Saturday, March 28, 2009

Capturing the Accident (Culture - Pierre Bonnard, The Late Interiors, Film - In a Lonely Place, Books - Treasure Island)

The Raggazo and I celebrated our anniversary yesterday with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum to see Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors and have drinks on the mezzanine afterward. Although the atmosphere of their Friday Cafe is nice, for the price their artisanal cheese plate could have featured something other than colby. I'm not five. It's New York City, can't you find any good cheese? The show, on the other hand, was wonderful. It allows you to wander through the development of his interiors over about a thirty year period, its satisfying to see how his depiction of color, form, and light enriched over that time. What I liked best about the paintings was his ability to capture the accidental feel of the placement of objects on a table, the posture of his wife as she feeds the dog, or the sudden awareness of someone of themselves in a mirror. The feeling of a candid photo of a day at home - except in paint. It's interesting to see over and over again, how his interest was with the form of a table against the view out of a window, or the angle of light on the half-opened door of a room. People were usually off to the side, never posing, and with the exception of his self-portraits, they are usually painted in the color of the background. I value that ability to court the accident in art more than perhaps any other quality. I love it in acting, in directing, in painting and in words. That's why I like the poems of Frank O'Hara, the acting of Geraldine Page or Billy Cruddup, the singing of Jeff Buckley, and it's what I really loved about this show, which is on at the Met through April 19.

Also in the world of the arts, the library finally came up with a copy of the 1950 Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place, a recommendation of Sheila's, 'natch. It's an unusual film for the time - the writing has an elegant feel to it, yet it is about uncontrollable passion. Bogart is a volatile and cynical screen writer who finally meets a woman he cares for when he is suspected of murder of a young coat check girl who was seen leaving a restaurant with him. Bogie gets to show both a more refined side of himself and a more vulnerable one, and he gives a really terrific performance. It has a couple of very suspenseful scenes and it does not suffer from a typical Hollywood ending. Highly recommended!

And, inspired by Verbivore, I pulled some Robert Louis Stevenson off the shelf after I finished Damon Galgut's The Imposter. I began re-reading Treasure Island for the first time since I was a child. I'm experiencing a fun, cozy, kid-reading-in-bed nostalgia that's a welcome contrast to studying for exams and writing papers.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stories matter (Books - The Imposter by Damon Galgut)

Damon Galgut has written another potent story of moral choices and who we are as a function of our past in The Imposter.
When Blom starts to speak, his voice is very low; he clears his throat and begins again, and this time the narrative is clearer, though the words still unwind in a colourless monotone. Adam's eyes slide downward, to Blom's hand, still splayed out on his knee. He is listening, every word goes through him, but it's as if what he's hearing takes on form. He has never noticed the physical qualities of Blom's hand before: the thick, square tips of the fingers with their yellow stains, the whorl of grey hair on the back of the first joint. The nails, with a half-moon of dirt under their ragged ends. The vein pulsing thickly in the wrist. The edge of an old tattoo, somebody's name perhaps, showing from under the sleeve. And while Blom tells him who he is and what he's done, Adam thinks: with that hand. You did it all with that hand.

He sees Canning's father's cottage behind it, up against the base of the mountains. there are human figures moving down there, neutered and nameless; one of them might be Baby. And for a few seconds, the height from which he views this picture becomes his own. This is how it must be for a god to look at the earth: no connection, no conflict, no yearning for things to be otherwise. No emotional confusion to cloud the mind. For just that moment, he is an empty eye; a perfect witness.

It comes to him that time is the great, distorting lens. Up close, human life is a catalogue of pain and power, but when enough time has gone past, everything ceases to matter. Nothing that people do to each other will carry any moral charge eventually. History is just like the ground down there: something neutral and observable, a pattern, a shape. Murder and rape and pillage - in the end, they are just colourful details in a story.

Not that I confuse this opinion from the mind of the character Adam with the author's, far from it. This story matters, stories matter, because human pain and power move us. Galgut tells a tale that, because of the details - the dirt under a man's fingernails, the view from a helicopter - makes its content important. This is not simply because morals are something we should be interested in, but because the characters and what is happening grip us and, by extension, so do their choices. In this way Galgut's book reminds me of Dostoevsky, not in length, his story telling is lean, but because the consequences Adam faces temporarily become my consequences and, therefore important to me. This is a rich and involving read. Here is my other post on The Imposter.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The upside of paralysis or everything you always wanted to know about Botox

Everybody is into the brain these days. I have had discussions with folks I bump into on line at the supermarket about neurons. But when I first began studying neuroscience, the most common two reactions I received when asked what I did were ‘wow’ and ‘why?’ Today's Science Times has an article Science Times article by Donald G. McNeil Jr. about a new treatment for those with brain injury from a stroke is a good example of what excites me about the field.

It seems that those who suffer from rigid or spasming muscles as the result of brain disease or injury might be able to be treated with Botox. You are probably familiar with Botox' s other life as a face-lift in a syringe. Many people are content to know that its effects are a result of paralyzing the muscles around which it is injected, but given the fact that Botox is a snappy brand name for botulinum – a toxin to the nervous system - I thought I would offer a little information about what it is and how it does its business.

Botulinum is a powerful neurotoxin produced by several different bacteria, most commonly clostridium botulinum - a spore-forming bacterium.  It tends to grow when meat is not properly prepared, but it can affect the preparation of any food as the famous tainted Bon Vivant vichyssoise outbreak in the 1970s showed, (so watch out for swollen, dented or punctured cans when you buy canned food). Home canning improperly handled can be a cause. Botulinum is lethal in very small doses, causing botulism, but it is extremely rare, its symptoms tend to develop slowly, and it is treatable using antitoxins and breathing support. It causes muscle paralysis, eventually of the whole body, but is fatal primarily because it paralyzes the muscles of the respiratory system. Botulinum actually works its magic because it is toxic to the nervous system.

A motor neuron, the kind of nerve cell that signals a muscle cell to contract, does so by releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Think of this as the neuron’s message to the muscle. It is communicated by packaging the acetylcholine into vesicles, which are covered in a thin membrane, like a little water balloon of chemical. The wall of the neuron is also covered in a membrane and the vesicles travel to the end of the neuron's axon (pictured left), where it is nearest a muscle cell. The vesicle is pushed against the inside of the neuron's membrane and the two membranes fuse, releasing the contents of the vesicle into the space between the nerve cell and the muscle (the synapse), a process called exocytosis. Receptors on the muscle take up the acetylcholine which stimulates the muscle to contract.

The part I really like about how this works is the scale of the system. The neuron is a microscopically small structure, somewhere between 5 and 100 microns long. A single axon terminal, like the one pictured, would not even be 1 micron in width. You could line up 50 whole neurons side by side and they would fit inside the dot over the letter ‘i.’ Inside this one cell it is the equipment to manufacture many different neurotransmitters, the equipment to package neurotransmitters into vesicles, and equipment that functions much like a little train on a track to transport vesicles to the proper spot on the axon terminal. Attached to the membrane of each of the many vesicles in a cell are many proteins, each with a different function. You see some of them labeled in the cartoon drawing above. Many. How can there be many of anything associated with something so small? One of these vesicle membrane proteins called synaptobrevin connects with another protein called SNAP-25 located on the inside of the cell's membrane right next to the location for the vesicle to fuse to the membrane. When everything goes right, synaptobrevin connects to SNAP-25 (assisted by a third protein called syntaxin) bringing the vesicle closer to the membrane so that exocytosis can occur. Botox fits into the story because Botulinum toxins contain proteases – chemicals which disassemble proteins. The three varieties of botulinum toxin A, B, and C each degrade SNAP-25, synaptobrevin, and syntaxin, which prevent the vesicles from docking next to the membrane and releasing acetylcholine, which means the muscle does not get the message to contract.  On the negative side this means paralysis of the muscles that help us move and breathe.  On the positive side, without muscles contracting together our brows, they are free of wrinkles.

Now to the reaction I always get when I say I study neuroscience – ‘why?’ Why should we care to know all this arcane nonsense? What can it do to make life better? Understanding how neurons signal muscle cells has helped us understand how to use carefully controlled amounts of botulinum to paralyze select muscles which can help stroke victims (though this treatment is still not approved), treat strabismus (crossed eyes), blepharospasm (uncontrolled blinking), cervical dystonia (spasms of the head and neck), excessive sweating, cerebral palsy and other spastic disorders, various neuropathies, and of course erase Courtney Cox's and Nicole Kidman's laugh lines. Oops, I probably should not have said that - big industry secret. Now I've done it..

Monday, March 23, 2009

Reimagining oneself - idealist or pragmatist? (Books - The Imposter by Damon Galgut)

I was really wowed by Damon Galgut's writing when John Self introduced me to his novel The Good Doctor (which somehow got left off last year's reading list and never got counted up in the final tally or considered for my 2008's best of lists. Oh well.) In any case, I have been looking forward to reading another of Galgut's books. This one is also set in post-apartheid South Africa. The Imposter looks at the reverberations felt throughout white, middle class society (so far in my reading of it) as a result of this seismic attempt to render justice and reorder a society. Adam Napier has lost his job and his house. His brother Gavin first offers Adam a job in property development, but that doesn't suit Adam.

How could he explain? His brother would never understand. For Gavin, the goal in life was money and power, and he judged everybody by that standard. He assumed that everyone shared his aim, but of course that wasn't true. Adam believed in beauty for its own sake: Beauty with a capital B. He couldn't talk to Gavin about Beauty, but he saw his way forward clearly in that moment. He was a penniless poet, with nothing to offer anybody except words, but he was the real soul of the country. He was the centre of things.
Gavin then offers Adam the use of a run down house he purchased in a small town. There Adam tries to pick up the pursuit of his long dead dream to write poetry. This book is about reimagining oneself - whether one is a society or an individual - and once you have created your plan, what it means to try to live it out on a daily basis. What asserts itself most is the quality of Galgut's writing, spare and sure. Take this description:
The road had been wandering aimlessly over the plain towards a distant line of mountains, as if trying to find a way across. But not far beyond the service station it went over a rise and on the other side was the town. It was built in a a low vallye, so that the landscape concealed it. There was a brief glimpse of a scattering of buildings, none more than a storey high, except for the church steeple, which rose like a strict, admonishing finger.

That description doesn't cut a figure for this town, it renders it a character in a few stark sentences, ending with that finger. I love the ways Galgut uses verbs. Even in a story which has begun with fifty pages about Adam's stasis, Galgut's landscapes are restless. The road wanders. This is a country on the move from one thing to another.

As Adam tries to settle in his new house, he is paid a visit by the mayor for the delapidated state of his yard. The mayor is a former member of the resistance, a black man, and a poet himself.

'What kind of poems do you write?'

'Uh, lyrical, about nature, I suppose.'


'Yes, animals, you know, trees...' He faltered, then added, 'Beauty!' too emphatically, like a gun going off.

The mayor smiled and nodded blandly. 'Yes,' he said, illogically, 'I have put poetry behind me.' He said this proudly, as if he had outgrown some childish activity.

This scene says it all. In declaring to make oneself anew, one stakes a claim and is aware of the responsibility to have it turn out right. South Africa live this reality so it is little wonder that both of Galgut's books that I have read share a theme of how one chooses to live - as an idealist or a pragmatist. I am loving the precision of this prose and can't wait to read more.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Acting the part... (Books - The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith)

I have seen the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley more than once and I am aware that she has written several other Ripley books, so why did I feel such agonizing suspense while reading the last 100 pages of The Talented Mr. Ripley? Tom Ripley really is a horrible person - he's a monster, a murdering psychopath with no conscience, you might say no soul. So why did I care so much for him not to be caught? I think Patricia Highsmith accomplishes these feats not by distracting me and getting me to overlook them, but by building detail-by-agonizing-detail Tom's love for Dickie Greenleaf, Tom's pain at his own ostracism, Tom's feeling left out when Dickie spends time with Marge..but then (and there are spoilers here if you don't know the story) he commits murder and not satisfied with that, he forges Dickie's signature, steals his monthly trust check, adopts his name, wears his clothes and lives life as the man with whom he was obsessed, committing another murder along the way (spoilers over).
The passposrt inspector stamped his passport after only a quick glance at him, though Tom had lightened his hair slightly with a peroxide wash and had forced some waves into it, aided by hair oil, and for the inspector's benefit he had put on the rather tense, rather frowning expression of Dickie's passport photography...

He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was very much like the feeling on Christmas Eve in Paris, a feeling that everyone was watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolutely confident he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made. But he no longer felt tired after several hours of it, as he had at first. He had no need to relax when he was alone. Now, from the moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted out, Dickie rotating the eggshell on his spoon for the last bite. Dickie invariably putting back the first tie he pulled off the rack and selecting a second. He had even produced a painting in Dickie's manner.

This, it seems, is Tom Ripley's talent - assuming each detail of the manner of someone's character so as to convince others and even temporarily himself that that is who he is. I love the fact that he practices behavior like brushing his teeth, that no one who has known Dickie Greenleaf will actually ever witness (very "method"). If he knows he is going to tell someone, say a police lieutenant, that he spent a night in his car while visiting the small towns of northern Italy, Tom Ripley will actually spend the night in his car so that when he says it, he has really done it. - This is also Patricia Highsmith's talent - building conviction through detail, not taking narrative shortcuts. Although I'd rather not ask what kind of preparation she has done to get inside the mind of this character! She writes each nod, each glance of a three-way conversation, but does not assume our stupidity and overexplain the significance of what we hear and see. The novel has the feeling of watching something through a keyhole seeing it all and knowing you could be caught, which is just the feeling Tom Ripley has. It is an intensely suspenseful read, even as I was making a sauce for dinner yesterday, I had the novel on the kitchen counter, reading the final thirty pages as I stirred and prepared the salad. I have already requested the next book in the series from the library. They also have a biography of Highsmith and, I must admit, I am curious.

My other posts on The Talented Mr. Ripley are here, here, and here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Let the dehumanizing begin... (Books - The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith)

The exquisite level of detail on which Patricia Highsmith observes the behavior of her anti-hero, Tom Ripley, is what gives this story its tense, claustrophobic tone, as though the narrative were pressing down upon the reader's brain. Tom gets stymied when Dickie, with whom he is obsessed, does not live out the fantasy of intimacy that Tom had in mind with him.
Dickie stopped in the road, looking at him. They were arguing so loudly, a few people around them were looking, watching.

'It could have been fun,' Tom said, 'but not the way you chose to take it. A month ago when we went to Rome, you'd have thought something like this was fun.'

'Oh, no,' Dickie said, shaking his head. 'I doubt it.'

The sense of frustration and inarticulateness was agony to Tom. And the fact that they were being looked at. He forced himself to walk on, in tense little steps at first, until he was sure that Dickie was coming with him. The puzzlement, the suspicion, was still in Dickie's face, and Tom knew Dickie was puzzled about his reaction. Tom wanted to explain it, wanted to break through to Dickie so he would understand and they would feel the same way. Dickie had felt the same way he had a month ago. 'It's the way you acted,' Tom said. 'You didn't have to act that way. The fellow wasn't doing you any harm.'

'He looked like a dirty crook!' Dickie retorted. 'For Christ sake, go back if you like him so much. You're under no obligation to do what I do!'

Now Tom stopped. He had an impulse to go back, not necessarily to go back to the Italian, but to leave Dickie. Then his tension snapped suddenly. His shoulders relaxed, aching and his breath began to come fast, through his mouth. He wanted to say at least, 'All right Dickie,' to make it up, to make Dickie forget it. He felt tongue-tied. He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him...
In this section of the book, the process of reassigning the nature of Tom's passion for Dickie, from love to hate, begins. It occurs not just through the miniscule details of Dickie's frown but through what Tom makes of it. And what is so masterful about the writing is that Highsmith doesn't explain everything, saying only that Tom felt this and Tom felt that, but she shows us his thinking and his emotions changing through his physical actions and his dialogue. Tom look into those eyes and expects to see love...
the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror.
Intersting that Highsmith does not choose to write that Tom sees hate or that Tom sees nothing, but rather that he sees a mirror, that is, himself, which is emptiness personified. And with Dickie's eyes no longer revealing his soul, but rather cold nothingness, the dehumanizing begins - in fact, they aren't really eyes at all, but rather 'little pieces of blue jelly.'

Friday, March 20, 2009

Know thyself...but stay away from feathers (Books - Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman)

Fat Charlie finds out as his father's funeral that a) his father was a god and b) he has a brother, Spider, who he has never heard of. He calls him (by asking a spider, yes the kind with eight legs that makes webs) and all sorts of trouble results. Spider appropriates Charlie's fiancee, gets him put in jail for embezzlement, and then Charlie goes to the land of the gods through some sort of weird ceremony accomplished by old family friends who are witches. He trades his family line to an over-the-top bird-woman for the favor of getting rid of his brother, but frankly, that doesn't work out either because the struggle between the gods is really about who has control of all the stories and that's why the the whole thing finally comes down to a feather, only Charlie doesn't know what to do. So he goes to one of the witches to ask.
Fat Charlie's mother had told him, when he was young, to count to ten before he lost his temper. He counted, silentely and unhurriedly, to ten, whereupon he lost his temper. "Of course I don't know what to do with it, you stupid old woman! In the last two weeks I've been arrested, I've lost my fiancee and my job, I've watched my semi-imaginary brother get eaten by a wall of birds in Piccadilly Circus, I've flown back and forth across the Atlantic like some kind of lunatic transatlantic ping-pong ball, and today I got up in front of an audience and I, and I sang because my psycho ex-boss had a gun barrel gainst the stomach of the girl I'm having dinner with. All I'm trying to do is sort out the mess my life has turned into since you suggested I might want to talk to my brother. So, no. No, I don't know what to do with this bloody feather.
Neil Gaiman's writing is nothing if not a little effusive but it is also very funny. As I close in on the last few pages of his Anansi Boys my reaction to this book is much more favorable than the one I had to American Gods. This has been my favorite book of his written for adults. It is a highly entertaining read with an amusing premise, an involving plot - the final 150 pages or so are very suspenseful - and a meaningful theme of learning how to know and accept yourself and then to face the world from that knowledge, although the message is thankfully handled with a light touch. Really fun. Here and here are my other posts on it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fugetaboutit - the perils of memory

Why do we forget, asks an article in today's Science Times by Natalie Angier with a fun look at a couple of questions about memory.
...there are plenty of...examples of memory's whimsy and bad taste - like why you may forget your spouse's birthday but will go to your deathbed remembering every word of the Gilligan's Island theme song...
Memory comes in different flavors. The mind preserves traces of facts, events, or sequences of tasks that we perform with our body differently. Each are encoded in a different way and different brain structures are involved in storing and retrieving them. One of the more generally accepted models of memory includes a structure called "working memory" which takes something that has entered our awareness - a phrase, say - and maintains it by mentally rehearsing it over and over under its trace becomes more solidified. Later on, and much of this is thought to happen while we sleep, the brain through a fascinating volley of patterned firings consolidates that information. It actually physically changes the properties of cells when you remember something. It is generally thought that the memory of your friend's face or that great meal in the Provence isn't stored whole in one drawer but that its elements are distributed and each time that they are accessed they are re-assembled. Today's article discusses the advantage that music confers in general upon words, by adding structure. It also does a good job on why many of us cannot remember jokes but the $64,000,000 questions - why we forget that birthday... There are several reasons why, although someone's birthday is symbolically important, it is so hard to remember - 1) it is a number or complex of words and numbers that has no particular meaning, i.e. December 3rd does not mean Charlie. It just happens to be Charlie's birthday, it could just as well be any other day. So the detail of that number is small and 2) it is arbitrary, and if we want to confer upon it the association of Charlie we would have to rehearse it but 3) we heard it only one time (unless Charlie is obsessed with our remembering it). Add to that the problem called interference - there are 364 other numbers it could be and some of those numbers are other people's birthdays - so somewhere in our mind a certain subset of those 364 numbers has had importance attached to them and those numbers could be shared exactly or could include December 13 or November 3rd. Well, you get my point. There are several other differences that Charlie's darn birthday has from the words for the Gilligan theme. The theme song is not only heard repeatedly and structured by being attached to a melody, but 5) it doesn't have to come up at any point in particular, we can just remember it when we want to. Charlie's birthday has to be held in mind and then brought to surface at a particular point in time - a particularly tricky type of memory. Like thinking in the morning - I have to pick up that sweater from the cleaners on the way home from work - and then forgetting by 5:45 pm for three days in a row. Finally there is the difference between remembering something because it is obligatory versus remembering something because it's fun. 6) The obligation to remember creates pressure and neither the encoding nor the retrieval of memory work particularly well under too much of it. So the more you pressure yourself about not forgetting that birthday, the more likely it is you may forget it. Kind of irritating - huh? But now you have 6 excuses.

Monday, March 16, 2009's all about inner essence (Books - Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane)

Japan Through the Looking Glass was a nice break from about ten hours of midterm studying yesterday, a true escape. In his second chapter, Alan Macfarlane gives us an idea of why Japan was a shock to his western sense of esthetics, ideas of living spaces and gardens, attitude toward the human body, and toward sex.
I live in a world which has, since the Renaissance and scientific revolutions, adopted a number of binary oppositions or divisions. Art is distinct from life, craft from art, popular taste from high culture, realism from symbolic art, the Baroque from the Gothic style, the urban from the rural, sports and games from ceremonial and religion, the material body from spiritual purity, nature from culture. I initially found the Japanese experience very puzzling because it challenges all of these separations.

A great deal of Japanese art is allusive and symbolic, referring to something else. Expanding the mind, it words indirectly. There is a desire to avoid the obvious and realistic in favour of the suggestive and the more profound. It is, as in Roland Barthes's title, An Empire of Signs. This is because artists are trying to convey not the surface of things, as in realist art, but the inner essence, which can only be transmitted to the observer indirectly by symbols. This is illustrated by the story of a Japanese painter who was commissioned at great expense to paint a picture of a garden with trees. After some time he came back with a largely empty canvas. Only in one corner was a sprig of cherry with a small bird perching on it. His patron asked why he had not filled up the rest of the frame. The painter replied, 'If I had filled it up with things, where would the bird be able to fly?'
Those are two example of what I both like and find a little limiting about this book. What I enjoy is that Macfarlane writes about a subject I know very little about in extremely readable prose - it's concise writing, he offers examples, but not too many, and I leave off reading having learned something new. However, I find the tone a bit...public television. It sounds like a get- your-dose-of-culture-in-fifty-minutes-voiceover. I'm not sure why that's irritating me, it's doing its job. Maybe because it is so expected. In fact, I read that second excerpt thinking that it was what I expected it to say and yet it wasn't quite right. First of all - what is more profound about the suggestive over the realistic? If you're going to make a sweeping statement like that, then don't take my agreement for granted. Second - Western artists have for 150 years been trying to depict the inner essence rather than outer look of things - isn't that what fauvism, impressionism, cubism, and expressionism were all about? I'm not sure that this is a good example of a contrast between Japanese and Western art. Filling up a small bit of a large canvas does not really seem to me an example of symbolism or of something distinctly non-Western. Matisse did it. It seems to me a compositional choice to express something through absence. This paragraph is irritating to me in that it uses words I expect - symbolism and inner essence - when talking about art - but these are such general terms. And if the example given is depicting inner essence and symbolism, the words used did not tie the image described to what I understand those terms actually are. I guess I found the discussion of art a little glib. I wouldn't have minded a few more words in the cause of specificity. But all in all I enjoyed my small dose of Japan and returned to my studies of the photoreceptors of the retina refreshed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

25 influential writers...influential of me anyway

I was over at Dorothy's place and thought this was a great meme. So, here are 25 writers who have influenced me in no particular order:

1. Herman Hesse
2. J. D. Sallinger
3. Virginia Woolf
4. Anton Chekhov
5. Konstantin Stanislavski
6. Horton Foote
7. Ethan Canin
8. Chaim Potok
9. Paul de Kruif
10. E. M. Forster
11. May Sarton
12. Allan Miller
13. Clifford Odets
14. Steven Johnson
15. Wendy Smith
16. Michael Coveney
17. Harold Clurman
18. Richard Powers
19. Frank O'Hara
20. Peter Brook
21. Caryl Churchill
22. Somerset Maugham
23. Nicholas Moseley
24. Evelyn Waugh
25. the M.D. who wrote a letter to The New York Times in the late 1980's or early 1990s about being gay and showed me that it was just fine.

I'm supposed to tag 25 people. Forget that. Join in if you like, just remember that these are influential writers, not favorites.

And speaking of psychopaths... (Books - The Talented Mr. Ripley & Films - Psycho)

It is fascinating to watch Patricia Highsmith not merely illustrate the sociopathy of the talented Tom Ripley, but to sow the seeds of what she believes is its underpinnings. Ripley's parents are killed early in his childhood and he is raised by an Aunt who is happy to spend the insurance money but is hardly interested in having a son. He spends his childhood isolated from other children, and berated and mocked by his aunt. Interestingly, the process of diagnosing antisocial personality disorder means distinguishing those who display traits such as disregard for others and social norms, lack of remorse, and so on as a protective measure against their circumstances from those who, shall we say, came that way. Tom's disregard for others seems to be balanced by an equally tremendous regard for himself - it would be easy to look at Tom Ripley as a sort of black-hole-person - a negative space where a personality ought to be - who keeps slurping up the names and personalities of others, but Highsmith is careful to give you glimpses of the dregs of person that survives in the corpse of his personality.
A cap was the most versatile of headgear, he thought, and he wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, A Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it. Tom amused himself with it in his room in front of the mirror. He had always thought he had the world's dullest face, a thouroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand, and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist's face, thought. The cap changed all that.
Wow, one cap and it's all gone. So much for psychotherapists, medication and all that nonsense. I think perhaps we should tell the insurance industry about caps - it would save us all so much time and trouble. With one size fits all, anyone could rid themselves of years of damaging pschological history with a one-time purchase. Tom is a fascinating combination of ingeniously creative and terribly shallow. Creative enough to hatch complex and manical plans to support himself, shallow enough to only see these alternatives as a means of doing so.

At one point, Dickie, the young man he is supposed to return to the bosom of his wealthy family, asks Tom what he can do. Tom answers:
'Oh, I can do a number of things - valeting, baby-sitting, accounting - I've got an unfortunate talent for figures. No matter how drunk I get, I can always tell when a waiter's cheating me on a bill. I can forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impresonate practically anybody, cook - and do a one-man show in a nightclub in case the regular entertainer's sick. Shall I go on?' Tom was leaning forward, counting them off on his fingers. He could have gone on.

A veritable Figaro. A man empty enough to be filled is what Tom looks like at first glance, but really he is so full of a sense of worthlessness it makes him desperate to matter deeply to someone. He's not no one. But he's not someone to anyone else, just to himself. At root he seems to feel so deeply wronged that nothing can redress the balance. Speaking of psychopaths, we had gotten Hitchcock's Psycho out of the library and watched it (again) last night. Another wounded boy deserted by his parents who method of righting his wrongs goes just a little haywire. Anthony Perkins is frighteningly good as the motelier Norman Bates, not for showing us his madness but rather his sanity. The creeping sense of menace comes from this sense of ordinary, happy-go-luck charm that unravels so subtly. Norman is slowly trapped into recognizing the elaborate lengths he has gone to not to be alone, but as the pressure starts you merely see him push his hands a little deeper into the pockets of his courderoys. Just a flash of disturbance crosses his face before it is smoothed over by the warm appealing sense of understanding Norman shows the world. Even in discovering the body after the first murder, Perkins and Hitchcock allow us barely a moment to indulge Norman's emotions before he packs it all away and cleans up his world. Makes it right again. When Norman tries to dispose of the car in the swamp, watch Perkins face register the car, first as it refuses to sink and then as it finally does. If we had to watch another actor play that scene, it would have been a Wagnerian opera of facial expressions. It is also interesting to observe his vocal production style in the film, so different from the rapid-fire, sing-song stylized delivery of most 1950s film-actors. Perkins speaks in the film like a regular young person of his day. Another way they establish his ordinaryness.

It is interesting to observe these two products of the late 1950s, that laced-up era in which much of American society was focused on fighting the insidious threat it saw in communism. It is as though this literary sociopathy might have been a way of expressing this sense of being frightened and alone in the world while the role we assumed was one of tremendous power and squeaky-clean goodness.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unreality (Books - The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith)

So far The Talented Mr. Ripley is living up to the creep-factor it is known for. I am trying to figure out what the magic ingredient is. It is not merely that Tom Ripley has no remorse for whatever scheme he is carrying out - tax fraud, pretending he knows a young man so that his wealthy father will pay for him to travel to Europe and bring him home to run the family business - but that his lying is so easy, so automatic, as though he would not think of doing anything else, even if he has a flash of momentary fear. Tom Ripley's talent is for making himself empty so that he can fill up with bits of other people - he's a cannibal.

It is little wonder that Patricia Highsmith's novel became a movie, such clear pictures does her writing create, not just of the look of a moment but of the essence of it.
Automatically, as he strolled to an empty space at the bar, he looked around to see if there was anyone he knew. There was the big man with red hair, whose name he always forgot, sitting at a table with a blonde girl. The red-haired man waved a hand, and Tom's hand went up limply in response. He slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.
This paragraph reveals Tom Ripley's perspective to me, which reads like a three-year-old's - there is the 'big man with red hair,' then the big man 'waved his hand,' an isolated subject and verb with no humanity in them - it's a man without a name and a some thing he does. People do not exist for Tom Ripley and therefore what he says to them or does to them is immaterial - he lives only for himself.

In this opening scene in the bar Raoul's where the red-haired man drinks with his blonde girl, Ripley meets Mr. Greenleaf, who engages Tom to bring his son home from Europe. Tom goes for dinners at the Greenleaf home.
He felt himself beginning to sweat, and he tried to relax. What was he so worried about? He'd felt so well tonight! When he had said that about Aunt Dottie -

Tom Straightened, glancing at the door, but the door had not opened. That had been the only time tonight when he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt it he had been lying, yet it had been practically the only thing he had said that was true: My parents died when I was very small. I was raised by my aunt in Boston.

Mr. Greenleaf came into the room. His figure seemed to pulsate and grow larger and larger. Tom blinked his eyes, feeling a sudden terror of him, an impulse to attack him before he was attacked.

'Suppose we sample some brandy?' Mr. Greenleaf said, opening a panel beside the fireplace.

It's like a movie, Tom thought. In a minute, Mr. Greenleaf or somebody else's voice would say, 'Okay, cut!' and he would relax again and find himself back in Raoul's with the gin and tonic in front of him. No, back in the Green Cage.

'Had enough?' Mr. Greenleaf asked. 'Don't drink this, if you don't want it.'

It is because he barely exists as a real person that Ripley has no moral sense. He lives mostly in overlapping frames of unreality which Highsmith is very good at creating. Frames within frames that create a rubbery world with uncertain time frames and male and female figurines with no names inhabit them, and through this unsteady world Tom Ripley walks, occassionally worried he will be caught, but unperturbed about the consequences of his actions for anyone else. Highstreet has fashioned a magnificently creepy universe and a story line that just makes one want to turn the page 'automatically' and read on.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I'll expect a finder's fee if you pitch this idea...

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Tami inspired this week’s question:

What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?

Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?

Having been a director, I used to play this game all the time. Two of my favorite candidates for novels to turn into a play or film were Charles Baxter's Shadow Play, and John Gardner's October Light. Interesting to look at my pencil scribbles of cast lists on the inside cover now. Interesting too that they are both about idiosyncratic families and how 'the way things should be' crash into 'the way things are.' Beautiful books, both of them, for their themes as well as their writing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

To sleep - perchance to dream...

A study carried out in three cultures - India, S. Korea and the U.S. - examined college students' dreams and their ideas about what they mean, reports John Tierney in today's Science Times. Dreamer's biases greatly impacted their interpretations of their dream's meaning:
...they attached more significance to a negative dream if it was about someone they disliked, and they gave correspondingly more weight to a positive dream if it was about a friend...People who believed in god were more likely than agnostics to be swayed by divine apparitions.
There are those who treat dreams as literal portents, others who think they reveal unconscious experience, still others who think them the byproduct of the brain figuring out what goes in the discard bin of the day's mental activities, and those who think that it is the brain making sense of, as Tierney writes, 'random impulses,' and the study calls 'the byproduct of unrelated brain activity.' Those beliefs impact the dreamer's interpretation of their dreams. In thinking about the categories, one thing that they all have in common is that the dreams seem to have a structure, a sense of...well, sense. Most dreams as far as I know are narrative, although some can be somewhat abstracted or episodic (I'd love to read some research on the structure of people's dreams). Narrative is one of the brain's ways of giving organization to a bunch of occurrences via context. So whether someone chose a mystical or a literal theory, all experienced the dream as organized. The categories are interesting to me: dreams as portents or revealers of our unconscious mind are describing people's belief about how their dreams might be used after they have had them. Those categories are not mutually exclusive either of each other, or of the other two categories, one an explanation of what they might be psychologically (the brain dumping information into its garbage bin) the other what they might be neurally (random impulses). I don't know how this impacted the statistical analysis of their subjects and whether subjects were forced to choose only one of the four categories. I find it interesting too that people speak of the "random firing" explanation for phenomena like dreams or visions prior to death as a means of demystifying the experience. They speak as though firing neurons obviate any possible meaning these experiences could have. If we are to have an experience, whether the source of that experience is inside or outside the body, neurons must fire. In fact, in the studies that permitted us to trace how sensory systems work - mapping a path from, say, the skin surface, to a particular spot in the somatosensory cortex, scientists could confirm the function of a neuron by electrically stimulating it and found that it produced the sensation of a touch on that spot on the skin when none actually occurred. Very real experiences are created by the firing of neurons whether the cause of that firing was from an external or an internal source. For those who would call these impulses 'random' I would ask - by what criteria? Do they fit a certain mathematical distribution? Or is the word chosen to indicate that no pattern could be measured? If so it does not indicate that one does not exist.

In fact, one sees a great deal of organization in the firing of neurons in the brain during sleep that is thought to contribute to the consolidation of memories. One can observe the brain patterns of activation elicited in the hippocampus (a brain area associated with memory) during training on some motor task replayed during REM sleep (Maquette et al, 2000) and can observe a correlation between the extent of improvement on that task and the amount of replaying of that pattern (Peigneux et al, 2003). One can also see similar patterns of activation, but on a different time scale, during slow-wave sleep (Ribero et al, 2004). Finally, one can also see evidence of the structural changes that must occur for memory to become long-lasting occurring during REM sleep. I make these points simply to say that a good deal of purposeful activity not under conscious control is going on during sleep and that some activities in the brain are far from random. Something in the brain's activity produces experiences that for most people appear to have a certain amount of organization, if not the logic typical of our waking hours. This study is not examining the meaning of dreams per se, but rather our beliefs about the meaning of our dreams. When we dream we seem to have a certain experience, however if we remember the dream upon waking we are already re-constructing it and if we relate this dream to a friend, therapist or researcher we are re-constructing it yet again. Each time adding more structure and more layers of associations. The brain is drawn to patterns and the mind to building structure. The patterns of firing neurons is how the brain encodes all the diverse types of information we encounter in our experience and any feeling, memory, or plan for action that results from it. I wonder how "unrelated" the neuronal firing is to the dreams we experience and the meanings we make of them.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jane Austen and Tim Burton's Love Child (Books - Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman)

Fat Charlie discovers that two of his family members are gods only when his father dies one day while singing karaoke. He also learns that he has a brother who can be summoned by talking to a spider (those gods). Eager to see the brother he never knew he had, Charlie finds a spider and asks. Said brother knocks on the door and proceeds to make Charlie a fraud suspect at work and to sleep with Charlie's fiancee, something Charlie has yet to do. It should come as no surprise that Charlie decides maybe he doesn't need to see his brother so badly after all. He visits several old women friends of his father's in Florida, who also happen to be witches.
It was sort of like Macbeth, thought Fat Charlie, an hour later; in fact, if the witches in Macbeth had been four little old ladies and if, instead of stirring cauldrons and intoning dread incantations, they had just welcomed Macbeth in a fed him turkey and rice and peas spread out on white china plates on a red-and-white patterned plastic tablecloth - not to mention sweet potato pudding and spicy cabbage - and encouraged him to take second helpings, and thirds, and then, when Macbeth had declaimed that nay, he was stuffed nigh unto bursting and on his oath could truly eat no more, the witches had pressed upon him their own special island rice pudding and a large slice of Mrs. Bustamonte's famous pineapple upside-down cake, it would have been exactly like Macbeth.
You know what Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys reminds me of? One of the old screwball comedies. This is just like Bringing Up Baby or Philadelphia Story. Sure the premise is absurd, but the more entertaining it becomes - either by be amusing or horrifying - the more you leave the question of whether this actually could happen alone and just enjoy the ride.

Gaiman employs an authoritative omniscient narrator who, at times, pulls back for a long shot and seems to chuckle into his hand. At the end of a scene in which Daisy investigates Charlie's computer for evidence of his embezzling the Grahame Coats Agency, Gaiman employs a crain shot, pulling his camera up and far away until it spies Coats asleep in his home:
While fast asleep in his bedroom, in a large but certainly not ostentatious house in Purley, Grahame Coats slept. If there was any justice in the world, he would have moaned and sweated in his sleep, tortured by nightmares, the furies of his conscience lashing him with scorpions. Thus it pains me to admit that Grahame Coats slept like a well-fed milk-scented baby, and he dreamed of nothing at all.

Somewhere in Grahame Coat's house, a grandfather clock chimed politely, twelve times. In London, it was midnight. In Florida it was seven in the evening.

Either way, it was the witching hour.

Marvelous. It is as if Jane Austen had met Tim Burton and had a love child. They would create a scathing social satiric horror fantasy just like this one.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Happy additions...

It was 60 degrees yesterday! I know it's just a tease, but we opened all the windows and did a massive cleaning of our apartment and then made a really good dinner and watched a really bad movie. When I went to bed - early to try to cushion turning the clocks forward - I perused a few books sent to me by a friendly publicist for review. Two of them caught my interest:

Although it has a clumsy title, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me by Selcuk Altun and translated into English by Ruth Christie, has an almost old fashioned narrative style. The two short chapters that open the book are narrated by a wealthy, listless young man whose overbearing mother has recently died and a hired assassin who is about to retire - two men newly liberated. Undoubtedly they will meet in this short novel set in Turkey and described as a thriller and a metaphysical puzzle.
In the Ottoman mansion where I've lived as its heir, guest, prisoner, and now master, I enjoy the excitement of not knowing how many days or years I'll remain. For Ifkat's sake - the tireless servant of a tired old building who'd swallow a stale prostate pill so it wouldn't be wasted - I haven't taken refuge in my apartment at the top of a skyscraper in central but quiet Sisli. As the shutters' futilie struggle with the south wind ends, the morning ezan begins. I wait patiently in the drawing room, surrounded by bronze statuettes. When the prayer ends the wind will assail again. My left hand enjoys shaking cigar ash onto the silk carpet, and I realize I've forgotten what kind of drink is in my right. At the funeral service attended by the elite of the city I had murmured lines from Kucuk Iskender's Rock Manifesto, and now I can hum that cruel tirade until I pass out in the dim morning hours. Today I am twenty-seven years old. And the only gift I desire is the ecstasy of being liberated from my mother and my fiancee.
This one has me curious, I think I'll give it a try.

Japan Through the Looking Glass isn't necessarily a title I would have taken off the shelf, even though I was reflecting just the other day that I would like to travel to Japan, but Alan Macfarlane's combination of apologetic Westerner and Cambridge don charmed me into reading a couple of chapters. Here an excerpt from his travel diary on lunching with the Judge's of Japan's High Court:
When we asked why it often took many years for quite simple cases to be decided, they said that it was because as judges they found it so difficult to come to a decision. Life was complicated, things were not black and white. Binary decisions of 'guilty' or 'not-guilty' were not easy in a Japanese context.
The strongest impression Macfarlane wishes to communicate in the opening of this book is how unlike Western culture Japan is and how difficult to summarize the differences.
Experienced Victorian travellers did not merely say that Japan was different from other places they had visited... A particularly elegant account was given by W. E. Griffis who spent several years in Japan:

A double pleasure rewards the pioneer who is the first to penetrate into the midst of a new people. Beside the rare exhiliration felt in treading soil virgin to alien feet, it acts like mental oxygen to look upon and breathe in a unique civilisation like that of Japan. To feel that for ages millions of one's own race have lived and loved, enjoyed and suffered and died, living the fullness of life, yet without the religion, laws, customs, food, dress, and culture which seem to us to be the vitals of our social existence, is like walking through a living Pompeii.
That is precisely why I love to travel (whether through reading or actually) to remind myself that millions of people are unlike me and to attempt for a time to crawl inside some part of their experience. Macfarlane seems to have wanted to do the same thing in his four journeys to Japan and this appears to be a fascinating and readable account of his attempt. Two books added to the TBR pile, that must mean that exams are coming up.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Books inscriptions and questions of loyalty (Books - Sons of Liberty by Adele Griffin)

I received a surprise gift from a classmate this week. A book - good choice! I particularly liked the fact that it was inscribed by the giver. This would be one of those booking-through-Thursday-type-questions: what do you think of book inscriptions? Some people are just horrified by writing of any kind in books but I love when I receive a book from someone, having it inscribed. It usually tells me something about why they chose the book for me and I can associate the book forever with the giver and the date. I love it too when I buy a used copy of something, if it has an inscription in it. I get a little bonus story of the previous reader's life along with whatever story the book has to tell. I don't know that many people who keep up this old tradition and I find it a meaningful one.

This is a novel for young readers called Sons of Liberty by Adele Griffin. It concerns a middle school-aged boy named Rock who is smart and has a thing for history, but seems to get in a lot of trouble. His father is a discipline freak who does things like wake his children up at 2 am to fix the roof. His mother has become a frightened agoraphobic. There is also an older brother, a toddler sister, and a friend with even more abusive parents. Griffin creates a convincing child's state-of-mind in Rock, even though this reader sometimes did not believe the dialogue and could smell the effort of presenting thematic content for a young reader. Not that integrating themes into story isn't a challenge, I just don't want to be aware of it. This book told a good story in which a young reader might find someone like himself but it was tempted sometimes to veer away from this task to make some painfully clear instructional point.
"He just says stuff when he's angry. He's not gonna take away Wynona." Rock yawned. "You've heard him say all those same things before. Don't worry about it and go to sleep."

"I told Dad I have accidents because sometimes my dreams and nightmares hurt too much."
I wanted the kids to simply behave in the story rather than make the author's points. I felt it would have shown more respect to the reader and would have stopped the flow of the story less. However, I found the theme of the power struggle between authority figures and children well rendered. I especially enjoyed how Griffin dealt with two questions - responsibility toward others and when disagreement with or disobedience to authority is disloyal (and by extension, when it is not). This last notion Griffin integrated with Rock's writing a paper on the American Revolution in a way I particularly enjoyed.
The only thing Rock liked envisioning was his role in the cover-up, after Liza was safely gone. In his mind's eye he pictured a lineup of adults - Mrs. Zukoff, Mr. Faella, Timmy and Arlene, even his own parents - all pumping him with questions. Then he saw himself, secret as a stone, but inside he would be laughing, thinking of how easily he'd sneaked Liza across the battlefields of grown-up rules and regulations and straight to freedom.

An enjoyable read. I could easily imagine my 11-year-old self glued to this book until it was done.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Our tender, sharp-eared cultural chronicler - Horton Foote

A toast to one of my favorite American playwrights - Horton Foote - our tender and sharp-eared cultural historian, our Chekhov - who died yesterday at 92 year old. I wrote about him here. I have acted in one of his plays, directed two others, and worked on one of his films. Rent his marvelous A Trip to Bountiful or read A Habitation of Dragons if you want to join me in celebrating his beautiful dramatic and literary accomplishments.

Here's how The New York Times remembers him, and the Los Angeles Times, and here's a profile from 2007.

The best books I've never read...

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We’ve all seen the lists, we’ve all thought, “I should really read that someday,” but for all of us, there are still books on “The List” that we haven’t actually gotten around to reading. Even though we know they’re fabulous. Even though we know that we’ll like them. Or that we’ll learn from them. Or just that they’re supposed to be worthy. We just … haven’t gotten around to them yet.

What’s the best book that YOU haven’t read yet?

Oh my, the list is long. I'd put Ulysses (which I have pledged to Sheila I will read before I'm done with my Ph.D.), Proust, Daniel Deronda, The Pickwick Papers, something by Cynthia Ozick, and Buddenbrooks on the top of the "best" books I've never read list. Updike had been on that list until I read The Witches of Eastwick earlier this year. And if I weren't cleaning up after a bathroom renovation I would probably write more about the whole subject. In the meantime, please click over to my other post today, remembering the late, great Horton Foote - America's Checkhov.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Historical fiction (Film - The Last King of Scotland)

We borrowed the film The Last King of Scotland from the library three times before we finally had enough time to watch it last night. I think I was a little skittish about the subject matter. It concerns the unbalanced dictator Idi Amin, his rise to power in Uganda in the 1970s, and his relationship with a young Scottish doctor (a fictional character), who goes to Africa after graduating school to escape the promise of a stifling middle class career. The doctor, a victim of his own innocence, ends up first being drawn to the charismatic Amin and then, through a crazy fluke, becoming Amin's personal physician. Forrest Whitaker eschews making Amin a one-note maniac - tempering his performance with a mixture of Amin's allure and an edge of desperate, childish insecurity. As always, I found James McAvoy able to do exactly what the role asks, beginning with an adolescent impulsivity, moving to enthusiastic innocence, and finally to a fear you could smell off the screen. He does not, like most young stars, telegraph the qualities in his character with foot-high explanations and pretend that he has done his job. Rather, he opens himself to each experience his character has and goes where he goes. McAvoy has just enough bravado to do that in front of you, but not so much that he changes the behavior of the character either for fear you won't get it, or because he needs to show you how great he is, or because he wants you to love him. McAvoy is probably the most emotionally accessible young male screen actor out there these days. He's great in this film and he's pretty stunning in Atonement too. Simon McBurney also does a great weasle-ish turn as a British diplomat. This film is very good at story telling with a minimal amount of text, dispatching with its exposition in a few short scenes and montages shots with music. It has an appropriately jumpy rhythm and its last half hour is horribly violent but also incredibly suspenseful. I am glad I finally got the courage to watch it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Your father was a, really (Books - Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman)

After working for 11 hours on a homework assignment yesterday, I fell into bed and didn't really feel like tackling Middlemarch, so I reached into the TBR pile and pulled out Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. I wasn't wild about American Gods but I did like The Graveyard Book and Coraline and, in fact, the new 3-D film of Coraline is terrific, so I'm not sure what to expect from this one. So far, a hapless fellow named Charlie learns that his father has dropped dead while singing karaoke in a bar and flies to his funeral. After it, he learns from an old neighbor that his father was a really. This tale is told in a whimsical voice - half Dickensian saga, half comic pop fiction - it is fast-moving, funny, and the language has a kind of permenance.
It begins, as most things begin, with a song.

In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world.

They were sung.

The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.

Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emporer into a laughingstock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That's the power of songs.

There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy's father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvelous night out.

This may be just the ticket. Now back to homework.