Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Brief flashes of memory creating the beauty of what has passed anew (Books - With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert)

I have written enthusiastically of Charles Lambert's novels Little Monsters, Any Human Faceand  The View from the TowerHis new creation With a Zero at Its Heart (The Friday Project, 2014) is excitingly fresh.  Although it reflects qualities I have observed in his other work - the driving energy, the concentration on sensory experience in everyday life, and the cleanliness of prose - it refines them into something uniquely and lovingly felt.  Lambert divides his narrator's life experiences into iconic categories like money, travel, language, danger, correspondence, work, waiting, death, books - 24 in all - dipping into 10 episodes per category.  The episodes span early childhood to late-middle-age.  Each is a 120-word prose snapshot, bracingly terse but warm with remembering.  They evoke the prose poems of Frank O'Hara in their colloquialism, but with less smart-assed whimsy, and this seems not entirely without intention, as O'Hara is referred to in the section on waiting.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Screwball comedy in 1980s New York (Books - Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme)

Last weekend, thanks to my friend Sheila, I attended a screening of a The Awful Truth, a 1937 screwball comedy about a married couple who argue, plan to divorce, but just can't seem to leave each other alone because they can't stand seeing the other with anybody else. With Cary Grant,Irene Dunne, (and Asta, the dog from the Thin Man films), it was shown at The Museum of the Moving Image, a spot well worth visiting if you are in NYC.  This is the film that some critics say, made Cary Grant a superstar, and it's not hard to see why.  It is dead clever and full of good belly laughs.

It was introduced by film writer Farran Smith Nehme on the release of her novel Missing Reels (Overlook Press, 2014), thank you, Overlook, for my copy.  One could almost call the event reverse product placement.  Rather than the film including the book, the book mentions The Awful Truth (and sooooo many other vintage films) in its pages, and occasioned this screening.  But really, the film could not be better advertisement for Smith Nehme's entertaining novel which is part mystery, part romance, part love letter to vintage films, and a genuinely good time.  The time? 1980s. The place? New York City, but this is a NYC without cell phones, without Disney in Times Square, a NYC that had payphones and vintage movie houses.  I used to go to them all - The Regency, Carnegie Hall Cinema, St. Mark's Cinema, The Thalia - and see not just one classic film, but usually a double feature!  Aaah, those were the days.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Political Dramas in One New York Weekend (Theatre - The Death of Klinghoffer & Sticks and Bones)

Some question the relevance of live theatrical performance in the age of Tivo and live streaming, but you wouldn't if you had seen two productions we attended, one off-Broadway and the other at the Metropolitan Opera.  The New Group's production of David Rabe's 1971 Sticks and Bones is a still-fresh indictment of American hypocrisy, while the 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams and Alice Goodman, although an over-literal production fails to ignite the material, is still resonant, especially in its having been mounted against the fear (unfounded) that its content would be incendiary fodder for anti-Semites.

First the opera.  It is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinians.  The American, British and Jewish passengers are taken hostage, and a wheelchair-bound Jewish man is murdered.  The ship's captain, rather than reporting the killing and trading lives for demands, reports to the authorities that nothing has occurred, forestalling escalation and letting the hijackers go free. It's a tactical decision, not a referendum on the value of a man's life.  One could say that the captain chose not to value Klinghoffer's life more than that of any other passenger.  As played by Paulo Szot, it was not a choice the captain took lightly.  Of course, that doesn't make it any more tolerable for Klinghoffer's loved ones.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

Distinguishing between data & interpretation in popular science can help the public learn to think about the evidence (Books - The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin)

Nowadays, the outcome of every scientific study is expected to be instantly useable by the public.  News media demands ready-made dietary and medical advice, politicians and business people demand data to shore up the opinions they already hold, many funders want only outcomes that will translate to curing disease now.  As nice as it would be to cure on demand, that would be as likely as making a hits of every Broadway tryout.  Scientific "hits" are the product of fortuitous accident and incremental accumulation of knowledge, which usually includes more rejected possibilities than confirmed ones.

Pop-neuroscience satisfies this expectation with books falling somewhere between science and self-help.  Daniel J. Levitin's The Organized Mind (Dutton, 2014) creatively hews to this formula. I thank Dutton, a Penguin imprint, for my copy.  Of course the popularity of science, is not all bad.  It is wonderful to have the ear of non-scientists and encouraging that interest requires that the public enter the discussion somewhere.  But books that realistically convey how experimental outcomes find their way into the fund of general knowledge are in short supply.  The wider the dissemination of half-baked knowledge, the more discerning the eager-to-consume non-scientist must become.  In this age in which everything from raw experimental data and top notch interpretation to crackpot appropriation of small study outcomes and outright lies are easily available on line, and look superficially the same, the scientist has a responsibility to help the public develop a critical eye.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Giving beauty and form to the inexplicable (Books - The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) is a stunner of a novel.  The Man Booker committee seems to have thought so too, having awarded it this year's prize.  It concerns a man, a doctor, a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, a father, a husband, an adulterer - all the same man - one Dorrigo Evans.  Although he is all of these things, Dorrigo Evans is irrevocably shaped by his time as a prisoner of war, suffering abuse and deprivation at the hands of his Japanese captors as he and his fellow prisoners were brutally driven to build the Thai-Burma Railway.  As an officer, he is expected to assume leadership of the prisoners. In this role and as a physician, he feels compelled to save as many men as he can from illness and violent punishment.  His humanity is tested as the circumstances offer only choices among cruelties, warping any possibility of compassion.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An addiction to betrayal (Books - A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre)

Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches.  They are English - so English that the habit of politeness that binds them together and keeps them apart never falters for a moment.  The sounds of the street waft up through the open window, car horns and horses' hooves mingling with the clink of china and the murmured voices.  A microphone, cunningly concealed beneath the sofa, picks up the conversation and passes it along a wire, through a small hole in the wainscoting, and into the next room, where a third man sits hunched over a turning tape recorder, straining to make out the words through Bakelite headphones.

The two men are old friends,  They have known each other for nearly thirty years.  But they are bitter foes now, combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.
So begins Ben Macintyre's atmospheric, brisk paced A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal (Crown, 2014).  You can read this book as fascinating political history, or as a thriller that just happens to be true, but I read it as a book about character.  Kim Philby and his close friend Nicholas Elliott went to English public school together, Cambridge together, and went into intelligence in MI6 together following World War II.  Elliott became a company man who climbed the ranks of British intelligence, while Philby infiltrated himself deeper and deeper into the circles of power.  He stints included several years in Washington D.C. at the height of the Cold War.  At that time he managed to befriend CIA Counterintelligence head James Angleton, a man known for paranoiac secrecy.  All the while he communicated everything he knew about British and American plans to Russian intelligence.  Philby made a hash of key British and American maneuvers for decades.  He did it without a computer, zip line, disguise, or walkie-talkie watch, and for years few people thought to give him a second look. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When even magic is not enough (Books - The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman)

If you liked Lev Grossman's first two books in the Magicians Trilogy- The Magicians  and The Magician King - you should love the conclusion: The Magician's Land ( Viking, 2014).  Grossman appropriates the YA fantasy form to create a series that is not about glib fixes to the experience of being an outsider. If first volume was about power and love, and the second about belonging and purpose, the third is about loss, what one accepts versus what one fights for, and the possibility or impossibility of rebirth.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A son and historian's attempt to understand the world of his father (Books - Year Zero by Ian Buruma)

Ian Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945 (The Penguin Press, 2013), as is clear from its title, is a history written from the perspective that the legacy of World War II was so uniquely pervasive that it reset the clock.  The immediate post-war political,cultural, and moral spheres may be said to have been newly created out of the devastation of  that experience.  If you lived on earth in the 1940s, you were on one side of the moral battle or the other, and you were unlikely by its end to have been untouched by death as a result of it, as I have written before here.  I was drawn to this book because, aside from what I know of the quality of Buruma's storytelling, this book was said to use the story of Buruma's father, a Dutchman imprisoned by the Nazis in Berlin, and his subsequent journey home through a ravaged Europe, as a touchstone, and I am drawn to the use of personal narrative as a device which can turn intellectual interest into experiential engagement.  Buruma does write about his father as an inciting reason for his seeking understanding about this period in history in the prologue, setting the stage for a literary driving force like that in Greek tragedy, as Buruma himself recognizes:
The story of postwar 1945 is in some ways a very old one.  The ancient Greeks knew well the destructive force of the human thirst for revenge, and their tragedians dramatized ways in which blood feuds might be overcome by the rule of law; trials instead of vendetta.  And history, in the East no less that the West, is littered with dreams of starting afresh, of treating the ruins of war as an open building site of societies based on new ideas, which were often not as new as people thought.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two short comedies on knowing oneself and being known by others (Books - The Uncommon Reader & The Laying on of Hands by Alan Bennett)

When Virginia Woolf collected her essays on the uses of reading (the Elizabethans, Montaigne, Austen, etc) in a volume she called The Common Reader in 1925, she commenced
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.  "...I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours."  It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man's approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole - a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing...

Woolf's unassuming introduction to her essays is something of a pretense. Woolf as a woman of her time and of certain means, was meant to occupy herself with her appearance and her household.  She did not attend Cambridge like her brother, but her father's library permitted her to educate herself liberally, and her tongue is fully planted in her cheek in calling her opinions common while, at the same time publishing them. Remember that even in the hallucinations produced by Woolf's mental illness, the birds spoke in Greek.  Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader (Picador, 2007) continues the joke by imagining it's way into the experience of another reader possessed of no ordinary library, whose standing might be described as anything but humble, and whose life is among the least private of any person's on earth.  Yet for all that, she has acquired a habit, perhaps out of professional obligation, of not be too interested in any one thing more than another.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bringing order out of chaos in Wisconsin by way of the Soviet gulag (Books - The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer)

Stuart Rojstaczer is a funny guy.  A joke-telling, Jewish, geophysicist/applied mathematician from Milwaukee, Wisoconsin who has written a debut novel about a Jewish meteorologist of hurricanes from Madison, Wisconsin. Sasha Karnakovitch is mourning his mother, Rachela, a brilliant Russian-Polish mathematician who may have solved one of the great, problems in mathematics, the Navier-Stokes problem, whose solution is worth $1 million. Wait, I'm not done.  The very top mathematicians in the world descend upon the home in Madison to which Rachela emigrated after fleeing  the Soviets, for her shiva, not to mourn and remember her as is usual in the seven-day ritual, but to get into the house so that they may find out if she solved the problem and, if not, perhaps find enough in her notes, to solve it themselves. The Mathematician's Shiva (Penguin, 2014) takes on mathematical concepts, narratives in multiple time periods, death, Jewish culture, broken marriages, and the Soviet gulag and, despite being a first novel, manages levity, charm, and a humanly engaging story. I'm grateful to Penguin for my copy.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Longing for a world both near and far (Books - The Emigrants by W.S. Sebald)

The force of the praise for W.G. Sebald from  the likes of Susan Sontag, A.S. Byatt, Richard Eder, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Dirda in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TLS and elsewhere, make it pretty near impossible to come to his work unswayedI felt less like I dove into a new narrative world with anticipation in reading Sebald's The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997, Trans. Michael Hulse) and more like I had been invited to an exhibit of fine porcelain at a small museum.  I mustn't run, I mustn't touch, but I may walk through the hallowed rooms, look, and breathlessly admire. Whatever the use of literary criticism, or even book jacket blurbs, I don't imagine that that was the intention of these writers.  Whatever I came to like about The Emigrants on my own, was come to slowly, after I was able to drop the obligation I felt to search for evidence of his genius yet, it was worth the effort.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hating often, easily, and beautifully (Books - Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill)

Jenny Offill has written an unusual novel in Dept. of  Speculation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) and I thank John Self for making me aware of it.  Angular, full of sarcastic wit and bitter rage, its 177 pages are composed of short, Neruda like paragraphs that are enigmatic on their own, but that one tears through at break neck pace.  In fact, I challenge you not to read this compact, forceful book in one sitting.  It would be impossible.  You would lose the satisfaction of figuring out whether the accumulation of Offill's short lyrical bursts will give up the goods and yield a plot in the classic, recognizable sense of the word, or whether you will be left sifting through the bits to figure out what happened to her characters, named The Wife and husband.
My plan was to never get married.  I was going to be an art monster instead.  Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.  Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella.  Vera licked his stamps for him. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Only through time time is conquered (Books - Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden)

Deirdre Madden, an Irish fiction writer, is one of my favorite authors writing today.  Her work is elegantly structured, economical, her characters drawn with precision and warmth, and her stories often capture an ordinary person confronting the unordinary.  She subtly explores the discomfort that results and creates for the reader the impression that these surprises are what makes a life worth living.  In no book does that seem truer than in her latest: Time Present and Time Past (Europa Editions, 2014). 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Today's brilliance is brought to you by the letter "S" - a meme

I couldn't resist playing along with a meme I saw at Danielle's and Stefanie's blogs.  Danielle gave me my algorithmically generated (and therefore not completely random) letter of the alphabet, and I am charged with telling you my favorite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with that letter, as well as telling you that I will happily generate a letter for you if you would like to play along.  Just leave a request in the comments.


A favorite book beginning with 's' is Sonya Hartnett's SurrenderShe is a lyrical, imaginative, and thematically serious Australian author who, although she writes books for young people, assumes them to be mature and intelligent readers. Surrender is a suspenseful, veiled, poetic tale related by two first-person narrators - an angel and a demon.

I think I'll go with May Sarton, poet, diarist, and novelist. This underappreciated American writer has long been a favorite of mine. I wrote about her 1955 Faithful are the Wounds for the 2007 Outmoded Author's Challenge.

The second of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs - 'September.'  Sung here by Renee Fleming.

Michel Gondry's fantasmagorical low-tech The Science of Sleep in which Gael Garcia Bernal is delightful.

If you are an asparagus fan, as I am, you will certainly never want to be without your spargel schรคler.  This highly specific kitchen utensil, mine was made in Germany, so I call it by its German name.  It is specifically designed to trim and peel asparagus.  If you manage not to overcook them, they come out perfectly every time.

Care to play along?  Leave me a comment and I'll give you a letter.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Grabbing the arts-science zeitgeist by the short and curlies (Books - Orfeo by Richard Powers)

In Richard Powers's most recent novel, Orfeo (Norton, 2014), a contemporary composer, Peter Els, performs experiments with the DNA of bacteria in a his lab at home - his hobby - using what he learns about the coding as the basis for his musical compositions.  The police come across his lab by accident and suspect him of bio-terrorism and Homeland Security turns an experimental composer whose career has been largely irrelevant to his field, into a world renowned fugitive from the law.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

On reading Herzog with and without assumptions (Books - Herzog by Saul Bellow)

There are books one has read, or believes one has, but they are read too soon or too late and so carry no weight. No emotional frame in which to fit them exists...During a recent conversation about life after a long marriage, in what at a stretch may still be called middle age, a friend said of my unanchored state, “Yeah, Herzog.” I was sure I had read the novel, I had my Saul Bellow season long ago, but his comment lodged in my mind. A few days later, on a whim, I bought “Herzog”
So wrote Roger Cohen in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, Hezog at 50, on his reread of Saul Bellow's novel. Odd thing, my book club had just opted for Herzog (Avon Books, 1976), and I was in the middle of it.  Must be something in the New York water.  Cohen experienced the novel as apropos to his own life, full of resonance.  On the contrary, although I truly admired the writing, I experienced the story as dated, not in the sense of being irrelevant, but in being of another time.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A meta-thriller for our self-reflective age (Books - The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2014) is the American fiction debut of 28-year-old Swiss writer Joel Dicker.  Published by Penguin, who furnished my copy, it is a thriller, originally written in French.  After becoming the phenom of the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, it was translated into 68 different languages, ok maybe not 68, but probably everyone working for the U.N. could have read it, and after selling 2 million copies who knows, perhaps they have.

In The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair Marcus, a young author, is facing writer's block in trying to produce a second novel for a fast approaching deadline, after a wildly successful debut.  He goes to the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire to visit Harry Quebert, his college mentor, who is accused of the murder of a teenage girl after her body is discovered in his back yard, the original manuscript of Quebert's most successful novel buried with her. Marcus, determined to clear Quebert's name, sets about investigating the 33-year-old crime and generally making a pest of himself.  As he uncovers old secrets, he finds in them the subject for his second book.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Exposing the lie of consistency (Books - The View from the Tower by Charles Lambert)

A cursory look at Charles Lambert's Any Human Face or his new The View from the Tower and you might believe that he writes thrillers set in Rome which, rather than playing with the history and the grandeur of that stage set of a city, expose its seamier side. But the thriller, in Lambert's case, seems more a container for a story in which the main character's action becomes, through the arrival of a crisis, to uncover something that changes everything they thought that they knew.  Lambert's books are about how we face the unexpected.  Now, any good mystery does deal with the unexpected, but the difference here is that Lambert is not just willing to deal with the uncomfortable feelings this evokes in the protagonist, I would go so far as to say, that he courts and exposes those uncomfortable feelings, that they are the point of his novels and that the thriller is a form he appropriates, perhaps so that his novels about being uncomfortable might be widely read?  Perhaps simply because discomfort stems from the unknown.  Perhaps I should ask him!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Wet your whistle over a little science...

I'm a big fan of grass roots projects that advance the public understanding of science. Large scale and television infotainment are great for the numbers of people they reach, but there is nothing like one person meeting with another in a small relaxed setting for engaging and sometimes even changing minds.  A group of scientists began a venture in England called Pint of Science, where scientists meet a bunch of interested thirsty folks in a pub and give a talk aimed towards a general listener about their work - over a pint, of course.  That venture has crossed the pond.  Talks over libations will be held in pubs in 5 different cities across the U.S. - New York, Chicago, Tampa, Philadelphia, and San Diego. Topics range from environmental science genetics, and particle physics, to stem cells, antibiotics, and neuroscience.  Have them wet your whistle at Pint of Science U.S.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Fragmented genius became the conscience of 20th century physics (Books - Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk)

I have finally finished Ray Monk's behemoth of a biography Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Doubleday, 2012).  It's strength is its comprehensiveness.  There doesn't seem to be a thought Oppenheimer had, or an event surrounding him, that Monk does not cover in depth.  The man and his times (1904 - 1967) are fascinating for the advances that occurred in the field of physics, Oppenheimer's leadership of the construction of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, his subsequent leadership of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and for the stripping of Oppenheimer's security clearance by Senator McCarthy's infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.  However, as I mentioned in my initial thoughts a few weeks back, I found Monk's biography lacking in coherence and narrative drive. It's ironic, given the book's subtitle, that it seemed to have no center.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading to live (Books - An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine)

If you love books, have perhaps wished to live in the world of the books you read, as I have, Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, 2013) will be utterly recognizable to you.  Rabih Alameddine's straightforward prose illuminates the paradox of an intelligent Lebanese woman who is acutely self aware but whose sarcasm cushions her from knowing herself deeply. 
First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that.  I'm a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive - the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle - but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean.  I don't think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there's an issue here. 
Aaliya celebrates language and narrative, she is deeply steeped in the Western canon of literature, quoting Spinoza and Heiddeger, Pessoa, Dostoyevski and Tolstoi, Sebald and Zizek, but she has replaced human intimacy with relationships to the characters and text in her beloved books.  She is relationally crippled.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word.  Literature is my sandbox.  In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time.  It is the world outside the box that gives me trouble.  I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass - an hourglass that drains grain by grain.  Literature gives me life, and life kills me.
It is not accidental that the key metaphors here is childlike.  Aaliya, for all her literary sophisticatedness (she translates the books she loves most into Arabic) really hasn't grown up. Alameddine, a gay writer who has roots in the Middle East but was educated in the West and spends part of his time in San Francisco, renders the experience in narrative form of a modern Arab woman who is both literate and unmarried. I found this juxtaposition effective in another translation - making what I assumed was a foreign perspective to me immediate and recognizable.

His narrative functions on multiple levels.  One is an appreciation of writing from the pleasure of the printed symbol to his infusing his observations of person and place with literary references.  Beirut street cleaners are "the Sisyphuses of our age."  In describing the death of her ex-husband, who was impotent in life but priapic at his death, Aaliya quips
In death Eros triumphed, while in life Thanatos had. My husband was a Freudian dyslexic. 
There is not a little literary background it is helpful to have to keep up with Alameddine's humor.  Another level on which the narrative functions is the history of Aaliya's relationships from distant and disconnected to present and accepting of closeness.  Yet another is a story of the dependence of several different characters on fictions, whether this means works of literature, or made up versions of other people's experiences.  Alamedddine's novel is rich, variegated, human, and surprising, and full of reading recommendations.  If I made a list of every worked referenced by Aaliya that I haven't read, it could keep me busy for a couple of years. A delightful and full reading experience.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A delayed account of bookeywookey's New York cultural wanderings (Books - The View from the Tower, Robert Oppenheimer, Night in Shanghai) (Film - Les Petits Mouchoirs) (Art - Gaugin, Sonnabend, and Jasper Johns)

I have gotten hopelessly behind with a regular accounting of my reading this year, never mind the theatre, films, operas, and exhibits that make up my New York life.  Take this week.  I finished the new Charles Lambert thriller The View from the Tower which I heartily enjoyed (I'll link the post when I write it).  I dipped again into Ray Monk's Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, a biography of the influential physicist which I have had going since late last year.  While Monk makes the case for an interesting life full of internal conflict, his rendering is too comprehensive.  You lose the forest for the trees, the forest in this case, being the narrative throughline.  I'm disappointed by biographies that seem to be nothing more than repositories for the totality of an author's research plopped on the page in chronological order, rather than the crafting of a narrative which has an opinion about that life.  To be fair, Monk has a strong point of view about Oppenheimer's judaism which, he asserts was repressed and the source of tremendous interior conflict,however, that opinion fails to cull his narrative.

I started and gave up on Night in Shanghai (thank you Henry Holt for this copy) which was promising for its setting in 1930s Shanghai and the way the author Nicole Mones created atmosphere, but I couldn't for the life of me keep track of the characters.  The unfamiliar language impeded my remembering who was who and my lack of historical knowledge added to my difficulty remembering which side of the nationalist versus communist struggle they were on, so I couldn't follow what motivated the plot and, unfortunately, I lost the thread.  The sense of place was successfully pervasive and the writing entertaining, so don't let my faulty memory discourage you.

I went to the Antiquarian Book Fair yesterday, which, given the average price of the items displayed there was more of an antique book museum for me.  I came across a novel by Tennessee Williams I had never heard of called Moise and the World of Reason and would have bought the beautiful first edition if I had had $295 to spare.

I then wandered down to MOMA where I saw a very interesting exhibit of Gauguin's prints, how they interacted with his painting, a show whose theme was the gallerist Ileana Sonnabend and the works she brought to public attention at her Paris and New York galleries.  I have to say I found this more interesting for its history than likeable for the work in it.  I also saw a small exhibit of Jasper John's latest works: Regrets, based on a photograph of Lucien Freud.  Small, tightly curated shows are always my preference.  I didn't merely enjoy the work for itself, I appreciated how the prints and paintings on grew from the original photograph, which is also on display. This is a show that's about creative process more than anything, and how the act of an artist doing something as a result of their experience of some source, becomes the seed of new work. Wonderful show.

Finally, I made my chilly, rainy way home, poured a glass of red wine, got under a blanket and watched Guillaume Canet's 2010 Les Petits Mouchoirs; the English title is Little Whie Lies. This is a French Big Chill, complete with a tight ensemble cast of solid actors, great music choices, and a somewhat sentimental story of a group of middle aged friends minus one.  The love and pathos of old friendships is beautifully captured by the cast in that undemonstrative way that French films are so good at, where people seem like people because they are free to feel but not getting off on showing you that they can.  Be prepared to use at least one mouchoir if you're at all moved during films.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The startlingly original voice of James Purdy (Books - Eustace Chisholm and the Works; Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue by James Purdy)

James Purdy's voice is dirt plain and when he is telling a gritty story of desperation in depression era Southside Chicago, as he did in Eustace Chisholm and the Works (GMP Publishers Ltd., 1967/1987) his diction is almost like the furniture.  It it is part of the world.  You expect it to be there.
"What do I do, Ace?" Daniel covered his eyes with his palms.

"Tell him you're crazy about him."

"I can't do that."

"Let him tell you then."

"If I had the money, I'd take him with me to some far-off place."

Eustace Chisholm stared at Daniel, incredulous at having heard the last sentence, then, in exasperation, said: "You're in the farthest away place in the world now, mate.  You couldn't get any farther away than where you're living with Amos.  You're in the asshole of the universe and you don't need to waste more than a half cent of shoeleather to get back.  Go home and take him in your arms and tell him he's all you've got.  That's what you are to him too, and you'd better hurry, for it won't last for long for either of you, and so why spend any more of your time, his, or mine."
That story is one in which the main character, a gay poet, is dealt with cruelly by life.  It gives Eustace a cruel eye, from which he writes, and a hard disposition.  But in Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (William Morrow & Co, 1997), the protagonist is an older woman, diminutive, frightened, and the plot more fantastical. One feels constantly - this is a work of art - but still it is about the cruellest of subjects, the grief of a parent (Carrie) for a deceased child (Gertrude).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Are we poorer for the death of the letter? (Books - The Leonard Bernstein Letters ed. Nigel Simeone)

I used to write 2, 3, and 4 page letters in complete and descriptive sentences to friends, family, and at least a couple of paragraphs to colleagues.  Now I dash off 40 2-line emails a day, and sometimes just 2- or 3-word text messages to friends.  As I read The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a collection of correspondence to and from the maverick conductor, composer, and music proselytizer from 1932 to 1990 edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press, 2013), I wondered if the world had become a poorer place for the death of the letter, or, and perhaps this is even more import, will it be poorer when we try to reassemble the details of the working life, the creative process, or the origin of relationships of our great creators, thinkers, or leaders?  It's not the platform that I see as impoverished, goodness knows that I am an enthusiastic used of digital media.  The loss I fear stems more from the way we use those platforms for correspondence.  It is a loss of the depth with which the writer engaged in the scene, the effort taken to convey ideas, the level of intimacy expressed and sought, that were part of the tradition of letter writing.  Perhaps it's the art of letter writing that I mourn.  Even the physical acts performed: handwriting or typing, the folding of the paper, the addressing of the envelope - communicated intention.  Digital correspondence is stripped of the collateral communicative contents of those acts.  As I enjoyed the richness of Bernstein's working and personal relationships, I saw my understanding of the man, his process, and his collaborations grew.  Sure email saves time, but in not taking that time something is also lost.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


- THURSDAY MARCH 13 6 - 7:30PM

The part of the eye with cells that are sensitive to light is called the retina.  Only its smallest central part, called the fovea, is sensitive enough to recognize the small print that we read on the screen or the page.  Because we need to bring the letters onto the fovea, our eyes move constantly as we read.  They do not travel in a smooth line across the page, instead they move in small steps called saccades.  In fact, as you read this, you are making four or five of these jerky saccades every second. (adapted from Stanislas Dehaene's book Reading in the Brain).

Learn more about reading and the brain when CNL shows the movie THE BIG PICTURE: RETHINKING DYSLEXIA

For more information: http://www.cognitiveneurolab.com/#!brain-awareness-week-2014/c123o DID YOU KNOW THAT...
The part of the eye with cells that are sensitive to light is called the retina. Only its smallest central part, called the fovea, is sensitive enough to recognize the small print that we read on the screen or the page. Because we need to bring the letters onto the fovea, our eyes move constantly as we read. They do not travel in a smooth line across the page, instead they move in small steps called saccades. In fact, as you read this, you are making four or five of these jerky saccades every second. (adapted from Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain).

If you're in the New York City area, learn more about reading and the brain by joining me for the film THE BIG PICTURE: RETHINKING DYSLEXIA for Brain Awareness Week on Thursday March 13 at 6pm.  
Click here for information and reservations

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A modern retelling of a ubiquitous myth stuck in the mundane and the obvious (Books - The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman)

The Book of Jonah  by Joshua Max Feldman (Henry Holt and Co., 2014) is a debut novel I received courtesy of the publisher.  Billed as a modern day retelling of the biblical Jonah myth, it tells of a successful young New York lawyer's fall from grace and, as the Hasidic Jew he meets in the subway says, his discovery that beneath all the power and money is only one's nakedness.

I'd describe The Book of Jonah as very much a first novel, but with a pay-off. Feldman creates a modern adaptation, so naturally a certain amount of detail must root the story in contemporary times.  However, the references to Paul Krugman, Tupac, and Murray's Cheese cave felt to me like names dropped to dump us in the mileu so that we could get on with the story.  They seemed expedient rather than germane to the details of this specific world and were unrevealing of character.  Early in the novel Jonah observed a character named Philip.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


As regular bookeywookey readers know, I have multiple careers in both the arts (theatre, opera) and sciences (neuroscience) and am an inveterate book nut.  These enthusiasms have not infrequently met in posts about reading and the brain.  Brain Awareness Week is coming up.  It's officially March 10 - 16th, but brainy events are going on all through the month of March.  I link above to the site listing events in the greater New York City area, but there are sure to be events near you which hopefully are listed here.

My lab is hosting some brainy events during March.  One is a film: THE BIG PICTURE all about dyslexia - a disorder of the brain's ability to process language.  If you're in the NYC area, admission is free but we ask that you make reservations which you may do here.  In honor of the event, I will cross-post a number of bits and pieces on reading and the brain up to the event, although I hope to post on some books as well.  Stay tuned.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What is more beautiful to listen to than a cello? Two cellos. (Bach Concerto for two violins in D minor - 2nd Movement - Largo)

These guys have gone viral doing cello duets of rock and roll, but their classical playing is also intensely musical - how they listen to each other.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Writing that respects the young adult reader (Books - The Fault in our Stars by John Green)

John Green's latest YA novel The Fault in our Stars is one of those rare creatures - a deserving best seller.  It hasn't a fault I could find, other than its being so immensely popular.  If you have somehow hidden yourself under a rock and found a way not to hear about it, it concerns two teenagers - Hazel Grace and Augustus (Gus) - with terminal cancer.  And if you think that that means you couldn't stand to read it, I would say it is potently tragic, yes, it's a three-hanky book, but an extraordinarily beautiful love story and really, really funny.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Stultifying English spinsterhood, science and art, and literary odds and ends (Books - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym)

I started with big plans for the new year and then what happened?  Two excuses have kept me away from writing here at bookeywookey.  The first has been the post-PhD job hunt, which is entailing a good deal of writing and research.  The second has been a case of sciatic nerve compression.  If you haven't had the pleasure, don't.  It's worse than it sounds, and completely took over my life for two weeks.  I haven't been reading as little as it seems, but it has been too painful to sit down and write anything about it.

Uncharacteristically, I think I'll do a little works-in-progress round-up instead of an essay-length write-ups. 

A repressed English "spinster" lives her life vicariously through her neighbors romances, marital squabbles, and trips abroad, and through some singular event is dragged into the drama of other peoples' lives and learns the costs of her isolation - any guesses for who wrote this one?  Sorry, Thomas, but I must have been in the wrong mood for Barbara Pym this January.  I finished it, but found Excellent Women (Plume, 1952/1978), which was hailed by critics for Austen-like wit, even called "high comedy," and "very funny," a crashing bore. It didn't drag a chuckle out of me. I found the heroine - Mildred Lathbury's - threshold for over-stimulation stultifying low, and her self-awareness stunningly absent in a way that made me want to scream - NO MORE TEA.

The voracious appetites, musical and otherwise, and polymatheic talents of Leonard Bernstein bounce off the page in a new collection edited by Nigel Simeone called The Leonard Bernstein Letters (Yale, 2013)- a terrific holiday gift from my in-laws.  His energy has been a welcome antidote to Pym's tea-sodden domestic travails.  He knew everyone: letters fly to and from Kousevitzky, Aaoron Copeland, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Judy Holiday, Bette Davis, Dmitri Mitropoulos...  I would have finished it weeks ago, but it is so energetic that I can't read it before going to sleep - it keeps me awake.

 Ian Buruma offers the events of 1945 as motivation for a new cultural and political character, for lack of a better word, that emerged after World War II. These forces being exultation, hunger, and revenge, there is a relentless violence and bleakness in Buruma's Year Zero.  100 pages in, the thread that I have been looking forward to, Buruma's story about his father, who was a prisoner of the Nazis in occupied Holland, has not yet been focal. I am interested to see how the personal merges with the international.

I completed Richard Powers's new book Orfeo.  Powers is one of my favorite authors.  His books always combine something scientific and something artistic to capture some aspect of our zeitgeist.  Talk about a writer made for bookeywookey.  Here his soup is one part experimental classical music and one part recombinant DNA, with a dash of terrorism.  It's beautifully written, and a more credible amalgamation than Generosity.  I may have even admired it more than The Echo Maker.   I plan to write about it at more length.

I also read my first James Purdy novel - Eustace Chisholm and the Works.  Purdy is a writer's writer, an American who wrote from the 1950s - 1980s.  His voice is distilled, sparse, and it combines the fantastical with the brutally real. He was gay, and although his books did not exclusively depict gay characters, he was most certainly a voice of society's outcasts. Nearly all of his novels are out of print, although a collection of his stories was recently published.  I hope its enthusiastic reception will precipitate the re-release of this underappreciated writer's novels.  I will give some exclusive space to this strong, singular reading experience, some time soon.

Lastly, Henry Holt and Co. were kind enough to send me an advance copy of The Book of Jonah  by Joshua Max Feldman.  I'm going to reserve judgment until I have had a chance to get deeper into this contemporary debut novel with biblical allusions.

I wish you happy reading this superbowl Sunday.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bookeywookey's bookish plans for 2014

After the look back at the past year (here and here) it is time to look ahead at some of the reading to come in 2014 (theoretically).

Nate Silver's 2012 The Signal and the Noise is a look at the application of statistics to everyday prediction making and how data is converted into knowledge.

Chrystia Freeland, a finance journalist, writes about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. in the U.S., the consolidation of power into the hands of fewer and fewer persons across the globe, even as we continue to holler the word 'democracy' and try to sell it to the highest bidder. 

A companion piece to the above, Mark Mizruchi's book, argues that the influence of America's CEO's has changed since World War II from a consolidated force driven by civic responsibility to a fragmented group uninterested in using their power to tackle the "big issues." 

I'm really looking forward to Robert Page's synthesis of the work uncovering the genetic and physiological mechanisms which underlie bees' collective societies and how their social behavior evolved.

British social historian Theodore Zeldin wrote in 1994 about the forces that shape humanity in what is meant to be a ranging, unsentimental, and learned volume.

The thesis of Ian Buruma's latest, Year Zero, is that 1945 was the founding year of our modern era.  His narrative has a dual focus on world events and on the biography of his father, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, spending much of World War II in Berlin.

This book was a gift from a friend and colleague in celebration of the completion of my PhD.  I love it when a friend is willing to pick a book to give as a gift instead of giving a bookstore gift card.  Described as a  seductive love story, a satirical epic about the middle class, a comedy about the interior world of a cuckold,  like Joyce, Baron Munchhausen, and the Marx Brothers, this work, published in 1968, is now considered a classic.  I can't wait!

Alberto Moravia's Contempt was the basis of a Jean-Luc Goddard film.  It is rumored to be a "caustic dispatch from one man's self-made hell." While this isn't likely to be a laugh-riot, it is meant to be psychologically astute and an unflinching look at a failing marriage.

I was introduced to the writing of James Purdy when his collected stories came out in 2013.  I haven't actually decided which of his novels to read first, but this one about the dual forces of creativity and self-destructiveness in a mother and daughter is drawing me.  His prose is astonishingly plain and clear - Jo Ann Beard and Joan Didion both came to mind as I dipped into it, which is promising.

I have really enjoyed some of Kathryn Davis's strange, other-worldly novels, so I am hopeful about Duplex which apears to be part social examination of suburbia, part time-travel.  Hmmmm.

The winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries, by New Zealander Eleanor Catton may be up next.  I am chomping at the bit to start this 800-page saga - part mystery, part 19th century nautical novel, part adventure, part ghost story. 

Ah, so many books, so many plans.  I wish you all a 2014 full of curiosity and wonder, fueled by good reading.