Thursday, July 31, 2008


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What are your favourite final sentences from books? Is there a book that you liked specially because of its last sentence? Or a book, perhaps that you didn’t like but still remember simply because of the last line?

I read this question and realized, while I do have favorite endings I don't actually know the final sentence of any book except Virginia Woolf's The Waves:

"...Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"

The waves broke on the shore.

Not bad, huh?

There was only one other ending I remembered by heart. That's not a sentence at all, but the sounding of an axe chopping down the tree in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. I'll give you the last sentence in the context of the entire last line of Firs, the old servant, and the stage directions that follow.

Firs: (goes up to the door and touches the handle) Locked. They've gone away... They forgot me...It's nothing...I'll sit here a while...And Leonid Andreich didn't put on his fur coat. I suppose, he must have gone away in his light one...(Sighs anxiously.) I just didn't look after it...Oh, these green young things - they never learn! (Mumbles something that cannot be understood.) Life just slipped by as if I'd never even lived... I'll lie down for a while... You just don't have any strength, none, nothing's lieft. nothing at all...Oh, you...silly galoot, you!...

He lies motionless. A sound is heard far off in the distance, as if coming from the sky. It is the sound of a string breaking that dies away sadly. A stillness falls, and nothing is heard but the sound of an axe striking a tree far away in the orchard.

"Oh, you silly galoot" or sometimes "Oh you bungler" chop, chop, chop. Chekhov really knew what he was doing.

But having gone and checked, there are a few other memorable ones. I'll present some of them in the context of their few last lines.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
by Gertrude Stein:

About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.

That book is a howl.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger:
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

Breath the new novel by Tim Winton (I am just crazy about this book):
They probably don't understand this, but it's important for me to show them that their father is a man who dances - who saves lives and carries the wounded, yes, but who also does something completely pointless and beautiful., and in this at least he should need no explanation.

I could be mean and post the ending of Anna Karenina, but in case you haven't read it, I won't. Someone told me the ending as I sat in a movie theater and Citizen Kane was about to start in my senior year in college. I was still reading it and I wanted to kill them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Captured in Amber (Books - The Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty)

It's not as if I didn't have enough books started, but when I came home last night after dinner out and a walk around the hot, humid city, none of them seemed right. I had found Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes a detailed and imaginative read and his The Anatomy School has also been sitting on the to-be-read-before-the-end-of-summer pile, so...

'Father Farquahrson's a bit...' Martin searched for a word that wouldn't be rude, '...boring.'

'Very well.' His mother spoke in a clipped I've-nothing-more-to-say-to-you voice. She put the top on the sandwich and sliced it into four triangles. 'Crusts on or off?'

'The way they are.' She took the waxed paper from around the loaf and folded up the sandwiches.

'Just because your mother chooses to do things a little better than anybody else...' The queen of the unfinished sentence. 'But that doesn't suit the like of our Martin. Oh no, he'd prefer to scorn things that are just that wee bit better...Mary Lawless doesn't stand up for you any more. She used to worship the ground you walked on. And Nurse Galliland says you're a changed boy. Being seventeen doesn't suit you.'

'I thought you liked change,' he said.

Being seventeen doesn't suit many of us and Martin is having to do a year over, having failed his exams. He is smart enough to know that he doesn't know much and is contemplating the priesthood. He goes on a silent retreat with several other boys from his school to observe Easter and to discover whether he has it in him. There has yet to be anything remarkable in the events of this novel but MacLaverty's captures the dialogue between teenage boys, and the relationships between them and their authority figures - parents, teachers, priests - with a wicked accuracy. As in Grace Notes, MacLaverty observes for us just the right everyday details so that you know who people are not through explanation but through their behavior.
MacLaverty thinks like an actor, taking pleasure in entering the lives of others wholly - their body rhythms, their opinions, and their actions - not just selling us the most attractive ones, but taking them all on. The characters in these novels are not types, they're people whom we seem to know in an instant, it's as though he has captured the stuffy Latin professor, the loving but unsure widowed mother, the distracted and thoughtful high school student, and frozen them in amber just as they are doing something characteristic. I am finding The Anatomy School a very amusing read and a good antidote to the equally amusing but relentlessly cynical The Lazarus Project.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Born to read (Books - Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf)

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid, a book that chronicles the evolution of written language and how the brain accommodated the shift from oral language to print, had to win me back after her opening sentence.

We were never born to read.

Meaning what, exactly? That we were not intended by fate to read? I'm not a fatalist. That we were not designed to read? Genetic code accomplishes change by chance, evolution comes about when the changes happen to be useful in a given environment.

Our ancestors' invention could come about only because of the human brain's extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped by experience.

Well then we were born to adapt, and we've adapted to reading written language. A strong opening is a good thing, but I found this one too sensational, but Wolf writes equally evocatively on what it is like to read, say, a paragraph of Proust, and what the brain is doing to result in that experience. I also found her saga of the human race's progression from purely spoken language, to written symbols pictorially representing things and concepts, to a finite system of symbols that represents units of of sound that can be generatively combined to evoke the spoken words which represent things, deft and engrossing storytelling.

Her book is a combination of anthropological and linguistic history and cognitive science.

Within that context, the generative capacity of reading parallels the fundamental plasticity in the circuit wiring of our brains: both permit us to go beyond the particulars given...Proust's understanding of the generative nature of reading contains a paradox: the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text. From the child's first, halting attempt to decipher letters, the experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and,, literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.

I'm not sure that Proust's idea is necessarily paradoxical. That the point of a sequence of words evoking abstract experience is to go beyond the words is, well, the point. Wolf sometimes overreaches her subject matter for a "hey-wowness" it doesn't have. But her passion for what written language does do, the importance of reading as a formative experience, its necessity for the way we have evolved to think, and her eye to what she sees as the possible next cultural-linguistic transformation - one from printed narrative, which she characterizes as time-demanding and in-depth, to

the multidimensioned, continuous partial-attention culture

yes, it's the INTERNET, are powerfully expressed and make reading this book worthwhile. She can be credited for wondering of the potential gains as well as the losses in this next step, and compares her own fears of "unintended negative consequences" of a culture taken over by electronic media to Socrates' resistance to printed language in an age in which the oral tradition was the ne plus ultra of the cultured person.

Wolf is at her best when, for example, she addresses the current fashion of some parents to accelerate the speed at which a child learns to read, feeling it will give them an advantage. This is not necessarily the case and Wolf supports her case for what does constitute the most rich and productive learning environment with both descriptions of when in development neurons acquire their myelin sheathes and excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird. There may be more to come on this book, as I am about half-way through, but right now I'll leave you with Wolf's excerpt from Harper Lee:

As I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows and after making me read most of the My First Reader and the stock market quotations from the Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me anymore, it would interfere with my reading. I never deliberately learned to read.... Reading was something that just came to me.... I could not remember when the lines above Atticus's moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory - anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

No sentence goes unglazed (Books - The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon)

In 1908 in Chicago, a young, poor Jewish immigrant comes to the door of the police chief to deliver a letter. Once inside, he is shot to death and branded as a dangerous anarchist to cover up what was probably the over-reaction of the police chief's jittery household to having someone of a different class and ethnicity in their home. Plus ca change. In present day Chicago, a young writer, born in Bosnia, wants to find out exactly what happened with Lazarus Averbuch, the murder victim, and begins researching a book about the subject. This writer is not Aleksandar Hemon, that is the author of The Lazarus Project, the book containing these two alternating stories. Hemon is a writer gushed about in such hyperbole by other writers and critics that I was afraid to read anything of his lest, if I wasn't instantly transformed into a unicorn, I wouldn't be disappointed. I am not a unicorn yet, but he is a word-smith of prodigious inventiveness. Not a sentence goes unglazed:
The late winter has been gleefully tormenting the city. The pure snows of January and the spartan colds of February are over, and now the temperatures are falseheartedly rising and maliciously dropping: the venom of arbitrary ice storms, the exhausted bodies desperately hoping for spring, all the clothes stinking of stove smoke. The young man's feet and hands are frigid, he flexes his fingers in his pockets, and every step or two he tiptoes, as if dancing, to keep the blood going. He has been in Chicago for seven months and cold much of the time - the late-summer heat is now but a memeory of a different nightmare. One whimsically warm day in October, he went with Olga to the lichen-colored lake, presently frozen solid, and they stared at the rhythmic calm of the oncoming waves, considering all the good things that might happen one day...

Not even the weather escapes his enthusiasm. His pen (or computer) doesn't seem to discriminate between information and poetry. Everything worth telling is worth telling beautifully. The result makes everything, particularly in the historical sections of this book, alive:

An enormous automobile, panting like an aroused bull, nearly runs the young man over. The horse carriages look like ships, the horses are plump, groomed, and docile. Electric streetlights are still on, reflected in the shop windows. In one window, there is a headless tailor's dummy, proudly sporting a delicate white dress, the sleeves limply hanging. He stops in front of it, the tailor's dummy motionless like a monument.

But it is also (I imagine) like being on acid, or some club drug, and never coming down. The modern-day sections are similarly baroque, but embittered. Here our fictional writer/narrator attends a fund-raising event for the Association of Bosnian-Americans and makes fun of both ethnicities:
Americans, we are bound to agree, go out after they wash their hair, with their hair still wet - even in the winter! We concede that no same Bosnian mother would ever allow her child to do that, as everybody knows that going out with your hair wet commonly results in lethal brain inflammation. At this point I usually attest that my American wife, even though she is a neurosurgeon - a brain doctor, mind you - does the same thing. Everybody around the table shakes their head, concerned not only about her health and welfare but about the dubious prospects of my intercultural marriage as well. Someone is likely to mention the baffling absence of draft in the United States: Americans keep all of their windows open, and they don't care if they are exposed to draft, although it is well known that being exposed to severe airflow might cause brain inflammation. In my country, we are suspicious of free-flowing air.

The results are at times very amusing, and I admire the talent. Hemon clearly loves language, but it is a very different brand of storytelling after just reading Tim Winton's Breath in which, despite very beautiful writing, the story was more important than the storyteller. Here it is the other way round. That may be because the storyteller is himself a character in this novel and because the acts of writing and remembering are in some way being remarked upon by the novel, I'm about a quarter of the way into the book and I'm not sure of that yet.

This is the second novel I have read this year by a writer born in Bosnia, who left during the 1992 war, moved somewhere else, adopted the local language, and now writes in it to great acclaim by the locals. The other was Sasa Stanisic's How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Hemon immigrated to Chicago and Sanisic to Germany. Both have a magic-infused, dreamy style and enjoy playing with form, but I found Stanisic's adventures in meta-fiction served his narrative better than Hemon's have (so far). And the voice of Stanisic's narrator was impassioned and naive while Hemon's is quite cynical. Still I want to learn what precisely happened in the Police Chief's home in the winter of 1908 and am interested to read on. The narrative is accompanied by photographs, some by a contemporary photographer named Velibor Bozovic, who is also given a fictional identity in the narrative, the other photographs are from the Chicago Historical Society.

I am also reading Proust and the Squid - a history of the evolution of reading and how the human brain evolved to accommodate the change from oral to written language. Perhaps I'll post on that tomorrow - I'm finding the subject matter interesting and the writing very fluid. We're also supposed to take in the huge Turner exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum today, if we don't get rained out.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

On Tim Winton

To follow up my enthusiastic review of Breath here are a few interviews with its elusive author, Tim Winton.

The Guardian

The Lumier Reader

Three Monkeys

Idiocy Update

Here, you may recall, was my little summer fantasy (with Ethan Canin's new book missing at picture time) declared on Thursday July 3, 2008. 21 books prior to the start of school (August 27). 14 of them were likely to be complete reads and the rest dipped into. I am happy to report that nine, yes nine, of these have been put to bed! They have been read, and most even enjoyed. Four more are in-the-works. That might look something like this:

America, America
The Informers
The Road Home
The Book Thief

Story of a Marriage (
I'm wary of this one)
The Lazarus Project - in progress
Grace Notes
The Anatomy School
Proust and the Squid -
in progress
Sensation & Perception -
in progress
The Poetics of Mind - this will never happen
Attention -
I'll dip into it
Neuroanatomy Through Clinical Cases - As above
Patient-Based Approaches to Cognitive Neuroscience
Red Cavalry -
in progress
The Darling
The Changeling
White Noise
Reading David

The Pickwick Papers
(I really removed this from the list at the start. It will never happen.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Resisting the ordinary (Books - Breath by Tim Winton)

Let it be said that I already come to Breath a Tim Winton fan and that, if you haven't read Cloudstreet, I believe you are cheating yourself of one of the more beautiful, epic novels written in English. Since reading it, I have stuck by Winton, reading everything he has written, and some of lives he introduces us to in those books have been bleak. Breath is gorgeous. I read it in two sittings, starting at around 6 yesterday evening and finishing it by midnight. It is written is easy, pitch-perfect, colloquial prose, but that doesn't mean the writing is not a pleasure:

I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie's smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated. And though I've lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

As you can probably tell from this excerpt, the narrator of Breath is a surfer but before you decide that, in that case, this novel is not for you, surfing is not the subject of the novel. The thrill of taking a risk. Challenging our human limits, our ordinariness. What one should feel like when life is good - is well lived. That is the well-worn territory of this coming of age novel. The narrator, as the excerpt above reveals, is a man already well into life. But some people take a while to grow into themselves, or at least to be able to look back with some insight.

More than once since then I've wondered whether the life-threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath. It's easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.

I found poetry in the ways Winton uses the theme of breath in this novel. It's an important motif beginning on page four and he finds myriad ways to keep coming back to it rhythmically, relentlessly. While its connection with both the theme of the story and the main activity of its characters is obvious, the way its used never is, it is elemental yet it can also be surprising.

Winton's writing can make the most overworked of themes - adolescent angst - live again. One of the reasons I keep coming back to him as a writer, even when I quake in my boots after reading some scenes of abuse in his short stories that I have never gotten out of my mind, is because his musicianship with my language can make me hear and see things as if for the first time. For example, the adolescent narrator of Breath is enrolled in a new school by his parents so that he might elude the influence of Loonie, whose need for a thrill borders on the pathological. As a result he is subjected to bus rides - a potentially banal source of angst - which, in Winton's hands, becomes a sensoral poem:

Still, such tenderness condemned me to years of bussing, and the bus ride is my chief memory of high school - the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated-iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farmkids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap and the heartbreaking winter dusk that greeted you as the bus rolled back across the bridge into Sawyer. The bus dropped me into a kind of limbo...

Winton embodies one of the chief themes of this beautiful book, which is a man whose daily exercise in life is to make something of beauty:

I couldn't have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.

In the context of many a rural community, like Sawyer in this novel, men doing anything remotely elegant with aesthetic rather than practical considerations is, in the best case, frowned upon and can be the source of endless judgement and even attack. Surfing, in this novel, is just about as useless as it gets - but what draws the young man to the water, to the ever-increasing risk of physical harm, and what draws his older self to reflect on the activities of his formative years is:

...the feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.
This novel let me see the flame inside someone I could have assumed rather dull and ordinary - it even does it in a way that could have ended up being dull and ordinary - an old man looks back on his reckless youth, yawn. But it reveals someone whose impulse was to resist being ordinary, and to see how that drove this man once - like a surge in the ocean that turns into a wave. Some waves swell to perfection and one can ride them into shore in a single act of grace. Others you begin riding in and then you can no longer see that they will crash down upon you. Then the only thing you can do is hold your breath and wait out the violence of the tide. It is revealing what is elemental and alive in the life of this narrator, but not at first apparent on the surface, that made this novel such a beautiful one. The form of this book also takes on the inevitability of a tidal surge - the force is monumental but its events can be as quiet and pretty as they can be violent. This book resists the ordinary, and in so doing, rises to among the top reads I've had yet this year.

The Truth and its Consequences (Books - The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)

After reading the book, and seeing himself included in it, my friend Jorge Mor had called me and said, 'You've got every right, Gabriel, you've got every right in the world to tell whatever you like. But I felt strange, as if I'd walked into your room and seen you fucking someone. By accident, without meaning to. Reading the book I felt embarrassed, and I hadn't done anything to be ashamed of. You oblige people to know what they may not want to know. Why?' I told him that no one was obliged to read the book; that writing a memoir or any sort of autobiography implied touching on private aspects of a life, and the reader knows that. 'Well, that's just it,' said Jorge. 'Why do you want to talk publicly about what's private? Hasn't it occurred to you that with this book you've done exactly what the girlfirend did to your dad, just more elegantly?'

Of course, this hadn't occurred to Gabriel and for a while he hounds his father's former girlfriend mercilessly. Juan Gabriel Vasquez's novel The Informers closely examines these issues of truth telling and of the personal consequences that are left in the wake of an act that, on the surface, appears to be honest and even responsible. The novel is exhaustive in peeling back and exposing the layers of damage and drives home the point that no one is innocent, perhaps a little too thoroughly. When Gabriel Jr. (the author) finally visits the man who life was impacted by his father's act, the act that is unearthed by his book, there were no surprises left. The denouement drags on a bit too long. I found myself liking the writing in the 'present' time of the narrative - when Gabriel Jr., Gabriel Sr. and Sara - the woman whose starts the whole mess far more than the flash back and after-the-fact scenes. The relationship between father and son was intricate, tense, and also loving. It's ironic that although the events of the past are compelling enough to move Gabriel, the son, to write a book about them, when they are related to us I found the writing only made them expected, even mundane. I guess that's partly the point. One can commit this kind of act easily and without considering the consequences as one is caught up in the events of one's present life. But their consequences were rendered in a far more interesting fashion and ended up making better fiction than the events themselves.

Regardless of this criticism, I found the ideas explored by the story interesting and the characters very well developed. I would be interested to read some more Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Thank you, Dovegreyreader for the recommendation.

Here is my other post on The Informers.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


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Here’s another idea about memorable first lines from books.

What are your favourite first sentences from books? Is there a book that you liked specially because of its first sentence? Or a book, perhaps that you didn’t like but still remember simply because of the first line?

My all-time favorite first line (I guess it's two lines, actually) is from Grace Paley's story The Loudest Voice from her collection The Little Disturbances of Man:

There is a certain place where dumb-waiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rambling grumbling on a sultry Wednesday...

I absolutely hate talking about the weather, but I woke up and for the nth straight day feeling the humidity sitting on my forehead like a big, big....what sits on your forehead? Nothing I can think of. I feel oppressed. Probably the weather and the red wine I drank last night with a friend I will call The Tango Dancer who has had way, way too much loss in her life lately. And in typical male fashion, I tried to fix it instead of listening. Sometimes it's better to shut up. The Ragazzo had a friend over the other day who was telling us how little luck she has had finding a job since moving to a new city and for about twenty minutes he and I were both saying "have you tried this...?" "have you tried this...?" And then suddenly The Ragazzo said - "You're with two men. We're going to try to fix it." Ain't it the truth? Or ain't it the cliche anyway. Someone should do a study to find out if it's really true.

Today I am going to be a subject in a friend's neurophysiology experiment, which means I'm going to have a stretchy cap put on my head with 128 electrodes and then sit in a dark room
look at checkerboard patterns. It's something like four hours long and evidently very boring. I hope I don't fall asleep.

In case you haven't noticed, I haven't read enough in The Informers to say anything new of interest. At least I don't think I have, let me turn to one of my recent sticky markers... Well, this is a nice description of a perfectly hateful character:

Hans Bethke's perfectly shaven face, his little spectacles, everything about him said: I'll smile at you, but turn round and I'll stab you in the back. He had curly, blond, slicked-down hair, and it formed little spirals at his temples. His whole head was a whirl, like sharing a table with one of Van Gogh's trees. And the tree talked. It talked a mile a minute. He used the little he'd done in his life to put down anyone else. Before we'd finished our drinks in the living room, we already knew that Bethke had travelled to Germany when he was twenty, for a short stay, sent by his family to get to know that land of his ancestors, and he'd returned to Colombia more German than the Kaiser.

The writing is largely very strong, but I'm in a rather slow section of the book where Gabriel Santoro, the character whose story we're reading, is learning about the past from his friend Sara. There is something about a second narrator narrating to the first that I'm finding confusing. I keep losing track of what is happening to whom. I hope it picks up soon and tells me how this fits in. I'm getting impatient and feel like either starting something new or making food.

Butter Bean Salad

2 cans of butter beans
1 - 2 baskets of grape tomatoes
about a cup 1/2 of pitted olives (your choice, I use a combo of green and greek black)
1/2 - 3/4 pound of feta (preferably the creamier sheeps milk kind, not the crumbly)
1 shallot
2 large bunches of flat-leaf parsley
a bunch of baby spinach and/or arugula/and/or dill/
good olive oil
black pepper

Halve the tomatoes and squash them gently as you put them in the bowl with the beans and the olives. Cut the feta into squares (very messy). Chop the shallot finely. Mix all this together, adding some dried marjoram if you like. Chop or tear the parsley roughly (leave the leaves in big pieces), toss them into the salad in small bunches otherwise the cheese clumps it all together. Add the juice of a lemon and a few glugs of good olive oil. Mix it all together and stick it in the fridge for several hours or even make it the day before, this will wilt the parsley a bit. When you're going to eat it, roughly chop some baby spinach or arugula and some fresh dill. Mix it in and adjust the olive oil/lemon balance if you need to. Grind on some black pepper and eat it. I know the picture has cucumbers - not in my version, but you're welcome to add them.

That's what we're having tonight for dinner.

Mark is trying to read all of Roth - craaaaazy, better you than me, Mark.

Jonah has resorted to linking neuroscience and Sesame Street songs, in which I was surprised to learn that Elmo is not a bad dancer.

Sheila has a brand new cat.

And my brain has no room for any new neuroscientific facts - marginal or seminal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Insight on insight

I'd like to draw your attention to an excellent article in the July 28 issue of The New Yorker written by Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist,on insight. He looks into the neuroscientific advances made in understanding what happens in the brain when we have an 'Aha' moment. This is one of my favorite subjects - the intersection of creativity and neuroscience. The article is compact, written in accessible language, and it's the first time I have seen this subject discussed where someone did not use the example of Friedrich August Kekule discovering the structure of the benzene ring by having a daydream of a snake biting its tale. It does not appear as though the article is available on line. So if you interested, you'll have to get it the old fashioned way - by buying a copy at the newsstand. Or perhaps you'll have an insight and come up with some creative way of solving that problem.

And Natalie Angier has a well-done article in today's Science Times about mirrors:

In a sense, mirrors are the best 'virtual reality' system that we can build...The object 'inside' the mirror is virtual, but as far as our eyes are concerned it exists as much as any other object.

Monday, July 21, 2008

When Books Matter (Books - The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)

Interesting, in light of the many voices raised world-wide against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) this weekend, that I am reading The Informers by Columbian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez. It is also a story of Columbian politics that starts when Gabriel Santoro (son) interviews a family friend - a Jewish Columbian woman who had emigrated from Germany in the 1930s - and writes a book telling her story and the story of the Columbian relationship with the Germans during the Second World War. Gabriel Santoro's father - an important professor - is upset by the memories of blacklisting and damaging betrayals that the book unearths and writes a scathing review of his son's book in a prominent newspaper. Gabriel the son tries to understand what has happened in the past that his father would react in this unexpected way - so the book's form is part mystery and also a novel of the relationship between father and son.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez's prose as translated by Anne McLean is eloquent and detailed.

So the most natural thing in the world, the afternoon I went to see him, was to think it was the book he wanted to discuss with me: that he was going to make amends, three years late, for that betrayal, small and domestic though it may have been, but no less painful for that. What happened was very different. From his domineering, ochre-coloured armhcair, while he changed channels with the solitary digit of his mutilated hand, this aged and frightened man, smelling of dirty sheets, whose breathing whistled like a paper kite, told me, in the same tone he'd used all through his life to recount an anecdote about Demosthenes or Gaitan, that he'd spent the last three weeks making regular visits to a doctor an the San Pedro Claver Clinic, and that an examination of his sixty-seven-year-old body had revealed, in chronological order, a mild case of diabetes, a blocked coronary artery - the anterior descending - and the need for immediate surgery.

As a professor of rhetoric, Gabriel (the father) has a reputation for revealing to students of language, politics, and law how language wields power.

'Who can tell me why this series of phrases moves us, what makes it effective?' An incautious student: 'We're moved by the ideas of...' My father: 'Nothing to do with ideas. Ideas don't matter, any brute can have ideas, and these, in particular, are not ideas but slogans. No, the series moves and convinces us through the repetition of the same phrase at the beginning of the clauses, something that you will all, from now on, do me the favour of calling anaphora.. And the next one to mention ideas will be shot.'

Not only does Vasquez capture the voice of a charismatic professor with this passage. It seems to me that he begins to reveal something about his character. Perhaps his obsession with form stems from his own reluctance to look beneath the surface of his country, the surface of himself. His armor against the past is as densely packed as the prose on the pages of this novel. This prose is welcomingly different in style from the more conversational Thirteen and more patient Grace Notes, the last two novels I read - but they were both interestingly also about uncovering memory. Something about the way Vasquez writes about this son's search for the truth about his father makes me not just plough through the events (although the story does interest me and the writing moves forward with energy) I constantly reflect and connect. The writing calls up memories of my grandfather, also a German Jewish immigrant, thoughts about other books I just read, how they use language, what books do in general, thoughts of world politics not only in Columbia but also the upcoming elections in my own country and our candidates' use of rhetoric. I guess this is what is meant by evocative writing.

One of those days, Sara asked me why I wanted to write about her life, and I thought it would have been easy to evade the question or throw out any old witticism, but to answer with something approaching the truth was as essential to me as it seemed to be, at that moment, to her. I could have said that there were things I needed to come to understand. That certain areas of my experience (in my country, with my people, at this time that I happened to be living) had escaped me, generally because my attention was taken up with other more banal ones, and I wanted to keep that from continuing to happen. To become aware: that was my intention , at once simple and pretentious; and to think about the past, oblige someone to remember it, was one way of doing it, arm wrestling against entropy, an attempt to make the disorder of the world, whose only destiny was a more intense disorder, stop, be put in shackles, for once defeated. I could have said that or part of it; in my favour I point out that I avoided these grandiloquent lies and chose more humble lies, or rather, incomplete lies. 'I want his approval, Sara,' I told her. ' I want him to look at me with respect. It matters more than anything ever has.'

Halfway through now, I am drawn forward by the current of the prose, like a quickly moving river. I want to know what happens, yes. But I am enjoying being inside a book driven by the passion to know something more important than who did it or the real (fake) story behind Opus Dei. This book looks deeply at events both personal and political. It is about telling the truth when one simple version of it doesn't exist and when language, if used properly, has the power to convince one of almost anything. It's about legacy and inheritance. It's about living with integrity. I feel like I'm reading a book that matters, and although that may just be an illusion created by the skill with which Vasquez has strung together his words, for the moment I'm convinced.

The Informers was a recommendation of Dovegreyreader (and a great one - thank you!) however it was not available in the U.S. when I looked, so I picked it up when I was in London.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jonathan Livingston Taxi (Books - Thirteen by Sebatian Beaumont)

After reading Sebastian Beaumont's addictive novel Thirteen for a while, I just couldn't help noticing how much the cover reminded me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull - that book of photographs of seagulls that doubled as a book of 1970s advice on how to 'be.' Thirteen too could be read as a manual on how to live in the moment, but its tongue is more firmly planted in its cheek than Jonathan's is. Let us say that it is about a character who needs and uncovers such advice.

As I mentioned in my first post on this book, Thirteen concerns a failed businessman who turns taxi driver on the night shift on the advice of an old friend. He ends up picking up Valerie, who is very ill, from her home at number Thirteen Wish Road, but as it turns out, this address does not actually exist. At least it doesn't exist unless he's in the zone, or as the nurse says:

Thirteen is not a number, it is a state of mind.

Who the hell is The Nurse, you ask? Read the book. Many contemporary books are described as 'journeys' even when they're not. This one actually is - befitting a book about a taxi driver. Not just a journey around the streets of the city, a journey from depression to happiness or illness to wellness. Occasionally I rolled my eyes about passages such as this one:

It is now four-forty in the morning, and I am tired, but not unhappy, and I have a sense like I have never had before that I am ALIVE, and I would love, I would LOVE to meet The Nurse right now, because I think I would be in a position, for the first time in my life, to be able to listen to what she has to say.


'Sometimes,' she says, 'I think there are two ways living life. Firstly, you can put your nose to the grindstone and don't ever look up. If you always look at the ground, you'll never be happy, but at least you'll never know that you're unhappy.' She pauses to look out of the window at the bright emptiness of Argos and Kentucky Fried Chicken. 'And secondly?' I ask. 'Yes, secondly,' she says, a little wistfully, 'you can choose to look up and out from yourself. But then, you'll always have to face the fact that you live in a world of suffering.' I look at her in the mirror and she seems fascinated, for some reason, by her fingernails. 'And the advantage of looking up and out?' 'No matter how painful it is,' she tells me, 'you'll always know that you are alive.'

It struck me upon reading this book, how many contemporary novels are about a recovery of one kind of another. Particularly in the colloquial sense of recovering one's health or balance, as opposed to, say, a lost locket. Sarah Salway's book Tell Me Everything (which I am absolutely crazy about) could be looked at as a saga of recovery. Thirteen is a more ironic tale, but an equally compelling read. I just couldn't stop. It is a mystery - and oddly you don't even know what the mystery is for a time. But as silly as the life lessons aspect sometimes could be, it was also full of truths and left me smiling, not at it so much as because of it. As Stephen, the central character, recovered himself, I felt better too. Beaumont creates a host of memorable characters - both in the regular Thirteen gang and also among the passengers Stephen ferries from place to place. You can feel the love come right off the page - my favorite may have been the young man trying to run away from home. He leaves the meter running so long as he finishes packing his luggage, that he only has enough money left to go to the end of his block. I also enjoyed the writer's skill, not just in the plotting of a tale that kept me guessing but also in more subtle creations of character. I particularly admired the transformation of the voice from a bitter but chatty narrator of a thirty-something guy in a contemporary TV show:

Okay, I'd better get the 'How I ended up in this predicament' bit over with. I thought I might say something dramatic and tragic like...


I parked directly outside. The air was fresh and slightly salty, and I could see, in the street lighting from across the road, the new foliage on the trees that flanked the park...

One could say it is a transformation from someone whose face is to the grindstone, to someone who looks up and out of himself.... hmmm. This novel is compulsively readable, amusing, and smart about human nature. As enjoyable for its mystery as it is for its little truths about living life. I really enjoyed it.

Interestingly, both Thirteen and Tell Me Everything were recommendations of Scott Pack. Two for two, Scott! Actually, correction, that's three for three - I forgot about Electricity.

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vaquez up next (a recommendation of Dovegreyreader). I'm loving it so far. And I'm continuing to plough through Sensation & Perception by E. Bruce Goldstein. Shop reading, but still interesting stuff.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Elsewhere is where I'd rather be...

I've just begun reading Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont. In it, a guy's business goes bust and he mopes around for a while and then a friend makes him an offer:

'Don't you trust me?' he asked.

'Yes, but...'

'I know you. I respect you. I want the best for you. As you can't think of what to do, give me one reason why I shouldn't decide for you.'

I shrugged.

'Okay,' he said. Think about it. If you agree, I'll tell you to do something, and you must do it - unless you can think of a good reason not to. And "because I don't want to" isn't a good enough reason. You've go to be able to say, in all honest, that what I suggest would be damaging to you, psychologically. Only then will I let you off, and try to think of something else.'

I stared at him, breathless, because I knew he was serious, and breathless, too, because I was so tempted to take him up on his suggestion.

'Give me a year. A year,' he said. 'I'll give you my email address in California and you can send me regular bulletins. And any time you feel that you need to stop, then you must stop. But only if you need to. You'd have to define what you mean by "need," not me.'

I got up and went to have a piss, then went through to the kitchen to make us both coffee. In that short time, in just four or five minutes, I made my decision. Looking back on it, the way I jumped at his suggest was not because I thought he would solve my life for me: make me happy. If was just that things right then were so shit, that even if they remained shit after I'd started doing whatever it was that I'd agreed to do, at least they'd be no worse. And what bliss it would be to stop wondering, however briefly, what to do with myself.

My amateur psychologist side said, 'You're just refusing to take responsibility for your life.'

Well, alright, but this was at least finite.

One year.

One year.

'Okay,' I said when I came back into the room. 'I'll do it. I'll give you one year. When are you going to tell me what to do?'

'Now, if you like.'


He shifted slightly, as though uncomfortable, and took a sip of coffee before looking at me, watching for my reaction.

'Become a taxi driver,' he said. 'Working on a night shift.'

And so he makes this modern-day Faustian bargain and the number thirteen begins cropping up in all sorts of strange ways. Ominous chord. That's all I'm going to say. That and it's really fun.

Elsewhere on the web... Curious Expeditions had a post about pneumatic mail systems called Pneu Yourk, Pneu York - very cool stuff.

Photographer Denis Darzacq has done a series entitled Hyper set in France's supermarkets. These images mock the notion that buying any product will revolutionize your life. It's on view at Lens Culture - great site. It will revolutionize your life. Batteries not included. Check with your doctor if you have hypertension.

That'll do. Wherever you are stay cool and read with aplomb.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Life on a different time scale (Books - Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty)

I remember being a guest on a public radio interview show in Chicago a number of years ago after having directed Virginia, a play about the life of Virginia Woolf written by Irish novelist Edna O'Brien from the writings of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville West, and the biography by Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell. It was a project I had considerable difficulty getting done but I had loved it enough to keep pitching it to theaters for five years until one producer (thanks, Patrick) finally had the interest in and the guts to do it. It became surprisingly successful and played for months and some cast members and I were invited on to this radio show where the host basically told me I wasn't qualified to direct it because I was a man and proceeded to side-line me and speak only to the charismatic actress who played the title role. In addition to wounding my ego and being a silly point to make given that the production was such a hit, I thought it really missed the boat about what artists do. They imagine. A good production by a female director would have been equally valid and no doubt would have brought insights that I hadn't had about the material and how it reflected Woolf's life and work, but it would not necessarily have been any better for her having had two X chromosomes and all the attendant bits that those usually confer upon the recipient. Can only old men direct King Lear? What about the insights the director should have about Cordelia - should that actress work with a woman and the king with a man? How old should he be? 50, as Lear might have been to be "old" in his day or 90 as he would be now? Perhaps we should only hire directors who have shared the same zip code as their characters, as they will have the proper geographical insight. You get my point. I think this talk show host might have had a bit problem with Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes, as his central character was not only a woman, but a pregnant one who gives birth, nurses, suffers depression that might be post-partum, and deals with her relationships with her mother and abusive boyfriend. I found it a real example of creative imagination.

MacLaverty brings a great deal of imagination not merely to imagining the fact of his character's sex, but to having her body, experiencing the pain of her depression, the certainty it will never leave, and the feeling of lightness and surprise when it does. He also tackles the job of finding words to describe music, Catherine is a composer, what it is like to hear sounds inside your head - not hallucinations - music one knows is not real but which one hears nonetheless. What one might do with those sounds if they are the raw materials for one's creative art, and what it is like to face the finality of one's composition and deal with the amorphous and interior having become indelible and public. When he uses musical terminology to describe the music, e.g. describing a phrase as "fugue-like" I found it far less effective that when he went for simile and metaphor:

Darkening and growing, rising and falling by the narrowest of interval. Plaiting bread. Her mother's hands, three pallid strands, pale fingers over and under, in and out. Weaving. Like ornament in the Book of Kells. Under and over, out and in. Like pale fingers interlocked in prayer. Grace notes with a vaguely Celtic flavour. More and more threads slowly and imperceptibly surround what the violins are saying, repeating over and over again to themselves.

I also enjoyed his description of an creator dealing with making their art in the undeniable presence of their feelings

But she didn't dare mention the worst thing of all. To write something really dark, despairing even, is so much better than being silent. If you're depressed your mind says there's no point in writing anything. You just want to sit with your mouth hanging open - your mind full of scorpions. There was no formula for getting around that.

MacLaverty also writes passages in the book during which Catherine deals not with the idea of depression, but with the small realities that are the experience of it:

She turned in the bed - tried to bunch up her pillows to be more comfortable. Tried to stop worrying. The repetition of thoughts which caused her pain amazed her. Why did she continually do it? Like picking at a scab on her. Or her tongue probing as the socket of a recently pulled tooth. It prevent ed healing and she knew it prevented healing. Yet she did it. The best way to stop doing it was to invite other things into her head. But then there was always the underlying knowledge that she was thinking of this thing to stop thinking about what she didn't want to think about.

I found this book full of patiently described insights about being inside of difficult human feelings, and that is the kind of novel I really value. There are two choices this book makes that are difficult. One is the reliance it places on the reader having some familiarity with classical music. It makes numerous references not only to good old Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but also to the composers Britten, and Messiaen, to Poulenc and his Gloria, to Janacek's Galgolitic Mass and piano sonata. Laverty references sounds Catherine hears in a Ukranian church as being like the voices of Pinza or Christoff. These are specific references that are very familiar to me and added a lot of visceral substance to the descriptions. I'm not sure what reading this novel would be like if those were just words. The second choice he makes is a structural one. Laverty chooses to tell this story in two sections - the first is Catherine's return home following the death of her father her struggle to reconcile her identity as a modern woman with her past and the more "traditional" lives of her parents and childhood neighbors- an composer of edgy modern music among people who love a good old fashioned song you can hum and tap your foot to, a mother of a child had out-of-wedlock among devout Catholics, someone dealing with depression versus a generation who didn't speak of feelings and dealt with them through prayer and hard work. She comes home after a long estrangement and must walk through the conflict , the impatience, the guilt that this produces. And MacLaverty offers us no pat answers. But, as if to some way respond to what lies behind her experience of this visit home, he offers us the book's second section of events which occurred earlier in time, during which she met and left her lover, had her child, and composed an important piece of music. It reveals the person behind the behavior of the first part but it does not explain away the conflicts or provide resolution. He plays with time throughout the novel - quickly moving back and forth in any given moment. This is a more radical movement of the book's "present" and its effect is best described by a passage in the book during which a composer whom Catherine meets in school speaks to the students:

Huang Zaio Gang had talked about time - about how in music it could shrink and expand. Again making small chopping motions with his hand and little movements of his head, he had said that time could be sectioned and moved around. Music was not linear as some people would have us believe. In the two monumental movements of the Beethoven opus 111 time could stop altogether - like a yoga slowing his heartbeat. The arietta was music from a different planet - a different timescale - out among the stars, free from the laws of time and space. No matter how many times he heard the 'adagio molto semplice e cantabile' he was forced to accept that the world, and our place within it, was infinitely mysterious.

This post along with this one constitute my thoughts on Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes.

Next up - Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont. Scott Pack raved about this one and I'm hooked.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wanderings in a mind filled with music (Books - Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty)

George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Edna O'Brien, John McGahern, and now Bernard MacLaverty. It's such a cliche, I know, but what is it about being raised on that little bog-infested patch of intense green surrounded by two seas and an ocean that means you're going to grow up to string together the English language to create such glorious stories? Maybe, as Sheila and I mused last night as we indulged ourselves in an evening of wine and talk, it's the pub culture. Nights of stories and songs, the wheels greased by a little Guinness. Maybe it's the Guinness! Now wouldn't that be an ad campaign?

I had not heard of Bernard MacLaverty before reading John Self's enticing post on his latest book - Matters of Life and Death. If I can't convince you, maybe John will. I started with Grace Notes in which Catherine, a composer suffering with depression, returns home for her father's funeral. Her father owned a pub and she returns home to a tumult of activity while her brain moves its own private, circuitous path through thoughts of her musical mentor, her father, her grandmother, her depression - it's too early in my reading yet to make total sense of route - as she tries to take in the details of what is happening. It's wonderous how MacLaverty's prose slips in and out of time, from memory to the present and back again, like a thief. He creates that wandering of the mind with such powerful verisimilitude that at times I feel like he was in my own mind describing it. It's partly the musicality of the wanderings, the constant reference to musical sound that makes that true for me - I too have a head filled with music - my own private soundtrack - that almost never stops.

He rattled the rods against the skin of the drum, testing it. The drum was so big in relation to the man that Catherine thought of a penny-farthing.

'They're made of goat skin,' said her father. 'King Billygoat skin. You could smell the stink of it from Omagh.'

When she'd heard the drums in her home their rhythm had been fudged by distance and the sound had become an indistinct rumble. Now here, close up, it was a different thing altogether. Her father leaned over to her ear as if to shout something above the noise of the drumming, but instead shook his head. When the drums ceased, he whispered to her, 'They're supposed to be able to play different rhythms, different tunes - Lilliburlero and what have you - but it all sound the same to me. A bloody dundering. On the Twelfth they thump them so hard and so long they bleed their wrists. Against the rim. Sheer bloody bigotry.' Catherine stared at the flailing sticks, felt her eardrums pummelled. 'They practise out here above the town to let the Catholics know they're in charge. This is their way of saying the Prods rule the roost.'

But Cathrine was thrilled by the sound, could distinguish the left hand's rhythm from the right. She tried to keep time with her toes inside her shoes. There were slaps and duns on the off-beats, complex rhythms she couldn't begin to write down - even now, never mind then. The two sticks working independently. The hand stripping each other up. A ripple bounding back and interfering with the other ripples which had first started it. The drums were battered so loud she felt the vibrations in her body, was sure the sky and the air about her were pounding to the beat. It didn't exactly make her want to dance, more to sway. But there was an edge as well - of fear, of tribal war drumming. The gathering of men turned to stare across the road.

MacLaverty creates the feeling of returning home, the hollow unreality of death in the house when you haven't expected it, in just the way I remember my return home when my father died. The dynamics and rhythm are so completely different from the above paragraphs - hushed as opposed to thunderous, not a frantic pace, but slow movements that land first on one detail and then another - like a butterfly landing on a flower and lingering to drink deep - it makes me think of the acting exercises I used to do with my students.

'Aw darlin.' Mrs McCarthy awkwardly touched Catherine's hand and slid past her, out of the room. Catherine stepped over the threshold. Think of something else. Don't look. She'd always slept in this room. The light coming through the drawn curtains was yellow. The window was open about an inch and the curtains moved in the draught. Nylon and slithery. The coffin was on the bed. She kept her eyes away from it. It rested on the one of the patchwork quilts Granny Boyd had made. The design of the quilt had an odd name which she could not remember. It was either Grandmother's Flower Garden or The Drunkard's Path. The lid of the coffin was propped upright beside the wardrobe. His name had already been etched on the brass plate. How did they do it so quickly? On the wall - all her music certificates. It was her father who'd insisted they be framed. When she was young she'd accepted them but later they just embarrassed her. There was a wooden crucifix, the wood of the cross dark, the Christ figure pale. Two candles burned on the bedside table. The room smelt strongly of perfume. She traced it to a bowl of potpourri on the mantelpiece. Were they trying to mask the smell of decay? She must look at him. She stepped nearer and the floor board at that side of the bed. squeaked as it had always done. Outside the hammering and sawing continued. Men shouting to one another. She made herself look directly into the coffin at her father.

'Aw Jesus...' It was him and it wasn't him. Another changeling. He was robed in a white shroud, his hands joined as if in prayer. His fingers were waxy, yellowish - interlaced and tied in that position by rosary beads. He looked strange lying on his back like this. Everything seemed exaggerated - his nostrils were cavernous, his nose looked more hooked, his eyebrows bushier. His lips were blue-black and his skin was darker than she had ever remembered it. With his eyes shut the face had lost all its animation, did not seem like her father. A dead face. The face of a dead man was exactly what it was. She imagined him behind the bar smiling - throwing back his head and laughing. She would never see that again...
Just one more:

She did not go back to the kitchen but instead went into the living-room. Geraldine had opened the window and the place smelt better. Catherine moved about, looking - touching. The black upright piano. The piano stool with the squeaking strut. She lifted the padded seat to look inside. The stool lid had a brass support which sounded like scissors as it openend. It clicked into place to prop open the seat. The topmost piece of sheet music was 'Down by the Sally Gardens'. She openend the lid of the piano. The keys were more yellowed than she remembered. She pressed a three-finger chord, pressed it so gently that the hammers did not engage. Silence.

One day, when she was only three or four, she'd slipped away from the kitchen as her mother baked and listened to the radio. On this particular day the piano lid was open. Catherine had reached up above her head and pressed the keys as softly as she could. No sound came from them. She had to press harder to make the sound come. It frightened her when it did. Dark, deep, thundery. The booming faded away and the noise of the birds outside came back. She tried further up the piano where the notes were nicer, not so frightening. She pressed a single note, again and again. It wasn't the note which made her feel funny - it was the sound it made as it faded away. The afterwards. It made her feel lonely. She was scared that, no matter how hard her mother tried, she would never find her in this room. And she would always be lost. She would always be isolated. The piano stool had a lose strut. There was no glue in the socket and it could be twisted so that it made a dry squeaking sound. she would do this until she tired of it. People who came into the house and played the piano took the music sheets out of the seat and put them on the front of the piano, looked at them and played. Sometimes they sang at the same time. Sometimes people came in and could play without any sheets. Like Frankie Lennon. Then she heard her mother's voice calling her from the kitchen. She didn't dare answer because her mother sounded angry. Her mother flung open the door and saw her standing at the piano. She strode across the room, picked Catherine up and slammed the lid of the piano shut so hard it made the whole instrument tingle and hum. Then she banged the seat of the piano stool closed.

'Fingers,' she shouted. 'A child could lose her fingers through sheer bloody carelessness. And then where would we be?'

She was surprise to see a CD player and a dozen or so CDs stacked beside her father's records...

Walking through my childhood home following the death of my father touching things, I too remember that alternation between frantic preparations to be made - preparations for which I wasn't prepared - and wandering through memories looking for clues to what made my father my father and what made me me.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not-for-Tourists Guide to Dyslexia (Books - Reading David by Lissa Weinstein, Ph.D.)

My advisor at school had loaned this book to me months ago, as I am training in her child neuropsychology lab. Lissa Weinstein (the author - a clinical psychologist and also a prof at my program) has a son, David, who was diagnosed with dyslexia. Reading David chronicles their parallel experiences from first noticing the problem through around 5th grade. Both mother and son write (once the son is articulate enough to contribute) and the mere presence of his sections tell a story all by themselves. The book is not only arranged chronologically it was actually written as the events unfolded, i.e. mother and son do not try to remember long after the fact what happened. The writing gave them each an outlet for their frustrations. It also gave David a grown-up and meaningful, and positive activity that involved language, which was otherwise a source of misery for him.

Dyslexia, Dr. Weinstein tells us straight from the National Institute of Child Health is:

one of several distinct learning disabilities. It is a specific language based disorder of constitutional origin, characterized by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological processing abilities. These difficulties in single word decoding are often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities; they are not the result of generalized developmental disability or sensory impairment. Dyslexia is manifested by variable difficulty with different forms of language, often including , in addition to reading problems, a conspicuous problem with acquiring proficiency in writing and spelling.

It is Dr. Weinstein's habit that whenever she faces a big challenge, she ends up at the library reading about it. Rather than leaving us to face this technical definition alone, Weinstein breaks it down into its component parts, explaining and reflecting on each one. The book has several strengths, and one of them is Dr. Weinstein's ability to explain everything in accessible terms. She is a deft storyteller - using colorful, clear language to describe not only what is going on but how it feels to her, and she allows her son to explain for himself how he feels. She clearly wants this to be the NFT (not for tourists) guide to dyslexia and wants both parent and child to go to it not only for information but for emotional support. This is apparent in the other strength of this book - Dr. Weinstein's honest unstinting observation of herself and the openness with which she puts on the page her fears for her sons future, her sense of inadequacy as a parent, her anger at the events and, at times, her son. It's a relief to read a story-of-an-illness book (not my favorite genre) that is not sentimental. People are not perfect (and I don't mean the people with the diagnosis) but rather the people around them. It may be irrational or unattractive to get angry at your child for not acquiring the ability to read with the same amazing seemingly automatic ease as most other children, and it may not portray one in the best light to admit to those feelings, but they are common and Weinstein's ability to identify them in herself and own up to them is refreshingly honest and will, I'm sure, be useful to others in the same role who think they are failing for feeling angry.

There are some very good sections in which Dr. Weinstein describes how she fooled herself into thinking that David was just a unique original and didn't really have a problem so that she could delay getting him tested.

These errors were something different from troubling speech sounds. These were near misses, mistaken efforts to describe a picture that he recognizes but can't retrieve the exact name. I'd heard these funny things in his speech before, him using big words when little ones would do, like saying, "It's a blustery day" at age two and a half instead of, "It's raining." In my mind, I'd defined him as an unusual child with a huge vocabulary.

There are also several good sections on her frustration at not being able to carry over her professional knowledge or distance into situations where she needed to make a decision about or advocate for her own son. Another on her son's anger and fear at his differences:

"You made this happen to me. You made me look at the letters when I wasn't ready. You made me hate them. You made me feel stupid." The veins are popping on his forehead. He's held this in a long time. His bitterness is a rodent, running so rapidly across the room that a moment later we tell ourselves we've never seen it.

And a very funny section about his inability to spell, except when it comes to profanity:

"F-U-C-K, That's fuck. I can spell that correctly." David takes a moment to view his handiwork on the thirty Post-it notes he's using to decorate the kitchen instead of doing his homework. There are other words too, like B-I-T-C-H and S-H-I-T. They are all spelled correctly, with the exception of K-I-K MY A-S-S. It's a pity, because kick is one of his spelling words.

"Why can you spell all the curse words right, David?"

"It's easy. You can sound them out."

That can't be correct. Because by any logic, if you can spell fuck with its silent "c," you should be able to put that same "c" in kick. If you can spell bitch the right way, you shouldnn't be wpelling witch as "witz." So what is it?

Dirty words are E-X-C-I-T-I-N-G. David like to write them, say them over and over, and look at them. The thrill gets him past his wish not to see and his difficulty memorizing. Eventually, he could be taught to connect bitch and witch.

Which echoes David's own advice in the Lessons Learned chapter that mother and son wrote together, in which he tells other children who are dyslexic that they will learn to read. Aside from the disadvantage of sometimes having the mother/son sections repeat each other too closely, it's one of the pleasures of the book to witness David's growth in confidence in the humor of his later sections in which he advises fellow travelers how to avoid homework. "Start a fight with your brother," he advises. "This is sure-fire!" or

Figure our what your parents are really interested in. Do they like your drawings? Start drawing. Do they like you to be curious about things? Now is a good time to ask questions. This works best if there's something your mom or dad want to show you or teach you about. For example, my dad loves rock and roll. He's always getting these videos from the video store on the history of rock and roll. Homework time is an especially good opportunity to offer Dad some alone time with you. Maybe you should watch that video he got out. When I tried this, Dad had no clue. I thought Mommy would hit the ceiling. She kept yelling "Larry, he has to do his homework! What are you doing?" She didn't yell at me, though. She yelled at Dad.

Future Ferris Bueller? Could be. But David has sober advice for kids like himself as well offered in a section he insisted on calling Permanent Scars. His function in the book is to voice some of the feelings kids like himself might have but are unable to express. This could be useful for helping a parent understand what it might be like for their child to be inside the problem of dyslexia and I can imagine it being equally useful for a child who will often assume that other people have not gone through what they are experiencing and that there is no way out. Dr. Weinstein also offers concise paragraphs in this section as well on issues such as Getting Evaluated, Getting Help, What you Can Do, and Life Lessons which might be be entitled What you Can't Do.

Dr. Weinstein and her son have opened themselves up to the reader in a personal, fast-moving story that should offer practical advise and companionship for others on the same journey.

Bernard LacLaverty's Grace Notes is up next...gorgeous writing!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Human resilience and the power of stories to bear witness (Books - The book Thief by Mark Zusak)

I am happy to revise most of my opinion of The Book Thief after finishing it. There has to be something good about a 500 page book I read in two days! The narrator is death and the chief character is Liesel, an orphaned girl who ends up with foster parents in the little town of Molching, not far from the concentration camp of Dachau. The subject of the book is human resilience and the role that love and stories play in it.

Liesel's foster mother is beautifully sketched by Mark Zusak:

She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion...She was five foot one inch tall and wore her browny-grey strands of elastic hair in a bun. To supplement the Hubermann income, she did the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching. Her cooking was atrocious. She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she ever met. But she did love Liesel Meminger. Her way of showing it just happened to be strange. It involved bashing her with wooden spoons and words, at various intervals.

Both the foster parents are memorable creations, loving creatures who end up taking in a Jewish man and hiding him in their home for several years, risking life and limb for their decency, and giving their adopted daughter two key things - the ability to read and a demonstration of what it means to love others.

There was a good deal of Zusak's writing that I came to appreciate. In a race he says of the shot of starter pistol:

the gun clipped a hole in the night

and when Liesel experiences fear she will be called on in class:

Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesel's ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon it would be around her neck, thick as a rope.

And while Hans Hubermann, Liesel's foster father is a loving man, to the point of risking his own life by bringing bread to a starving Jew in the street, his son:

Hans Junior had the eyes of his father, and the height. The silver in his eyes, however, wasn't warm, like Papa's - they'd been Fuhrered. There was more flesh on his bones, too, and he had blond prickly hair and skin like off-white paint.

The book thief of the title is Liesel herself, who begins stealing books from piles of books local citizens burned on Hitler's birthday as a demonstration of their loyalty to party and country. So she may be a thief, but her theft is a rescue mission, both for the books and for her own soul. And with all the loss that this young girl experiences, she finally decides to write her story and those of the people around her. She keeps a record of their experiences as faithfully as Victor Klemperer did in his amazing diaries.

So then why is the narrator death? Well, I won't give that away - read the book and find out. The way Zusak plays with form in this book can be rather gimmicky. I had been frustrated with the voice of the narrator, death, as I began reading the book both because I found myself distanced from the early events of the story and because I found it overly cute. Some of that changed and some of it didn't. There was a certain twee quality to the narrative voice I could never shake. I was never allowed to forget that I was reading a novel in the young-adult genre, but aside from that, I felt the investment made in the concept really paid off. Death says of 1942:

It was a year for the ages. like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, God damn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a holiday.

A Small Piece of Truth
I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only ear a hooded black robe when it's cold.
And I don't have those skull-like
facial features you seem to enjoy
pinning on me from a distance. You
want to know what I truly look like?
I'll help you out. Find yourself
a mirror while I continue.

I actually feel quite self-indulgent at the moment, telling you all about me, me, me. My travels, what I saw in '42. On the other hand, you're a human - you should understand self-obsession.

Or later:

Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.

However, the distance that annoyed me when first reading the book really began working for me as it continued. We have a 500+ page novel about war, about World War II, about the holocaust, about a young girl who loves books, about a Jewish man hiding in the basement. We already know the events it tells us are going to be unspeakably sad and horrible. And we already have a book that sees these horrors through the eyes of a young girl that is one of the biggest best sellers of all time. This book looked beyond those indelible facts and tells a different story - still the truth, but skirting obvious cliches. It adds a second level - looking at the events from the point of view of death. If any narrator has seen it all, he certainly has. These twin perspectives look at the inhabitants of this small town on the road to a concentration camp. Some of the people were loving and generous, others stingy and actively hateful, others self-interested and fairly clueless - all live on a road that is within walking distance of Dachau. All Germans were not actively pursued, all Germans, did not have laws passed against them forbidding them marriage, jobs, bank accounts, and all Germans were not hounded like animals into camps, removing all their humanity and then executed but many more than those murdered in the camps were the Nazi's victims. This book looks at the lives of the people in this village as seen through the fresh (but not naive) eyes of Liesel and the ancient eyes of death. This death is not a god, he's a servant. He's the soul collector - despising some of these people and admiring others, but mostly he is moved by their fortitude. Both the story tellers are obliged to bear the weight of many souls on their backs. The visions of Liesel and death combine to tell a loving tale that ends up being very touching and compulsively readable. Here's my earlier post on this book. And here's Mark Thwaite's excellent interview with Mark Zusak.

I have taken the liberty of replacing one of my chunkster challenge books with this one, given its chunkster status - let's be real, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain, Life and Fate, The Gulag Archipelago, and Darkmans in one year? It's not going to happen.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mid year assessment

And since everyone else is checking in a mid-year:

number of books read: 38 (not bad considering I'm in school and for something other than lit)
all but 3 were fiction
13 were written by women
24 by non-American writers
5 were translated from languages other than English

My goal was to read 52 books this year, so judging by present standards, I should exceed my goal. On the other hand, I'm doing absolutely lousy (or would that be lousily) in my reading challenges.

I signed on for:
The Chunkster Challenge: 2 out of 8
The Man Booker Challenge: 3 out of 7
The Russian Reading Challenge: 1 out of 8 (or 2 out of 9 if you're willing to include Child 44)

Although with my informally declared Summer Reading Challenge I am chipping away at my impossible dream: 3 out of 21 and working on numbers 4 & 5.

I had better get reading and stop dilly-dallying here.