Thursday, December 31, 2009

My best fiction reads for 2009

btt button

It’s the last day of the year, and you know what that means … nostalgia and looking back.

What were your favorite books of the year? (Books that were new to you in 2009, if not necessarily published this year.)

It just so happens that BTT's question corresponds with the post I was planning to write today. I read 52 books this year (see my reading stats for 2009 here) and have divided my favorites into subcategories which I have posted over the past week. Here are the links:

my favorite non-fiction of 2009
my favorite fiction written for young readers of 2009
my favorite mystery or thriller of 2009
my favorite science fiction or fantasy of 2009

and now... drum roll favorite all around fiction of 2009

This last category was the subject for my planned post today and it's a toughie. I read some mighty strong novels this year. Listing the strongest that do not fit the above categories in the order in which I read them:

The Witches of Eastwick - Updike
The Imposter - Galgut
Little Boy Lost - Laski
An Equal Stillness - Kay
The Puttermesser Papers - Ozick
I Haven't Dreamed of Flying for a While - Yamada
Molly Fox's Birthday - Madden
One by One in the Darkness - Madden
The Children's Book - Byatt
Pictures at an Exhibition - Houghteling
A Gate at the Stairs - Moore
Forgetfulness - Just
The Needle's Eye - Drabble
Generosity - Powers
The Translator - Just
Remembering Light and Stone - Madden

That's a good reading year and offers me some tough choices. Here's how I am going to call it (my original posts for these books are linked to the titles):

Pictures at an Exhibition
by Sara Houghteling is the most promising novel by a newcomer I read in 2009

The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick was the most eruditely entertaining novel I read in 2009

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski is a beautifully written and compassionate book written by an unjustly forgotten and prolific novelist of the mid 1900s

And finally, Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden and Forgetfulness by Ward Just are tied for the best novels I read in 2009.

May your 2010 be filled with great reading and lots of other great things too.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

First posts of the month for 2009 meme

I had forgotten about this end-of-the-year meme which I enjoyed last year, but thankfully Pete reminded me of it! I've been concentrating on the best of, here's the first of - the first lines of the first post of each month of 2009:

Backtracking to some brief thoughts on my last read of 2008, Saul Bellow's novella The Actual, I found it a fluid, mischievous set of intertwining character studies at the center of which is Harry Trellman, a Chicago businessman - an eternal outsider with a talent for assessing character.

The Superbowl mystifies me. This year particularly, when the sound of adults screaming their heads off both in pleasure and in agony, made me think that the same phenomenon that causes this reaction is going to be what eventually turns the economy around.

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 permanence.

An excellent essay from the New York Times about why computers might never outperform the human brain.

With the economy gone to the dogs and our health going to the pigs and an all-round atmosphere of hysteria that is becoming the real reason for worry, I thought it the perfect time to bring back our favorite psychopath, Tom Ripley to really give us somewhere to place our anxiety.

The semester is finally over, my last paper handed in, and five films I had requested all came in to my local library at the same time, so we watched Le Scaphandre et le Papillon last night. Based on the memoir by the journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby who was paralyzed by a stroke yet able to understand everything that went on around him - locked-in syndrome. Scaphandre is French for diving bell, which is Bauby's metaphor for what it is like to be trapped inside himself.

The day's musings are by Frank O'Hara, not me. His warped angle was necessary to counteract all the rain and all the talk. This poem has the best opening line.

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara

Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?

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.

What’s the biggest book you’ve read recently? (Feel free to think “big” as size, or as popularity, or in any other way you care to interpret.

That would be A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. It is big in its number of pages, big in its ambitions to encompass many sweeping social, political, and artistic themes of a recent period of history in Europe (in my post on finishing it I called it 'vast').

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 had yet to read a book by Ward Just before picking up his latest, Exiles in the Garden. It is set in Washington D. C. and concerns Alec Malone, a senator's son who rejects a life in politics in favor of one as a photographer.

I wrote in my first post about Richard Powers's new novel Generosity that I was afraid this was going to be one of his novels that I couldn't get through. I am glad to say it did not turn out that way.

It's a fun way to review the year - care to join me?

Inner struggles of mind and soul & this year's book stats (Books - Hidden Symptoms by Deirdre Madden)

I finished Deirdre Madden's first novel, Hidden Symptoms, early this morning. Written in 1986, it displays many of the hallmarks of her more mature work like Molly Fox's Birthday, Remembering Light and Stone and One by One in the Darkness - complexity in her characters, their interior struggles with art, faith, politics, and family - but with an extra dose of passion. It has less reserve than her more recent books. This novel concerns Theresa, a university literature student, whose twin brother is murdered in the violent struggle in Northern Ireland, and does interior battle in maintaining her faith in light of her suffering. The narrative has a drive more forceful than her more recent books, but no less humane. Madden's work has a seriousness about people who think deeply about their inner lives, who don't spout platitudes and formulas around finding love and meaning in them, and who appreciate that this struggle is an ongoing feature of a thoughtful existence. This is the kind of fiction I really value, which makes me glad that I still have The Birds of the Innocent Wood and Authenticity on the pile and that leaves Nothing Is Black, Snake's Elbows, and Thanks for Telling Me, Emily yet to find and to read.

And that brings me to my 52nd book for 2009. I'm likely to start another book this year but I probably won't finish one, so let's review the stats:

8 non-fiction
44 fiction

included in the fiction are:
4 written for young readers
10 mystery/thrillers
3 fantasy/science fiction
No poetry collections this year
1 short story or novella volume
1 play
the rest fall into the "general" fiction category

25 were written by women
27 were written by men

This year, all but 5 were originally written in English and those authors were Irish, English, South African, and American.

I'll post my best general fiction read or reads of 2009 some time in the next day. For the other categories, scroll down.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An exile in one's own life (Books - Remembering Light and Stone - Madden)

My penultimate read of 2009, Remembering Light and Stone, had some themes in common with my previous read - The Translator. Both were written in the early 1990s by authors I discovered in 2009 - Ward Just I discovered through his latest novel Exiles in the Garden and Deirdre Madden through Molly Fox's Birthday. Both reading experiences immediately encouraged me to read two more books by the author. And these, the third books I read by each, explored the experience of exile in ones life and were set around the time of the falling of the Berlin wall, observing individual lives in the context of world-scale changes. They were both the products of inquiring minds and made for rich and pleasurable reading. That said, they were nothing alike.

The Translator has a breadth of focus that makes it a book about the world via the story of an individual life, I link to my post on it above. Remembering Light and Stone is an intensely private work. Reading it is to become intimate with its subject, Aisling, an Irish woman who has moved by choice first to Paris and then to the small Umbrian town of San Giorgio. The story is that of an immensely sensitive person who feels an exile from the world, at odds with life as it is expected to be lived, whether in her native country of Ireland or in her adopted country of Italy. And one could say, that is all. But that makes this sound a scant novel and I found it rich and deeply personal.
One day I was out in the car with my father. He was driving to the next village to collect a piece of farm machinery. I was on holiday from school, and he had asked if I wanted to go with him so I'd said yes. He didn't say anything as we drove along. My father didn't talk much at any time, and I often used to wonder what he was thinking. I prattled on to him for a bit, then I fell quiet. I started to do the same thing that I would do on the bus. I wiped from my mind all memory of my father, and pretended he lived in a different place, perhaps with another family, perhaps on his own. Maybe he wasn't a farmer but a lorry driver, or a man who owned a shop. I looked at his thick fingers gripping the steering wheel, and I wondered what he sold, groceries or hardware. I imagined him wearing an overall the colour of a brown paper bag, and people coming to him to buy hammers and nails and tins of paint. And then suddenly it wasn't make believe anymore: this man was a total stranger. I was terrified. 'Who is this person?' I thought. 'Where is he taking me? What will he do with me when he gets there?' I looked up at his face. His heavy brow was angry and cruel. 'Stop the car, please,' I said. He glanced over at me. 'What is it, Aisling?' he asked. 'Don't you feel well?' but although he slowed down, he didn't stop. I still didn't trust this man. 'Stop the car!' I screamed, fumbling with the locks to get out, and this time he did, the brakes screeching. I already had the door of the car open, and the sight of the road moving beneath me frightened me so much, I let the door slip closed again, and started to cry.
Not only can you get a sense of the precision and the quotidian feel of Madden's writing from this paragraph, but the episode from Aisling's past defines the very core of her. Someone whose mind allows her a powerful ability to see the nature of things - people's deepest thoughts, the way some art captures the era from which it comes - to these Aisling is powerfully sensitive - but the cost of her vision can be a profound insecurity, particularly in the kind of things most people take for granted. This seems meto the very essence of an artist's vision, but Aisling is not an artist and has neither the outlet of a medium for her potent thoughts nor that identity to offer her a place in the world. It is her reckoning with her sense of difference that is the subject of this strong and compact novel. That is not to say it is all serious, Madden's Aisling winks at the reader from time to time:
I won't say anything about whether or not I slept with Ted that night. Even if I did say, it would be foolish to believe me, because everybody tells lies about sex, and I'm no exception.
But Madden herself is every inch an artist - aware of her form, precise in her diction, a consummate creator of characters who are both idiosyncratic and ordinary, and deep in the insight she sheds on the experience of those human beings. I cannot recommend her work highly enough. I am now enjoying her first novel Hidden Symptoms, which I hope to report on some time in the next two days. It will be the fourth work of hers that I read this year and my 52nd book, closing out the year with a round 1 book per week.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Translating ourselves to survive in the world (Books - The Translator by Ward Just)

I am holding off on writing about my best fiction reads of 2009, having covered all the other categories, because in my final novels of the year I keep reading such good stuff. I am reading my third book this year by Irish novelist Deirdre Madden, Remembering Light and Stone, and it is beautifully written and deeply probing about ordinary human experience. I just completed my third novel by American writer Ward Just - The Translator, having read Exiles in the Garden and Forgetfulness earlier this year.

I found The Translator a more subtle work than the previous two - it is simple in its theme, which I read as a study of how human beings adapt or maladapt to change on both the personal and the political level. It accomplishes this in a way I felt more akin to music than any other form. I would liken the book to a symphony, divided into four parts with a prelude and a coda. This large theme of change holds the entire piece together and each of the four movements (chapters) introduces and develops its material in a more linear way - in a book we would say the plot advances, and it does, but this book is not heavy on its plot - it goes deep into the inner lives of its central character - Sydney, the translator - and those important to him, and one looks up suddenly and finds that time has passed but not in a typical this-happened-and-then-that-happened way. We experience Sydney from his boyhood in war-ravaged Germany and his fascination with American film, to his eventual immigration to Paris, where he makes his life. As he lives his life he works translating German fiction and, around him, the balances of power shift from a post war world, to a cold war world, to a post-Soviet world. Parallel to that Sidney meets a woman, they have a family, they negotiate relationships with estranged parents (a theme the three Ward Just novels I have read have shared). The influences of East and West, Europe and America, play a significant role in the larger structure of this novel and are mirrored by the points of view of male and female, seasoned and innocent, native and exile. It is a beautifully put together work of fiction. As an example of how Just works his themes, I would say that one of my favorite scenes takes place on rue de Rivoli in front of a gallery window in which is dispayed a painting:
It was one of Vuillard's nudes, a sketch of a woman seated at her kitchen table. Her face was in shadows. She was neither young nor old. The time appeared to be early morning of no particular day in the summer. The woman had no plans. Through the open window behind her were the knuckled rooftops of Paris, roughly sketched but vividly alive. The woman leaned on her elbow, her chin touching the back of her hand in an attitude of infinite languor or ennui. It was not Entzauberung because this woman was not German or married to one. Perhpas it was only indifference, rising to wlecome an anonymous summer morning. She would be feeling a breeze on her skin and noticing the smells rising from the street, fresh-baked bread, wood smoke, and other smells less appetizing. Her hair was mussed so she had just climbed from her bed, probably out of sorts, half asleep and fuzzy around the edges. A vast silence seemed to surround her, so surely she was alone in the apartment, thinking her own thoughts, alone with her black cat, watchful in the corner of the room.

Sydney believed he was looking into the woman's soul. Vuillard was the savant of French domestic life. The cereal bowl, a knitting basket, flowers in a vase, the cat in the corner. These were the matters of consequence in a human being's life, the family and work. No artist had ever done it better, and most did not care to do it at all. Sydney touched the window glass with his fingertips, experienceing a moment of veritgo. ..
Sydney imagines not only his version of the life of the woman who is the subject of the painting, but his wife's version as well. He does this in the context of being temporarily separated from her, and walking a route they have often taken together. An added layer of memory plays a part in this scene as his walk in the present is preceeded by his memory of a similar walk through Paris with his wife in the past. Following his imaginings, Sydney meets a wealthy West German couple who discuss buying the Vuillard and all at once Just has created the entire world in front of us - married and alone, wealth and relative poverty, past and present, art and life, world politics and the minutia of daily domestic existence - and through this, time eventually is experienced as having moved forward and the plot (if you like) advances. I find that I experience time in relation to my life similarly. I don't see my hair turn grey, I just notice one day that it has. As life changes we can (or not) follow suit. Adaptation is like translating ourselves from one language to another. That is the meat of The Translator - finely detailed on the one hand, sweeping across great swathes of time and political influence and the other. It rendered with extraordinary depth, humanity, and complexity by Ward Just.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A fantastical christmas - My best of sci-fi or fantasy for 2009

Merry and Happy if christmas is your thing. All the whiteness in the midwest of the U.S. has been transformed to wetness, so it looks as though Santa had to use a boat rather than a sled last night. I've finished my third Ward Just novel of the year, The Translator an excellent book, but I think I will hold off writing about it until tomorrow and continue my listmaking instead. On next to the fantasy/science fiction category, a sparsely represented category for 2009. I only read three titles this year:

American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman
The Good Fairies of New York - Martin Millar

I can't say I was wild about any of these but if pressed for my favorite I would choose Anansi Boys because it was the most amusing of the three. I'm a bigger fan of Gaiman's work for younger audiences like Coraline and The Graveyard Book than I am of his work for adult readers, but Anansi Boys was involving and entertaining.

A fantastical christmas to all, and to all a good read.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Have yourself a mysterious little christmas - my best mystery or thriller read of 2009

Moving on now to best mystery (and thriller) reads of 2009, I am surprised that I read as many as I did. There were 10, or 19% of the 52 books I keep saying I will have read by year's end.

The Private Patient
- P. D. James
The Writing Class - Jincy Willett
The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
Obedience - Will Lavender
Ripley Under Ground - Patricia Highsmith
The Angel's Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Manual of Detection - Jedediah Berry
The Victoria Vanishes - Christopher Fowler
Tattoo - Manuel Vasquez Montalban
The Semantics of Murder - Aifric Campbell
Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham

Looking over this list, I honestly don't remember the experience of reading every one of these books. I am going to have to read my thoughts on them (pause as he does so)... I really enjoyed Jincy Willett's The Writing Class for combining a wonderful sense of humor, insights about the creative process, and a mystery, and I admired P.D. James's The Private Patient for her mature hand at character development and the sophisticated craft she brings to the fashioning of a mystery, but my best 2009 read in the mystery/thriller category goes to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. In it she somehow creates an almost lovable psychopath - a macabre and agonizingly suspenseful read.

And for all of you who celebrate christmas - may yours be merry and bright.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best YA fiction I read in 2009

Next in my end-of-year round-up is YA fiction, of which I didn't read very much this year. A quick look reveals just 4 titles, which is 8% of my planned 52 books:

Sons of Liberty - Adele Griffin
Kissing Doorknobs - Terry Spencer Hesser
Total Constant Order - Chrisa-Jean Chappell
What the Birds See - Sonya Hartnett

This one is a shoe-in. While Sons of Liberty was a nice enough story, I felt the writing a bit too self-consciously instructional. Kissing Doorknobs and Total Constant Order are both special interest reads for a presentation I did on Obsessional Compulsive Disorder in children and both are written to educate children about that disorder and do so effectively. What the Birds See is an original work about a deeply lonely child. The story telling as well as the writing is of the highest quality. My reaction was to call it "potent, deeply imagined and lyrical." I am hoping to read some other books by its author, Sonya Hartnett. It gets my pick for best YA fiction read of 2009.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Frantic end of the year listmaking and my best non-fiction read for 2009

It's that time again when I look back over the year's reading and make best-of lists to review it for quality and suddenly get competitive with myself and make frantic year-end goals so as to achieve a certain quantity. With 49 books read this year and 2 seriously in-process, it is probably reasonable to shoot for 52 books this year - which would be an average of 1 per week. Not bad, seeing I'm earning a Ph.D. and only 3 of those books listed were for school. (I listed the school-related reading that actually involved reading a whole book that might be of some general interest but I did not list every text book or professional journal articles, which comprises most of my school reading).

As for best-of lists I will start with non-fiction, of which I read very little this year (a few are still in the works).

The Invention of Air - Steven Johnson
Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies - J. William Worden
The Music Room - by William Fiennes
The Man With the Shattered World - A. R. Luria
The Snow Geese - William Fiennes
Beautiful Shadow - Andrew Wilson
Ethics in Psychology and the Mental Health Professions - Koocher & Keith-Spiegel
Picasso and Lump: A Daschund's Odyssey - David Douglas Duncan

If I actually finished 1 of the 3 non-fiction books in the works: 3 Case Histories of Freud or Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945, or Margaret Drabble's recent memoir, that would be a respectable 9 non-fiction books of the 52 I plan to read this year, or 17%, more than I expected.

I won't include the 3 partially read books in my consideration of this year's best non-fiction but a quick look at the list easily whittles it down to just 2 titles: The Music Room and The Invention of Air. I just re-read my initial posts on these 2 titles and my choice for best non-fiction read of 2009 goes to The Music Room by William Fiennes which I found "touching and thoughtful, indulging in the sweetness of memory but never tumbling into maudlin longing."

To come, my 2009 picks for YA fiction, mystery, perhaps a sci-fi/fantasy choice, and fiction.

Monday, December 21, 2009

English mysteries, English weddings, and puppy love (Books - Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham & Picasso and Lump)

We just spent four days at the wedding of friends in the UK, so I've been off the net but had two transatlantic flights and jet lag to give me a little more reading time than has been possible lately and I got through a Margery Allingham mystery, half of Ward Just's The Translator, and a cute book, mostly of photographs, about Picasso and his daschund, Lump.

Police at the Funeral was my first Margery Allingham mystery. She is a classic, 1930s English mystery writer whose works have been reissued by the publisher Felony & Mayhem. She has a strong talent for plotting but I found her writing pedestrian, unsurprising, and sometimes carelessly repetitive. This is the fourth in a series of mysteries featuring a wealthy young detective called Albert Campion, but I left the world of this book behind knowing very little about what he looks like or how he solves his mysteries. Unlike her sister in crime Agatha Christie, Allingham has not created for this reader a strong impression of who her detective is. This story concerns a wealthy family ruled by a strong-willed matriarch, whose members are being knocked off one by one in circumstances that lead one to believe it is an inside job.
"There's rank evil there," he went on unexpectedly, fixing his bright eyes on the other's face and speaking with an intense sincerity which finally removed any trace of his former frigidity.

"There they are, a family forty years out of date, all vigorous energetic people by temperament, all save for the old lady, without their fair share of brains, and herded together in that great mausoleum of a house, tyrannised over by one of the most astounding personalities I've ever encountered. Imagine it, Campion, there are stricter rules in that house than you or I were ever forced to keep at our schools. And there is no escape."

Well, evidently there is, and that escape route is the subject of this mystery, which never rose above the level of a quaint period piece for me, but kept me entertained nonetheless.

While visiting with our friends, I also read in a single sitting the 1957 picture book by David Douglas Duncan Picasso and Lump: A Daschund's Odyssey. It tells in photographs of the friendship between Pablo Picasso and his dog Lump. It is a charmer of a book particularly if, like me, you can't resist a daschund. Between this book and our friends' 6-month-old Portuguese Water Dog Caesar, there was a lot of puppy-love this wedding weekend and I can never get enough of that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Creative analysis - in truth fiction, in fiction truth (Books - The Semantics of Murder by Aifric Campbell)

Irish novelist Aifric Campbell's debut, The Semantics of Murder, was published last year in England and just this month in the U.S. I'm delighted to have been sent a copy so that I might tell you about it. The story is based upon the still unsolved murder of linguist Richard Montague in Beverly Hills in 1971. An erudite scholar and organist, Montague was gay and preferred the company of what is known as rough trade, by whom he was presumed to have been murdered. Montague's chief contribution to linguistics was a method of analyzing language employing mathematical logic that admitted no difference between natural languages like French and artificial languages like those used in programming. An idea whose resonance is felt in Aifric's novel which is centered around two users of language - Montague's (here Robert Hamilton) fictional brother Jay Hamilton, a psychoanalyst living in London - and writer Dana Flynn, Robert Hamilton's biographer. Both create characters based upon the lives of others and perhaps one could look at the analyst's semantics as "natural" and the writer's as "artificial," although nothing is really that simple, where the heck does that leave the biographer?
The neon eye of his sleeping laptop pulsed in the shadowy outreaches of the desk. Jay opened Cora's casebook. during his psychoanalytic training, Metzling had encouraged the class to make detailed notes straight after each session, like how a suicide fantasist sat in a chair, or how a depressive avoided eye contact. Jay used to fill pages with his clients' free associations, tracing the footprints of their childhoods, the forgotten tastes and sensation that lingered between the shadowland of memory and imagination, until he realised the futility of it all, the stunning irrelevance of the truth. After all, even Freud had admitted that it was the imagined past he was seeking, that biographical truth could be left to the historians. These days Jay's notes were outline sketches, a series of fragments, sometimes just single words that blossomed into the stories they might later become. An impressionistic starting point was all he needed to begin. The light sharpened, a plot slowly emerged and then he could stop listening to the client and simply select what suited.
Jay Hamilton, as a psychoanalyst, listens to the associations of others. The hope is to discover the truth (although there could be 100 of them) that lives beneath their words, helping them to frame a coherent narrative - one they can live with - that is the process of a successful psychotherapy. This indeed is an issue of semantics - the study of the meaning of language. Jay Hamilton also creates fictions under a pseudonym that are based upon his more interesting cases - hey, it worked for Freud. The trouble here is that Hamilton has stopped listening for the purpose of treating his patients and now relates to his patients only as fodder for fiction.

Dana Flynn, having earned a reputation for her biography of Alan Turing (another brilliant and complex thinker, who was gay, and whose life ended under suspicious circumstances), has turned his interests to Robert Hamilton (aka Richard Montague). She visits Jay to learn about his brother, exhuming Robert's memory for Jay in a challenging way, one that raises his defenses.
'Sometimes we look for conspiracy theories when we are unwilling or unable to accept the truth. When it is too painful. We rail against the truth when we think it's unfair. A little childish don't you think?' Her mouth stretched into a grim smile. 'You were angry that Turing died young and brilliant. You believed he was betrayed in the end by those who courted him. And now you're angry about Robert, so you want to make his murder more than it is. You want a better story.'
Ain't that just the pot calling the kettle black? Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of psychoanalysing going on in this novel. The story is an intelligent one with both an intellectual and a murder mystery element. There is a well integrated side-plot, in which one of Jay's patient's - Cora, the subject of his latest fiction - acts out in a surprising way. Cora is an analogue of Freud's famous case study 'Dora,' a patient through whom Freud explained some of the more influential of his ideas of repression, hysteria, and transference. This case is one critics point to as illustrative of the fact that Freud insists to strictly upon the objective truth of his analytic interpretation.

Aifric's book is more a contemporary novel with an unsolved crime in its plot than a conventional who-done-it. I have to say, I found the intertwined concepts of narrative identity, personal history, and truth and fiction more compelling than the mystery, which I had figured out fairly early in my reading. Perhaps everyone will not find the secret as obvious as I did, but given that fact, I would have preferred more of Aifric's smart cat and mouse maneouvering between Jay and Dana Flynn in which the reader knows something that one character does not. I think I would have found that more suspenseful than what felt to me like an artificial holding out. I would like to go more into the ways the secret fits well with the book's subject matter, but I feel that would give a little too much away.

Lastly, the theme of life-as-narrative is satisfyingly complemented as well as complicated by the mirror image theme of narrative-as-life. Aifric herself holds a linguistics degree. She has also studied both psychoanalysis and creative writing. If she will indulge me in a little creative analysis, it seems to me that we have in Jay and Dana two stand-ins for Aifric as she deals with the competing drives of the excitement to discover the truth of Montague's murder (semantics of a natural language), and the guilt of raising the dead by probing that history and then creating fiction of it (semantics of the artificial language). But as the truth remains unknown, it can only result in a fiction, and Aifric has created, in The Semantics of Murder, a smart and multi-layered read. And anyway, didn't Montague say that the natural and artificial languages are no different?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The failure of civilization beautifully expressed (Opera - From the House of the Dead by Leos Janacek)

Leos Janacek, the early 20th century Czech composer wrote music of a distinctive lyrical angularity. The pieces generally have an off-kilter, often hesitant rhythm, yet can be suffused with longing at some times and a sweet simplicity at others. His nine operas are no less idiosyncratic, setting unusual material such as the story of a fox serialized in drawings and stories in a local newspaper (Cunning Little Vixen), a play about an inheritance by Karel Capek that concerns a 300-year-old opera diva (The Makropulos Case), or The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, who travels in the opera's first act to the moon and in its second to 15th century Prague. His music was deeply informed by the folklore of Moravia, which he researched throughout his life. He meant his operas and songs not to force the texts to be subservient to his music but rather, he wrote his music to the rhythm and prosody of the Czech language.

I was delighted that the Metropolitan Opera finally mounted a new production by the sometimes controversial French director Patrice Chereau of Janacek's last and rarely done opera From the House of the Dead. It is based on Dostoevsky's writings about life in a Siberian prison in the 1860s. There is no story per se, it is rather an atmosphere piece in which the rituals of daily life, the resignation, and occasional flights of hope of the prisoners are chronicled. The story is not linear but the prisoners share their lives with each other through narratives and raunchy sketches for entertainment and these have a more traditional linear backbone if one needs a such a structure on which to hang ones hat, and clearly some of the mystified Met audience did. Chareau found a wonderful balance between evoking the sameness, the bleakness of vision of the place, the energy of a community whose members help keep each other alive, and the stories of the individuals who make up this community - who they loved and are loved by - each given dignity through these stories. There is the wonderful friendship that develops between Gorianchikov - a gentleman prisoner - and the youngest prisoner - Alyeya - whom Gorinchikov teaches to read. Particularly poignant is the story of Shishkov, set as a 20-minutes monologue by Janacek, and brought to vivid life in the richly played performance of Peter Mattei. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Met orchestra found an almost romantic richness to the music; the overture is a stunner. Set designer Richard Peduzzi created a concrete box with moving walls that is always a prison, but could be a prison anywhere and at any time. It has a hulking and domineering character at some moments and a tight claustrophobic one at others.

I particularly loved the opening of the second act, which transforms the space by dumping thousands of torn books on the stage - they produce a sound like a single, catastrophic explosion, dust flying everywhere and then the prisoners emerge through this cloud of dust doing their punitive work. I found this image multi-layered and evocative of, on the one hand, the futility of their work, and on another the laying to waste of words, of ideas, and of law. The futility was expressed in the instantaneousness of the mess. A mess simply made so that they might clean it up. And, if they ever get through the mountain of trash, a new load would simply be dumped there so that they may start over again. The mess was one of books, of text, as if to express the laying to waste of individual narrative, of the record of humanity, of ideas, and also of the law. Prisons express the ultimate failure of civilization, whether the culture is democratic or totalitarian, and whether the crimes committed are genuine psychopathic outrages or crimes of the expression of ideas that should not be crimes at all. We can scream all we want about the indecency of someone's crime, political disagreement, or fatal mistake but, when we take away someone's humanity we lessen our own. We may convince ourselves that it is less heinous when we feel sure of the seriousness of the crime and I am not beneath feeling jail is the proper place for people who have done certain things, but I do not pretend that this is civil or loving impulse or that it solves the problem of crime. This production documents the life of unjust imprisonment anywhere and in any age and simultaneously celebrates the humanity of those individuals lost inside. It also gives an important and little-produced 20th century piece of music-theatre a deserved and sensitive production that is beautiful to look at and listen to. I hope the Met brings it back in future seasons.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Marking books

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Suggested by Tammy:What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I have never in my life purchased a bookmark, although I enjoy using the bookmarks provided by bookstores. In fact they take on a certain character for me from having been associated with a particular kind of reading experience and then I end up having a sort-of magical thinking in when I am going to use that bookmark next, as though it might confer upon the next book the former reading experience. I guess I take the word kind of literally, as though whatever is used truly 'marks' that book rather than merely holding my place. But I have also used theatre and opera ticket stubs, boarding passes, plane and train tickets, old metro cards, Amsterdam tram tickets, London Tube tickets, dry cleaning bills, restaurant bills, receipts (for the book itself and for other things), envelopes both with and without their contents, shopping lists, coupons, utility bills, postcards, business cards, ribbon, wedding invitations, benefit invitations, recipes, newspaper clippings, old phone messages - I was quite surprised in re-reading a book a few years ago to see my father's handwriting (he's been dead for many years) on a phone message he took for me 25 years ago! My grandfather, who had a terrific library, tended to use old postcards and birthday cards from friends and relatives and enjoyed finding them when re opening old books, which brings me to the second part of the question - the most unusual bookmark I have ever seen used. That would have been one my grandfather used. When I inherited portions of his library and decided to read one of his books, I was surprised to discover my own mother's birth announcement had been his bookmark!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Complex narratives in science as in art (Books - Generosity - an enhancement by Richard Powers)

I wrote in my first post about Richard Powers's new novel Generosity that I was afraid this was going to be one of his novels that I couldn't get through. I am glad to say it did not turn out that way. For about the first 100 pages, Powers's narrator, Russell Stone, struggles with paralyzing self-consciousness to have enough gumption to live his life and to love another person in the novel's present time frame, and to write this novel in the future. This reader had to wonder if it wasn't really Powers's struggle we were witnessing. Too many writerly exercises: - riff-like paragraphs that are nothing more than lists to effect a jump-start:
Blogs, mashups, reality programming, court TV, chat shows, chat rooms, chat cafes, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even war-zone journalism all turn confessional. Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.
I felt at times like I was watching someone trying to unplug and when he was finally released he was unwilling to shut off the flow.

Or the narrator writing about his self-consciousness, his disbelief in narrative, so that those words, no matter how doubt-filled, in the act of dropping onto the page, create the very narrative he fears eludes him.
Plot is preposterous: event following event in a chain of clean causes, rising action building to inevitable climax and resolving into meaning. Who could be suckered by that? The classic tension graph is a vicious lie, the negation of a mature grasp of reality. Story is antilife...
I feared that the novel would bet mired in this Escherian act of self-reflection, and at times it got a little cutsie, but in fact, that act became useful and to answer your question, dear narrator, it is I who could be suckered by that. It ultimately became, as this book's title suggests, a generous act to have this struggle before us. The act of creating an artistic narrative became a stand-in for the narrative that we "write" as our identity, and moreover the narrative that nature assembles of our amino acids, abbreviated A, C, T, and G, that are arrayed to write the long narrative of our genome - yet another way that units are strung together to make up individuals and their characteristics. These intertwining themes of narrative are assembled in a simple plot that makes up a complex book. Simple in that Russell's writing class tells us there are only 12 possible plots. This one concernins Russell (a writer), Candace (a psychotherapist), and Thassa (an Algerian refugee and film student). Thassa, despite a life of suffering, violence, and displacement, strikes anyone who meets her as the most irrepresibly joyous and self possessed person alive. An entrepreneurial geneticist, Thomas Kurton, learns of Thassa and studies her. He claims that her genome contains the genetic code that most disposes people toward happiness. This turns her into public property. I won't tell you whether she triumphs or becomes the victim of this attention, since that is the plot and was, for the first half of the book, what kept me reading. The book is rendered complex because it contains yet another layer of narrative in the character of Tonia Schiff, a television science journalist who is making a program about Kurton. It interweaves the questions of what it means to make a narrative that is "true" or "false" - fact or fiction. Can the story that is oneself be changed? Psychotherapy would say that it can. The book probes in some technical detail the inter-influential forces of nature and nurture on the development of personality - is happiness a thing or a concept? Is it contained in a chemical sequence? Is there a secret that can guarantee anyone happiness? Is it ethical to profit from such knowledge, whether it is Kurton who could profit from his discovery of Thassa's genome or Thassa who receives lucrative offers from companies that wish to harvest her eggs?

I am glad to say that about one third of the way through the book, the writing got over its attack of the cutsies and tells a story compelling for its complexity and its convincing characters and, once in a while, there is even some terrific writing:
He actually sits to eat, like it's some holiday. It is: spontaneous Healing Day. He closes his eyes and hold a winter strawberry to the tip of his tongue. The fruit is spongy and sublime. The Arabica - as thick as his confusion - gingers as it hits the back of his throat. He can't imagine what Thassa's standing state of grace feels like; an hour of being her would blow him away. But this morning's gratuitous pleasure gives him an inkling...
When Powers gets out of himself about the writing (or out of Russell's self if the self-consciousness that occupies the 1st part of the novel is indeed all a creation) he knows how to let a moment bloom in all its detail - to give birth to an entirely new world that exists only in his head and yet becomes totally alive for us and to makes us not only believe that this content exists for the moment but to enjoy the form with which he gave it life for its originality.

There are many times when the scientific and artistic themes of this book overlap perfectly.
This whole thing is bogus. Nothing as complicated as feeling can possibly reduce to genetics.
In attempting to create a work of art whose original impetus was the complexity of some experience, what artist has not encountered the same gulf - the same certainty of failure? That is the success of the melding of themes Powers has wrought in Generosity. Early on in the book, I felt Powers writing was too simplistic. He telegraphed his ideas to the reader to make sure we would get them. Later, he goes off on jazz-like paragraphs about signal-to-noise ratio, protein synthesis, alleles, Lamarckism, feedback loops, and color-enhanced fMRI without pausing for breath. I think there is still much to enjoy without getting every word of these paragraphs. They become like musical refrains about our technology-obsessed age that are not critical to following the plot. Although I think it is Powers's synthesis of these topics in all their technical rigour, together with an acute ear for the zeitgeist, a hilarious spoof of Oprah in a television host named Oona (and a scathing critique of her obedient sheep-like audience), and a love story for geeks with real verisimmilitude, that made this book truly satisfying for me.

He tries in this entertaining book to communicate some notions worth entering general knowledge such as the idea that:
Genes don't code for traits. They synthesize proteins. And single proteins can do incredibly different things, depending on where and when they're produced... We have no gamplign gene, no intelligence gene, no gene for language or walking upright or even a single gene for curly hair, for that matter. We certainly possess no set of genes whose function is to make us happy.
But, you know, even if we possessed knowledge of such genes, this novel says, we would not loose the pain of anticipation, the thrill of possessing a secret, or obviate the power of falling in love. The mystery of experience can be embraced through the lens of science but it cannot be explained away.