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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mesmeric healer or spoiled prodigy? (Books - The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood)

Benjamin Wood has written a suspenseful, smart psychological thriller in The Bellwether Revivals (Penguin, 2013).  Working in Cambridge in a nursing home, Oscar Lowe is drawn into a chapel one day by the sound of the organ.  There he meets Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden plays the organ.
When he asked for her name, she replied: 'It's Iris.  Like the genus.'
And he laughed - just a short vent of air from his nose, but enough for her to step back and say, 'What's so funny?'
'Most people would say like the flower, that's all.'
'Well, I'm not most people.  I'm not going to say it's like the flower when I know perfectly well that it's a genus.  And I'll tell you something else.'  She broike for a gulp of breath.  'I know exactly which variety I am.  Iris milifolia.  The hardest one to look after.'
As they begin a relationship Oscar, a self-educated and independent young man who grew up on a council estate is drawn into the strange circle of Iris, Eden, and their posh coterie of fellow Cambridge students, who all grew up knowing that they are 'not most people.'

Eden, a spoiled mesmeric boy, believes he has the power to cure people of their ailments.  He surrounds himself with people who either believe him or are afraid to disabuse him of this idea, but the evidence is confusing, and this is the crux of the story - is he a healer or does he suffer from delusions of grandeur and a pathological need to control everyone around him?

Wood has created a likeably eccentric cast of characters and draws the reader in with an assured hand. He plays nimbly with the limits of our knowledge of the human mind.  Psychology is a science in that it can measure states of mind and creates lenses to help us visualize the forces that drive human behavior - but it does not predict the behavior of any individual person.  Wood draws a wonderfully compelling character in psychologist Herbert Crest, an expert on Narcissitic Personality Disorder who, when we meet him, is fatally ill and longing for a miracle cure.  His appearance actively embodies the paradoxical terrain explored in the novel without being too explanatory.  It is a pity Wood was tempted to include a piece of writing by the fictional Crest in his epilogue, in which he pits the scientific against the supernatural.  This edged the novel toward an ending that was a trifle big for its britches. I know pitting science against belief is a popular gladiator sport these days, but frankly, it's a false dichotomy and it got close to ruining the book's delightfully modest tone, set by the likeable protagonist.  But this debut novel had too much going for it for that to spoil it.  The suspense drove this novel's with an energetic and urgent rhythm and, in the end, Wood's characters mature in a believable and a satisfying way.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The bookish musings of Dr. bookeywookey

It has been a while, I know.  I had a small matter to attend to - the completion and defense of my dissertation.  Now that I am Dr. Bookeywookey, don't feel intimidated (smile) or obliged to take my posts too seriously.

Despite the preparations, I somehow managed to squeeze a few books in, but I didn't have it in me to write another word or visit many of my fellow bloggers. I don't imagine that I'm going to remember what I've read in any great detail, but let's see what emerges...

 Stephen King's Joyland (Hard Case Crime, 2013) - his take on pulp crime fiction set in the carny scene is firmly planted in time and place.
1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.  It was Devin Jones's lost year.  I was a twenty-one year old virgin with literary aspirations.  I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford (with a good radio), occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart.

Sweet, huh?

The Heartbreaker was Wendy Keegan, and she didn't deserve me.
This quick piece of entertainment explicitly doesn't aspire to high literary art, but that doesn't mean it is not deftly, assuredly crafted.  The writing is clean, atmospheric, and nostalgic, but the time is less the 1970s that it is the narrator's youth.  Although the mystery plot yanks you through the pages with purpose, this is an excavation of innocence and its loss.  Why, the writer wants to know with a backward look from his 60s, wasn't he good enough for old Wendy?  Despite the vintage pulp book cover, the artistry here is the layering of the younger character's insecurity mixed with the narrator's mature persepctive - one that is both knowledgeable and yet still smarts with the legacy of that old wound.

I have not read Dr. Hosseini's other blockbusters.  I read And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead, 2013) for book club and it really made me want to know what the fuss was all about. I found two strengths in this novel - the creation of memorable characters and a mission-driven impulse to present Afghani culture as hetererogeneous, humanizing it for the "Western" reader.  I respect that.  But I found the story telling, except for a few flashes of true inspiration, undisciplined, and the writing lazy.  There were anachronisms, confusing use of pronouns, and repetitiveness in descriptive phrasing that made me wonder how carefully the book had been edited.  More than  ten principle characters' were introduced in this novel, but in 300-odd pages, they could hardly be developed.  That left some to be summed up with cliche and others feeling like props that had been picked up by an actor, but never used.  Paragraphs describing one character's illness employed medical jargon and details about medication that seemed ripped directly from a clinical patient report.  Knowing absolutely nothing of Hosseini's bio, I stopped reading and thought - he must be a doctor.  I checked his bio out on Google and, sure enough, he is.  Despite the more richly drawn characters, whom I came to know deeply enough so that I can visualize them, I finished this book feeling the author should have taken more care.  Perhaps the publisher knew they could get a movie deal based on his previous sales and just didn't give a hoot. 

 I read Christopher Priest's The Adjacent (Gollancz, 2013) based on John Self's recommendation, and found it involving and clever. He mixes a dystopian future rendering of our world devastated by extreme weather and attacks using a weapon that scarily changes the physical structure of the world (the adjacency), a wonderful yarn set during World War II in England, and the story of an illusionist (well actually two illusionists), one living during World War I and the other in an imagined archipelago in some hard-to-be-determined, perhaps adjacent, time.
Another kind of misdirection is in the use of adjacency.  The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed.  The actual set-up is unimportant - what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacet distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.  
This engaging book is unselfconsciously written.  It mixes wartime romance and adventure, a scary imagining of our future, and a recognizable story of loss in the context of attack.  Its originality is that, by incorporating an idea that straddles modern physics and magic, it makes what could just be a clever sci-fi idea, a touching story.

Regrettably, I am not going to remember where I read in the last two months that Jo Ann Beard's autobiographical essay The Fourth State of Matter is a model of non fiction writing.  I'm thinking it might have been in a piece by Phillip Lopate. Anyway, the essay is in the collection The Boys of my Youth (Back Bay Books, 1999), but 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 boredome, deep pleasures, longings, and misgivings of ordinary life true grace.  She fashions sentences so deft you want to live in them.
It is five A.M.  A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water.  The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash.  Ripples move across the surface like radio waves.  The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers' heads.  One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.  
This is the kind of writing I envy.  It makes the reader feel that this person has lived these real moments in her life and is writing from them, and at the same time she is an artist working in a medium called language, and another medium called story, and she has created something with her will, and with experience of her tools, that has its own integrity.  She has made something more real and more true than just what happened. Something loving, unsentimental, whose resonance is eternal.  And you can watch her doing it, and, aware of the craft, you can believe the events all the more.  Damn, she's good.  If you love what good writing can do - read this.  I plan to come back to it several times.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Stephen King on First Lines in The Atlantic (Creative Process)

It's the six-week count-down to my dissertation defense so, in case you haven't noticed, I haven't been doing much writing.  Not here.  But I recommend that you head over to The Atlantic where Joe Fassler primed the pump for Stephen King's musings on the opening sentences of novels: Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences.  King is beautiful and insightful on writing.  
You've been here before.
All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story; at the same time, the unusual presentation brings us outside the realm of the ordinary. And this, in a way, is a promise of the book that's going to come. The story of neighbor against neighbor is the oldest story in the world, and yet this telling is (I hope) strange and somehow different...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Making home on a changing island (Books - Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester)

A capsule will have to suffice for this entertaining read on multiple generations of English ex-pats in Hong Kong.  This is the first novel by John Lanchester I have read.  Fragrant Harbour is itself fragrant with a sense of place.
We went down the hill, toward one of Hong Kong's most amazing spectacles, the Sunday gathering of Filipina amahs around Statue Square, spilling out toward Legco, the park, the Exchange.  You hear it long before you see it, a high fluttering sounds, a cross between a roar and a twitter, like thousands of birds, like no other human sounds you've ever heard.  The noise made by ten thousand Filipinas all talking at the same time isn't like a crowd event, a march or a rally or a sporting match, since they aren't concentrating on an external entity but on one another - eating and swapping picnics, swapping news and reading letters from home, listening to music, shopping at the impromptu market that features carefully targeted goods (like big, cheap folding suitcases, ultracheap towels and T-shirts), swapping photos, but all, mostly, talking, all the time.
Lanchester's writing makes details of time and place vibrate with life.  He tells a good story too, or really, he tells many  - of multiple generations who lived from the 1930s to the present day.  One cares about each of the characters a great deal, but I was not equally compelled by every succeeding story.  And did they ever fuse into one?  The last, a modern-day story, particularly stands apart.  This is partly because we go from times in which people spoke to each other in person, or wrote letters, to one in which we live thousands of miles from someone and communicate with a brief call, email, or text  - and yet, this novel seems to say, we remain miles apart. I'm not sure that this quite comes together, but this is a novel about people who don't hang onto the past but instead remake themselves in a brand new place and, as such, it is about a certain sense of unrootedness and yet, it all relates to a common place.   An unusual paradox, but one that makes enjoyable reading.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Getting in touch in the cold desert of the modern world (Books - A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers)

I'm a fan of Dave Eggers clean, mission-infused writing from having read What is the What, a fictionalized biography of one of Sudan's lost boys.  A Hologram for the King (Vintage, 2012) is more straightforwardly novelistic, that is, it is not about anyone Eggers knew.  And yet.  And yet, it is a portrait of a man we all know, a man of our times.  Alan Clay is an IT salesman and a dreamer.  He is divorced, can no longer pay his mortgage or his daughter's college tuition.  He is trying to make one last sale to hold his work-driven life together.  So he comes to a poorly air conditioned, nearly empty tent in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert to make a business pitch to the King.  Only, neither he nor anyone else know when the king will arrive.  He makes the trip day after day, week after week, hoping for his chance to sell his wares  - a system which includes the ability to have business meetings via hologram - and put his life back together.  And succeed. 

Eggers places Alan thousands of miles from home, separated from his wife, unable to speak with his father on the phone for two minutes without a fight, composing countless openings to a letter to his daughter which end balled up in the waste bin.  He has a frightening growth on his neck.  His life consists of endless waiting, of receptionists who will not let him speak with another person. Eggers creates a sense of place that is barren.  Where most of the things that move and express are electronic.
A the end of the hall he spotted an elevator door closing.  He jogged to it and thrust his hand into the gap.  The doors jerked back, startled and apologetic.  
Here success means that Alan's will connect the king, if he ever comes, with another person who is not really there. 
Everywhere, relationships no longer mattered, Alan knew this.  They did not matter in American, they did not matter much of anywhere, but here, among the royals, he hoped that friendship had meaning.
A Hologram for the King is a man's journey to get back in touch.  To remember the value of other lives.  To move from asking people's name as a sales technique, to having some sort of authentic contact with other living persons, not figments in his head.  To have real encounters with real people, not build holograms for kings.  It is a keenly observed book, the voice reminding me more of Didion's essays than anything else - spare writing which looks, sees, and describes.  The book's effect opines, but Eggers's narrative doesn't preach.  Amidst his clean prose is a message of genuine warmth.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Doors slam on old identities on a Greek Isle (Books - Skios by Michael Frayn)

I have enjoyed Michael Frayn's plays and memoir, so I was excited to find his Skios on the table at my favorite bookstore.  It is billed as a farcical beach read, a satire of academia, with serious philosophical undercurrents and I thought it would be an enjoyable distraction.  In it, a famous academic is scheduled to deliver a lecture at a philanthropic institution on a Greek Isle while a wastrel with a shock of blond hair has a scheduled tryst elsewhere on the Isle. The two are mixed up, but as they take up residence in the others lives they are each changed, sort of.  Farce? Yes, complete with door slamming and cell phone mishaps.  Satire of academia?  Perhaps.  But its machinations with mistaken identities and the wish to crawl into someone else's life were superficial, hardly philosophical.  I could see every coincidence in Skios coming from nine miles away. But it's good for a laugh or two and there are one or two clever moments.  My favorite: the academic ends up involved with the woman who had expected to have a tryst with the layabout (who is now posing as an academic).  The woman has two moles, and as he reviews his lecture...
He turned over more pages, but his mind was wandering.  Two dark spots had appeared in the air between him and the page like importunate flies.  He brushed them aside.  He turned back to the section about the overall framework of social responsibility.  The two dark spots reappeared.  they were two moles, he realized.  They had become detached from the shoulder blade on which they lived, and taken up residence inside his brain.
Frayn plots cleverly and crafts clear and even elegant sentences, but, philosophical?  Not really

Saturday, June 29, 2013

To fly, to dream,...or to stop dreaming? (Books - The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud)

Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud's new novel The Woman Upstairs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), is a school teacher and a dutiful daughter caring for an infirm parent.  She is 42,
...which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one.  Neither old nor young, I'm neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blond nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain.  Quite nice looking in some moments, I think is the consensus, rather like the heroines of Harlequin romances, read in quantity in my youth.  I'm neither married nor divorced, but single.  What they used to call a spinster, but don't anymore, because it implies that you're dried up, and none of us wants to be that. 
Nora sits in between the roles fashioned for her by others, templates she's very dependent on (as are many of us), and the role she imagines for herself in some foggy, unspecific view of the future - a future in which she will gain courage and take over herself, a future, in which she will make great art and light the world on fire - well, that, or just accept that she's not the type, that she's just an average Jane, and to like it.
All these years, I was wrong, you see.  Most people around me, too.  And especially now that I've learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly.  I want to stop needing to fly.  I want it all to do over again; but also I don't.  I want to make my nothingness count.  Don't think it's impossible.
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.

What I found so wonderful about this shout of a novel is the way it lays bare the duality of human nature through its narrator and protagonist: Nora and Sirena.  Nora is a tight, a New Englander, and Sirena a free-spirited Italian married to a Lebanese.  Nora is a single, a school teacher, Sirena a mother with a unwieldy family life.  Nora a pragmatist, who takes obligation seriously, a ruminator.  Sirena passionate, serving her own needs, alive in the present.  They end up sharing studio space and while Serena makes a sprawling, mythic construction that uses Alice in Wonderland as a jumping-off point.  Her audience can walk through this work.  It features a heart at is center, pumping rose water instead of blood - a playground of the sensual with smells, sounds - one where its heart is literally visible and the interaction between audience and art becomes a kind of improvisation. Nora makes tiny boxes - realistic depictions of great artists - who made art despite the roles their time prescribed for them - Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel - but her audience stands outside and looks in - just like Nora.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

We are the actors in history (Books - The File by Timothy Garton Ash)

The 1989 civil overthrow of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe was one of the most influential revolutions of recent history, and feels somehow quickly forgotten.  Following it, each of the USSR's dominions had to find a way suitable to its culture to transition away from totalitarian communism, and paranoia induced spying. While under Soviet rule,the East German State Security Service or STASI recruited an incredible number of its own populace as informers
According to internal records, in 1988 - the last "normal" year of the GDR - the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 "unofficial collaborators."  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in "conspiratorial" services such as lending their flats for secret meetings or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police. 
It was not unusual  for people to be informed on by co-workers, neighbors, friends, lovers, spouses or children. The East Germans had quite a bit of work to do to reeducate its citizens about history, economics, law, and and the role of the state.  Most of the adult population in 1989 had known only Soviet rule or, if they were old enough, the Nazis.  So following the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany made the contents of STASI files available to anyone who had one, allowing them to know who informed on them, and what they believed was known about them.  This effort at transparency often became an exercise in counter-recrimination.  In some cases, mostly for higher-ups, justice was pursued legally.  In others, the discovery of betrayal by friends and family was life-altering and devastating.

For Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford student in the 1970s writing his thesis on Berlin under Hitler, it was an opportunity to think about the interaction of the political with the personal on two levels.  On the one hand he sought to understand the impact of the state on these individuals - what motivated his informers (he's now a respected political journalist and author of many books on the revolutions of 1989 - here's a link to my thoughts on his The Magic Lantern ).  On the other, he could examine his own experience as a young man present at a key event in history, considering how subjective memory informs the telling of history.  As he puts it

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Film - Hannah Arendt (2012)

Director, Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa made Rosa Luxemburg, a film about the life and politics of the provocative socialist.  Though it came out in 1986, I still remember it.  So when I heard they had teemed up again to make a film about philosopher Hannah Arendt, I didn't want to miss it.  Arendt's coverage of the Adolph Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in 1961 in The New Yorker was, to say the least, controversial and provoked incendiary reactions.  Her goal, though, according to this film, was to use thought to understand the man rather than to judge him.  This appears, too, to be von Trotta's mantra.  She makes intimate films about the interior lives of women who profoundly influenced the politics of their era to explore their motives and the consequences of living as they did for a cause.  It is a relief to see a film about the value of thought in the context of politics - especially politics that provokes strong feelings.  We could do with a little of that.  And if that weren't reason enough to see it, Janet McTeer plays writer Mary McCarthy in it.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Holding pain at arm's length (Books - Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy)

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy is a love story, or more than that, a connection story.  The story of a connection between two men and a woman, each incomplete, in their way.  Rebecca, an artist who searches for her mother, George, a drunk, a lover of ancient languages, and Henry, an archeologist who escapes to the past.  They all end up in Athens and, in a nutshell, try to become whole again.

Van Booy looks to Athens for a sort of seedy grandeur and tries to make of the connection between his characters something of (appropriately enough) mythic proportion, only it doesn't quite work.  He uses language to try to grace each character with a sort of specialness.

Her father is out calling the name she's been given.

But her real name is known only by the change in light that comes without sound, and by the worms pushing up through the soaked crust of soil...

His chronic drinking began when he was fourteen, and inspired long walks through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he attended boarding school.  It was a stark gray town, with lingering fog at the windows of houses...

Like her, he was from a small cottage, but in Wales, on a hillside.

"It was like camping every day," he confessed.  "The house smelled of wet magazines and I shared my bed with a dozen animals."  
 But I found a manic desperation in his attempt to make them all so pleasantly quirky.  Trying to give the intersection of their stories a sense of magical coincidence - like the film The Double Life of Veronique - in the end it just came off twee.

At that moment, a French girl living in Paris called Natalie fainted in the supermarket.

These characters all really hurt and I was truly interested in their stories, but I felt like Van Booy's writing was a lot like George's drinking.
Booze washed all that nonsense away.  It shallowed his perception.  As a drunk, he was free to explore the earth without having to digest every moment, as if it were his last.
What he really wanted to write was an opera. Van Booy tries with the lyricism of his language to dull the pain or to encase it in a warm beauty, but what was most interesting about these people was their pain, and in the end, I didn't want to be held at arm's length from it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Film - The Great Gatsby (2013)

There have been three film adaptations of The Great Gatsby that I know about: The 1949 film starring Alan Ladd, The 1974 film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and the most recent incarnation with Leonardo DiCaprio directed by Baz Luhrmann.  None of them have worked.  I can't remember why that was my impression of the earlier versions, but the new 3-D blockbuster is mostly a disaster. There are some nice touches melding 1920s and contemporary choreography and music into an interesting hybrid.  And I loved the billboard advertisement for spectacles that gazed down on the fictional wasteland between glitzy Long Island and New York City, but it seems as though Baz Luhrmann has forgotten he's no longer making Moulin Rouge.  The film is all surface with no insides.  It's as though Luhrmann were Nick at the film's beginning - completely dazzled.  It's a shame considering that the whole story is that Nick grows up and becomes disillusioned by superficiality.  Luhrmann used the text of the novel as narration rather than having Nick inhabit the action of the film. That may have worked had he chosen someone other than Tobey Maguire.  Unfortunately Maguire can't play text and has no gravitas. Nick grows old beyond his years and tries to teach Gatsby not to live in the past, Maguire still seems to be trying to act the ingenue, even though he's almost 40.  Had he felt his age, it might have been interesting.  Luhrmann's idea of justifying the narration by having Nick talk to a psychiatrist was a misguided anachronism and having lines of type fly across the screen had no point other than to telegraph how self-conscious Luhrmann was about adapting a great novel.  I loved Luhrmann's work when he had no money to waste.  Strictly Ballroom and his wonderful La Boheme were all heart. I hope he finds some creative moxie again instead of hiding behind production values that communicate nothing but sheer hysteria.

Monday, May 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Film - Oslo, August 31st (2011)

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A little break...

Headed to points east for a conference and a couple of days of relaxation.  Be back soon.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Film - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

I was surprised by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Though predictably sentimental, the persistence of a young boy who is probably on the autism spectrum (Thomas Horn) in trying to make sense of what happened to his father on 9/11, made for a touching story with a sense of adventure and imaginative characters.  I would have liked more time spent developing the people he meets on his journey instead of collapsing them into montage, but there are two good scenes with Viola Davis one with Jeffrey Wright, and a lovely relationship developed with Max von Sydow, who never speaks a word.  Zoe Caldwell really disappears into her performance as the boy's grandmother, I must admit that I didn't even recognize her.  As Sheila pointed out to me, the fact that a 12-year-old carries this feature length film is pretty impressive.

The surreality of celebrity life (Books - The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro)

If you're looking for another Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, that is not what you're going to find in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).  Mr. Ryder, a world-famous pianist, arrives in a small, unnamed Western European city to give a concert, a concert he cannot remember planning.  In long, run-on paragraphs, the surreal action of Ishiguro's book describes the days leading up to this concert on which numerous events seem to be planned, events Mr. Ryder cannot remember scheduling, listed on an agenda he never received.  They not only involve the expectation that he will address local music groups, but that he will take opinions on long-standing arguments in town politics, advise family members on their relationships, listen to amateur musician's practice sessions, revive the reputation of the town drunk, a once great conductor, and perform surgery by the side of the road following an accident.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Theatre - The Big Knife - Roundabout Theatre

Clifford Odet's 1948 The Big Knife takes a big slice out of old Hollywood.  A movie star needs to decide if the studio will own him or if he will own himself.  The lyrical idealist who wrote Awake and Sing is now bitter with the money he has taken from the movies, takes out a big knife, and tries to cut out his own liver.  It's not a pretty play, but it's a good one.  This production, directed by Doug Hughes, has a number of actors who can combine the ability to be vulnerable to their dying careers and their dying souls while singing Odets's theatrical 1940s vernacular.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When autobiography fails to be personal (Theatre - Mayday Mayday - Theatre at St. Anne's Warehouse)

I know Tristan Sturrock's work as a talented member of Kneehigh Theatre, which did, among other works, a brilliantly inventive theatrical adaptation of Brief Encounter.  Mayday Mayday: A True Story by the Man Who Fell is Sturrock's one-man account of his recovery from an accident which broke his cervical spine.  It is presented by his own Theatre Damfino.  It sports a number of creative moments with its spare means, and I have no doubt that its creation was useful therapeutically, but that didn't make it involving theatre. Audiences often seem unwilling to say when autobiographic works about recovery haven't made for captivating works of art, perhaps they fear their reaction will be felt too personally.  In fact, Sturrock opens the performance by saying that this was, for a long time, a story he didn't want to tell.  I can't blame him but unfortunately, I could tell that from the performance. The work uses narrative storytelling to remain distant to the experience of it. While it showcases Sturrock's remarkable physical precision and appealing presence, it doesn't live.  It is emotionally unrevealing of his experience then or his present experience with us.  I'm pleased for his remarkable good luck but wasn't won over by Mayday Mayday as theatre.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Keeper of the cabinet of human curiosities (Books - Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks)

Now nearly 80, neurologist, writer, and keeper of the cabinet of human curiosities - Oliver Sacks - has written his 12th book.  This one is on activations of the perceptual systems that are produced by internal rather than external stimulation or Hallucinations (Knopf, 2012).  They run the gamut.  You can smell them, hear them, see them, and feel them.  They can have their origin in disease processes, chemicals, injury to the nervous system, or sensory deprivation.  They can take the form of geometric patterns, religious conviction, snatches of music, or little people (Lilliputian hallucinations).  I too have seen a patient with this last form of hallucination.  Her's were holding their heads in their hands (detached from their necks), but it didn't seem to cramp their style any.  I think that the term is probably my favorite in neurology.

I have always admired Sacks's writing about his patients because I feel that I am reading about people rather than cases.  I am a great admirer of Sacks's early books like An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, both are less continuous narratives than Hallucinations or Sacks's recent Musicophilia and The Mind's Eye.  Rather than thematic in nature, these earlier books are simply collections of essays on human beings whose strange neurologic cases make them fascinating, but who otherwise have little or no relation to each other.  I found some of the material included in Hallucinations had to stretch to be subsumed under the book's theme.  While I found most of the material interesting, an episodically constructed book might have been a more natural and satisfying form.

On more than one occasion in this book (and his last, The Mind's Eye) Sacks becomes his own subject. In this case, he writes frankly of his experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, a piece that appeared in The New Yorker last year, and of a serious hiking accident during which Sacks says that a voice commanded him to keep going. 

I am always impressed by the historical sources Sacks cites.  They immediately make me want to visit the library.  Jackson's original papers on epilepsy and aphasias, are cited in Hallucinations.  Perhaps this is not as enticing to the average lay-reader, but for a neuroscientist, these are the golden oldies. Jacksonian seizures were named for John Hughlings Jackson.

Hallucinations makes colorfully clear that the mechanisms in the brain that eventuate patients' perceptions in the absence of external stimulation can be diverse.  The light patterns that are experienced in the aura prior to migraine might be thought of as electrical disturbances like a wave passing across the visual parts of the brain.  Whereas the hallucinations reported around near death experiences such as a floating above one's own body may occur due to stimulation of the right angular gyrus, one of several brain regions implicated in a circuit that according to Sacks mediates body image and vestibular sensations.  The vision of a dark tunnel with light at the end may be the result of decreased circulation to the retina, which narrows the visual fields.

The most remarkable of the cases Sacks writes of in Hallucinations was that of an 86-year-old English man who already had glaucoma and macular generation, but when a stroke compromises his right occipital lobe he loses vision completely in his left visual field.  What is most interesting is that he is not aware of his loss
...his brain appears to fill in the missing parts.  Interestingly, though, his visual hallucination/filling in always seem to be context-sensitive or consistent.  In other words, if he is walking in a rural setting, he can be aware of bushes and trees or distant building in his left visual field, which when he turns to engage his right side, he discovers are not really there.  The hallucination do, however, seem to be filled in seamlessly with his ordinary vision.  If he is at his kitchen bench, he "sees" the entire bench, even to the extent of perceiving a certain bowl or plate within the left side of his vision - but which on turning disappear, because they were never really there.  Yet he definitely sees a whole bench, with no clear separation between parts composed of hallucination and true perception.
The human brain is a remarkable country and it is always enjoyable to travel there with Oliver Sacks as your guide.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Film - The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

The 1970s was the heyday of a certain kind of American movie which stressed gritty, real performances, scene writing that jumped into the middle of things in-progress, captured accident and unease, told stories with human behavior as the medium, and sported the message - break out and be free.  It was a great time for American movie making that doesn't have a mainstream equivalent now. The King of Marvin Gardens: Bruce Dern as a bullshit artist who believes his own hype, an unusually quiet and vulnerable Jack Nicholson, and a brilliantly unhinged Ellen Burstyn (dir. Bob Rafelson).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Living with integrity (Books - Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach)

In the maelstrom of dissertation and article writing, I have been getting seriously behind here at bookeywookey.  You wouldn't know it, but I've finished reading four books: To the Castle and Back - Vaclav Havel's memoir, The Unconsoled - an early novel of Kazuo Ishiguro's, My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak, and Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach.  I really had the best intentions to write about all of them.  And I'm nearly finished with Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations.  So I realize that I had better get cracking with some shorter write-ups if I am to write anything at all before I forget my impressions.

Doris Grumbach is a much respected American novelist, memoirist, and literary critic. She served as literary editor at The New Republic in the 1970s, but is little-heard-of these days.  If you check out her very interesting biography, at 94 years of age she still runs Wayward Books with her partner.  This was my second reading of her novel Chamber Music, originally published in 1979 (2008, Pushcart Press), and my respect for its convincing first-person voice, restrained passion, and plainspoken diction was only increased by a second look.
I write this, then, because I am freed by my survival into extreme old age, and because I write in the air of freer times.  Whether this air is entirely salutary, whether the old must of chests, of closets, bell jars, and horsehair sofas is not a better climate for the storage of the private life, I do not know.  But I tire very quickly these days and must speak openly, for once.  I am now free.  Extraordinary for me, and for one of my time, I intend to put down extraordinary truths.
I stress the believability of the narrative voice because, although Grumbach was like the narrator of Chamber Music - she wrote as a lesbian who was born into a more constrained era but lived into the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s (still ongoing).  Grumbach too married a man in her youth and was late to come into herself.  But Grumbach was only 60 when she wrote in the voice of the 90-year-old Caroline McClaren, wife of the famous American composer Robert McClaren.  Yet she creates a confessional tone and a context for writing which are so convincing that they will send you to your favorite search engine (I was going to say to the encyclopedia) to look up Robert McClaren's music and biographical details.   

This work offers the rare artistic accomplishment of wholeness.  Its pieces, its technique are integral, they never call attention to themselves - it achieves artistic integrity.  And via that form, Chamber Music conveys a subtle message of the human costs of living covertly because the societal majority has  conferred shame upon what you are.  And don't think that this is a purely contemporary concern.  It is, and in this novel it feels like it, a classic artistic subject - think of Jude the Obscure.  So the integrity of this novel's form reflects its content, which concerns living with integrity.  Lastly, is the pleasure of its tone - one of dignity and joy. This lesser-known novel and writer deserves a renaissance.  Consider reading Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Theatre - Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is certainly the most amiably nihilistic play ever written and is most appositely titled....With every exchange between the fencing lovers, the abyss glitters, and their mutual wit does not so much defend against other selves as it defends against meaninglessness. - Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Critics are fond of declaring the near impossibility of this play's swift switches from screwball comedy to tragedy, but I thought the current production at Theatre for a New Audience pulled them off admirably, largely because they didn't overplay what is supposed to be funny and the actor's were capable of being moved by the seriousness of their characters' predicaments. Maggie Siff and Jonathan Cake (above) as Beatrice and Benedick were particularly strong.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Theatre - Old Hats

Old Hats is a delightful vaudeville from master clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner with music by Nellie McKay (dir. Tina Landau).  It's classic clowning but there's nothing old hat about it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Film - Out of The Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947, dir Jacques Tourneur).  A man (Robert Mitchum) tries to escape his past (Kirk Douglas) but a femme fatale (Jane Greer) won't let him.  This film is classic noir and noir is not about second chances. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A modern novel of compassion and contradiction - (Books - A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki)

A Hello Kitty lunchbox, a ziplock bag containing what first appears to be a volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, some letters written in Japanese, more writing in French,and an unusual wristwatch wash up on the shores of a small coastal town in British Columbia. Ruth, a writer, finds this treasure trove while on a walk on the beach and assumes them to be the detritus of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Proust volume turns out to be a diary written in English by a Japanese teenager named Nao.  Her father loses his job and Nao enters a new school where she is brutally bullied and they both contemplate ending their lives.  Meanwhile, Ruth is trying to finish writing a book about her mother, whom she cared for during her last years with dementia. As sometimes happens when you get stuck in writing, the diary ends up looking much more interesting than the subject she meant to be writing about, and Ruth gets pulled into Nao's world which becomes more real to her than her own. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (Viking, 2013) plays with a few elements - narrative, time, and buddhism - yet it is a complex and rangy work.  I appreciate the copy sent to me by Viking/Penguin.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Film - Our Man in Havana (1959)

Noel Coward, Alec Guinness, and Burl Ives in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.  Political satire on Cold War spying, it was released just as Castro was seizing power.  It manages to be critical without being jaded because of its whimsy.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Film - Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

A guy places an ad because he wants a companion for time travel.  A magazine picks up on it and sends a team to write a story on him.  Safety Not Guaranteed (dir Colin Trevorrow) is an indie, totally-play-it-straight, completely un-jaded little surprise of a movie.  Dee-lightful, and it will keep you guessing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A revolution without a cause (Theatre - Neva by Guillermo Calderon)

Neva, by Chilean writer and director Guillermo Calderon, is about making drama in the context of revolution.  It is set in 1905, when the Czar's troops murdered civilians for demonstrating, an event that likely helped sow the seeds of the 1917 revolution. The great playwright Anton Chekhov has just died of tuberculosis.  His wife comes to St. Petersberg, still mourning him, to rehearse his Cherry Orchard.  What is the meaning of their drama made of personal loss and love when there is real drama, with life and death stakes, taking place in the street outside?  The actors demand scenes of each other, they concoct emotions from fantasy in order to escape the pain of their lives.  Then they just a quickly knock their fantasies down, criticize each other, and turn to gossip.  The turn-on-a-dime rollercoaster ride demanded of the cast would provide for tour-de-force peformances, but the cast is a little long on effort and a little short on real feeling.  The question of the uses of drama is a provocative one to ask in a theatre, with your play as the means of asking it, but I imagine it would have been very different to ask it in Chile. Because here one has no revolutions in the street. People make fortunes to live in Brooklyn, stress about their carbon footprints, and dress like they play for a grunge band.  The disjointed Occupy Wall Street movement lasted, what - five minutes - and disappeared in time for the election. Caldeon's demand of emotional acrobatics and effects like cold, rapid-fire delivery, and mock over-dramatization would have been useful foils in actors and for a public who are already charged with political emotion.  But here, where most people come to escape fighting for their ideals so that they can earn a living, and where artists mostly romanticize being political, what you end up seeing is the strain of these artists to be filled with meaning. Calderon would have needed to alter this production for our political and social context but was evidently not able to.  As a result, I could see what he wrote, but don't think this production gave us his play at all.