Monday, May 26, 2008

Cinnamon Ice Cream

I've been craving cinnamon ice cream ever since eating it (with an excellent apple crisp) at a restaurant a few weeks ago. I've also been wanting to try making a Philadelphia-style (aka egg-free) ice cream. I had a bit of trouble finding a recipe for one, but finally dug one up in A Passion for Ice Cream by using the look-inside feature on Amazon. I'm considering buying the book as I think it's focus on Philadelphia-style ice creams would make a nice counterpoint to the Williams-Sonoma book which pretty much focuses on custard-based ice creams. Also appealing is the fact that it has lots of desserts which use ice cream as part of the dessert instead of the whole thing.

Anyway, the recipe is super simple. I was about 1/4 cup short on cream so I just added an extra 1/4 cup whole milk and otherwise followed the directions as well as I could (it was a little hard to read the numbers on the Amazon reader. I threw 2-1/2 cups heavy cream, 1-1/4 cups of milk, 2/3 cup sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks , 1/3 tsp ground cinnamon, and 1/3 tsp salt in a pot and scalded the whole mess. Then I chilled everything, strained it into the ice cream maker, and froze. Easy peasy.

The finished ice cream has a delicacy and milky sweetness, paired with the distinct, but not overwhelming, flavor of the cinnamon. When I was little, whenever I was sick my mother would make buttered toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. This tastes pretty much like that in ice cream form. I think it might be a bit too cream flavored for me, but I mostly like it, and Wendy has pronounced herself a fan.

It came out smoother than my past attempts at ice cream making but I'm not sure if it's because I didn't have to make custard or if it's because I chilled everything for longer than previously before pouring it into the ice cream maker. Too many variables.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I went to see this with my grandmother last week and am only now getting around to writing about it. It was a production I liked, but didn't love. And given that they're charging an arm and a leg for it one wants it to be fabulous. Instead, at times it feels flat, or at the very least as if the characters are not fully embodying their roles.

Terrance Howard, who plays Brick in this production was out in the show I saw and his understudy, while inoffensive and nice to look at, also wasn't terribly convincing. Anika Noni Rose is convincing as Maggie--although she was hard to hear/understand at times--and it lent the first act a bit of an unbalanced feeling. That wasn't too troubling though because Rose's Maggie is so captivating and intense a character that I didn't really think too much about Brick. The problems occur when Rose is offstage. She's pretty much providing all the fire in this production and no one else is nearly as galvanizing.

The moment Phylicia Rashad walked onto the stage the audience burst into applause, which I hate. No one's applauding her for the performance--it hasn't happened yet--and no one's applauding the character. They're just applauding Rashad for existing and stepping onto the stage. And there's a certain smugness to it all: we recognized this actor, we're in the know, we're going to applaud. I think it takes away from the actual work being done before us. That's a side note though. Far more problematic is the fact that I hated her portrayal of Big Mama. I'm not the biggest Phylicia Rashad fan; I've seen her in plays before and found her less then enjoyable. Nevertheless I was disappointed in the fact that Big Mama, as she plays her, is basically a caricature. It doesn't do justice to Tennessee Williams' writing.

James Earl Jones--subject to his own hearty applause upon entrance, of course--is not a caricature, but he's also not terribly interesting. The New York Times writes:
Mr. Jones is forced to play his character as a blustery but affectionate fellow whose vulgarity masks a good heart, not so different from the lovable codger he recently portrayed in “On Golden Pond.”
It's very true that the character is very like the one he played in On Golden Pond. There's not much sharpness to him and it takes a lot of the bite out of the play.

The audience was so loud that I actually missed bits in the beginning of the second act. We were sitting near a large group that had traveled to the city to see the show and the women behind us were basically holding a conversation a couple minutes into the act. Given that one of them had spent the end of intermission obliviously whacking both my grandmother and me in the face with her scarf I was fairly irritated. People were also eating some kind of chips or snack mix our of those loud crinkly bags. I'm really not the fussiest theatergoer but I do think it would be nice if people followed basic theater etiquette.

I've made this sound like a miserable experience though and that wasn't the case. It's a brilliantly written play and the production wasn't terrible, just tending toward the dull when Rose wasn't there enlivening it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What I'm Reading . . .

The New Yorker talked about what McCain's Supreme Court would look like and it's not an appealing picture:
In short, this one passage in McCain’s speech amounted to a dog whistle for the right—an implicit promise that he will appoint Justices who will eliminate the right to privacy, permit states to ban abortion, and allow the execution of teen-agers.

The question, as always with McCain these days, is whether he means it. Might he really be a “maverick” when it comes to the Supreme Court? The answer, almost certainly, is no.

The New York Times article on Tempelhof Airport:
Certain places, like certain works of music and love affairs, inspire bonds of affection that transcend logic and can’t be expressed in profit and loss. It doesn’t matter whether they’re great cultural monuments or civic symbols. Tempelhof also happens to be those things.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fairy Tales

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar

The book itself is lovely and I like the annotations. I'm more interested in the historical development of the tales than in the psychological analysis of them and Tatar keeps a good balance. What really makes the book so worthwhile though is the numerous full color illustrations, many from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
.......Grandmother lived deep in the woods, about half an hour's walk from the village. No sooner had Little Red Riding Hood set foot in the forest than she met the wolf. Little Red Riding Hood had no idea what a wicked beast he was, as so she wasn't the least afraid of him.
......."Good morning, Little Red Riding Hood," the wolf said.
......."Thank you kindly, Mr. Wolf," she replied.
They set off for the ball, and Cinderalla followed them with her eyes for as long as possible. When they were out of sight, she began to cry. Her godmother, who saw that she was in tears, asked what was wrong. "I should so like to . . . I shouls so like too . . . ." Cinderella was sobbing so hard that she cound not finish the sentence."

Enjoying Spring

The weather here has been a bit schizo--one day it's gorgeous and the next it's cold and raining--which has been totally tiring. But Saturday was a totally lovely day, so when a friend texted to suggest having a picnic in Central Park, I was all about that. I went to the post office first and spent 45 minutes on line--oh the joys of NYC post offices on Saturdays--only to be told that they couldn't help me, so I was pretty cranky. But getting to the park cheered me right up.

Because I don't live near Central Park I kind of forget to go up there regularly. Then whenever I do get there I remember how fantastic it is. It's not the same as being able to put on a some hiking boots and go trekking through the woods but it's still pretty damn nice.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Books that Changed My Life

No, not a list from me. This was the last of the PEN World Voices events I went to. It featured Annie Proulx, Olivier Rolin, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Catherine Millet, and Yousef Al-Mohaimeed. It was moderated by Paul Holdengräber, who is the guy in charge of public programs at the main branch of the NYPL.

Holdengräber began by simply asking: Do books change our life? Do we want to be changed? Molina talked about a book he recommends to his students which is about ants. He said that it's important because writers tend to be self-absorbed and think the most important thing in the world is books. Proulx mentioned that the author of said book had bad eyesight, forcing him to get very close to the ants. Molina said that writing is about focusing on something very small and making it large. You need to pay attention to the world. Writing should give an idea of this complexity because the world itself is so interesting.

Each writer then spoke briefly, at Holdengräber's request, about the book that changed them the most. For Molina that was Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which he read when he was twenty and in University, the year Franco died. It showed him a way of putting together the private personal experience of the present time and the repressed past he heard so much about from his parents and grandparents. The past is not an archive but a network of voices telling a part of a story. And the telling of a story is part of the story in and of itself. Holdengräber asked if the book was important to any of the other writers and both Proulx and Rolin said it was. Proulx said that Absalom, Absalom! is not her favorite Faulkner, nor was it the first she read, but that Faulkner's writing in general was important to her for the skill of the writing and the juxtaposition of rough dialogue and regionalism. Rolin, who used an interpreter, said that it was the power of words themselves to speak as opposed to one voice that influenced him.

Millet (who, as I mentioned before, also uses an interpreter) said that it was the book she wrote herself that most changed her life. And also that it is not completely unrelated to the book about ants. It was often compared to the work of an entomologist. She and Holdengräber then spoke a bit in French and then she said that the novel she would choose is The Lily of the Valley by Balzac. She was 13 or 14 and on the radio her parents listened to they often read excerpts they often read excerpts from famous books of the 19th century. She heard part of this one and recognized it as Balzac. The fact that she had recognized it made her proud--she felt as though she had a complicity with literature others did not have. Holdengräber asked why that book. She said that when she first read it the fact that topology plays a major role had an impact on her. Landscape is a metaphor for the relations between characters (as in Proust) and she thinks she was sensitive to this when young but not capable of expressing it. When she read it as an adult she found the story of the older woman's agony really striking. As with the Faulkner, Holdengräber asked if the book had mattered to anybody else. Rolin said that he is not a lover of Balzac. Molina said that he loves Balzac and he learned the possibility of allowing stories to develop over several books--to be larger than books--from him.

Before Al-Mohaimeed spoke Holdengräber mentioned that he'd at first had a list of 10 books, then winnowed it down to 5, and finally to 3. Al-Mohaimeed had an interpreter but chose to speak in English anyway. He said that when he was 8 years old he had no television because his father considered it to be religiously forbidden so he would go to see his favorite team's matches somewhere else. His sister would read him Arabian Nights and the magic tales gave him different ways of thinking about and writing literature. Then Japanese haiku made him pay attention to small things. And finally he read Zorba the Greek when he was 18 or 19, taking notes and coming up with questions. This awakened him and moved him to uncertainty and expanded his horizons from his former narrow-mindedness.

Rolin also chose to speak in English, apologizing for not speaking it well (his English was fine). The book he chose was Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. He said that he doesn't think any book has the dramatic power to change one's life. Some books together--like an orchestra--have that power. Lowry's book was the voice most loved in that orchestra. It deals with the love of physical things, the forces inside man that compel him to betray himself. But it is also filled with humor.

Holdengräber mentioned that Proulx kept recommending books he'd never heard of. The book she settled on though was Before Adam by Jack London which she read when she was 7. When she went to school she was disappointed in reading because it was so dull in school. So reading this book which was about prehistoric man was eye-opening for her. She and the narrator both felt they were different for other people, etc. Although it was not a good book it presented the idea that there were people before her--cracked open the world of ideas and door into intellectual curiosity and showed her that there were all kinds of things to be found in books. Also it looked very adult so she was proud to be carrying it around.

Holdengräber then asked the writers what they thought of the idea of a book changing someone's life. Proulx mentioned the idea of being lifted out of your life when you open a book. Molina then talked about the beneficial impact of books that aren't that good in and of themselves. For example 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Mystery Island. He talked about how, when he was reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea he realized for the first time that books are written by someone and that he wanted to write books himself. He wanted to be invited to Cpt. Nemo's submarine, but didn't know what he'd do on Sundays since he couldn't attend mass.

Millet then said that looking at the question more literally, as a child the idea of writing literature was a way of changing one's social class. Proulx agreed, saying that she came from a working class family and books, language, literature seemed an exit route not only into other stories but literally into another life. Molina pointed out that literature doesn't happen in a void and that for people in the working class just having access to books means a great deal.

Al-Mohaimeed spoke more generally, saying that while no books change your life completely there are books that build your life from time to time. Also that it is sometimes difficult to say why one likes a book.

Holdengräber noted that they had all chosen novels or stories and asked why that was. Proulx said that essays can be edifying or fascinating but not transformative. Holdengräber asked about the effect of Nietzsche's The Will to Power on young men, and Proulx said, "temporary, don't you think?" Molina said that there can also be books that change your life for the worse.

Holdengräber quoted Kafka, saying:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us.
Molina said that words are free. He doesn't accept the idea that books can be as devastating as the death of someone we love. We shouldn't exaggerate. They cause neither as much pain nor as much joy as real people. We would be fooling ourselves to thing they do. Millet talked about Man Ray and how he tried to do a work of art that would cause people to drop dead but couldn't find it. She said that everyone has his or her own metaphors and the metaphor of the ice-axe is a romantic one. She does think, though, that a book can help when we are going through hard times.

The floor was then opened for questions from the audience. Someone asked if the Bible or the classics had been important to the writers. Proulx said only Catullus. Millet said that as a child going to Catholic school reading the Bible was very important. She didn't go back and read it as an adult but having read it as a child influenced her reading later in life. Rolin said that reading the Bible and the Greeks influenced his writing in a way that made it to full of pathos. But it was also the Greeks that led him to Under the Volcano because the epigraph is by Sophocles.

The final question was whether the writers had any stories about their books changing other people's lives. Molina told a story about a man who had written to him saying that his wife had read one of his books and now felt that she wanted and deserved the kind of love in that book and felt that her husband wasn't providing it. Molina sent her a different book of his with a note about being careful with literature.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Truth & Reconciliation: A National Reckoning

The second event I went to on the Sunday before last was a panel on truth and reconciliation in countries that have seen great violence, repression, civil war, etc. The panelists here were Rian Malan, of South Africa; Alexandra Fuller, who wrote Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight; Francisco Goldman, who has written about the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala; and Lieve Joris, who has written about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The moderator was Paul van Zyl.

Instead of asking general questions van Zyl asked the individual panelists specific questions, which resulted in interesting answers but not much discussion. He started out by asking Goldman why it is important that nations grapple with a past of abuse and whether or not there is a case for forgetting? Goldman explained that in Guatemala the military imposed blanket amnesty. They then allowed a UN truth commission that was only allowed to speak generally, not lay specific blame. The government was a "democratic institution" based on forgetting. So the church formed its own truth commission, spearheaded by the bishop, and two days after it gave its report he was murdered. Van Zyl then asked if he thought the commission served Guatemala well and Goldman said that he thought it had been both essential and indispensable. He said that having to keep silent about that kind of trauma was a form of violence.

Van Zyl then asked Malan how he thought South Africa is progressing with dealing with the past. Malan said that he had been convinced that the South African drama would end in race war. After apartheid ended the next 18 months were a sort of honeymoon for South Africa and he feels that the truth commission succeeded primarily in opening old wounds. He also stated that he felt that the truth hadn't been obscured in South Africa as it had been in other countries. He then said that a truth commission needs to be impartial and theirs wasn't. He elaborated on this a bit after being asked if there was a case for reconciliation, saying that their truth commission wanted to refocus what happened in the soft focus of human rights and this was too simplistic. As an example he noted that all but one member of the ANC was secretly a member of the communist party. By way of conclusion he said that he felt alienated by the truth commission.

I don't think I quite caught the question for Fuller correctly but it had something to do with the complexity in Zimbabwe and also both Mugabe and the previous white regime. Fuller said that she once led people to leave a reading of hers in Colorado by comparing Mugabe to Bush. She then said that any peace birthed out of violence will eventually spawn violence. She said that Mugabe can be effective because there was no truth after the war there. It allowed him to jump on the abuse and push the right buttons. There was no reparation so there could be no reconciliation. Van Zyl then asked about complicity and Fuller said that the Rhodesians are not a good example of how to run a war, but they are a good warning. She compared their rhetoric to Bush's. Who takes responsibility? No one.

Continuing on the issue of complicity, van Zyl asked Joris about the role of Belgium and France in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She said that there is also a role for the United States, and soon for China as well. The people on top are helped from the outside so there is no opportunity for opposition from below. The pacification groups are a business. Where there is a void--no laws, no human rights, no economy--it allows people to do and become horrible things. Van Zyl then asked how you deal with child soldiers. Joris said that they are sometimes given into war by their families in return for money at a later date. Again it is an economic void that allows this to happen. It is important that there are witnesses on the ground. She then talked a bit about trying war criminals and said that sometimes when she is looking at these people she thinks, "haven't they suffered enough?" It is a situation in which there are not good guys and bad guys like we would want.

Van Zyl asked Goldman about the role of the US in Guatemala, pointing out that the truth commission there said that the genocide there could not have happened without the support of the United States. Goldman explained that at the time the United States was formulating the policy of waging proxy wars against communism. In the 60s they created a world of clandestine power. At the same time, progressive people in the state department began a program in Guatemala where they would handpick bright young people for scholarships to US universities. These people then returned to Guatemala and began influencing things. But, "reform is the door through which communists enter," so by the 70s, seventy percent of these young people had been murdered by the other branch of the US government active in Guatemala--the clandestine one of military power. He also said that the political criminals now own the drug cartels and organized crime.

Van Zyl then backtracked to address the idea that the South African truth commission, which he was a part of, was biased. He said that in the 48 hours before the report was made it was the ANC that tried to stop the South African truth commission. Thus he is hard pressed to concede the issue that the truth commission was biased toward the ANC. (I personally have no opinion on the bias or lack thereof of the truth commission since I know almost nothing about it, but I do, for the record, think that's a pretty weak argument.) He acknowledged that the commission had the responsibility to look at all sides but also said that in the end someone is more culpable, even if crimes are committed on both sides. Malan said that 72 people died in the dungeons of South Africa and while that is certainly too many it's not the equivalent of Pol Pot and that he would like precision in the crimes he is accused of. I think I was missing something (a lot) in this exchange, partially because I don't know a great deal about South Africa and partially because I don't know anything about Malan, never having heard of him before attending this panel.

That topic was then dropped and van Zyl asked Fuller about a book of hers in which she tells the story of an Evangelical Christian soldier. Fuller said that it actually makes sense because who is righter than God? She noted that it is so hard to argue with someone who has a highly literal belief in God.

The floor was then opened to questions from the audience of which there were a few. The first was about the responsibility of writers to transmit truth to a broad audience. Joris said that she wanted to give back to the Congolese a part of their history that they don't know. Malan said that he is just a journalist and a storyteller. Fuller talked about The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera and said that they should have paid more attention to his howl (which seems to be more about the responsibility of readers to listen to truth than the responsibility of writers to transmit it). Goldman said that people don't realize how difficult it is to create justice.

Another woman asked a rather long-winded question about what would happen to people today returning to their countries after being educated about democracy in the United States. Van Zyl mentioned that the US is probably not the best place to learn about democracy these days. Malan said that South Africans would probably just want to say in the US and also that since the Bush presidency began he has no longer been able to defend the US as he once did. Joris said that this has happened in the Congo and the educated people come back and get involved in the very worst things; education is no guarantee of good behavior.

Someone then asked Fuller if interpersonal reconciliation is possible without economic reconciliation. She said that for real reconciliation you can't be sitting there aching for something someone else has. The final question was also for her and asked about Britain's failure in Rhodesia. She said that Britain refused to be involved in the corruption. A grand idea doesn't do any good if the people in power are so corrupt that the idea rots in their hands.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"One knows that one is fragile."

Last Saturday I was planning on going to a few different PEN events, and the first was a panel called, "NoPassport: Writing & Political Responsibility in Theater." And it sucked. All but one of the playwrights live and work in the US and they basically didn't talk about international differences at all. And while they did touch on politics and political writing, it would have been nice to have at least one playwright there who was interested in writing overtly political work. Nor did I think that the discussion wound up being that insightful. I was so frustrated that when it was over I decided that I'd spent more than enough time in the last couple days sitting in theaters and if I was going to get through the three talks I had tickets to on Sunday I needed to spend some time being outside moving around.

Fortunately the events the next day were at the NYPL and they generally put together good events. The first one of the day featured Péter Esterházy, of Hungary, who spoke through a translator, being interviewed by Wayne Koestenbaum. The introduction, given by someone else whose name I don't remember, was verging on obnoxious in this very particular young, quasi-hipster intellectual sort of way which did not seem to bode well. There were also official-seeming people taking pictures which would have been fine except they didn't seem to worried about getting in the way of other people. As it turned out though, Esterházy was fascinating and quite funny. One of the disappointing things one learns going to readings and panels is that more often than not writers don't talk about their work in a very interesting way. But happily that was not the case with Esterházy and it turned out to be the most interesting PEN event I attended. I took notes as precisely as possible--I like taking notes because I feel like it makes me a better listener when I'm using my hands and copying out information--but I'll only put things in quotes if I'm sure it's exactly what the translator said.

The major topics they discussed, the ones that I found most interesting, were the "formal playfulness" of his work--in the form of repetition, lists, and intertextuality--and his father. Esterházy explained that he uses the repetition to create "musical dialogues." If we repeat a word again and again its meaning disappears. It's something that is apparently a linguistic game but also true in real life.

Koestenbaum asked specifically about his use of "my father" which appears over 2000 times in Celestial Harmonies. Esterházy called it a family novel and said that he had researched it like a normal person. Writers, he said, basically know nothing, but they have to look up something and then make people believe that they know everything. He took all the stories that came to him and turned them into stories about his father. In this case it works because the word father is so powerful. When we put it into a text it, "explodes that text." If we turn everything into father it means there is no father.

Koestenbaum then asked about the pages of rhapsodical writing about the sexuality of the father in the book and asked where Esterházy's real father was in the book? The question, Esterházy said, is how can one transcend one's own limitations? Step past taboos? He said that he has to find a way to, "overcome [his] own cowardice." The greatest insulter of one's own country is Thomas Bernhard. Esterházy, on the other hand, "always finds an excuse for [his] country," and says, " on the one hand, on the other hand." So if he wants to make a strong statement he'll take Bernhard's text. This is how intertextuality works. The part of his book that Koestenbaum was asking about he took from a Swiss protocol. If he wrote based on his actual relationship with his father, he would write a four-page short story. Esterházy explained that he doesn't write because of personal problems he wants to work out. His relationship with his work is cooler and more technical. He uses his own life to inform his books, not his books to solve problems. Novels are not characters but words and the words create the characters.

They then discussed math--he trained as a mathematician but claims to have, "understood nothing in an intelligent way--and music. Esterházy said that he has a feeling that musicians are more radical than writers and that he likes to be reminded of radicalism. The problem is that words have meaning. It's very confusing. Above the words there is a different meaning and that is what we're interested in. Music doesn't have to play this double game so it's more direct.

Koestenbaum returned to the idea of emptying out words and asked if he was trying to empty out the word Esterházy. Yes, Esterházy said, and also that it was the best question he'd ever been asked. He is trying to empty out everything. "Words are like gardens and once you walk through them you can throw them away." (I'm not sure if I entirely understand that--it's not how I feel about gardens--but I think it's an interesting way to think about it.) He said that he is uninterested in his written books, "but does not ask [us] to share that sentiment."

Keeping with the theme of intertextuality, Koestenbaum asked about theft and borrowing. Esterházy said that Celestial Harmonies was published in 20 languages and the only place there was the problem with the intertextuality was the United States. There is a belief here that, "law describes the world," and this is not the case. Intertextuality is a natural process not a theoretical thing, although there are lots of theories behind it. The interesting thing is how to weave words from disparate sources into music.

They joked a bit about the scandalous potential of a book like his as an act of what Koestenbaum described as, "cheerful theft" and how that is one of the only ways writers make the news here. Esterházy then said that it was a mistake on their part to make light of it because as soon as we look at literature as someone's property--the idea that words or strings of words belong to someone--we, "come to something very horrible."

The conversation then moved on to Esterházy's latest novel, Revised Edition, and Koestenbaum asked if it purports to tell the truth. Esterházy said that skepticism is justified. In his books he puts on masks and plays with what is real and what is not. Pretends he can tell the difference, draws boundaries around reality. He then told the story about how he went to look at the dossier that the secret police had kept on him under communism and saw his father's handwriting. He had to accept that as real but couldn't find a single fact in his life that corresponded with the reality that, from 1957-1980, his father worked for the secret police. Many people said that it would have been better if he hadn't found out, but he doesn't think so. He saw how history is stronger than a human being. "One knows that one is fragile." Behind the story is the real person who was at once fantastic and fragile.

There was a very brief moment at the end in which the audience could ask questions and Esterházy was asked if he had found out anything more since writing Revised Edition. He said that he has not, but also hasn't looked for it. At the beginning of the documents it said that his father was compelled by blackmail and he would like to know what he was blackmailed with. He thinks it was probably them (he and his siblings).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Writing Sex & Sexuality (Part II)

Part I is here. As with the previous panel I attended the second half of this one was devoted to questions from the audience. The first person to the mike asked what the authors decided not to include because it was personal. Only Millet's work is autobiographical and she said that it is a question of self-censorship. She decided that she wanted to leave aside as little as possible. But when she started writing she discovered that her memory had censored her against her will and she had to go back to old writing to recapture the memories. Michalopoulou said that fiction writers are always asked, "Is it real?" and that she sometimes feels threatened when people assume that what she has written must be real.

Millet was then asked why she rejected the feminist label and the others were asked if they considered them feminists. I'm always a bit bothered by women who are quick to reject the idea of being feminists so I was happy to hear this question. Millet explained that what she meant was that she never belonged to the feminist movement--historical feminism. She then went on to say that there is now New Feminism in which she recognizes herself much more. She also noted that they call this new feminism "pro-sex" which makes one wonder if old feminism was anti-sex. She also noted that writing her book brought her closer to women and now maybe she is a little bit feminist. None of the others answered the question.

The next question was asked by a man who complimented Millet in a rather awkward and over-the-top manner (And I wasn't the only one who thought so as the women in my row were all smiling at each other while laughing silently). I wasn't quite clear on the question but the compliments basically expressed a belief that Millet's book could change the way people have sex or something to that effect. It was weird. Anyway, Millet said that she was not trying to be a model or set a path for others or change them. Her goal in writing the book was to show that one could write a book entirely about sex that people could read on the subway. She said that erotic literature should not be in a ghetto and artistic works should have the freedom to be graphic.

A question was then asked about the translation of the graphic parts. Sicking said that she finds that translation into English changes the tone a great deal, generally speaking, the changes are not more significant in the sexual parts than in the other parts. Hedaya explained that the sex parts do change quite a bit when translated into English because of the nature of Hebrew. As a modern, spoken language, Hebrew is actually quite young (having only been used for religious purposes for many years) and so when writing sex scenes one runs into the problem of not having enough words. Thus the scenes can seem either sluttish or gynecological.

Someone then asked about visual imagination. Millet replied that the first sexual organ is the eye. Michalopoulou said that she doesn't believe in genre but in good and bad novels and that visual imagination has to do with all writing of novels.

Returning to the subject of an all women's panel, someone asked a question about sexuality versus sex as the domain of women. The panelists (Michalopoulou and Millet answered) basically said that they didn't think sensuality was exclusive to women nor did they think that women are inherently sensual.

For the first time in a PEN event that I have seen, someone then asked the moderator a question. Saytal was asked if he thought he had been chosen to host the panel due to the sexual content of his upcoming book. He said that he thought that was part of it but that it was also to have a man on the panel and due to the idea of the gay man as go-between.

Two questions were then asked and answered simultaneously: one on the danger of intellectualizing something intrinsically carnal and one on the obstacle of feeling ashamed as a woman. Sicking said that she doesn't worry about feeling ashamed because her writing is not autobiographical. She also said, which I thought was more interesting, that the writer is always defending the individual. Michalopoulou said that in re: to intellectualizing, explaining instead of showing is always a danger. She also said that she never worries about self-censorship. Hedaya explained that while she neither censors nor writes about herself she does sometimes get carried away with a scene and have to go back and question what its purpose is and whether or not it is pornographic.

The final question was whether or not it is harder to turn people on with the ever-present erotica in today's society. Millet's answer to this was that as a writer one writes about sex to correct what one finds in the media--to bring a realist approach to sexuality.

And with that, the panel ended. While I do wish that the panel had included a male voice I did find it interesting and I don't have a problem with a panel looking at how female writers approach sex and sexuality, I just think it should have perhaps been billed as such.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Writing Sex & Sexuality (Part I)

It seems like I always have nothing to blog about or two much to blog about. And of course when there's too much to blog about there's also no time to write lengthy posts. And then suddenly you're a week behind. Is it so much to ask for a happy medium? Anyway, Friday evening, before I went to the ballet, I attended a panel on writing about sex and sexuality that was part of the PEN World Voices festival. The panelists were Catherine Millet, who used a translator, Anja Sicking, Amanda Michalopoulou, and Yael Hedaya. Millet was the only one I had heard of before. Also, Michalopoulou was wearing this rather fabulous outfit with orange tights. The panel was moderated by Rakesh Saytal.

Saytal began by asking the writers to talk about books that had influenced them regarding sex and sexuality. Hedaya said she was most influenced by Lady Chatterley's Lover and other books she wasn't allowed to read. Michalopoulou talked about a book she had read about Aphrodite and also Portnoy's Complaint and explained that she prefers sexuality full of humor. Sicking said that when she was younger she was interested in any book about sex and now it's not so important if a writer writes about sex or not. Millet didn't remember any books being influential for her but instead talked about the rather pornographic films in the 60s.

This comment about films led to a question about other forms of media usurping the book in terms of influencing young people. Hedaya said that books have less and less influence because fewer people read, particularly young people. She thinks it's disappointing because there was a thrill to the imagination required when reading but does think that TV is better, and safer, than the internet. (Personally, I think they function in a different and not entirely comparable manner.) Michalopoulou expressed hope that books remain influential because there are so many ways to express things through books. She also said that movies are a totally different form and you can't compare them. Sicking pointed out that what books can do, that other forms of media cannot, is express the inner world of experience when having sex.

Continuing with the theme of media, Saytal then asked Millet about dialogue in media. She first returned to the previous question and said that she feels new media has killed erotic literature. She then talked a bit about the publication of her book and said that she attempted to present slices of dialogue as though recorded and transcribed into the book.

Saytal then left the subject of other media behind (for which I was grateful as I find the whole idea of the death of the book to be quite overhyped) and asked about being female writers and writing about the inner lives of male characters. Sicking said that one of the great things about writing is that you can be someone you could never be in real life and that if you're going to write about sex you should be able to convey the feelings of both characters. I think that rather depends on the voice and focus of the book, personally. Hedaya said that while she doesn't devote a lot of thought to it, it was a challenge to write from the perspective of a man, particularly a middle-aged man. Answering a question from Saytal, she said that she did not do research. Millet said that if one imagined what readers' reactions might be one wouldn't write. It would be inhibitive. Michalopoulou then told a story about how her first job as a journalist was to translate Dr. Ruth columns. In writing novels one shouldn't use the sort of rhetorics used there but should go with the flow of the story. She also said that she doesn't like the idea of fantasies but prefers to describe things as though they really happened.

Saytal then asked about the idea that Europeans are freer than Americans when it comes to sexuality. Michalopoulou said that these are human issues and one can't think in terms of nationality. We can only imagine how other people feel and act, not know. Sicking said that it is the cliche that Americans are more prudish but she doesn't know if it's true because it's her first time in the US and she hasn't talked to anyone about it. Millet spoke about her own experience as a writer in that she wrote a very French book but it was translated into many languages. She agreed with Michalopoulou that we shouldn't get hung up on cliches of nationality or borders. One of the cliches she mentioned is that Catholic cultures are freer about sexuality than Protestant cultures. Her book sold very well in America but not nearly as well in Italy, which would seem to contradict that.

Turning the question of women writing about men on its head, Saytal then asked them to talk about what they think of men writing about women in terms of sexuality. He also made mention of the fact that the panel was made up of four women with a flamboyant gay man as interlocutor. Sicking said that men sometimes seem to exaggerate when writing about women. Michalopoulou talked about the predominance in Southern European writing of a kind of macho perspective and said that it wasn't always like this and what matters is good writers, regardless of gender. Hedaya thought it was an interesting question to which she hadn't given much thought and that sometimes male writers seem to over-romanticize how women feel about sex. Millet said that she thought it was significant that the panel was made up entirely of women and that it seems to her that it is women who have something to say about sexuality today for two reasons: 1) Women speak up more frequently now and 2) Women have a certain distance men do not have. She further said that she doesn't consider herself a feminist but does think that women have work to do in describing sexuality.

Saytal's final question was whether the panelists felt, as female writers, an obligation to be feminist, transgressive, etc. Sicking said that she does not because art should supersede obligation.

Hedaya left the questions behind for a moment to address the makeup of the panel, saying that she found it upsetting that there were no male writers. It was something that seemed to her (and I agree) to be the opposite of feministic because it puts women back in the ghetto of feelings and emotionality being the domain of women. Given the amount that men write about sex and sexuality I was glad that someone addressed this.

The floor was then opened to questions, which I'll post about later today.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Watermill and The Four Seasons

I'd read about Watermill and how slow and boring and pretentious, etc. it is and I'd I'd also read that it was influenced by Noh drama. I've never seen Noh but having sat through a not-at-all fun hour and a half of the reportedly more accessible Kabuki I was fully expecting to hate the ballet. So I was surprised when I found it rather interesting.

Tonya Plank, who does wonderful dance reviews on her blog, has a good description of the piece. Basically, our central figure, danced by Nikolaj Hübbe in a role that requires almost no dancing at all, seems to be reflecting on memories, with the most important ones involving his younger self in different stages of his life. He strips down to his underwear on a beach--something that creates a feeling of vulnerability, exposure, perhaps?--and then spends most of his time watching these memories pass. Robbins also equates the cycles of life with the passing of the seasons, which I'm not sure is particular interesting. Or rather, I think it's one that's been done to death and better than it is here. What is far more interesting is that it is a piece of theater that dwelling in memory and yet avoiding the nostalgia that so often seems to overwhelm such things. In fact, the past seems tinged with regret more than anything else.

What fascinates me though is the stillness, the meditative quality, the way in which the dance seeks to change the viewer's perception of time passing. When there is so little motion, every movement matters. Everything becomes imbued with greater importance. Well, that's the theory anyway. The reality is that it's only effective in parts.

There are moments when the shifting tableaux draw you in, moments where you really do fall into the meditative feeling of the piece. One of the loveliest moments, for me, came after the rather sexual duet between the young man I assume is his younger self and a woman. Hübbe has sat, watching, but then he switches from observer to participant as he momentarily takes the place of the young man and is standing with the girl, stepping into his own memory as one steps into a dream.

But there are other times--for example, when he's waving around stalks of wheat, which are apparently supposed to be phragmites, for minutes on end--when you wonder what exactly the point is of a particular part is. And as each part goes on for a long time, you have a lot of time to wonder. On the one hand there's something quite beautiful about this striking man and the light falling on these long golden golden stalks. But on the other hand you can't help but want to know why and if the reason is fathomable then it's beyond me. And if there is no reason isn't that a problem?

I find myself torn on the piece as a whole. I wasn't bored. Hübbe has a way of seeming actively engaged even when perfectly still, and of giving weight his ever-so-slow movements, that I very much enjoy watching. And I felt like there were things I was constantly mulling over, both during and after the performance. But at the same time I found it quite frustrating. So I don't really know what I think and I've been trying to figure it out, but I don't think it's going to happen.

The Four Seasons which I had also never seen, is a lovely way to end the evening on a light, joyful note with it's cheer and humor. I particularly liked Sara Mearns in the Spring section and Ashley Bouder (who I've really enjoyed every time I've seen her dance) and Daniel Ulbricht in the Fall section. I think I would have liked Benjamin Millepied better if he wasn't dancing in a section with Bouder and Ulbricht. They just make everything seem so delightfully effortless, while his dancing seems more like work. I loved the Winter section particularly, even though none of the dancers stood out to me particularly like they did in the Spring and Fall sections.

(1st picture stolen from the New York Times review, 2nd picture stolen from the New York Sun review)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Bowery and Houston

I was planning on going to three PEN World Voices things today like a good little wannabe-intellectual or whatever. But halfway through the first--which I disliked on its own merits but I'll post about that later--I realized that I've spent an awful lot of time sitting in a theater-type setting in the last few days. I know a lot of people do that but I'm kind of antsy in the best of situations and I had just come to the unpleasant realization that I was getting no more enjoyment from listening to that panel than I got from cleaning the litter box this morning. And one of my cats has rather bad aim so believe me when I tell you that litter box was nasty. So I decided that, given the fact that I have tickets to three talks tomorrow, it was probably best if I spent the rest of today doing other things. Which I have. So good for me, I guess.

Publishers Weekly: On Translation (Part II)

You can find a summary of the first part of this panel here. The second half of the panel was dedicated to questions from the audience, which I inevitably find to be less interesting than the moderated section but at least it's better than going to these things in a University setting where there is inevitably some douche who makes a five minute argument and tacks a question mark on the end. Anyway...

The first question asked was whether or not it was generally less difficult to make money publishing in Europe. Krüger said that it is also difficult in Europe. The book market is overcrowded just as it is in the US. They then brought the discussion back to translation specifically. Frank explained that most publishers in the US look at translation as a dead loss and also said that he doesn't think the problem is American provincialism but American triumphalism. He quoted Madeleine Albright describing the US as the world's "indispensable nation" and said that he thinks there is a feeling that if the US is the indispensable nation then so too must our literature be the indispensable literature. Entrekin pointed out that US publishers are in a difficult position because sales are much smaller for non-Anglo-Saxon writers. Maybe 2,000-3,000 copies in hardcover and you have to factor in the need to pay the translation costs. Freihow added that what is successful in one nation may not be successful in another and it is important for publishers to know their market.

The next question asked was one I didn't quite understand. It was something about how books published in translation or otherwise in Spain are then sold in Latin America and it doesn't seem to be the case that books translated in the UK are then sold in the US. Krüger was fairly dismissive of this saying that in the past Latin America had imported 80% of its literature from Spain but that happily seemed to be changing. He described it as a ridiculous post-colonial situation. It sounded like the issue was not a lack of exchange between the UK and the US in comparison to Spain and Latin America but the fact that there had been no real publishing industry in Latin America so even authors from there had to go to Spain to be published. Nelson added that in the 70s many Latin American poets were actually published in the US first, before they were even published in Spain.

There was also something about António Lobo Antunes. The fact that he is not popular in the English speaking world perhaps? That not enough copies are put out and this results in small sales? Krüger said that Antunes is actually very hard to sell in Germany as well. His company used to publish him and he was frustrated by his small sales so he went to a different company where his sales continue to be small. He then said something about him waiting to win the Nobel Prize now so that his sales will take off. But, he added, the ideas of the Swedish committee are bizarre (this is very true). This led to a conversation about making money off publishing in translation.

Entrekin said that winning the Nobel Prize does jump sales and used Kenzaburo Oe and sales of A Personal Matter as an example. It sounded like winning the prize can bring a writer to another level in status and then sales remain at a higher level because they are then considered a more important writer. That's my own interpretation though as opposed to anything that was said. Entrekin also returned to the subject of Antunes and said that his company also used to publish Antunes and he thinks that the difficulty in selling his books stems from the subject matter not the availability. Freihow than said that he expects novels in translation, particularly novels translated from English, to do better than a first novel by a Norwegian author, for example. So rather different than what you would expect in the US. Krüger said something to the effect of making money off the trash to put into good novels which seems a more general strategy to me then one just relevant to translation. Frank then said that it is possible to make money off books in translation but you have to expect to sell relatively few copies and know the market you are selling to, which is a niche one. I was glad he made a point of this since a high percentage of what NYRB Classics sells--particularly for a US company--is books in translation and they've been doing so for 10 years so I assume they have a business model that enables them to make money.

A question was then asked about the marketing of translated books. Nelson added that there are 300,000 books published per year in the US (this number seems high since in 2004 it was about 190,000 but I assume she knows better than I do) and asked how many are published in other countries. Krüger said that there are 10,000-20,000 fiction books published per year in Germany. I wish Nelson had provided the fiction numbers for the US or Krüger had provided the total numbers for Germany. Anyway, Krüger went on to say that readership is not growing. He also stated that the public imagination is constantly changing and used the popularity of crime novels in the US and not in Germany as an example of this. Freihow then jumped in to say that the market for crime novels is rising in all of Scandinavia. This led Krüger to note that the literary imagination is not popular right now. But Freihow, who seemed generally more optimistic to me, pointed out that The God of Small Things sold 70,000 copies in Norway so it seemed to him that we shouldn't say literature is failing. Krüger countered that there are more options now and that literature bestsellers are the exception. He also talked about how translating poetry is one of the oldest literary genres but doesn't sell.

After all this Frank actually addressed the question of marketing to an extent, in terms of different cultural complexions. He talked about the way in which books are arranged in a bookstore. In the US that is divided by genre and then alphabetically by author. But he said that in France books are arranged by country of origin and in Italy by publisher. So there is a difference in presentation--the expectation of a more literate public that is interested in reading literature from different parts of the world or the editorial curatorship that one sees from various publishers.

The next question was whether or not publishing trash in translation in the US could help to make works in translation more popular. Entrekin said that it's something that's happening now with Scandinavian crime fiction and Freihow added that it's better to read trash than not read at all (a view to which I subscribe). Frank then said that there's a lot worse trash than crime fiction. Another view to which I subscribe; I don't like the dismissal of entire genres as trash because I think it's simply not the case.

Someone then asked if non-fiction was different since the focus of the evening had been on fiction. Krüger said that in Europe publishers don't distinguish between academic and general non-fiction but he thinks in the future there will be academic presses/supported systems as there are in the US. Freihow said that smaller countries like the Scandinavian ones are actually losing their academic literature because the authors write and publish directly in English. I thought these were interesting answers but wasn't convinced that they really addressed the question.

The final question of the evening was whether or not it was difficult to find good translators in the US. Entrekin said that it is easy to find translators for the major languages but a bit more difficult to find translators for smaller languages. Overall though, he thinks it is not that hard. What is hard, he said, is to make a living as a translator, and most of them work in academia. Frank agreed, and that ended the evening.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Publishers Weekly: On Translation (Part I)

The PEN World Voices festival fills me with glee. Writers from all over the world talking about books and literature on panel after panel...what's not to like? There are a lot of events that overlap or take place during the workday, but I'm going to attend a bunch of panels and such in the next few days so I'm looking forward to that.

The panel I went to Thursday centered on translation which is, of course, a topic that one practically has to consider during a festival that features writers from all over the world who write in a multitude of different languages. This particular panel was not about the act of translating itself but the business of publishing literature in translation. Something we don't do much of in the United States.

The panel was comprised of Edwin Frank, the editorial director of NYRB Classics; Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic; Michael Krüger, the head of German publishing house Hanser Verlag; and Halfdan Freihow, who founded his own publishing house, Font Forlag, in Norway. Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly moderated.

The panelists all began by talking a bit about their involvement with translation and the amount of their publishing output that is literature in translation, with the American publishers speaking specifically of their companies and the European publishers more generally of publishing in translation in their countries.

NYRB Classics publishes 25 books a year and has been doing so for 10 years. They began as a reprint house, publishing books that were out of print in English, but they now also publish books that have never been translated into English before. As a side note, I love the NYRB Classics imprint: its ambition in terms of publishing choices, its list, its uniformity of design, pretty much everything about it.

Krüger said that Germany, "came late into civilization," and that German literature begins with Martin Luther's translation of the Bible. Translations have always been a big part of German publishing with over 50% of books published in Germany originating in foreign countries, and 60-70% being translations from Anglo-Saxon languages. He stated that the translation business is a prestigious one and the concept of the translator is highly regarded with translators now being treated like an author to a large extent.

Freihow said that at least half the books he publishes are in translation which he described as normal for Norwegian publishers. He then went on to make three points:
  1. Translation and the importation of voices is invaluable, particularly in a small country like Norway, to insure that the country does not become linguistically or intellectually isolated. Books that have been translated should be treated as part of the literature of the language they have been translated into.
  2. Translators are at the forefront of linguistic development due to their need to search for metaphors, etc.
  3. He feels that it is important to pay above the going rate for translation.

Entrekin described the backlist of Grove as the engine that allows the publisher to run and mentioned that it has a great core of literature in translation and that is a tradition he attempts to continue. At the same time, he explained, it is extremely difficult to sell literature in translation in the United States. Grove publishes 10-15 translated books per year. He explained that he thinks of publishing these books, as it was once described to him, as a kind of "psychic equity." The company is contributing to the conversation in a way that will improve perception of and support for the imprint.

Nelson then mentioned that only 3% of the books published in the United States are in translation and asked the European publishers where the books they publish originate. Both Krüger and Freihow said that around 50% are from the United States and England and Freihow also said that half of those are the big bestsellers. Freihow then went on to speculate as to why translated work doesn't sell in the US. He feels that it can't be the subject matter, which is the same regardless of where the work is from, nor can it be the foreign names since the US has such a diverse population that we're used to unusual names. It seems to me though that the problem starts before the readers even make a choice on what to buy though as Entrekin said the booksellers don't order books in translation and the reviewers don't review them. They say they don't have space on their shelves or inches in their columns. He also pointed out that in the post-WWII era, many of the books that did get translated were very intellectual, non-narrative, and difficult to read, which could have turned readers off. He said that he does think it's getting easier to sell translated books and that this is in part because of the sort of books that are being written and published.

The next question related to funding for translations and the fact that an agent had recently told Nelson that it was difficult to sell American books in Europe due to current politics. Krüger answered that he doesn't find any anti-Americanism in publishing and feels that American books have more influence in Germany than they did, say, 50 years ago. Entrekin said that it is more difficult to sell books in Europe than it was in the 80s but he thinks it is partially a market correction after the very high number of books that were being sold there at the time and partially the result of an influx of writers from all over the world. So basically that the American books are now being drawn from a bigger pool than they were previously. Freihow said that part of the issue is "greedy agents" driving prices up and a lack of translation support from the US. Krüger pointed out that even small European countries provide 3 or 4 million dollars a year to support translations and many of the translations published are funded largely by the government. He doesn't understand why the US can't do this. Frank ascribed it to that eternal sore spot: the lack of government funding for the arts in the United States.

On a slight tangent, Krüger said that he feels we need to translate contemporary work because translating old thinking means going back. Freihow then spoke about the export business as a threat to translation because people read the books in English instead of waiting for the translation to be published and then local publishers lose out. This is something I actually was aware of because I've heard the foreign sales people at my company speak about it. Apparently this is particularly the case in some of the Scandinavian countries so it wasn't surprising to hear Freihow mention it. Personally I tend to think this is a good thing, because it seems to me that it is always better to read something in the language in which it was originally written if it is possible to do so. I can understand why publishers wouldn't love it though. This led to a brief discussion of global publishing and of titles being released in multiple countries/languages at roughly the same time. Krüger said that trash travels extraordinarily fast while non-trash is very slow. Freihow then added that the publishing business tends to overestimate the importance of time. The interested reader doesn't care if a book is brand new.

The audience was then invited to ask questions. I'll write about that a bit later, because this is long and I'm tired with a long Friday stretching out before me: I've got work, another panel I'd like to go to, and then the ballet in the evening.