Monday, December 31, 2012

Rediscovering art in suffering, rediscovering language in silence (Books - The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine)

Barely a few pages into Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man (Trans. Geoffrey Strachan, Graywolf Press, 2012), I had a feeling it was going to become a favorite novel of 2012.  It is a literate paean to the life of a simple man, made memorable by his fierce and determined love.  It begins in Paris as Shutov, an emigre Russian writer, mourns a break-up with a much younger woman.  He mouths appreciation for Chekhov that is learned, indeed he speaks on television as a member of literary panel of experts, yet in his appraisal he is distant, formulaic, and, as one ambitious for a different kind of success, he is soured by fear of his own mediocrity. He is a man caught in between - in between old age and youth, in between success and ordinariness, in between the refined, educated life of a Frenchman-of-letters and a victim of the Soviet repression of anything humanistic or beautiful.
I'm not Russian, Lea.  I'm Soviet.  So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious.  Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bookeywookey's best fiction reads of 2012

And now, my favorite fiction reads of the year (excluding re-reads which are obviously already favorites).

Toby's Room by Pat Barker
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
What is the What by Dave Eggers
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan
Nineteen-Seventy-Four by David Peace
The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine

I enjoyed looking over all the fiction I read this year.  The worlds I inhabited thanks to the authors were so varied, full of strong characters, sharp observations, and the narrative technique, particularly in this short list, was sure.  I'm not sure whether I am going to end up wanting to add Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man to the list of contenders (addendum: see above) , as I'm in the middle of it now, but here are the four, upon looking back, that I think the best of the best. Click the titles for links to my posts about them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bookeywookey's best biography and memoir reading of 2012

There is a blizzard headed our way here in the wilds of Ohio and I brought no boots.  Great!  I guess I will return to my end-of-year list-making. 

I noticed that I returned to a reading pleasure of old this year.  I used to read many more biographies and autobiographies than I have in the past few years (especially when I was acting), but in 2012 I read many more. Here were the highlights.

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness
My Name Escapes Me by Alec Guinness
Winter Journal by Paul Auster

It is difficult to pick a 'best' from this list since the straight, long-form biography of the empress of Russia is so different from the memoir form, which is different again from Joan Didion's deep elegiac reflection on the loss of her daughter.  Good thing I don't have to choose.  These were all great, but I'll single out:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bookeywookey's best non-fiction (non-biographical) read of 2012

Time for the annual best-of ritual.  I'm dividing my non-fiction category into life story forms (biography, memoir) and anything else.  Here were the non-biographical non-fiction highlights of my 2012 reading:

The Emperor of all Maladies by  Siddhartha Mukherjee 
Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
In Europe by Geert Mak

There isn't a single title in this list that I wouldn't strongly recommend.  Since The Emperor of all Maladies and Behind the Beautiful Forevers got a lot of air time from others, I think I'll call it a tie between In Europe and Remarkable Creatures.  I found In Europe impressive for combining tremendous scope - covering all of Europe and the 20th Century - with a sense of the impact of history on individual human beings.  Remarkable Creatures makes an adventure story out of a narrative that shows how science done by individual mavericks contributes to the fund of general knowledge.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 reading roundup - let's do the numbers

I feel a little behind in my accounting.  I always enjoy my annual review of where my reading tastes took me over the year.  So, let's see what kind of reading year I had in 2012.

I have completed 60 books to date, writing about 58 of them.  I have a few more in-progress and am likely to finish 1 or 2.  Genre categories are not mutually exclusive.  If a book falls into more than 1 category, I list it in both.

Books read: 60
written by men: 44
written by women: 16
in translation: 5
re-read: 2
published in the past year or so: 19
fiction: 31
non-fiction: 28
on the fence: 1
poetry: 1
biography/autobiography/memoir: 9
history/political affairs/social science:  9
science: 9

I'm a little surprised I got through so much, but I'm conscious as I'm beginning to write my dissertation, that next year's numbers are likely to be a lot more modest.  Not that I won't be reading, it will be many more science articles next year and many fewer books. Or at least, that's what I expect.

Next up: my best-of lists for 2012.

Happy holidays everyone.

English innocence in Weimar Germany (Books - The Temple by Stephen Spender)

Oxford poets, Weimar Germany, you'd think that I would have enjoyed Stephen Spender's The Temple a little more.  Spender wrote it in 1929-1930 at the age of 21, so it has all of the enthusiasm of that tender age.  It was never published, I suppose, because it would have outed a few too many of his acquaintances and he feared action for libel.  Spender rewrote it in 1986, updating it with clunky self-conscious awareness of the impending war that deprives the narrator of what I suspect was too embarrassing a show of political naivete.  To my reading, this stripped what is already a work of patent juvenilia of most of its charm.  What remains pscyhologically astute and historically interesting is the certainty of the young characters that Germany was in a revolutionary time of enlightened openness, that there would never be another war, and among the most educated of the characters, many of whom were Jewish or homosexual, a conspicuous blindness to the threat of the rising Nazi party.  That observation and a good deal of decent descriptive writing kept me going. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

An unforgiving island and a story woven to pass the time (Books - San Miguel by T.C. Boyle)

San Miguel was the first novel I have read of the 13 of T. C. Boyle and I found him a vivid writer who really knows how to tell a good story.  This tale of three generations from the 1880s to the 1940s who inhabit an unforgiving island off the coast of Southern California was free of Boyle's reputed whimsy.  I was going to say that this is a sober tale about the borderline between grit and stubbornness, and it is sober, but unlike many modern novels that put forth a unifying theme, this is a novel that is about what it is about.  The damp, ramshackle ranch where the Waters and then the Lester families live is not a symbol, it's a dwelling.
Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of windblown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scap of ivy in sight.  There was nothing even remotely quaint or cozy about it.  It might as well have been lifted up in a tornado and set down in the middle of the Arabian Desert.  And where were the camels?  The women in burnooses?  She was so disappointed - stunned, shocked - that she was scarcely aware of the boy as he pushed open the rude gate for her.  "You want I should put the things in the parlor?"  he asked.
The characters did not, as the book's jacket suggest, read like examples of strength, they are simply people, very flawed people who could be petty, who could give up, who could be jealous, overly ambitious, loving, and, yes, determined. The advantage of this was that they were unpredictable.  I felt like I was spying on these people in their lives, that if they turned around and saw me they would feel interrupted and self-conscious.  Without a theme to give the reading a unifying purpose, the job of Boyle's narrative was to keep me interested in the place and the characters and it is his talent that he does.  This felt like old fashioned storytelling - not a narrative to sell an idea but a story woven to pass the time, to entertain, to hold the reader's interest.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Voluptuary and statesman (Books - Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie)

Literature, theatre, and neuroscience are the fascinations I profess in the tagline to this blog, but while my enthusiasm for fiction and science are evident in my reading choices, and my interest in how narratives build selves shows up again and again in my writing, I think of my interest in Central and Eastern European history as a kind of secret pleasure - one I share with my dear friend Sheila (although I haven't read nearly the amount she has on the subject).  We met for an evening of red wine and talk this past week and she saw Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (625 pages. Random House, 2011 ) poking its massive head out of my briefcase and laughed knowingly.  Many a time is it that we have met over the last twenty years when the second to arrive finds the first at the bar, red wine already in-progress, nose buried in a 900 page tome about the purges of Stalin, or the velvet revolution.  In any event, the truth now out on the table, I can confess to not merely enjoying Massie's biography of Catherine II, and learning a ton about 18th century European history - not just of Russia but also Poland and Austria-Hungary, and he does a great one-chapter mini-review of the French Revolution - but also to having done some much-needed work on my biceps, triceps, and lats, lugging the 4 lbs of its heft back and forth to work every day.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

World War I and the changing roles of women and men (Books - Toby's Room by Pat Barker)

World War I was one of the most influential events of the last century.  Some credit it with ushering in the modern war, the machine age, the birth of the airplane for regular human use, modern music, the spread of modern clinical psychology, and the death of chivalry.  Certainly it heralded the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian monarchies. Killed 8-9 million soldiers, disabled 7 million, and seriously injured 15 million. Germany lost 15% of its adult males, Austria–Hungary 17%, and France 10%.  Another several million civilians starved to death in its wake.  It is little wonder that artists have spent so much time contemplating its devastating reach.  English novelist Pat Barker has made the subject of World War I her literary bread and butter.  Her Regeneration Trilogy fictionalized Siegfried Sassoon's treatment for shell-shock after serving in World War I.  It dramatizes socio-political as well as clinical-scientific complexities of the war experience in a way that makes you feel as thought you were present then.  It's a strong and memorable read.  Her Life Class looked at making art in the context of war and the changes experienced by one young English woman as a consequence.  Pat Barker's latest, Toby's Room, like Life Class, deals with a young painting student named Elinor and her contemporaries, Neville and Paul.  I found it a richer exploration than her last novel of the changes wrought on the younger generation in the wake of the war.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Justice does not banish loss (Books - Berlin Cantata by Jeffrey Lewis)

Berlin, a mecca of culture and progressive thought in the 1920s, cleared of much of its talent by the Nazis,then destroyed like most German cities by the war, then divided as a spoil of war, half-Communist half-Western, then - 1989 - the wall falls. In this city: a house owned by a Jewish family, then Nazis, then Communists.  To that city on the verge of change comes an American woman, the next generation of the Jewish owners of the house.  Germany's efforts to make reparations to those they harmed in the war mean that she might be able to lay claim to the house.  In Berlin Cantata (Haus, 2012), Jeffrey Lewis tells the story of modern Berlin - a city where the layers of history are exposed, where the past walks on two feet, seemingly as alive as the present.  A city of ghosts.  Lewis tells this story of memory, guilt, politics, and family as a melange of solo voices.  The house's former owners, its current residents, the young woman's lawyer, a contemporary journalist speak their monologues as the story accumulates and the mysteries of the past unfold.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Are the reports of the death of publishing greatly exaggerated?

Books are dying, the print medium is dead, goes the hysterical rumor, and it's Amazon that is killing them.  Well, they are alive and well here.  On the Media did an excellent show on this subject in April and re-broadcast this weekend.

How did J.K. Rowling stand up to Amazon?

Russian e-pirating of books - it creates free loaders, but it also widens an author's readership and may ultimately boost legal sales.

Listen to the podcast here:

Publishing: Adapt or Die - On The Media

It's their usual deep level of reporting - critical, with a somewhat bemused tone. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Humane political thought as it arises from facing the conflict in ourselves (Books - Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff)

I had felt enough of the influence of Isaiah Berlin on contemporary political thinkers and writers who I like to read, that I wanted to know who he was.  For this, I turned to Michael Ignatieff's affectionate biography Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Vintage 2000).  Born in Latvia in the early 1900s, living briefly in Russia, and an eventually taking refuge in England, he became more English than the English, rising through the ranks of academia to the level of Oxford don.  He was an intellectual with a powerful gift for talking about ideas. His mature thought brought together history, philosophy, and psychology to consider contemporary politics with complexity and compassion.  He served as a valued advisor to Churchill and John F. Kennedy.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The limits of genius (Books - Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann)

Daniel Kehlmann is a popular German-born writer living in Austria.  With Measuring the World (Quercus, 2007) he has taken the biographies of mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and scientist Alexander von Humbolt as the jumping off point for a novel which vividly and amusingly imagines their inner lives.  Contemporaneous to the late 18th to early 19th centuries, Gauss and Humboldt were endowed with brilliant minds which saw novel ways to answer questions (and defeat strongly held but untested assumptions) about the world in which we live.  Both took on the entire world as their subject - the height of its peaks, the composition and temperature of its core, the shape of planetary orbits, the path of the ocean's currents, the very shape of space - but their methods of measurement couldn't have been more different.  While Humboldt shocked his own spine in testing the nervous system's ability to conduct electricity and travelled to the far reaches of the world at considerable risk to himself - he couldn't pass an Andean peak without climbing it or a mine shaft without dropping himself in - Gauss preferred to make his measurements without leaving his armchair.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The riches and burdens of family legacy (Books - The Scientists by Marco Roth)

Our part of New York City was relatively spared from serious Hurricane effects.  Our electricity stayed on, we had some downed trees, the stores were emptied of bread, and transportation to work was difficult, but being at the highest elevation in Manhattan, we didn't have much flooding.  Thank you to all the friends who checked up on us.  I thought the two days off from work would give me time to read and catch up on a considerable backlog of book posts, but that fantasy was never realized. I was back at work on Wednesday, where a much depleted staff carried on with the Halloween party we had offered to host for the families served by the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center where I work.  To our surprise, we had over 100 kids show up in costume.  Boy were they and their parents glad to get out of the house!

Another New York story was the subject of The Scientists by Marco Roth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) which I was convinced was a novel, but turns out to have been a memoir.  It tells of a thirty-something New Yorker whose father, a medical researcher, contracted the HIV virus in the 1980s. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Growing up minus the childhood (Books - Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos)

Tochtli is a precocious seven-year-old, although he protests otherwise, who lives in a palace with its own zoo and is obsessed with hats, difficult words, and Liberian pygmy hippopotami.
Some people say I'm precocious.  They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy.  Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, and devastating.  There aren't really that many people who say I'm precocious.  The problem is I don't know that many people.  I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people, and four of them say I'm precocious.  They say I look older.  Or the other way around: that I'm too little to know words like that.  Or back-to-front and the other way around, sometimes people think I'm a dwarf.  But I don't think I'm precocious.  What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except I pull words out of the dictionary.  Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary.  My memory, which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Being rich ain't all its cracked up to be (Books - The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn)

Alcohol addiction,heroin addiction, incest, your father's public humiliation of your mother - seems a small price to pay for unconscionable wealth and a villa in Provence, no?  Patrick Melrose grows up with a seemingly unreasonable share of horror on the one hand and neglect on the other, which lead to a sense of aimlessness, some very persistent chemical dependencies, and an extraordinary amount of self-disgust.  Thank goodness Melrose becomes reflective enough so that this account of his first 45-or-so years is more than a parade of ghoulish abuse.  Indeed, Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, (The Patrick Melrose Novels, Picador, 2012) and At Last (Farrar, Straus and Grioux, 2011) are mercilessly observant of a world of advantage and indulgence, while at the same time being brutally funny. Their narrative arc traces the legacy of cruelty and narcissism that first mangles and imprisons the mind of its protagonist and eventually liberates it over nearly 900 pages that read like wild-fire consuming the lavish homes of Southern California millionaires, only here, most of the residents seem unwilling to leave their burning homes.  The events were sometimes so dreadful that I had to remember to close my mouth, which hung agape.  So precise was the scrutiny St. Aubyn gave his characters, it was like looking at a collection of extraordinarily insects, still alive, pinned inside a luxurious display case.  But the cruelty is ultimately redeemed by a vision that is humane, even forgiving, but never pacifying. Having read the first four novels collected in a single volume, as I reached the last word of Mother's Milk, I said aloud 'Oh my god,' and went out the next day to buy At Last, which had recently been published separately.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The public voice of our frailty (Books - Blue Nights by Joan Didion)

If you read Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion, through writing, relentlessly observes herself in the act of grieving her husband during the year following his sudden death from a heart attack, I imagine you have read, or are thinking about reading, Blue Nights.  Blue Nights, although it is an act of mourning her daughter Quintana, who died scarcely a year after her father, is not just more of the same.  A Year of Magical Thinking was written through the raging storm.  The book is brutal.  Didion is dogged in examining her replacement of ordered thought with irrational and yet sensible struggles to undo the death of her husband - John Gregory Dunne - via special deals she makes with the universe.  In it, she calls less on their life prior to his death, instead replaying the evening of his death over and over.  In Blue Nights, Didion has allowed more time to pass since her daughter's death before writing. Here there is less the feeling of a disaster film shot from the cockpit of a crashing plane, and more the feeling of an invocation.  They are both books of mourning, but in Blue Nights Didion calls on memory to wonder at the life and death of her daughter, to actively feel the pain of two losses - one of Quintana, the other of herself - and to assuage them.  She uses repetition of form not exactly to reign in the emotion, but to structure it, so that the book is a conscious act of creation rather than simply an outpouring of raw grief.  I thought its form evocative of a sestina which, Mary Kinzie's A Poet's Guide to Poetry tells us, is a formal verse structure with 39 lines containing 6 stanzas of six lines whose end words repeat verbatim in the following stanzas in a highly prescribed fashion.  The seventh stanza uses all six end-words, also in a specific way. The repetition creates recurrent sounds, allowing a particular theme to echo as a refrain (as grief does with repeated memories).  The highly stereotyped order, when used well and pitted against complex emotions, creates esthetic tension and that is precisely how it functioned in Blue Nights.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Piteable men building their positions of strength on the backs of formidable women (Books - Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye)

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), has received some strong press and the prestigious Prix Goncourt.  The author's literary prowess won her a publisher for her first novel at age 18.  Fernanda Eberstadt's fine review of this book in The New York Times Book Review informs us:
The expectation — whether menacing or well meaning — that NDiaye should “represent” multiracial France, or be considered a voice of the French African diaspora, has often dogged her. In fact, as NDiaye is at pains to make clear, she scarcely knew her Senegalese father, who came to France as a student in the 1960s and returned to Africa when she was a baby. Raised by her French mother — a secondary school science teacher — in a housing project in suburban Paris, with vacations in the countryside where her maternal grandparents were farmers, NDiaye describes herself as a purely French product, with no claim to biculturalism but her surname and the color of her skin. Nonetheless, the absent father — charismatic, casually cruel, voraciously selfish — haunts NDiaye’s fiction and drama, as does the shadow of a dreamlike Africa in which demons and evil portents abound, where the unscrupulous can make overnight fortunes and, with another turn of the wheel, find themselves rotting in a jail cell. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Re-imagining Shakespeare's fairy kings and foolish mortals (Books - The Great Night by Chris Adrian)

It was Sam Ruddock's review that led me to Chris Adrian's The Great Night, an unrestrained hooplah of a novel that re-imagines Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, placing it in Buena Vista Park in contemporary San Francisco.  It's quite a ride.  Adrian is not only a well-regarded writer, he is also a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology, which leads me to assume he has probably seen his share of painful loss and human suffering.  Interesting then that his characters Henry, Will, and Molly - the equivalent of the quartet of mortal young lovers in Shakespeare's play - have not only deeply suffered, but their lives are irrevocably driven by their suffering.  One could say they are completely lost in it as they are lost in the park.  The royal fairy couple, Tatiana and Oberon, are not broken up over a changeling in this take, they are grieving their child's death from leukemia.  The rude mechanicals of Shakespeare are translated to a group of homeless people rehearsing not the myth of Pyramus and  Thisbe but a politically-driven musical based on the film Soylent Green, no really.  Puck is still a big trouble-maker.  It is the unleashing of his power in the service of Tatiana and Oberon's unmitigated grief that drives the tangled, hallucinatory drama of healing that comprises the action of this novel.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The story of the 20th century as the search for a 'self' (Books - Any Human Heart by William Boyd)

It seems that my vacation reading brought an unintentional spate of novels built on the autobiographical form.  In most ways, What is the What could not be more different than William Boyd's Any Human Heart but they both involve relating the events of a life from a subjective point of view.  Any Human Heart (a recommendation of Danielle's - another good one - thanks!) is the picture of a century.  The 20th century, to be exact, but it is told through the journals of one Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, a British subject born in Uruguay and sometime resident of England, America, Nigeria, and France. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lost it all but rich in "selves" (Books - What is the What by Dave Eggers)

What is the What is the first of Dave Eggers's books I have read.  It is distinct and unusual.  It tells the harrowing story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan,  relating the events of his life that finally brought him to Atlanta in the U.S., but it bills itself as both an autobiography and a novel. An autobiography because Achak Deng related his life story to Eggers himself.  A novel, I guess, because Eggers took liberties with his story to make it into a readable book.  As I started writing the first sentence of this post I was going going to describe the story as 'unreal,' so mind bogglingly awful are many of the events.  Perhaps this is why Eggers wanted to create from its events rather than simply try to record them.  Sometimes the truth is unbelievable, or perhaps he (wisely) mistrusted his ability to relate only the facts since no one - not Deng in the telling nor Eggers in the retelling - truly leaves a story unchanged.  In any event, the result is outrage-provoking yet beautifully fashioned, compellingly told, and, finally, warming.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Negotiating science in politics (Books - The Art and Politics of Science by Harold Varmus)

Before taking off for points east, I read The Art and Politics of Science a sciency memoir by Harold Varmus, whose Nobel Prize-winning work helped reveal the connection between viral oncogenes and cancer.  Dr. Varmus ran the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during the Clinton presidency and now heads Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, one of the leading research and treatment facilities for cancer in the world.  It is his success in the combined realm of science and policy-making that made me most interested in reading this swift-moving, easy-going account of a singularly impressive career. Owing to my backlog of posts I will attempt to keep this brief.

Returned from places distant, diverting, and delicious

We're back. The Ragazzo took way better pictures than I did.  But here are a few of mine from a walk on the Sussex downs, a view of Ljubljana - the capital city of Slovenia - from the castle which overlooks it, and Lake Bled, a beautiful area of Slovenia where we took a hike - you can see the Alps in the background.  Misha Matthew correctly identified all of the locations on my Vacate quiz and will be receiving a book on distant lands!  Congratulations, Misha.

I didn't actually take any pictures in Venice or London and my pictures from Vienna are pretty boring but the trip wasn't.  We managed to get opera tickets in Vienna and see a performance of Elektra and even before we left, we booked tickets for Scenes From an Execution a Howard Barker play from the 1970s about the freedom of the artist.  The primary character is loosely based on Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi and the play is being given a new production at the National Theatre in London starring Fiona Shaw and with a favorite English actress of mine - Phoebe Nichols.  The British public seems less than happy with the production if the Guardian article I linked above is any indication, but I thought it intelligent and elegantly produced.  We ate well in Venice and stayed in some beautiful and unique places.  The train ride from Vienna to Ljubljana offers spectacular scenery and an honest to goodness dining car with linen tablecloths and decent, if not elegant, food.

In addition I read 5 novels, so I really have some catching up to do here.  In the coming days I will post on David Egger's What is the What, William Boyd's Any Human Heart, Chris Adrian's The Great Night, Marie Ndiaye's Three Strong Women, and Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn.  In fact, I'm in the middle of his Patrick Melrose novels right now and they are brilliantly written, riveting, and hilarious even as the action is mind-bogglingly ghastly.  More to follow.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Friends and new acquaintances, we're off to points east for a little bit - a late vacation.  Below are the pix of our destinations.  The closest guesses (as in most geographically specific) will be entered in a drawing.  One winner will be selected when we return (you can live anywhere) .  The winner can choose 1 book related to travel or places other than the place you live - fiction or non-fiction, travel, history, world politics, or recipes of distant places - exact details of the offer to follow on our return.  Friends, relatives, and others who know our travel plans are not eligible.  Answers by email please, not by comment:  Please put 'VACATE drawing' in the subject line.  I will, of course, require the name and mailing address of the lucky winner.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Encore, encore (Books - A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness)

Following my enjoyment of Alec Guinness's 1995-6 journal My Name Escapes Me I couldn't help launching directly into his journals covering 1996-8 A Positively Final Appearance.  Although roughly chronological the second volume is more organized by theme.  Being a little older, Guinness seems more focused on his declining physical powers and the death of friends.  He reflects more negatively on the state of the world and makes fewer excursions.  The consequence was fortunate for his reader as the book is peppered with sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching anecdotes of Marlene Dietrich, Michel St Denis, Humphrey Bogart, Edith Evans, Beatrice Lillie, and the like, that I could lap up with a spoon.  He also tucks away perceptive readings of verse, and observations on plays and acting offered, not instructively, but because it is his habit and his pleasure to think about them.  I'll offer you a few... 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Aesthetics transforms vision and the mind, which transforms aesthetics... (Books - The Age of Insight By Eric Kandel)

There has been a bevy of books examining wider aspects of culture as they intersect with brain science written by scientists in the past year:  Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch, The Age of Insight by Eric R. Kandel, Who's In Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  They are written by senior neuroscientists and written for the general public I wrote about the Gazzaniga here, I will write on Koch in the coming weeks, and I have yet to finish the Kahneman, but I just completed Eric Kandel's The Age of Insight (Random House, 2012). 

The eminent Nobel-Prize winning neuroscientist satisfyingly brings together modernist art, the Viennese Secession to be precise, the study of the unconscious mind emerging during the same period, and what the development of neurobiology and cognitive psychology can contribute to our understanding of human-ness.  His self proclaimed aim is to bring together science and art, his mechanism is to address what we know about how the brain accomplishes visual perception, creativity, and feeling.  The result is a fluidly written account, fueled by a lifetime in neuroscience and a passion for painting, particularly portraiture.    

A talent for wonder (Books - My Name Escapes Me by Alec Guinness)

In preparation for watching the recent film version of John Le Carre's  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I got the 1979, 6-episode, made-for-BBC version to watch first.  I know that I had seen some part of it before, but never the whole thing, and never with the amount of attention required to follow the amount of story telling conveyed through behavioral detail.  It is wonderfully slow paced, unlike anything one can see on television now - without the cutting back and forth every five seconds, between seventeen different cameras - lest we linger, lest we see the lie before us, get bored, and change the channel.  The music for it was very good too.  Ian Richardson's performance is wonderfully animated, but the real pleasure of it was Alec Guinness's close-to-the-chest portrayal of George Smiley.  He is one of those actors whose performances always make me think, well he's not really acting, that's just who he is.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment

The excellent Daniel Mendelsohn, sings his creed at Page-Turner on the job of a critic.  (The title for this post is his formula, not mine.)
I remember, too, something that Vendler wrote, years later, in a piece about a volume of Merrill’s work that was published after the poet’s death, at the relatively early age of sixty-eight—about how, now that Merrill was gone, he wouldn’t be around to show her how to grow old. I read this with astonishment. So this was what poetry was for: to show you how to live. As for Kael, the sheer extremity of her enthusiasms, the ornery stylistic over-seasoning, the grandiose swooping pronouncements, made it clear that there was something enormous at stake when you went to the local movie theatre.
A thoughtful, instructive, and balanced essay

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Winter's Tale for the End of Summer (Books - Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin)

In the waning days of summer, I have been energetically immersed in reading, but not so inclined to write.  I can probably blame it on all the writing I'm doing at the lab.  That's as good an excuse as any.  You should be able to read some sort of mention of The Rational Optimist, Consciousness, and Winter's Tale one of these weeks, if that's what you're pining for.  And I should be done with Eric Kandel's The Age of Insight soon.   The last one is a book after my own heart on the subject of neuroscience and Viennese art, no really.  I intend to finish it soon, even if only to have read it prior to visiting Vienna in a few weeks.  Now that I have started my fingers going, maybe I'll share less of a coherent review than some disjointed thoughts about my re-read of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale now, prior to my book club showing up here to eat fruit and cheese and discuss it.   

What a passionately lyrical saga Mark Helprin has fashioned in Winter's Tale (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1983) .  It is a moralistic tale, a love story, a fantasy, and an absolute love song to a fictionalized late 19th century New York City.  I was aware as I read of how highly literate the narrative voice is, even while being thoroughly submerged in the lightening-fast 700 pages which are romantic, imaginative, and often thrilling.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

An antidote to summer - the useless poems of Gennady Aygi

Some snowy poems as an antidote to the dog days of summer.  Jamie Olson writes informatively on the dissident form and ordinary content in his review of a new translation of Russian poems Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi.  Sounds enticing.
The difference between Aygi’s ars poetica and Mandelstam’s lies in the way the two poets represent poetry itself. Both of them believe that other aspects of experience lack something essential, but while Mandelstam implies that the aesthetic power of poetry can fill that gap, Aygi dismisses even his own art as powerless. If a dissident is one who rejects the dominant ideology, then for Aygi that rejection applies in some sense to poetry as well.
On Berfrois.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tracing the moral decay of politics (Books - Echo House by Ward Just)

Ward Just is justifiably ranked among the top writers on American politics in fictional form.  Some consider Echo House (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) his masterpiece.  It follows a family of Washington insiders, as they are now affectionately called, from the 1940s to the 1980s.  It is not my favorite of Just's books, that place would have to be reserved for Forgetfulness, but it is a solid novel partaking of a solid tradition chronicling succeeding generations of a family.  The Washington Post characterizes Echo House as the story of the "decline" of the Behls and certainly they don't maintain their grip on power through holding office, but I would frame it as their evolution, as they adapt to a morally decaying political context.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The passage of time and the creative art of biography (Books - The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst)

Taking place across a span of nearly 100 years, Alan Hollinghurst's recent The Stranger's Child (Alfred A. Knopf 2011) offers simultaneous accounts of how the passage of time has affected both English literary and gay cultures.  Its title, adopted from Tennyson's elegy  In Memoriam, concerns the short life of the poet Cecil Valance (a contemporary of Rupert Brooke's though a fictional creation of Hollinghurst's, and a thoroughly convincing one) and those who survive him.  But it is less about the life of Cecil Valance who is, after all, a second-rate poet who died in his 20s, than about what is made of the life of Cecil Valance.  Sometimes when a life is noticed as remarkable, people take possession of it.  Some wish to live vicariously, others romanticize, demonize, lionize, criticize. That life becomes a symbol whose role it is to fulfill the needs of its creators, but people, like complex works of art, are not so quickly summed up.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One great talent appreciates another

The great rhapsodist of the American theatre, Tennessee Williams, on the fragile yet directed talents of actress Sandy Dennis. 
There is a belief among some--primarily critics--that an actress willfully commits to the commission of a particular set of mannerisms and attitudes...
Check out the whole web site - it has one wonderful clip after another on the personalities and processes of great actors. 

Hat tip: Sheila.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What to do when the cake doesn't turn out the way you expect

A truly lovely tribute to Nora Ephron by Nathan Englander at Page-Turner with excellent thoughts on creative process.
And that to me is a good way to sum up what being a working artist is all about. It’s about being a person who makes real things in a real world. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing in and of the body (Books - Winter Journal by Paul Auster)

In America, the public understanding of an artist's work generally occupies two opposing extremes: one can either be a star or a person who hasn't grown up yet.  This can make pursuing serious artistic work in the absence of the visible success that comes to few in any field a punishing choice.  One's profession is free of the satisfactions most lines of work confer - regular engagement and challenge in the field one was trained in, a respect for the value of what you do from others, and enough money to make a living and plan a future.  I admire American artists of any kind who are able to amass a body of work and Paul Auster is a writer who has done so.  At a level of high respect but maybe just shy of stardom, he has over his 64 years produced 16 novels, several volumes of poetry, nonfiction, screenplay, and memoir, and he has translated and edited French poetry, so I was excited to be offered an advance copy of his Winter Journal (Henry Holt and Company, to be released August 2012). As someone fascinated by artists' creative processes, I looked forward to searching for clues to how he produces his work from the record of his life that he shares with us in this journal.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Two maverick souls struggle for closeness (Books - Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman)

Two maverick American souls travel to Africa 100 years apart.  Each faces an utterly unfamiliar culture and physical hardships that challenge them to change fundamentally or to perish.  In 1899, Jeremy an engineer, is charged with the construction of a bridge in British-held East Africa, employing a crew of Indian workers.  The work is plagued by two lions who have begun attacking humans.  Max is an ethnobotanist hired by a pharmaceutical company to track down a rare vine in Rawanda that could be the source of a valuable hypertension drug.  Her search is pressured by the advancing Congolese rebel army who threaten her with bodily harm, and the mission of her co-workers who study silverback gorillas.  The habitat of the gorillas, for whom Max develops an intense sympathy, will potentially be ravaged by commercial drug development.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Allowing the reader the unfamiliar feeling of having time (Books - A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor)

One of the early chapters of this book touches at some retrospective length on the way things began to change; how I moved from the fairly predictable company of fellow army-candidates into older circles which were simultaneously more worldly, more bohemian and more raffish: the remainder, more or less, of the Bright Young People, but ten years and twenty thousand double whiskies after their heyday, and looking extremely well on the regime. This new and captivating world seemed brilliant and rather wicked; I enjoyed being the youngest present, especially during the dissipated nocturnal ramblings in which every evening finished: ("Where's that rather noisy boy got to?  We may as well take him too").  I had reached a stage when one changes very fast: a single year contains a hundred avatars; and while these were flashing kaleidoscopically by, the idea of my unsuitability for peacetime soldiering had began to impinge.  More serious still, the acceptance of two poems and the publication of one of them - admittedly, only on foxhunting - had fired me with the idea of authorship.
But Patrick Leigh Fermor's self-study period as a writer fails to solidify as he had hoped.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Compelling biography of a monster (Books - The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of all Maladies is an impressive book in two ways.  It is a comprehensive history of cancer made plain for the lay-reader - what science and medicine have understood its mechanisms to be and how, as that understanding has changed, its treatment has changed.  It is also a book about one of the scourges of modern life - 1 in 3 people will likely develop a cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 4 will probably die of one.  It is a monster most of us fear and Mukherjee's achievement is having produced a book that keeps the reader wanting to turn the pages as one does when reading a mystery or a thriller.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Positive Deviant Alert

Two positive deviants attracted my attention lately:

Natalie Angier profiled physicist Dr. Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, a New Yorker who defied the odds for women in science thanks to the encouragement of the Nobel laureate and medical physicist Dr. Rosalyn Yalow.  She studied with Enrico Fermi at University of Chicago and then began her own research on carbon at MIT half a century ago.
Dr. Dresselhaus has also been a prominent advocate for women in physics and engineering, disciplines that are still short on high-ranking female faces and that were outright hostile to women when she began her career in the late 1950s. Even before entering science, she was well accustomed to hostility and hard times, having grown up impoverished in a rough part of the Bronx.

Our favorite design magazine The World of Interiors, an English publication, featured an essay in the latest issue by the blogger and author of the book Spitalfields Life. Check this excellent blog out.  It offers affectionate and energic appreciations of the history and contemporary culture of the hip and energetic Spitalfields neighborhood of London.  The author's mission:
Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you?  This is both my task and my delight.
Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months. Who knows what kind of life we shall be living in 2037 when I write my ten thousandth post?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

An imagined Henry James - portrait of a master by a master (Books - The Master by Colm Toibin)

Writers who cannot seem to tell the difference between fact and fiction have been the source of many a news story, but the lines between events as they occurred, as we remember them, and as we create them anew are far from clearly drawn.  The consolidation of a memory - a recursive neural process that solidifies events in our brain's long-term storage bins - changes the memory as it does so.  Each time that memory is retrieved and played on our mind's internal movie screen, it again undergoes metamorphosis.  Works of fiction based on real events and people (is there any other kind?) create a sense of viewing events through a series of transparent layers, each with its version of the happening.  Seeing one layer through the images of another creates an impressionistic dream-space where all truths are simultaneously visible, creating what some think of as stylized artifice, but I think it a very real depiction of memory.  In The Master Colm Toibin has created such a work out of the life of novelist Henry James.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eating to be free...

Until I can get my act together to post on The Emperor of All Maldies, The Master, and, Echo House, I'm going to direct your attention to an interview that John Donohue did with Tamar Adler on her book An Everlasting Meal over at Page-Turner.  I found the conversation simultaneously down-to-earth and inspiring, in fact, I'm so inspired I'm going to cook right now while it is still cool out.  Poached salmon with fennel to eat cold for dinner this eve.
I don’t know what “foodie” means, but it seems to me to mean something unbalanced. There is a difference, and should be, between being in the know about “in” restaurants, chefs, food trends and liking and feeling able to eat well. One thing that really matters is feeling as though one, and often only oneself, is able to completely freely satisfy one’s own appetite. That is a good reason to know how to cook.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Frisky collage maker

One of my favorite poets, Dan Chiasson, posts a beautiful appreciation of The Collective Writings of Joe Brainard, recently published by the Library of America, at Page-Turner.
Brainard is one of those figures—in his art, his writing, and, one gathers, his person—whose primary genius was to give long-sought relief from overbearing works of art, pieces of writing, and people. For their friendliness, their air of openness, their distaste for guile and pretense, Brainard’s productions have a soothing quality; the other “New York School” writers and artists seem almost reverent and self-serious next to him.

He is better known as an artist: a maker of frisky collages, a painter of exquisite male nudes, an assembler of miniatures. But he wrote beautifully, especially in his iconic connect-the-dots memoir, “I Remember.”
Now who could possibly make Frank O'Hara seem reverent?!  I am going to have to find a copy of I Remember today.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dan Sudran has created something great called Community Science Workshops.  They offer low-income youth living in communities where educational infrastructure has been eroded exposure to science through lessons and activities in after school programs as well as weekend and summer workshops.  This kind of grass-roots level programming to create understanding of science makes my heart glad. 

Check out the story on All Things Considered.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Sanity: a key to the good life? (Books - Going Sane by Adam Phillips) The Tyranny of Positive Thinking II

I read Adam Phillips's Going Sane (Harper Perennial, 2007) as part of my project looking at America's obsession with feeling good.  This idea that one needs to be continually happy or positive in order to sell a product, audition for a role, deliver the news, teach, provide care, or otherwise live productively mystifies me.  "I have to try to be positive," people say to me.  Really?  Why?  It's fine to be genuinely satisfied, I like going there myself, but that such a state is possible or desirable when we are frightened, angry, or bereaved, that it is indeed the antidote to physical illness, or negative experience is a denial of our psyche's expression of want or dissatisfaction.  It cuts off an aspect of our humanity.  Not only do we demand this false positivity of ourselves, we want negativity-free politics, sweet things that add no calories, scientific experiments that only produce positive results and lead directly to cures, and if we don't have non-stop economic gain year-in and year-out we think something is wrong with the market.  The only thing we seem content to go down are our taxes. The fault is not in the market, to paraphrase Cassius in Julius Caesar, but in ourselves.