Sunday, July 31, 2011

The sinister lure of complacency (Books - All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills)

When I finished Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate last week, I just couldn't find fiction that would satisfy. I was more drawn to reading non-fiction, and did take a chunk out of Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe, a fascinating book on the emergent properties of complex systems, but before I go to sleep what I really like to read is fiction. I started both Solo by Rana Dasgupta and The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, but neither hit the spot. Then All Quiet on the Orient Express arrived in the mail. I had ordered it a few weeks back on the recommendation of John Self. Imagine, if you can, the hapless, deadpan quality of Buster Keaton in the guise of a modern-day, well not a slacker exactly, since our narrator can be quite industrious, but keenly passive young unattached male with motorcycle. A go-where-the-wind-blows kind of personality. Happy to eat baked beans from a can for every meal seven days per week. Happy to drink at the only pub in town. Happy with ale if it is on tap. Happy with lager if it's not. Then put him into one of Harold Pinter's plays, in which anything from a birthday party to reminiscences with old chums can take on threatening overtones, and you might begin to approximate the strange, delightfully entertaining world Magnus Mills conjures up in his 1999 novel. It all starts rather innocently.
He opened the palm of his hand and for the first time I noticed he was holding a wooden tent peg.
'This yours?' he asked.
'No,' I said. 'Mine are all metal ones.'
'Do you want it? You can have it as a spare if you like.'
'Is it nobody else's?'
'There's no one else left,' he said. 'They've all gone.'
I glanced around the field. 'Oh yes, you're right. Shame really.'
'One speck of rain and they all flee. Then the sun comes back and they miss it.'
'That's always the way, isn't it?'
'Almost always. Do you want this then?'
'OK,' I said, taking the peg. 'Thanks.'
'Would you like to pay some rent?'
'Oh yes. How much do I owe you?'
He adopted a businesslike smile. 'It's a pound a night.'
'That's six pounds so far then.'
'If you've been here six nights, yes.'
'Right.' I took a five-pound note from my back pocket and handed it over, and then began fishing for some coins.
'That's quite expensive really, isn't it?' he remarked. 'Just for you, your tent and your motorbike.'
'Seems alright to me,' I replied.
'I ought to be giving you a bit of discount if you're staying another week.'
'A pound a night's fine.' I said, giving him the balance.
'Alright then,' he said. 'That's grand.'
Now that the transaction was over I expected him to make his excuses and move on, but after he'd taken the money he replanted his feet and looked up at the sky.
'On holiday, are you?' he asked.
'Not really,' I said. 'Well, sort of.'
He smiled again. 'Which?'
'Well, I'm between things at the present. I've been working all summer to save some money so I can go East during the winter.'
'You mean the east coast?'
'Oh, no,' I said. 'Sorry. Abroad East. You know, Turkey, Persia, and then overland to India.'
"I see,' he said, nodding towards my bike. 'You'll be going on that, will you?'
'Probably not, actually,' I replied. 'There's a train you can catch a good part of the way.'
'Is there now? Well, that's handy, isn't it?'
'Yes, I suppose it is.'
He looked at my tent. 'So what brings you to this part of the country then?'
'Well,' I said. 'I've always fancied seeing the lakes, so I thought I'd have a couple of weeks here first.'
'And do you like it so far?'
'What I've seen, yeah.'
'That's good. You going out today?'
'Not sure what I'll be doing really.'
'We've noticed you go out most days.'
'Have you?'
'Yes, we don't miss much from our window.'
In a way I wanted to throttle our guileless narrator as his watchful host, Mr. Parker, engages him, first for one odd job, then for another, pulling him further and further from his Eastern excursion. It becomes evident, in fact, that Mr. Parker, though he says little and pays nothing, has plans for our narrator and that this is not the first visitor he has so engaged. Despite the mundanity of the dialogue and the action, I got a sinister sense that our man was being manipulated like a puppet, loosing what little will he had arrived with. This lends this brief novel its comedy and an unlikely narrative drive.

Our narrator observes the crowd in the local pub early in the book.
Both junior barmen appeared to be roughly the same age as me, and I felt an affinity with the pair of them. I was unable to tell, however, whether they were permanently attached to the Packhorse. They each seemed the type who would probably have been expected to do something 'better' than just work in a pub, and I liked to imagine they were only doing this until something else turned up. The idea of just staying here for every, and never moving on, seemed quite unthinkable.
But then isn't this just like so many lives? Should have done better, but end up doing a job just for one week, and then the next, and then the next, until one looks back thirty years later and asks - how did this become my life? I was always meant to do something better. In this way, Mr. Parker becomes Nick Shadow to our narrator's Tom Rakewell, only Tom is drawn not to the wild pleasures of London here, but ensnared by a quiet village where everyone knows everyone's business, and every one lives off credit from everyone else. I certainly enjoyed the comedy of All Quiet on the Orient Express but along with the uncomfortable laughter, there is a critique of complacency in Magnus Mill's wry observations, and I enjoyed that most of all.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

I have a little list... (Lists - The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945)

This this has been going around like a bad summer cold - everyone has had it: BooksPlease, Books and Bicycles, My Porch... It’s from the Sunday Times - The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. Since I consider myself a strong appreciator of British lit, let's see how many I have read. Red numbers indicate that I have, black that I haven't.

1. Philip Larkin - This is not starting off well. No, he is a hole in my poetry reading
2. George Orwell - Animal Farm and 1984
3. William Golding - Lord of the Flies
4. Ted Hughes - Oh yes. His translation of The Orestia is my favorite by far
5. Doris Lessing - The Golden Notebook, The Grass is Singing, the Canopus in Argus series
6. J. R. R. Tolkien – I have not been able to get through a single book of his and I have tried
7. V. S. Naipaul - no.
8. Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
9. Kingsley Amis - not a thing
10. Angela Carter - no.
11. C. S. Lewis - the Narnia books, The Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces
12. Iris Murdoch - Nearly everything. She is smashing
13. Salman Rushdie - He is another one I have tried and not succeeded with
14. Ian Fleming - No, but I have seen the movies
15. Jan Morris - No.
16. Roald Dahl - Yes.
17. Anthony Burgess - No.
18. Mervyn Peake - I haven't read Gormenghast, but I saw the miniseries
19. Martin Amis - I have tried and find him obnoxious.
20. Anthony Powell - I consider A Dance to the Music of Time one of those projects I have to get to
21. Alan Sillitoe - No.
22. John Le Carré - several
23. Penelope Fitzgerald - The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels
24. Philippa Pearce - never heard of her
25. Barbara Pym - no
26. Beryl Bainbridge - No, but I'd like to
27. J. G. Ballard - No
28. Alan Garner - The Owl Service.
29. Alasdair Gray - No
30. John Fowles - The Magus
31. Derek Walcott - I saw his adaptation of The Odyssey on stage and have read Omeros
32.Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go, Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans
33. Anita Brookner - Yes, The Debut, A Closed Eye
34. A. S. Byatt - The Children’s Book, The Game, Posession, Babel Tower
35. Ian McEwan - Saturday, Atonement, The Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, Amsterdam
36. Geoffrey Hill - No
37. Hanif Kureishi - The Buddha of Suburbia, Gabriel's Gift, and I have seen his films of My Beautiful Landrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid
38. Iain Banks - The Business is sitting on the shelf
39. George Mackay Brown - never have
40. A. J. P. Taylor - No.
41. Isaiah Berlin - One essay, I don't remember the title
42. J. K. Rowling - Read em all
43. Philip Pullman - Excellent
44. Julian Barnes - No
45. Colin Thubron - Among The Russians
46. Bruce Chatwin - The Songlines
47. Alice Oswald - No
48. Benjamin Zephaniah - Never have, he's quite prolific, isn't he
49. Rosemary Sutcliff - No
50. Michael Moorcock - wow, what an output, but no

That's 23 out of 50. Not bad, but I clearly have some work to do. And I just wouldn't be playing the list game without bitching at the end about who I think is missing. Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, John Betejman, D.M. Thomas, Daphne DuMaurier, P.D. James, Elizabeth Bowen, Harold Pinter, Howard Barker, Olivia Manning, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Salway, Margaret Drabble, Charles Lambert, Allan Hollinghurst, Caryl Churchill, J. B. Priestley, and Zadie Smith could easily have replaced J.K. Rowling on my list, but having just 50 spaces makes the job difficult and it is evident that The Sunday Times wanted to be inclusive of a variety of writing and perspectives. How did you do?

Monday, July 25, 2011

A world not merely divided into good souls and sad cases (Books - A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel)

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.
The woman Joan was sixty years old, and wore a polyester dress from a charity shop. A housewifely type, she had chosen to drip her blood into the kitchen sink. When Kit touched her on the elbow, she threw down the knife on to the draining board and attempted with her good hand to cover Kit's eyes.

Kit, as the prelude of A Change of Climate concludes, lives in a world in which people are divided into good souls and sad cases. The strength of Hilary Mantel's 1994 novel is that she is not one of the people to so divide the world. This novel is political and domestic, it is ruthless and tender, but it is never preachy. It is comfortable with its contradictions. Kit is one of three children of Ralph and Anna, a Norfolk couple who, having started their lives as missionaries in South Africa, dedicate themselves to social work as employment for their adult lives. Ralph and Anna live their mission, taking runaways and addicts into their home, never having enough money for a functional car or new clothing for their children. They are people of admirable conviction, but that makes them far from perfect, and their cause is so just that they can use it to forget past wrongs. If they devote themselves fully to the hardships of others, perhaps they will never have to think of the burdens they bear themselves. This makes for complex lives for both themselves and their children.

During the novel's action, a local child is kidnapped and Julian, another of Anna and Ralph's children, decides he will accompany his younger sister everywhere in order to protect her.
Anna looked up. 'And will you be her escort for life, Julian? Thirteen-year-olds are at risk, but then so are eighteen-year-olds. So are forty-year-olds. You hear of battered grannies, don't you?'
How much can we do for others? And who, really, are we doing it for? I'm afraid all this emphasis on the message of A Change of Climate makes the book sound like a real downer, but it's not. It's humorous, suspenseful, and touching, but never maudlin. There is hardly a sentence that isn't exquisitely crafted. Take the opening sequence excerpted above. Not merely does it open the novel with a bang. In its first sentence Mantel is creating a rich sensoral envelop of experience - contrasting the red of blood with the white of milk. The world weary liquid with the liquid of childhood innocence. In another example, Mantel tells us that Ralph is not in the habit of drinking alcohol.
Alcohol, for Ralph, was a medicinal substnace only. Brandy might be taken for colic, when other remedies had failed. Hot whisky and lemon might be taken for colds, for Ralph recognized that people with colds need cheering up, and he was all for cheerfulness. But drink as social unction was something that had never been part of his life. His parents did not drink, and he had never freed himself from his parents.
What a character observation. Like a zinger interpretation from a really great psychotherapist, summed up in a single sentence. These are the details that steer the subject matter of the politics of apartheid, adultery, and loss of faith away from diatribe. The richly drawn human beings in this novel embody their complex moral conundrum rather than serve as the mouthpiece for it, rending Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate a work of art. I really thought this novel stunning. Compassionate, tense, meaningful, and well-crafted, but don't fear for all this, that you won't also then be entertained.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Solving the mystery of one's self (Books - The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes)

From Jojo Moyes, an English journalist, comes The Last Letter from Your Lover inspired, she says, by watching girls trying to interpret a text message from a boy reading 'Later X.' Was he saying 'I'll call later' or 'Later, never?' So Moyes, mourning the old fashioned love letter, placed an advertisment in the newspaper asking for real-life kiss-off letters. These became the creative fuel for this smart romance with a bit of mystery. I was fearing pure chick-lit, a sort-of You've Got Mail predictability, but The Last Letter offers much more than that. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm grateful to Viking Press for my advance copy.

Jennifer Sterling, the perfectly-put-together wife of a wealthy industrialist, begins a sort of romance with someone whom she now knows only as B. This is because a car accident has rendered her without any memory of the time preceding it, something known as retrograde amnesia - not uncommon with a serious head injury. Everyone around her is curiously cagey about the exact events of the accident, and Jennifer can recall nothing - not how she dressed, not the name of her housekeeper, nor how she formerly behaved toward her, nor the nickname she had for her husband. Nada. Love letters begin turning up in the dresser drawers she is told are her's and in books that she finds on her shelves. This device isn't just a cute way to jazz up a romance, Moyes has created with it a woman whose whole life is literally an utter mystery to herself. She has found a way to externalize this experience many people have of waking up and wonder just how they ended up with the kind of life they did.

It is interesting that Jennifer awakes with so little memory of the details of her life, but with such a clear sense of who she feels like. That sense we might call character. I haven't yet experienced a patient who becomes suddenly amnestic, so I don't know what that can be like, but as Jennifer discovers the flawless, socially calculating creature of leisure she was, she seems to despise this former self. And as the love letters turn up, she is determined to know who B was and what they felt for each other. Moyes also creates with this device someone who gets the chance to decide what kind of person they will be.

The vestiges of Jennifer's former life are only available to her by report, or traceable in the clues left in the clothing and posessions that she knows to be her's, but only because they can be found in her closet or her drawers. Now she can make a choice. Will she re-inhabit her old role, learning her lines and her behavior from the clues left behind? Or will she follow the niggling suspicion that these don't truly belong to the person she feels like and chose a new road? The chapters of the first half of the novel flip back and forth between pre- and post-accident so that we uncover the truth slowly. Moyes's has a good feel for 1960s detail and she can write a scene with dialogue with great wit and verisimilitude:
Her hair fell from her head like paint from a pot, in a sheet of silky blond ripples that ended just above her shoulders. Not his normal type. He liked less conventionally pretty women, those with a hint of something darker, whose charms were less obvious to the eye. "Aren't you drinking?"

He looked at his glass. "I'm not really meant to."

"Wife's orders?"

"Ex-wife," he corrected. "And no, doctor's"

"So you really did find last night unbearable."

He shrugged. "I don't spend much time in society."

"An accidental tourist."

"I admit it. I find armed conflict a less daunting prospect."

Her smile, when it came this time, was slow and mischievous. "So you're William Boot," she said. "Our of your depth in the war zone of Riviera society."

"Boot..." At the mention of Evelyn Waugh's hapless fictional character, he found himself smiling properly for the first time that day. "I suppose you could legitimately have said much worse."

A woman entered the restaurant, clutching a button-eyed dog to her vast bosom. She walked through the tables with a kind of weary determination, as if she could allow herself to focus on nothing but where she was headed. When she sat down at an empty table, a few seats away from them, it was with a little sigh of relief. She placed the dog on the floor, where it stood, its tail clamped between its legs, trembling.

"So, Mrs. Stirling - "


"Jennifer. Tell me about yourself," he said, leaning forward over the table.

"You're meant to be telling me. Showing me, in fact."


"That you're not a complete ass. I do believe you gave yourself half an hour."

"Ah. How long have I got left?"

She checked her watch. "About nine minutes."
Literary references, sexual frisson, and then that lady with her dog strides through the room. Good writing. Writing you could transfer right to the screen, and I don't mean that the book is necessarily angling for that. But when Moyes writes dialogue, it is fresh and clever and feels like it would fall from the mouths of the characters with whom we have been made acquainted. Much more happens in the 1960s half of the book, but Moyes structures what would otherwise be a romance in such a way that there is a good deal of page-turning pressure. This reader wanted to know what would happen next, so if you're drawn to this kind of story, I don't want to spoil the fun of it for you.

Cut to 2003, Ellie, a contemporary journalist with work problems, relationship problems, let's just say she's lost the sense of who she is too, though not because of amnesia, discovers one of the love letters and is driven to know who the players were and, like us, what the heck happened. This more-or-less contemporary section of the book also has a very good sense of the social zeitgeist and about the machinations some of us go through to keep our calendars full but our lives empty.

Moyes also poses a rather topical question - if a hungry journalist gains possession of private love letters which would be the fodder for a brilliant story that could save her life, or her career anyway, should she go to press with it or protect the privacy of innocent people? Given the American release of this novel about 10 days ago, could the Murdoch hacking scandal make it any more topical? In fact, one of the reasons that Moyes's book is more than a light romance is because of the way questions of responsibility toward others keeps arising. In the realm of personal relationships, in the realm of business, and in the business of writing and reporting, the question of whether one should do what is best for oneself or whether one should consider the consequences of that choice for others becomes a refrain. It is this, Moyes's writing chops, and her talent for capturing the feel of a certain time and place, that make what would otherwise be a page-turning romance into more sophisticated fare. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone optioned it for a film.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A dance of opposites to the music of repressed passions (Books - A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner)

I'm really pleased that Thomas and Simon gave me an excuse to read another of Anita Brookner's novels. In a certain way A Closed Eye (1991) is the kind of story I expect from Brookner: a repressed English woman becomes aware that she is not living her live fully, she meets opportunities to change that, and she reflects on it (I won't say whether she does change it or not). What is notable about the two Brookner books is I have read is, given this formula, they are not banal but rather involving and surprising. Here the devil is in the details.

Harriet, has a strawberry mark on her face, but is born to outgoing parents, determined to enjoy life.
They were so young, so dashing, that Harriet's birth passed almost unnoticed. Except, 'Oh, Lord,' said Merle, when shown the baby. 'It may fade as she gets older,' said the nurse, pulling the shawl a little tighter round that baby's face, where the red mark appeared so incongruous beneath the wise innocent eyes. Merle felt for her, as well as love, a kind of reluctant pity, almost a distaste. She was glad to leave the child with her nurse and to put on the little black dress, the fur cape, and the cocktail hat to go off to her young husband, equally dashing in his air force uniform, with the officer's cap pushed back from his forehead, and the white silk scarf draped carelessly round his neck. How they drank! How they danced!
And so, as if in response, Harriet grows up retiring where they are spirited, practical where they are frivolous. She makes three friends: Tessa, Pamela, and Mary, but assumes their friendship is almost a form of pity. She spends evenings reading. She goes to secretarial school and takes pleasure in a day's typing. She is introduced to a contemporary of her father's - Freddie. They marry. Her mother, Merle, worries that Freddie is too old. Her thoughts sing a Brooknerian tune:
Her own marriage, which had begun so rapturously, had ended in disappointment. Privately, she wondered if all women were disappointed, and concluded that this was probably the case but was never admitted. She felt better when she had managed to persuade herself of the truth of this. The prospect of spending money, after the years of careful parsimony, cheered her considerably, and in a while she forgot about Harriet, for the furnishing of the new flat made her feel as if she were the heroine of an adventure, a fresh start, while her daughter, who looked on solemnly and without comment, seemed oddly static, as thought the roles were reversed and she were now the adult. Sometimes Merle hid the prices on the articles she now bought so feverishly, as if Harriet might disapprove and order her to return them to the shop.
It is Tessa "tall and fair and commanding" of whom she is almost enamored. Tessa marries Jack Peckham, a handsome man who travels the world, wears his hair long, and his beard unshaven. It is Jack whom awakens in Harriet desire for something outside the bounds of her stoic existence.
When Harriet first saw Jack Peckham she put up her hand, instinctively, to shield her face. With no one else had she ever done this. The gesture was symbolic, as if she were hiding more than her face, as if she were hiding herself, for she recognized in him the stranger of her dreams, and in the light of day did not wish to be found.
Brookner is brilliant at these sort of gestures. It like something an actor would discover in playing a character, or a painter would capture. It's the moment of a person distilled into a single movement, which Brookner then revisits as a kind of refrain. It is the pleasure of the book to read what Harriet does regarding Jack, but how it functions in the novel's progress, I can tell you without a spoiler. It slaps Harriet into the arena of the living. It exposes her to the risk of, as Brookner so bluntly puts it "succumbing to self-knowledge."

This is a novel of comparisons. Comparison of Harriet to her parents, to Tessa, and then when Tessa has a daughter - Lizzie - and Harriet has Imogen - the next generation seems to repeat it, only with ironic variation. Lizzie becomes the reclusive reader - socially ill-at-ease, and Imogen selfish, willful, indulged, and domineering. Lizzie, in fact, becomes a foil of Harriet, but she is not trapped by the social conventions of the 1950s and doesn't have to marry. She is determined, she awkwardly but self-possessedly informs Freddy when still a teenager, to become a writer.
'But not straight away, not until I'm old.' 'How old?' Harriet had persisted. 'Forty,' was the answer. Freddie, behind a newspaper, had laughed; he was already over seventy. But Harriet had taken her seriously. 'You will have to travel, I suppose, and have lots of interesting experiences.' 'Oh, no,' Lizzie had said. 'It will all come out of my head.' That was all that she would say.
Here is a different version of whom Harriet could have become. Someone who knows herself and finds a purpose for her quietness, her desire to remain apart, her love of books, and her talent to observe. I suppose it's inevitable that, in this passage, she becomes the representative of Brookner herself. The writer who chronicles reclusive bookish women and who doesn't start writing until mid-life. Although, Lizzie tells us, her work will be invented - so we shouldn't apply her story too literally.

This book, like its subject, has a quiet and intelligent surface, beneath which the hungers of life have been kept at bay by a combination of some innocence and also subtle self-deception - the 'closed eye' referred to in the title, and borrowed from Henry James, whose writing many think Brookner's evokes. In A Closed Eye these hungers are brought to a boil. The novel's elegance is in the structure of opposites Brookner constructs - bold and shy, indulgent and austere - these become partners in a dance of gains and losses. A dance to the music of repressed passions. Better a life that is modest, considerate, and half-lived, or one careless of consequences, but where one strides boldly, unafraid of asking and of taking? Or is there a third route? One of patient observation, satisfying work, and pleasures taken in the solitary company of one's imagination? But then, what of love?

Now check out the rest of the posts over at the International Anita Brookner Day website.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The courage to question what we live for (Books - Appassionata by Eva Hoffman)

I read Eva Hoffman's thoughtful novel Appassionata while on my trip. It concerns Isabel Merton, a concert pianist, whose encounter with Anzor a passionate Chechen exile, leads her to question her life as an artist, one tuned to suit her needs for temperature control, practice on world-class instruments, solitary time before curtain in which she cultivates vulnerability - one in which seriousness is served by intense self-focus and in which such self-focus produces results that music lovers the world over value deeply.
She's free, free as a woman has ever been. Freedom is the element through which she moves, and she peers into it as into a milky fog, trying to discern what she is moving toward, what she so restlessly, so keenly desires. And yet maybe the man is right, maybe there's something hard about her life, in its deluxe later-capitalist way. She thinks of the stages she will have to cross before reaching the piano, the interviews, she'll have to give, the dinners she's promised to attend. Bourgeois heroism is what Peter calls it, the acrobatics of being in so many places practically at once, and doing so many amazing things in one day, and then conversing over dinner with unflagging energy. She'll have to be on the qui vive, it is expected. You must never be tired. You Must Love Your Life.
Although there are a few key events, this book's conflicts and action are largely internal. Anzor is indeed the mirror image of Isabel:
" country has been very hurt. Very damaged." An odd expression crosses his face, a setting of the jaw, a hooding of the eyes, as if to fend off vulnerability, or a private anger..."Not that I didn't want to leave when I was young," he resumes. "Or at least to travel. I felt so...restricted. To tell you the truth, I was almost excited when I was forced to leave. I was going to see the world."

"And Now?" she asks.

"Now I've seen it," he says tersely. "Now I think about my country. My mission."
The contrast couldn't be clearer, in fact, I sometimes found the clarity a bit pedantic. Isabel was richly drawn, and her combination of qualities fully believable, but I found Anzor somewhat illustrative of a position taken to fuel the conflict of this story. But Hoffman evokes their relationship with tenderness as well as tension and what she really accomplishes beautifully in this story, and this is key, is making Isabel's work serious and valuable so that her conflict becomes our own.

Hoffman has big talent for writing characters with powerfully motivating interior engines (even when they are externally quiet, as is true of Isabel's ex - Peter). She seems to me less precise with the details of her diction. Either she has a taste for or does not police her use of cliche:
Music which was nothing but shaped yearning, fierceness, lament, praise, lust. Blood, sweat and tears.
"But that music expresses our very own, special character, " he asserts, his eyes flashing. Yes, his eyes flash.
So, okay, perhaps she is conscious of her use of cliche - but its mustiness and imprecision occasionally pulled me out of this otherwise erudite and involving story.

Hoffman pits Isabel's internal struggle against the artistry of two other musicians, one her mentor, Wolfe, whose journals she reads throughout the course of the story, and the other a fellow disciple of Wolfe, Jane Robbins. In Jane we find the artistic opposite of Isabel, carefree where Isabel is careful, naive where Isabel is sophisticated, enthusiastic where Isabel is restrained. The passages in the journal are marvelous ventriloquism - the spirit of the opinionated charismatic guru artist is pitch-perfect , and some of the entries are downright hilarious.
A lesson with the cellist today. Jane Robbins, Admit it, old man, these young women pose a challenge to you. They vex your critical criteria. This one is particularly provoking. She burst into the studio almost rudely, with a wide white-toothed smile. Her breasts were bouncing freely underneath her blouse. There is something aggravating about the way she picks up her bow, as if it were a baseball bat. when I pointed this out, she informed me that she is "a very physical person," and has played not only baseball but basketball and girls' hockey in high school. She would have gone on without any self-consciousness, had I not interrputed. As far as I can tell, she has no inhibitions. She is like a big happy child who hasn't yet learned it may not be allowed to do everything it wants. She hurtled through the first movement of the Dvorak as if on a roller coaster, from one burst of excitement to another. Of course, it is an old warhorse and there was undeniable energy in her playing. But nothing else. No restraint, no tension, no wistfulness. Just this unrestrained...enthusiasm...She plays as if milking an ever-compliant cow.
Wonderful writing. What Hofmann creates in interleaving the journal entries about Isabel's artistic education, with this story about her as a mature artist, is multiple layers of awareness about the same person which resonate with each other in a way that evokes the harmonies and dissonances of a musical composition. I will not tell you whether the central tension of the novel is resolved, the pleasure is in accompanying Isabel on her struggle and finding out. Appassionata probes the contexts of art, and history - among the strong forces that motivate what we live for - and presents in Isabel a courageous character, in that she is willing to question mid-career why she does what she does and whether it is meaningful. A rich and entertaining read.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Magic and a case of the cutesie-wootsies (Books - The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones)

Every so often I find it fun to dip into a the ya fantasy genre, and so Diana Wynne Jones's The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, including both Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant, came with me on my trip. They were both written in the tried and true mold - insecure child is left parentless, through his hardships discovers he has magical powers which makes he strong although he learns it is also a burden, wars are fought and won... you know, the usual. These serve as useful metaphors to the trials of what it feels like to be a child without being to directly preechy.
Gwendolyn gave vent to her fury in her room after dinner. She jumped on her bed and threw cushions about, screaming. Cat stood prudently back against the wall waiting for her to finish. But Gwendolyn did not finish until she had pledged herself to a campaign against Chrestomanci.
Gwendolyn and Cat are the parentless children, he's the insecure one and she become the force to be reckoned with. He's a cat, so he has nine lives, there end up being parallel universes, all interesting plot ideas to be sure. The trouble for my money is that Cat was blandly passive and unsure and Gwendolyn was such a cliched bad witch/tantrumy child that I remained unconvinced of his uncertainty or her evil. Had her anger been convincing, I could have gotten caught up in the story but the cleaned-up, televisiony exaggeration of emotions and twee style of narration left me lightly entertained but uninvolved. I'm not sure what a genuine kid would think about it. They might have a grand time, but this book left me wondering why so many writers for children pander to them. It is possible to write stories kids want to read that treat them intelligently - Sonia Hartnett is a whiz at it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Recent acquisitions department

Our stay in London included the addition of a few new goodies I thought I'd share. They were acquired at the personable Primrose Hill Books, a recommendation of Thomas's, and a good one - thanks Thomas! We chose to walk to get there, which took us from the Wellcome Collection's excellent exhibit on Dirt (yes, Dirt. We've found this venue on the Euston Road well worth a visit on our last two trips to London), through Camden which has a lively High Street, past the canal adjacent to the London Zoo, and then up Regent's Park Road which turns into Primrose Hill's main drag. This has the feel of a charming village street within a city (something like New York's Park Slope), with abundant shops and restaurants, the book shop, and places to buy things for a picnic if you want to walk up the hill and take in the well-known view of London.

After forty minutes or so in the shop, I had narrowed down my take to:

I had heard of author Rosamond Lehmann but have never read anything of hers and was not familiar with this novel, The Ballad and the Source. It seems to be a dark gothic myth of revenge written during World War II. If it were a film, it looks more like Jean Cocteau would make it than Hitchcock. I may need for the weather to turn cold again before I read this one.

Naomi Alderman's The Lessons has the evil, seductive feel of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, only set in Oxford rather than a small American college. I had not heard of this novel when it was released. She quotes Cavafy in the epigraph, so it can't be all that bad. It looks like it could be an addictive read and I'm looking forward to one or two of those this summer.

I love Hilary Mantel's writing and A Change of Climate looks like it might be challenging. It concerns a couple who were missionaries in Africa and who begin to adopt orphans as a way not to see the crises going on in their own family. At least that's what I gather from the blurb.

A retired teacher tries to get rid of an evil investor who has built an ugly new
development in her village. Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett looks as if it pits the eccentric individual against homogenous corporate greed, I hope to good effect.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The drudgery of field science reveals abundant evidence for the mechanisms of evolution (Books - The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner)

We've been back from vacation for almost a week but it has taken me until now to get back to writing. Our trip to the Dordogne, Paris, London, and Sussex allowed for far less reading than is typical of my vacations, but we did see The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre in London, Die Meistersinger and L'Elisir D'Amore at Glyndebourne, and saw a wonderful new 3-D documentary film by Wim Wenders about the late choreographer Pina Bausch called Pina which I recommend looking out for. In addition, we drank some terrific wine, ate splendidly, saw some impressive chateaux - all in all, a lovely time.

Amidst all this, I finally had time to finish Jonathan Weiner's splendid The Beak of the Finch - a rich book detailing the work that evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have done on the Galapagos Islands. They have observed Darwin's theory of natural selection play out again and again and, in some cases, even observed how new species evolve, by watching the islands' famous finches.
It is the twenty-fifth of January, 1991. There are four hundred finches on the island at this moment, and the Grants know every one of the birds on sight, the way shepherds can tell every sheep in their flocks. In other years there have been more than a thousand finches on Daphne Major, and Peter and Rosemary could still recognize each one. The lock was down to three hundred once. The number is falling toward that now. The birds have gotten less than a fifth of an inch of rain the the last forty-four months: in 1,320 days, 5 millimeters of rain.

The Grants, and the Grants' young daughters, and a long line of assistants, keep coming back to this desert island like sentries on a watch. They have been observing Daphne Major for almost two decades, or about twenty generations of finches.
Aside from the pleasure of his lucid writing, Weiner elucidates the development of Darwin's own thinking as well as integrating his original work with that of contemporary scientists observing the forces of evolution in action. This book makes plain the great theory's relevance to the natural world in which we live and also reveals the unbelievable drudgery of painstaking observational field work. Holy cow. Months upon successive months on a small hot island of rock and guano, measuring finch beaks and seeds per square meter of island.
Peter Grant combined the measurements of seed size and seed hardness and rated each kind of birdseed as the finches might themselves, in a sort of Struggle Index. The small soft ones of Portulaca score lowest on this index, only 0.35. The big hard seeds of Cordia lutea score highest, almost 14. Any of the finches can handle Portulaca in its beak, but very few are up to Cordia.

The Grant team also kept a census of the numbers of each kind of seed on the lava. To do this objectively they used a random-number table to select a single plot of lava, one meter square, somewhere in each grid. Then they counter every single fruit and seed they could find on that square of lava, whether it was dangling from the top of a cactus tree or lying in the middle of a cactus patch. Next they chose a much smaller plot within that square meter, again at random, and they sifted the hot cindery soil, collecting every fruit and every seed they found. Finally they withdrew to their tents and spread out their trophies on white trays to count one by one. And they repeated the whole routine fifty times...

"People think fieldwork is so romantic," Boag says, "but a lot of it is real slog. This was absolutely the worst."
Seed hardness and beak size are important because, in certain environmental situations the length of a beak determines how much food a finch can access to get it through a dry season and a miniscule difference in size is literally the difference between living and dying in these cases. As Weiner so emphatically puts it:
...the birds were not simply magnified by the drought: they were reformed and revised. They were changed by their dead. Their beaks were carved by their losses.
But I have to say, my skin shrivels up just thinking about the work they did. Then again, the Grants might think the same of my measuring the brainwaves of 6 year old children. Weiner conveys the passion the Grants have about their data and the great satisfaction of seeing such painstaking collection and patient calculation yield a story, otherwise their slog would be the reader's as well.

The isolated Galapagos archipelago precipitated Darwin's theory because they hosted many unique creatures that clearly bore a resemblance to relatives on the South American mainland and a fossil record of extinct relatives of those living forms existed
to help reveal a Law of succession that links the living to the dead, the same law that links the fossils of one stratum of rock to the fossils in the strata below...

"It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified"
Of course, the story of Darwin's monumental deduction has been told again and again. What is different about Weiner's book is that he observes contemporary scientists, the Grants, as well as their students, many of whom develop into credible scientists in their own right, collect the evidence needed to confirm the original hypotheses. The argument has been made time and again against evolution that the workings of natural selection and sexual selection cannot be observed, that the processes necessarily takes thousands of years and so one is left only being able to infer it from the trail of fossils left behind, as did. They also argue that it is impossible to make quantitative predictions based on data in nature, i.e., "proof" is not possible. However, both of these statements are incorrect. The lifespan of many species is short enough to observe the infinitesimal changing of the frequency of a particular feature across a species in response to both the physical characteristics of the environment they inhabit and the amount of competition they face from similar other creatures, and how these small variations can diverge into new species under certain conditions. This is exactly what the Grants's work with finches as well as Endler's with guppies reveals. Furthermore, the Grants have successfully made quantitative predictions based on their work, and over time have seen them to be correct. Weiner is particularly strong in making clear how this can result from an undirected process of random mutations in individual animals. Weiner's talent for writing about natural science is making that story as palpable as well as exciting to the reader.

Weiner has a particularly good chapter on resistance, not only of certain ideological groups to teaching of evolution but also the resistance of moths or ticks to insecticide or E. coli to antibiotics. This is a particularly important part of the story, in my view, because it makes clear the ubiquity of evolution as it impacts our daily lives and the importance of seeing that a basic understanding of the process is gained in the general populace, as billions of dollars are thrown at developing insecticides and antibiotics when biology has clearly shown us that these are only temporary solutions. Bacteria and insects will not cease to evolve and eradication will not be achieved by these means. The target is always moving and these solutions are leading to more and more successfully resistant strains of streptococcus, tuberculosis, salmonella, pneumococcal pneumonia, and gonorrhea. We ignore the lessons of evolutionary biology at our own peril, so if you would like to read a book that depicts the mechanisms of this great theory via abundant example and does so in a style that feels very much like a good adventure story, I would recommend The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.