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Literature good and bad, theater,and really.

Updated: 2018-02-17T09:49:53.409-05:00


The Great Championer of Art (Books - Kenneth Clark: Life, Art, and Civilisation by James Stourton)


Kenneth Clark, I think it is safe to say, was the most influential championer of art of his time.  Art consultant to King George VI, Director of Britain's National Gallery at just 29 years-of-age, Clark maintained this role through World War II, and although the paintings were removed to protect them from German bombs, he made the museum a rallying place to bolster the spirits of the people via art and music programming.  Art as an antidote to war  - the antithesis to American president's decision this past week to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts in favor of military spending. Clark was also creator of Independent Television - an alternative to the BBC, and is probably best remembered as creator and host of the landmark television series Civilisation, made in 1969.  He was friend and patron of many artists and writers the likes of Duncan Grant, John Betjeman, and Henry Moore.  It is easy to see why James Stourton was drawn to write Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) with such a compelling subject.

Stourton was thorough with the timeline of events, comprehensive in chronicling Clark's many relationships with artists, royalty and paramours, and complex in revealing his subjects contradictions - a mind described as cold and hard as a diamond, yet a nature passionate enough to break down in tears as he narrated an episode of Civilisation on the steps of the church door at Wittenberg. This biography would have been helped by a clearer sense of time and place. Although Clark accomplished some of his most memorable acts in war-torn London, they seem no different from those that occurred in the 1950s or 1960s.  The decades slip by unnoticed, first the war, then the Ministry of Information and suddenly Clark is working in television.  I found myself looking back a few pages looking for the indication that as Clark's vitae was covered that happened in the context of a world whose politics, science, art and design changed.  We know that Clark made a call, wrote a letter, or sipped a drink, but the phone, the pen, the glass is invisible. If insulation from change was the point, this was unclear. The resulting biography was a series of deeds occurring in a vacuum, making a rich life feel strangely unanchored. 

What comes through in Strourton's book regardless is what Clark stood for. Clark quoted Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiography in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.  Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last."  Judging by this standard, the United States in 2017 will be remembered as thoughtless, illiterate, and impoverished.    

Personal Mysteries Drive Forward a Story of International Law (Books - East West Street by Philippe Sands)


Once known as "little Paris of the Ukraine," the city of Lemberg (also called Lwów, Lvov and Lviv, depending on the moment in history and who was doing the calling) figures prominently in Philippe Sands's East West Street (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).  Invited to deliver a lecture on international law at the University, he uses the opportunity to do a little research into family history, as it is the place of his maternal grandfather's birth.  In seeking answers to questions about his grandparents' immigration to Paris in 1938, he learns that three other men crossed paths in the city of Lviv. One was Hans Frank, a lawyer appointed by the Nazi's to run the Jewish ghetto, where he condemned its entire Jewish population to death.  The other two men both figured prominently in Sands's own profession, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, Both studied law in Lviv, they event studied under the same professor, and both invented key mechanisms of international law used today.Lauterpacht conceived of crimes against humanity, which he saw as an internationally applied mechanism that uses principles of national law to protect the well-being of individuals against acts by the country in which they reside, such as enslavement, deportation, torture, or murder.  Until this point the state was seen as an entity whose power was inviolate (some countries still see it this way) but Lauterpacht felt that the right of individuals to liberty and the pursuit of their pleasure was sacrosanct, and superceded a nation's sovereignty.  Lemkin invented the concept of genocide.  In fact, the word did not exist before he coined it.  It was as a law student that Lemkin first felt a sense of outrage towards the Turkish mass slaughter of Armenians.  "So it's a crime for  Tehlirian to strike down one man, but not a crime for that man to have struck down one million men," Lemkin is said to have asked?  Lemkin described the process via which the German state stripped Jews and others first of their nationality - severing them from the state, then dehumanizing them - removing their legal rights (since, being stateless, they no longer could claim the protection of the law), and finally by killing them spiritually, culturally, and eventually literally. Lemkin's concept was focused as a legal solution to this process, and so on crimes committed against groups rather than individuals.  During the Nuremberg trials following World War II, both he and Lauterpacht vied for the use of their mechanism in prosecuting Nazis.  The trial set the precedent for the trying and punishing of such offenses that were excused under the laws of their own countries, but seen as an outrage by broader humanitarian standards.  Mechanisms to carry out international justice have taken a long time to put into practice.  It was the late 1990s before international law had the teeth to punish individuals such as Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and August Pinochet, former president of Chile, for their crimes. What Sands does so effectively in this book is mix personal stories with what could be a fairly technical narrative about the origins of international law. The result could have made the personal anecdotes trivial or the legal history dry, but instead Sands's personal drive to find out the next detail about his grandfather becomes the narrative engine.  In the course of researching his book, Sands meets Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank (The Butcher of Poland).  Frank's participation enriches the book with a second personal story that adds layers of human introspection and sadness, as well as an authenticity to the consideration of Hans Frank's guilt.  Although the outcome of the Nuremberg trials was announced long ago, the pages leading up to the tribunal's decision is suspenseful - tracking the development of the application of international law in light of the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, I found myself caring deeply about whose legal work was applied and to t[...]

What is left when what we loved is gone? (Books - What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)


In the New York art world of the 1970s, art historian, Leo Hertzberg, experiences a powerful painting.  He buys it, beginning a friendship with the artist Bill Wechsler that is the center of What I Loved (Sceptre, 2016) Siri Hustvedt's deep, serious, and multifarious novel, first published in 2003 and recently released in a beautiful new softcover edition from Sceptre. What I Loved is about many things: art, love between friends, between lovers, spouses, parents and children, and it is also very much about loss - as the title presages.  It is Hustvedt's accomplishment that though this novel occurs over a span of thirty years, interrelating the psychology of hysteria and eating disorders, page-long descriptions of visual art, details of quotidian domestic existence and passionate infidelity, and moments of profound grief, and though it is told from the first-person perspective of a somewhat fusty art academic, you don't look at the brushwork.  The ins, outs, and intersections of theme, of characters and of what they make - because everyone is painting, drawing, writing essays, a dissertation, cooking a meal, staging a rave (these characters are nothing if not generative) - this welter of detail gives rise to a single complexity - a work of rich substance and of emotional heft. Art is mysterious, but selling art may be even more mysterious.  The object itself is bought and sold, handed from one person to another, and yet countless factors are at work within the transaction.  In order to grow in value, a work of art requires a particular psychological climate. At that moment, SoHo provided exactly the right amount of mental heat for art to thrive and for prices to soar. Expensive work from every period must be impregnated by the intangible - an idea of worth. This idea has the paradoxical effect of detaching the name of the artist from the thing, and the name becomes the commodity that is bought and sold. The object merely trails after the name as its solid proof.The distance Leo Hertzberg, the first-person narrator, is accustomed to keeping from his experiences - his sometimes pedantic explanations, his stoic voice - are, in fact, key to the reader's appreciation of the gestalt of this novel, as well as to be being moved by it.  A good art historian or critic's eye is trained to see how pieces form a whole, how small gestures lead to large impacts.  That perspective helps us pull together the idea of what a painting or play or book accomplishes - to give words to the process behind what has happened to us in the appreciation of a work. Many people don't care to look further than what has happened to them, but if you do, then a good critic can become a valuable guide.For all the intelligence and deliberateness Hustvedt gives Leo, she also gives him a beautiful, unsophisticated quirk.  Leo has a private drawer where he keeps objects - talismans of profound moments and relationships. As his life progresses and his losses grow, that drawer becomes more and more full. What goes into it would be unlikely to have the same value to anyone else.  The excerpt that I quoted from the novel may be speaking about art as a commodity, but it is indeed "an idea of worth" that gives anything its value. Life is full of millions of bits of information, things we must do, things we have done, but when something pierces through the membrane of consciousness, it leaves behind something that is not the thing itself, but a symbol of it.  This is what art does, and really we hang onto a rock, a ticket stub, or a pocket knife for the same reason. It becomes endowed with and speaks to an experience that has formed us.  It lets us be touched by it all over again.What Hustvedt also weaves in to the story in a profound way is the subject of mental illness - she explores more than one illness of the psyche which, in the context of this novel, I couldn't help but experience as analogous to these objects of memory.  The illness [...]

A harpist for whom someone else pulls the strings (Books - The Extra by A. B. Yehoshua)


A. B. Yehoshua is one of just a few Israeli writers, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman, whose novels are regularly translated and make their way to the U.S. I especially enjoyed his Mr. Mani, a sweeping tale of six generations of a Sephardic family.  His latest The Extra trans. Stuart Schoffman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) concerns Noga, an Israeli-born harpist, living in Holland.  Following her father's death, her brother wishes their mother to leave her Jerusalem apartment and move to an assisted living facility near his home. His mother resists, so a compromise is reached - she will try out the facility for three months.  Through a quirk of the law, she risks losing her Jerusalem apartment if it is not occupied by a member of the family, so Noga is asked to take a leave from her job with a Dutch orchestra and stay in Jerusalem for that period. I have experienced Yehoshua's exploration of themes of responsibility, family, and how they intersect with professional life in other works.  He is especially skilled at writing a credible family relationships - complete with the way childhood patterns make their way into adulthood, their obfuscation, their guilt.  What I enjoyed especially in this novel is that Noga's brother finds her work as an extra in film and television projects.  During her time in Jerusalem, as Noga mourns her recently deceased father, and is forced to confront her ex-husband and revisit the disagreements they had about whether to have children. The concept of this novel conceives of her Jerusalem stay as a sustained fantasy during which she tries on all sorts of different characters but is always in the background of someone else's story. All the ingredients are here for a splendid creation and yet, they don't add up.  Several aspects of the novel fell short for me, the biggest was the premise.  Yehoshua tries his darnedest to compel Noga's presence in Jerusalem, to trap her there in order to create the sense of being trapped, of life-suspended, but I did not find the peculiar residence statute convincing (and for all I know, it's true).  In some ways, Yehoshua worked too hard.  I might have been more convinced had Noga compelled herself to stay, rather than make is the fault of her brother, or the fault of the law.  Then the weirdness of the dream-like-period of her life would have been of her own making. Here it seemed a borrowed reality and, when she left it, she would escape.  Part of the plot rides on Noga's revisiting her decision to not have children.  She faces a tribunal of opinion - her ex-husband's, her father's, her mother's - about a decision which was ultimately her own.  This was hardly lacking in reality but I found the tone strangely judgmental, as though she could have made the "right" decision and did not.  The most constant impediment to my appreciation of the novel was the translation.  The prose was dated and clunky, and the dialogue particularly stilted, especially given the relatively young age of the central character.  Using the job of an extra as a device in this story made my mind (unsurprisingly) to the job of acting.  The skeleton of one's part is determined by others - writers, directors.  But it is the job of the actor to create a person with agency who is eternally confronting something new.  Noga seemed to have no agency and as a result, her performance was uncompelling - a harpist, who makes an unplanned detour as an actress, but for whom someone else is pulling the strings.[...]

The Consequences of Betrayal (Books - Exposure by Helen Dunmore)


Helen Dunmore's Exposure (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) is a gently genre-defying novel - a deep and satisfying story of relationships posing as a cold war spy novel.  It  is as if someone were filming an espionage thriller and this is the story from the backstage perspective.  The actor makes his entrance into the office to be challenged on the missing pages from the dossier, but you, the reader, are watching him as he prepares off-set, smooth back his hair prior to his entrance, and when he enters to play the scene, instead of focusing on the written dialogue, you hear a voice-over of what he is thinking while playing the scene. Since this is the obverse of an espionage novel, the plot as such is not the point, but... it is the 1960s. Lily's husband, Simon, who works a mid-level job for British Intelligence, is asked by his superior, Giles, to return a sensitive file when Giles unexpectedly lands in the hospital.  Lily unwittingly discovers it and buries it to protect her husband.  Simon is just unimportant enough in the power hierarchy, and the file just important enough, that he becomes a scapegoat when its disappearance must be covered up. He home is searched. He is carted off, awaiting a courtroom trial in a jail cell and Lily and her children gradually become ostracized.Lily came to England as a German Jewish refugee pre-World War II.  As she struggles to protect her young children from the fallout of her husband's disgrace, her own memories of being a child in a threatening situation of which she has a limited understanding surface.  Lily's mother speaking to her in German flows into the next sentence in which Lily speaks to her own children. Dunmore frames the novel with Simon's memory of being tormented by his brothers as a child for being different from them.   Dunmore does not announce these shifts and the result is a beautifully complex narrative that layers past and present seamlessly. That seamlessness is essential in this novel about the impact of the past on the present.  This perspective affords the reader a viewpoint of innocence.  As we lose that innocence we learn that people are not only who they appear to be on the surface.  But it is not a permanent kind of learning, the past penetrates the present when the mind returns to that state in love, when we gain trust, the feeling that we know another.  That secure state is one of the allures of intimacy.  Each betrayal of that trust is a devastation.   This sort of betrayal is the subject of Dunmore's Exposure.  Her accomplishment is the subtle juxtaposition of personal with national betrayal.  The foundation of Cold War politics was mistrust - seeing duplicity everywhere.  This is especially sad for being born out of the carnage of World War II. When Lily reaches England after fleeing Germany, her mother says to her that they came to this new country so that she would never feel unsafe again. I read this while visiting the UK just following the Brexit vote,  One wonders if Lily and her mother would have found refuge had they tried to flee today.  It seems that we are again seeing betrayal everywhere.  Giles too time-travels through memory to earlier, more idyllic years, while ailing in the hospital, years in which he was in love.  Although Giles is a spy, his deception goes deeper than hiding his profession as Giles is gay.  Living in a country where this is criminalized, his deception is constant.  He not only betrays others, but also himself. As he lies in bed, Giles confronts his mortality or "Good old extinction," as he calls it.He dreams of falling from shocking heights, and wakes with a jolt, sweating, struggling for air.  Nurse Davies has left the bell within reach.  He puts his finger on it, but he doesn't push the button. He knows that he's breathless from panic, not want of oxygen. If he keeps ve[...]

Flat storytelling dulls new YA series (Book - Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel)


Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants (Del Rey, 2016) is the first volume of a planned YA fantasy series.  A young girl happens upon a giant hand at the bottom of a hole dug into the earth.  It is composed of an unidentifiable metal, is several thousand years old, and sits in a square shaft whose walls are painted with symbols. Fast forward 20 years and this girl has become a scientist who joins a team of quirky experts - military and scientific - who are charged to understand the origin and purpose of the hand. Has it been placed here for good or evil?  Who by, since humans were not known to be technologically advanced enough to build such an object 3,000 years ago?  Unfortunately, this potentially compelling story is told as a series of diary entries or interview transcripts, the result being chapters that explain what has already happened. The narrative is fast-moving, but dull because we are at a remove from the action of the story. It is full of pseudo-profundities about the power of ultimate destruction and international relations.  Even reading this during the Brexit vote while traveling in the UK did not conspire to ignite the kindling under these timely ideas.  Neuvel's attempt to create suspense by having the main interviewer of each of the characters stories be an invisible but powerful presence (think Charlie in Charlie's Angels) is his best idea, but falls flat due to a prose style that manages to feel too cute and show-offy.  Where Neuvel is most effective is in capturing the feeling of scientists at work on a problem.  The lab sequences ring true but aren't enough to drive me to read further in this series.

The Birth of a Narrative (Books - The Sky Over Lima by Juan Gómez Bárcena)


The debut novel of Spaniard Juan Gómez Bárcena - The Sky Over Lima (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) - is a mischievous, Escher-like paean to the power of the written word.  His protagonists are 20-year-old Carlos and José, the first the scion of an aristocratic family, the second of a nouveau-riche manufacturer.  Both are rich enough to rent a Parisian-like garret in their home city of Lima, and, although they live with their parents, go there to live out a fantasy of being great writers. They have a passionate crush on literature, playing a game in which every person they encounter is turned into a character in a great novel. Their law professor become's Tolsoy's Ivan Ilyich.  A woman of their acquaintance, Madam Bovary having lived into old age.  When they learn that Ramón Jiminéz, the Nobel-winning Spanish bard that they idolize, has published a volume not available in Peru, they struggle to write a letter that will convince him to send them a copy, unsatisfied with draft upon draft, until they realize:They must embellish reality, because in the end that is what poets do, and they are poets, or at least they've dreamed of being poets on many late nights like this one.  And that is exactly what they are about to do now: write the most difficult poem of all, one that has no verses but can touch the heart of a true artist. It starts out as a joke, but then it turns out it's not a joke.  One of the two say, almost idly, It would be easier if we were a beautiful woman, then Don Juan Ramón would put his entire soul into answering us, that violet soul of his - and then suddenly he stops, the two young men look at each other a moment, and almost unintentionally the mischief has already been made.  I'm not giving much away to say that they succeed and, for the rest of the novel, are driven to perpetuate the relationship, while being forced to deal with the consequences of manipulating a man's heart. What raises Gómez Bárcena's novel above being a one-trick pony is the self-aware game he plays with the act of writing. The young men must develop the character of Georgina - their young lady - in order to keep the great writer's interest.  They tire of letter-writing, realizing that the classic form for full-blooded romance is that of the novel.  As they weave the plot and craft the novel's structure, the reader becomes aware that that novel runs parallel with the novel we are reading. There are times it becomes difficult to separate Gómez Bárcena's enthusiasm for literature from that of his protagonists.  He explains his thesis a few too many times: Do you not also, when you look upon the world, feel that it is made from the stuff of literature.or"Open your eyes, my friend; love, as you understand it, was invented by literature, just as Goethe gave suicide to the Germans.  We don't write novels; novels write us."  What separates the author's passion from his protagonists is what he does with it.  He constructs layers between the narrative world of the characters, and the one invented by Gómez Bárcena which is far more self-aware.  One is the literal distance between the time in which the novel is set - 1904 - and our own.  The era is vital to the novel because there is no internet via which one can track down any book one wants. There is no telephone, email, or text.  When one corresponds, one writes a letter on a sheet of paper in isolation and waits for a response.  Our author clearly maintains a boyish romanticism about this time and its literature, but one thing remains pointedly the same: whether you are writing a letter, texting or, for that matter, blogging, it is through language one creates persona.  You may read me believing that I am a man who does theatre or neuroscience and who lives in New York, but, unless you know me, you only believe that because[...]

One Immigrant Who Made America Great (Books - Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow)


I'm not sure that Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Books, 2004) the bestselling biography and basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical phenom needs any more hype, but here it goes. Chernow's book is a monument to one of America's most personally complex and influential founding figures.  It is lengthy not because Chernow, as is often the case in modern biographers, can't manage to make choices about which bits of his research to share -- a toenails-and-all approach -- but because he integrates his subject's story with necessary personal and historical context.  One cannot understand either the sheer amount of Hamilton's contribution to modern America: its constitution, party system, how voters are represented, how the state and federal governments relate, the system of checks and balances - nor the weight of these contributions, without understanding his role in the Revolutionary war, his relationship to George Washington (and by extension, who our first general and president was), and the opposition Hamilton faced from Thomas Jefferson (and who he was), James Madison (ditto), John Adams (ditto), and Aaron Burr (ditto), and having an overview of his most influential work The Federalist Papers.What is makes Alexander Hamilton a great biography for this time, perhaps even more than for the one in which it was written 12 years ago, is that it captures the quintessential American story as a function of personal identity. A poor, immigrant, possibly of mixed race, born out-of-wedlock -- everything that a large section of today's political establishment abhors -- comes to America, gets himself an education, and rises through the ranks by working his tail off to end up co-creating our Constitution, our governmental and electoral systems, single-handedly creating our Coast Guard, our first bank, and the basis of our entire modern economic system.  If present-day governors of numerous American states would like to know how public higher education contributes to the good of industry, economy, and state and why it should be government's duty to generously fund it - I cannot think of a better argument than Hamilton's life story.Chernow's story of Hamilton is timeless.  The story of America, given its pitiless subjugation of the people native to its soil,  has always been the story of immigrants - this includes some of our founding fathers. They needed support to get started in life.  It is striking that the press supporting the political party in opposition to Hamilton also decried his foreign birth, his racial identity, and his illegitimacy.  Plus ca change.  Reading Alexander Hamilton is comforting in the context of the current election. It is a relief to read that the men who appear on our money and to whose homes we made trips in third grade, were ruthless shits to each other, baldly lied about each others' records, manipulated the press, and spread rumors about each others personal lives. With all the energy Jefferson spent vilifying Hamilton, it is surprising that he got anything else done.  In addition, Chernow's book is simply good story telling.  He frames the 700-page volume with the story of Hamilton's widow, who outlives her beloved, short-lived husband by fifty years. This not only touchingly plucks at the heartstrings -- reminding us of Hamilton's humanity, how one person's life effects many others -- it also exemplifies biography as a narrative crafted of many accounts. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton reconstructed her husband's life through the veil of romance and grief.  Newspaper accounts at the time jeered at Hamilton's rumored sympathy for the British and his personal infidelities.  These are in turn unified by the point-of-view of the biographer in his own time.  We add up only to what other people make of us. [...]

Small bombs, large impacts, no simple explanations (Books - The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan)


In Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016), three boys set out on an errand one afternoon in Delhi. Only one of them returns.  Tushar and Nakul, brothers, are hindu. They are killed by a terrorist's bomb. Their friend, Mansoor, is muslim. He survives, but with physical and emotional scars.  Mahajan writes of the origins and the consequences of such "small" acts of devastation.  They are perpetuated by just one or two individuals. The bombs are built with easily found materials and fit neatly in backpacks. The political perspective of the perpetrator and the pain of the survivors are similar in their intense myopia, but, as Mahajan writes:The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later.  A good bombing begins everywhere at once.A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult.  A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling cars and sloping beggars...The origin of such acts is dispersed among thousands of indignities.  The bombers act from ideology, pain, friendship, faith, ignorance, vengeance.  They end up building, planning, financing, or otherwise helping by intention, and seemingly also by accident.  The coexistence of the paradoxical everything-at-once-ness and the intense myopia is disorienting. Mahajan's lens pulls back to envision a network of antecedents so broad that the relationships between the people, motivations, and events seem like particle physics.  It is the novel's form, alternating between the stories of the victims and the bombers, that communicates the wide-shot. Then Mahajan tightens down so closely, that we breathe more shallowly as we read.  His prose fashions a tight, distinctive viewpoint via focus on off-kilter details: how Tushar and Nakul's parents lie about the errand on which they sent the boys, saying they were picking up a watch rather than a repaired television set, so that their poverty won't be obvious and they won't be perceived as irresponsible parents. Vikas, the father, thinks that if only he had chosen to be an accountant, as his family had hoped, rather than a documentarian, his children would have lived. At one particularly poignant moment, Vikas imagines himself as the bomb. Ayub, a friend of the adult Mansoor, becomes active in a political movement as much for philosophical reasons as because his girlfriend broke up with him, a scene that is poignant not for a classic fight, but for the reason she gives him: "I don't like your smell."Mahajan's prose is littered with awkward and idiosyncratic observations, creating an intimacy with his subjects that is tender and humane.  His writing is eloquent without being showy, deft at choosing a verb that characterizes through action, dispensing with the need to "describe" at all."It depends on the lawyer, madam," sniffled the policeman.The casting director knows exactly the kind of actor he is looking for the role with the use of that verb.The Association of Small Bombs uses imagination to try to understand those who commit acts of terrorism and those who suffer its consequences.  It offers no excuses, neither does it oversimplify the motives, preach, nor blame. As such, it is a compassionate book, important for offering its perspective in our time.[...]

People are more than objects in space (Books - A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin)


Ethan Canin was already one of my favorite authors for having written For Kings and Planets, and I have frequently recommended his The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air.  With A Doubter's Almanac (Random House, 2016) Canin has written a "great" book, in the sense of giving expression to profound experiences, and also, I believe, in creating something whose meaning extends beyond its exemplars - the concerns of these specific characters, the obsessions of the period in which it was written - and has the potential to be enduring. Time will tell on that second point.In some ways, Canin is writing about the same things he has always written - fathers and sons, success and failure, gut-smarts and brains - all within the scopes of the grandest of considerations: time and space.  Time as it is experienced on a human scale, through one generation of a family experiencing another.  Three generations of the Andret family are the focus of this novel.  Space as it is described by a branch of mathematics called topology, which studies the interrelation of things, though not on the level they are visible in nature, on a hypothetical level of multiple dimensions. This is the focus of the work of Canin's protagonist, Milo Andret, who may be a genius in using math to describe such relationships but is profoundly disabled in forming a typical human bonds and severely limited even in insight into himself.  In one scene, Canin describes Milo as having to touch his own face to understand that he was smiling.One might call Milo a tyrant, or perhaps Aspergery for his combination of extreme intelligence and narrow focus.  One can lay some blame on his severe addiction to alcohol, but Canin, despite his medical degree, resists the neatness of diagnoses.  Milo Andret is clearly a horrible father, husband, and co-worker, but not because he is a horrible man.  He is a brilliant thinker, a skilled artist, vulnerable to love and to doubt. The strength of Canin's narrative is his rendering of the struggle between the irreconcilable parts of human beings, and never has that been clearer than in A Doubter's Almanac: Milo Andret is artist and mathematician, lover and loner, award winning genius and abject failure, child and father and grandfather.      Canin occasionally seems to doubt the clarity of his message and over-explains himself.It was as though he didn't see the object he was drawing but the entire array of space instead - all things that were the object and all things that were not the object - with equal emphasis.  It was symptomatic of something he'd noticed in himself since childhood - an inability to take normal heed of his senses, the way other people did as they instinctually navigated a course of being.  In this way, it was like mathematics itself: the supremacy of axiom over experience. But for the most part, his narrative, told from two different points of view, is strongly enveloping. Canin's earlier, shorter fiction has always struck me as impressive in giving voice to characters that would seem to be outside the wisdom of a younger man.  Now, as a mature writer, he skillfully uses the sweep of a full-length work to look across the multiple perspectives of the son and the father.  He imagines a long-suffering mother and wife's perspective, as well as two generations of daughters.  It is the breadth of imagination that makes this a great book.  Canin gets inside the feeling of success or failure both as Milo perceives it in himself and as it is perceived by his son Hans, who, in turn, fears that he may perceive it in his own children.  It is only in the accumulation of wisdom across generations that the characters to gain richer understandings of each other.  Hans knows, for i[...]

The hyperfocus of life during illness, and the book as immersive technology (Books - Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher)


Scarred Hearts (Old Street Publishing) by Max Blecher was first published in Romanian in 1937, but did not reach English readers until 2008. The novel is set in a sanatorium in France, describing life there for tuberculosis patients.  Although written in the third-person, Emanuel is clearly a stand-in for Blecher himself, who was diagnosed with Pott's Disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, at age 19.  Treatment for this condition at that time immobilized patients in body-casts.  They lay on their backs in special carriages which could be wheeled around in by people or horses, adding infantilization to their list of indignities.  What is striking in this novel is that, in the face of death on a daily basis, most of Blecher's vividly drawn characters are still focused squarely on the banalities of daily living.  Blecher writes in an adolescently effusive tone of Emanuel's lust, jealousy, urge to relieve the itching under his body cast, or his embarrassment at the smell of his body, given his limited ability to wash. That is not to say that he ignored pain, loss of function, or mortality, but the narrative style focuses less on the moment-to-moment shame of it than it does on the absurdity.  When 19-year-old Emanuel learns of his diagnosis he writes:So many horrific things had occurred, so sententiously and so calmly, during the last hour; so much catastrophe had taken place, that, exhausted as he was by the day's excitement, for a delirious, irrational moment Emanuel felt like laughing. As he rides the train with his father to Berck Sanatorium, Emanuel meets an old lady whose son is a long-time patient.  She asks if he has an abscess?  'Yes, I do,' Emanuel replied with a certain brusqueness. 'What's it to you?'This time the old lady said nothing. In the calligraphy of  wrinkles on her face there was a clear sign of some great sadness.  In a half-voice she ventured to ask if the abscess had been fistulised...'It's a good thing the abscess is not fistulised,' muttered the old lady.'And if it were?' replied Emanuel absently.'Ah well, then it's another matter...' and leaning into his ear she whispered breathlessly: 'The word at Berck is that an open abscess is an open gateway to death.'Blecher's narrative pulls us inside the hyperfocus of a life commanded by illness.  Today we celebrate technologies like virtual reality that are supposedly unique for immersing viewers in a full sensory experience of, say, sitting in the cockpit of a plane or walking across a battlefield, but Blecher's writing reminds one that books can be equally effective at enveloping the reader in the sensations of an experience that are not actually occurring to them.In this book, context is all. Blecher immerses us first in the immediate urgency of a young man's crippling illness, once that is achieved, the impact of this brief novel succeeds because we know two things, only one of which was known to Blecher.  One is the tragedy that the author would die at 29 years-of-age, something we are aware of as his character worries about his appearance before meeting a girl he is infatuated with.  Don't waste time, I wanted to scream as I read, but he struggles any young lover would, despite being tied to a carriage and immobilized in a body cast.  The second is the absurdity, that, given the year of Blecher's death (1938), he would never see the war which would focus the entire world myopically on an infection of its own and that, if he hadn't died of tuberculosis, as a Romanian jew, he would likely not have lived but a few more years. [...]

Innocence rescued in a modern literary fantasy (Books - The Children's Home by Charles Lambert)


I am a great admirer of Charles Lambert's books, having enjoyed his thriller-like works Any Human Face and The View from the Tower, his debut novel Little Monsters, and With a Zero at its Heart, a recent volume of brief poem-like episodes of memory, surprising to me for how they departed in style from his other published work. Never short on surprises, Lambert's latest is again a departure - I'd call The Children's Home (Scribner, 2016) equal parts dystopian fantasy, gothic tale, and parable. Reading across Lambert's work, I have observed a theme of betrayed innocence, which has been expressed in a story of disenfranchised children. Unlucky orphans have made their way into stories from Dickens to J. K. Rowling.  I think that perhaps one appeal in tales like these is that, as a reader, I take on the perspective of that child.  I can project my own not-knowing, my isolation, and sense of danger onto theirs - feel the risk, but safely, as this is art - and then later can defeat the adversity, feeling accomplished, knowledgeable, and secure. 

In The Children's Home, though, Lambert has turned the form on its ear (not surprisingly).  Here the protagonist, Morgan Fletcher, is a grown man - but perhaps not fully grown - and this is part of the point.  He has been the victim of his mother's cruelty and has quite literally lost his face (read his sense of self).  In the course of this story, it is a child, or band of children really, who help him grow up. The tale makes nods to literary predecessors - Orwell and Kafka - with a nameless Ministry that sates itself by devouring children - H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison - with a protagonist whose interior and exterior faces are very much at odds. I think that I detect an homage to Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, perhaps?  As a thriller writer, Lambert knows how to create narrative tension by not answering all the reader's questions.  As a poet, he holds back from explaining everything the reader wants to know, so that we insert our imaginations into the text.  In Lambert's fantasy writing, the world is familiar and yet never quite what one expects (the sun rises in the West, for example) and the clues are subtle.  It feels a very Lambertian reading experience that in paying close attention, this reader felt that he had teased out special details hidden just for him, felt rewarded, even accomplished, at the conclusion of The Children's Home.

Alexander Humboldt's broadreaching influence on modern science (Books - The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf)


Andrea Wulf's biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) shares the irrepresable energy of her subject. Wulf convincingly contends that the German-born explorer, adventurer, scientist, and author (1769 - 1859) was the creator of our modern understanding of the natural world. His interests extended from volcanoes to plant-life, to climate, to the cosmos and his influence can be seen in the way we comprehend nature as something not to be ruled, but as something that human beings exist within - something complex and "alive." Humboldt is an ideal subject for reconsideration in a modern scientific biography.  Wulf paints a picture of Humboldt as a contemporary outsider, offering strong support that he was gay.  He warned in the 19th century of the impact humans could exert on climate. Finally, his expertise of the natural world was preserved in dozens of volumes that were appreciated as much as repositories of factual information as they were for their poetry. This passion helped father the contemporary environmental movement, influencing naturalists Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir.  It can arguably be appreciated in our own era's melding of the arts and sciences in an effort to broaden understanding of our small place but potentially devastating impact in a very large and complex system.

Bloomsbury myth-busting of the highest order (Books - Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Viviane Forrester)


Viviane Forrester's Virginia Woolf: A Portrait (Columbia University Press, 2013), in 2013  is less strictly a biography than it is a literary myth-buster.  If you are a fan of all things Bloomsbury, and I am an enthusiastic one, you are likely to be fascinated by new primary source material about Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Duckworths.  She uses this, a close reading of long-published letters, diaries and fiction, and a fresh frame-of-reference to reinterpret the famous relationships of Virginia Woolf to her father, husband, sister, and her own psyche. Her writing style is familiar and conversational, like a good literature professor leading a high-level seminar to share an original understanding of work she has reconsidered deeply.  I don't know what it would be like to read this work without having a thorough grounding in Woolf's work, Leonard Woolf's diaries, and the famous Quentin Bell biography of  Virginia Woolf, but I imagine it would be pointless. However, if you are an aficionado, the literary archeology is excellent, the writing accessible and clean, and the conclusions startling.  

The science of autism is a story of real people (Books - In a Different Key by John Donvan & Caren Zucker)


Ruth had stopped doubting herself the morning she saw Joe do a jigsaw puzzle upside down.  For some time, she had been nagged by a feeling that he was not like her other children in some crucial way.  Six months earlier, Joe had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally...And then there were these puzzles.  He was working on one just then, a map of the United States whose parts were sprawled, like him, all over the kitchen floor and through the doorway into the living room.  He was getting it done: New Hampshire met Maine, and New Mexico snapped in next to Arizona.  But he was getting it done fast, almost too fast, Ruth felt, for a two-year-old.  On a hunch, she knelt down to Joe's level and pulled the map apart, scattering the pieces. She also, deliberately, turned each piece upside down, so that only the gray-brown backing was showing.  Then she watched what Joe did with themHe seemed not even to notice.  Pausing only for a moment, Joe peered into the pile of pieces, then reached for two of them.  They were a match.  He immediately snapped them together, backside-up, between his knees on the floor.  It was his new starting point.  From there he kept going, building, in lifeless monochrome, out of fifty pieces, a picture of nothing. What John Donvan's and Caren Zucker's In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (Crown Publishers, 2016) is especially good at, is conveying a picture of autism historically, scientifically, and socially, by telling the stories of the people involved.  One in 68 children have a diagnosis, so it's hard to live in today's America without hearing about autism.  Understood as a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder, it is diagnosed based on impairments in communication, especially social relatedness, and a restricted repertoire of activity and interests. The dysfunctions it results in manifest themselves in different persons as impaired eye contact, failure to develop peer relationships, an absence of or delay in developing communicative speech, an inability to conceive of other people's mental states or emotions, lack of spontaneous imaginative play, inflexible adherence to routines which are disruptive to daily functioning, and persistent preoccupation with part of objects rather than their conventional uses, symptoms which must be present prior to three years-of-age to be diagnostically relevant and which often are noticed suddenly, after a period of apparently typical development.Autism is characterized as a spectrum of disorders (ASD).  In addition to the diagnostic criteria listed above, also seen are so-called savant skills in calculation or music, epilepsy, tics, gastrointestinal disturbances, psychiatric disorders, attentional dysfunction, toe-walking, and hyper- and hypo-sensitivities to sound, touch, smell - any sensory stimuli.  The variety of characteristics across individuals with the more disabling symptoms overlap with behavioral and learning disorders and psychiatric illnesses, and the less disruptive end of the spectrum can be difficult to distinguish from variations within neurotypical persons.  In the absence of a biological marker - a measurable indicator such as a gene, antibody, or microbe that conforms to the presence of a physiological condition - the diagnosis of ASD can be challenging, and includes a subjective judgment by the person making the diagnosis.  It is unknown whether the individuals who are now grouped under this single spectrum umbrella will turn out to have one or several markers when the biology of the syndrome is better understood.My PhD res[...]

The Unexpected World of Cage Fighting and What It has to Do With Us (Books - Beast by Doug Merlino)


I am as guilty of it as the next person - reading for comfort.  Either we read about worlds with which we are familiar or, and I think worse, to confirm what we believe we already know. I say 'what we believe we know' because that's the risk - isn't it? That we might learn something new, or that we might change our minds, and sometimes that comes in unexpected packages. I read Doug Merlin's Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) because Doug is a friend and, frankly, would never have read it if left to my own reading habits. I'm glad that I did.
Jeff Monson was, as usual, running late.  He was trying to get his two-year-old daughter, Willow, to eat.

"Here comes the plane, Willow," he said in a singsong voice, holding out a spoon to the girl, who was sitting in her high chair. "Are you ready for the plane?"

Willow threw back her head, covered in red curly hair, laughed, and refused.

Monson wore shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt that stretched to cover his muscled frame.  His head, which rose out of a triangular based of trapezius muscle, was bald.  FIGHT was tattooed on the left side of his neck, directly above an exhortation to DESTROY AUTHORITY.
Not exactly the start you expect from a book with the words 'Blood' and 'Mixed Martial Arts' in the subtitle, but that's Merlino's point. This is a book about the world of cage fighting, which is exactly what it sounds like - a brutal form of combat for entertainment that takes place in the confines of a cage - but really, it is the story of men and women in and around the world of cage fighting, how they came to be there, and of their extraordinary drive and sacrifice in the face of pain and humiliation.  One was a refugee of a war torn home, another a veteran of American war, for another it seemed like the only chance to rise from poverty.  Aside from a brief history of the rise of the martial arts in the U.S., Merlino surrounds his hard-edged portraits with a narrative that is concerned with answering the question - why should we care.  It is here that his book has the most to offer the naive reader.  The thrust of Beast is the idea of the cage as a forum for assertiveness and rage, emotions, Merlino contends, that modern American society, particularly males, are expected to avoid.  Most of us encompass the range of human emotions and meeting someone with the words DESTROY AUTHORITY tattooed on their skin is not a guarantee that you are meeting a subhuman monster.

Coming of age in the footlights (Books - The Little Shadows - by Marina Endicott)


Award-winning Canadian novelist Marina Endicott is not widely known in the U.S., but she deserves to be. Her The Little Shadows (Doubleday Canada, 2011) is an entertaining, coming-of-age saga of three sisters, Aurora, Clover, and Bella, working for their supper on the vaudeville circuit circa 1912 with their widowed mother.  Aside from simply being a good story, there were three things I particularly enjoyed about The Little Shadows.This is a coming-of-age story about women rather than men, which is still a literary rarity.  When it begins, the emphasis is on the sisters' act, how they function as one, as their survival depends upon its success.  But as they mature, they become individuals as artists and women.  The joy of the plot is tracing the development of their characters and how their talents shape them to be the women they become.Endicott has an obvious love for the setting, and all things theatrical:  In the enfolding darkness of the wings, Aurora reaches out her hand on one side to find Clover's thin one; on the other Bella's,  small and strong.  Their warm clasp stills her trembling.Silver-shelled footlights snap a scalloped arc of light onto the main curtain.  Fresh red velvet: crimson lake, bright blood, the colour of love.  Murmurs cease as the violins come creaking into tune, their mild excitable cacophony resolving into sense and meaning, into A, the one note they all seek.  In the audience, silence falls. The cessation of visiting, the folding of programmes, the last adjustment to the seats. and for the people in it:Stuck at the top of the basement steps, Clover waited while Julius Foster Konigsburg climbed up painfully, stopping from time to time to crack,a deep, throat-adjusting cough.As he climbed she went to the props man's area to fetch him a paper cup of water from the jug kept there.  When he reached the landing, Julius took the cup and drained it down before attempting the flight of steps up to the stage.'Just a snatch of water, thank you - a paper cup - like drinking from a letter.'  He coughed hugely again. 'Well, I'm off.  All new material, naturally, stolen from the greatest modern masters.  If I use anything of yours, dear miss, I will pay you five cents.' 'Like drinking from a letter.' Self delusion is a talent for the stage, even if it is a liability in everyday life, although in some situations we all resort to imagination to survive. This is the theme of Endicott's novel, in a nutshell.  Working in the theatre myself, I recognize in this novel the behavioral tropes, the 'types' you still see in every company of performers and admired the love with which Endicott rendered them and the knowledgeable way she fashioned characters who exist between the poles of magic-inspiration-emotion and technique-structure-sheer sweat. The lyrical tone with which she infused her narrative voice, felt as though it could easily transfer to voice-over:Bella thought Camrose was no kind of a town.  A little spot on the blank earth, two streets, dirt blown bare of snow.  Still, a certain lightness of heart came with being nomads again. Finally, Endicott uses the songs, dances, routines - the artifice of vaudeville - to structure and season her story in a clever way.  Short chapters are preceded by titles - King of Whiskeys, Her Beaux Yeux - like cards on easels introducing the next song or sketch in a the lineup.  Each larger section of chapters offers instruction from memoirs or manuals of vaudeville performers.  One, How to Enter Vaudeville, advises Practice alone before a[...]

A tale of coming together while coming apart (Books - Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy)


In Sleeping on Jupiter (2015, Hachette India) Anuradha Roy creates a tale of convergences.  An Indian girl, Nomi, is orphaned when her parents are slaughtered in war. She is given refuge in an ashram, where she is sexually abused by the guru, after which she is adopted by a European woman and raised in Scandanavia.  As a young woman she returns to India, to Jarmuli, the seaside town where the Ashram was located.  Three older women, good friends, go on a long-planned trip to the same seaside town -  a well-earned but final fun weekend, as one of them is becoming infirm.  They make a pilgrimage to Jarmuli's famous temple. At the same time, one of the older women's sons has also made his way to Jarmuli for work, following the break-up of his marriage.  And a young man tries to earn enough money to escape from under the abusive thumb of his uncle by working as a temple guide. These characters come to Jarmuli, some from darkness in their past, some with present woes.  Their meeting is meant to have a redemptive ring to it, but Roy's beautiful lyrical prose doesn't seem to raise the convergence above coincidence. I found the writing uneven.  Roy's strong suit was creating characters in fascinating states of mind.  Gouri, one of the older women is in the early stages of dementia.  Roy's evocative prose could at times allow the disease state to double as a dream-like, religious serenity, but at others, pedantic explanations made it mundane.How had she confused her hotel room with her home in Calcutta?  And if she could not remember which city she was in, could she ever be left alone?  What future was in store for her now. Roy was at her best evoking sensual details of person and place:...she noticed a man selling tea and the musky smell of rain-wet earth in tea served in clay cups came back to her.  She could not remember when she had last had tea smelling of rain.  She told herself she would get at least three cups right away to make up. The various storylines intersect at the tea stall of a man called Johnny Toppo, who may or may not have once been at the same ashram as Nomi. Although the other characters are burdened by some aspect of their lives, Johnny embodies a lightness of being."I sell tea, I was born ten years after the great earthquake in Bihar, I live in a tarpaulin shack, I have nobody, nothing to worry about, nothing to lose.  I'm happy I' above the water and below the sky and I've got beeris to smoke and a half-bottle to drink.  I know from the songs in my head that I used to have another life long ago.  That's all there is to say about me Babu."This novel contains the ingredients of redemptive tale about relationships - the coming together of people in pairs where power can mean protection or violence, where physical contact can be love or abuse, but in the end, Roy again decides to spell it out. "Look! On the other side of the creek.  How strange, in the water..." Vidya pointed at them."Is that man trying to kill him or save him?""I think the tall one is pushing the shorter one into the water.""No," said Latika, "I think the tall one is saving the other one from drowning.  I can't see that well in the dark..." Toppo, the tea seller, is the one character in the book for whom Roy conveys the embodiment of the spiritual freedom that is meant, I think, to be the paradoxical redemption in the story, but tellingly he is alone. [...]

Life is more than what we know (Books - In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman)


A well-to-do Londoner, his marriage and his job as an investment banker in ruins as the economy collapses in 2008, receives a visit.  Zafar, whom he knew in college, is of Bangladeshi birth, an orphan, a mathematical prodigy, an Oxford graduate, and a human rights lawyer. Agitated, traveling only with a backpack, Zafar arrives at our narrator's home and tells the remarkable story of how he came to be as he is now - a tale of contemporary Asian politics, English colonialism, and the Incompleteness Theorem of mathematician Kurt Godel. In In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014) story- telling itself is an important part of the story. Both who we are and how we're known, it explains, are narrative constructions.In conversation, I only see the man as he presents himself to me as he responds within the present and history that there is between him and me.  We are not each one person but number at least as many as those whom we know.    andMy thoughts and sense experience used to hop from one thing to another, as if the world was just coming at me with meaningless stimuli, one after another.  I couldn't latch on to a thought and then be carried by it as it moved into new territory.  To do that, I think you need a narrative self inside you connecting you with experience, telling you how you fit into the subjective encounter with what you're seeing and attaching whatever significance it might hold for you.  In those days, it was as if this narrative self had decided to go on vacation, leaving me without continuity of thought and feelingZafar is a keeper of notebooks and has recorded his story in great detail.  The dissolution of the narrator's marriage and job have left him with a lot of time on his hands to listen, to read the notebooks, and turn them into a book  In a third-person narrative the perspective of remove can allow the reader to feel like a first-hand witness to the story, but in first-person, the introduction of an 'I' begs a question - who?  And then, how did this story come to be written and end up the volume in my hands?  If such a perspective works, it reveals not just one but two characters.  The Great Gatsby is such a story and we come to know at least as much about Nick Caraway as we do about Jay Gatsby, but in Rahman's story, the existence of the narrator seems a devise for Zafar to rattle on pedantically about mathematics, landmass representation on world maps, and Yiddish linguistics, quoting e.e. cummings and Desmond Tutu.The layers of narrative function eloquently in themselves, but Rahman explains the relationship of narrative to identity, as well as the outcomes of numerous cognitive psychology studies and why credit default swaps resulted in the market crash.  These could have accrued into something more than the sum of their parts and revealed what holds meaning for and changes the two human beings in this novel, especially the narrator, because only then would I know why  Zafar is so important to him. The events of Zafar's tale are compelling by themeselves and, were it not for that, I would not have stayed with this novel to the end.  Rahman's story about two men hoping to understand themselves and looking in all the wrong places while interesting, never quite succeeded for me because the author didn't use literature to tie together all the facts that Zafar had absorbed into something bigger than a series of explanations.  Godel's incompleteness theorem evidently expresses that what we can kn[...]

The Man Who Wouldn't Be Known (Books - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara)


Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) has been written about widely and short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.  As I started it on the recommendation of my local bookseller this past summer, I had heard very little of the hooplah.  I believed I was reading a typical modern tale of  four friends who went to college together, chronicling their coming of age, their successes, failures and jealousies in relationships and work. But A Little Life defies this genre. The friends are an architect, an actor, an artist, and their friend Jude, around whom they and this story revolve. Jude is a man of great beauty, although he is never physically described by the author.  He is brilliant and creative, although he makes his very ample living as an attorney.  Yet with all of the accoutrements of success, Jude cannot allow himself be loved, so severely is he traumatized by abuse he suffered as a child.Jude practices a ritual behavior that can result from episodes of trauma. He cuts himself.  His legs and arms are a welter of scars, for which he is regularly treated by a doctor, Andy - the only person to whom Jude will show his naked body.  I found Andy one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel. He shows his care for Jude in countless acts of kindness but also sometimes neglects to fulfill his duty out of his deep but confused compassion.  Like every character in this novel, he is manipulated (but not consciously) by Jude's intense loathing for himself and ruthless willingness to push anyone who loves him away sooner than risk being hurt by them.The name Jude may resonate as the patron saint of lost causes, and Hanya Yanagihara's novel is rococo with suffering, but I disagree with Janet Maslin's contention in her New York Times review that the main pleasure in reading it is the thrill of voyeurism.  Audiences do get caught up in art that expresses the suffering of others.  It is the currency of grand opera, epic film, and Greek tragedy, but the rewards of A Little Life amount to more than a sick pleasure in peeping at the horror show of Jude's trauma.  In Yanagihara's saga, multiple characters lose someone deeply loved and the novel explores their differing responses to that loss.  What part of them goes on, what part dies, and what part of that loss is replayed in their future relationships, that become the intersections of private sufferings.   Yanagihara's novel also strongly evoked Dickens.  More than once the friendship between Jude and Willem, the actor, reminded me of Nicholas Nickelby and Smike, Although she doesn't share Dickens's arch humor, she creates deep sympathy for a man whom, if we look at his lack of trust, his manipulativeness, and his refusal to share anything of his personal history, might not be terribly likable.Yanagihara creates an archetype of suffering in Jude. Of mixed race, an orphan (another Dickensian device) who doesn't know his own origins, we can project upon him the suffering of every man.  The author voices her tale in third-person, but twice shifts to the less usual second-person perspective.  The effect is jarring, and the first time the reader must work to orient themselves to the identity of both the 'you' and the 'I' of her new voice.  This accomplished two things for me. I found myself in reading the first couple of hundred pages, sharing one critical observation of Maslin's review.  For a book about four men beginning in their late adolescence, the story is glaring voi[...]

Revolution in thought and practice (Books - The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow)


Erasmus Darwin, 18th Century physician, writer, grandfather of the more famous Charles, and one of the eponymous lunar men of Jenny Uglow's book, wrote in the later years of his life:Credulitas. Credulity.  Life is short, opportunities of knowing rare; our senses are fallacious, our reasonings uncertain; man therefore struggles with perpetual error from cradle to the coffin.  He is necessitated to correct experiment by analogy, and analogy by experiment...If you live life with an ounce of curiosity in you, you likely recognize the longing Darwin so pithily expressed . If you, like Darwin, James Watt and Matthew Boulton inventors of the steam engine, Josiah Wedgwood potter and chemist, Joseph Priestley religious radical and the discoverer of oxygen, or any of the other principal characters in Uglow's The Lunar Men (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), live to pursue your curiosities, then this is your creed. These men, and all of Uglow's central characters were male, explored, discovered, and invented not because they had earned a special degree, nor because they claimed a spot in a profession called science, but because a desire to know about their world drove them to it. In some cases this was dispositional, in others, their trades drove their interest.  Wedgwood became knowledgeable about chemistry because he wished to find a material that produced more durable pots or more striking glazes. Their curiosity and ambition also drove them to create the Lunar Society, where they exchanged ideas, launched collaborations, and helped to revolutionize industry and the broader society of which it is a part. Those driven to understand and give order to their world were known at the time not as scientists, but as philosophers. Their job was not merely inquiry, but the art of reporting their discoveries which, according to Uglow, made for less of a hard line between art and experiment. What struck me about this book was less the camaraderie between these influential men that is the angle used to sell Uglow's narrative, than the fundamental change the world underwent in understanding itself and the narratives created to give it these new order.  The the mid to late 1700s saw a revolution in thought perpetuated by Rousseau, the American and French revolutions, the creation of engines, and the organization of the elements that make up all matter.  Until the 1780s, water was understood as an 'element.'  The Joseph Priestley identified that water was composed of constituent substances, including one he called phlogiston.  Lavoisier identified 'oxygene' and his terminology invented modern chemisty:Here logic and rationality were the key: using Greek roots, each compound would be named after the elements they were made up of, their names depicting the reactions that formed them: adding 'hydrochloric acid' to zinc would create 'zinc chloride,' releasing the gas 'hydrogen' in the process.  the system was clear and appealing... To Keir chemistry was an experimental and above all exploratory science: 'In fact, I neither believe in phlogiston nor in oxygene,' he wrote.  Phlogiston was a mere 'mode of explanation,' and his objections to the French were that they were dogmatic, pedantic and exclusive. If you adopted the terminology, you implicitly adopted all the unproved ideas that went with it - all the 'oxygene, hydrogene, calorique and carbone, all of which are imaginary or at least hypothetical beings.'  This paragraph is the crux of Uglow's engaging bo[...]

Two memoirists of passion (Books - Love is Where it Falls by Simon Callow & On the Move by Oliver Sacks)


In the last several months I read the memoirs of two fascinating, beloved, gay, British-born public figures.  One was published recently, the other 15 years ago.  One works in one of my areas of expertise - the arts - and the other in the other - the science of the brain.  The authors were actor Simon Callow and Dr. Oliver Sacks.  Their books are Love is Where it Falls (Penguin Books, 2000) and On the Move: A Life (Knopf, 2015).  Their books are forthright and generous, the authors deeply giving of themselves, and they are crack writers.  Knowing them now, as I do, it is fitting that these copies are signed.She had, she said, been walking down Piccadilly, musing on the fact that it was Moliere's birthday and that not a single actor in England would know, much less care.  Musing on this sad reality, it had suddenly struck her that, yes, there was an actor in England who would know and care: me.  And so she had gone into Fortnum's and ordered the wine and had it sent to me, to celebrate, with my actor friends, the great playwright's birthday.  So begins an unlikely romance between a fierce, 70-year old theatrical literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, and 30-year-old actor Simon Callow.  I find myself wanting less to write about the merits of this book than to quote from it.  These two live passionately and are attracted to each other so relentlessly, because their taste in art is not so much an aesthetic about life's decor as a deeply held principle about the way to live it.We must feel, that is everything. We must feel as a brute beast, filled with nerves, feels, and knows that it has felt, and knows that each feeling shakes it like an earthquake. orI do so passionately believe that the only meaning of life is life, that to live is the deepest obligation we have, and that to help other people live is the greatest achievement. It's in that light that I see acting, and that alone.Oliver Sacks has written so humanely and observantly of his patients' lives (for instance here and here), and so openly of his peculiar fascinations, that this memoir, and this is the third of his books that might be classified as such, was a welcome departure.  Here, finally, Sacks scrutinized as deeply and wrote as openly about his own life - particularly his inner life. This was welcome not only in knowing more about so great a man and storyteller, but also because one read it in the context of his impending death (about which he wrote so beautifully here and here) and because one could feel in the narrative drive this desire to share it all before it was too late.Early in Sacks's writing career, the great poet W. H. Auden said to SacksYou're going to have to go beyond the clinical... Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.This is really where Sacks's writing succeeds so magnificently in combining what is true with what feels true in a story. I cherish his writing and hope to celebrate his life in a live program in the coming year. [...]

Impressions of Napoli and Ferrara (Books - Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante & How to Be Both by Ali Smith)


A number of years ago, I switched from writing reading-to-reading impressions, posted as I read, to fully composed reviews after having finished a book.  I recently began a new job running a cultural center in NYC, so, although I have been reading, I haven't had the brain space to write full fledged reviews.  I'm going to try doing some capsule reviews as well as doing more of the the impressions while reading model for a while and see how that goes. I hope some of you will be along for the journey.  Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan quartet, composed of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and, The Story of the Lost Child, is a stunning portrait of the friendship between two women and particularly how the life of a great friend can become subsumed in one's own.  It is a literary page-turner and arriving at the end of some 1,700 pages I experienced how masterfully structured it was. Ferrante's narrator is herself a writer and the quartet, especially the final volume, reflects on the process and consequences of writing.  She manages to be smartly self-aware without becoming overly explanatory.  Her mastery of craft is made plain to me when I think of the broad cast of some 40 characters with whom I had become familiar.  The scene writing, as in the wedding reception that closes the first volume, brings the huge cast into spectacularly vivid focus, even while creating a tone that feels so of its period (late 50s/early 60s) that my mind's eye sees it in the Technicolor palate.  I cannot recommend these enough.I feared that Ali Smith's How to be Both might become twee because of its concept, but I should have known better. Smith has constructed a pair of interrelated tales, one set in renaissance Italy based on the life of fresco painter Francesco del Cossa and the other set in modern day Britain concerning a daughter mourning the death of her mother, an activist. The plots are cleverly referential of one another but don't yield their secrets easily.  The concept, such as it is: these stories can be read with either as the first.  In the order I read them (15th century first) the narrative keeps the reader working to understand what Smith's narrator sees.  Without giving away too much, she/he sees aspects of the other narrative. In fact, each story's art making protagonist has a window into the other, and the effect for the reader is something like an infinity mirror. Smith's literary time travel is a puzzle of sorts, offering some intellectual smiles and even thrills at hearing the 'click' as a detail falls into place. I am a rabid fan of Smith's Artful and her themes of identity, loss, and the uses of art are visited here again but in a different guise.  Smith loves to play with form, and to let you know it.  If Artful was an argument (a narrative about the composition of a lecture on art), How to be Both is a more traditional immersive narrative experience, but one that plays with the tension between then and now, between life and death, between art and audience, and between visual and narrative form. You know those 'which writer would you invite to lunch questions?'  Ali Smith would be one of my guests. Still to come, capsules  of Simon Callows' Love is Where it Falls, Olver Sacks's On the Move, and Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life and while-I-read impressions of Hiding in Plain Sight and Lunar Men.     [...]

David Grossman on his Writing Process


If you have loved David Grossman's fiction, as I have (see here on To the End of the Land), then you will appreciate this 2007 Paris Review interview with him on Arabs and Israelis, his writing process, and his life.
 In recent years, I feel I’m less and less influenced by writers. I do not see this as a good sign, by the way. I want to be influenced by writers. I think it is a sign of being open...
...the books that really matter, the books that I cannot imagine my life without having written, are the more demanding ones, like The Book of Intimate Grammar, Be My Knife, See Under: Love, and the book I’m writing now. I may occasionally like to write an entertaining book, but I take literature seriously. You’re dealing with explosives. You can change a reader’s life, and you can change—you should change, I think—your own life.

Usually a lighter book will serve as a kind of recovery for me. I devastate myself when I write a certain kind of book—there is a process of dismantling my personality. All my defense mechanisms, everything settled and functioning, all the things concealed in life break into pieces, because I need to go to the place within me that is cracked, that is fragile, that is not taken for granted. I come out of these books devastated. I don’t complain, of course. This is how books should be written. But my way to recover from this sense of total solitude is to write books that will bring me into close contact with other people. I wrote The Zigzag Kid because I had to recover from The Book of Intimate Grammar and Sleeping on a Wire.

Past inhabits present in the lives of 3 families (Books - The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; A Legacy by Sybille Bedford; & Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz)


Three family sagas are the subject of this post.  What I like about this form is the intertwining of the characters' narratives with a sense of place and time.  When it works well, I experience both the familiarity of people wanting, thinking and behaving, and the distance of an unfamiliar time and which gradually lessens, becoming more and more like my own. Sybille Bedford's A Legacy (Counterpoint, 1956, 1999) set in late 19th and early 20th century Germany, Naguib Mahfouz's  Palace Walk (Doubleday, 1956, 1990) set in early 20th century Cairo, and Angela Flournoy's accomplished debut The Turner House, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) set in past and present day Detroit.I read the first volume in Sybille Bedford's fictionalized version of her own family history.  A Legacy (Counterpoint, 1956, 1999) tells of three generations of two families, one Jewish and one Catholic - the last generation of which was her own.  The place was Germany.  The time: post-unified, pre-war era - that is, the 1870s - 1914.  Bedford wrote the book in 1952 - so post-war England, and England was relentlessly post-war into the 1970s.  The legacy of WWII and of the Nazi enemy was a fresh wound at the time of her writing.  I read the book with a vague sense that I might learn something of the world my own German-Jewish ancestors.Bedford writes with a remote, critical amusement.Their name was Merz.  Arthur and Henrietta Merz.  They were I believe second cousins, and belonged by descent to the Jewish upper-bourgeoisie of Berlin, the Oppenheims and Mendelssohns and Simons, the dozen families or so whose money still came in from banking and from trade, but who also patronized and often practised the arts and sciences, and whose houses, with their musical parties and their pictures, had been oases in the Prussian capital for the last hundred and twenty years.  The Merz's were direct and not remote descendants of Henrietta Merz, the friend of Goethe and of Mirabeau, Schleiermacher and Humboldts, the woman who barely out of the ghetto set up a salon where she received the translators of Shakespeare with advice and the King of Prussia with reserve.  This celebrated lady had a tall figure and a greek profile, a large circle, many lovers and an enormous correspondence; like George Eliot, she spoke English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and unlike George Eliot she could also read in Swedish.  No trace of this heredity survived in Grandmama and Grandpapa Merz, the name I was taught to give them when I learnt to speak and the only one, I find, I can now use with ease.  They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons.  While members of what might have been their world were dining to the sounds of Schubert and of Haydn, endowing research and adding Corot landscapes to their Bouchers and the Delacroix, and some of them were buying their first Picasso, the Merz's were adding bell-pulls and thickening the upholstery...This gist is: generations of wastrels upset the old ways, gamble, marry the wrong people, and generally cause scandals that mortify the elder generation, but are no longer quite as horrifying as they once were.  Bedford wrote that "Each family stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often vict[...]