Monday, May 27, 2013

Longing for the underside of oneself (Books - Harvard Square by Andre Aciman)

Andre Aciman is a contemporary voice of longing - longing for home while in exile, longing for lost love.  I really enjoyed his Eight White Nights, a retrospective story of an intense romance.  Harvard Square I found more difficult to enter, but not in a bad way.  What I mean is that I had to work at it, particularly because one of the main characters is so unlikeable.

A father and son visit Harvard for a tour, as the son is about to apply to college.  Harvard is the father's alma mater and the visit to his old stomping ground kicks up the dust for the old man.  He remembers the final year of his graduate studies there: his classes, his girlfriends, but particularly a cab driver he meets at a cafe - Kalaj.  Our narrator is Egyptian, Jewish, literature student, a sensitive intellectual like Aciman.  Kalaj is Arab, by way of Paris, obnoxious, volatile, a sponger.  They share a love of speaking French and drinking coffee and cheap wine.  While our narrator tries to help Kalaj from completely destroying his own life through impulsivity, Kalaj tries to teach our narrator how to take the risk to live ferociously, honestly.

It began with the prologue, which I found unnecessary.  I know that Aciman wants us to see which kind of man the father has become, but there was something obvious about the excuse he creates to visit his memories.  I would have preferred something more integrated into the story proper.  And Kalaj is intensely dislikeable, so to begin with I didn't want to spend much time with him, but knowing the rewards of an Aciman novel, I stuck with it.  What unfolds is putatively the a story of friendship between two very different people but really, it's the story of two potential ways of living life that are present in everyone.  Aciman makes no bones about it:
One of the things that drew me to Kalaj at first had nothing to do with his mischievous sixth sense, or his survivor's instincts, or his cantankerous outbursts that had strange ways of wrapping their arms around you till they choked you before they turned into laughter.  Nor was it the mock-abrasive intimacy which put so many off but was precisely what felt so familiar to me, because it brought to mind those instant friendships of my childhood, when one insult about your mother followed by another about mine could bind two ten-year-olds for a lifetime.

Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I'd lost track of and sloughed off living in America.  My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my Mr. Hyde, my very, very rough draft.  Me unmasked, unchained unleashed, unfinished: me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged.  Me without books, without finish without a green card.  Me with a Kalashnikov.
That's what I ended up liking about this book.  It's all out there. As Kalaj becomes more and more recognizable as the flip side of, well, just about anyone who might pick up an Andre Aciman novel, the story grows compelling and, finally, quite touching. Here Aciman seems to be writing about longing for the underside of himself. His lost (or perhaps never found) ferocity. The story is honest and elegantly told, and its encompassing vision of the sides of human nature present in everyone that aren't simple or easy is compassionate.   

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Film - Oslo, August 31st (2011)

On Sheila's recommendation I saw Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st recently, starring Anders Danielsen Lie a triple-threat: musician, actor, and doctor.  It's a beautiful interior portrait of a day in the life of an addict who, after time in rehab, is about to move back into society.  He gets a pass for a job interview and visits people and places from his former life, aware only of the gulf between where he was when he exited that life and the present.  Lie is one of those actors knows that the work is in preparing yourself to be inside the experience of the character and then to perform simple actions of living and let that work reveal itself.  You never watch the effort to communicate a thought or feeling, the wish to be something other than he is, you only see him where he is.  This film feels so private - a man trapped by his decisions, a man for whom disaster seems inevitable. What a beautiful film.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

On self-limiting enzymes, playfullness in science, and mothers... (Books - The Statue Within by Francois Jacob)

Over the last ten days, I attended the annual conference of the International Society for Autism Research, in San Sebastian Spain, where I presented some of my research and heard about the work of many, many others.  It was impressive to see the huge amount and diversity of efforts focused on autism spectrum disorders.  On my travels there and to nearby Barcelona, I also managed to get a little reading done.

I had started The Statue Within, the memoir of French biologist Francois Jacob a while ago, but never really got going.  The conference put me in the mood to pick it up off the pile again and just as I began, I learned that Dr. Jacob had died at 92 years of age.  Dr. Jacob's contribution to our understanding of how living organisms work was to be the first to observe and describe how the level of an enzyme produced in a bacterium can be responsive to its environment, eventually earning him, Jacques Monod and and Andre Lwoff the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965.  He saw that e. coli, for example, could digest the sugar lactose for energy instead of glucose, but it produced the necessary digestive enzyme (lactase) only when lactose was present.  How was this possible?  It was learned around the same time that the production of any protein (such as an enzyme) was the product of certain sequences in our DNA (we call those sequences genes).  These sequences became a template for RNA which, in turn, became a template for the production of a protein. The e. coli's genes were always equipped to produce lactase but, typically, a repressor (also a protein) was bound to the portion of our DNA responsible for producing lactase.  In the presence of lactose, the repressor binds lactose instead of those genes.  This accomplishes two things: 1) the lifting of the repression which means that the genes facilitate the production of lactase which digests the lactose and 2) it creates a self-limiting loop such that, when the lactose is gone, the repressor then binds the DNA once again and the production of lactase is turned-off.  This was important to biology not just in understanding how e. coli are responsive to their environment, but because this model extends to any gene in any organism. Dr. Jacob and Jacques Monod realized for us that genes interact with their environment.  Genes being present in an organism are not sufficient to accomplishing their action, they must be turned on" by some signal or, to use the term biologists use, they must be "expressed."  Although, as is always true with biology, it is now understood that this is a general principle and this simple mechanism is, in fact, be varied upon and complicated infinitely.