Thursday, September 23, 2010

Selections from the top of the pile... (Maiden Voyage, The Hustle, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, Microcosm, and Rhythms of the Brain)

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What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it?

I'm reading three books actively even thought five appear on my sidebar:

Denton Welch's Maiden Voyage is a fictionalized memoir about a refined English boy who at 16 feels very much an outcast, hates his public school, and runs away. Welch wrote in the 1920s and 30s before dying very young from injuries sustained in a terrible accident. He is a writer's writer,admired for his use of memory and openness about his homosexuality. I have come to read this because so many English writers talk with admiration of his books. I'm just 50 pages in and haven't yet decided what I think, except to say that English fiction gets a lot of mileage out young boys in public schools, Dickens, Harry Potter...

My friend Doug Merlino has written a book about race relations in American via a memoir of his participation in a multiracial basketball team, an anomaly when Doug played the game in his youth in Seattle in the 1980s. I'm liking the unsentimental, reportorial voice and on the flip side the very personal take on a vast and unwieldy theme. I'm enjoying it for those reasons but as much for the fact that I finally get to read something by Doug, who I've known for some time but have yet to read a word from. The Hustle will be published at the end of this year and I recommend reading it once it is. It's an accessible way to think about a troubling cultural reality of the U.S., one whose legacy is still alive, and one which has its analogues in most other countries as well.

I have been dipping into Richard Dawkin's compendium of 20th and 21st century writing across the sciences for many months. The writers are various, treating subjects from consciousness to DNA to the mechanics of the spiral form in voices that range from erudite and polymathic to highly focused and down-to-earth. They each have in common a mastery of a way of understanding our world and a talent for sharing that knowledge and their feelings about it with the lay-reader. I am just loving The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing and recommend it both for those who already like reading about science and especially for those who might be intimidated to read about it. This will allow you to drop in on various subjects in a multitude of styles and perhaps find some writers who you would enjoy reading more deeply.

I also have Carl Zimmer's Microcosm, a book about (of all things) the E. coli bacterium - a very interesting read. I seem to have gotten side tracked from Gyorgy Buzsaki's Rhythms of the Brain, a book about the oscillatory patterns that are found in nature, and in particularl in the electrical activity in the brain, and their significance. It's a more a read for the hard core aficianado than the tourist but I am finding it fascinating to think about and pertinent to my work in the lab.

And you...?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Watching out for common sense (Books - The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, ed. Richard Dawkins- "One Self" by Nicholas Humphrey)

I continue to dip into Richard Dawkins's impressive and diverse collection of science writing, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, this time stopping to admire Nicholas Humphrey's essay on the self-organization of 'self.' How does the unity of our many selves create consciousness of a single self without direction, this essay asks? Humphrey meditates on the movements of his baby son and an analogy he makes of the tuning up of the separate instrumental players of an orchestra and their ability to play as one without a conductor. Dawkins admires Humphrey's ability to spot the important questions, particularly when, as he says, "they are camouflaged against a background of common sense," and that highlights one of the roles that great thinkers play. Common sense can be useful to every-day thinking, but not necessarily to the role of shifting paradigms in the science of consciousness. Scientific process must not be lured by the quick conveniences that our minds favor. Nothing may be taken for granted. And yet, Humphrey has the talent to couch his uncommon thinking in accessible prose so that the uncommon thought seems for the reader almost familiar.

Here are some of my other posts on The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing: 1, 2, 3.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The uncontestable beauty of life lived outside the bounds (Books - The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken)

I have a thing for writers who understand the experience of those who do not fit life's molds, and who make that less-than-common experience accessible to readers not merely making fashionable funkiness of it, a la the television show Ugly Betty, but rather by revealing the sheer and uncontestable beauty of being a somewhat strange self. Elizabeth McCracken is clearly one of those artists. The Giant's House is an exemplar of a work that celebrates the value and integrity of a life lived outside the bounds that the conformist majority believes they have set for everyone. The story of a small-town librarian, Peggy, and James, the tallest boy in the world, their life's ambitions, and their love for each other is a tender and sympathetic tale. They begin by sharing books, because they may escape the pain of their exile from most of the human race that way. McCracken gets inside the inside narrative, what we actors call the interior monologue, of her characters. That is her first-person, unreliable narrator's voice as Peggy, and she uses that inside knowledge as a story-telling device to draw in the reader.
I may be adding things. It's been years now, and nearly every day I dream up my hours and meetings with James Carlson Sweatt. I am a librarian, and you cannot stop me from annotating, revising, updating. I like to think that - because AI am a librarian - I offer accurate and spurious advice with no judgment, good and bad next to each other on the shelf. But my memories are not books. Blessing if they were. Then maybe someone would borrow one and keep it too long and return it, a little battered, offering money for my forgiveness, each memory new after its long absence.
She does not make humorous hash out of her subjects, but her tone is as wise and wry as its gets.
People thing librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in particular ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. the idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. "I don't think there's such a book - " a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book.
Unromantic? This is a reference librarian's fantasy.

A patron arrives, says, Tell me something. You reach across the desk and pull him toward ou, bear hug him a second and then take him into your lap, stroke his forehead, whisper facts in his ear. The climate of Chad is tropical in the south, desert in the north. Source: 1991 CIA World Factbook. Do you love me? Americans consumer 6.2 gallons of tea per capita in 1989. Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States. Synecdoche is a literary device meaning the part for the whole, as in, the crowned heads of Europe. I love you. I could find you British Parliamentary papers, I could track down a book you only barely remember reading. Do you love me now? We own that book, we subscribe to that journal, Elvis Presley's first movie was called Love Me Tender.

And then you life the patron again, take him over the desk and set him down so gently he doesn't feel it, because there's someone else arriving, and she looks oh, she looks uninformed.
If you have ever loved someone for or wooed someone with intellect, you will really get this love story. This may sound like a cop-out but The Giant's House is better revealed by reading it than by reading about it. Despite the little time I have to read fiction, I read some of it just a little slowly to delay its ending but I couldn't stop myself tearing through most of it. A lovely story.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Struggling to matter with one eye on the clock (Books - A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

Will Blythe in the New York Times Book Review thought it was "pitch perfect." Oprah called it a tour de force. Even Mookse and Gripes liked it. It is Jennifer Egan's new metafiction of linked-stories, a concoction about the passing of time and how money can't buy you love or a sense of purpose - A Visit From the Goon Squad. At its center are two mismatched survivors. Sasha, whose deep reservoir of loss originating in her teenage years made her grow up too soon (as the Elvis Costello song Goon Squad would have it) and have turned her into a kleptomaniac; ... and Bennie, an aging rock-and-roller whose refusal to grow up as he grew old has has left him loveless.

Each of the desperate souls in Egan's modern melange struggle to make their lives matter with, again with a nod to Elvis Costello, one eye on the clock.
"I'll check the bathroom," she told Alex, and forced herself to walk slowly around the elevator bank. The bathroom was empty. Sasha opened her purse, took out the wallet, unearthed her vial of Xanax, and popped one between her teeth. They worked faster if you chewed them. As the caustic taste flooded her mouth, she scanned the room, trying to decide where to ditch the wallet: In the stall? Under the sink? The decision paralyzed her. She had to do this right, to emerge unscathed, and if she could, if she did - she had a frenzied sense of making a promise to Coz.

The bathroom door opened, and the woman walked in . Her frantic eyes met Sasha's in the bathroom mirror: narrow, green equally frantic. There was a pause during which Sasha felt that she was being confronted; the woman knew, had known all along. Sasha handed her the wallet. She saw, from the woman's stunned expression, that she was wrong.
"I'm sorry," Sasha said quickly. "It's a problem I have."
Bennie's assistant, Sasha, brought him coffee: cream and two sugars. He shimmied a tiny red enameled box from his pocket, popped the tricky latch, pinched a few gold flakes between his trembling fingers, and released them into his cup. He'd begun this regimen two months ago, after reading in a book on Aztec medicine that gold and coffee together were believed to ensure sexual potency. Bennie's goal was more basic than potency: sex drive, his own having mysteriously expired. He wasn't sure quite when or quite why this had happened: The divorce from Stephanie? The battle over Christopher? Having recently turned forty-four? The tender, circular burns on his left forearm, sustain at "The Party," a recent debacle engineered by none other than Stephanie's former boss, who was now doing jail time?

The gold landed on the coffee's milky surface and spun wildly. Bennie was mesmerized by this spinning, which he took as evidence of the explosive gold-coffee chemistry. A frenzy of activity that had mostly led him in circles: wasn't that a fairly accurate description of lust?
The bright, angular specifics of Egan's observations and the rock-and-roll tempo of her writing supplies that frenzy her characters are caught up in. The point-of-view is a 20th-century, George Eliotish, all-knowing-eye that alternately offers the reader brilliant snapshots of the media-happy, magical-thinking zeitgeist of our own time, or of past episodes that were its antecedents. Character is, to my eye, Egan's strong suit. In A Visit From the Goon Squad they are imagined in multiple time frames, sometimes introducing us first to their present and then going back into the past. At others she slips into the very marrow of a new character - a fifty-something down-and-out rocker, a has-been PR doyen, or the adolescent son of an aging rocker - and then catapults us forward in time with one of those Eliotish observations of what will happen that just knocks the breath out of you. She uses character's psyches as the engine of their actions. Her diction is literate and distinctive, but this can be the magic ingredient that weaves the spell as much as the one that breaks it. For example, I love her use of the word "shimmied" above to perfectly capture the movement of the box in a words that also describes a dance move I associate with 1960s rock-and-roll. More rarely, as for example during a particularly formative episode in Sasha's past when Egan writes that a character "origamis" himself through a living room window, I want to scream at the use of a writerly verb at the expense of my involvement. There isn't any doubt she can write:
It's all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Never gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?

But it's nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
Stunning, no?

Egan is at her most effective in this book when she weaves such an enveloping spell. She can also be hilarious, as in a chapter about a washed-up PR queen trying to revive the career of a despotic military dictator via a media campaign with a talentless B-movie star. I find her less so when she plays meta-fictional charades with forays into second-person narrative voice, celebrity journalism with foot notes, and chapters written as Power Point presentations - touches I may well have liked better if I had read these chapters as separate stories. But this book intends to mock the means it employs and sometimes those risks pay off. Egan uses hyperbole to communicate that hype does not equal content. She hops frenziedly from form to form teaching us that being busy is not happiness. Egan's book weaves together multiple layers of time and form that succeed in conveying the complexity of Egan's vision without explaining it to death however, at the end of the day, I would say that the book impressed me and challenged me more than it moved me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is art precious for its beauty, its value, or its usefulness? (Film - Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas)

The 2008 film Summer Hours is all about legacy. It captures the lives of three siblings around the death of their mother, Helene, who was the keeper not only of their childhoods and the objects associated with it, but also of the memory of her uncle, a well-known painter. Frederic, the eldest son and only sibling still living in France, wants to preserve the house, its objects, and its artworks for continued use and pass it along to the next generation. Adrienne lives in the U.S. and Jeremie in China, they wish to sell everything as they are unlikely to use the house, having more use for its profits. The film explores the challenges inherent in passing things along to future generations. When 75-year-old Helene wants to speak to Frederic about what will fall to his care after her passing, he finds it too difficult to discuss her death. When Frederic, in turn, speaks to his teenage children about the art in the house, they try to admire it, but are really more interested in their music and their friends. Writer and director Olivier Assayas has an admirably light touch. He has the confidence to write good scenes, get people to come together and really do what his scripts say they do, and to let his camera simply observe them. I make that sound easy but it's not. That is the work of the filmmaker. Friend Sheila and I were talking about just this the other night. The medium of film is not celluloid - although that might be the chemical substance its sounds and images are recorded on. Its not even the camera, although without knowing to use lenses and cameras one could not make a film. It is people. The children play a game during the film's opening and they are obviously children playing with an interest in winning a game - not posing for the camera. It takes talent to show people being people. Actors can be very interested in themselves. They admire their own faces and their hard won talents. Assayas has cast beautifully Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renier know what it means to inhabit a character whose life is full of details you never actually get to show, but which must precede their behavior in the story if it is to make sense. In Summer Hours- the characters act, not meaning demonstrate, meaning they do things. They meet, they mourn, they eat meals together, they make decisions - and the camera observes. They don't force themselves on the viewer. They do their jobs and if you are interested you may do your's.

Assays's mise en scene is smart. His camera celebrates the warmth, the lush and somewhat worn beauty of the house in the final summer that it is filled with its contents and people. After the death of Helene, he and his cameras walk through as the art and furniture are appraised for their value, now the house possesses the same contents, but the light is cooler, grayer. Epicures eye the Corot and the Hoffmann armoire over their expensive glasses. The stoves must be lit for warmth. The long-time caretaker of the house peers in the windows of her old home. In the film's closing scenes, we see the house's contents lodged in the Musee D'Orsay as a tour guide lectures her group on the history of desk we have come to associate with Helene's home. It is summer again. The nearly abandoned house is filled with Helen's grandchildren who party in its now raw, unfurnished rooms and its unkempt garden, blasting french rap and getting stoned. The place is obsolete - or is it? Assayas is smart enough not to decide for us. Time marches on but French law allows one to donate art to museums in exchange for a break on inheritance tax. The art may no longer reside in the home of the family whose ancestors acquired it, however one could say that many more members of future generations get to enjoy it. Is the vase by a great sculptor most valuable as a highly protected and revered possession of a museum or as the container of flowers in a home where it might at any moment be knocked to the floor by children playing? These are the questions one is left turning softly over in one's mind as the film ends. I learned on the DVD extras that to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Musee D'Orsay, rather than making a straight, PBS-style documentary about their collection, commissioned films by real filmmakers to celebrate their birthday. Summer Hours, Assayas's contribution, is a thoughtful, tender, and quiet gem.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hans Keilson re-appreciated...

I would like to draw your attention to Steven Erlanger's tender portrait in The New York Times of nearly 100-year-old Hans Keilson, novelist, poet, child psychiatrist, and German Jewish exile now living in the Netherlands. Two of his novels now some 50 years old, The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key, have been re-released and were lauded in the New York Times Book Review a few weeks back by Francine Prose. I, for one, ordered them immediately. I admired Erlanger's perspective on Keilson's cultural heritage, life's work in psychology, and legacy of guilt, all of which combined their influence upon his writing.

How the homogenization of the sacred diversity of India may impoverish our world (Books - Nine Lives by William Dalrymple)

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. Each of the nine lives he chronicles: intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India's metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape.
I have read his writing compared to Tracy Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, a brilliant portrait of the admirable but difficult activist Dr. Paul Farmer, and I would agree. One of Kidder's talents was putting himself into the narrative just enough to make give his reader access to the opinions and the feelings that are the fuel of his narrative, but not so much that the writing becomes about himself instead of his subject. Dalrymple claims that he wishes to absent himself from his narrative. I would say that he fails in that aim, but beautifully and usefully. He is exquisitely open to each of his subjects, yet his writing flows from the sense of impending loss he feels of each way of life that he records here. His narrative is colorful and specific, combining characterization, exposition of back story, or details about the culture or history pertinent to it, yet his economy of narrative gives reader the sense that they are in the presence of his subject, as it mimics the way we quickly get the essence of a person by the information we can take in with our senses when in their presence:
I had seen the tiny, slender, barefoot figure of the nun in her white sari bounding up the steps above me as I began my ascent. She climbed quickly, with a pot of water made from a coconut shell in one hand, and a peacock fan in the other. As she climbed, she gently wiped each step with the fan in order to make sure she didn't stand on, hurt or kill a single living creature on her ascent of the hill: of of the set of rules of pilgrimage fro a Jain muni or ascetic.
It is this combination of economy and vividness that gives Nine Lives, as a series of separate portraits, such a sense of flow as the depiction of the single and various place that is modern India. Books like this are exactly what keep me reading - insight into people and places completely different from my own realm of experience. A sense of wonder suffuses Dalrymple's expertise as we encounter the subjects of Nine Lives: Hari Das, a theyyam dancer of sacred stories, is worshiped as the evocation of a Hindu god when practicing the ritual, but the rest of the year he digs wells and works as a guard in a highly dangerous prison (jobs typically taken by the lowest classes in India). The devadasis, a once exclusive tradition in medieval Hindu practice of celebrating fertility and sexuality, are in Modern India little more than sex workers, at high risk for STDs. This once sacred tradition is now seen by most as little more than exploitation. The bhopas, singing bards of epic poems like the Mahabharata:
When this 4,000-line courtly poem is recited from beginning to end - which rarely happens these days - it takes five full nights of eight-hour, dusk-till-dawn performances to unfold. Depending on the number of chai breaks, bhajans (devotional hymns), Hindi film songs, and other diversions added into the programme, it can on occasion take much longer. But the performance is not looked upon as just a form of entertainment. It is also a religious ritual invoking Pabuji as a living deity and asking for his protection against ill-fortune.
Most of the bhopas are illiterate, many are still believed to have healing powers.

But lest you believe that Nine Lives is nothing but a travelogue of arcane and esoteric mystical practices, I also found the book illuminating about differences between Judeo-Christian traditions, Islam, Hindu, and Buddhism in ways that are useful to understanding some of the cultural tensions that drive today's political violence. Dalrymple's portrait of Lal Piri, a Sufi mystic (Sufism is a mystical sub-sect of Islam that looks for the divine within the practicer and historically evolved to include poetic scriptures and meditative practices familiar to the local Hindus in an effort to reconcile the Muslim and Hindu faiths) is revelatory about the origins of tensions between Muslims and Hindus as well as Muslims and the West:
Religiously conservative Hindus and Muslims both suffered the humiliation of colonial subjugation and had to watch as their faith was branded degraded and superstitious by the victorious colonisers and their missionaries. In both faiths, reform movements re-examined and reinvented their religions in reaction to the experience of conquest; but while Hindu reformers tried to modernise their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults to more closely resemble Western Christianity, Islamic radicals opted instead to turn their back on the west, and return to what they saw as the pure Islamic roots of their faith. In the aftermath of the brutal massacres by the British following the Great Uprising of 1857, Islamic radicals left the ruins of Delhi and the demolished Mughal court, rejecting both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors and the ways of the West.

Instead, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband which went back to Quranic basics the rigorously stripped out anything European from the curriculum. One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counterattack the modern West has yet had to face...

If it is the Islamists' assaults on India and the West that has understandably absorbed the Western press, it is sometimes forgotten that the Taliban are also at war with rival comprehensions of Islam...
I found Dalrymple's analysis of the religious influences of a struggle that impacts all of our lives at present very insightful. It is the roots of these conflicts in the realm of faith that drives the willingness of people to suicidal acts of violence. It is usually non-rational bases of experience that motivate people to hysteria and the certainty that they are right and all others wrong. It is among the, for want of a better phrase, practical uses of Dalrymple's observant and fluidly written book that he can use the political and cultural context of his nine portraits of seemingly irrelevant Asian mystics to give one blogger in New York City insight into his own life and some of the more pressing forces impacting it. Equally interesting was the conflict of Hindu traditions valuing asceticism in some instances and celebration of the sensual on the other - a tension evident in my own Puritain-founded country in the context of contemporary culture's celebration of diversity and tendency to reveal all.