Monday, April 30, 2007

Voyage & the Voyeur: Travel & Travel Writing

With Alain de Botton, Ma Jian, and Ilija Trojanow; moderated by Paul Holdengräber

This talk was on Sunday. I'm always happy to go to the main branch of the library--or Library of Arts & Sciences, or whatever it's called--because it's such a wonderful building. This talk was in the Celeste Barton Theater which is in a part of the library I'd never been to. I guess it's been renovated or something because it's quite new looking. All glass sides stairs with those translucent sort of steps that allow you to see the dark, indistinct forms of people moving below.

I should probably start by saying that I have no tolerance for people who are more snobbish than myself. I'm quite snobby enough and find anything further to be insufferable. Ma Jian I found quite interesting. Trojanow and de Botton, mostly unpleasant.

I knew that it might be a long event when the started out by criticizing travel writers like Bill Bryson. I think it's a failure to acknowledge that travel writing can have different purposes depending on the writer and the audience. They act like writers like him are somehow doing a disservice to the subject, while not noting that no one with any degree of intelligence would read Bryson's travel writing and think, I know what this place and these players are like. Nor do I think that is Bryson's intention. His subject isn't only the ridiculousness of the locals but a more general sort of thing. He recognizes that people are inherently absurd. When we laugh at his subjects we also have to laugh at him and at ourselves. I'm sure they understand that. They just don't seem to recognize that it has any value. I think that's an indication of taking yourself fairly seriously. And honestly, how boring to think that the world is someplace where we can't laugh or mock for fear of being shallow or stupid. The key, I think, is to recognize that you too deserve to be laughed at.

Anyway, I find the whole thing too irritating to write about in detail.

CONVERSATION: Per Petterson and Marilynne Robinson

If anyone remembers or read my post on Housekeeping they know how I feel about Marilynne Robinson's writing. If you don't want to hear me waxing rhapsodic on that, this would be a good time to stop reading. Per Petterson I've never read and had never heard of. This reading was just after the Imaginary Geographies one and was a bit fuller. Probably partially because it was at 5 o'clock instead of 3 o'clock on a Friday and partially because it featured a Pulitzer Prize winner. Either way, there were still more seats empty then full. Probably because some people actually do work.

There were people eating popcorn which made it feel kind of like we were waiting for a movie to start. I was not eating popcorn but was listening in on people, because that's what you do when you go places alone (with a book open so it looks like you're not, of course). The woman who was sitting behind me is from the Phillipines but moved to the United States five years ago. Her children are in their forties and her husband is currently in North Korea, although she didn't say why. She was talking to the man sitting next to her who had white hair, a beard, and a liver spot on his forehead. He designs and manufactures jewelry, but the jewelry he was wearing was not his own work. His oldest son was born in 1958. One of his children refuses to have children and he thinks this is very selfish. Once, years ago, the US State Department told him not to travel to the Phillipines.

The talk was introduced by Philip Gourevitch and moderated by Radhika Jones. Robinson wore black and a red scarf with gold pinstripes. Petterson, jeans with an untucked blue shirt and dark gray jacket with a gold pin on the lapel. No, I don't know why I keep telling you what the authors were wearing. Yes, I realize it's boring because they're authors and fashion is not actually their forte. This was Petterson's first time in New York (he's from Norway, incidentally) although he had been to the US before. That always strikes me as odd because I'm so convinced that New York is, in fact, the center of the universe. An attitude that annoys me in other people, and yet I forgive it in myself.

They began by reading a bit of their most recent novels. Petterson's being Out Stealing Horses and Robinson's being Gilead. I think--and for some reason I didn't think of this during the first event) that it must be strange for Petterson to read words he both did and didn't write. He wrote his story, chose his words, and then it was translated into English by someone else, and their mark is on the story as well. There's a kind of shared ownership between him and the translator. I'm interested in the invisible chasm between the two. The novel he wrote and the novel he is reading, which are are same but also different. If I were to ask a question, that's what I would ask about.

Petterson said at some point--after Robinson said that, with Housekeeping she thought she was writing an unpublishable novel--that to write while thinking of your audience would destroy everything. I suppose, the fragility of the creative process. That sense of fragility carries over into my reading, I think.

Waiting to go into the theater between talks, a woman near me asked me if I'd read Gilead. I said I had and she said, "Isn't is just beautiful." It wasn't a question, but the answer, in case you're wondering, is yes, it is beautiful. Still, it seems like it's not sufficient to just say that it's beautiful. I recommended it to my mother once and she didn't love it nearly the way I loved it. Instead she kept arguing that certain plot points were unrealistic, and I didn't know what to do with the fact that she wasn't as dumbstruck by the novel as I was, so I never recommended it to anyone again. I did once give it to a friend as a gift but I never asked her if she read it or what she thought of it. Let me take a moment to note that I usually don't care overly much if people don't like the books I recommend. This is an exception not the rule.

Anyway, this pertains to the fragility I talked about above. I feel as though if I get too close to the writing, examine it too thoroughly, the sentences will some how break apart, shattering into all their component pieces. And the beauty would be gone because it's in the tensions between the words. Which is absurd, of course, because the writing is permanent insomuch as something can be permanent, printed in thousands upon thousands of books. The only thing that I could change (through overanalyzing, whatever) is my relationship to the book and the way I hold the words in my head. But that's not the way I perceive it.

Enough of that though. Petterson and Robinson also talked about the reasons they deal almost exclusively with families in their books. Robinson talked about how any human bonds have analogs in family bonds. How the human impulse toward loyalty is found at its most basic in family and this makes the severing of family interesting.

Robinson ended the talk by saying that when she writes she has to love and respect the character her writing is centered around. It's something that really shines through in her writing, which I talked about a bit in my post on Housekeeping. So many authors seem to have an antagonistic or critical approach to their characters unless they use said character as a stand in for themself or some kind of wish fulfillment, so it's always nice to see an author who obviously loves and connects to his/her characters while simultaneously being fundamentally separate from them.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Imaginary Geographies

With Daniel Alarcón, Arthur Japin, Tatyana Tolstaya; moderated by Deborah Treisman

This talk was up in a theater that's part of Lincoln Center. Which is fine and easy to get to and all except for the fact that it was disgusting out. By the time I got there I looked kind of like I'd just popped out of a washing machine. Curly hair and that kind of damp, almost raining weather don't mesh well. Granted, the little old ladies and men who make up most of the audience for these things (particularly at 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon) aren't going to care. But I still hate looking like I haven't even bothered when going somewhere.

The person coordinating the talk then had to ask people to move down toward the front. Which seemed kind of funny considering that the people there were not, shall we say, of an age to be gossiping with their friends at the back of a classroom. I think it's just that people don't want the speakers to actually look at them. You don't want to be observed when you're there to observe other people. And what if you yawn, or look bored or what have you? Very troublesome.

Anyway, the reading. They started out by each reading a bit of their writing, which I always find fairly boring except insofar as it lets me see what a writer I'm not familiar with is about. It's like going to see a musician, sure I like their music but I could just listen to a cd. I want to see what they have to say and how they dress and talk. It's a bit of a cult of celebrity thing I suppose, except for the fact that at readings you sometimes get to hear about a readers process or inspiration or what have you. And there's often a question or answer session during which people prove that there is indeed such a thing as a stupid question. Or at the very least that there are people who enjoy hearing themselves talk far more than I do. And I talk a lot.

Alarcón was wearing jeans, layered t-shirts, and converse sneakers. So he basically looks (and at times talks) like a slacker college student, which, because I was sick and cranky, caused a minor existential crisis for me. I thought for a moment that if you're not the sort of person who writes, you should want to be the sort of person who is written about. I meanwhile, I am the sort of person who works at a nine-to-five desk job and then goes home and heats up dinner in the microwave. Oh the angst. Then I remembered that I actually quite like my life, and had a moment of annoyance at the fact that he couldn't even be bothered to put on a nice pair of shoes when he was going to be on a stage, and felt better. He read from Lost City Radio which is set in an imaginary city much like Lima, Peru.

Japin wore a suit with a sweater (no tie), has mostly greyed hair, and talks like he has money. Not what he says but the way he speaks. He read from a book called The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, about two African boys who were given to the king of Denmark. Tolstaya is overweight and wears gold-rimmed glasses. I think she dyes her hair. She wore jeans too (tapered and fairly awful), but at least paired them with nice boots and a red shawl. She read a story called "Okkervil River." There's a beautiful bit of description in it..."apple-round heels," that struck me. I kept getting distracted by listening to her accent and forgetting to listen to the actual story. She's the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy. Unlike Pasternak's grandniece she's not writing scandalous books about Princess Diana or cleverly-titled chicklit, so props for that.

After they read there was a a panel discussion and question and answer session. The first question put to them was why they chose to use imagined settings. Alarcón explained that he chose an imaginary city for expediency--so he wouldn't have to worry about getting details correct. "To escape the burden of reality." Japin spoke of finding a new reality. Talked about his father who was mentally disturbed and about going to visit him as a boy. He said it seems to him that it wouldn't be bad to be mad so long as one tuned into the right world. Tolstaya said that literature was both a way out and a way of being in a better place while remaining in the same place. When asked specifically about writing under a repressive regime, she said it was good for literature (hardly a new idea, after all) because it forces writers to write about things indirectly, through allegory, etc. To just say, "I don't like the regime," is boring and annoying (a la Wainwright's Going to a Town, no?) and that noone likes any regime. She then mentioned that although the titular river is a real river in St. Petersburg, she had never been and would not go, because if she doesn't go then the place can be anything she wants it to be. She also said that there is a band in Texas that is named after her story which is named after the river where she is never been, adding one more layer to the imagined place. I looked up the band, incidentally, and they're not very good. I'd stick with the story.

They talked then about historical fiction such as Japin writes. He said that he considers reality a gateway into imagination. Tolstaya talked about nostalgia for the past and how culture is destroyed by time, war, etc. The effort to capture this feeling in writing. All fiction, she said, is imaginary (and historical, as I understood her) because what is written about is gone. That we imagine again and again and think we know.

The question and answer session began then and the first question was, ignoring the topic for a moment, what are you actually thinking about now. I'm quite interested in the topic of imaginary geographies so I thought the question was kind of annoying. Happily, Alarcón brought it right back to the topic--at which point I decided that I did like him after all--by saying that he was thinking about immigration, and New York as an imaginary geography for other people. That it is a place imagined in different ways by people all over the world. Japin followed this up by a story about women in Accra who spend their days typing in NYC tickets (hurrah for outsourcing) and have to create their own version of the city because they don't know what it's actually like.

The last question is about memory and forgetting. Alarcón talked about young writers (not unlike himself) remembering what had happened in Peru, and how creating a kind of chronicle of memory is a good thing, although something that others would also like to avoid. He talked about politicians and bureaucratic functionaries in particular wanting the past to be forgotten there. Japin spoke of creating alternate biographies or histories by using the facts that are usually forgotten and skipped over. How you can take things that are all true but create entirely different stories just by choosing what to use and what to cast aside. Tolstaya then spoke about people wanting to forget the truth. How there is a difference between what we think we remember and what really happened and that people don't want the truth. She talked about how people are forgotten and thrown out of history and we allow it to happen because the truth destroys and is painful. But she also talked about the way truth has of seeping out.

And that's where time ran out and the panel ended. I know this seems like a disorganized summary but it's difficult with panels like this. They wind up somewhat disorganized in reality as well as in typed up summaries. To be honest, I tend to prefer lectures because I need my information in little linear bits to begin with. A little silly, maybe, but true. And beyond that, I always want people to go on talking and speak about things in more depth, which doesn't really work when they're sharing an hour with other writers. Still it was an interesting panel to listen to.

There was a signing with books for sale afterward. I always feel bad if I don't buy anything but I really don't have the money to buy extra books at the moment (particularly not at full price) and I don't have the time to read them or a place to put them, so I just bought a cookie and waited for the next talk to start, and figured there were plenty of other people buying books and even if anyone noticed they wouldn't care. And went on feeling guilty because I have a complex, but whatever.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


I feel like crap, and should be in bed (because yes I'm that sad in addition to being gross at the moment) but instead I'm watching a live webcast of Andrew Bird at Coachella. I have tickets to see him in mid-May (yay!) but he's always fun to watch live, switching instuments all the time and looping different sounds and such. His new album didn't disappoint me at all, thankfully. And Regina Spektor's on later so of course I have to stay up for that. Coachella is the one music festival I always wish I could go to. Not going to happen any year soon though.

Anyway, it's very cool that they're doing this webcast thing, although I didn't know about it until just now and I don't think there are too many people I want to see tomorrow. I would have liked to see Of Montreal and Bjork yesterday if I had known.

I'm sorry. This rambling is probably not terribly interesting and yet I'm posting it anyway...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bit of a Vacation

My office is moving so we closed at one o'clock on Thursday and don't reopen until noon Monday, which is when we report to our new location. I walked home from work yesterday which is about 2 1/2 miles but always seems to take longer than one would hope due to all the stopping at crosswalks and such.

It's a nice time to get off though, because it happens to coincide with the PEN World Voices International Festival, which has some events during the day. So I got to go to a few things today. More on that later, I suppose.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Release the Stars

Rufus Wainwright's new album isn't out yet, but it's already recieved some glowing praise. I can only imagine that in the case of a critics' darling, some reviewers have made up their minds before even hearing the album. This always seems to me to be the case with the British music press more than the American music press. They decide some artist produces good work and then proceed to gush about them in a sycophantic and hyperbolic way. Anyone who has read NME has seen a rather egregious example of this tendancy. Anyway, this tendancy is on full display in the 5 star review from the Guardian. I find myself hoping now that the frequently obnoxious Pitchfork says nasty things about it, because I've heard the leaked CD and I like few things as much as having my opinions validated by others. And yes, I do realize that's petty and lame.

The thing is, I've been a big fan of Rufus Wainwright for years. I bought his CDs and went to his concerts and told people how fabulous he was and all that shit. The problem is that no matter how great he is, he's still not nearly as wonderful as he seems to think he is. And for a long time I found that narcissism not only tolerable, but even vaguely charming. Because he was at least making wonderful music. But this CD includes lots of not-so-wonderful music and thus his faults are harder to forgive. There's still good stuff on here. It's half a good album. But there's a lot of self-loving (and I don't mean that in the dirty way), melody-free dreck. And in the time-honored tradition of the rant, I'm going to talk about each and every song briefly just so you can all see how annoyed I am. But hey, at least I'm giving you fair warning.

It opens with a song that I actually enjoy a fair bit, called Do I Disappoint You?, in retrospect a somewhat prophetic name. It opens by asking the addressee if he disappoints him, "in just being human." It also features Martha Wainwright yelling things like, "fire," and, "chaos," in the background. I'm not totally crazy about the lyrics, but it's one of the high points in the album for me. Which is too bad, because I only like the song. It's followed by Going to a Town which will probably get attention because it's the first single and is critical of America. I'm all for criticizing my country. But only if it's done well. And while I like the music on this one the lyrics are broad, not terribly perceptive, and frankly bring nothing to the conversation. Don't get me wrong, I'm fairly tired of the way my country as a whole is behaving too, I just think it could be put in a more interesting way. Follow that up with the mannered Tiergarten and we're on song four before we get to another one I actually enjoy listening to.

That would be Nobody's Off the Hook which has two rather big things going for it: a) you can actually hear the piano, which is often one of the nicest things about his songs and b) it's about someone other than himself. Between My Legs I had heard him do live. Liked it then and like it now--it's kicky and fun and has a nice voiceover toward the end by Sian Phillips. But after that we dive off the cliff.

Rules and Regulations starts off with a nice rhyming couplet (human relations/public citations) but doesn't have much else going for it. The lyrics are, at best, boring and at times bad and the music just isn't particularly interesting. Then I'm Not Ready to Love come on and makes Rules and Regulations sound good in comparison. The lyrics are just awful. If I wanted to "enjoy" lyrics like, "I'm not ready to love/I'm not ready to fly," and, "I'm not ready to love/until I'm ready to love you/the way you should be loved/until I'm ready to hold you/the way you should be held," then there's an awful lot of crappy high school poetry out there and I'm sure I can find it.

This is followed by Slideshow which I actually enjoyed initially because I enjoy the music, particularly Richard Thompson's always excellent guitar work. But the lyrics irritate me more each time I hear it. He's pondering why he loves someone. That's fine, but it's only interesting if we, as listeners have some idea of the beloved. And yes, that means something more than that he doesn't want his back rubbed. And Rufus used to do that in his songs (see: Danny Boy among others), but apparently he can no longer be bothered. Count in the obnoxious lines, "I'd better be prominently featured in your next slideshow/'cause I paid a lot of money to get you over here, you know," and I'm torn between wanting to listen to the music and wanting him to shut the hell up. Tulsa descends to I'm Not Ready to Love levels with crappy, self-regarding lyrics, and singing that doesn't seem to mesh at all with the overdone musical accompaniment. And thus ends the ditch of bad to mediocre songwriting in the center of the album

A lot of people really love Leaving for Paris, which is an older song. I've always just found it boring. He adds a verse here. I remain utterly indifferent to the song on its own. But listening to the album straight through, it's an absolute breath of fresh area, with little relatively little orchestration--you can actually pay attention to the voice--and lyrics that show some regard for someone other than himself. This marks an upswing of sorts because the next song, Sanssouci actually goes so far as to paint an exterior scene. It's a song with a setting and a cast of characters as well as lyrics that are interesting and an actual tune. And Release the Stars is a good ending song. Grandiose but controlled, it's an extended metaphor using the old Hollywood system of keeping movie stars under contract to specific studios. Which is actually and interesting thing to write about and fits well with the big sound.

So in the end you have a music with songs that succeed but with a bunch of other songs that fail utterly. And with Wainwright albums that's impossible to ignore or overlook because his aims are so grand and over-the-top. It's like the self-edit function was broken and no one was making judgements on what was actually successful and what wasn't. Maybe he should never produce his own albums? I don't have an answer, but nothing would please me more at this pioint than for Rufus to write an entire album of songs that are not about himself. Because seriously? He's not so interesting that he can write about nothing and no one else. No one is. What's interesting is the interactions and relationships between people and too many songs on this album seem to completely lose sight of that in favor of wallowing in self-absorption.

I'd also like a scaled-back, simplified album with strong melodies, but not as much as I'd like better, less solipsistic lyrics.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Weekend

I had a killer allergy attack last night and then got wrapped up with doing eight loads of laundry. Fun, no? Also, I just got a new glasses prescription a few months ago but I think my vision has continued to go downhill at an alarming rate. The problem with working at a computer I suppose, but I'm very concerned about it.

It seems we've be launched directly from wintery weather to summer, which is unfortunate because while I love spring, I;m not a big fan of summer. It was nice on Saturday, as I went to a picnic in Central Park and ate all kinds of good food while jealously watching people playing with their dogs. A nice afternoon.

Wendy and I also went to go see the new hall of Human Origins at the Museum of Natural History, but we only had enough time to see half of it, so we'll have to go back some other time. In addition to giving creationists fits, it actually looks really nice. It's so strange to go there and see exhibits that don't look like they were made in the '70s. Not unlike the Hall of Ocean Life they've spruced up the dioramas nicely. They've also added interactive stuff and things you can touch. I probably would have like that hall more when I was little if it looked like it does now. Although lets face it, when you're little, you're totally in it for the dinosaurs, the giant whale, and the dino-shaped fries in the cafeteria.

Apparently Wendy's childhood visits also included long hours spent at the gemstones exhibit. This is what happens when your parents are former geologists, I suppose. For me, the gemstone exhibit was mostly notable for the carpeted benches (like I said, very '70s) and the fact that we would always go see the Star of India. This visit always brought on the story how my PopPop recovered it when it was stolen, and was on the television because of it. Hey, it's my family's one and only claim to...well, not fame, but some proximity to an event of national interest, so it's going to get rehashed a time or six. Someday, I'll probably be lugging my children for through the museum and telling them, "You're great-grandfather..."

But anyway, enough with the nostalgia, which you probably don't share unless you too made numerous childhood trips to the museum. My point was,: neat exhibit, will have to go back to see the rest.

Yesterday, the heat was sufficient to be unpleasant. I had to lug a bunch of broken printers up to Union Square. Not fun. It was hot enough that I could smell the tarmac melting on 4th Ave (newly paved). It seems like the whole city was out and about this weekend. There were orange-robed monks handing out literature by the Ghandi statue in the square and people on the steps and people who were just generally in the way of the old lady rolling cart I was using to lug the printers.

On a happier note, the weather also served to bring out the amusingly off-beat. There was an old lady in a kerchief sitting on the bench in my courtyard an animal but from our balcony we couldn't quite tell if it was a large cat or a small dog. I ran to get my opera glasses and we could then see that she was indeed out there with a big, orange Persian cat. Occasionally the cat would jump down and start to wander and the old lady would stand up, fetch it back to the bench, make it sit, and then sit back down herself. It was to dark out to get a good, focused picture so the one to the left is the best a could do. I felt like a paparazzi. If paparazzi stalked anonymous old ladies, and used teeny little digital cameras, that is.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Budgies

I'm not a bird person and I don't see these guys converting me, but they are pretty cute. It's not a great picture, but still.

Friday, April 20, 2007

New pets? Really?

I think it's one of those things--you live with someone who plans to be a vet, you occasionally come home to find new animals in residence. About a year-and-a-half ago it was a cat, whom I adore, so that's totally fine. He's the grey tabby--Pyramus--I've posted pictures of before. Up there being his cute self (that's Wendy, not me he's lying on). Bonnie, is the tortoiseshell calico a bit further down. She's just about as prim and proper as he is ridiculous, and spends and inordinate amount of time grooming him. Then he gets tired of it and bites her head. You'll have to take my word for it, but it's pretty adorable.

So today I get home from work and Wendy comes out of her room, doing this whole thing that she does where she's like, "If you're not ok with this just let me know, and it's totally ok if you have a problem with it, but I bought something. But we can take it back if it's not ok!" To which I said, "You didn't bring home a cat did you?" She immediately said she didn't bring home a cat so I was thinking lizards or something of the sort. Because I like lizards just fine but I really don't want one as a pet and she knows I wouldn't be thrilled by that. So I was actually a bit relieved to see that she'd bought a couple of budgies. She went to the store with her mother for fish (which we'd talked about getting) and came back with birds instead. And honestly, I like birds better than fish so I'm totally fine with the tradeoff. My only concern would be the cats, but Wendy seems to have a very thorough bird protection plan in place.

They're very cute though. They're about six weeks old, so full grown but still immature. The male is a uniform pale blue and very bold. He sat on my finger and preened all over. And when he's in the cage he pesters the female constantly. She's a darker blue with grey wings and seems totally freaked out by us and of a generally much more reserved disposition. Which is apparently typical of females. I'll try to get pictures in the near future.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Friday, April 13, 2007


So my problems yesterday all started with this little darling. I like to consider him the perp in this story.

Adorable right? He actually has the ability to be so cute it hurts. This is obviously Darwinian because it probably saved his life. Forget survival of the fittest, what we have here is survival of the cutest.

Anyway, I have a table (it's really a sewing machine but it folds into a table) behind my bed, on which I have two rows of books. In the morning Pyramus likes to climb on top of the books and knock them over. It's part of his it's-breakfast-time-feed-me-before-I-whither-and-die routine, which he does about an hour before his actual breakfast time. It's incredibly obnoxious, not only because it wakes me up but because I'm a bit obsessive about alphabetizing my books and every time he knocks them down I have to re-alphebetize. So yesterday morning he climbed up, and I reached over, as I generally do, and went to keep the books from falling.

If I'd been successful, that would have been nice. Instead I smacked my face right into the edge of the table which, as you can see in the picture, is fairly sharp. I cut myself just above the eye, and it's just a tiny little cut but it bled all over the place. I iced the cut/bump on and off for about an hour to prevent it from swelling too much and took some painkillers for the accompanying headache. It ended up not being too bad although it's both a bit more swollen and a bit darker than it looks in the picture.

Once the headache and some nausea subsided I put on a nice skirt and rainboots, took a moment to be glad that I part my hair to that side so it hides most of the bruising, stuck dress shoes in my purse and headed to work in the pouring rain. And then, as if the morning wasn't long enough there were signals out on the subway line and the ride took nearly three times as long as it normally does. So all in all, a pretty sucky start to the day. The rest of the day was fine though.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Don't worry. It's not an update on my indifferent at best housekeeping skills. Although for the record: after a very brief period of cleanliness, everything's back to being a mess. At least I'm consistent.

But off that subject and to the actual reason for the heading, which is that I'm reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. The critics would have it that the book was so good that people waited eagerly for her next novel, which was 20+ years in coming. I actually read and loved that novel, Gilead, so I was excited to read this one, which my aunt gave me for Christmas.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm big on reading the quotes on the covers of books, despite the fact that they're more often than not completely useless. And generally they all say the same thing as well. But I'm interested in them partially because choosing quotes is a part of my job and partially because I seem to like annoying myself. Housekeeping, however, has one quote on the back that, surprisingly, is extremely perceptive.
Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt. [emphasis mine]
--New York Times

I think one of the most noticeable attributes of Robinson's writing is her sympathy--and empathy--for people. There's just an incredible warmth and kindness in her writing. At the same time, her characters are realistic and deeply flawed. And it's not that she doesn't seem judge them for this. She does. It's that she appears to forgive them their flaws. So in a way, that is indeed saintlike.

What makes her books so wonderful to read though, is the other thing I bolded, her writing--the vocabulary and use of the language is just truly beautiful. And she has a quiet but vivid way with it, as in this scene. A train has gone off a bridge and into the freezing lake by the town and men are jumping of the bridge and then being pulled back up in an effort to salvage some bit of it.
After a while some of the younger boys came out on the bridge and began to jump off, at first cautiously and then almost exhuberantly, with whoops of fear. When the sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. It became colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grew bright as tin. The surface of the lake was very still. As the boys' feet struck the water there was a slight sound of rupture. Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on the waves they made and, when the water was calm again, knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection. One of the boys swam out forty feet from the bridge and then down to the old lake, feeling his way down the wall, down the blind, breathless stone, headfirst, and then pushing out from the foot. But the thought of where he was suddenly terrified him, and he leaped toward the air, brushing something with his leg as he did. He reached down and put his hand on a perfectly smooth surface, parallel to the bottom, but, he thought, seven or eight feet above it. A window. The train had landed on his side. He could not reach it a second time. The water bore him up. He said only that the smooth surface, of all the things he touched, was not overgrown or hovered about by a cloud of something loose, like silt. This boy was an ingenious liar, a lonely boy with a boundless desire to ingratiate himself. His story was neither believed nor disbelieved.

It's brilliant. That's all it takes to know Robinson's a wonderful writer. Hell, a couple sentences of that are all it takes. There are people who can tell specifically and in great detail, what they consider the attributes of great writing. I couldn't do it properly if my life depended on it. Much like Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, I feel like I know it when I see it. And a blind man could see it here.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

April? What April? is too fucking cold for April and it's making me very cranky. The hat, the gloves, the wool coat. Ick. Granted there are lots of places colder than New York, but as I'm not in those places I feel like I might as well whine about the place I am.

I started a book and stopped decided not to read it for the first time in awhile. The basic premise of the book is that being obsessively organized is often neither cost nor time efficient. I don't need to read two hundred pages to be convinced of that, as anyone who has seen my room can attest. I passed it on to my mother. If nothing else she can wave it in front of my father when he goes on one of his multiple-times-weekly organization and efficiency jihads. Not that it'll have much of an effect.

In only slightly related news, my mother and brother Cody are down for the weekend. Friday they came over to the apartment so my brother could see the cats--he calls Pyramus "the boss," something Pyramus no doubt deeply wishes was the truth--and my mother could see the new carpet she bought me. Which is lovely, incidentally, and it's very nice to have a carpet in my bedroom for the first time of years. It also meant I got to give her the books I'd set aside for her and a couple of books on cd for my dad.

We went to meet my grandparents at the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A. This was also good because I had about eleven romances and mysteries stacked on my dresser to give to my grandfather. He's a reader of historical romances and get through about a book a day, so I try to help keep him stocked. Restaurants are always a bit interesting with my brother, who has Down Syndrome. He was actually quite good, but insisted on going outside at the end of dinner and eating his ice cream in the cold. A few minutes later, I looked out the window to see him lying on the ground. It turns out that someone had tied up their chihuahua and he'd gotten down to pet it. You never know with him though.

Saturday it was to the Met for the Tiffany exhibit (again). Cody rushed my mother through the exhibit but I think she still liked seeing it. And my roommate Wendy, who came with us, bought a 500 piece Tiffany puzzle, so now we're really in a position to behave like elderly old maids. We can stay in on Friday nights watching Masterpiece Theatre and doing puzzles. How great is that?

He really wanted to go see the mummies in the egyptian art section. He's convinced that they'll come to life and it'll be super cool. Of course the mummies there are disappointing because there are so few of them, and the ones in their wrappings weren't even on display. I think he was hoping for something like the huge display at the British Museum. When he was there he got to see a movie on mummies and everything so that was obviously much more exciting. He was very insistent that my mother read some of the hieroglyphics to him, so we walked around with her making up things like, "And then the Sun king came, and he saw that things were good and all was well with the land. Peace be with you."

Wendy and I left them around 2:00 and stopped by Williams-Sonoma for smoothie samples and little paper cups of jelly beans before going home. Then in the evening I went out to Brooklyn because a friend of mine was in town and had dinner with her and some of her family at a good Mexican place. And now I'm spending Easter Sunday at home being lazy. All in all not a bad weekend.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Judging by sales I'm one of the last people out there to read a Malcolm Gladwell book--ladies and gentlemen, watch out for flying hyperbole--but I've just read Blink aka The-Gladwell-Book-That-Sold-Less-but-Still-Sold-Really-Well. I was given it for free. As far as I can tell, the formula for the book was this:
  • Come up with a subject that's interesting but hardly world and don't address any aspect of it that might be controversial.
  • Write about it in a manner that is cogent and easy to understand.
  • Name recognition, baby.
Of course this isn't easy to do, but you can certainly see why the book was successful.

The most frustrating part of the book was its utter vanilla-ness on a topic that has pretty serious real world implications. I mean honestly, the man got through an entire chapter centered around the Amadou Diallo incident without expressing a real opinion or coming to a strong conclusion. I think his opinion is that the police were insufficiently trained. Does that really need all this scientific background information? My grandfather, who worked for the NYPD for many years would agree with him. Except he said as much when it happened, not after all kinds of consultation about the behavior of people with autism and professional athletes heartrates and all the other things Gladwell brings in. And honestly? That stuff does have the potential to be interesting. But Gladwell's book is so bland that he won't even come out and say something like, "The NYPD should have been held accountable for sending insufficiently trained cops into the ghetto." His basic conclusion, after all his research, appears to be, trust your instincts, but only if your instincts are so developed as to prevent mistakes. That's terribly helpful.

Anyway, the most interesting part of the book--in the interest of equal time--is when he talks about the unconscious mind. The associations we make without even realizing it. There's a chapter about how these associations affect our behavior that I found pretty fascinating. And the most interesting part of it was the Implicit Association Tests bit. Mainly because you can take them yourself right here. Now admittedly I'm about five years old and if it's interactive, I'm a happy girl, but this is really intriguing and disturbing simultaneously. So thank you, Malcolm Gladwell, I suppose.

On another note, I know white dust covers look sharp and all and the cover of The Tipping Point was awesome, I get that, but they seriously suck. They get all dirty and nasty looking. Sure you can just take the dust cover off, but then you can't use the flaps as bookmarks. Not cool.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Dream Lives

Today's been one of those days where you wake up a bit off and are a step behind for the rest of the day. Just feeling odd. I got up early due to a decidedly creepy nightmare. Can't remember the details but it involved sexually molested children and malevolent curtains hung around a canopy bed. The curtains were the ones I had in my room when I was in middle school. Red, with large multicolored flowers printed on them. I had a matching comforter as well. Quite ugly, in retrospect. This all took place in a bedroom that was completely familiar, but no room I've ever had. And standing in the middle of the room was Dark Phoenix removing my mother's heart with her bare hand and placing it in her own semi-corporeal chest. It wasn't actually my mother at all though, but some unfamiliar woman with bobbed blond hair. There was no blood. The not-mother's chest just opened and then closed around the empty cavity.

It was at this point that I woke up and felt that I couldn't go back to sleep. I went to get a glass of water and when I got back in bed Pyramus came to lie on my chest and purr, no doubt in an effort to charm me into giving him breakfast earlier. Much to his chagrin, I proved temporarily uncharmable and he was forced to eat breakfast at his regular time.

This probably isn't terribly interesting. Certainly I'm rarely interested in hearing about people's dreams, although it seems to be something we all like to talk about. I think it's something about the tortured logic of dreams--the inexorability of them and the fact that they make sense while they occur and then fall back into confusion upon waking. It's that feeling that makes dreams interesting for me. And a very difficult sense to convey to the reader or listener.

Which brings me to the fact that I've recently read The Dream Life of Sukhanov. It's a good book, and an interesting book. It's also a book that feels designed to delight critics. Of course, that is done successfully when someone writes a book that is genuinely worthy of praise. Nevertheless, it feels like there is something cynical, if not in the book itself than in the packaging of it. The Washington Post Book World apparently wrote that, "it breathes new life into American literary fiction," which is precisely the kind of hyperbole publishing companies love to slap on front covers. The back cover and front sales, meanwhile, contain the mandatory comparisons to Nabokov and Bulgakov.

The cover itself is, in my opinion, brilliantly designed. The indeterminate horizon where still water meets grey sky, the surrealism of the ladder going to nowhere and held up by nothing, the lack of color, the generic looking, middle aged man with his back to's a slick presentation. It's also truly indicative of what you find between the covers. The central character in the book is a man who's walled off his interior life for the sake of exterior comforts to the point where he no longer even sees what he has done. A brilliant artist, in order to survive in the Soviet state where artists are seen as dangerous and must be controlled, he has repudiated everything he truly believes about art.The narrative takes place in a slippery place where meanings shift and the border between past and present, reality and fiction, is indeterminate. As Sukhanov descends into madness and a kind of waking dream-life the reader comes to understand the awful, and perhaps meaningless, sacrifice he has made.

The book is heavy-handed. Many of it's secondary characters exist as two dimensional cutouts or symbols. There are times when Grushin appears as though she's trying to club you over the head with her meaning. At the same time though, it's a terribly sad book. Sukhanov does and says bad things but is a not a bad man; he's someone you want to succeed even as he spirals down the road to insanity. And in this aspect at least, which to my mind is the most important, the book is a complete success. It's a wonderful portrait of a man who doesn't have the strength to do what he was meant to do and the ways in which that destroys him.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Story About the Body

I read this poem freshman year of college in a required course called Writing the Essay. The course was somehow supposed to prepare us for our future writing assignments I believe, but in fact did nothing of the sort. They were personal essays that had to integrate art and literature and mine were lost in some computer crash or other. I remember only one of the two we wrote. It was about my great-grandmother, who died while I was in the process of writing it.

I'm not sure how much I benefitted from the writing itself, but I had the great fortune to have a teacher who went outside the general reading for the course and introduced us to some wonderful poems. This was one of them.

The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." the radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was full of dead bees.
--Robert Haas

I had a bit of trouble finding it because I somehow got it in my head that it was by Robert Bly, when in fact it's by Robert Hass. I don't know why I didn't figure this out earlier since it's nothing like any Bly poem I've ever read. Anyway, I eventually found it by googling poem and the phrase I have had a double mastectomy which is the only exact quote I could remember. It seems like a rather prosaic way to find a piece of writing as wonderful as that.