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:!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.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bookeywookey's Favorite Books of 2013

The summing up of my reading for the year 2013 moves now from hard, cold statistics to content.  Here are my best of... lists.  Rather than post separately on each genre, since I didn't read as many books as in the past several years, I am going to collect my favorites reads of 2013 in one place.


I'll begin with the essay/memoir category.  Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of my Youth is superbly crafted.  She can write about anything, the pleasures here are in the writing itself.  As I said earlier in the year:
the book is full of one marvelous essay after another - about her poor father's drinking, about her mother and aunt fishing, about a terrible event Beard experienced while working at the University of Iowa.  Why should I care about this stranger's life, you may ask?  But her sentences lend the boredom, deep pleasures, longings, and misgivings of ordinary life true grace.  She fashions sentences so deft you want to live in them.


 Timothy Garton Ash's The File straddles the memoir and history categories.  This hybrid of forms is really what makes it so effective as a story of how individuals participate in history.  Garton Ash writes about his own time in East Berlin in the 1970s and about the subsequent reading of his own secret police file when the archives were made public after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  He visits each of the people who informed on him and tries to understand what about them and the facts of history led them to do so.


There were a number of novels this year that were solidly satisfying, each in their own way.  In no particular order they were.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch , many of my reading buddies were critical of Tartt's latest, particularly of its length.  I didn't have this problem with it. I found it an addictive saga, equal parts Gothic and Victorian, with more sophistication than her earlier novels, though no less entertaining. 

Days in the History of Silence - As the title suggests, this is a thoughtful, dark, interior book by Norwegian novelist Merethe Lindstrom.  A beautiful read about an elderly couple and their relationship to each other and to difficult events in their past.  

NW - I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith's multi-textured, urban, literary opus.  NW captures something essential about the social and economic zeitgeist of contemporary London.  She is an artist for our time whose work, I think, will last beyond it.

The Woman Upstairs Anger drives Claire Messud's latest book.  I love its depiction of the duality of the human psyche, and how the work of the artist and the work of being human interact. 
The trouble is that Nora needs others to tell her who she is.  She is not willing to reject their formulas, and that makes her angry as hell.  She's believed all this time that she's been mildly disappointed, but it takes meeting the Shahid family, particularly Sirena - a visual artist - someone seemingly free of these demands, to find out she's actually furious.

The Starboard Sea  - Amber Dermont's novel is the most promising debut I read this year. I found the prep school setting, the complex and sympathetic protagonist, and his search for moral compass enveloping and compelling.

Best read of 2013

Art Criticism/Fiction

Artful - If I had to choose my best book for 2013, it would not be a traditional novel, it wouldn't even be a traditional work of art criticism, but rather a wondrous piece of writing that uses the tools of fiction - character, plot, voice - as a vehicle for loving art, for translating the power of art upon an audience.
Artful is a masterpiece of integrity, and I mean that in all senses of the word.  Artful does not seem that it could be added to or subtracted from. It is consistent in its methods - its form (the subject, in fact, of its second chapter).  It is difficult while inside the whole to question these methods. Smith's narrator tells us she is mourning a lover.  Even as I am aware that Smith has created a narrative with craft and ingenuity, I believe that this must be true about Smith herself.  Finally, as Merriam Webster would have it, Artful is incorruptible. What I mean is that it brings its diverse pieces together so successfully that, well I was going to say that I am not aware of them, but that is not true. When I stop to consider the components of this book - form and content, reading and writing, painting and film, artist and art, lover and loved, mourner and mourned - my appreciation of the whole doesn't pause.  To consider the parts is to consider the whole.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reading for the year 2013 - doing the numbers

I never ended up having time before 2013 ended to sum up.  I don't know what this does for the rest of you, but I always enjoy reviewing my year of reading by doing the bookkeeping.  This was the year in which I wrote and defended my doctoral dissertation, so I haven't read as much as in past years.  Let's see how it all turned out.

Number of books read: 44
By women/men: 17/27
Written in English/translated: 39/5
Irish: 1
Scottish: 2
English: 12
Aussie: 1
Turkish: 1
Norwegian: 1
Columbian: 1
French: 1
German: 1
Fiction/non-fiction: 35/9
Biography and memoir: 5

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Tyranny of Western Time (Books - The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar)

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's The Time Regulation Institute (Penguin, 2013) is a mid-20th century satire by one of the most respected Turkish authors writing novels in the Western tradition.  I must admit, I would have been unlikely to have read it without the urging of the publisher, who sent me a copy to review prior to its release in January 2014. It concerns Hayri Irdal, an anti-hero who is in one sense the classic 20th century narrator, quickly establishing his lack of trusworthiness.  We learn within the first two paragraphs that not only is he uninterested in reading or writing, he also spent years as a psychiatric patient.  Tanpinar's novel is an allegory for the adjustment of an old traditional Turkey under the Ottoman Empire, to the modern Western values adopted for the country by their ruler Ataturk, a clash of cultures which included the adoption of Western time.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tale for a chilly winter's night does not deliver (Books - Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield)

I remember liking Diane Setterfield's debut The Thirteenth Tale, but I simply could not wrap my enthusiasm around her latest offering, Bellman & Black (Emily Bestler Books, Atria, 2013).  The ingredients are there - Victorian gothic atmosphere, a tale of financial romance - but it doesn't add up.  The human side of this story is really a romance, despite the fact that it is less about people relating to people than it is about one person, William Bellman, relating to money.  Tales featuring business or law can work - Dickens has certainly done it, but in a more complex context.  One of the chief problems with this story is that Bellman is the only developed character.  Everyone else is his prop.  Even Bellman himself is created out of hyperbole - this is a critical flaw, since the book, which flirts with the grand subjects of death and mortality, never manages the gravitas it aspires to.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Coming of age after retirement (Books - Ancient Light by John Banville)

It's a useful thing to read a John Banville novel every few years or so, just to remind oneself what really great writing can accomplish.  Banville is not a concept writer - his writing is not about gimmick.  Nor is it about plot - although things certainly happen.  His novels are about the forces that stir lives and his power is in how he uses language to stop and make one notice.  He doesn't so much write sentences as wield them.  Letting them slice their way into your consciousness so that they ferment there.  In Ancient Light (Vintage International, 2012) a sixty-something actor in a dwindling career, lives with his wife as they both mourn the death of their daughter, a suicide, a number of years earlier.  Two things happen.  Firstly, he remembers his first love at 15, who happened to be the mother of his best friend.  From the accomplished opening paragraph:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

I won't tell your story any more! (Films - The Mirror (1997) dir. Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian director who has been sentenced to 6 years in jail and banned for making films for 20 years because of the opinions expressed in his films.  He has defied his country's authority by continuing to make the films - This is Not a Film (2011) a fascinating cinematic diary of his arrest and Closed Curtain (2013), which I have not seen.  I was introduced to his work when my friend Sheila hosted her fantastic Iranian Film Blogathon in 2011.  The Mirror (1997, available through Netflix) is Panahi's second feature film.  It features Mina Mohammadkhani, a 7-year-old willful powerhouse of talent, playing a girl her own age (Baharan) who, when her mother does not pick her up at school, is determined to find her own way home through the traffic clogged streets of Tehran.  In some ways this film reminds me of Woody Allen's films about the cities he loves - Manhattan and Midnight in Paris - but the film's esthetic is rougher, with a feeling of capturing real moments.  Its point of view is more subversive, as I'll explain in a minute.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Twin memoirs of a writer's inner and outer selves (Books - Report from the Interior by Paul Auster)

I was quite taken with novelist Paul Auster's memoir of his corporeal self, Winter Journal, as I wrote last year.  It was an intimate account of what it has been like to inhabit and create from the body that is Paul Auster for his 64 years of existence.  His publishers were nice enough to pass along a copy of the sequel, Report from the Interior (Henry Holt and Company, 2013).  This one purports to do for the intellectual, spiritual, moral Auster what the last volume did for the physical.  I am a fan of Auster's artistry and have read nearly all of his fiction.  I felt this volume the less initimate of the two, but I admire this act of opening up himself in that it reveals much about how the development of the man intersects with the creation of his work.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A thing of beauty is not a joy forever unless we make it so (Books - The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt)

Shorter days and colder temperatures made me crave a long, enveloping story with equal parts warmth, adventure, suspense, and romance.  I found it in Donna Tartt's new novel The Goldfinch.  Her earlier The Secret History and The Little Friend were creepily entertaining, in the gothic romantic vein, while this book is of an entirely different mettle.  To my mind, this is Tartt's first serious novel, still entertaining, yes, but less satisfied with just shocking her reader with how warped the human spirit can become.  Still compelling, but one feels this story anchored by big themes.  One theme is identity and the part that events, other people, and oneself play in its formation.  The second is art, the role of a thing of beauty, and what gives it value. The third is fate, embodied in an act which propels the plot and gives this story its contemporary feel - that is a random act of terrorism which occurs in New York.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Absolution or reconsiliation? (Books - At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick)

I've noticed that whenever I tell the story of going to look for Thomas (all it takes is a couple of beers, like quarters into a jukebox), at some point whoever I'm talking to will say two things:
 1) You're such a good friend!

2) How could you just pick up and leave like that?

I was nothing like a good friend, and I could only pick up and leave like that because the thing I was picking up and leaving was no longer, in any recognizable sense, a life.  But I don't say this.  My conversation self, the one I send out to bars and parties and weddings, is a half-truth-spouting machine. Here I'll try to do better.

I'd spend the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard....
I enjoy stories that use the act of story telling as their artistic device.  It's an invitation to the truth, and there's something fitting about this artifice in Ben Dolnick's plainly voiced first-person confessional narrative in At the Bottom of Everything.  This is a classic novel of a close male friendship that grows apart as the friends age.  For Kings and Planets, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Brideshead Revisited all fall into this classic category, which evokes for me a certain nostalgia, but each is  also a tragedy.  Innocence dies a terrible death in each of these stories.  At the root of the distancing in this novel is a terrible accident in which Adam, our narrator, and Thomas are complicit. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Irrepressibly energetic (Dance - Hofesh Shechter's Sun)

Hofesh Shechter's irrepressible dance piece Sun is joyous and aggressive by turns, filled with images of war, street violence, and colonialism.  Cutout images of tribesman, sheep, and businessmen clash with his live performers who are clad in Middle Eastern garb, as commedia dell'arte clowns, and characters out of Chekhov - playfully undermining his artifice.  Wagner and Irving Berlin, tribal drums, and bagpipes are sampled in his eclectic and sometimes assaultively loud score.  A quick-cut, episodic rhythm is frantically energetic, jolting the viewer from one scene to the next.  The movement vocabulary evokes Middle Eastern and modern dance but his choreography is filled with the individual personalities of his dancers, who are a joy to experience.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

At the corner of science and culture...

At the corner of science and culture sits a mollusk, a Nautilus, to be exact.  While we're both waiting for me to post something bookish, check out this innovative and sharp looking new magazine and blog.  Each issue has a theme, a new chapter is released each week.  This week, find out why fish are all blissed out.
Jeffrey Hawkins Writer likes to say that the average drop of water entering the Mississippi River headwaters north of Minnesota will be used 11 times before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. That drop might irrigate crops, flow through wastewater treatment plants, pour out of residential taps, move through digestive systems, arc into toilet bowls, swirl down into sewers, and then do it over again. Whatever its fate along its 2,300-mile journey South, this water will mix with all kind of chemicals, human metabolites, and unnatural compounds.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fending off the touch of another person (Books - Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym)

With my admiration of female authors from the British Isles - Virginia Woolf, Irish Murdoch, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Marghanita Laski, A.S. Byatt, Deirdre Madden, Sarah Salway, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Drabble - it's peculiar that it took me all this time to read Barbara Pym. Unfortunately, I even missed Thomas and Amanda's Pym reading week, but I have finally righted the wrong.  Quartet in Autumn (1977, Plume) was Pym's comeback after 16 years without having been published.  It concerns four persons around retirement age - Marcia, Letty, Norman, and Edwin.  All work in the same office of the same department of the same generic, unnamed business, and have done so for decades.  They live almost hermetically sealed off from any meaningful contact with another person.
Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table.  For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation.  Somebody had reached out towards her.  They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people.  But the other woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin.  It was too late for any kind of gesture.  Once again Letty had failed to make contact.
Even their encounters with each other after years of working together are generic, risk free.  Norman and Marcia share a tin of instant coffee which Marcia buys.  Each afternoon, she makes them both a cup, not, as they would have it, out of generosity or friendship, but simply because it is less expensive.  They live out this charade of economy never imagining greater meaning behind their sharing, because they dare not even consider intimacy, let alone commit it.  They shun the risk of touching or being touched by another human being.  They shun it as though they might die of it, and yet, and this is the beauty of the book, now that Marcia and Letty are to retire, each of the four considers their time in life, and endings, goodbyes, death itself, and each is forced to reckon with why they haven't taken the risk to know another person better.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Artifice keeping the performance of our selves at a tolerable distance (Books - The Two Hotel Francforts - by David Leavitt)

I have been a fan of David Leavitt's work since his debut collection of stories, Family Dancing, in 1984.  Literate, deeply felt, somewhat otherworldly, they usually feature cerebral, quirky characters who feel they are outsiders.  My thoughts on his last novel, The Indian Clerk are here.  His latest is set in Lisbon in 1940. Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury, 2013) also deals with persons in exile, in this case they are mostly refugees fleeing the Nazis.  This is where Edward and Iris Freleng, a wealthy couple who write detective fiction, meet Peter and Julia Winters, ex-pat Americans who had been living in Paris. Julia has been running from a troubled past, or perhaps seeking a new, more sophisticated identity, by living in Europe, but now, as a Jew, is compelled to return home.  Peter is a car salesman.  Iris and Edward are guiltily fleeing the abandonment of their disabled child.  Amidst this maelstrom of personal drama and the desperate flight of thousands of refugees, Peter and Edward have an affair.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What we lose by keeping quiet (Books - Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrom)

Norwegian novelist Merethe Lindstrom's Days in the History of Silence (Other Press, 2011 trans. Anne Bruce) is an intimate unearthing of the most private spaces in an aging woman's mind.  Lindstrom's to-the-point prose makes Eva's lonely struggle come alive.  The voice is fresh, even as the moment-to-moment events are mundane - aimless drives, tidying the kitchen, struggles between parents and children, the indignities of aging.

Oddly enough, the great work this novel most brings to mind is Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Although the protagonist is not young and male here, but elderly and female, the inciting incident is loss.  In this case, it is loss of Eva's husband, Simon.  Simon isn't dead, but he has stopped speaking.  This may have arisen from a psychological cause.  During his childhood, Simon and his family were hidden from the Nazis by a non Jewish family.  This meant he was obliged to make as little sound as possible, and almost never exposed to air and sunlight.  He acquires from this experience a habit of silence.  He is a wounded man - having experienced many losses, and he also develops a shame around being Jewish - an aspect of himself he hid from his daughters.  Simon and Eva are both advanced in years, and one or two ambiguous sentences suggested that Simon's silence could also have been the result of a stroke.  But the exact cause is a wound, whether to brain or psyche is not precisely important.  The dismissal of their housekeeper, Marija, a key event in this novel, results in Eva's isolation.  Her chief conflict is whether she will sign a paper, urged upon her by her concerned daughters, committing Simon to an old age home.  Here is the similarity to Hamlet, because Eva is stuck, and the action of this novel might be seen as the unfolding of her hesitation, a paradox, since it demands movement from stasis.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Intellectual Tourist's Guide to Multiple Universes (Books - The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey)

The Secret Knowledge (Dedalus, 2013) by Andrew Crumey was recommended by John Self, and I can't say that I liked the novel quite as much as as I liked the thinkers and thoughts kicking around in it - Theodore Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin.  The year is 1913.  The composer Pierre Klauer is filled with excitement about the symphony he is writing entitled The Secret Knowledge.  He proposes marriage to Yvette, but only minutes later his body is found - a gunshot wound to the head.  Was it murder or suicide?  Or is he dead at all, since he appears in subsequent scenes in the 1920s and 30s.  In the present day, the pianist David Conroy receives the score of The Secret Knowledge.  As he prepares to perform it, he begins receiving strange visits and feels he may be caught up in a conspiracy of some kind.  Or is he just losing his mind? 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Excavating layers of narrative in search of the elusive truth (Books - The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)

Themes of truth-telling and father-child relationships were the subject of Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers, which I wrote about here and here.   They are echoed in The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead Book, 2013), but not in a way that feels either repetitive or formulaic. The narrative voice in this latest novel, translated by Anne McLean, is also that of a literate and cerebral man, Antonio Yammara.  These qualities slow the pace of reading down in a way that initially made me impatient, but allowed reflection as Vasquez's narrator reflects, and ultimately encouraged my becomming enveloped in multiple layers of text.
And that's how this story got under way.  I don't know what good it does us to remember, what benefits or possible penalties it brings, or how what we've lived through can change when we remember it, but remembering Ricardo Laverde well has become an urgent matter for me.  I read somewhere that a man should tell the story of his life at the age of forty, and this deadline is fast approaching: as I write these lines, only a few shot weeks remain before this ominous birthday arrives.  The story of his life.  No, I won't tell my life story, just a few days of it that happened a long time ago, and I'll do so fully aware that this story, as they warn in fairy tales, has happened before and will happen again.
The story here is national as well as personal.  Born in Columbia in the 1970s, it should not be surprising that Vasquez looks to stories to uncover the truth - so embroiled was his country in corruption and drug trade.  Antonio, who uses literature to teach law, begins his story by telling us about telling stories. This self-awareness as artifice is not only revealing of the self-consciousness of the narrator, but is an effective technique for eliciting our belief.  When you reveal the back wall of the theatre, you no longer need to rely on stage tricks or fend off disbelief - all you are asking of your audience is to believe they're in a theatre, which is the truth.  Whatever world you create from there, you create together.