Thursday, October 29, 2009

The blurb...

btt button

Suggested by Jennysbooks: Something I’ve been thinking about lately: “What words/phrases in a blurb make a book irresistible? What words/phrases will make you put the book back down immediately?”

I don't think there is a word or phrase in a blurb or review quote that will make or break me. Perhaps if a blurb characterized a book as full of blood and gore, or if something in it indicated that the subject or narrator of the book were obnoxiously holy, racist, sexist, or homophobic I would probably put down the book, but it's the general thrust of blurbs that speak to me. It puts me off when there are too many blurbs. Some paperbacks have pages of them from every newspaper in the world. Make a choice. They rarely say anything different. Many compare the writer to another writer, usually one that has sold many books. Sometimes I am aware that a blurb was only stuck in because it mentioned yet another author's name, on the chance that that one comparison will be the only writer the prospective customer has ever heard of. It's especially ridiculous when two successive blurbs compare the author to such different authors that the comparisons clearly don't reflect the publisher's opinion about they book, they just reflect their desire to sell more copies by appealing to different markets - say, "reminds me of Nicholas Sparks..." and "this is a great novel in the tradition of Faulkner." Desperation is the greatest turn-off in book sales. The surest way to get me not to buy a book is to use hyperbole. "The greatest," "the best," "it will change your life," "more meaningful than the bible, only shorter." Give me a break.

Generally it is the quality of the author of the blurb or quote makes a difference, unless I know that there is an established connection between the blurb author and the book's. I have seen blurb's written by an author's mentor. That like having a review written by your mother. But if the blurb writer is a talented writer and says something specific about the book that makes me think that it has an original voice or tells an involving, moving, or important story, combines ideas in unique ways, or captures a period or place I'm interested in creatively, I might go for it. If it's a review quote I am also swayed, snob that I am, by the literary quality of the publication the review came from. Basically, if a good writer tells me this book or writer has value and the subject matter or genre doesn't put me off, I might be reeled in. Just don't try too hard.

That would be the perfect costume for a literary Halloween party - go as The Blurb! But if you do it, please remember to credit me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ex-cop, ex-Marxist, gourmet noir (Books - Tattoo by Manuel Vazquez Montalban)

I received a review copy of the re-issue of of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Tattoo last week. Serpent's Tail press has reissued several of his Pepe Carvalho mysteries in attractive paperback editions with retro covers. The time is the mid 1970's as Spain is extricating itself from dictatorship. The setting - Barcelona and Amsterdam. The plot is uncomplicated. It features the mystery of a corpse found floating in the sea, its face so badly destroyed he can only be identified by a tatoo. Pepe Carvalho is hired to find out who it was. It was perfect timing for a book like this as I am knocked out by a nasty upper respiratory bug and was in desperate need of something occupying and not too heavy. This is noir with a wink. Montalban's Carvalho is a hardboiled philosopher who has checked out of caring too much about anything except sex and food, or as Montalban writes:
'What are you exactly? A cop? A Marxist? A gourmet?'

'I'm an ex-cop, an ex-Marxist and a gourmet.'

What I enjoyed most is how Montalban didn't merely dress up a classic mystery with Carvalho's quirks. He informed even his detective's crime solving skills with these same characteristics:
His mind began to fill with the old logic that sought links between cause and effect, between good and evil. But as soon as this logic became demanding and insistent, an alarm bell went off in his head, and he dismissed all the arguments. He wanted nothing more to do with any analysis of the world he lived in. He had long since decided he was on the journey between childhood and old age of a personal, non-transferable destiny, of a life that nobody else could ever live for him, no more, no less, no better, no worse. Everybody else could go get stuffed. He had deliberately restricted his capacity for abstract emotion to what he could get from the landscape around him. All his other emotions were immediate, skin deep.
This is a man who uses old copies of Don Quixote from his library of several thousand volumes as kindling so that he can have the comfort of a fire while he eats the bacalhao he prepared. You will sooner see him sauteeing onions and tomatoes than packing a pistol and trailing suspects, though he does his reluctant share of those more typical detective-like activities as well. Carvalho may be nihilistic but Tattoo is entertaining as well as swift-moving. I noticed that there is another mystery set in Buenos Aires. I may try that one next.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Novelties I

I'm going to institute an occasional series - Novelties, I think I'll call it. About once a month I'm going to list a new thing (or two) I've: eaten, drunk, watched, listened to, visited on the web, and learned lately - since life should be full of novelty, of newness. What would York be without the New? What a shot in the arm Orleans got. Feel free to join in...

Eating: kholrabi slaw - julienned kholrabi (or green cabbage), sliced radishes, lots of fresh cilantro, in mustard cumin dressing - mmmmm.

Drinking: Gobelsburger Gruner Veltliner

Watching: The films of Almodovar -bought a boxed set with most of this master filmmaker's work - an amazing and singular body of work.

Listening: Der Rosenkavalier - I've been listening to the classic 1950s von Karajan recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig, but I have the Solti recording with Regine Crespin and Yvonne Minton coming in the mail.

New places I'm visiting on the web: Seven Impossible Things..., The Hermitage, Armel Gaulme.

New thing I learned: That such a thing as a knitwear comb or sweater comb exists. They are meant to comb away the pills on your knit clothes and make them look like new. Now to find one...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lunching with Chekhov...

btt button

If you could ask your favorite author (alive or dead) one question … who would you ask, and what would the question be?

I would ask Anton Chekhov to tell me as much as he could about what it was like to collaborate with Stanislavski and all the Moscow Art Theatre folks on THE THREE SISTERS and THE CHERRY ORCHARD. I would serve a long lunch and there would be several bottles of wine (or vodka if he preferred) so that I could ply as much out of him as I possibly could.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You must remember this...

Nicholas Wade reports in today's Science Times on the work of Dr. Gero Miesenböck's lab. Its carnival-barker headline cries: Researchers Create Artificial Memories in the Brain of a Fruitfly. If one reads the article, its claims are a little more circumspect but no less impressive. The lab identified dopamine producing neurons in the nervous system of flies that seem to perpetuate shock avoidance behaviors. These cells do their work by converging on a second class of neurons - Kenyon cells - which receive information about stimuli from the fly's antennae. Typically the fly can be conditioned to learn avoidance of a stimulus other than the shock - like a particular odor perceived by the antennae or a flash of light - through conditioning. Conditioning creates an association between the shock and the new stimulus which results in the fly behaving to the light or odor as it would naturally behave to a shock - by avoiding it. Miesenböck and friends genetically manipulated the flies so that their Kenyon cells would automatically respond to the light flash as though it were a shock without ever having been conditioned to do so. Then they then tested their manipulation by doing a typical conditioning experiment through which the flies would learn to associate a smell with the light, reacting with avoidance.

When lasting learning is accomplished, exposure to certain stimuli perpetuates structural or chemical changes in neurons. Any time cell structure is altered, a gene must first be induced to create a chemical template that leads to the assembly of a protein. Proteins are the basic units of cellular components, whether structural or chemical. The presence of these proteins, then result in the proper change in the cell which might be the production of a neurotransmitter, or the insertion or removal of a particular type of channel into a neuron membrane. The researchers in this case, altered the gene directly, creating a fly that never had to learn to respond to a light flash as though it were a shock. Through multiple experiments like these they hope to map the neural circuits that associate stimuli with behavior and lay bare the circuitry through which creatures learn.

It all makes me think of this little ditty, sung by Sam in Casablanca (words and music by Herman Hupfeld). It seems today to typify associative learning. Now, if we decide it, flies must remember this. No fundamental rules apply...

This day and age we're living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension.

Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein's theory.
So we must get down to earth at times
Relax relieve the tension

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.]

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.

Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A refusal to be ordinary (Books - The Victoria Vanishes by Christopher Fowler)

The Victoria Vanishes was a funny, smart, and satisfying mystery, containing Christopher Fowler's trademark detective team - Bryant and May and their Peculiar Crimes Unit - and driven by a disdain for the ordinary.
'I hate small-mindedness,' he suddenly announced after several minutes of contemplative silence. 'The notices everywhere warning us not to trip over or turn left or take our dogs off leads. That annoying recorded voice in post offices telling you which counter is free. I bought some peas in the supermarket last week and do you know what it said on the packet? "Does not contain nuts." I hate the endless admonishments of a nanny state that lives in fear of its lawyers...

Once our children played on bomb sites and collected exploded shells. Now they're driven to school by paranoid parents in SUVs. The determination of dullards can always be counted upon to challenge the merits of innovators.' He noisily sucked on the pipe until the bowl's embers sparkled against the cloud-grey waters. 'To be popular in this city you have to be average, and the PCUs unusual approach to the attainment of excellence won't allow it to survive.'
Bryant's cranky refusal to be ordinary (as if it were a choice) is the amusing common theme of this entertaining detective series and an older London that is visible beneath the veneer of the contemporary one is its backdrop. Fowler celebrates the value of people who don't fit in with wonderfully written characters, and weaves the treasures of his city's history cleverly into the intriguing plots of his mysteries. This one had a particularly good twist, although I found the denoument a little on the long winded side. The final pages offer a list of the pubs and their addresses that Fowler mentions (pubs are the important element of London history that figure in this book). An excellent resource for my next trip to London!

Here are my other posts on The Victoria Vanishes 1, 2.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Adding to the bookish frenzy...

After all that noble stuff in my last post about my great weeding habits (I sound like Elmer Fudd) I must now report that it is all bunk. Don't believe that guy who wrote here on Thursday. On Friday I acquired 3 new treasures and I'm darn pleased about it.

Having reading Irish novelist Deirdre Madden's latest, Molly Fox's Birthday, this summer and raved about it, and then having read an earlier work of her's - One by One in the Darkness - and confirmed my admiration of the humanity of her vision and the sophistication of her voice, I decided I wanted to see from whence it all came. I ordered her first novel - Hidden Symptoms (1986) - from a second hand bookseller and it arrived yesterday. Theresa, a university student, experiences her faith come up against the cruelty of the violent death of her brother. Her The Birds of the Innocent Wood, Authenticity, and Remembering Light and Stone also sound like thoughtful and complex works that are going to be worth reading. Much to look forward to!

Last night, before meeting an old friend for dinner, I was near a bookstore - a rare occurrence these days - and dropped in for a browse. A few dollars later I was the proud owner of two new novels - Ward Just's recent Exiles in the Garden. He is an often praised novelist I have yet to read. This work sounds an interesting mix of politics and moral choices from an American as well as a European perspective. The other is Joseph Kertes new epic novel set in Hungary under Nazi occupation. Gratitude involves fictional characters interacting with Raoul Wallenberg, an actual figure from recent history - a Swedish humanitarian who worked to rescue Jews from murder by the Nazis. The novel is compared to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, that's a jacket blurb to live up to. I'm excited to see how it holds up!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Controlling the bookish frenzy

btt button

When’s the last time you weeded out your library? Do you regularly keep it pared down to your reading essentials? Or does it blossom into something out of control the minute you turn your back, like a garden after a Spring rain? Or do you simply not get rid of books? At all? (This would have described me for most of my life, by the way.) And–when you DO weed out books from your collection (assuming that you do) …what do you do with them? Throw them away (gasp)? Donate them to a charity or used bookstore? SELL them to a used bookstore? Trade them on Paperback Book Swap or some other exchange program?

I live in a New York City-sized apartment and therefore weed my library regularly. For a while, early in my career working as a theatre-artist, I ate my way (literally) through many books and LPs. I would sell them off a little at a time to meet my bills for rent or food. Occasionally I will look for a book and think, what ever happened to that one, and then think - Oh! I must have eaten it. Nowadays I weed the collection to make sure there is only one row of books per shelf and to keep the piles of books-to-be-read to a controlled frenzy. Generally I'll bring them to Strand Book Store and get a little cash for them. Sometimes I'll give one away here or to a friend. I have yet to use a trading forum.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The feeling of having time stretch before you... (Books - The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble)

Margaret Drabble writes in the introduction to The Pattern in the Carpet about the discomfort she experienced in writing about members of her family in her novel The Peppered Moth.
I wrote brutally about my mother's depression, and I never wish to enter that terrain again. It is too near, too ready to engulf me as it engulfed her...I had hoped that writing about her would make me feel better about her. But it didn't. It made me feel worse.
Uncomfortable or not, Drabble is at it again, writing in this book about her Autie Phyl and in the even less-disguised form of a memoir, although the book is doing double-duty as a history of puzzles and other pastimes. Whether her reticence is cultural or personal, healthy or not I am glad she's gotten over it.
As she went to bed that night, she said that she wished we had been able to finish the jigsaw. 'It's a pity,' she said, as she gave up. 'It's a pity.' It was the last evening of the last summer. We had tried to finish it. We sat up late, past midnight, struggling with patches of tree and fern and grass and sky. In the morning, we would have to drive away and leave it incomplete on its table, for others to finish another day. It was unsatisfactory. She knew she would never come back. She knew it was her last summer with us It was Thursday, 7 August 1997, and she was eighty-eight. She was getting older, and I was getting older, and the journey back to her home was across country and very long. Next year, even if she were still alive, it would be too much for both of us. Neither of us mentioned this. There were many things we never mentioned. But she knew, and she knew I knew.
In a way this is a book of unmentionables, since Drabble was never going to write about family again. The tone she sets with that opening paragraph is calm and measured. It feels, indeed, like one of those late summer evenings that feel they could go on for ever. I found myself reading the narrative bibliography of this book before starting the story-proper. Drabble seems to have had a grand time researching childhood pastimes, card games, collections, and puzzles. Her description of how one title led to another made me envious of her research in the subject, before remembering that I have nothing to envy. I have a least two papers to write this semester and if I find that pastime so romantic, why haven't I made more progress?

Drabble's description of how and why she did, and still does, puzzles:
We always started with the frame. Auntie Phyl taught my sisters and me how to pick out all the straight-edged pieces of jigsaw first, to find the corners, and to build up the four sides. then we would begin to sort the colours, and to construct areas of the picture. Unlike some people, we did not have a set procedure for this stage of the puzzle, and we were never of the willfully austere school that does not look at the picutre on the box. Looking at the picture for us was part of the pleasure. Doing a jigsaw was not an intelligence test, or a personality assessment programme; it was a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie. And it was not, fur us, a form of competition.
That is just how my grandmother and mother taught us to do puzzles. I loved the feeling of having time stretch in that seemingly endless way before me! The last two sentences in the above paragraph interested me particularly. Drabble defines puzzles very much in the negative, and since her rivalrous relationship with her sister A. S. Byatt is somewhat renowned, it is interesting that one of the attractions she feels towards puzzles is that they provided a refuge from competition. In any event, more on this book as I continue my reading of it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Water, water everywhere... (Books - A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore)

I read Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, as a subtle tragedy on the wastefulness of our recent past, using a personal narrative to tell a story of wide-reaching cultural disconnect. How, in this world, we can have had the ultimate in freedom but have failed to be responsible, so much desire but have failed to connect, so much knowledge and yet have been so unwise. We trade rhetoric about racial prejudice in America like tupperware, but the words are hollow and lack follow through. We have betrayed our role as stewards of the free world.

Tassie, the young narrator in A Gate at the Stairs, faced with the possibility to learn of a rich world at her university, fills her time with courses on wine tasting and film scores (not that those are inherently bad subjects). A young woman adopts a baby and then immediately goes back to work, leaving someone else in charge. This book is filled with a deep aching loss in the midst of abundance. It is rendered elegiacally, almost calmly (except for one key narrative of heart-racing tension), yet it is filled with Lorrie Moore's trademark humor too and an almost accidental quality to the action. Ultimately it leaves the reader, I think, with a glimmer of hope in our ability to learn from our lives. I found it poignantly beautiful and have continued to think about it since I finished it. Here are my other posts on it 1, 2, 3.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The uses of poppycock.

In today's Science Times Benedict Carey reports on a series of studies about total nonsense.
The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down - as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky - the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense...The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
Experimentally this was investigated by Drs. Travis Proulx at University of California and Steven J. Heine at University of British Columbia by exposing subjects to either an absurd short story or to a more conventional one. Following this exposure, the students studied strings of letters with no apparent relationship to one another. Those students exposed to the absurd story remembered the letter strings far more accurately than the group that read the other story. The experimenters attribute that accuracy to their ability to create new patterns. Here's a link to the study.

Artists have used this technique for years. Courting a sense of disorientation can often be better fuel for creative explosion than a technique or rehearsal process that proceeds logically through steps of increasing knowledge and order. I'd love to do a variation on the reported study. It might be meaningful to find two varying situations for the same story rather than test two different stories, that is, create or identify one group for whom the story or some other stimulus is absurd and another for whom it is not and test their memory accuracy. A religious stimulus could be interesting - there are people for whom certain patterns of information or iconography possess serious meaning but which non-believers find to be absurd nonsense. How would these groups perform on the memory test if exposed to the exact same stimuli? This makes me want to run out and read Jabberwocky rather than an article on sub-cortical brain systems involved in visual perception in order to prepare for this morning's test.

Monday, October 5, 2009

First prize for most beautifully painted toenails goes to... (Books - The Victoria Vanishes by Christopher Fowler)

Have I mentioned what a funny writer Christopher Fowler's is? He writes the quirkiness of his detective duo - Bryant and May - with insight into what it is that makes certain people uncomfortable about those who think and behave differently from themselves. The Peculiar Crimes Unit may be abused as a garbage heap for unsolved cases, a place to lay blame for failure, but at its best it is meant to take advantages of the eccentricities of Bryant and May in solving the unusual crime, finding the unordinary criminal thinking - an unconventional mind is going to have greater success getting inside the mind of an unconventional criminal.

I did mention that the first chapter of The Victoria Vanishes sports a murder. The second sports a wake, the wake of the PCU's coroner - Oswald Finch who dies under his own examination table in the morgue, as Arthur Bryant eulogizes:
'...and now he'll never get to enjoy his twilight years in that freezing, smelly fisherman's hut he'd bought for himself on the beach in Hastings. Now I know some of you will be thinking "And bloody good riddance, you miserable old sod," because he could be a horrible old man, but I like to believe that Oswald was only bad-tempered because nobody liked him. He had dedicated his life to dead people, and now he's joined them.'

One of the station house girls burst into tears. Bryant held up his hands for quiet. 'This afternoon, in a reflective mood, I sat at my desk and tried to remember all the good things about him. I couldn't come up with anything, I'm afraid, but the intention was there. I even phoned Oswald's oldest school friend to ask him for amusing stories, but sadly he went mad some while back and now lives in a mental home in Wales.'

Bryant paused for a moment of contemplation. A mood of despondency settle over the room like a damp flannel. 'Oswald was a true professional. He was determined not to let his total lack of sociability get in the way of his career. True, he was depressing to be around, and everyone complained that he smelled funny, but that was because of the chemicals he used. And the flatulence...'
I can just imagine Fowler chortling at his desk as he wrote Bryant's eulogy for Oswald. It's black humor, to be sure, but it's not that often that reading gives me a good old out-loud guffaw. Evidently the book won 2009's Last Laugh Award for funniest crime novel - it sounds like the awards they think up for children in elementary school or summer camp just so that everyone gets one and doesn't burst into tears. 'And Virginia wins first prize for most beautifully painted toenails on the left foot...'

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Unconventional crime solving and coming of age in a void (Books - The Victoria Vanishes & A Gate at the Stairs)

Classes + 3 experiments + seeing patients has thrown me into overdrive and my entire schedule out of whack. It is leaving me much less time for reading not related to school. When I do find the time, it seems to be in smaller chunks because I fall asleep - I can't get up a good head of steam on any of my reading right now much as I enjoy the few minutes I can snatch each night. Lately I've been flitting back and forth between books already started and a bunch of recently acquired treasures:

I have written about Christopher Fowler's less than ordinary detective team - Bryant and May - and their Peculiar Crimes Unit
before here and here. When all other units fail, this rag tag bunch of thinkers-out-of-the-box handles crimes that don't fit the conventional mold. Fowler combines a good sense of comedy, an enjoyment of London history (the theatre during WW II, underground waterways, and now the venerable institution of the English pub), and a well-plotted mystery. I have been looking forward to another one. The Victoria Vanishes opens with a murder that gives an example of the way Fowler's writing combines a good sense of atmosphere and an intense energy:
It was ridiculous, she was surrounded by people but the noise of laughter and conversation was drowning her out. The crush of customers made her even more invisible. He was hurting her now. She tried to squirm out of his embrace.

Something stung her face hard. She brought her free hand to her cheek, but there was nothing. It felt like an angry wasp, trapped and maddened in the crowded room. Wasn't it too early in the year for such insects?

And then he released her arm, and she was dropping away through the beery friendship of the bar, away from the laughter and yeasty warmth of life, into a place of icy, infinite starlight.

Into death.

I am struck currently in Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs by the character of Sarah - a white, yuppie restaurant owner who adopts an African American child. She ends up, because she experiences the racist comments of some of her neighbors, creating a support group for multi-racial families. Moore can at once treat the subject seriously and mine it for great comedy. We experience the group meeting through Tassie's ears - the college student hired to babysit Sarah's adopted daughter Mary-Emma - as a desultory stream of empty rhetoric about Muslims, black hair, racism, vegetarians, Jews, Karl Rove, Pete Seeger, and humane treatment of chimpanzees. The group seems, like the adoption, to be another of Sarah's empty promises. It's full of the surface of the thing, but not the intellectual focus or the depth of love needed to do it seriously. Just like television. I laugh at Moore's script of these meetings, but I cringe too as this is Tassie's coming of age story and rather than an environment rich in love, good or outlandish taste, complex political discussion (conservative or liberal), or even drugs or music, it is filled with an unloved baby, a loveless marriage, professional ambition, uninformed fear of others, college courses in wine tasting, and people who cannot talk to each other. They engage in parallel monologues so empty of substance that the air can be heard to whistle through them.

I wanted to write about Margaret Drabble's new memoir The Pattern in the Carpet too, but I am going to hold off on that as I have to get to the lab (yes, on Sunday).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Liar, liar, pants on fire

btt button

Suggested by Monibo. Saw this article (from March) and thought it would make a good BTT confessional question:

Two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?

We don't do that on this side of the Atlantic (yeah, right). I know that there are any number of school assignments I have suggested that I read by nodding knowingly. As an undergraduate I couldn't stand Dickens's Bleak House. I now love it, but at the time I could not get through it and so I had my roommate tell me the story in order to write my final. I think I may also have claimed to have read all of Shakespeare's work in my time and there are probably a couple of poems and plays I still haven't gotten around to (I find Henry VI and Henry VIII deadly boring). For the most part, the vast amount of books I haven't read just provides me with the certainty that there is lots out there to look forward to. I don't feel as though I have to lie about it.