewhere else because over-proud religious or national factions have decided that they no longer wish to live with the inconveniences of others. Sasa Stanisic reveals the hypocrisy of the adults who teach children that they should share, the religions that teach children they should love thy neighbor, and who then make life impossible for each other because it is too much damn work for them to understand others not exactly like them. It seems to me that his fantastical novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is not fantastical because the writer thinks it will be interesting but rather because it is the form that best expresses the fantasmogorical nature of being a refugee, of trying to adopt a new country, a new language, of missing the food traditional to your homeland, of wondering whether those you left behind are still alive. A dream-like Fantasy seems, well, realistic, if you are a young man named Aleksandar who maintains his emotional connection to home by writing letters to a young girl with whom he shared wartime horrors, but never learned her last name. So, knowing that she moved to Sarajevo, he simply adds a new last name to each letter and sends it off. The child Aleksandar wanted to be a magician, but the grown-up still seems to have lots of reasons for magic.

I paint ten soldiers without any weapons.

I paint Mother's face, smiling, happy, carefree.

If I were a magician who could make things possible, then pictures could talk while we painted them.

If I were a magician who could make things possible, then houses could keep their promises. And they would have to promise not to lose their roofs or go up in flames. If I were a magician who could make things possible, the scars made in them by bullet holes would close up again over the years.

What music does an apartment building make in war?

This passage of a novel is like a poem - the words are displaced enough to not be reportorial - so that the ugliness of the situation can be put off to one side for just a moment as we focus on the longing - just the longing. Making that longing crystal clear, letting it sing. The passage reminds me of Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions.

In the last section of this novel, Aleksandar returns home to Bosnia from Germany:

I wanted to know what people were talking about in the city, but I didn't dare ask. I listened. I wanted to know how you get up on the rooftoops. I went to sniff the air in stairways, at the library they gave me a number belonging to a table with a reading lamp. I saw students studying. Orpheus and Eurydice was being performed that evening, I wanted to see what kind of underworld the river god's son goes down into, only to lose the woman he's already lost yet again, but I couldn't get a ticket. I was glad to find that such things were sold out. I was glad of everything that looked like riches rather than ruins or that seemed carefree, although I told myself that being carefree is no good...

The trip home includes a thoroughly other-worldly soccer game between Bosnians and Serbs rife with hatred. It is a difficult section in which, for one thing, this reader realizes that our narrator had grown up. I won't ruin these last chapters with excerpts, because they constitute the well-earned climax of this novel and are best appreciated in context.

Don't let my earlier posts fool you 1, 2, 3, the endearing child-narrator of this story does not make this an 'easy' book, although it is sometimes wryly amusing and often very beautiful, it steers clear of cute. I strongly recommend reading it. I should say that it was translated from German by Anthea Bell. I haven't read it in German, nor could I, but I can say that the tone is consistent, inventive, colloquial, and I didn't look up from it once thinking it self-conscious. So I am going to call the translation a good one. I don't know if Stanisic is doing a book tour. He might be as he has a reading scheduled in NYC at McNally Jackson Bookstore on June 13. It's the day before I take off for my holiday, but I will try to go just the same.