Sunday, August 31, 2008

Progress Notes and a Challenge

C.B. and Dakota are offering us a short story challenge in September. Prizes are offered - join in!
This has had the unfortunate consequence of adding a book to my concise list for the fall (truth be told, I have added two and it took only a week and one day). At least the short story volume, The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio, was on my TBR pile. It comes highly recommended by The Elegant Variation so I can blame that one on Mark. The other is the novel In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal. For that one I have only myself to blame. Which leaves the list:

Jude the Obscure
(in progress)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid

Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (
started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development
(in progress)
The Dead Fish Museum
In the Land of No Right Angles


Got this food list from Matt. I live to eat, enjoy variety and interest in my food, and I live in New York, so I have tried a pretty wide range of foods, though clearly I still have some ground to cover. I've adapted the rules so that you add a food or two at the end.

The meme lists 100+ food items that reflect cultural diversity.
1. Cut and paste the list to the blog.
2. Boldface the food you’ve eaten (I've done them in red too, easier to read)
3. Strike across the items you will never eat. (combo bold and strike-out for those you have eaten but won't again)
4. Add a food or two at the end, if you like.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos racheros
4. Steak tartar
5. Crocodile (I'd try it)
6. Black pudding
(Had it with several Irish breakfasts and have no strong need to have it again)
7. Cheese fondue (The Ragazzo looooooves it. We have it every New Year's Eve)
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush (Yum, my favorite!)
11. Calamari
12. Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup)
13. PB & J
14. Aloo gobi (Indian dry curry with cauliflower and potato)
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses (If it's cheese, stinky or not, I've tried it)
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes I've tried several but they're too sweet for me
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (probably in a Carribean restaurant but I'm not sure)
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters (raw on the half shell - heaven!)
29. Baklava (rich, sweet middle eastern pastry)
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (a San Francisco favorite)
33. Salted lassi (I've had mango lassi, but not a salted one)
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float (I'm not a junk food lover so I'm not a big fan of stuff like this)
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (w/o the cigar, ok)
37. Clotted cream tea (tea taken with a combination of scones, clotted cream, and jam)
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (Why?)
39. Gumbo (Canjun/Creole dish from Louisiana)
40. Oxtail (in oxtail soup)
41. Curried goat (I've had goat in cilantro sauce - Peruvian dish - delicious!)
42. Whole insects (Sold in South East Asia as snacks. I'd try em)
43. Phaal (extremely hot and spicy Indian curry dish - I've had Vindaloo but not Phaal)
44. Goat’s milk (and cheese and yogurt made from it)
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (I'm not sure of the cost, but I've had very good single malts)
46. Fugu (Japanese word for pufferfish - I won't knowingly risk my life for a food experience)
47. Chicken tikka masala (Malaysia. Indian dish)
48. Eel (as sushi and also in a salad in Amsterdam)
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (I've tried them once. They do nothing for me)
50. Sea urchin (as sushi - unique and fantastic!)
51. Prickly pear (a cactus)
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer (an unaged, acid-set, non-melting Bengali farmer cheese)
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (I hate fast food, especially by all these companies that have contributed to the obesity problem in our modern world. I will not eat their food.)
56. Spaetzle (grandma's - very often)
57. Dirty gin martini (no, but give me a vodka one and we're in business)
58. Beer above 8% ABV (I've tried some of the higher alcohol Belgian beers. I tend to like the taste of the lower alcohol concentration beers better)
59. Poutine (Quebecois dish made with french fries, gravy, and cheese. I'd try it)
60. Carob chips (I've had 'em in trail mix)
61. S’mores (a roasted marshmallow and a slab of chocolate sandwiched between two pieces of graham cracker)
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin (I don't know what this is.)
64. Currywurst
65. Durian (I've smelled them and I don't think I could - stinky!)
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (I don't like fried dough in any language)
68. Haggis (I had it often with 'neeps' when I worked at the Edinburgh festival - good stuff)
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, andouillette, or tripe (when it's prepared well it's good stuff)
71. Gazpacho (I make it every summer - one of my favorites)
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost (I don't think I've tried it, but it's cheese, how bad could it be?)
75. Roadkill (not to my knowledge, but who knows what that little restaurant in Wisconsin served that night?)
76. Baijiu (Chinese rice wine)
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (In third grade)
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong (very smoky black tea)
80. Bellini (Not my style. I don't like strong drinks)
81. Tom yum (Thai spicy lemongrass soup - delicious)
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky(A sweet Japanese cookie. Doesn't sound like my cup of tea)
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant (I've eaten in some great restaurants, but I don't think any of them were 3-star and I'm not sure I'd have a tasting menu. I'd want to eat a course or two as prepared by the chef and trade bites with whoever else is at the table)
85. Kobe beef (supposed to be fantastic beef, I'd like to try it)
86. Hare (some people are squeamish about eating bunnies and bambis - not me)
87. Brains (with all the prion diseases infecting animal nervous systems I think not)
88. Goulash (spicy Hungarian beef stew flavored with paprika)
89. Horse (I'd have no objection)
90. Criollo chocolate (I think it's from a Central American cocoa bean)
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab (Love it)
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano (I really like a good mole sauce on just about anything)
96. Bagel and lox (Whaddya think?)
97. Lobster Thermidor (I tend to like it better without all that goopy sauce)
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake
101. Halavah (Russian/Meditarranean confection made from sweetened sesame paste)
102. Turkish Delight
103. Ossenwurst (A smoked Dutch sausage of cured raw meat)
104. Butter tea (A traditional Tibetan beverage. One of the few foods I truly can't stand)
105. Jenever (Juniper flavored traditional Dutch liqueur)
106. Dutch herring from a street stall (Cured and served sliced or on a bun with pickles or onions. Get your omega-3s . Love it.)
107. Wat (Ethiopian stew - any variety - mop it up with injera, a sour pancake-like bread)
108. Tej (Ethiopian honey wine, perfect with wat)

Join in the fun. Get hungry. Eat. Jonah, if you're reading, you're a food lover - how about it?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Spacious writing (Middlemarch by George Eliot)

George Eliot spends the entire of the first book of Middlemarch introducing us to the Miss Brookes, Celia and Dorothea, and Dorothea's intended, the papery old Mr. Casaubon. As that first book ends, we are brought into another household - The Vincys - particularly their daughter Rosamond, a paragon of beauty, Rosamond's friend Mary Garth, and the handsome new doctor, Lydgate, who seems to be of great interest to everyone in Middlemarch. We have progressed 100 pages into the story of the Brookes before we ever encounter these new characters and the circumstances that are going to propel their story. Imagine giving that sort of writing to a contemporary editor or book agent. 'You cannot wait until page 106 to spring an entirely new cast of characters and circumstances on your reader. No one is going to want to wait that long.' I remember being told what a great writer Shakespeare for introducing characters and their situations in a scant few lines. It is meant to exemplify literary efficiency. And economy on the page can certainly be admired, but so can spaciousness. It's been awhile since I have had a reading experience where I feel like I have to look far out to cast my eye upon the literary horizon. Page turners are great, I love them. But there is something I am finding satisfying about the contrast in the pacing of this book with the rest of my New York life. After a long day of school orientation and classes, I read just 20 pages before going to sleep last night, where I will usually read 60-80 in something from the pile by the bed. Of course, at this rate, you may still be reading posts about Middlemarch in January.

With 100 pages to introduce three characters and their circumstances, one can afford two pages merely to contrasts the physical appearance of Mary Garth with her friend Rosamond. I just love how Eliot asks us to luxuriate in the specificity not only of the appearance of Mary but also of the meaning of that appearance to each of them, to Middlemarch, and to the world in general, but with a smile, of course. Eliot has a marvelous sense of humor.

Only a few children in Middlemarch looked blond by the side of Rosamond, and the slim figure displayed by her riding-habit had delicate undulations. In fact, most men in Middlemarch, except her brothers, held that Miss Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honest, truth-telling fairness, was Mary's reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humour enough in her to laugh at herself. When she and Rosamond happened both to be reflected in the glass, she said laughingly -

"What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion."

"Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality," said Rosamond, turning her head towards Mary, but with eyes swerving towards the new view of her neck in the glass.

"You mean my beauty," said Mary, rather sardonically

Rosamond thought, "Poor Mary, she takes the kindest things ill." Aloud she said, "What have you been doing lately?"

"I? Oh minding the house - pouring out the syrup - pretending to be amiable and contented - learning to have a bad opinion of everybody."

I enjoy how Eliot blows apart the stereotype of the young middle class girl literary stereotypes of the day - young, fair and carefree being one, or above marriageable age, superficially unattractive, and practical, however contented with her lot. Mary belies them both. And that little passage toward the end where she writes Rosamond's silent thoughts and contrasts them with what she says aloud is quite a modern vantage point to give an audience towards a character.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dr. Who's David Tennant attempts the indecisive Danish prince and other gob-smackers

Cam tries to avert blogertia today. Dovegrey introduced me to the meaty Mookse. And, OMG, cute-as-a-button BBC television star David Dr. Who Tennant attempts Hamlet and this review (thanks again Dovegrey) is hilarious. Then again, if you're a fan of Dr. Who, Tennant, the RSC, or Hamlet, maybe you won't find it so funny. But anyone else...

And I just came across an advertisement for a new novel - In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal who, I believe, was this very cool, very smart young woman, a Brown student at the time, who assistant directed a show of mine at my theater company in Milwaukee! I'm going to have to read it on that basis alone even though the ad threatens me with its being "A subtly resonant masterpiece."

BBC television did a three-part adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's 2004 Booker-winning novel The Line of Beauty about 1980's politics, hypocrisy, and the lure of the superficial. I reviewed the novel here and, while the adaptation lacks some of the psychological complexity and the grace that is afforded it by the quality of the writing, it's not bad at all. Thank you New York Public Library (my Netflix).

Meanwhile, The Neuroscience of Cognitive Development - The Role of Experience and the Developing Brain continues to impress me for its conciseness and George Eliot has this to say on the subject of human psychology in Middlemarch:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts - not to hurt others.

And this:

The human mind has at no period accepted a moral chaos; and so preposterous a result was not strictly conceivable. But we are frightened at much that is not strictly conceivable.
Her certainty is, at times, shattering.

One last question: can one eat too many blueberries? I hope not. Off to class.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's just you.

btt button

If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next?

Or, um, is it just me?

It's just you. Well, maybe not just you; but it's not me. Story can keep the pages turning, no doubt about that. When a book has nothing else going for it, story can pull me through, but I read for character, even more than that for relationships. Relationships between the characters and each other, the characters and themselves, and the characters and the events transpiring. I also read for the delight of how an author is going to pull me through those events. With some authors, the pleasure is how they delay getting to the next plot point, and what they tell me along the way rather than the fact that something new is happening. With Sarah Salway's Tell Me Everything for example, it was the characters and Salway's wonderful descriptions that kept me reading. My prejudices probably would have made me care a lot less about what happened to Molly were it not for the way Salway told her story.

What happens in the Zooey section of Franny and Zooey? Almost nothing. Some cute, obnoxious know-it-all takes a long bath and tries to kick his worried mother out of the bathroom. It's through the humor of their relationship and the amusement of Zooey's monologue that we finally do learn something about a character who isn't there, but that takes a while to get going. But what pleasure Bessie and Zooey are to hang out with. If you read Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room or The Waves wanting to know what happens next, good luck. The Waves is one of the greatest modern novels written English, if you ask me. Whole lives are lived in it, but its pages are an archive of private experience happening inside each character. The other passages in it are descriptions of the sun on the water at different times of day, and yet people graduate from school, become employed, World War I occurs, and life and death are bridged in this book! A stunner, many stories, and yet no stories unfolding in that and then this happened kind of way.

Tim Winton's new book Breath barely has a plot. There are events that happened to the central character as an adolescent that he remembers, and those comprise the plot, such as it is. But mostly there are two contrasting characters drawn with great complexity and idolize a third character - also interestingly drawn but whose complete story is shrouded in mystery. They do a bunch of surfing. The book is about big things - the value of risk taking and what we live life for - but there are only small sections of the book where what happens next is the reason for turning the page.

Even though Dickens is a story teller, and his plots central to the pleasure of reading him, they would take up far fewer pages without his descriptions of character and place. It is the pleasure of his elaborate and hilarious descriptions that a) delay the plot so that there is dramatic tension b) helped him get paid by filling out the reading experience to fit the serialized format of the day and c) they allow one to build a relationship with the characters over time so that, when something big does happen to them, you really care (the author's emotive power). OMG, Smike's death in Nicholas Nickleby - what a killer. I've read it over and over and cry every time.

My current read - Middlemarch - forces the reader to slow down by not just writing about what happened. I have been thinking about that as I read it. I must take time. The whole reading experience is about who it is happening to, where it is happening, and because of this context, what it means, because Eliot is an author of ideas, not just events. She moves back, back, back with her camera - until the context encompasses the entire world. To support the boldness of some of her statements, she tempers them with humor and offers plenty of context.

Finally, layers of meaning are probably one of the features of a novel I read for the most. How complex and interrelated are the parts of the book and how successfully does the author take big ideas or simple motifs that comprise the content of the book and weave them through the form of the book. Tim Winton did this beautifully with the idea of breath in Breath. Richard Powers is amazing at weaving together science, psychology, and a love story in broad books that are as intellectually satisfying as they are beautiful artistic creations. Iris Murdoch is wonderful in the ways she intertwines excruciatingly soap-opera-y plots with ideas. Hopeful Monsters by Nicolas Mosley (one of Sheila's and my favorite books ever) is - well what is is not about? It is the history of the 20th century, it is physics, biology, politics, philosophy..., it's a love story too. It is as all-encompassing a reading experience as I have ever had. Multiple layers of meaning that keep me interested, and the way form can be integrated with content when those meanings feed the language and the structure of what your reading is what distinguishes a great book from a nice read. I don't just read to turn the page. Some books should make you linger, some books should be hard, some shake you up. I love when the experience a book puts the reader through exists on so many levels that it seems to be about the entire world. I look for those books. That is one of my favorite reasons to read.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Alternatives to sleep

Today is the first day of classes and I seem to be coming down with some sort of throat infection or a cold (great timing), I guess that might explain my being up at 4 am. That being said, I have barely made any headway in Middlemarch, so good thing Matt tagged me for this meme.

What is your favorite word?Judging by frequency of usage literally would probably win, even when it's not true. Actually would come in a close second. I also love the sound of words ending in _k- i.e. chalk, walk, book, steak, freak.

What is your least favorite word? Alliteration, and I hate the phrase to me or for me, particularly when it's used over and over again. It drives me crazy.

What turns you on (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)? Good acting. Watching people be generous with one another or really understand one another.

What turns you off (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)? Mindless imitation. Lack of curiosity. Pretense.

What sound or noise do you love? I love the sound of pine needles which have fallen on the ground crunching softly beneath my feet, it actually reminds me of the sound of words ending in _k. I love the sound of a certain type of heel makes when it clocks on the sidewalk (also a _k sound). I also love the sound my fake down comforter makes when it rustles.

What sound or noise do you hate? I hate the sound of people speaking on most television programming, particularly the talking heads that deliver so-called news. I never get my news from television any more. But whether it's talk show hosts, news magazines, sitcoms, or especially commercials, even without hearing the content, the sound of tv is instantly recognizable to me and its rhythms and the fakiness agitate me.

What is your favorite curse word? Judging again by frequency of usage "fucking hell" ranks right up there. Though I'm also partial to "Jesus H. Christ on a horse."

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Actually I'm in the process of attempting it - neuroscience. (There's that actually rearing its ugly head) Medicine used to be my road not taken before that. I'd also love to host a radio interview show with people of cultural interest.

What profession would you not like to do? Where do I begin? Mafioso don, garbage man, nurse, waiter, any sort of politician, anyone responsible for cleaning up other peoples' bodily fluids (although blood per se doesn't bother me), grocery store bagger, telephone salesperson, municipal bureaucrat, and I don't really need to be a parent, though I have endless respect for them, particularly my own.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? The library is right over here. Would you like wine with that?

Care to join me? It only took 49 minutes, including making a cup of ginger tea. Still not sleepy. Damn.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

19th Century Television (Books - Middlemarch by George Eliot)

I put Middlemarch on this year's re-read list after Sheila read it recently and I realized I barely remembered it, having read it 23 years ago while hiking in the Black Forest. Matt and I have a plan to read it simultaneously, but as classes are just starting I'm not certain how I'll keep up.

If the first section is any indication, George Eliot's mission seems to be to differentiate between a woman's role in rural English society and a woman's essence - there are strong women as well as helpless ones, those with opinions as well as compliant blank slates, she warns:

Theresas [women like Saint Theresa of Avila] were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardour alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the soical lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure and the favourite love-stories in prose and verse...

The Miss Brooke's are being raised by the their uncle in rural England. They are parentless and of marriageable age, but of a reputable family. I love the way Eliot tells us this, not merely as a fact, but with a twinkle in her voice that lets us know we are not just reading a good story, but social criticism :

...the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably "good": if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers - anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell...
Middlemarch is really a book of ideas dressed in the clothes of the serialized novel of its day. Celia is the typical, down-to-earth sister who is happy not to have her pretty little head bothered by notions, Dorothea wants to study Greek, Latin and theology in order to help the aged religious scholar to whom she eventually become engaged - she spends her spare moments designing cottages for the poor farm workers. Sir James Chettam, the local country gentleman, has all but promised to build one of these cottages just to get Dorothea to marry him. But she is oblivious.

Celia says of her sister: went on as you always do, never looking just where you are, and treading in the wrong place. You always see what nobody else sees; it is impossible to satisfy you; yet you never see what is quite plain.

And the neighbors say in comfort to the man who hoped to marry her:
Come, come, cheer up! you are well rid of Miss Brooke, a girl who would have been requiring you to see the stars by daylight.

Not a soul can understand why she wishes to marry Casaubon, a scholarly prig 25 years her senior:

"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James.

"No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying?" said Sir James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an English layman.

"Oh, he dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brain. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of 'Hop o' my Thumb,' and he has been making abstracts ever since.

Gossip worthy of Sex in the City- and that really is the format here. Eight books, each about 100 pages in length (think seasons) which are composed of about 10-12 chapters (think episodes). Strong characters types have their psychology developed and exploited as they are placed in dramatic situations week-to-week in a popular magazine depicting a world that resembles our own, so that we might both think about who we are and be entertained by our foibles. The Ragazzo is just re-watching Six Feet Under, and the similarities scream to me. Middlemarch is nineteenth century television. One can look at the sheer width of the volume and think - doorstop, it's going to be weighty. But Eliot and Dickens were not originally read in big continuous gulps, but in little sips. Just because the book is a chunkster and written in the 1860s doesn't mean is dull or difficult. The serious aims are never far from a character you will nod at in recognition or a bright quip at which to smile:

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reading the brain (Books - Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf)

I've finally completed Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid, a book about the evolution of written language from oral, how the brain accommodated that change, what may happen in the brain when things work well, as well as what may happen when they don't. Here's my other post on the first few chapters of the book.

Initially I was rather frustrated with Wolf's straining for a flashier story than she has, but her enthusiasm for reading and her ideas about how it works are infectious. Her writing is very well organized, sometimes painstakingly so. She is of the school that tells us what she is going to do, does it, and then tells us that she's done it while attempting to draw some conclusions from the exercise. This may be the preferred form for scientific articles and is a good format for the lecture hall, but I found it a self-conscious structure that inhibited the free flow of Wolf's otherwise fluid prose. It also ended up making the book two chapters too long. The opening chapter explains what we will read in each chapter, and the concluding chapter rehashes everything we have already read. I wish the editor had advised Wolf against this strategy, or had helped her hide the seams better.

Wolf's central premise is that written language changed the brain, particularly alphabetic language. This is divided into three arguments:

In the context of cognitive history, three claims about supposedly unique contributions of the alphabet now lend themselves to our analysis:

1) the alphabet's increased efficiency over other systems;

2) the alphabet's facilitation of novel thoughts, never before articulated; and

3) the novice reader's ease in acquiring an alphabetic system through their increased awareness of the sounds of speech. (This ability enables children to hear and analyze phonemes; thus it facilitates learning to read and helps spread literacy.)

Two parallel stories are then told, the acquisition of written language by our species in general and the acquisition of written language by an individual member of that species over the course of their childhood and how the brain accommodates these processes given that reading and writing are not what the brain was "made for." I found this conceit overworked in Proust and the Squid and best worded in the later rather than the earlier sections of the book:

...there are neither genes nor biological structures specific only to reading. Instead, in order to read, each brain must learn to make new circuits by connecting older regions originally designed and genetically programmed for other things, such as recognizing objects and retrieving their names.

The first point is well taken, that no part of the human brain, or indeed any aspect of the human anatomy is dedicated solely to reading cannot be argued, however to conflate that notion with the idea of "design" seems to me a misunderstanding of the half of evolution that always gets short shrift - genetic drift. If we have a brain that allows us to perceive forms in the environment, that comprehends and produces language generatively, if we have evolved to create symbols to facilitate commerce and the archiving of our presence (or perhaps also our essence), and if the plasticity of our brain allows us to use its circuits to retrieve the meanings of the markings that represent that language, it seems to me that although the brain is not dedicated to the function of reading it is as made for reading as it is made for recognizing the house where we live, or the face of our teacher. Granted our legs were 'made for walking, ' but does that mean they were not made for kicking? I won't belabor the point further.

The strength of the book was the way in which Wolf connected the value of great books, the importance of reading those books to our experience as humans, and what might occur in the brain to make this happen. Chapter 6 - The Unending Story of Reading's Development - does this effectively and passionately and is by far the stand-out chapter of the book.

By identifying with characters, young readers expand the boundaries of their lives. They learn something new and lasting form each deeply felt encounter. Who among us, if faced with the prospect of being marooned, wouldn't think what Robinson Crusoe might have done? Who among us who has read Jane Austen doesn't think about Darcy when encountering an arrogant man - and hope to discover his hidden goodness? Elizabeth Bennet, Captain Ahad, Atticus Finch, Mona in the Promised Land, Celie and Nettie, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and Jayber Crow: our ability to identify with these characters contributes to who we are.

Throwing ourselves into this dance with text has the potential to change us at every stage of our reading lives. But it is especially formative during this period of growing autonomy and fluent comprehension. The young person's task in this extended fourth phase of reading development is to learn to use reading for life - both inside the classroom, with its growing number of content areas, and outside school, where the reading life becomes a safe environment for exploring the wildly changing thoughts and feelings of youth.


As David Rose, a prominent translator of theoretical neuroscience into applied educational technology puts it, the three major jobs of the reading brain are recognizing patterns, planning strategy, and feeling. Any image of the fluent, comprehending reader shows this clearly through the growing activation of the limbic system - the seat of our emotional life - and its connections to cognition. This system, located immediately below the topmost cortical layer of the brain, underlies our ability to feel pleasure, disgust, horror, and elation in response to what we read, and to understand what Frodo, Huck, and Anna Karenina experience. As David Rose reminds us, the limbic region also helps us to prioritize and give value to whatever we read. On the basis of this affective contribution, our attention and comprehension processes become either stirred or inert.

Wolf goes as far as to provide in-depth analyses of passages from Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamzov, to consider how language functions as a complex whole, and how the mature reading brain might apprehend such structures. Two subsequent chapters deal with what happens when the brain is not able to learn reading with the same ease as most typical children. The chapters are less a memoir of what it is like to have dyslexia than the other book I read on that subject this summer, Reading David. Although Wolf does delve some into the reading experience of one of her sons, she integrates that with a discussion of the current neuroscientific theories of the problem. The section offering comparative anatomy and time courses of processing on the millisecond level between typical and dyslexic brains is particularly well laid out. If a lay-readers should choose to delve this deep, the language is clear and not too technical. This book's spoon-fed structure does allow one the advantage of skipping over a section and reorienting yourself fairly quickly. Once in any section, the writing is fluent, driven by a passion for reading, and the scientific ideas are very well explained. Anyone interested in the intersection of the brain and books (as I certainly am) or just the intersection of the arts and the sciences in a more general way, should find plenty in this book to sustain their interest, the story of the evolution of written language itself and the linking of a great reading experience to brain function are particularly strong.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Man and Boy On the Lam (Books - Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty)

My Bernard MacLaverty summer read-a-thon has concluded with his novella, Lamb. It's a beautiful but devastating little book. Brother Sebastian has given his life to the church, teaching in a school for poor, wayward boys. The home is run by a draconian headmaster, Brother Benedict, who does not approve of Brother Sebastian's sympathetic approach to the boys, and to one boy in particular - Owen Kane.
'I admire your text-book ideallism, Brother Sebastian, but I have rarely seen it work. You are being influenced by the tenderness of his years. Do you believe in the Church, Brother?'


'Then you must believe that if a boy is old enough to receive communion he is old enough to break the law, to cause suffering in others.'

'But if they do not fully realize what they are doing...'

'Diminished responsibility, Brother, can only be claimed for babies, idiots and nuns.' He rose from his chair as if the meeting was at an end. The full skirt of his soutane blocked out the blaze of the fire.

'What we run here, Brother, is a finishing school for the sons of the Idle Poor.'

'It finishes them all right.'

Brother Benedict stopped in mid-flight, his eyebrows raised in mock pleasure.

'Ah. A witticism. You are not totally lost yet, Brother. I'll thank you not to interrupt me again. What we run here is a school for the sons of the Idle Poor. We teach them to conform, how to make their beds, how to hold a knife and fork, and the three Rs. We shoehorn them back into society at an age when, if they commit another offence, they go to the grown-up prison. If they do not conform we thrash them. We teach them a little of God and a lot of fear. It is a combination that seems to work. At least we think so. There is no room here for your soft-centred, self-centred idealism.'

'Your problem, Brother Sebastian, is that you can't think. In all your time here I do not think I have heard you make a rational statement.'
But Brother Sebastian is not a conformist himself and, having the grief for his recently deceased father fresh in his heart, decides that Owen would be better off with the love of a father-like figure than with the harsh cruelties inflicted upon him by the home. What follows is a sweet extended short story of man and boy on the run. Icarus figures prominently as a motif, so it will come as no surprise that the story is a tragedy. The problem is really a failure of imagination, in some ways Brother Benedict is sadly right in his assessment of Brother Sebastian, whose real name is Michael Lamb. He can't think. Or to be more precise, he thinks with his heart rather than his head and either his personality or his education or his grief-stricken state, leave him without much imagination. **SPOILER OVER** One wishes that our hero was as resourceful as he is loving. The writing, as is ever the case with MacLaverty, is precisely observed, emotionally insightful, and simply told. Of the four books of his I read this summer, I would not call this one my favorite - that honor would go to Cal, but I am so glad that John Self introduced me to his beautiful writing and hope more lovers of good books discover him.

Autumn leaves

Classes begin for me next week. I have bought my new pens and pads, a new laptop is on order (yikes!), and I have now registered for all my classes. I guess I have to face the fact that summer is drawing to a close and that my fiction reading is going to be curtailed in favor of textbooks on neural structure, action potentials, and multisensory integration. Well, that has its pleasures too and it means that fall is soon to begin - my favorite season. Leaves changing, coolness returns to the air, red wine takes precedence over white, and I can wear sweaters.

As I looked over my reading so far this year I realized that I have read 51 books - 46 novels and the rest non-fiction. I don't count my textbooks. 16 of those books were written by women, 32 of their authors are not American, 6 were translated from other languages. That also puts me 1 book away from my original goal for the year of reading one book per week. So I will aim to push myself over the edge before classes start on Wednesday, that way I can consider the rest of my reading for the year gravy and make my choices for sheer pleasure (as if I don't?). Which brings me to my fall TBR pile. I have promised Matt that we're going to read Middlemarch simultaneously. I have already begun, in fact. So if that leaves me time for anything else, I would like to read Darkmans and finish up the Man Booker Challenge. There is no way I will complete either the Chunkster or the Russian Reading Challenges, but I do hope to at least read Among the Russians by Thubron, I enjoy his writing and it is short. Natasha's Dance will, for the third year running, worm its way to the bottom of my reading pile and as for The Gulag Archipelago fuggetaboutit. I have Jude the Obscure on the way and also John Banville's Eclipse, a recommendation of the Incurable Logophile. Jeanette Winterson's fantasy Tanglewreck sits on the pile and seems a likely light read to distract me some time between my assignments and I have borrowed Angelica from the library but, having started it, it seems transparent and stilted and I don't think I'm going to make it through. So that leaves me a shortish revised list for the fall. I like that:

Jude the Obscure
(just started)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid
(in progress)
Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (
started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development

Making a neat little list means I am sure to diverge from it, it's inevitable, but it's a place to start.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The line that separates pleasure from intimacy (Books - The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst)

I find myself not knowing what to say about The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst as I sit down with my tea, so I'll start with the title. It is based on Hogarth's writings about the ogee, the s-shaped curve - as an ideal of beauty. Nick Guest, the novel's central character describes his lover, Leo's, body as having that shape. Nick is a connoisseur of beauty in all its forms - an admirer of houses, furniture, bodies, faces. He graduates with a first from Oxford and settles into a room in the attic of his friend Toby's parent's house. Toby's father, Gerald, is a conservative MP as the Tories are making their meteoric rise to power under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s - on a cloud of power and money. Nick is supposedly working on a thesis about Henry James's novels and James seems a good subject for him - a lovely but highly intellectual take on the subject of power and beauty, and always at a remove. Everyone in this novel seems motivated only by external appearances, except for Gerald's daughter Catherine, who although she is mentally ill and doesn't know what she wants, seems to at least to want to tell the truth. I found this novel full of memorable characters and writing that is easily elegant without being showy. It creates a devastatingly critical portrait of an age of superficiality, greed, and duplicity that is hard to like. I found most of the characters infuriatingly vapid and false, and yet I had to keep reading because I cared what would happen. One the one hand it is hard not to like Nick - he is a charmer - handsome, agreeable, and when it comes to the physical beauty of things he's not merely a poseur, he is knowledgeable about their history and their craftsmanship. He is professional appreciator, and is quite skilled when fulfilling such a role. On the other hand he is a passive hanger-on with no ambition except to be around comforts and to avoid conflict in the present moment. He will say or do anything to be liked and not lose the comforts he enjoys at the lavish expense of others. I guess one could say he is quite clever, but I found him ultimately despicable, and that formed the conflict of the novel for me. Who in Nick's shoes wouldn't have a hard time saying 'no,' not necessarily to the things Nick enjoys, but to whatever would satisfy our own greed?

**SPOILER ALERT** Of course, the mighty do fall, and with them their hangers-on. So Nick's journey finally does force him to reckon with the consequences dealt to those from whom he has benefited and the novel leaves me wondering how the 90s and 00s. treated him. **ALERT OVER**

But I find myself returning to Alan Hollinghurst's title yet again, as I really had a different take on it by the novel's end. I found myself thinking of a line of beauty as a border line. A line at which the beauty of things or people for their own sake must end and attention to the use of the person or thing in its context, the consequences of associating with it, must be reckoned with. And let me be clear, I am not referring to Nick's homosexuality. I and am revolted by those who imagine AIDS as some sort of scourge for sin. Nick's sexuality (whether homo or hetero) as expressed in his second relationship in the novel with Wani Ouradi has extraordinary benefits in creature comforts, money, and Nick's pleasure in the beauty of his lover, but they come at the price of never living openly and never receiving the overt expression of his love. Nick enjoys the sex and the first class suite in Venice but never experiences intimacy which, it seems to me, is too exorbitant a price to pay.

In the experiment that identified dopamine as the neurotransmitter associated with the experience of pleasure, rats were permitted to administer themselves doses of cocaine which stimulate the production of dopamine, by the press of a lever. They famously pleasured themselves to death and that's what this book reminds me of. As much as I enjoy beauty in people and in art, delicious wine and food, or whatever, there is a line that separates enjoyment from gluttony, admiration from participation, and pleasure from intimacy and that is how I found myself thinking of the line of beauty by the novel's end.

Here's my other post on this book.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Library Memories

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Inspired by Booksplease

Whether you usually read off of your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. (There’s no way my parents could otherwise have kept up with my book habit when I was 10.) So … What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?

Oddly enough for a member of my generation and a New York City dweller, I was a NYC native and live not far from where I grew up. In fact, I visited my childhood library yesterday - it's the branch where I get my reserves delivered. The library was just a block-and-a-half from my home. It was a modern, cream colored brick building, with contemporary blond wood furniture. The whole feeling was one of lightness and efficiency. I was taken by both of my parents (though usually one or the other) for storybook hour, held in a special room in the children's section of the library which occupied the second floor of the building. The first book I can remember being read to me there was Little Blue and Little Yellow. I believe I then borrowed a copy. I also remember some sort of orientation with a stern librarian who explained that when at the library I was expected to be quiet. It gave the place a sense of importance that one had to talk in whispers. It bothers me now, when I use my university library, to hear students talk on their cell phones or with each other with unmodulated voices. One of the reasons I like libraries is because they are supposed to be quiet.

We moved to a different apartment when I was around 11 or 12 and were nearer a different library, a much gloomier turn-of-the-century building. It had, in fact, been my mother's childhood library. The wooden furniture was of the old-fashioned municipal variety - heavy oak tables whose chairs scraped noisily on the tile floor. You might see such furniture in a court room television dramas from the 1950s- the wood darkened by years of contact with hands. In my teens I went through a period of being crazy for detective stories, reading everything I could get my hands on - all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, all the Sherlock Holmes stories, Father Brown, all the Lord Peter Whimsey books, Josephine Tey, my Hardy Boys Detective Handbook was much prized. My favorite was Agatha Christie, particularly the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot books. Once, to my extreme pleasure, I found twelve of her books I hadn't read all on the shelves at the same time. I checked them all out, being warned by my parents that I could never read them all before they were due. It was winter and my thick coast made it hard to tuck the piles under my arms. The plastic dust jackets were slippery against my coat and books kept slipping from the pile as I carried the books home. We lived a much longer walk from this library. To prove my parents wrong, I remember reading those books night and day, I have a distinct memory of sitting on my bathroom floor (perhaps because it was so warm in there) reading one of them. I am pleased to say that I read them all before they were returned.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Guest at the Party (Books - The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst)

While everyone else is working on the new Booker longlist, I'm reading an old winner, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Starting in London in 1983, Nick Guest has just graduated with a first from Oxford. He is the classmate of Toby Feddens, son of a conservative member of Parliament, and without much money to spare, rents a garret room in the Feddens' house. Nick's father deals in antiques, but while he has had a chance to learn about and develop a taste for beautiful things, he has grown up decidedly middle class. Nick is also discovering his sexuality, and is finding that it is decidedly homosexual, with a particular attraction for a young black man named Leo. It is easy to see why Hollinghurst has given Nick the surname of Guest - he seems a young man with a foot in four counties but a home in none. He is barely out of the closet, admires the greater experience of Leo but is not yet able to live openly himself, remember this is the year when AIDS first came to general public awareness. He loves the parties given in great houses, the witty conversation, elegant food, and freely flowing drugs. Thatcher's England was an era of indulgence for those with the money to do so, and while Nick is not himself a man of means, he has managed to attach himself to a family that is very well provided for. It is in this setting that he comes of age - attempting to ingratiate himself to everyone as he figures out who he is and what he values most.

I too graduated from college in the early 80s. The Tylenol murders, liposuction, John Belushi's overdose, the breakup of Ma Bell, Charles & Di, Haley's comet, crack cocaine, the discovery of the AIDS virus. I was coming of age in Reagan's America rather than Thatcher's England, but I recognize that era in which laws were meant to provide people in certain circles and corporations of certain means the maximum of permissiveness on the one hand, while on the other the same conservatives used their power to clamp down on what they saw as overly indulgent social mores, particularly those less familiar or less comfortable for them. At the book's start, Nick is still innocent to the duplicity that surrounds him. As this is a coming of age story, I expect that will change. This seems a modern-day Jamesian novel, with an eye for details of class and society, and prose that rolls easily as the hills of the English countryside. I was drawn 100 pages in before I even looked up from reading.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Destined to be read long into the future (Books - Cal by Bernard MacLaverty)

Great novels are made not by the number of their pages, but by the themes they touch upon, the way in which words and events are used to bring you in touch with an experience of them, the reach of those events to lives beyond those involved directly in something just like them, and finally their indelibility first on your mind and heart and then on the canon of books we call literature. Bernard MacLaverty's Cal drives that home in 150 pages that are as densely packed with passion and tension as any I've read in Dostoyevsky or Hardy.

The 19-year-old title character lives in Northern Ireland. A Roman Catholic, he is hounded and even physically attacked by the Protestant Orangemen. His friends have joined the IRA in response to the violence with which they are threatened. Cal finds the violence too much for him, he even had to quit his job at the abattoir. Still his friends ask for his help as his father has a van:

'Did you ever hear of Archbishop Romero? He talked about the "legitimate right of insurrectional violence." Oppressed peoples have the right to throw off the yoke in whatever way they see fit - and that's from an eminent doctor of the Church. If somebody is standing on your neck you have the right to break his leg.'

After he and his father are burned out of their home by the Orangemen, Cal serves as as a driver for his friends and, against his better judgment, ends up involved in the murder of a local policeman. He goes into hiding in the country to escape the dangers facing him in the city, because he has fallen deeply in love with the daughter-in-law of the woman on whose farm he has gotten a job, and because he is deeply troubled morally for his involvement in the murder. He is now in the impossible position of being wanted both by both the Orangemen as an accomplice and as a deserter by his friends in the IRA.

MacLaverty conveys not just the greater sweeps of political strife and moral anguish, but his detail to detail writing of individual episodes is wracked with tension.

Cal indicated and moved across the road, double parking directly in front of the shop. Crilly put on a pair of sunglasses and got out.

'Keep that engine running,' he said.

Cal turned up the collar of his coat. Crilly stood on tiptoe, looking over the dulled and lettered half of the door. Cal saw him flip up the hood of his anorak and pull his scarf over his mouth. He pushed the door open with his foot and stepped in. The door swung shut after him on it spring but in the instant that it was open, as if it was the shutter of a camera, Cal saw two women customers look up in fright. The door stayed shut and Cal began to count. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. He knew that to count accurate seconds he should say on thousand and seventeen, one thousand and eighteen. A man came round the corner and began walking towards the car. Was it the law? No double parking allowed here sir. But the man had a dog on a lead. It kept stopping and sniffing at the bottoms of walls. After each bout of sniffing it lifted its hind leg and peed over the leavings of some other dog. One thousand and forty, forty-one, forty-two. He looked down at the tray beside the gear stick and to his horror saw that the pistol Crilly had left him was nakedly visible in the street lights. He covered it with a dirty cloth from the glove compartment. The man was now almost level with the car. Cal turned his head away, pretending to look for something in the back seat. Where the fuck was Crilly? Was he choosing a wine? The man stopped patiently for his dog again then moved off into the pool of the next street light. Cal rolled the window down to see if he could hear anything. A record on a jukebox played faintly farther along the street. Cal watched the door,k trying not to blink, until his eyes felt dry. Where was the big bastard? Was it a thousand and ninety? He gave up the idea of counting. Crilly had been in there two or three minutes. Then suddenly the door sprang open and in it shutter-instant Cal saw the two women lying face down on the floor. He stuck the car in first and revved. Crilly, carrying a Harp polythene bag, thumped his shins and cursed getting between the two cars at the kerb. He jumped into the passenger seat. The gun was still in his hand. They were moving before he had time to shut the door.

When Cal first works at the farm, he hides in a disused barn for several days to avoid returning to the city. He has no change of clothes and no shower or tub. MacLaverty writes of the condition of his clothes, how they feel against his skin, how he cleans his teeth with cooking salt and soot - with the kind of detail that made me able to smell it the combination of mildew and human sweat, to feel the chafing of damp dirty pants against my legs. They are happening to Cal, but his discomfort is mine. You might think it's silly to exemplify writing that deals with national struggles through description of banalities, but these are the things that turn a literary character into a human being for the time I am reading. The struggles of nations would not be important if they didn't effect the lives of individual people. This book exercises my empathy through choosing the essential details. I am immersed completely in the title character's point of view, because of the experience MacLaverty creates. He built it word-by-word, detail-by-detail, but they no longer feel like words and details but like streams of events and currents of feelings happening to someone in particular. The conflicts that converge are great ones - the bloody political and religious struggles of a oppressed people, a first great passionate love, and the dilemmas of a sensitive and thoughtful teenager as he makes the moral choices that are going to shape his whole life. I felt deeply the greatness of these struggles as I read. Though Cal was created of MacLaverty's s imagination, his experiences were real ones to me. I'm still seeing some of the scenes play over in my mind's eye and am wondering what happened to some of the characters in the future. That makes me think that this book is destined to be read long after the times it describes have been confined to the realm of history.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Harriet the Spy crossed with The Child in Time (Books - What was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn)

Take one part Harriet the Spy, cross it with a good mystery, add to it a grown-up novel with some social criticism and some people would make a mess. What Catherine O'Flynn has achieved is an engrossing first book, What Was Lost. Kate, the 10-year-old central character of the sections of the book set in the1984 does not have many friends her own age. She lived with her father, a man who introduces her to the wonders of crime solving with the gift of How to be a Detective, a gift I would have treasured at the age of ten. When he dies suddenly and Kate's passions are transferred to Falcon Investigations, her newly created business, putting herself through rigorous exercises of surveillance of mostly imagined scenarios in the newly built shopping mall. Her one friend is the 22-year-old son of a local shopkeeper, Adrian. When Kate mysteriously disappears one day, Adrian falls under suspicion by the police. Even though he is innocent, a sense of shame and a rabid press, hound him out of town and he too disappears.

Cut to the 00s, where Lisa, the younger sister of Adrian, is caught in a miserable retail job in the no-longer-new shopping mall, living with a fellow employee out of sheer habit. She befriends one of the mall's security guards, stuck in equally unsatisfying circumstances. He begins seeing a young girl on the mall's surveillance cameras and Lisa finds a toy monkey that may have belonged to Kate and their interest in a 20-year-old mystery is rekindled. I'm not going to tell you what happened as the mystery kept me reading this book all yesterday until I had finished. But what is singular about it is not the mystery and sadness of a missing child, its the sadness of the many people in it living half-lives out of habit and lack of courage. People who are sure that the key to a good happy life is buying the right things at the right time. O'Flynn criticism wields a playful sense of humor:

As Lisa reached the shop floor, she noticed there were now twelve units across the store, dominated by Queen's Greatest Hits, volumes 1 and 2. This morning there had been four which she had thought was overkill, but in a brief but colorful exchange with Crawford, a difference of opinion on this matter became clear.

She finally got to the counter just five minutes late to cover Dan's lunch. Her first customer was a middle-aged woman with eyebrows drawn very high on her forehead. "Save me looking, love," said the lady. "Where's that Queen one?"

As Lisa led the customer back to one of the eight Queen display unites she had passed on her way to the counter, it occurred to her that the woman might be blind; this would shed light on the misplaced eyebrows as well. She sometimes wondered if some people would rather be blind. Save me looking was something she heard several times a day, and she couldn't understand what the big effort was in visual reception. She was unsure if it was acute laziness that led someone to ask someone else to use their eyes for them, or some belief that vision was a finite resource they didn't want to wear out.

Kate, even though a child, has experienced her share of loss. Her eye is still an inexperienced one, as she seeks out the depths of other humans in their surface appearance. But I suppose many adults do the same:
She knew that one day she would see someone by the banks with a different look on his face - anxiety, or cunning, or hate, or desire - and she would know that this person was a a suspect. So she scanned faces for any flicker of deviance. Her eyes moved over the play area, where there were some children her own age looking unimpressed with the facilities. They were too old for the jungle fantasy and the ball pool, but unlike Kate they didn't seem to realize that the whole center was an enormous playground. She felt the dull ache of loneliness in her stomach, but her brain didn't register it. It was old news.

I thought O'Flynn's eye for the injustices of life as perceived by a child was particularly acute. There are passages on working in a mall that sound suspiciously like a writer venting after a few too many months working in retail. I sometimes wondered if anyone aside from those with impulse control problems and a poor eye for makeup went shopping in this mall. But overall the book is well constructed, its understanding of human beings compassionate, its narrative voice accessible, and the mystery of what happened to Kate kept me reading right through to the end.
Thank you, Scott Pack, for the recommendation.

Friday, August 15, 2008

An embarrassment of riches (Books - The Solitudes by John Crowley & Recent Acquisitions)

I have tried my damndest with Charles de Lint's Moonheart and I just can't do it. 160 pages qualifies as the old college try, doesn't it? Maybe it depends which college. I did enjoy two of his more recent novels, so I won't give up on his writing entirely. But that leaves the field wide open - a very important thing two weeks prior to the start of classes. Although I have been pretty busy at the lab most days, it's a far cry from what things will be like when the semester begins. So this is my last hurrah before chaos ensues.

I had a copy of John Crowley's Little, Big which I started over and over again for years and could never get through it. I saw that Matt was reading The Solitudes, book one of The Aegypt Cycle and it made me curious. When a fantasy series earns enthusiastic praise from literary critic Harold Bloom, it gives one pause. Or it gave me pause at any rate. I was in a bookstore the other day to buy a present, though really any excuse would have done, and I decided to read into it a few pages. The twin stories of The Aegypt Cycle (the series title is misprinted on the cover of the book, I hope the folks at The Overlook Press have discovered this) follow mystic John Dee and heretic Giordano Bruni in the sixteenth century and historian Pierece Moffett in the twentieth, who is researching a book on Dee and Bruni. Crowley's writing is eloquent and not merely assured, but has an old world omniscience to it, that is tempered by an arch humor. So that he might offer a sentence on the very first page like this one:
They had been at work not a quarter of an hour before the stone when the first creature appeared: their soft prayers and invocations had ceased, and for a time the only sound was the rattle of the mullions in a hard March wind that filled up the night.

And yet, Crowley gives Moffett a home in the fictitious town of Blackbury Jambs, New York. Given the fact that this fantasy is praised most often for its erudition, makes me glad that the author has a sense of humor. The narrative voice has an alluring cozy-tale lilt to it that is drawing me in:
So he woke by a brass alarm clock that stood on four feet and had a bell atop it that two clappers struck alternately, as though it were beating its brains out. It was so loud that the first moments of its ringing didn't even seem like sound, but like something else, a calamity, he was awake and sitting up before he understood what it was: the clock, hollering and walking on its feet across the bureau top. His cousin Bird in the other bed stirred beneath her covers, and was still again as soon as he stilled the clock.

Such a commonplace event - waking to an alarm in the morning. Crowley anthropomorphizes the clock even as he makes me nod with familiarity at the experience of waking, yet with a completely original choice of words - the ringing sounds like something else, a calamity - all in a tight, consistently voiced paragraph that has me smiling with the promise that I am going to like this book.

Also on the docket:

You may remember Jeanette Winterson, a literary rage of the 1980's, for her distinctive, enigmatic, poetic novels like Oranges are the Only Fruit, The Passion, and Sexing the Cherry. Sheila informed me that she has written a fantasy book for children! What can it be like? Though the covers of this book are chock-a-block with hyperbole promising that it is the next Lemony Snicket, the next Wrinkle in Time, the next Neil Gaiman, the next Philip Pullman His Dark Materials, and the next The Phantom Tollbooth all wrapped up into one. I'm hoping it will be the next Jeanette Winterson. The first few pages have a very Dr. Who-ish air to them. .. we'll see.

Scott Pack's big mouth promises that What was Lost, a debut novel by Catherine O'Fllynn, is "amazing." Scott has recommended Thirteen, Tell me Everything, and Electricity. With a track record of three for three, I am trusting that this will be another good one. A girl-detective keeps notebooks on the goings-on of everyone in her neighborhood. She mysteriously disappears. Twenty years later, a young girl who knew her (now a grown woman) tries to uncover what happened to her. Having just dipped in, it seems cleverly constructed and its easy prose moves along at a clip. I'm starting to feel overwhelmed by my choices. I want to read them all!

Last, but certainly not least, I am continuing on my Bernard MacLaverty fest with his Cal. The trusty John Self has had strong praise for both this novel and Lamb, which is awaiting my collection at the library. These are the only two full-length novels remaining for me to read in the MacLaverty canon. The subject is the life of a young Catholic man living in Ulster who feels he cannot fight the Protestant orangemen by joining the IRA as his friends have. I have become an admirer of MacLaverty's observant and precise writing this summer and cannot wait to get into this one.

This weekend promises an embarrassment of reading riches. Hope yours does too.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sleeping through quidditch

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You, um, may have noticed that the Olympics are going on right now, so that’s the genesis of this week’s question, in two parts:


  • Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general?
  • Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both?
I am fairly certain that I have never read a book about the Olympics. As for sports in general, I have read Zen in the Art of Archery, but I would say that it's more about zen that about archery. If you count Hemmingway's stories about hunting, I have read some of those. Leila Hadley Luce does a fair bit of sailing in her memoir A Journey with Elsa Cloud, and Harry Potter plays in endless quidditch matches, if a fictional sport is allowed. I could say with certainty that I am unlikely to read a non-fiction book about sports unless is were something about the neuroscience of performance in golf or something like that. And that would be because of the neuroscience and not the golf. In fact, sports would generally encourage me to steer clear of any book, fiction or non, so I was quite surprised when I read and loved Joseph O'Neill's recent Netherland. It's affectionately known by those who haven't yet read it as 'Oh, that book about cricket.' It's not actually about cricket at all, but cricket figures prominently in it and is talked about for pages and pages and still it ranks among the best books I read this year.

And, Second:

  • Do you consider yourself a sports fan?
  • Because, of course, if you’re a rabid fan and read about sports constantly, there’s a logic there; if you hate sports and never read anything sports-related, that, too … but you don’t have to love sports to enjoy a good sports story.

As you can probably guess from the first part of my answer, I am decidedly not a sports fan. I usually started nodding off during Harry's quidditch games and quickly paged through them to get to the next plot point. I hated playing almost any sport as a kid, except handball. Now I steer clear of pretty much any team sport but I do like to swim, walk, hike, ice skate and I play pool when there's a table around. We don't have television reception, only a screen on which to watch movies, so I wouldn't be able to watch sports on TV, and it's no loss to me. Although I would probably watch the occasional tennis match. That's the one game I like to watch. I have never understood the attraction of watching other people play baseball or football live or on television. Hit a ball, catch a ball, hit a ball, catch a ball. Okay, now everybody jump on and try to kill each other. Wow, sounds like fun. The last time I watched sports on television willingly was probably the 1969 New York Knicks - one of the great basketball teams - and that was probably because my father watched it. He was an enthusiastic fan and took me to a few games. Evidently I met the seven-foot-two Kareem Abdul Jabbar at a game once, but I have no recollection of it. That was probably because I was eye level with his ankles.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lean, complex and poetic but unfrivolous (Books - The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut)

The Good Doctor pits experienced cynicism against naive idealism. In it, Laurence Waters, newly minted M.D., is required by the South African medical establishment to do one year of community service and to distinguish himself from his peers he chooses the most out-of-the-way spot he can. He must share digs with Dr. Frank Eloff, who found the spot years earlier when running from a bad divorce. If his wife running off with his best friend hadn't hardened him, then this remote, poorly funded hospital, would have. Here, any time a patient has a serious condition, they are moved to a better equipped hospital, leaving the staff hardly anything interesting to do.

Years of my life, sour with caffeine, had been sipped away in this room. A clock on the wallk stood silent and broken, the hands fixed for ever at ten to three. The only thing that had changed here since I arrived was the dartboard on the back of the door. I had brought it up from the recreation room one Sunday, hoping to while away some hours. But there are only so many times that you can throw a dart into a board before the ideas of an aim and a target begins to lose its point.

Never mind that a zen master would surely disagree, this paragraph is exemplary of Damon Galgut's writing - unusual verb choices as you might see in a poem: years in the first sentence are sipped rather than, say, passed. And we are invited to not only see and hear the scene, as usual, but also to taste its sourness. A clock's ticking is absent, but we are aware that it could be there if the clock worked. This is a place in which time has stopped, says Galgut. The hospital is a victim of politics.

'So that's it,' Laurence said suddenly. 'The other hospital. The one where everybody goes.'

I nodded heavily. 'That's it.'

'That's where all the funding's going, the equipment , the staff, all that?'

'That's it.'

'But why?'

'Why? An accident of history. A few years ago there was a line on a map, somewhere around where we're sitting now. On one side was the homeland where everything was a token imitation. On the other side was the white dream, where all the money - '

'Yes, yes, I understand that,' he said impatiently. 'But the line on the map's gone now. So why aren't we the same as them?'

I shrugged. 'I don't know, Laurence. There isn't enough money to go round. They have to prioritize.'

Laurence's idealism begins to make the director of the hospital nervous:

'I have a feeling he was looking for a different kind of hospital,' she said. 'The set-up here - it's too low-key for someone like him.'

'I agree,' I said.

'Why don't you take him around, Frank? Show him the whole place. Let him see what he's in for. Then if he want to be transferred somewhere else, I'll see what I can do.'

'All right. No problem.'

'Of course he's welcome here. I'm not saying he isn't. The community service idea - I'm in favour. I'm all for innovation and change, you know that.'

'Oh, yes,' I said. 'I know.'

Innovation and change: it was one of her key phrases, a mantra she liked to repeat. But it was empty. Ruth Ngema would go to great lengths to avoid any innovaction of change, because who knew what might follow on?

The hospital in this book is a microcosm of its setting - South Africa - where, in the context of a post-apartheid government, life is waging a battle between idealism and cynicism every day. Thank goodness that that system is now history, but however seriously intended that change was habits, budgets, hearts and minds change more slowly. Galgut has accomplished no small feat in making a book about stasis active and interesting. The writing is at once lean and complex, it is almost poetic in word choice but unfrivolous in style. I hope to finish it today, it is a splendid read.

This link includes my other post on The Good Doctor.