Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in review

Now a tradition (although I had to be reminded by Pete), the first lines of the first post of each month in 2010...

Typically, the new year is rung in here with friends and fondue but The Ragazzo has been so sick that he was in bed and I celebrated by doing the laundry, watching a video, and going to bed at 10:30. Woo- hoo. Hope you brought in 2010 with more appropriate pomp.

Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter & Seymour and Franny & Zooey are some of my favorite writing ever (J.D. Salinger, those italics were for you). By now, most inveterate readers have heard that J. D. Salinger died last week at the age of 91.

Rodolfo Llinas's 2001 book, i of the vortex attempts to bridge our knowledge about the concepts of mind and self and our knowledge about brain cells.


I do not remember a time when I couldn't read. My earliest reading memories are the books I loved as a child - The Snowy Day, Little Blue and Little Yellow, I am a Bunny, The Little Bear. Even though in some of those memories I was read to and in some I held the book, they all seem to my current memory to be memories of reading the books myself.

In anticipation of writing about Anita Brookner's precisely observed, and sardonic The Debut in the coming days, here is a Paris Review interview with her from 1987. Very exacting in her moral outlook and somewhat rigid in her thinking, she started writing novels in her 50s and has produced one per year.

Hmmm, so much for checking in... Returned today from points both Mid Atlantic and Midwest. A little road trip starting in Wisconsin, through Illinois and Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, ending up in Pennsylvania at a great little log cabin/b&b. Much seeing of friends and family, (and one fellow book blogger!), and a little bit of post-semester relaxation on our own as well.

It was probably a good year-and-a-half ago that Dovegreyreader conducted a wonderful interview with author Charles Lambert where I learned of his collection of stories The Scent of Cinnamon and his novel Little Monsters. I bought the second and for some reason it then festered on my TBR pile unread. Then a few weeks ago I heard described a new novel that Lambert had written set in Italy. I immediately ordered Any Human Face, it arrived this week and I glanced at the first page Thursday evening, becoming instantly hooked.

A bunch of us did a quintessential summer in New York thing Saturday. We waited on line in Central Park for free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. There are two shows to see. One of them is the line. The cast: New Yorkers - interested in what's going on in their city, always the expert on it, not too nosy, generally respectful of the rules (you have to be in a city of 8 million people). There were Risk players, people playing guitar quietly to themselves, nappers, those studying up for the play, those who brought their New York Times (half of it is printed Saturday), their laptops, library book readers, bookstore book readers, kindle readers, those who brought their picnic (us - whole wheat french bread with nutella, and fruit), and those who called the local deli which actually delivers to the line. They sat on benches, lay on blankets, reclined in beach chairs, and snoozed on inflatable mattresses. There were the line monitors employed by the theatre, the tourists capturing the line on their video cameras, the saxophonist playing Mozart and Cole Porter, and the conspiracy theorist parading up and down the line playing for our sympathy. Then, of course, there was also The Winters Tale by William Shakespeare.

English-born historian and travel writer William Dalrymple has spent 25 years writing about Asia, particularly India. His Nine Lives bemoans the erosion of the many idiosyncratic and little-known practices of faith, some ascetic, some hedonistic, some bloody, some obsessively non-violent, some monotheistic, others pantheistic, that have co-existed in the region comprising India, Pakistan, and Tibet. One price of the region's modernization is the homogenization of these traditions.

As far as I am concerned, a vacation is an opportunity to read away from the typical pressures of life, acquire new books at bookstores I've never been to, take a look at the books in the libraries of the b&bs we stay at, and get through my stack of old New Yorker and New York Times Book Reviews to get new ideas for reading I want to do. In fact, a vacation is not a vacation for me if I can't read.

The folks at Edify Media were kind enough to send me an copy of Frank Cottrell Boyce's novel for young readers (8 - 12 says the marketing) - Cosmic.
Mom, Dad - if you're listening - you know I said I was going to the South Lakeland Outdoor Activity Center with the school?

To be completely honest, I'm not exactly in the Lake District.

To be completely honest, I'm more sort of in space.

I'm on this rocket, the Infinite Possibility. I'm about two hundred thousand miles above the surface of the Earth. I'm all right . . . ish.

Usually the word bestseller sends me running for cover (I'm such a snob), and I no longer remember what lead me to Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, but it is smashing.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best of... (My best fiction reads in 2010)

And finally... I have read 37 novels, novellas, or collections of stories written for adult readers in 2010, the bulk of my pleasure reading. The titles were:
The Long Falling
The History of Love
Once on a Moonless Night
The Private Life of Trees
Comedy in a Minor Key
The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life
Maiden Voyage
The Giant's House
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Getting the Picture
Journey to the Center of the Earth
The Imperfectionists
Little Monsters
Any Human Face
A Week in December
The Good German
The Debut
Love and Summer
Sarah's Key
Something is Out There
Nothing is Black
The Unnamed
The White Hotel
In the Beginning
The Next Queen of Heaven
The Birds of the Innocent Wood

Looking over this list, I am surprised at the number of really good ones. Of these, my favorite story collection was Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, and, limiting myself to just 10, my favorite longer fiction works were: In the Beginning by Chiam Potok, The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, Nothing is Black by Deirdre Madden, Any Human Face and Little Monsters by Charles Lambert, The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and The Long Falling by Keith Ridgway.

That brings a stimulating and varied reading year nearly to a close. Wishing you all good reading in 2011.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One of those end of the year lists...

Delightful Thomas at My Porch posted this, so I have promptly stolen it and altered to suit my needs (appropriation is one of the sincerest forms of flattery).

How many books read in 2010?
52, which considering I'm doing a Ph.D. that is not in literature or library science and requires my reading mostly journal articles isn't too shabby.


Male/Female authors?
39/13, which is not necessarily typical of me. In addition, I will add this breakdown:

7 were translated from languages other than English (a paltry sum, less than usual for me).

22 books by American authors
1 - Serbian/Canadian
1 - Chinese
11 - English
5 - Irish
1 - Chilean
1 - Dutch (German born)
3 - French
2 - by an English ex-pat now living in Italy
1 - Polish
1 - Australian

Favorite read?
I prefer to do this by category. Two categories down - Non-fiction and YA fiction. Adult fiction is still to come... stay tuned.

Least favorite read?
Like Thomas, I don't often finish books I don't care for. If I had to name the title of the book that I finished and most disliked this year, it would have to be Sarah's Key.

Most read author?
The wonderful Irish author, Deirdre Madden.

Author read this year I would most like to meet?
Given that I've read everything Deirdre Madden has written, I would love to meet her and have those kind of talks about creative process that I love to have.
Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski lead a life so unlike my own that I would keep him at lunch as long as possible to learn about his experiences, but he's dead so that would be kind of difficult.

Favorite reading experience of the year
It surprised me, in reviewing this year's list, that that would be reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians, not because it wasn't a great book - it was, but because I read it at home last January and what made it so great was that the Ragazzo was finally over a terrible flu and I read it in bed, cozily under the covers, staying up very late to finish it because its world was so enveloping.

New books purchased in hardcover?
For better or for worse, I can't remember. There were too many.

Best blogging related experience?
I met a fellow book blogger in Indianapolis, which was great fun. I had plans to meet another blogger and author, which fell through twice - once when I was near her house in England, and once when she was due to come to the U.S. I hope we'll do better this year! I also really enjoyed virtually meeting author Charles Lambert on our blogs - a wonderful writer.

Author crush?
I have a bit of an author crush on Jonah Lehrer - he's a kindred spirit of the mind. For the cuteness factor I would echo Thomas, bring on Joshua Ferris.

Blog posts I am most likely to read?
Posts featuring rooms with books. Artists' workspaces are #1, they could be writers, painters, actors....anyone's reading or working space could do, or libraries, or bookstores.

I love reading about reading, reading about writing, reading about books, reading about creative process, about food, about neuroscience, about the intersection of science and culture, about parts of the world I'm crazy about (Paris, for example).

Good film reviews.

Good soup recipes.

Stuff about people's puppies - I have dog envy.

Blog posts I am least likely to read?
Anything on romance novels or "historical fiction."

Anything remotely related to self-help.

Anything sanctimonious.

Anything that says that everything is for the best or, even worse, that everything happens for a reason.

Anything that tells me I'm supposed to smile or be generally cheerier, just shut up - ok?

Biggest shortcomings as a book blogger?
My lack of cheeriness - ok?

My lack of posting this year.

I sometimes fear that I'm not enough of a joiner - but it's the story of my life.

One thing I wish every blog included?
I don't wish that every blog included anything. I like the fact that there is so enough variety in the blogosphere that there is probably something for everyone.

Things that puzzle me
The list is long, but is winter weather really news? It happens every year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Best of... (My best YA fiction reads in 2010 - The Magicians & Thursday's Child)

I hope everyone who celebrates christmas had a good one. Next year end list: books for young readers (YA fiction), a category I enjoy, but read sparingly this year. It's a bit of a quasi-category since good readers of any age can read anything that strikes their fancy (I know I did). For that matter, a number of these books make excellent reading for adults. In some ways I think that the humor of both Cosmic and The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet will be lost on kids. Sonia Harnett's novels are rich reading at any age and Lev Grossman's The Magicians is just a superb work of fantasy period, no matter what the age of the reader. Just 9 of the 52 books I read or 17% were touted as books for younger readers. They were:

The Borrowers
Journey to the Center of the Earth
The Card Turner
The Ropemaker
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
Thursday's Child
The Magicians

My picks for my favorite reads for younger readers in 2010 were Thursday's Child and Surrender by Sonia Harnett, who creates works of art for readers she assumes are dead-smart, and The Magician's by Lev Grossman, who takes his fantasy as well as his readers seriously and is prolifically imaginative.

I'm just realizing that this is my 1,000th post - ding, ding ding (bells going off). Thank you to all of you who come by and read, whether occasionally or regularly. I set out in search of regular writing practice and a community of readers and I have been richly rewarded in both.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Paranoid Kabbalist fantasy in post-war Serbia (Leeches by David Albahari)

David Albahari's Leeches came to me courtesy of Houghton Mifflin (thanks!) and is not due out until next April. It is a feverish and fantastical Kabbahlist conspiracy fantasy set in Belgrade in the 1990s, when first Yugoslavia and later Serbia was under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. His revisionist and corrupt reign produced, among other things the murder of political opponents, and a hysterical nationalism that included persecution against non-Serbian ethnic groups, which, as usual, included Jews, even if they were Serbian.

The protagonist of Leeches writes a regular column for the newspaper. He, like many of his compatriots living in post-war madness, is eager to make some meaning of his chaos. Then he begins to receive messages (or are they?). First he witnesses a man slapping a woman on the banks of the Danube. Then he discovers small symbols around the city containing triangles inside a circle, whose meaning he tries to discover by contacting a mathematician.
What had been happening around us the past few years convinced me that my life was, for all intents and purposes, over, that I was now living at a later time, in a life with no life. The war, inflation, poverty, political terror, hatred, all of that confirmed the berserk nature of the world that was supposed to be my home. Marko was right: you couldn't imagine living like that forever. Forever dead, possibly, but at its best life was an accumulation of fragments, a makeshift raft barely afloat. Am I sinking, I asked Marko, or does it just feel that way? Marko didn't answer. He closed his eyes, leaned his head against the wall, crossed his hands in his lap. With the tip of his tongue he touched his upper lip. All I want, I said, is to understand what's going on. Not the war, I hurried to add when I saw Marko's raised eyebrows, not the war, I will never be able to understand that, I gave up trying long ago, but the thing on the Danube, the reality of absurdity of the slap, the meaning of the circle around the triangle, the song I hear in the courtyard on Smaj Jovina Street. Marko sat there, silent. Nothing exists alone, I said, everything is interconnected...
The story of Leeches is this search, during which he meets an old Jewish painter, an alluringly beautiful woman, uncovers a historical library in a high rise apartment and eventually discovers a magical living text (book lovers, beware) which endlessly reconstitutes itself. As a result of the world of intrigue he is subsumed into, our columnist begins to expose the jingoism and anti-Semitism he witnesses around him, at great cost to his own safety, and ends up participating in some sort of great cosmic machine whose denouement is fantastical (and perhaps stretches credibility just a tad).

David Albahari creates the inescapable paranoid momentum of his narrative by rendering this novel as one long, uninterrupted paragraph. When this is working, the story seems tumble inevitably forward, but there are some earlier stretches during which it takes a while to accumulate momentum. I found the first 50 pages a bit of a slog, but after that, this story gets going. Our protagonist is a sympathetic fellow and I got caught up in the mystery of what was going to happen next. I'm not sure if the occassional lulls in the narrative were a result of Albahari's writing or his translator Ellen Elias-Bursac's. One aspect of the book that had an impact on the narrative rhythm, which I think would be important to the author, was the layout of the text on the page. I don't know if the ARC was different from the ultimate design of the book when it is released, but if the text had been less densely laid out on the page, as a narrower column, with a little more white-space on either side, my eye would have scanned the page more quickly.

What is most successful about Leeches is that Albahari combines the feeling of a contemporary thriller with a book about a serious subject - how the inaction of a person to the persecution of others amounts to complicity. The narrator may have begun his involvement unwittingly, but he takes up the cause of his Jewish countrymen with energy and without questioning that it is the right thing to do.
The Danes, the story goes, saved their Jews in World War II by wearing yellow armbands, so perhaps we could save our Jews and ourselves by joining them as victims of violence.
Albahari has created a story in Leeches that is entertaining, a little fantastical, set in an interesting time and place, full of enough intrigue to have one glancing over one's shoulder after putting it down, with a compelling and somewhat bookish plot, a smart compassionate message. Look for it when it comes out in April.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Best of... (My best non-fiction reads in 2010 - The Hustle, Full House, Nine Lives, Your Inner Fish)

I will begin the list madness with my non-fiction reads for 2010. I read quite a bit of non-fiction this year. I have read 51 books so far this year, which means I'll probably make it to about 53 or so. Of those 15 were non-fiction or about 35%:

The Hustle
Nine Lives
Full House
Epilepsy in Childhood and Adolescence
An Introduction to the History of Psychology
Your Inner Fish
How We Decide
Travels with Herodotus
Freud's Technique Papers
Freud and Psychoanalysis
Reading in the Brain
Diagnosing Learning Disorders
I of the Vortex
The Pattern in the Carpet

I have linked a few of the stronger and more memorable non-fiction reads: everything from a picture of life's mechanisms in a portrait of the E. coli bacterium, to a memoir on inequality in 1980s Seattle, to a portrait of singular Indian mystics, to a meditation on probability - a varied year. I'm going to single out three:

The Hustle a singularly observant and personal memoir of the author's participation in a racially integrated basket ball team, and the aftermath of that social experiment for each of the team's members (it's also written by my friend Doug Merlino).

Full House by the late, great paleontologist Stephen J. Gould. An absolutely remarkable book given how amusing it is to read and that it is about the author's diagnosis of a deadly illness and statistics.

William Dalrymple's portrait of Nine contemporary Indian mystics - Nine Lives - is a fascinating book mourning the price of cultural homogenization.

Ok, four, Your Inner Fish is also wonderful. A book about why collecting fossils matters.

A rich and varied year of non-fiction reading, as I review it. I will continue to post my lists and other goodies from the road, as the Ragazzo and I head to his parents' for the holidays.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Waiting in the wings redux (Jude the Obscure, To the End of the Land, Freedom, The Tenth Parallel, The Balfour Declaration)

Since I'm not quite done with David Albahari's Leeches and I'm not quite ready for my list madness to begin, I think I'll do a second post on reading I have to look forward to in the coming months:

I think Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure may have made one of my TBR lists before but it really is near the top of one of my piles by the bed. I have wanted to re-read this tragic novel by one of the great non-conformists for some time. It patiently waits in the wings. I don't remember much about reading it the first time round and I'm sure that the 30+ years between the first reading and the second will make for a very different perspective.

David Grossman's recent novel about war and peace in Israel is a work of contemporary tragedy. A number of readers I trust have raved about this one enthusiastically. I'm looking forward to it, but it doesn't look like an easy read.

I thought Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections an ascerbic, observant, and funny book so I'm not going to miss his new novel, Freedom. Although I'm going to have to read this one when I have a large swath of time ahead of me... perhaps over the summer.

These two recent works, The Tenth Parallel by Liza Griswold in the genre of contemporary politics, and The Balfour Declaration by Jonathan Schneer, a historical work, examine some of the forces that shape the old and disastrous rift between Christians and Muslims and how the poison of religious self righteousness, when combined with nationalism, shapes our modern world.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Waiting in the wings...

It has been so long since I have done a post about what I'm looking forward to reading. 'Tis the season when I have a little more time for pleasure reading so here is what's waiting in the wings:

I'm working on an ARC of David Albahari's Leeches, due out next April. It's a feverish and fantastical Kabbahlist conspiracy fantasy (or is it?) set in Belgrade, and is rendered as a single run-on paragraph.

I'm really looking forward to reading the other Hans Keilson book recently re-released: The Death of the Adversary, given how sharply observed his Comedy in a Minor Key was.

The Mind of a Mnemonist is a famous, book-length case study of a man who on the one hand might be said to have the best memory in the world. His brain converted everything he encountered into visual imagery. However, these was so vivid, that he was intellectually crippled as he could not discriminate between the images and had trouble forgetting a single one. It is written by A. R. Luria, the great Russian neuropsychologist.

I won a copy of Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman over at the Incurable logophile's place (I never win anything - thanks, Michelle)! The book is billed as 'halucinatory' and 'dream-like.' Set in a convalescent hospital in Finland, it sounds like a dark psychological thriller of sorts that will be good for cold December nights under a blanket.

I have had two lab related books sitting on the pile for a while that I'm very much looking forward to, even though they might sounddry and technical to the lay-reader. They are: The Human Frontal Lobes, a set of chapters collected by Bruce L. Miller and Jeffrey L. Cummings about, as the title says, the frontal lobes of human brain - how they work and what happens when they don't. The second is Complex Worlds from Simpler Nervous Systems, also a compilation, edited by Frederick R. Prete. It observes how non-human creatures' simpler nervous systems accomplish complex cognitive feats like creating representations of abstractions, enhancing their visual sensations to make perceptions, making decisions, and applying complex algorithms.

I have been thinking that I would like to re-read Barbara Tuchman's history of pre-World War I Europe, The Proud Tower. It's a period of history that continually fascinates me in the cataclysmic changes in political, scientific, and artistic thought that Europe underwent and their aftermath which is frequently characterized as what gave birth to our "modern" world.

That being said, I have just two more books to hit my hoped-for annual goal of 52. Over the next couple of weeks I'm looking forward to compiling those end-of-the-year lists of 2010 favorites (and to reading yours, either as comments here, or if you blog, at your place).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Irish despair casts a spell (Books - The Long Falling by Keith Ridgway)

I am grateful to John Self for having introduced me to another Irish wordsmith who can wring from the despair of his fellow souls graceful prose and a meaty, tension-filled read. I actually finished Keith Ridgway's 1998 novel The Long Falling about a week ago, but due to final exams, now over, I couldn't get to it here until now.
It rains on Cavan, Monaghan; rains on the hills and the lakes, and the roads; rains on the houses and the farms and the fences between them; on the ditches and the fields, on the breathing land; rains on the whole strange shape of it. Puts down a pattern.

And then it stops.

And the places of the country look different in the sun. They look new...
One knows from the stark opening that this is going to be a dark ride, but not without its riches. Ridgway writes of a long-abused wife and her gay son who, for a time, are united in the violent loss of their husband and father. Yet they are finally isolated in their unique pain even as they are transformed by it. I won't say more than that about the action, because somehow this book about estrangement from self is plotted with the suspense of a mystery. Ridgway also writes crack dialogue:
'I'm sorry about that,' she said. 'I just... I just got to the point where I wasn't...'

He nodded. Looked at the window. Saw them in another room.

'Wasn't able...'

'It doesn't matter.'

'Wasn't able to be calm.'

Her eyes caught his and he was suddenly aware of her, definitely, without question, as the same woman he had walked with as a boy.
You couldn't pay a screenwriter to do better dialogue. It snaps off the page with bulls-eye accuracy. Ridgway conveys the content of his story with way more than words - the rhythm of the interrupted thought builds, conveying a fraught state of mind without ever describing it - and this is accomplished while simultaneously shifting time frame for the second character.

Ridgway is equally capable of fashioning a resonant turn of phrase.
For the rest of the day he stayed away from the kitchen. Until later, when they sat down for their tea, and he cut the bread and talked so that she would not talk. He spoke as if silence cost him money...
Panic rang through her like a storm of bells...
This is a mesmerizing novel. Ridgway's writing is often arresting. The reader looks up from the page seeing with fresh eyes. What more could one ask from a book?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pesky little bacteria as meance, machine, and metaphor (Books - Microcosm by Carl Zimmer)

Carl Zimmer's 2008 book Microcosm is like the microbiology he writes about. He takes the pesky little bacterium Escherichia coli, and cultures it - that is, he has it reproduce under controlled conditions, and then studies the process that we have come to call life. He then hijacks those processes to produce useful things. In this case, he makes of e coli an eloquent narrative that focuses the reader on two main topics 1- how the bacteria has been studied to help us understand how genes participate in the functions cells carry out: reproduction, architecture of components for mobility and immunity, and eventual destruction, as well as how they effect their own processes of replication and mutation and 2- how e coli can be employed in biotechnology to produce insulin, antibiotics, growth hormone, cheap drugs for malaria, and photosensitive biological circuitry. As the title suggests, Zimmer takes e coli as a prototype of the entire biological world and, with his rich store of knowledge, and, often, elegant sentences, help you to better understand this world.

Every science book makes choices about its starting point. Although Zimmer builds his story about e coli itself from the ground up, he assumes a certain amount of knowledge in his reader. For example, it helps if one comes to Microcosm understanding how DNA participates in the production of proteins. I appreciated this choice in that it helped make for a more flowing narrative however, it may leave one or two lay-readers with a few trips to the library or wikipedia to look things up. Or he may assume that it is some basic knowledge in science that will make most readers interested in a book such as Microcosm in the first place. My idealist's mind says that's a shame, since the strongest sections of the book provide such a well-structured primer in the work done in a lab setting on evolution. It is amazing to me how many people, including some working in the social sciences or mental health (for example), will tell you that the replication of DNA, its random mutation, and the "selection" of adaptations useful to passing on a species' genome in a given environment, that is, the process of evolution, is one of design, that it is "only a theory," or that it cannot be tested in the lab. Scientists such as Richard Lenski, for example, have spent years testing the process in the lab.
when Lenski looked at a flask of E. coli, he saw a mountain. It was an ecosystem filled with billions of individual organisms. Like his beetles, E. coli searched for food and reproduced. They were preyed upon by viruses rather than by salamanders. E. coli's ecosystem might be simple than the Blue Ridge Mountains, but simplicity can be a virtue in science. A researcher can precisely control every variable in an experiment to see the effect of each one.

Best of all, E. coli is the sort of creature that can, in theory, evolve very fast. Mutations may occur only rarely, but with millions of microbes in a single flask, a few mutations will arise in every generation. And because E. coli can reproduce in as little as twenty minutes, a beneficial mutation may let a mutant overtake a colony in a matter of days...

Lenski's students continue to nurture his dynasty of E. coli from one generation to the next, and other scientists have used similar methods to run experiments of their own. Some have watched E. coli adapt to life at the feverish temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Others have unleashed viruses on the bacteria and observed them become resistant, only to have the viruses evolve ways to overcome their resistance, starting the cylce all over again...
The work done in the laboratory on evolution of species has allowed scientists to observe natural selection, has shown experimentally that mutations arise randomly, and has even "rewound the tape" of evolution, as Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life put it (Zimmer tells us). This way one can "let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original." It would be useful for us all to understand mutation and adaptation a bit more thoroughly as it provides the basis of nearly every experimental hypothesis tested in biology and its related fields, is the process by which so many people access drugs to treat once mortal illnesses, and so that we can make better decisions about the presence of antibiotics in our food supply and as medicine for diseases it cannot effectively treat, as this has the potential to produce dangerous antibiotic-resistant illnesses.

I would like to wax on more about Microcosm but as I have two final exams tomorrow, I'm going to bring this appreciation to a close. Zimmer is an effective storyteller about science, focusing his story tightly, framing its relevance to his life (and by extension to our's), and employing fresh metaphors as, for example, in envisioning the genome not as the hackneyed blueprint, but instead as a palimpsest - a manuscript from which text has been scraped off and used again, as it is full of
...mutations, duplications, deletions, and insertions. Yet traces of those older layers of text survive in E. coli's genome, like vestiges of Archimedes.
Microcosm is involving, informative, and fluidly written and I recommend it if you are looking for a better understanding of microbiology as it is relevant to our lives or for excellent writing on the science of evolution.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Poem for a child from his father (An Inflorescence - Where's The Moon, There's The Moon - poems by Dan Chiasson)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

My once weekly series of poetry and poets has become a whole lot less frequent. But having read Dan Chiasson's new volume of poems published this year: Where's the Moon, There's the Moon I couldn't resist. The volume's centerpiece is the 27-stanza title work - full of paradox - at times playful, at times very dark. That work's title suggests a story one might read to a child, but it is not childish or child like. Its events, such as they are, include a child reading an animal book, but its gist is more brooding, existential. Chiasson the father talking to his son about being both a father and son himself. A book for his son, and in that way a children's book. It appears to come from a feeling of having become unmoored.

If I look to the opposite shore and greet myself there,
if I call out to myself come here
and watch myself laboriously construct from shore-things
a boat, and watch myself over the waters come rowing,
but, crossing the midpoint between shores,
out in the middle of the colorless lake,
no longer approaching, no longer coming closer,
disappear, where am I now, has my boat capsized?
Its lines, in their length and in their song-like declaration of 'I,' have a Whitmanesque feel. Each stanza is a single long sentence. Like many of Chiasson's poems, he seems to be talking to the reader right off the page.
bear with me while I try to convey what I want to convey:
my father's distance and yet the tendency of distant things
to become central...
Rare vocabulary and obtuse symbols are not his modus operandi however, these poems flirt, perhaps purposefully or perhaps as a result of where they come from in the poet, with more contradiction, he quotes Yeats, offers passages that are resistant, at first, to any direct explicative translation, they are more enigmatic, more after capturing feeling, more obscure than his previous ones. They require the reader to peer around corners, meaning is not packaged and ready for consumption right off the page. I don't feel comparisons to other writers are always fair, but the title poem had very much the feeling of something by Pablo Neruda, which surprised me given the previous work of Chiasson I have read, but I offer that comparison most appreciatively. I feel like I am continuing to mine new things from these poems as I read them over.

I am not going to offer the title work in its entirety, as I often have with poems in the past, just that excerpt above. I encourage you instead to buy the book, because I doubt the market for contemporary works of poetry is all that swift. I'll offer instead one of the volumes other works, Thread. Laid out simply on the page, it is a work of straightforward, declarative diction on the one hand, but complex rhythms bury themselves within larger structures, as in his play with the second, third and fourth lines. The second line, for example, could offers either his denial or his declaration of himself as an anchor and yet, if you obey the line-break, then he is frayed, and then he exemplifies this by breaking his line of thought with the parenthetical phrase "and this I feel perpetually," ending with the notion that he ought to make himself clear. Yet somehow, he has. This is a self-reflective poem, but a funny one too, I think. In addition, here is a good recent interview with Chiasson from and here is my other post on some of his earlier poems.


I lack the rigor of a lightning bolt,
the weight of an anchor. I am
Frayed where it would be highly useful -
and this I feel perpetually-to make a point.

I think if I can concentrate I might turn sharp.
Only, I don't know how to concentrate -
I know the look of someone concentrating,
indistinguishable from nearsightedness.

It is hard for the others to be near me,
my silly intensity shuffling
a zillion insignia of interiority.
Being near me never made anyone a needle.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Longing in four-part harmony (Books - The History of Love by Nicole Krauss)

Usually the word bestseller sends me running for cover (I'm such a snob), and I no longer remember what lead me to Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, but it is smashing. Alma, the teenage daughter of a widowed translator is desperate to find her mother new companionship. A mysterious client writes her mother, offering a small fortune to translate a beloved book - The History of Love - written by Zvi Litvinoff who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland for Chile in 1941. Alma, who is named after the book's central character, because it is also a favorite of her mother's, sees in his shared passion for the book, the chance for her mother to find love and she tries her best to engineer that opportunity. Concurrently, an 80-year-old New Yorker, Leo Gursky, Jewish immigrant, also from Poland, whose first and only love was also named Alma, fights for a more beautiful, more hopeful world with his florid, quixotic imagination.
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I'm surprised I haven't been buried alive. The place isn't big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as fist, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.

I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, , I'd bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I'll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.

I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I'm out, I'll buy a juice even though I'm not thirsty. If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I'll get down on my knees. It's a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up. And yet...
Each of the characters, Alma, her mother, her brother (who thinks he may be a holy man of sorts), Leo Gursky , and Zvi Litvinoff, has been wounded by a loss that at once isolates them and drives them to long passionately for kindness, a sense of meaning, the feeling that one is necessary, the love of another. The book feels like a piece of chamber music in that, although its voices harmonize, each individual instrument can be picked out at any time. The leitmotif of this chamber piece is a deeply sad longing. And yet, Krauss's 15 and 80-year-old narrators are not pathetic, they are endearing and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. That she gets the voice of a literate girl some years younger than herself is not such a stretch, but the way she captured the voice of the 80-year-old, Polish-born locksmith Leo Gursky was uncannily perfect. As a narrator, his voice has made an indelible print on my mind's ear, like Salinger's Holden Caulfield or a Dickens's Pip.

I'd love to go on about this book which is touching, cleverly plotted, suspenseful, and entertaining all at once, but we're two weeks from final exams and I have been hard pressed to find enough time to write a word here these days. So, if I haven't made the case clear yet, The History of Love is a winner. As I'm beginning to think about all those year-end best reads of the year ... posts, this one will certainly take its place on my list of finalists.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Living for text (Books - Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie)

The search for two halves of a torn text, lettered in a mysterious, forgotten alphabet on a piece of silk and dropped from the door of a moving airplane, is the subject of Dai Sijie's Once on a Moonless Night. It is told through a series of diary entries that relate the memories of a woman who escapes her psychic pain by studying languages. This story is of her meeting a greengrocer in Maoist China who tells her a story of his mysterious father, a scholar of ancient Chinese history and texts, who wrote the story of the Chinese prince who once possessed this torn text. This tale is part adventure, part Chinese history, part love story of language. It is about people who literally live for for a text.

Its form is stories nested within stories. The prose is elegant and evocative, but it is complex. This is writing you have to pay attention to if you are to follow the plot:
At the top of the slope, in once white stone blackened by smoke and dust, was a statue of Mao in a raincoat that flapped in the east wind to symbolise political storms, while, perched limply on his head, was a Lenin hat with a visor in proportion to the size of his head, so large that one day a nest of straw and twigs caked in saliva and gastric juices appeared on it, complete with a swallow on a clutch of eggs. From the full height of its twelve metres the statue overlooked a clump of ugly single-storey administrative buildings: a police station from which the occasional isolated cry of despair could be heard as if from a psychiatric asylum; a post office where my grant arrived at the end of each month, a postal order for a pitiful sum; a small hospital; the Revolutionary Council where public records were registered, a haunting, sinister place I sometimes visited in my dreams, where I was married, registered the birth of my child, and where my death certificate was presented; the People's Bank; the People's Militia; the Community Arts Centre; a former library converted into a hall for political studies; and the premises of the Party Committee and the Communist Youth. The profane swallow that appeared on Mao's cap was shot and her nest destroyed. The anti-revolutionary trails of saliva and white droppings that had covered one of his ears, carving a diagonal torrent across his face and streaming untactfully all the way to the leader's astonishingly prominent chin, were meticulously cleaned, but, if the rumours are to be believed, the swallow's ghost, slightly smaller than the live bird, as if shrunken in death, zig-zagged across the sky at night, even in winter, making piercing, mournful sounds like the shriek of a rusted saw, tormenting the ears of insomniacs.
For a while I thought I would not make it through this novel, because the writing demanded so much attention - plot details, atmosphere, historical context, character backstory, flash forward, are jumbled into single paragraphs. Not that I don't love complexity, but the fact that I'm forced to read most of my fiction these days in multiple short sittings, sometimes with several days between them, made the threads hard to pick up. However, I did read the last 150 pages of Once on a Moonless Night in two successive sittings and that is when I found myself getting caught up in the tender, multi-generational love story, the highly convincing fictional scholarship, and the drama of the plot. It is smartly entertaining and satisfyingly multi-layered and I will certainly seek out another of Dai Sijie's novels.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Little people, noblesse oblige, ancient manuscripts, and other oddities... (Books - The Borrowers by Mary Norton)

Something recently prompted me to return to a childhood favorite, Mary Norton's The Borrowers, although I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. I am glad that I indulged myself in this stroll down memory lane as Norton's story is a richly imagined tale about the fear of change, and its inevitability. Her cast of characters, a family of miniature people living beneath the kitchen floorboards of a once-grand house in a nest-like apartment, their furniture made of matchboxes, and the walls decorated with postage stamps, items all "borrowed" from the house beneath which they live. The Borrowers must lead a careful life, venturing upstairs for not only their decor, but their food and drink as well, carefully avoiding the eyes of the dangerous "human beans." It is the children, the daughter of the Borrowers and the orphaned boy living upstairs, who have a forbidden meeting and eventually force the Borrowers to uproot themselves and venture into the great unknown.
"Borrowing," he said after a while. "Is that what you call it?"

"What else could you call it?" asked Arrietty.

"I'd call it stealing."

Arietty laughed. She really laughed. "But we are Borrowers," she explained, "like your a-a human bean or whatever it's called. We're part of the house. You might as well say that the fire grate steals the coal from the coal scuttle."

"Then what is stealing?"

Arietty looked grave. "Don't you know?" she asked. "Stealing is - well, supposing my Uncle Hendreary borrowed an emerald watch from Her dressing-table and my father took it and hung it up on our wall. That's stealing."

"An emerald watch!" exclaimed the boy.

"Well I just said that because we have one on the wall at home, but my father borrowed it himself. It needn't be a watch. It could be anything. A lump of sugar even. But Borrowers don't steal."

"Except from human beings," said the boy.

Arriety burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hid her face in the primrose. "Oh dear," she gasped with tears in her eyes, "you are funny!" She stared upward at his puzzled face. "Human beans are for Borrowers - like bread's for butter!"
It seems that Borrowers have the same peculiar skill most humans have in thinking that the world and all its inhabitants exists for their use, not even bothering to question the veracity of their securely held belief, and not even considering that there might indeed be a point of view of held by those who are the recipients of their actions. As I read this story it made me think of so many human arrangements - noblesse oblige, the British imperialist certainty that the natives of other lands could only benefit from British rule, British law, British christianity, and, often newly drawn British borders (of course there have been similar fantasies indulged in by the Dutch, the French, and my own country too), religious missionary activities partake of the same, certain, self-focused zeal . It is a convenient belief and one Norton gently parodies in this novel for young readers. At the same time, the Borrowers are our protagonists, so one experiences the actions and the consequences from both sides of the equation, without any pious lecturing on Norton's part. Indeed, the Borrowers in written in pleasantly old-fashioned prose that imparts a cozy, book-at-bedtime glow to the story. I was delighted to revisit both the story and its themes in a book for children, as so much children's literature this days is openly prescriptive. I may yet visit some of The Borrowers sequels in the future.

This lead to another young reader's novel, coincidentally also about little people - Mistress Masham's Repose by fantasy fiction giant, T. H. White. While I'm enjoying the whimsy of White's narration, I'm having a hard time entering the world of his young heroine and so found myself switching to Once on a Moonless Night, Dai Sijie's atmospheric tale of an ancient document that holds some mysterious power over the people who come in contact with it.

I came across this book at a favorite New York bookstore - McNally Jackson - a little while ago, browsing their "recommended" shelf. This was something I did several times per week and now I so rarely get to visit bookstores, especially ones with personalities and staffs who read. Dai Sijie's tale is written in an elegant prose (translated from French) and casts its own enticing spell. This one may have me hooked.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tweens in Space (Books - Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce)

The folks at Edify Media were kind enough to send me an copy of Frank Cottrell Boyce's novel for young readers (8 - 12 says the marketing) - Cosmic.
Mom, Dad - if you're listening - you know I said I was going to the South Lakeland Outdoor Activity Center with the school?

To be completely honest, I'm not exactly in the Lake District.

To be completely honest, I'm more sort of in space.

I'm on this rocket, the Infinite Possibility. I'm about two hundred thousand miles above the surface of the Earth. I'm all right . . . ish.

I know I've got some explaining to do. This is me going it.

I lied about my age.
That's the set-up, in a nutshell. Liam is nearly thirteen, and like most thirteen-year-olds he plays video games (World of Warcraft) incessantly, is sometimes absurdly impractical and lacks the ability to imagine even the simplest of consequences for his actions. However, unlike most thirteen-year-old boys, he is over six feet tall, shaves, and is verbally precocious, so he enjoys pretending to be the father of a friend, a girl his age named Florida, so he can do grown-up things like take cars for a test drive. What he decides to do is pose as his own father to win a telephone-company sponsored contest for a parent-child duo to take a thrill ride in space. Liam and his "daughter," whose brain can do nothing other than remember factoids of celebrity gossip, join three other fathers and their pathologically over-achieving sons in China and eventually fly into space.

The plot is a direct-lift from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I didn't mind that, as it is similarly imaginative, but it is recognizable. Boyce gets a lot of comic mileage out of the kid-as-parent premise. Just before leaving home, Liam steals his father's copy of Talk to Your Teen. When he must assume something of a real parental role toward the other children in the story that's when things in this book become interesting. Cosmic has comedy, suspenseful adventure, and even a poignant moment or two in its appreciation of parents (Boyce's dedication is to his own parents) but will this be appreciated by a 12-year-old? Anything that had the message "appreciate your parents and all they have done for you" could be difficult for a 12-year-old to swallow. The laughs too seem very much from the point-of-view of an older observer who appreciates that delicate borderland teens inhabit - partly a child, partly adult - and how clumsy they seem as they transverse it.

My point is that I very much enjoyed Cosmic for its comedy and its wisdom - not only does it suggest that quickly growing young boys may sometimes still need their parents, it is also an appreciation of when children can be wiser than their parents - however I don't know if the book I read would be the same book that a reader of the target age would read. I don't think that 8-12 year olds are too dumb to get this story, but I think they would have read a different book than I, and I don't know what that might be. So find a child of 8-12 and ask them! Finally. I have to say that I found it implausible that the thoughts of a boy of nearly 13 (with a beard) did not stray even once to a subject remotely amorous or carnal. Gimme a break. That aside, Cosmic was a swift-moving adventure with more than a few good laughs and very entertaining for this adult reader.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Telling stories about stories about... (Books - The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra)

It was Verbivore who alerted me to young Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, and his 2007 novella The Private Lives of Trees and I am glad she did. This is a smart little piece of self-reflective meta-fiction. A tale about a tale and about tale telling. At the same time, it has a cozy sweetness, despite having a protagonist who is about to (maybe) lose his wife.
Julian lulls the little girl to sleep with "The Private Lives of Trees," an ongoing story he's made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being tress and not people or animals or, as they put it themselves, stupid hunks of cement.
This evening, Julian tells Daniela this story as much for himself as for her because his wife and her mother, Veronica, is several hours late in returning home and Julian has a growing suspicion that might not do so. He makes a deal with himself that he will tell the story until she does or until he is sure she will not. As he does so, that imagined world gives way to others:
He sees Daniela sleeping, and he imagines himself, at eight years old, sleeping. It's a reflex: he sees a blind man and imagines himself blind, he reads a good poem and imagines himself writing it, or reading it aloud to nobody, driven on by the dark sound of the words.

He takes a long second to create, instead, an eye-catching room, replete with mirrors and a fountain that emits a subtle artificial noise. He imagines Veronica dulled by rough whiskey, topped off with a few lines of coke, moving, unhurriedly, on top of someone.
Julian has gotten into the habit of always imagining and drawing out his imaginings in his form and playing with them. It is an artist's habit. If he imagines, he writes. Zambra, the writer writing of the writer, plays with the written form as a hall of mirrors.
When someone doesn't come home in a novel, Julian thinks, it's because something bad has happened. But this is not, fortunately, a novel: in just a few minutes Veronica will arrive with a real story...
This works at most points in the novel except for Zambra's self-referential reference to his first book, Bonsai.
At the end of a cold night of writing, Julian decided to stop filling pages with diffuse and indecipherable stories; he would write, instead, the diary of a bonsai, a painstaking registry of the tree's growth. It seemed simple....
This reference got a little cute for me, it was as if Zambra couldn't figure out where the joke should end. The most powerful imaginings of this intellectual adventure, is Julian's imagining his step-daughter Daniela at 15, then at 30 years old, without a mother, reading this novel, which contains her 8-year-old self hearing a story about trees....

This is a story about how we remember in stories, project to our future with stories, how we comfort with stories, how indeed we create our lives through stories, or at least it feels that way while we are telling it. It is a swift and sweet read from a fresh voice (as translated by Megan McDowell). I'm tempted to get a copy of Bonsai and see what Zambra's debut was like.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The risk of standing in another's shoes (Books - Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson)

Hans Keilson wrote Comedy in a Minor Key over fifty years ago after emigrating to Holland from Nazi-occupied Germany. Keilson was a child psychiatrist as well as an author, and a few of his books were recently re-released on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Comedy... concerns a Dutch couple who take in a Jewish man who must go into hiding or risk being deported to a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They risk their own lives to save Nico, as he is known to them. They give him a bed, food, and friendship, hiding him from the cleaning lady and the milkman, but when he dies they panic, because his dead body is more of a risk to him than his live one ever seemed to be.
Before the doctor left he went up to Marie, took her right hand in his hands, and said in a solemn voice, There is no one here to offer condolences to. That's often how it turns out. But still, it must be a loss for you. In fact, you probably have the most difficult burden - problem," he corrected himself...
"But it's not as dangerous as you think," the doctor continued, because he had the impression that they were still a little frightened. "There are a lot of other things that could have happened. Never mind, infectious diseases that we have to report - diptheria, a child with polio. That is very, very unpleasant. But there are also children born in circumstances like this..."

"That's impossible," Marie stammered. It was horrible to think of. Children? Did people have no sense of responsibility?

"Really, it's true," the doctor confirmed, having guessed Marie's thoughts. "I have personally brought quite a few into the world. Four little Jewish babies. Strong boys. They scream just like every child screams when it comes into the world. But that's the danger! Someone could hear them! The neighbors! In childless marriages, after twelve, fourteen barren years, suddenly there are children born. Naturally they are sent off to other families."
Keilson has an eye for the ironic detail that arises in the midst of everyday life. He smiles in the face of disaster - very much like Chekhov. These conflicts are life, he seems to tell the reader. The Nazis are murdering millions, a world war is fought, and people still have the nerve to be born, sicken, and die day every day. And he does so, at least in this translation by Damion Searls, in straight forward, everyday prose. His language is clean and his ironic eye is a compassionate one. As Marie takes care of Nico, first in health and then in sickness (it's almost a second marriage for her), she struggles to imagine herself in Nico's shoes so that she might understand him.
Then Nico came to her mind again. She had understood him. The whole time he was hidden in her house she thought she understood better and better - understood both him and the other thing that stood behind him, invisible, which he embodies - until at last, alone in his room, she got to what was behind his secret too. But now it seemed different to her, as though she herself had entered into this secret in a new way. And she remembered having seen, every once in a while, a flitting in his eyes as though dogs were hounding him.
Lovely writing. This story, like many that I like, is about the struggle to know another person's circumstances the way they do. It is can be difficult to know another's circumstances, especially if that is in any way unpleasant. For example, when someone is grieving or when they are ill. I think that might be why so many people think that other people are handling grief or illness well when they are being positive. This is more wishful thinking on their part, so that they might skirt negative feelings. As though in fear we might catch pain by imagining it. Standing in another's shoes is the only true way to imagine another's life, says this book. In that act is an element of risk, so not everyone is up to it. That practice is called compassion, and it is the subject of this wonderful little novella.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Playing ball to know the other (Books - The Hustle by Doug Merlino)

The Hustle by Doug Merlino is about the socio-politics, economics, and personal drama of relations between blacks and whites in America. Merlino, a journalist, (and also a friend and the provider of this advance copy) played on a basketball team in 1980s Seattle that was the dream- child of a black coach from the inner-city and a wealthy white entrepreneur. Both were fathers of teenage boys, both were proponents of the value of team sports for making men out of boys who can collaborate with one another on reaching a collective goal, but both wanted an experience for the boys of their city that was about building a less racially divided future. When Merlino learns of the death of one of his fellow teammates, he is moved to remember:
Reading the story again, it becomes clear that the reason Tyrell's death was considered worthy of the front page was his involvement in integration programs - there was one where wealthy families from the suburbs "adopted" poorer ones at holiday times; and there was our team. The reported spoke to Coach McClain, who told her, "We thought it was a good idea to expose these different kids to each other, to combine inner-city kids with rich white kids. And it worked."

I wonder if it had actually "worked" for anyone. Did any of the white kids still think about it? What had happened to my black teammates who'd gotten into private schools through Randy Finley's efforts? It was nearly twenty years since we'd all practiced together in the Lakeside gym. How had my teammates fared? What kind of men were they? Did anyone, like me, miss the amaraderie we got from playing together?
The basketball team was, in essence, a social experiment in knowing the other. Merlino fulfills that experiment in writing a book that attempts to understand whether they gained that knowledge and the men that the team members became as a consequence of it.

He takes on two roles in this book, one as a team-member who was affected by the experience, and who is touched as he gets to know each of his fellow team members as adults:
We pull up the driveway in front of my house, a large, gray, modernist structure with two gables. It has a basketball hoop and the outline of a key set in front of the three-car garage. Damian asks, "What side do you live on?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you live on the right side or the left side?"

It takes me a second to catch on.

"It's just one house," I say, clutching my gym bag.

"You mean this is just for your family?"

"Yeah, we're the only ones who live here."

I pull the door open and thank Coach McClain for the ride.

"I'll see you guys at practice," I say and scurry into the house.

I'm embarrassed. All the gawking undermines the feeling fostered by playing on the team - that we are all equals. I worry that my teammates might not like me after seeing the house. The next day at school, Eric tells me that the guys had joked about my reaction on the way back to the Central Area, saying "He probably didn't invite us in because he was scared we'd steal everything."


There is nothing I can really say. I have never seen house and have no idea how he lives. For the whole season, the black side of the team always makes the commute north. We never visit the Central Area.
This is a personal, retrospective voice, one of memory. This is the less formal of the two. Merlino peppers his memoir with relaxed, chatty, diction:
On the court, though, the team kind of resembles the chickens - they get blown out in the three games they play.
Although full of perceptive details, the frequent use of phrases more typical of spoken diction, gives some of these passages an equivocal tone. This creates a modest character for Merlino the team member, one that is easy to read. It sometimes feels a less secure voice which can undermine his security as the chronicler of his teammates' personal narratives, but the positive side of that choice is that it communicates the unease of race as a subject that is so prevalent in America out of which Merlino writes. He writes these sections in the present tense which gives them immediacy:
JT joins the freshman basketball team and scrapes by in school. Then his mom, who has always been the center of his life, starts to use cocaine, and things quickly go south from there. Often when JT comes home, the shakes are drawn and all the lights are off. There's no food in the house. People stop by at all hours, laughing and talking while JT tries to sleep. One guy passes out in the living room with a stack of money piled on his belly. JT stops going to school, runs away from home, and takes to the streets, sleeping in bus shelters when he can't find any other place. He never plays organized basketball again.
This is, I acknowledge, a contemporarily accepted literary practice, but I sometimes found it jarring, so aware was I of the key function that memory was playing. I thought that the distance afforded by past tense might have been able to be more consistently played off of the writer's present knowledge. Granted, the use of present tense probably makes for a less choppy narrative.

Merlino's second role assumes a distinct narrative voice from the first. It is that of the journalist who gives us context - the social history of black Seattle, the economics of cocaine use in American cities, Seattle's tech boom and subsequent bust - and then brings it back to the story.
...On the West Coast, cocaine was brought up through Mexico and smuggled over the border, where it was then sold to already established street gangs in Los Angeles. They converted the powder to crack and began to sell it in their territories, with violence often erupting when one set infringed on the turf of another.

With their own markets saturated, the Los Angeles gangs began moving the drug to other cities, which was as simple as loading the trunk and heading up the freeway....The first time crack really registered in my consciousness came that March, when a different issue of Newsweek landed in our mailbox. The headline KIDS AND COCAINE was splashed on the front...
For middle-class people, this had been the model for decades - men went off to the office or factory, worked as part of a team within a formalized structure (the corporation or the state), played their part, and came home to the women and children. This had been the pattern since industrialization in the mid- and late 1800s, when youth sports leagues such as the YMCA and the AAU had been established. With men leaving farms to work in offices and factories, the idea of Muscular Christianity was that boys needed organized structures in which they could develop physically and enter into competition to avoid becoming too feminized. The skills learned on the field - stamina, discipline, sacrificing for the good of the team - were supposed to translate later into success in the working world. This was still the model when we were boys...
These passages are terse, energetic, and fact-filled. They provide context that is relevant to the story and efficiently tied it back to the personal narratives, and in contrast to the voice assumed in the personal narratives, this one projects confidence.

The Hustle brings together these two perspectives in one book that has value because it treats the sociopolitical history of race credibly while communicating its relevance to individual's lives. Race as it is dealt with in America today, is a subject that makes many non-American roll their eyes, but it is relevant to struggles in other countries that one can read in the papers every day: the Turkish workers in Germany, the North Africans in Holland, the Pakistanis in England. These have socio-economic and imperialist roots without the added burden of legalized slavery, but their relevance is still apparent. Race is a subject many Americans probably hoped they had gotten beyond by electing a Black president, but it is ubiquitous and, at this point in our history largely inseparable from socioeconomic inequity. The Hustle is an accessible source of insight. While it is useful to know facts about social, political and economic history of the relations between blacks and white in America, that can be comfortably distancing. At the end of the day its meaning is most apparent in its consequence to individual lives. The Hustle succeeds as a book by being honest about what's personal, clear-eyed about what is factual, and having its narrative driven by the emotions of nostalgia and loss. It is to be released in December but you can pre-order a copy here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Foreign invasion...

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Name a book (or books) from a country other than your own that you love. Or aren’t there any?

You're kidding, right? How can you love books and reading and not read further afield than your own back yard? Understanding the experience of others is one of the chief reasons I read. A few favorite non-American titles are:

Any Human Face - Charles Lambert (Italy/England)
Molly Fox's Birthday - Deirdre Madden (Ireland)
Tell Me Everything - Sarah Salway (England)
Hopeful Monsters - Nicholas Mosley (England)
Cloud Street - Tim Winton (Australia)
Howards End - E. M. Forster (England)
The Glass Bead Game - Hermann Hesse (Germany/Switzerland)
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevski (Russia)
The Cherry Orchard - Anton Chekhov (Russia)
The Waves - Virginia Woolf (England)
A Very Long Engagement - Sebastien Japrisot (France)
Atonement - Ian McEwan (England)
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry (India)
At Swim Two Boys - Jamie O'Neill (Ireland)
The Poems of Tomas Transtroemer (Sweden)
The Imposter - Damon Galgut (South Africa)
Mr. Mani
- A. B. Yehoshua (Israel)
Fall on Your Knees - Anne-Marie MacDonald (Canada)
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Sasa Sanisic (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany)

...and yourself?