Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lost chances (Books - Love and Summer by William Trevor)

William Trevor's new book Love and Summer is a wistful tale, redolent of lost chances. Its first third, as its characters are introduced, feels more like a set of short stories than a novel. The narrative ambles from neatly sketched character to neatly sketched character in desultory prose that eventually settles down to tell a predictable yet still involving story.

Love and Summer opens with a funeral, of which the embittered Miss Connulty is the benefactress:
Miss Connulty didn't care any more. They could do what they liked: delicious death had been a richer compensation than she had ever dreamed of. She was in charge, and today she wore the pearls.
Ellie Dillahan, an orphan in the care of the nuns, receives her good fortune in becoming the the servant of Mr. Dillahan, a farmer, who eventually marries her. Both women's routines are disturbed by the appearance of Florian Kilderry, a young dreamer on a bicycle.
She wondered if she would be the same herself; if she was no longer - and would not be again - the person she was when she had gone to Mrs. Connulty's funeral and for all the time before that. When he had asked whose funeral it was it had been the beginning but she hadn't known. When Miss Connulty had drawn her attention to him in the Square she had realized. When he'd smiled in the Cash and Carry she'd known it too. She had been different already when she stood with him in the sunshine, when he offered her the cigarette and she shook her head. Anyone could have seen them and she hadn't cared.
Each woman has been rescued from misfortune, Ellie from loneliness and poverty and Miss Connulty from an early pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Each accepts her salvation into a passionless world of routine without question, realizing only later what they have given up, and in the heat of a summer, Florian Kilderry, almost a ghost haunting the ruins of his family's estate, ignites their fantasy.

In fact, there are two ruined estates in this story, and their presence creates a landscape of desolate romance that seems doomed from the start. I found this an imperfect novel. It was easy to see what was going to happen. Although I cared what would happen to Ellie and Florian, I found them rendered with a lack of specificity. They remained stand-ins for romantic characters who I could never really see as people. Ultimately I found Miss Connulty drawn with greater detail and her secrets and paradoxes far more intriguing. Her subplot lies abandoned for a chunk of the novel, only to be picked up again at its end. I am left having enjoyed the beauty and assurance of Trevor's prose and the atmosphere he created in Love and Summer without ever completely falling in love with the story.

Plain vanilla fiction

btt button

From this day forward, you may only read ONE type of book–one genre–period, but you get to choose what it is. Classics, Science-Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Cookbooks, History, Business … you can choose, but you only get ONE.

I don't know if this is cheating, but I would go for contemporary fiction - not historical novels, not romance, not mystery, not sci-fi - just plain vanilla new fiction in English. The advantage of that is a variety of subject matter and prose styles that would change over time, as styles and themes reflect the time and place of which they are a part and the writing going on around it. Just looking at a few examples of the contemporary fiction that I have read so far this year - The Magicians, Authenticity, In the Beginning, and The Unnamed - there is such richness of subject matter, setting, and prose style. In fact, I might even be willing to restrict myself to reading fiction that came out in the year in which I was reading it, allowing that I could carry over the book I'm in the middle of reading on December 31 but that I hadn't finished yet. But I'd rather not, reading for me is an exercise in indulging my intellectual and experiential fancy, not restricting myself.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Curing cancer with beer and speculative genetics

Carl Zimmer has an excellent piece in today's Science Times focusing on the notion of deep homology in genes. Deep what, you ask? Zimmer begins by writing about research to find genes that play a role in the growth of blood vessels. The hope is that if these genes can be identified, they can be turned off and slow the growth of tumors. The genes are part of the yeast genome which doesn't even have blood, let alone blood vessels, and Zimmer's article reveals why cancer researchers would bother to look at genes that repair cell walls in yeast.

Deep homology is the concept that body structures do not arise anew, but evolve from existing structures. Drs. Shubin, Tabin, and Carroll explain it well in the abstract to their 2009 article in Nature:

Advances in developmental genetics, palaeontology and evolutionary developmental biology have recently shed light on the origins of some of the structures that most intrigued Charles Darwin, including animal eyes, tetrapod limbs and giant beetle horns. In each case, structures arose by the modification of pre-existing genetic regulatory circuits established in early metazoans. The deep homology of generative processes and cell-type specification mechanisms in animal development has provided the foundation for the independent evolution of a great variety of structures.

In other words, new structures share common genetic ancestry with older structures. The human eye and the contemporary jellyfish eye, for example, evolved not from anything that looks remotely like an eye, but from cells in aquatic species that also had light-sensitivity. What these structures have in common is a genetic sequence that provides the template for the assembly of c-opsin - a light-sensitive protein. And that is the most important point that Zimmer's article and the articles by Shubin and Carroll make to me. Genes rarely directly make disease, they don't directly encode complex behavior, and they aren't even "designed" for the purpose of building a given anatomic structure per se. Genes sequence proteins and in the context of different organic substrates those proteins can be adapted for specific functions. It is fun to get lost in the speculative connections that books like Richard Powers's latest make about "happiness genes," and the like. But it is worth being cautious about allowing such dreams to drive scientific terminology. This is well illustrated by the following excerpt from Zimmer's article:

Scientists are also discovering that our nervous system shares an even deeper homology with single-celled organisms. Neurons communicate with each other by forming connections called synapses. The neurons use a network of genes to build a complete scaffolding to support the synapse. In February, Alexandre AliƩ and Michael Manuel of the National Center for Scientific Research in France reported finding 13 of these scaffold-building genes in single-celled relatives of animals known as choanoflagellates.

No one is sure what choanoflagellates use these neuron-building genes for. The one thing that is certain is that they don’t build neurons with them.

Then maybe we shouldn't call them neuron-building genes? It's easy, if one is driven by a passion for a narrow sliver of knowledge, to see everything as related to that expertise. It makes sense to drive hypothesis-making with our knowledge of genes, since their action precedes any biological function or structure we can observe, but this article reads like a cautionary tale regarding attaching structural significance to a gene if knowldge of its function is not secure. Genes sequence proteins. Genes sequence proteins. Read Zimmer's article - it combines clear writing about contemporary basic science with a good story about current newsy science. A really good piece.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Killing giants, myth busting and other valiant deeds (Books - The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing & Reading in the Brain)

I just came across two excerpts in Richard Dawkins's collection of science writing that reminded me what gives me pleasure about reading science. One is geneticist J. B. S. Haldane's "On Being the Right Size" and the other, Zoologist Mark Ridley's "On Being the Right Sized Mates" from his 1983 book The Explanation of Organic Diversity. Haldane's essay muses on how the physical structure of animals evolved to the "right" size for their makeup. As an example he uses the giants from the books of his childhood,
These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross-sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bones had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every times they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one's respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer.
I love the fact that Haldane uses his childhood memory of Pilgrim's Progress to communicate to his reader what he is thinking about the physiological evolution of animal life. The best teaching occurs, I think, when the teacher themselves can get back to what initially ignited their own interest about their subject and communicate from that vantage point. Haldane then goes on a musing spree which covers the structure of members of the animal kingdom ranging from insects to giraffes. How an insect's structure allows it to fall without danger, but if it gets wet it is likely to drown. Tall animals require a certain strength pump and vessels for the circulatory system that convey blood to their extremities, however, this puts them at risk for high blood pressure or problems associated with vascular weakness. How do wings permit flight? How do different respiratory structures - those that have evolved with gills and those with lungs - accomplish the oxygenation of blood? And given these diverse means, what are the upper limits of the size of the animal that possesses them? Haldane not only informs us of the vagaries of the natural world we are a part of, he communicates the verve with which he observes that world, and with witty prose drives the reader forward. It is little wonder that he inspired Mark Ridley's observation that species have evolved to favor homogamy, that is, like mates with like. What I enjoyed about this brief essay is Ridley's debunking of the well-entrenched myth that in human affairs of the heart, opposites attract.
'it is a trite proverb that tall men marry little women...a man of genius marries a fool,' a habit which Murray explained as 'the effort of nature to preserve the typical medium of the race.' The same thought was expressed by the vast intellect of Jeeves, to explain the otherwise mysterious attractions of Bertie for all those female enthusiasts of Kant and Schopenhauer. The source of this proverbial belief is not certainly known; but one possibility can be ruled out. It did not originate in observation: humans mate homogamously (or perhaps randomly) for both stature and intelligence.
Myth-busting is not just a darn good time - especially when indulged in with such gusto - but doubting our assumptions is vital to the continued development of our knowledge. This is also another of many instances in Dawkins's juicy compendium in which learning something new is married to lucid, entertaining writing. The danger of this volume, however, is its tendency to bloat the TBR list. I've made it a rule to only jot down my desired titles at this point, and not engage in any impulse buying. We'll see how long that holds! Here are my other posts related to The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing 1, 2.

I have also begun Stanislas Dehaene's recent book Reading in the Brain and, speaking of gills, it is packed to them with information about how the brain accomplishes the act you are performing right now - reading. An accessible and engagingly written volume. I tore through the first 60 pages. More on that soon.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Chick-lit meets Holocaust novel (Books - Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay)

Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key alternates two narratives, one set in 1942 as Paris's Jews are rounded up by their own police and sent to Auschwitz to impress the Nazis and their Gestapo, with whom they had recently allied themselves. The other set in 2002 Paris, as Julia, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, researches the story of Vel' d'Hiv' (the French name for the roundup). She discovers that the apartment that has belonged to her husband's family and into which they are planning to move after a renovation, was originally occupied by a Jewish family and suspects it may have been acquired through less than above-board methods. It becomes her obsession to find out who occupied that apartment and what happened to them and the knowledge changes her life as the book cover's blurbs assures me Sarah's Key will change mine. What amazed me rather was how predictable and lacking in personality this book club favorite is. It's pop-chick-lit meets pop-Holocaust novel. Think Sleepless in Seattle meets Life is Beautiful. Never complex, never subtle, Sarah's Key held not a single surprise for me either in how its historical plot unfolded nor its contemporary one. The writing was clunky - constantly explaining the obvious - usually with a cliche.
Her mother. Her father. Her brother. She missed them so much she felt physically ill. She felt as if she had fallen into a bottomless hole.

"I can still hear her scream," he whispered. "I cannot forget it. Ever."
What Sarah's Key does have going for it is plot. Vel' d'Hiv' is heart wrenching history and the reader uncovers the details on a factual basis and on an imagined personal one, learning what happened as Julia learns it. It's a good device but the contemporary plot aligns with the historical one too neatly, the children in the story parallels Julia's pregnancy, the apartment she is renovating happens to have been inhabited by a Jewish family, I feel like the novel is constantly hitting me over the head to make sure I got it. I got it.

What this book did accomplish is to make me even more curious about the history of occupied France and its aftermath. In fact, I started Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper's Paris After the Liberation yesterday (it had been sitting on the TBR pile for a few months). So you could say that in the end, de Rosnay's book accomplished something, so does it matter that it wasn't well written? It does to me. The kind of book I value enriches me with the complexity of human beings. It shows people as living paradoxes, it doesn't merely explain to me that they are paradoxical. I really hated that de Rosnay split up the family into those who sided with Julia and those who didn't and then had the dying matriarch decide the outcome with a little narrated moralizing speech at the novel's end that delivered the book's lesson like a family drama for the Disney Channel or ABC-Family. I also value a novel that asks me to sustain my attention to a chapter that takes longer than 5 minutes to read. Reading a rich novel is an enveloping experience in which events unfold with the improvisatory twists that seem to mimic those we experience in our lives, it is not just a way to absorb information. I have been more surprised by the events in re-reading a novel (for example, Chiam Potok's In The Beginning earlier this year) than I was in reading Sarah's Key for the first time. I was interested in seeing what all the fuss was about, but ultimately although informed and even moved (once), I was disappointed to discover such thin gruel made of such rich stock.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Forthright and penetrating (Books - Something is Out There by Richard Bausch)

Richard Bausch's new collection of stories, Something is out there. observes the strong passions of everyday life. I think his greatest skill is making what is internal - what is going on in the heart or the mind of his characters - external without our being precisely aware at the moment of the arrogance of the invasion. In the title story, the action is a kind of surreal malaise experienced by two sisters resulting from the shooting, earlier that day, of one of their husbands. As a blizzard envelops them, the two sons tend to the practical business of shoveling snow as they await the arrival of their cousin, the son of the other sister. One sister is forward-focused and a doer, the other ruminative and hysterical.
Dora wandered back into the kitchen and then on, to her room. The boys talked about shovbeling the walk again. Paula said to go ahead; it was something for them to do. She couldn't quite voice the thought - it was too ordinary, really, almost childlike - but it seemed impossible that the trauma of the afternoon's trouble and anxiety could be added to by anything serious where Christopher was concerned. The world she knew did not act that way. She wanted to say something to the boys - to tell them that the day's misfortune was sufficient, plenty enough for anyone, and surely the world would not add to all that. But then she understood the irrational nature of this line of thinking; there was not going to be anything sensible or logical about this day. She felt a little freezing current of air under her heart, and tried to concentrate on watching the boys shovel the walk again. They barely made any headway.
How subtly and exactly he captures that wandery, threatening, other-wordly atmosphere of a confrontation with mortality - the aftermath of the storm of adrenalin, the sense-making exercises the mind engages in. Bausch doesn't write what Paula thought but rather what she doesn't think, but what sits at the edge of her mind behind her actions. Nor does he litter his prose with the predictable 'she thought to herself.' Instead he observes what people do, what they say, the idiosyncratic content of a sensory detail that comes to their awareness, and the understandings they then possess out of these experiences. That "freezing current of air under her heart," how perfect and precise a physical detail. A winter storm inside to match the winter storm outside.

Bausch catches the odd moment, the kind that we become aware of in the moment that we will never forget all our lives.

I found "One Hour in The History of Love" the most unusualof the stories. Written in the present tense, it observes the commerce of relationships of 3 groups of people - 1 newly wed (and newly pregnant) couple sitting at a cafe table with their friends, also a couple, but at a more jaded stage in their relationship. At an adjacent table sits another couple, a writer, his fiancee, and a self-absorbed photographer she used to assist. An elderly couple sits in a coffee shop on the corner of the same block as the cafe. Beginnings, middles, and ends of the life cycle eddy around this block, interacting with the chief creative acts of life - art-making (in the writer and photographer), life making (in the grown children of the elderly couple and the nascent child in the newly wed's womb), and loving. These three forces exist in three adjoining dramas which affect each other but never intentionally interact.
"Give me a call before you leave town," Benjamin says to them both. "We could sit out on my balcony and share a bottle of wine." He realizes, as he speaks, how lonely this makes him sound, and as he tries to find something else to say, some words indicating with the proper amount of casualness that others would also be there, Jesse cuts him off. "We'll do that, you bet," he says in the tone of someone already forgetting the invitation, and walking away with his lovely woman on his arm, and his obvious pride in being happy, in love. Benjamin walks down the sidewalk, past an old man - the same old man, he realizes, that he had seen earlier - who comes storming by him with that rickety walk, hands shoved down in his pockets. The whole world is bright sun, and the man's eyes are narrow, furious, the mouth deeply frowning.
What a masterful conflagration of detail, like an episodic stage play in which the summing of unrelated scenes creates a complex drama that the participants aren't event aware of.

I think my favorite of the stories was "Overcast," in which Elaine, a waitress at a diner, lives in the aftermath of her divorce. The business of the story is her taking refuge in writing and listening to opera, her brewing and serving of coffee, her visiting her mother, but its action is her dawning realization of her own loneliness. The story has a quiet arc, a penetrating insight, and forthright diction. Those are the qualities I have come most to admire in this, the first Bausch volume I have read. I am tempted to try a novel by him next - any suggestions?
Here are my other posts on Something is out there 1, 2.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Big Thinking

I was introduced today to the website Big Think. On it I discovered, among many treasures, this interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett discussing the Mechanics of Studying Consciousness. The excerpt is not interesting because of any earth shattering content Dennett reveals about the nature of consciousness but rather for what he reveals about his thought process. You know how obsessed I am with creative process. Here Dennett discusses how to put one's mind to solving a problem and stay focused on the work of that problem, rather than on the many things that can waylay us: its scope, the wonder of our subject, or that this part I am working on isn't really the subject I mean to address.

The website offers video interviews with all sorts of influential thinkers and doers - chefs, economists, politicians, writers, choreographers, neuroscientists, musicians... you name it. I enjoyed Oliver Sacks and historian David McCullough is particularly good on the value of history and our founding fathers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Information storage and replication - adaptive and maladaptive (Books - The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing & Something is Out There)

I wrote in my last post on Richard Dawkin's fine collection of science writing of hypothesis testing - a part of the scientific method which helps us to build our body of knowledge about the world through disciplined comparison. This is how it works. Scientists pit a hypothesis that says that what they think is not true (the null hypothesis) against an alternate hypothesis (their own). For example, if the scientist is testing the effect of a drug to cure the common cold, he might take two groups of people with nasty colds, give one the drug and the other a sugar pill. His claim might be that those who took his drug will sneeze fewer times a day than those who took the sugar pill. His 'null hypothesis' would state that there will be no difference between the two groups - that both will sneeze the same number of times after taking the pill. This is the result he does not want. If his experiment is successful, he cannot prove his hypothesis per se, because no one can test every instance of something, but what the scientist can do is reject the null hypothesis to some degree of certainty. It is up to not just this probability,but also to the experimental design to say that the reason the sneezing decreased was the drug and not something else.  Our experimental design would have to account for other explanations, such as the fact that the cold ended naturally on its own - something science calls controlling the experiment.

Why would scientists work so hard to try to address an explanation other that the one we want? There are two reasons: one protects against our influencing the outcome in subtle ways in our experiment because we want success so badly (scientists fall prey to the same psychological pitfalls as any other human). The second is is one of logic and safety. Say you wanted to reach some books on a very high shelf and you had no ladder, but there was some wood, a hammer, and a few nails. You build a 4-step step-stool but you have no aluminum braces and only a single nail for each join. Would you a) proudly throw your finished stool down in front of the right spot on the shelf and jump on up to the top step, standing on your toes to reach that book as soon as it was finished or would you b) put some weight on it with your hands first, testing the stool before climbing on it? If you are like a scientist, you will opt for the second choice, preferring to break the stool you made with your hands than to impulsively leap to the top step and risk breaking your neck .  It is more logical to attempt to break the stool safely than it is to assume that it is functional because you would like that book on the top shelf so badly. It is not that we want the stool to break, it is that we want to know with a great deal of certainty that it will not. So we try to break it by putting at least as much pressure on it as it would likely withstand under typical us.

That long explanation of hypothesis testing was a preamble to a point I wanted to make inspired by another couple of excerpts Dawkins chose in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, these by biologist Francis Crick and zoologist Matt Ridley. That is: scientists are good at doing other things too. One strength of a great creative-scientific mind is the way it can use its body of accumulated knowledge together with its unique perspective to see patterns in the world that others have not seen. This begins with a sentence from Watson and Crick's 1953 paper on DNA:
'It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.'

The quality of mind that enabled Watson and Crick to race ahead of their laboratory-based rival Rosalind Franklin is well demonstrated by that sentence, and it is shown again in the extract I have chosen from Crick's book Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (1981). Watson and Crick were not only concerned with finding out how things actually are - although that was of course their ultimate goal. They also kept in mind the way DNA ought to be if it was to do its job as the genetic molecule, and this gave them a short cut, which was ignored by the painstaking Rosalind is in general true that deep cogitation on the way nature ought to be constitutes a good prelude to the eventual investigation of the way it actually is. Only a prelude, however: the ultimate test of an idea is not its elegance but how will it explains reality.
So creative scientists are also good at something that might be called informed musing. In fact most creative people of all kind are. I might add to Dawkins cautionary concluding sentence that a responsible reporter of science will always let you know which they are doing - testing a hypothesis or musing.

I have not read Matt Ridley's 1999 book Genome, but Dawkins describes its creative structure - 23 chapters, one for each of our chromosomes, each chapter extrapolating upon a theme inspired by what is known about the functions of that chromosome. If the excerpt is any indication, this makes for some rich cross-fertilization among genres. In the case of this chapter it is biology, physics, and information processing. The short chapter careens from Erasmus Darwin's 1794 prediction that living filaments may be shared precursor to all organic lifeforms - an amazing notion for its day! To the idea that lifeforms, unlike closed systems which proceed from states of order (requiring more energy) to states of chaos (requiring less), packets of order and complexity called bodies but at the cost of expending large amounts of energy. In Erwin Schrodinger's phrase, living creature 'drink orderliness' from the environment.
Isn't that fantastic? He goes on to connect the building of a body with the need for information. That information must be storable (the DNA of our genome) and must be both readable and replicable. Less than two pages later, Ridley speaks of the year 1943 as the time when diverse ingredients began to coalesce in a way that would eventually transform how we know our world. Here is what I mean by a unique mind being able, through its own peculiar fund of knowledge and its uniquely creative disposition, to see what no one else can. Ridley writes of what Watson and Crick were up to, the tortures Josef Mengele was enacting at Auschwitz, the work of Oswald Avery that prefigured the connection of DNA to heredity, and the brilliant Alan Turing, who was creating a computation machine that also could store information, modify it, read it to enact functions, and replicate it. What Ridley sees and writes of with panache is the excitement in disparate disciplines that prefigured the connecting of biological code to heredity. It's a visionary discourse that exemplifies what I wrote of in the last post inspired by Dawkins's collection, that strong feeling precedes scientific inquiry.

I have also continued my travels with another unique mind - that of Richard Bausch - in his latest story collection, Something is Out There. "Son and Heir" is a devastating portrait of dissolution of the aimless son of a college president. Lyndhurst, the son, is a pitiable character whose combination of pride and inherent mistrust leads him to make a series poor judgments. This mistrust is predicated on his having witnessed his respected father's infidelity toward his mother alongside the public continuance of their marriage - a hypocritical facade - to which Lyndhurst has developed over time his own facade of not caring. Here too we see information stored and replicated, this time in a maladaptive pattern, no doubt initially developed to protect Lyndhurst from hurt but, in the long run he is never able to modify his mistrustful picture of the world so that he might experience it as a place where effect can predictably follow cause. Bausch's portrait of Lyndhurst's anxiety and hurt are set in the context of the great power failure during the intense heatwave the Eastern half of the U.S. experienced several summers ago. He cooks them to the boil.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Particulars in ordinary worlds versus ordinariness in extremis - (Books: Something is out There by Richard Bausch & Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay)

I dipped into two fiction books this weekend, one Richard Bausch's new collection of short stories Something is out there. and the former bestseller by Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah's Key. They couldn't be more different.

Bausch's narrative voice is patient, gentle, clearly of the South. His subject matter quotidian heartbreak - the strain in a marriage between an older and a younger artist, the selfless gesture of a son towards his dying mother, the adulterous adventure of a reverends wife.
Keeping strictly to the early-morning ritual, Diana prepared coffee, boiled one egg and lightly buttered two slices of toast for him, then put cereal on for the girls, and went and dressed for the day, while they ate. When they were finished, she rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. In the usual rush, she saw the twins off to school, brushing Lauren's hair for her, nagging Kelly about brushing her teeth thoroughly to get the food particles that had lodged in her braces. All as usual. So much the exact pattern of her mornings. The ordinariness of it made her happy, and it surprised her. It also increased her sense of unreality.
The economy of this opening paragraph is a pleasure. We know Diana's day is structured, regular, but not a burden. That Diana's husband is a creature of habit, a reserved man - one egg, the toast lightly buttered - I call up the picture of an English parson. We also know that this will not be a typical day, but we don't know why, and so Bausch has created suspense in a scene of the most familiar ordinariness. Bausch fashions a world that is familiar almost to the point of cliche, but rescued from that fate by its being particular to individual lives. He accomplishes this through the use of detail. Each of the three worlds of his I have entered so far envelops me in its totality. We get to know its key citizens, usually just two or three people, very intimately. We go deep, not broad. The kind of encounter I leave feeling it has been of value.

Contrast this with the bestseller, Sarah's Key. Two alternating narratives, one set in 1942 as Paris's Jews are rounded up by their own police, one of many episodes in France's embarrassing Vichy past that had been swept under the carpet for many years. The other set in 2002 Paris, as an American journalist, who is married to a Parisian, takes ownership of an apartment originally inhabited by one of those Parisians who were shipped off to Auschwitz in 1942. De Rosnay tries for distinct voices - there is a third-person narrator in 1942, but one focused on the character of a young girl. This makes for a combination of omniscience and innocence that sounds awkward to the ear in a way that has yet to resolve itself sixty pages in. In 2002, we read the first-person voice of the American journalist, Julia. This tries for a relaxed, contemporary tone peppered with confessional detail about her marriage to Bertrand and her friendship with two cool gay fellows that I care nothing about, having not the slightest idea who she is, as well as awkward dialogue from her 11-year-old daughter.
Bertrand waved to us, then pointed to the phone, lowering his eyebrows and scowling.

"Like he can't get that person off the phone," scoffed Zoe. "Sure."

Zoe was only eleven, but it sometimes felt like she was already a teenager. First, her height, which dwarfed all her girlfriends - as well as her feet, she would add grimly...
Was this written for the Disney channel? "Like he can't get that person off the phone?" Like I can believe this sentence is being spoken by a Parisian 11-year-old who is continually 'scoffing' and 'adding grimly' - can she never simply 'say' anything? "First, her height, which dwarfed all her girlfriends - as well as her feet" Second, which comes after first, this is not a sentence. And, if I read this correctly, did her feet dwarf all her girlfriends?

Ms. de Rosnay also makes the unfortunate choice to use Zoe to give less cultured readers the basics in French everyday life:
"I have to go," I said. "Meeting with Joshua."

"What do we do with Zoe?" asked Bertrand.

Zoe rolled her eyes.

"I can, like, take a bus back to Montparnasse."

"What about school?" said Bertrand.

Roll of eyes again.

"Papa! It's Wednesday. No school on Wednesday afternoons, remember?

Bertrand scratched his head.

"In my days it - "

"It was on Thursday, no school on Thursdays," Chanted Zoe.

"Ridiculous french education system," I sighed. "And school on Saturday mornings to boot!"
School on Wednesday not on Thursday. Got it. Glad we got that exposition out of the way. I keep waiting for Mickey Rooney to run on from behind a curtain and sing a number.

The chapters are of Disneyfied length, I guess that is so that the Americans can trot off to the kitchen between them to get popcorn and sugared soft drinks and maintain their status as the leader of stupidity and obesity in the Western world, while not forgetting who anyone is. So far the structure is predictable and the prose is the most ungainly I have read in a good long while. I am interested by the Vichy occupation and I have heard that the plot is a killer, so I will try to stay with this book a bit longer. I can only guess that its popularity has to do with the fact that no one could tell a well written book from a poorly written one when the subject was the holocaust. Or maybe it was Oprahed?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Novelties VII

Eating: Lately, my favorite Japanese restaurant has offered a warm mushroom salad atop greens that is to-die-for, as they say. Here are two slightly different variations on the theme - Martha's and Food and Wine's - take your pick.

The Ragazzo brough home a Belgian wheat beer flavored with coriander, orangeskin, and liquorice - Blanche de Namur. Great on a hot weekend afternoon, we found, with some hearty rye and a strong cheese.

Watching: To be honest, I haven't been watching much of anything.

Listening: I've been listening to Brad Mehldau's new album Highway Rider. That's dated - can one still say album? It uses many of the solo voices of traditional jazz, like piano and sax, but some pieces have a Pat Metheny like drive (but not his very pop sound) and also has some pieces reminiscent of Samuel Barber.

Surfing & Learning:

Ed Young of Not Exactly Rocket Science (an excellent science blog) has a great piece in New Scientist; think of it as a consumer's guide to critically reading genetics claims in the press. The habit of pitting nature and nurture against each other as mutually exclusive categories is as ubiquitous as the mind/body duality, and it is just as misguided. He also warns us that genes with catchy names are usually misleading. Check out his other concise, clearly written advisements via the link.

So, what's new with you?

Friday, April 9, 2010

A smorgassboard of writing by 20th and 21st century scientists and why we should care (Books - The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing)

I find that there is too little appreciation among the commonly educated person of what science does (as opposed to, say, the average understanding of the value of the medical practitioner whose practice is served by science but is not, generally speaking a scientist). I feel I should do more frequent science posts along with my book posts to address this imbalance! This post will give you some of each.

Science's functional value is its way of understanding the phenomena we experience in our world. Science is reserved in many minds as the realm of fact - the way we achieve certainties - which distinguishes it from the realm of belief, and neither the twain shall meet. However, science is, actually, the realm of probability. It is belief that travels in the realm of certainty. One can only achieve certainty through faith - a ceaseless practice that is most obviously valuable when it ignores the experience of our senses. For example, the Jewish practice of saying Kaddish when one has lost a loved one. Kaddish is a mourning ritual, but it is not a prayer of mourning, it is a ritual of praising the source of life in the face of loss. One can see the value of such a practice for the mourner. 

In good science, observations of the world are collected and measured against some standard that is set beforehand. Scientists then express to the world just what we did and how likely it is that what was observed can be said to be true about the world (or some part of it).  Everyone, even the strictest of scientists, live with beliefs about the world. That is how they produce hypotheses, which are the genesis of scientific inquiry.  So belief generally precedes scientific inquiry. But because everyone possesses belief and because, time and again, our beliefs about our world have had to change, it is useful to have a system of inquiry, a method to discipline some of that certainty, so that we don't become too righteous. What is true about the world is not always obvious and, indeed, not always immediately visible. The work of transformational scientists is often to make the invisible visible. The earth, low and behold, is not flat. It really does revolve around the sun and not the sun around it. Germs really do exist, even though they cannot be seen with our eyes. Washing hands really does reduce transmission of germs and, therefore, infection. Cholera really is transmitted via drinking water. And gaining that new understanding is valuable. People derided those now commonly held truths when they were first introduced but we are better for each of those influential changes and somehow Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a host of other practices are alive and well.

In that spirit, the much revered Richard Dawkins has collected excerpts of influential science writing in English from the 20th and 21st centuries in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. I received it the other day from a colleague and have begun to happily making my way through its excerpts by physicists and chemists, mathematicians and biologists, cosmologists and paleontologists. They are as various as their creators and those I have read so far are illuminating, amusing, and provocative.

I'll give you just one bit of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of England's, Just Six Numbers (2000). In it, he describes the interrelationship of the microscopic scale of atoms, molecules, and cells and the macroscopic scale of planets, stars, and galaxies that are our cosmos. He uses the serpent devouring its own tail - an ancient symbol of endless recreation called the ouraborus - to depict the interdependence of these two aspects of our universe and how we humans exist smack in the middle, superimposing each point on that scale in scientific notation onto the ouraborus, to create a sort of quasi-mythic quasi-scientific clock.
Living organisms are configured into layer upon layer of complex structure. Atoms are assembled into complex molecules; these react, via complex pathways in every cell, and indirectly lead to the entire interconnected structure that makes up a tree, an insect or a human. We straddle the cosmos and the microworld - intermediate in size between the Sun, a a billion metres in diameter, and a molecule at a billionth of a metre.
What follows is a ode to the interrelatedness of what Rees calls inner and outer space that makes me want to immediately read his book. (Which I may do after I graduate). I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those books that leads to reading many other books. How very in the spirit of scientific inquiry. If you are interested in a volume that could whet your appetite for original writing by scientists, this is an enticing smorgassboard of excerpts as brief as they are various.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Glorious New York update, gallery hopping, book hopping, book shopping, collapsing in a heap...

What a glorious New York day I had yesterday! Had brunch with a friend in from L.A. Then met The Ragazzo and we walked the Highline (left), an innovative urban landscape made from a disused elevated structure used for unloading freight train cars in the 1930s, with native plantings, viewing areas of New York streets, places to sit and enjoy a picnic or a read. On your next trip to NYC, be sure to walk it.

Departing the Highline in the West 20s, we went gallery hopping - there are a couple of hundred galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood. Highlights were a Patrick Pietropoli show at Axelle Galerie, he paints wonderful Canaletto influenced contemporary cityscapes, as well as a group show at Gallery Henoch. I particularly enjoyed the work of Richard Combes (left) and Steve Smulka (below).

It was but a short walk to Three Lives Bookstore - my favorite. And then we dropped exhaustedly into two seats at Cafe Loup, for a cozy dinner and home to read and rest my weary feet.

I'm working on a pile of books right now and spent time last night with three of them. Antony Beevor is known for bringing World War II history to vivid life through his writing. The Fall of Berlin 1945 is a fascinating subject, but I find I just cannot get my head around history when it involves endlessly moving battalions around. I don't know if I'm going to make it through this one, although I don't think its any fault of Mr. Beevor's. I suppose some people probably feel the same way reading about the brain.

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain continues to amuse. Hans Castorp is thoroughly ensconced in the Davos sanitorium, having been upgraded from visitor to patient. In the days before antibiotics, tuberculosis treatment consisted of rest, food, and fresh air (and usually eventually dying of the disease). Think lying about in blankets, a few x-rays, frustrated romance, and much philosophizing.

I received an ARC of Howard Norman's new novel What is Left the Daughter, due out this summer. I am making slow progress through what amounts to a literary legacy written as a long letter from father to daughter that is intended to lay bare long kept secrets. The form of address is personal yet the writing of the events is distant. I'm finding the disconnect is leaving me feeling uninvested, but I will read on.

I'm looking forward to a few new treasures. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a novel set in Nazi occupied Paris and, judging from the rapt reading of the woman across from me on the subway the other day, is an enveloping read. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist sees Western culture as having evolved the way it has due to the assymetrically divided human brain. When in doubt, just chalk everything up to the "split brain." This looks to either be a fascinating and original take on history or the kind of book that will make me want to scream. Obviously I am hoping it will be the latter. I'm also looking forward to Richard Bausch's new collection of stories: Something is Out There. I read bits of them one day in a bookstore and was hooked instantaneously.

And how was your weekend?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The power of the printed word

btt  button

I still remember the distinct moment that the concept of reading clicked, with a meglomaniacal realization that, all I needed to do was learn the words and I could read anything in the whole world. (That’s my kind of world domination.) Do you remember learning to read? What’s your earliest reading memory?

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. I do remember learning to write - practicing the letters of my name on the telephone message pad sitting by the phone on my mother's night table. This was prior to starting kindergarten, but it is a vivid memory. I also remember Suzanne in 2nd grade deciding that she would teach all of the eager learners in our class cursive writing, which seemed to me a bunch of undecodable scribbles. It was a heavily guarded secret code of adult society and therefore highly desirable. I was in. The remainder of the class, the hoi polloi, was going to have to wait until third grade. I dutifully practiced my squiggles, only to find in 3rd grade that Suzanne did not know script at all. She had made it up. I was pissed. I think my writing has suffered ever since. I have the worst penmanship on earth.