Monday, August 31, 2009

Truth stares. Time moves. (Books - The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch)

I had read nearly all of Iris Murdoch's novels but, could never seem to get past page 20 of The Nice and the Good. I had tried three times. So when Cornflower Book Group proposed it as this month's read, I took it as the perfect excuse to try one more time to get through it. Last night, I succeeded in finishing it. As usual, Murdoch has created a broad cast of memorable and flawed characters whose fate it is to be hopelessly intertwined. Ducane, a civil servant, has been charged with the task of uncovering the reason's for a fellow employee's mysterious suicide. As it becomes clearer who did what to whom, Ducane must decide what action he is going to take to hold the guilty parties responsible. But as he does he is, at the same time, involved himself in some activities of questionable good sense, if not morality, and this forces his reflection on the intentions and actions of ordinary people who do extraordinary things in the name of the recognizable motivators of ambition, greed, and desire. The characters range from young through old, wealthy and hard up for cash, hedonist and ascetic, ruling class and serving, Holocaust survivor and high class prostitute, jaded and blinded by young love.

Usually in a Murdoch novel, I find that the characters and their stories are so compelling that they subsume the book's higher ideas (because each of her books has them). One does traffic with the philosophical or moral questions she asks but one hardly notices. In The Nice and the Good she is not quite so successful at integrating the two, that or she intended for this novel to wear its theme on its sleeve, but I think not. Round about p 196, things began to pick up for me, interestingly just as the characters stopped thinking and began sleeping with people whom convention would tell them they probably shouldn't. Even as one character delivered the message:
And suppose that you had found what you were looking for, my dear child? Would you not have been led on from jealousy through deceit into cruelty? Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhpas only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world. Isn't it, Jessica my child?
This scene is heated, touching and ultimately hilarious and from this point, the novel really picks up. Suddenly we know all of the characters intimately, because Murdoch has set up their backstory, woven a greatly complex inner life for each of them on which we get to eavesdrop, established their interrelationships and now we get the payoff. Only, in most of her novels she manages to do this while being entertaining. Here I really found myself trudging through the set-up. But I found that the scene excerpted above, Ducane's subsequent being drawn in to a web of kinky vices and blackmail, and especially a killer of a scene in which Ducane and Pierce, one of the novel's younger characters, are drawn into a life-threatening situation which I won't ruin by writing about it here, really were worth trudging through.

Love, death, truth, and responsibility for our actions, that's the book in a nutshell. As one character observes:
Truth stares. Time moves. But the butterfly kissing goes on, the lips just brushing, the long shining bodies juxtaposed with almost awkward tenderness, not quite embracing. How like Richard it all is, she thought, so intellectual, so sensual.
Ultimately I was glad that I stuck it out. Intellectual and sensual - exactly - and with an extraordinarily tense payoff scene.

My other posts on this book are here, here, and here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

20 favorite leading men and then 2 more

It's a rainy Saturday and classes start Monday so this off Sheila via Nathaniel's Film Experience Blog- 20 favorite leading men +2 (todays choices, subject to change). Care to join in the fun? Names or pictures are fine. Don't take too long.

Spencer Tracy
Jimmy Stewart
Gael Garcia Bernal
Johnny Depp
Billy Crudup
Dustin Hoffman
Campbell Scott
Denholm Elliott
Daniel Day Lewis
Stephen Campbell Moore
Oleg Menshikov
Matthieu Kassovitz
Romain Duris
Alec Guinness
Kenneth Branagh
James McAvoy
Marlon Brando
Montgomery Clift
Sean Penn
Mark Ruffalo
oh... and Buster Keaton and Liev Schreiber

Friday, August 28, 2009

100,000 and counting!

That, as they say, is the money shot. Sometime during the night the 100,000th visitor clicked their way to Bookeywookey. Perhaps through a search engine, perhaps just following a series of links, perhaps through a fellow blogger, or perhaps it was a regular reader checking in - I don't know - but I am very glad of the community I have built through blogging - thank you all for stopping by to read about what I read, see in the theatre, have found nifty about the brain, my obsession with creative process, or the weird connections I like to make cross disciplines. I hope as I continue to write that more of you will leave the occasional comment - I've met so many great people blogging and enjoy getting to know my readers a little better. Now, on to the business of the day!

I finished Martin Millar's The Good Fairies of New York. It was humorous and fantastical romp that, in my estimation, went on a few more pages than its little joke could handle. Still, a goodish time, here are my thoughts.

I am not quite half-way through Iris Murdoch's The Nice and The Good which I am reading for Cornflower Book's Bookclub. It is a hybrid mystery, metaphysical rumination, and soap opera. I am generally a big fan of Murdoch's but I am generally finding this one trudgery, I really feel like I have to pull my Wellington's on to trudge through it. Somehow the components, the usual components in a Murdoch novel, aren't integrated. The usual deep analysis of character's thoughts read like footnotes:
Her love for men had always been somehow neurotic and unfulfilled, and this had been true even of her love for her husband. She had loved Alistair very much, but in a nervous plucking, lucked at way, and though both her body and her mind had been involved in this love they had never been in accord about it.
As the title suggests, the subject of all the rumination is moral behavior in both its internal and external guises:
Ducane could face being thought a brute, but could not face being thought a cold-blooded deceiver. What I can't bear is not being one but seeming one!
In this sense, this is really a book for our time. We seem to live in a time of rampant corruption (is it actually any worse, I wonder). I just wish the theme and the plot seemed to be woven of the same cloth. I hope I am able to get through it all by Sunday so that I can participate in the discussion.

I am also working on The Overflowing Brain, neuroscience researcher Torkel Klingberg's easily written book on how the brain that we ended up with as the genetic legacy of our Stone Age forebears is not wired for today's flood of incoming data. He discusses in (mostly) accessible language the intersection of attention and a type of memory called working-memory, and why and how they become maxed-out.

I also received two advance review copies (ARCs) recently that, though they cover vastly different topics, seem to me to reflect the same urge in book writing. They integrate multiple topics, one often a little arcane but sexy with one that is something of a niche market - very interesting to those who like it and dry to most other readers. Do any of these sound familiar: a history of the world through metal and microbes, a story of Western culture through spices? This is a sort of polymaths paradise. I have to admit that these two new books both hold a certain allure for me. Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano by Madeline Goold claims to tell the story of a cultural revolution caused by bringing pianos into the home. The Alchemy of Paint by Spike Bucklow claims to reveal the secret recipes of the medieval painter's palette while telling a story that partakes of devine myths as well as chemistry. Music and history, art and science - see what I mean? It's a polymathic pandemic. Actually, I don't mind this trend at all - its' right up my street. I think one's passionate interests, no matter how estoric, do become a lens through which we view the world. They can be both more singular and less dry than your average approach to history or science. If the writer successfully shares this abstruse interest with the reader it can become a point of entry to a topic they might have never otherwise gained admission to. I look forward to seeing how both these authors handle task.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


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What’s the lightest, most “fluff” kind of book you’ve read recently?

Funny you should ask, I tend to like my reading rich, I'm not big on fluff, but I have just been reading The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar. I think it was recommended on Neil Gaiman's blog but, to be honest, I don't remember. Gaiman is certainly all over this book. He wrote the introduction. It says so on the front cover. They quote the introduction on the back cover. The marketing placqarded all over this book feels a bit desperate. Any any rate, The Good Fairies is in the urban fantasy genre, think Charles de Lint only more jaded, or think Neil Gaiman, actually, only with more laugh lines, and with lots of kilts and Irish and Scottish reels thrown in. It is an amusing book, occasionally very funny, and I tore through most of its 200-odd pages in a single day, but there's not a lot to it. It's definitely lit-lite.

Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was prcticing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.

"Sorry," said one.

"Don't worry," said the other. "Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans."

By this time, however, Dinnie was halfway down the stairs, and still accelerating.

"Two fairies just came through my window and were sick on the carpet!" he screamed on reaching Fourth Street, not fully realizing the effect that this would have on the passers-by till the men sweating with sacks round a garbage truck stopped to laugh at him.

"What'd you say?"

"Upstairs, gasped Dinned. "Two fairies, with kilts and violins and little kilts..."

It turns out there are Scottish fairies, black fairies, Italian fairies - who knew? - and they are always feuding with one another, and most of them are musicians, and there's a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream going on, bag ladies who are into classical Greek, a flower that keeps falling into the wrong hands. It's a romp, and once in a while I'm in the mood for light entertainment. I have been known to read a pulpish thriller or two in my time, often right after final exams or the opening of a show.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A child's naivetee rendered in a sophisticated narrative (Books - What the Birds See by Sonya Hartnett)

Sonya Hartnett was a new author for me and her What the Birds See a potent, deeply imagined, and lyrical book. Thank you A Devoted Reader for introducing me to it. Adrian is a sensitive nine year old who could live in a suburb anywhere. He is deeply lonely, having been first removed from the care of his mother, then rejected by his father, and finally placed in the care of his grandmother who, she makes quite plain, thought she was done with raising children. Then comes the disappearance of the Metford children:
Chistopher was five, with a child's ponderous gait; his older sisters, leggy as fillies, must match their pace to his. Zoe's thoughts would drift as she ambled, lingering on insects and flowers. Bending again to her garden, the mother knew without calculation that her children would be gone for half an hour: fifteen minutes to the shop, fifteen minutes home.

The route they'd take to the shop would bend around four corners of the suburban neighborhood: two right turns, two left. Their neighborhood was a modest one, and the distances between the corners were not great. The result of all the twisting was that no one who saw the Metford children walking through that clear afternoon would see them for very long.
There is a great precision in the way Harnett writes, and also a lyricism that renders this narrative slightly dreamy. As his wild hair is tamed by his grandmother she says:
"Don't fidget, Adrian."

"I'm not."

But his fingers are drawn like thieves to the glittering dresser set that hold pride of place on the table top, a hand mirror and hairbrush rested on a matching sparkling tray.
But her language is not pretty for prettiness's sake, nor is it dreamy for dreaminess's sake, it is meant to evoke the state of mind of Adrian - desperately lonely, inexperienced of the world, unsure how it works. His own fingers seem to him to have a will of their own. His naivitee makes it as if he is viewing the whole world through a sheer curtain, the details of forms only occasionally coming into focus.
It has never occurred to him - and he blushes faintly, for being so stupid - to think that children can vanish. The Metfords have not been lost or abandoned - they have been made to disappear. They have not run away - they have been lifted up and carried. They've been taken somewhere as distant as Jupiter. Adrian has never thought that an ordinary child, a kid like himself or Clinton or that freckle-nosed girl, might be of interest to anyone except family and friends, that an ordinary child could be worth taking or wanting, a desirable thing.
One of the most touching details of the novel is the fact that Adrian derives his greatest comfort not from a person or an animal but from a bronze bowl with a frieze of flowers, mounted on clawed feet with a carved cherub serving as the knob on the bowl's lid.
Three fingers fit nicely around the putto's tombola-sized head, and its chin is polished from years of being thus grasped to lift the lid, but when Adrian pincers its ears between his fingers, he imagines the cherub's shrieks of insulted rage. Of all the things in his grandmother's house, his favorite is this cocky angel on a bowl. It pleases him just to see it, to sniff its archaic aroma, to touch its patina hide.
Adrian uses this bowl, feeling its form, to comfort himself in moments of anxiety.

The striking narrative voice Harnett uses is an effective hybrid. It is at once child-like in perspective (but not childish and not cute) and yet adult in its knowledge for instance:
Arian does not know why, but every time Horsegilr's madness flares, he fears for the soundness of his own mind. He worries that what lives so violently within her is also living in him. He fears that Horsegirl is contagious, to nobody but him.
I can easily attribute those feelings to nine-year-old Adrian, but the sophistication surrounding it is from a more worldly perspective. Or:
Adrian has never thought that what happened to him had been cruel - children inhabit an animalistic world and accept with grace its harsh rules. He never considered anyone to blame but himself, really. But he'd been glad of the girt of anonymity that the new school have him: at just eight years of age, he had started over again.
Harnett's has imagined an original tale and told it in beautiful prose. Its effect is strikingly poignant. I recommend this book heartily.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

William Carlos Williams poem of a Saturday afternoon...

I've posted some of William Carlos Williams's poems before but not this one and, having just heard it read by Bill Irwin, I have to share it. It's lovely. Williams was a physician as well as a poet, I can only imagine he must have had a humorous bedside manner.

The Thinker

My wife’s new pink slippers
have gay pompons.
There is not a spot or a stain
on their satin toes or their sides.
All night they lie together
under her bed’s edge.
Shivering I catch sight of them
and smile, in the morning.
Later I watch them
descending the stair,
hurrying through the doors
and round the table,
moving stiffly
with a shake of their gay pompons!
And I talk to them
in my secret mind
out of pure happiness.

That was just what the doctor ordered.

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's all in the details (Books - The Night Watch by Sarah Waters)

After hours of studying yesterday, my reward was to finish up Sarah Waters's novel The Night Watch. As I've mentioned in my other posts here and here, Waters's conceit is to progress backward through time from just after World War II, to earlier and earlier times during the war. She follows her rich characters' pursuit of love in war torn London and, as we go back, the individual strands of their lives seem to come closer and closer to each other. Simultaneously, as their individual secrets are revealed to us, that seems to bring them closer to us as the reader. This is a war-time novel, but its focus is the small details of daily living - procuring a new pair of pyjamas, the feel of one lover's kiss as compared to another, the experience of receiving emergency care through a fog of morphine. The sum of lives are experienced in the details, Waters seems to say, and this book places in special focus the dialogue that can take place between those details experienced in the past and the power they take on when one remembers them in a harder present. The sustained tension Waters achieves through her final sequence, all set on one night of bombing, is pretty extraordinary. It reminds me of the incredible one take shot on Dunkirk beach in the film adaptation of Atonement. And the length does not make me ask when it will be over, on the contrary, I was propelled through that evening, the perspective of the shot switching between the various character's lives, but in a quicker rhythm of alternation than it had previously done, reaching an intensity the book really earned. When I realized I had come to the end, I was surprised, finding that I had read through 200 pages like wildfire.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Best reads of far

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What’s the best book you’ve read recently? (Tell me you didn’t see this one coming?)

Ah, another in BTT's recent spate of superlatives. I'm glad actually, it gives me a chance to review the year and see what stands out. If I look only at this year's reading, John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick, Damon Galgut's The Imposter, Maghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost, and Deirdre Madden's Molly Fox's Birthday were my favorite reads of 2009 so far. It's a well-balanced list - an American, a South African, a British, and an Irish writer. Two men, two women. Some overtly entertaining writing, some touching and introspective writing. It's not the end of 2009 yet, so I am not going to press myself to decide. They were all great reads and my reflections on each as I read them are linked.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The untelling of life stories (Books - The Night Watch by Sarah Waters)

I am enjoying my backwards walk through the complexly-rendered lives of Viv, Duncan, Kay, Helen, Fraser, and Julia, and the other characters of Sarah Waters novel The Night Watch, set in 1940s London during and just after the war. The effect of Waters's decision to proceed backwards through time emphasizes the notion of what the war made of these characters, who are at once ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary for their aspirations - a chance to pursue someone they love, the pleasure of being wooed, success in work, secure home lives - extraordinary because several of those characters are gay (I am using the term to refer to male and female) and, let's face it, stories about gay people who aren't continually having sex, spending the entire night in clubs, dying of AIDS, or offering snide fashion tips are a rarity. Even more extraordinary for the circumstances that the book's characters, gay and straight, find themselves in - World War II London. Amidst the turmoil of nightly bombings, food rationing, and the frequent death of loved ones, somehow their sexuality though both criminalized and pathologized during this period, does not take on as rabid an importance as it might at other times. The theme that Water's combination of ordinary stories of gay and straight lives, wartime, and the backward progress through time achieve is to make me think of the stories not told. I had this thought in the back of my mind and it only floated to the surface when I read this. Viv, a character in the novel, is experiencing a crisis:
They had just moved off across the garden when they heard the sirens go. Betty said, 'There you are. That'd put an end to all your problems - a nice fat bomb.'

Viv looked up. 'God, it would. And no one would know, except for you.'

She'd never thought of that before, about all the secrets that the war must have swallowed up, left buries in dust and darkness and silence. She had only every thought of the raids as tearing things open, making things hard. She kep glancing up at the sky as she and Betty walked to John Allen House, telling herself that she wanted to see the searchlights go up; that she wanted the planes to come, the guns to start, all hell to break loose...
Somehow the stories that are given voice in this novel give rise to the awareness of the myriad stories that never get told, that's the literal effect of the war - stories cut short. Added to the ordinary lives of characters who happen to be gay - stories usually not told. And with those, the backwards progress through time - a sort of 'untelling,' of stories. This artful combination has, in 300 pages, quietly accumulated a surprising poignance.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

15 Films That Will Always Stick With You

I Have my first comprehensive exams in a little over a week and somehow I am not reading tons of fiction right now, but dear friend Sheila showed me this and I thought.... why not?

Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen movies you've seen that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag as many friends as you choose, but at least 5.

In no particular order...

1. Diner
2. Diva
3. Midnight Cowboy
4. Hair
5. Amadeus
6. Philadelphia Story
7. Rebecca
8. Burnt by the Sun
9. My Life as a Dog
10. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
11. Maurice
12. A Room with a View
13. My Beautiful Laundrette
14. Strictly Ballroom
15. Kramer vs. Kramer

Oh, oh and All the President's Men, if I can have one more! It's interesting that the 2 films that I have on my sidebar right now didn't even enter my mind - Bright Young Things and The Science of Sleep. And somehow Almodovar's got left off too. My vote would be his Mala Educacion. Gorgeous. Seems like my 15 have creeped their way to 19. I'll stop.

OK...C.B., Cam, Matt, Danielle, Incurable Logophile, Sam, Sarah, and every one of my 14 faithful Blogger Followers who feel in the mood (those of you who do not have a blog of your own are welcome to leave your list in the comments).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Life is too short for bad books or bad wine...

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What’s the worst book you’ve read recently?

I haven't read one I thought was really bad in a while. Here's an excerpt from a post a while back about an ARC that clearly falls into the worst book category for me:

Several weeks ago I was waiting for my friend, Mary, at a bar. Great wine list and killer chili-covered almonds. A guy walks in, 50ish, sits down, looks around him, spots a nicely dressed woman who is reading, loudly orders a drink, and in what I assume was a completely failed attempt to pick her up insults her book, makes embarrassing comments about her hat and his ex-wife, brags about how anti-intellectual he is, talks about how much money he has, and yammers on refusing to take any kinds hints that she had no interest in talking to him. It was three-quarters of an hour before he finally stumbled back out into the cold and the entire bar applauded the poor woman and bought her another glass of wine. The Forgery of Venus is that guy.

The egoistic, cazh (as in cazhual) voice takes way too much for granted. In the first three pages Michael Gruber manages to make snide, insulting comments about New York, come up with the following description for another character's parents: "They were actual refugees from Hitler, with dense accents, almost parodically overdressed..." what does he mean "actual" refugees? Are there people out there posing as refugees? Or has this character actually never seen one before? Are the dense accents a problem for him? Clearly their style of dress is terribly amusing in some way that eludes me... This narrator finally leaves around page twenty or so and another character takes over. It is like walking out onto a breezy terrace at an unbearably stuffy party. The second voice, that of the "artist" in the story (dare I guess the forgerer?) is far more convincing. I stayed with him for a while - but unfortunately by that point the story had taken me too much for granted and had lost my interest. Actually he had never had it to begin with and didn't consider capturing my interest to be part of the job, he assumed he was owed it, like the guy at the bar, and since I was not waiting for my friend I could walk out on this story. I am sorry to only because I was given this copy so that I might share my reactions with you in advance of its official release and I wanted to find something nice to say. Well, that second narrator is better and perhaps if you stay with him you will end up liking the story. I don't know. Furthermore, this book is marketed as an "intelligent" and "sophisticated" thriller in the vein of The Da Vinci Code which I did read and kept my interest on a flight to California. If mentioning Velaszquez, Beckett and Columbia University in the first ten pages are supposed to earn this book its intelligence - think again. The story seemed fascinated with fanciness but its art seemed solely in the service of bravado and is anything but sophisticated.

I feel as though we trod the worst book territory with a BBT question in May when we were provocatively asked if there was a book we wished we could un-read. So I'll re-post that response too:

In college I had to read Sartre's Being and Nothingness for a class on existentialism and I found it the most incomprehensible, solipsistic drivel I had ever come across and threw the hefty volume across the room. By the time I was done trying to finish it, the book was split in two. Of course, I could not claim to have come across all that much in my vast 18-years of experience and Dickens's Bleak House is a case in point. I read that book that same year in college. I also hated it and never finished it...then. I have since read it and raved about it here, here, here, here and here, which is among the reasons that I would never go so far as to wish I could 'unread' something. I was a young person of strong opinions. I am now a somewhat more middle-aged person of strong opinions, but I don't find myself wishing to unread books. Just about the only experiences I would wish to un-have are things I regret having said or done to other people. And I guess there are a couple of plays I acted in that I wish I could unrehearse and unact! But unread? No. I don't waste my time reading books I hate. I simply put them down, knowing I can always try them again later if they are supposed to be worth it, and see if my taste or my patience has changed. Life is too short for bad books or bad wine. If you don't like the way it tastes, pour the sucker out or use it to marinate a London broil and open a better one!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

After images (Books - Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling)

The humidity and heat were stifling last evening - it's like NYC is being sat on by some great, hairy animal. Reading seemed to be the only solution to my discomfort and so I finished Sara Houghteling's debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition. Set in Paris just before and just after the Vichy occupation, it chronicles the singular story of Max, the son of a Jewish art dealer. Before the war, he is desperate to be good enough in his father's eyes to go into the family business. But Max's father encourages him to go to medical school and hires instead a remarkable young women, Rose, with an encyclopedic memory for paintings and with whom Max falls obsessively in love. Following the liberation of France, Max tries to track down both the paintings and this remarkable woman. The story is, in some ways, the story of the looting of museums and galleries and the fate of all the art considered "non-aryan" by the Nazis, but then it would be a history book. I was going to say "just" a history book, but that really isn't fair, history can encompass more than dry fact and at times be thrilling to read, but this book exceeds that genre not merely by being partly fictionalized but also because it tells a story of the heart. It is about the tragedy of loving beautiful things (and people). It is about growing to realize what is real and what forgery and that often what gives beautiful things value is not based simply on fact, nor on what is seen at the surface, but on what one believes about the thing or person. As Max and his father roam Paris looking for the paintings, Max quotes Goethe:
"Let the observer look steadfastly on a small colored object and let it be taken away after a time while his eyes remain unmoved. The spectrum of another color will then be visible on the white plane. It arises from an image which now belongs to the eye."
This is Goethe's description of a neurological phenomenon which occurs because of the way our visual system perceives color, but it is also a description of the experience of the survivors of the war. When a painting was taken away, when Max loses Rose, or when many millions of lives were obliterated by the Nazis in World War II, those who remained afterward perceived the world anew, as though an afterimage was burned onto the emptiness before them.

This is a first novel so naturally it offers the occasional self conscious moment, and I remained unconvinced by the excessively chaste and romanticized desire of young Max, but mostly I found Sara Houghteling's prose assured and the scope of her book most impressive. It encompasses history in a real setting and some real people, a love of art, a bildungsroman, some excellent and surprising plotting. Complex ideas about the loss of loved things and loved people, and what drives a sense of purpose in a moral life gives it its center.

Here is my other post about Pictures at an Exhibition.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

2 novels set in World War II (Books - The Night Watch by Sarah Waters & Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling)

World War II plays an important role in both the novels I started reading this week. Started reading? I have an exam coming up in two weeks. Yes, exactly. And if you are still here after that little conversation with myself, I have been quickly pulled into 1940s London by Sarah Waters The Night Watch. Everyone has been going on about her storytelling abilities and just 60 pages in I can see what they mean. I find wartime London a darkly fascinating place (and it has made a great setting for a number of novels.) I was fond of Christopher Fowler's Full Dark House and I currently have two of Patrick Hamilton's novels set in that same period heading my way after an impulsive splurge at The Book Depository. At any rate, Waters powers of description are precise and have a bit of music to them, but they aren't fancy. The narrative seems to tug at you from the far end to keep moving.
The day seemed limp, suddenly: not fine so much as dried out, exhausted. She thought she could feel dust, settling already on her lips, her lashes, in the corners of her eyes. But she wouldn't turn back. She had, as it were, her own brushed hair to live up to, her polished shoes, her cuff-links. She went down the steps and started to walk. She stepped like a person who knew exactly where they were going, and why they were going there - though the fact was she had nothing to do, and no one to visit, no one to see. Her day was a blank, like all of her days. She might have been inventing the ground she walked on, laboriously, with every step.
I love that last sentence - inventing the ground she walked on... I am most taken by Waters's characters. She does not seem interested merely in types, but in singular people - a woman who walks the streets dressed as a man, a young boy who works in a factory, buys bric-a-brac, and lives with an older man, a religious healer who treats the crippled. People who contain more in them than first meets the eye...More soon.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling arrived at my library faster than I had expected when I put it on reserve. Here the novel begins at the other end of the War, 1939 Paris, to be precise. In it, a young man whose father owns a flourishing art gallery is forbidden to join the family business. They are Jewish and are soon to lose the gallery, and the Braques, Manets, Picassos, and Matisses will, no doubt, be looted by the Nazis. The story is framed retrospectively and each chapter starts with an image of one of the pictures that was looted (some never recovered). The tone of the writing is elegant, a bit old world, and over that an elegiac patina...
In the twilight of my life, I began to question if my childhood was a time of almost absurd laguor, or if the violence that would strike us later had lurked there all along. I revisited certain of these memories, determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them: the sticky hand, the scattered nuts, the gap-toothed girl grasping a firecracker, a cap floating on the Seine, flayed legs swinging between a pair of crutches, the tailor and his mouthful of pins. Some of these were immediately ominous, while others only later revealed themselves as such. However, whether or not another boy living my life would agree, I cannot say.
As I read that opening paragraph it seemed to herald good things to come. The story is familiar to me - a family in France, or Austria, or Germany on the eve of World War II - will they stay or will they go? What are the details that lead up to their decision. Can they bear the betrayal of their own country? This is my family's story, so the particulars are endlessly interesting to me. Houghteling captures Paris as it existed for this family before the war and follows it as the clouds gather almost imperceptibly. I am not fully convinced by her abilities to assume the character of a male narrator. The voice sounds the occassional false note for me, particularly when dealing with adolescent desire, but she may be trying to set up the innocence of an earlier time, so I'm being patient. All in all I have been quickly subsumed in Houghteling's narrative and am looking forward to the quick 10 minute snatches of reading that are my reward between study sessions. Study sessions. Gotta go.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Not the opposite of fun...

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What’s the most serious book you’ve read recently?

Hmmm. If by serious you mean the opposite of fun or funny then I would probably put Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies right at the top of the list, but it was by no means hard to get through. It was accessibly written and kept me interested in a subject one could expect to be hard to take. If by serious you mean really difficult, then I guess I might put Basic Neurochemistry or Principles of Neural Science on the list. They deal with difficult topics and, in some sections at least, nothing about the writing made it any easier. I had to read and re-read some sections five and six times. In the land of fiction I would call both of the Damon Galgut novels I read - The Imposter and The Good Doctor - serious fiction, and the same with William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, and Children of the Arbat, and Deirdre Madden's beautiful One by One in the Darkness, though they were all a pleasure to read. Herman Hesse's Beneath the Wheel, William Trevor's Fools of Fortune, and Bernard MacLaverty's Cal are tragedies, though they are not dour books. Or books like Don Delillo's White Noise, A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book or Dickens's Bleak House are serious in the sense that they a not frivolous. They examine serious ideas, and/or have many story lines and characters, and reading them requires some work. You can't dance merrily through them, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. I guess much of my reading could be considered serious but I don't think of reading them as the opposite of fun.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A mystery of a different color... (Books - The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch)

Good old Iris Murdoch. Not exactly a classic whodunnit writer, she. The mystery of what forces motivate human behavior are the ones she likes, though if you think about it, that's really what a P. D. James novel is about too. But Murdoch focuses a tighter lens on the metaphysical aspects of her story. For example:
This metaphysical dilemma was present to him at times not in any clear conceptual form but rather as an atmosphere, a feeling of bewildered guilt which was almost sexual in quality and not altogether unpleasant. If Ducane had believed in God, which he had not done since he abandoned, at the age of fifteen, the strict low church Glaswegian Protestantism in which he had been brought up, he would have prayed, instantly and hard, whenever he perceived this feeling coming on. As it was he endured it grimly, as it were with his eyes tight shut, trying not to let it proliferate into something interesting. This feeling, which came to him naturally whenever he expeerienced power, especially rather formal power, over another person, had now been generated by his questioning of McGrath. And his faintly excited sense of having power over McGrath put him in mind of another person over whom he had power, and that was...
And that's just the detective. There is a crime to be solved in this book and it is Ducane who is assigned to look into the apparent suicide of co-worker in a British government department, but it is the mysteries of the human soul that are the meat of this story (though I am not done reading it). They are the way she connects the mechanics of her story to her own interest (and hopefully the reader's too). It certainly works in my case. As I read that excerpt above, which follows a polite interrogation scene in the action, I thought - Imagine if everyone with the capacity to exercise power were as self aware as Ducane. The world would be a different place. - It is as though the crime becomes the moral engine of the book that then precipitates changes in the private lives of the characters - although I'm not yet sure which "domestic" story is most central. As is usual with Murdoch, there is a good deal of interdependence among the threads of this story.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The mystery of other people's dreams redux (Books - The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry)

I have added a P.S. to this post as I have now finished The Manual of Detection.

The pickin's have been slim here lately, I know. I have my first comprehensive exam to prepare for and most of my reading has been on experimental design and analysis. I am nearly done with Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection which I have heretofore described as a kind of surrealist Encyclopedia Brown. In it a lowly clerk with an empty life living in an unnamed city is suddenly promoted to detective. Its tone is YA. Nerdy, smart YA. Berry knows how to have fun with language, having all the detectives speak or write in a mock Chandlerese. It's a cute joke of which there are many in this book.
I left with her and let the others clean up. They're a decent bunch of yahoos, and none of them tried to stop me. I walked her to Central Terminal. We had pretzels on the way, just like old times, except we didn't have any old times, so we had to make them up. The whole town had gone mad, but the trains were still running. I paid for her ticket, one way, and we stood together awhile down on the platform. I wont' tell you what we talked about. I won't tell you what happened just before I put her on the train. What business is it of yours, what we said?

I watched the train until the tunnel ate it.

Now I'm in my office. It's dark in here, and I'm choking on my own smoke. I'm starting to wonder about early reitrement. I was wrong about her, clerk. As per usual. All wrong.
I love the fact that when this former detective - Sivart, now missing - wrote his reports that he dictated them as direct-address to his clerk and that that clerk, Unwin, typed them up preserving this personal address as the form of the report. Unwin, by the way, is the anti-hero of the book - our clerk-turned-detective.

Berry is a funny guy, he just doesn't seem to know when to stop telling jokes and get on with the story. The book has a desultory energy. It jumps from episode to episode, from joke to joke, but it takes until page 200 for it all to really hang together as a linear narrative with a force driving through it. I was more than 100 pages into the book and still having trouble keeping the character names straight.

What Berry seems to want to do in telling this story, is to play with its themes of reality and unreality, deception and truth, mystery and solution to and tell a larger story about life's mysteries, life's deception:
"Real and unreal, actual and imagined. Our failure to distinguish one from the other, or rather our willingness to believe they may be one and the same, is the chink through which the Agency operatives conduct their work."
Unwin was a perfect clerk, too perfect, and now as a most imperfect rooky detective he is suffering the consequences of that perfection:
He went alone into the dark. The passage sloped downward and curved to the left, tracing a spiral through the earth. Sometimes he kep his eyes open and sometimes he shut them; it made little difference. Miss Burgrave had been right about him: he left matters where no doubt could touch them. But that had been his flaw, to bind mystery so tightly, to obscure his detective's missteps with perfect files. Somehow Unwin had made false things true.

"You're awfully worried about getting everything right. I've seen what you've done to my reports. I've read the files. You edit out the good parts. All you care about are the details, and clues, and who did what and why. But I'm telling you, Unwin, there's more to it than that. There's a...I don't know" - he waved his cigar in the air - "there's a spirit to the whole enterprise. There's mystery. The worse it gets, the btter it is. It's like falling in love. Or falling out of love, I forget which..."

Ok, Stanislavski, we get it. Berry's tone seems to grasp a little too desperately at profundity and then, as if he fears just that, he has to crack a joke. As a result this book is neither profound nor funny, it rarely rises above cute.

The one creative stroke of genius in this book, in my opinion, is a triumvarate of archives nested in the bowels of Unwin's agency. For one of them, The Archive of Solutions, Berry has created a nifty device - it is physically record-like (that's LP, vinyl, for those of you born after 1980 it's a pre CD, pre casette tape device on which music was recorded and commercially sold) but it is really more of a virtual reality device. When playing it, the listener is transported to a full body experience of the contents of someone else's dreams. This is a tightly imagined section of the book - full of fantasy, tension, and narrative drive. It explains all the narcolepsy and alarm clocks (I won't go into it). This seems to be the idea around which this entire book was written. It's a pity Berry was unable to bring the entire narrative more of these qualities. I'll probably finish up the book tonight and if I change my mind on it, I'll let you know.

Now it's off to the lab for me.

P.S. finished now and my thoughts on this book stand. My first post compared it to Thirteen, while there are some similarities, Thirteen is both a more skillfully written narrative and manages to cop together existential mystery with compelling fiction in a way this book never quite does. My other posts on The Manual of Detection are here and here.