12.16.2011

The Year's Best


This is the season when almost everyone is making a list of their favorite books of the year, in most cases a list of the ten best. The list on the Salon online magazine was a little different. They asked 50 reasonably well-known writers to name their favorite book of the past year. Their selections included two that were mentioned more than once—Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (three times) and Volt by Alan Heathcock (twice).

However, in a glaring and unforgivable omission, Salon did not ask me for my selection. In putting the question to myself, I came up with a list of the following 18 books that I that I consider my top 18 of the year. What is my favorite of the group? That is a tough one.

Paul Auster Sunset Park
Joshua Ferris The Unnamed
Natalia Ginzburg Little Virtues
Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists
Jonathan Dee The Privileges
David Vann Caribou Island

Teju Cole Open City
Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time to Keep Silence
Mary Gordon The Love of My Youth
James Salter Light Years
Alastair Reid Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner
Iris Origo War in Val d’Orcia

Andre Aciman Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
Allegra Goodman The Cookbook Collector
Ann Patchett State of Wonder
Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness
Michael Ondaatje The Cat’s Table
Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot

As I think back on the experience I had reading each one, there are three that brought me the greatest pleasure and insight: Open City, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and I Married You for Happiness. Of these three, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere garnered by far the most entries in my commonplace book, always a good measure of a book’s literary value to me, but by no means the only one.

However, I found Aciman’s writing utterly compelling, as it always is, those long, wandering, here and there, back and forth, ambivalent, questioning sentences.

…the life we think of each day and the life not lived, and the life half lived, and the life we wish we’d learn to live, while we still have time, and the life we want to rewrite if only we could, and the life we know remains unwritten and may never be written at all, and the life we hope others may live far better than we have…

But I spoke these words without conviction, and would have thought I hadn’t meant them had I not grown used to the notion that speaking without conviction is how I speak the truth.


And his frequent reflections on the concept of Place, of neighborhood, of city and the memories they evoke, also ambivalent, is much like my own. So I’ll cast my vote for Andre Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and look forward to hearing from Salon next year.

Marks In The Margin will be on a holiday break for the next few weeks. See you next year. Meanwhile:

12.14.2011

On Rereading


“The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does.” Patricia Spacks

I am reading On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. It is the first time I’ve read it, although I have reread the first chapter that sketches Spacks’ views on the value of rereading and the reasons that motivate her to devote a fair amount of time to rereading literary fiction.

She suggests we reread for enjoyment, a way to evoke memories, a reminder of forgotten truths, as well as a source of new ones. But we also reread, she says, to measure how we have changed or even if we have changed. “…but for most readers, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of unexpected change.” She cites a passage from an essay on rereading by Vivian Gornick:

“When I read Colette in my twenties, I said to myself, That is exactly the way it is. Now I read her and I find myself thinking, How much smaller this all seems than it once did—cold, brilliant, limited—and silently I am saying to her, Why aren’t you making more sense of things?”

But for the most part Spacks suggests we reread fiction because we want to re-experience the pleasure we found when we first read a book, the enjoyment that can arise from an engaging story, stimulating truth or fine writing.

The bulk of her text describes the various encounters she has had rereading books. She treats the books she read as a child, her favorite Jane Austen, those she read in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, the books she read as a professional teacher and critic, those she ought to have liked, but didn’t and the ones she has read as a member of a book group.

In the final chapter, Coda, she reviews what she has learned from all the books she’s reread. She wonders what the era of electronic books will do to reading and the experience of rereading and confesses she can’t begin to imagine what that will be.

At the same time she realizes how much she has “been shaped—personality, sensitivities, convictions—by reading.” She also comes to better understand how the extent to which her values and attitudes have changed over the years.

“If Herzog has meanings that I was earlier unable to detect; if The Golden Notebook, with large pretensions, now seems relatively trivial in import; if the facts of a book’s nature can shift in such ways, value judgments, too must be less stable than they appear.”

Most of the rereading I do is simply because I’ve forgotten so much, if not all, of what the book was about, why I liked it, and why it is (usually) still on my shelf. I reread because I forget so much. And I don’t do a great deal of rereading, since I really only started reading seriously relatively late in life and have a lot catching up to do.

And then I think about those truly special books I’ve read. These are books I don’t forget. And, unlike Spacks, I know I don’t want to reread them again. I don’t want to do anything to alter the memory that I have of those days, the people in the book, their story and the great writing. None of it can ever be repeated. They were the best and I want to keep it just that way.

I’d rather not experience Gornick’s melancholy lament: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.”

Here is a brief video of Spacks talking about her book:

Patricia Meyer Spacks, ON REREADING from Harvard University Press on Vimeo.

12.12.2011

Doctor to the Resistance


We lived in the shadows as soldiers of the night, but our lives were not dark and martial. . . There were arrests, torture, and death for so many of our friends and comrades, and tragedy awaited all of us just around the corner. But we did not live in or with tragedy. We were exhilarated by the challenge and rightness of our cause. It was in many ways the worst of times and in just as many ways the best of times, and the best is what we remember today. Jean-Pierre Levy

Few Americans participated in the French Resistance, a movement that will always represent in my mind the epitome of moral courage. I wrote about one here. Although I imagine there were others, the only one I am aware of is Dr. Sumner Jackson. These are individuals we don’t want to forget.

Jackson’s various roles in the Resistance are described in Hal Vaughan’s Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris. Sumner Jackson graduated from the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1919 and soon thereafter joined the British Royal Medical Corp as a field surgeon during the First World War. Once America entered the war, he was enlisted by the U.S. Army Medical Corp to serve at the Red Cross Hospital in Paris. It was there that he met his wife, Toquette, a French citizen who was a nurse at the hospital then.

After the war, the couple returned to his home in Maine. But they found it difficult to adjust to life there and moved back to Paris. Jackson worked at the American Hospital in Paris, where he remained until the Germans captured him in 1944.

The Jacksons began acting as Resistance agents in 1940, soon after the Germans occupied Paris. At one point they even asked their 14 year-old son, Phillip, to gather photographic intelligence of German submarine and ship building installations around the port of Saint-Nazaire. However, most of their activities took place at the American Hospital and their home on Avenue Foch, not far from the hospital.

They used their home as a shelter for downed Allied pilots who they helped to escape back to England via the various secret routes to the Spanish coast, to hide French militants wanted by the Nazis, and to relay encrypted messages to members of the Resistance. At the hospital Jackson also treated and provided care for injured pilots, French citizens on the run from the Nazis, and members of the Resistance itself.

All the while they were trying to survive through bitter winters with scarcely any heating fuel and with limited food and medical supplies for themselves, the staff and patients at the hospital.

In 1944 the Jackson’s housemaid found anti-Nazi notes in Phillip’s clothes while doing the laundry. Soon after, the Gestapo detained the three members of the Jackson family and transported them to work camps, where most prisoners either died of beatings, starvation, or exhaustion.

Toquette was send to Ravensbruck and somehow managed to survive the war. Jackson and Philip were sent to Neuengamme. As the Americans approached the camp, the prisoners were taken to the port of Jubeck and forced into a prison ship. In an aerial attack on the German ships as they leaving the port on their way to Sweden, Jackson and Philip’s ship was bombed and quickly sunk. Jackson drowned while ministering to the injured, while Philip was able to swim back to shore.

By participating in the French Resistance Dr. Jackson, Phillip and Toquette joined with “Thousands of French patriots…who, under circumstances that none had foreseen, began to do things they never would have imagined possible. … They simply refused, at risk of their lives, to accept dishonor and degradation of human values.”

12.09.2011

The Marriage Plot


There is no happiness in love except at the end of the English novel. Jeffrey Eugenides

There are many strands running through Jeffrey Eugenides new novel, The Marriage Plot—the future of the novel, the meaning of love, and the quest for religious insight. Two others loomed large for me—the effects of reading fiction and the power of manic-depression.

The scene is 1982, the place is Brown University, the characters are three graduating seniors, Madeleine Hanna, an English major and her two suitors Leonard Bankhead, a handsome, talented student of semiotics and Mitchell Grammaticus, a prospective theology student, also talented, but struggling to compete with Leonard for Madeleine’s affection.

The novel begins with books, the books on Madeleine’s dormitory bookshelves—the Henry James, the complete Modern Library, the many 18th and 19th century novels, the moderns, too. The novel ends with a lengthy question Mitchell poses about a half-fictional, half-realistic novel. In between, we are led to wonder whether novels are actually about “real life.”

Do books change us, what good are they for, do they have any practical use or are they simply about other books? Madeleine is seriously in love with Leonard and they are both reading Roland Barthe’s book A Lover’s Discourse in the semiotics class they are taking. Eugenides writes,

“The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page…Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sense. And oh, how she loved it.”

No matter that Barthe’s book rejects the belief that books are “about” something. “If it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.”

Eugenides’ descriptions of Leonard’s manic-depression, as bi-polar disorder was known then, are handled so well and are precise in their accuracy. Perhaps he has experienced it, known someone who has (as I have) or read the books carefully. Regardless, the violent swings, the manic highs, the depressive helplessness, its unpredictability and the terrible effects of the drug lithium that was about the only medication used at that time seem to me thoroughly true to the “disease.”

…something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.…his mind kept up its play-by-play analysis of the contest under way…You can’t get clean from depression. Depression is like a bruise that never goes away. A bruise in your mind. You just got to be careful not to touch where it hurts. It always will be there, though.

In one of Madeleine’s English classes Professor Saunders, her senior thesis adviser, declares the novel, especially those devoted to the marriage plot, had reached its highpoint with the nineteenth century novel. “As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.”

The pleasure of reading The Marriage Plot refutes Saunders’ claim and suggests that Eugenides is quite ready to place his bets on the classic novel. “What exquisite guilt she felt wickedly enjoying narrative…Madeleine felt safe in a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”

Does Madeleine cast her lot with the troubled Leonard or the calm and reflective Mitchell or does she give up on the idea of marriage all together? You care about these people and you want to find out what she decides even in an age where marriage seems like a thing of the past, where pre-nuptial agreements and filing for separation or divorce are routine matters.

Yes, it is still possible to develop a fine novel that is sustained by the themes of love and marriage, as if anyone ever had any doubts in the first place.

12.07.2011

The Third Place


“Conversation is a crucial thing in Spanish culture. Writers, artists, poets and philosophers, intellectuals in general used to join ever day at the cafes to talk around a drink about the human and the divine and to try and arrange the problems of the world. This habit is called tertulia. German philosophers used to think first then write. Spanish philosophers use to talk, and then, if it works, to write. For the Spanish, talk is a form of thinking.”

Imagine a place where you went each day to chat with your friends, to write, or simply get away from everything and spend a quiet afternoon reading or brooding.

In his book The Great Good Place: Café’s Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day, Ray Oldenburg refers to these settings as Third Places, informal gathering places away from a person’s home and place of work. He discusses the German beer gardens, the English pubs, French cafes and the American tavern.

“In cities blessed with their own characteristic form of these Great Good Places, the stranger feels at home—nay, is at home—whereas in cities without them, even the native does not feel at home.”

He says informal gathering places are largely absent from the countless suburban communities in this country now. Oldenburg suggests that where the citizens of a country have no place to spend time outside their home or place of work, something profoundly important is missing from their life. This is the problem of place in America.

What many people in both suburbia and metropolitan areas are missing are places to gather whenever they want, as often as they want, nearby and easily accessible that are “real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.”

We often hear about how deficient American life has become, how people are distressed at the quality of their lives and how so many need to seek assistance to get their act together. Oldenburg attributes part of this general malaise to the inability to participate in the pleasures of these informal gathering places.


In contrast, the French, he says, have solved the problem of place. There are usually several coffeehouses in each of the neighborhoods of any French city. It is easy to walk there and many go to the same place at the same time each day so they can count on the regulars being there.

The Parisian café is legendary as a place for writing letters, books, or simply studying. Around the Sorbonne or any city in France near a university students gather at all hours of the day to discuss the work they are doing and the latest cultural movement. Susan Sontag wrote, “After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a café looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendezvous …One should go to several cafes—average: four in an evening.”

According to Oldenburg there are several fundamental characteristics of these settings.

• Everyone is considered an equal.
• Conversation is the main activity.
• The “regulars” can be counted on to be there.
• The mood is both playful and serious.
• It feels like a home away from home.

In addition, the traditional third places are fundamentally settings for friendship and companionship. The need for such settings can hardly be denied even for those who enjoy their times of solitude that are paradoxically sometimes spent in a café. A contemporary regular said, “There’s a recognition here that people come to a café to not be alone”

12.05.2011

The Cat's Table


“It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.” Michael Ondaatje

I find myself looking back more and more now as Michael Ondaatje does in his recent novel The Cat’s Table. The tale is narrated by an older version of the fictional Michael’s future self, as he recounts a critical youthful experience in his life and sees its importance in a way that was impossible at the time it occurred.

Michael, nicknamed Mynah as a youth, looks back on the twenty-one day journey from the then Ceylon to England that he took by ocean liner, the Oronsay, at the age of eleven. In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Ondaatje says The Cat’s Table is fictional and the ship, the characters in the tale and its locations is an “imagined rendering.” Why he says this is a mystery to me, when in fact, it is well-known that as a young man Ondaatje did travel by ship from Ceylon to England, did, as the novel depicts at the end, become a writer, and surely did encounter passengers on the ship that bear some resemblance to those depicted in the novel.

Knowing all this, however, in no way detracts from pleasure in reading the magical tale he unfolds during his three-week voyage through three oceans, two seas (Red and Arabian) and the Suez Canal. The “cat’s table” refers to the table where he and a group of “insignificant” adults and his two great companions, Cassius and Ramadhin, were seated at mealtimes. It is the table most distant from the one occupied by the Captain and his group of notables. Cassius is the wild one, the troublemaker, while Ramadhin is quite, serious and ill with asthma.

Ondaatje writes: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power…So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large and interesting with strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.” Once they realize they are virtually invisible in the midst of all the other passengers, the three boys proceed each day and night of the voyage to engage in a series of wild adventures that largely pass unnoticed. “Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.”

They discover a mural of a giant nude women deep in the ship’s hull that was painted by soldiers when the ship was used to carry troops during World War II; they visit an artificially lit garden hidden away below the lower deck; one night they tie themselves to the deck at the front of the ship during a cyclone, as the waves sweep over the bow; and each evening they hid themselves in one of lifeboats to steal a glance at the prisoner-in-chains who was being transported to England to be tried for committing a murder and only allowed out of his shipboard cell for a brief walk in the middle of the night.

As Michael grows older he moves to Canada and tries to stay in touch with the friends he made on that youthful voyage. He learns that Cassius has become a highly regarded artist and during a visit to London goes to the gallery where his paintings were showing. He sees that one depicts the dock they looked down upon when the ship paused at the Suez Canal. He learns that Ramidhin has died of his illness and takes the overnight flight to England to be with his family at the funeral.

Do certain childhood experiences echo in your life the way the journey on the Oronsay does for Michael? In all the experiences Ondaatje recounts, we realize that Michael is the observer, the outsider who even though he was just a young boy, was able to understand what the gestures and the words of those around him meant. Recalling them anew now, he arrives at an even deeper understanding of their meaning and the role they continue to play in his life.

The Cat’s Table ends with a visit Michael made to his cousin, Emily, who was also a passenger on the Oronsay’s journey to England. He wonders if the adult she became was influenced by any of the events on that journey and concludes he can never know how much it had altered her. “As far as I could tell it seemed to have been for Emily just a three-week journey...[and] how little all of it appeared to mean to her.”

12.02.2011

The Moviegoing Scene


His refuge from IBM is the cinema. In a film called L’Eclisse a woman wanders through the streets of a sunstruck, deserted city…. The woman is Monica Vitti. With her perfect legs and sensual lips and abstracted look, Monica Vitti haunts him; he falls in love with her. He has dreams in which he, of all men in the world is singled out to be her comfort and solace…J. M. Coetzee Youth

The weekend approaches. The time when I normally head out to see a film. But increasingly I am finding it impossible to bring myself to see anything playing in one of the local movie houses. Those that I do see are the exceptions and nothing like the old days when there were so many films around, I often missed a few because I couldn’t spend all day, every day, inside a movie house.

The days when you went to see every film from France and Italy are long gone. Where oh where is Ingmar Bergman these days? I conclude the Summer Doldrums have become a permanent, year-round fixture. It is not unusual for me to walk out of a film well before it is over.

A while ago things had become so bleak I decided to see Shall We Dance? a remake of the quite wonderful Japanese film of the same name. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Everyone enjoyed it. When it was over, the audience burst into applause. Such a light film. Fun yes. But applause?


I was reminded of a Sunday matinee when a young woman came down before the audience and asked for everyone's attention. She announced to the perplexed assembly that it was her mother's birthday, indeed, a very special one, and asked everyone to join in singing happy birthday to her. Without a moment's delay, everyone belted out a lusty Happy Birthday to Sandy followed by wild applause from the smiling moviegoers.

After Shall We Dance? was over, I began musing over a scene where a middle-aged woman meets the detective she has hired to snoop on her husband who she suspects is having an affair with his dancing instructor. They meet in a bar. She wants him to end the investigation. The detective wants to flirt with her. He asks her why do so many people get married? She replies at once by saying it is to bear witness to your life.

I was puzzled by her comment. How odd I thought. I recalled a remark made by one of the characters in Rachel Cusk’s novel The Lucky Ones that I happened to be reading then: “I felt a terrible despair at having failed to find another human being to corroborate my existence.”

I didn’t think that was why most people married or the reason they would give if you asked them why they did. That is not why I married my wife or why she married him as far as I know. It had nothing to do with confirming our existence. Yes, it was sometimes pleasing to tell her about my day, how I felt, and the ideas I had and equally pleasing to hear about hers. Sometimes it was even instructive. But our marriage was not dependent on our bearing witness to these accounts.

And so this is how it goes from one weekend to the next, as I ponder the meaning of the films I can mange to see in the local movie houses or the old ones I watch once again on a DVD. They engage me as much as the books I read or the theatrical performances I attend. They puzzle me, move me, sometimes clarify matters, but more often they confuse me even further, especially over questions of moral thought and action. These I never stop wrestling with. Progress is slow.

11.30.2011

The Mind Body Problem


“But I discovered early that I liked ideas much better than people and that was the end of my loneliness.” Rebecca Goldstein

Some weeks ago in my search for a novel of intellectual debate with a good story thrown in, as well, I recalled The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein that I had read many years ago, so long ago, it predated my commonplace book. Goldstein majored in philosophy at college, earned her doctorate in the discipline and subsequently returned to her alma mater to teach several philosophy courses. She wrote The Mind Body Problem during a summer vacation break.

I had just come through a very emotional time….Suddenly, I was asking the most unprofessional’ sorts of questions (I would have snickered at them as a graduate student), such as how does all this philosophy I’ve studied help me to deal with the brute contingencies of life? How does it relate to life as it’s really lived? I wanted to confront such questions in my writing, and I wanted to confront them in a way that would insert `real life’ intimately into the intellectual struggle. In short I wanted to write a philosophically motivated novel.

This is exactly what she accomplished in this novel and why I both recalled it, which isn’t always the case for one I read a long time ago, to say nothing of those I read last month. The novel begins with a question. At once you know a philosopher is a work here. “I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius.”

Thereafter, Goldstein proceeds to unravel what it was like for Renee Feuer who enrolls as a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton where she meets the legendary mathematical genius, Noam Himmel, who she marries. They squabble, battle over intellectual puzzles, he treats her distainfully, she has affairs, and along the way delves deeper into the mind-body problem. Renee describes it this way: how is it possible to reconcile the “outer place of bodies and the inner private one of minds.” Sex versus cerebration as one person aptly put it.

In a recent interview Goldstein was asked, “What is love?” She answers rather elliptically but thoroughly true to life. “What is love? … we all want good things to happen to ourselves and keep the bad things at bay. You know when you love somebody you want that as much for them if not more than you do for yourself. I mean that is just the world has to go right for them or you won’t be able to bear it. … “

The novel ends with an expression of her answer. Within a few years, Noah loses his mathematical prowess. “I don’t have it anymore. I never knew what it was when I had it, and now I don’t have it anymore.” Noah breaks down with his confession. He no longer has the power to create but the desire as well and for a mathematical genius you need both.

A few years ago, Goldstein was awarded a MacArthur “genius” award. The Foundation announced: “Rebecca Goldstein is a writer whose novels and short stories dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling. … Goldstein’s writings emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence."

You may find more of Goldstein’s numerous literary and philosophical works here.

11.28.2011

The Spirit of the Coffee House

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt had on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. Hemingway

Over thirty years ago I bought a book titled Coffee Houses of Europe. I don't know how I managed to save it all this time, since it is a large, heavy book, filled with beautiful color photographs of some of the most famous coffee houses in Europe. Really, it’s a coffee table book and apparently it has become quite a treasure.

I’ve also had a life-long interest in the coffee house culture and the spirit that it is said to engender. No doubt that’s because most of the cities I’ve lived in have not been blessed with coffee houses or its culture. But in those that I have visited in France and Italy, I’ve felt their warmth and congeniality.

In his Introduction to the photographic plates, the Hungarian-born writer George Mikes distinguishes between the classic coffee houses of Central Europe--Vienna, Budapest, Prague—from those of Lisbon, Paris and London. He calls the latter “places,” while those in Central Europe are “a way of life…a way of looking at the world by those who do not want to look at the world at all.”

While the distinction is untrue, the classic coffee house often becomes a habitual part of a “regular’s” daily life and for some, a place where most of the day is spent. “There were coffee houses for writers, journalists and artists, and these were the most famous, because their members were…”

Mikes must have a thing against the French because he asserts, The French simply use the cafes; they don’t live there.” He claims they actually go there to have a cup of coffee or meet a friend. That is contradicted by my brief experiences at the cafes around the Sorbonne. There I have observed lively conversations between students and their professors that have surely lasted more than the hour or so of my visit.

In The Great Good Place Ray Oldenburg writes, “The coffee house, however, was fundamentally a form of human association, a gratifying one, and the need for such a society can hardly be said to have disappeared.” This has been the case from their beginning in Istanbul, where the first coffeehouses were established during the sixteenth century.

A French observer described these early coffeehouses as settings where “…news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government.” Games—chess, backgammon, checkers—were also played and writers of the days read their poems and stories. This tradition spread to England and the countries of Western and Central Europe during the following century. Again their central features were sociability marked by congeniality, conversation, and social equality.

The spirit of the classic European coffeehouse has all but vanished in this country. Instead, they have been transformed into solitary, monastery-like places of keyboards and screens. Where there was once a lively conversation, now there is silence. Where there was once a group of friends and colleagues gathered around a table, now there are solitary individuals. Where there was once writing notebooks, now there are laptop computers.

Malcolm Gladwell put this as well as anyone: “I like people around me; but I don’t want to talk to them.

11.23.2011

Bookstore Revivals


All my life, though, among my daydreams about careers that might have made me happy, has been this one: a small shop somewhere, some partner and I buying and selling used books. Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind

Is there anything more pleasurable than walking into a bookshop, a small independent bookshop and roaming around the tables and bookshelves for a while? Just poking around, having a look, selecting a book to read for a while, moving on to another one.

Patrick Kurp writes about such an experience on his blog Anecdotal Evidence: “I grew up a hunter-gatherer, with the emphasis on hunter. Truly, hunting is the thing, not the gathering. Stalking the butterfly is the adventure, not the netting, pinching and pinning. Trolling the dim shelves of a book shop, alert and expectant, outweighs the pleasure of finding the three-volume Everyman’s edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy priced at $10. Ordering the same from Amazon.com is not the same. My Burton carries an addendum of happy memory, a covert connection to an autumn afternoon in Schuylerville, N.Y.”

There are still a few book lovers dedicated to preserving this type of hunting by opening and maintaining independent bookstores of their own. Perhaps you have heard that Ann Patchett and her business partner have recently opened Parnassus Books in Nashville. She professed to little interest in retail bookselling but “I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”

In describing Patchett’s new store Julie Bosman writes in the Times that “She is joining a small band of bookstore owners who have found patches of old-fashioned success in recent years, competing where Amazon cannot: by being small and sleek, with personal service, intimate author events and a carefully chosen rotation of books.”

During her summer book tour to promote her novel, State of Wonder, Patchett became more and more convinced by the crowd that showed up night after night, that not only were people still reading books, but that a small, independent bookstore was a solid business model. This did seem a little out of touch, although perhaps not for a community like Nashville where there are a fair number of universities, a sizable literary community, and the kind of start-up cash that both Patchett and her business partner are willing to make.

If a small bookstore is going to be successful today, I think it has to have a few features that set it apart from others, especially online stores and the one remaining big-box chain in this country. Sarah McNally the owner of McNally Jackson Books in New York seems to have found a few ways to do that

The store is known for its large literature collection organized by country—French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. It has a small café, lounge chairs, and the only “print-right-now” book-making machine in New York, one of 80 worldwide.

The rather enormous Book Espresso Machine (an ATM for books) can download, bind, and trim a paperback book in minutes drawing from a current collection of seven million titles. The device can also print self-published books which McNally’s machine does on the average almost 700 a month. Walk into her bookstore, hand her your masterpiece, bingo, you can put it on the shelf.


At a book fair several years ago, McNally realized “There were people greedy for books, rabid for books and I thought: This is what I want to be doing. I want to be with readers.”

11.21.2011

The Truck


“…he felt at home in Africa as food was scarce there too and everyone was also barefoot"

Nouakchott is the capital and largest city of the west African country of Mauritania. It lies on the border of the great Sahara desert. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer and journalist is sitting on a stone at the edge of the Ouadane oasis, northeast of Nouakchott. He sees two glaring lights off in the distance. They appear to be moving around quite a bit. They draw closer.

I am learning about Mauritania. I am entranced by the names—Nouakchott, Ouadane, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Can you pronounced those words or know much about them? I am reading “The Truck: Hitchhiking Through Hell” Kapuscinski’s 1999 New Yorker “Letter from Mauritania.” He is describing a journey he took across the Sahara.


After a day of blistering hot heat, it suddenly becomes bitter cold. A few men sitting nearby wrap themselves in blankets. The lights draw closer. Eventually he sees that it is enormous French built truck--there are no roads; cars cannot manage the sandy, pitted, dunes of the Sahara. The driver motions Kapuscinski over, so he climbs high up into the cab.

They drive away, try to speak to one another, meanwhile Kapuscinski has no idea where they are going, although he hopes they are headed for Nouakchott. Have you ever wanted to trek across the Sahara? I doubt I could survive such an adventure. Instead, I will read Kapuscinski’s essay.

They drive on across the pitted, sandy dunes, trying desperately to avoid getting stuck. All Kapusciniski sees is the desert, dark stones scattered about. It must be like the moon. He falls into a deep sleep from which he is awakened by a sudden silence. The truck has stopped, the engine is dead, they are stuck.

He realizes he is thirsty, looks around the cab for some water, sees nothing. He begins to calculate. “Without water, you can survive in the desert for twenty-four hours; with great difficulty, for forty-eight or so. The math is simple. Under these conditions, you secrete in one day approximately ten litres of sweat, and to survive you must drink a similar amount of water.

He gets out of the cab, looks around and sees underneath the truck bed four goatskins that are used to store water. He sighs with relief but only for a moment as he realizes they will empty quickly once the two of them begin drinking.

“The sun was climbing higher. The desert, that motionless, petrified ocean, absorbed its rays, grew hotter and began to burn. The Yoruba are said to believe that if a man’s shadow abandons him he will die.”

As the afternoon hours begin, the two of them spend the rest of the day lying underneath the truck. They drink from the second goatskin and quickly empty it. Two remain.

And once again he sees off in the distance two glaring lights that are far away but moving about wildly. The sound of a motor draws closer, he hears voices in a language he does not understand. Several dark faces, resembling the driver’s peer underneath the truck.

I read Kapuscinski’s essay in Great Adventures, a collection New Yorker travel journeys and short recollections drawn from its archives that is only available as an iPad app. They include pieces by H. L. Mencken (Spain), E. B White (Alaska), Susan Orlean (Bhutan), Peter Matthiessen (Peru), etc.

Evan Osnos’s account of a group of travelers from China taking a Grand Tour of Europe amused me the most. The tourists spend a great deal of time shopping and less touring. But in Florence the relationship is reversed. And when it came time to leave, Osnos describes a sentiment many departing travelers to this city have felt.

“The tour group enjoyed the city [Florence] so much there was a mini-mutiny when the bus prepared for departure.”

11.18.2011

Write a Prisoner


I first learned about Lorri Davis and Damien Echols on one of Piers Morgan’s CNN interview shows--why they were being interviewed, how they met, and the reason Echols had been a death-row inmate in Arkansas.

Echols had been sentenced to death as the leader of two other teenagers, both given life sentences, who were convicted of murdering three young second grade boys.

Before they met, Lorri was living in Brooklyn and working as a landscape architect. She first became aware of Echols in a documentary film about the three young boys and the three older teenagers convicted of murdering them.

After viewing the film, Lorri wrote her first letter to Echols: “I came home that night and couldn’t sleep…It breaks my heart that you are where you are and forced to endure it, so I am committed to doing whatever I can to make your life a little bit more bearable.”

So began their correspondence, writing letters to each other, sometimes several during the same day. There is no Internet in the Arkansas penitentiary. In one she wrote, “It’s great, isn’t it? Getting to know someone by writing. It’s quite wonderful and mysterious…”

Five months after they met, Lorri moved to Little Rock, and began managing the movement to arrange his release, obtaining financial support from several celebrities. They were married while he was still in prison and eventually, through a DNA analysis and unusual plea bargain, Echols, at the age of 36, was released from prison having spent half his life on death-row.

I write about Lorri and Damien because it illustrates the power and unexpected consequences of letter writing, that all but extinguished tradition of communicating with another person. Yes, Echols release is cause for celebration; so too is the love that developed between the couple. But it was the way in which their letter writing correspondence made both possible that first drew me to their story.


Writing letters to prison inmates may be one of the last contexts in which it survives. It is often the only channel for self-expression that prisoners have, especially those who are isolated from the Internet, telephone, or any other link to the world outside the prison. Writing to a prisoner may also appeal to anyone who may find themselves socially isolated, with few if any friends, and quite simply in need of someone to whom they can express themselves, particularly someone who might also benefit from the exchange.

Write a Prisoner is an organization devoted to facilitating letter-writing relationships among prisoners and their pen pals. The organization posts prisoner profiles, photos, and details about their crime. In turn, the inmates are charged a nominal fee that the organization claims is used to fund their other programs—educational materials, house and employment information for released inmates, and a scholarship fund for their children.

According the Write a Prisoner website: “Research shows that inmates who establish and maintain positive contacts outside of prison walls are less likely to return to prison. In fact, they are less likely to return to crime and substance abuse and more likely to find employment and remain productive members of society.”

If you wish to write to a prisoner, click on the link at the bottom of their home page.

Lorri and Damien now live in New York, no doubt still getting acquainted with one another and adjusting as to the hustle and bustle of life outside the walls. They are still writing to each other. But instead of writing letters, they are now sending text messages. I should have guessed.


I thank Geoffrey Gray for background information in his New York Times Magazine article (10/13/11), “My Dearest Damien.”

11.16.2011

Hot Off the Press














1. Texting has become the royal road to isolation.

2. The opened-ended, leaderless character of the Occupy movements has been the key to their success.

3. Margin Call is one of the best movies of the year and finest Wall Street movie ever made.

4. A second look at the inventive talent of Steve Jobs.

5. Do you live in one of the top ten literary cities?

6. Jane Austen has started blogging.

11.14.2011

Print or Electronic?


At Gadgetwise, a New York Times blog about technology, Jenn Wortham writes about her experience reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, The Marriage Plot, on her Kindle. She had “adored” his previous works, couldn’t wait for his latest to be shipped, so she downloaded it to her gadget.

But reading the novel was surprisingly disappointing. Of course, she wonders if it was due to the e-reading experience or to the novel itself, a question that is impossible for any single reader to answer. Nevertheless, she decides to borrow a friend’s printed copy and attempt to see if her experience was any different.

Wortham concludes by asking her readers if they like reading certain kinds of books on their e-readers or any work of fiction or non-fiction? As of 11/12/11, 79 individuals have responded. The fact that so many have done so speaks to the significance many readers attach to the transition from print to electronic books.

Setting aside the biased sample of New York Times blog readers, more than half, 45 (57%) said they either preferred reading on the Kindle or that there wasn’t any difference between a printed or electronic version of a book. “Reading is reading. The words are what matter. You can read writing on a wall, on a can of soup, in pages, or on an electronic screen.”

In response to my query, the author of the literary blog So Many Books wrote: “I get just as much pleasure reading on my Kindle as I do in reading a print book. You know when you are into a story and all your surroundings drop away and the world could explode and you wouldn't even know it and you don't even notice you are holding a book let alone turning pages? The same thing happens on the Kindle. When I am reading a good story, the world falls away and the Kindle in my hand disappears too. There is no difference in the experience of the story.”

Still another 16 (20%) said there was a notable difference and they preferred reading on the printed page. “I simply cannot find the same emotional connection to reading something on yet another piece of soon to be obsolete tech equipment.” They offered several additional reasons: they retained more of a printed book, missed its feel or tactile sensation, found it difficult to skip around on digital readers, or they didn’t handle footnotes and page numbers well.

Only two readers expressed my major concern about e-readers. Both said it was impossible to easily make notes in the margins, although one of them wondered if that was really such a loss.

Finally, 18 individuals (23%) didn’t answer the question. They weren’t sure, preferred audio books, noted either is a trade off, or mentioned a totally unrelated subject.

Perhaps the best summary of the matter was offered in this comment: “I've had a Kindle for about 3 years and would not be without it. The advantages are: 1. It's easier to cart around than a book, so it's always with me 2. Being able to change the type size really helps with my aging eyes. 3. It's easy to hold, sometimes large books hurt my arthritic hands. 4. It can be read in bright sun. 5. You don't need bookshelves to store the books you want to keep - a real plus in small apartments. But there are disadvantages too: 1. You can't loan your books to a friend or pass them along to a charity. 2. It's very hard to skip around in the pages 3. Diagrams and illustrations don't work at all. 4. The Kindle Fire may solve the color problem, but now they don't even bother selling the art books I love. 5. Not every book I'm likely to buy is available - not by a long shot.”

While I’ve been a long-time critic of e-readers largely because of the difficulty of note taking and marking up pages, I confess I returned to my iPad recently and found reading the New Yorker app a genuine pleasure.

I made notes on a separate pad of paper or computer and, unlike printed books, was able to listen to poets reading their poems or musical groups being discussed and view a video preview of a film or a dance group that was reviewed. These were not the least bit distracting. To the contrary they enhanced the reading experience for me, although it is still not possible to highlight passages or print articles with the app.

Reading books and long essays on an e-reader is another matter.

11.11.2011

Breaking Ranks


You know you always have choices. You can go with the flow because it’s easier or you can let your convictions guide your actions if you are prepared to face the consequences.
Helene Grimaud

On January 25, 2002 fifty-two soldiers of the Israeli army published a letter in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz explaining why they would no longer serve in occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The major reasons enunciated in their declaration included:

• We…were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people

• We, who believed the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country.

• We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people.

• We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israeli Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense.

• The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them.

Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip edited with interviews by Ronit Chacham profiles the rational of nine members of the IDF (Israel Defense Force), among the earliest of 1,100 the Israeli soldiers who have now pledged not to serve in the occupied territories.

All of the nine Refuseniks profiled in this book agree they will serve in the defense of Israel but not beyond the borders that existed before the Six-Day War of 1967 since it does not serve that purpose. Instead, it only perpetuates bombing of innocent people, destruction of their homes, humiliation, starvation and needless killing.

The nine live with an intense conflict between the values they were raised with and those displayed by the IDF in the occupied territories. Ishay Rosen-Zevi said, “What happens to a soldier, decent people, in the occupation is that power takes over, power poisons you. You can do anything. I was witness to beatings, roadblocks, curfews, going the in the middle of the night to get people. And I thought it was OK because we were all decent people…”

Most of the Refuseniks have served repeated jail terms, experienced the criticism and loss of friendship of their fellow solders, and resentment of some members of their family and, in some cases, their rabbis and teachers. In reply, they say, how can the Jews who have suffered so much violence and oppression over the centuries perpetuate the very same practices on the peoples who live in Palestine?

Rosen-Zvi comments, “In Gaza, I saw people living in shameful poverty. My heart ached for them. At the ckeckpoints, they look at your fearfully….It’s the unwillingness to see the other side that shackles our ability to comprehend terror and what motivates it….It must be stated clearly: Israeli government policies in the occupied territories are fertilizer for suicide bombings. We produce terror. Who in the right mind thinks that more destruction and humiliation will curb it?”

David Chacham-Herson puts it this way. “I am a soldier in the Israeli army, imprisoned for refusing to take part in the oppression of a people. My position arises from the feeling that you cannot be a Jew, the son of a refugee people, and oppress refugees.”

Finally, Guy Grossman expresses the subject lurking silently in background of this issue. “I see Germany right in front of me. And I hate being told that we should make the comparison. True, you can’t compare systematic Nazi genocide with our own occupation regime. But you can compare the psychology processes [italics mine] that took place there and are taking place here among our soldiers and Israeli society in general.”

11.09.2011

Why Read Novels?


It was the potential for self-recognition that made Collette’s novels so compelling.
Vivian Gornick.

In a recent interview Philip Roth, the author of more than 30 novels and no doubt a prodigious reader of countless others, said he no longer reads fiction. When asked why, he replied, “I don’t know. I wised up…” What did he mean by that enigmatic comment?

In a similar vein the novelist Nicole Krauss recently expressed her concerns about the current state of the novel. “Things seem to be changing for those of us who have staked our lives on literature. The value of the literary mind appears to be in doubt; as Nicholas Carr writes in his book about how the internet is changing our brains, there is a growing suspicion that its worth has been overinflated, that “surfing the Web is a suitable and even superior substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought.” Krauss’s full remarks can be viewed here.

I still read novels, as Krauss does, and I am sure, like countless others, she is always reading at least one or more. Why do we readers continue to read this type of literature? Is it simply because we haven’t “wised up?”

As for me, I cannot conceive of not reading a novel, it is simply a given, a necessity if you will. And while I’ve am certain I haven’t wised up, I am equally certain that will always be true.

I have written many answers to the question the interviewer asked Roth, but Michael Ondaatje recently gave an eloquent one in his magical tale, The Cat’s Table. He was describing one of the passengers on the ship that was taking the young “fictional” Michael from Sri Lanka to England.

He knew passages from all kinds of books he could recite by heart, and he sat at his desk all day wondering about them, thinking what he could say about them….Mr. Fonseka seemed to draw forth an assurance or a calming quality from the books he read…But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.

The question “Why Do We Read Literature?” was also posed recently at the online magazine “On Fiction.” The magazine discusses the psychology of the reading experience; “Using theoretical and empirical perspectives, we endeavour to understand how fiction is created, and how readers and audience members engage in it.”

The authors describe a laboratory study of the responses of forty-one individuals when asked to read Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They say that the poem as well as literary works that engage us put into words feelings that “we may not previously have been able consciously to recognize.”

A work of fiction or more precisely a passage or character enables us to see ourselves more clearly, to express a belief that we did not realize we held or an emotion that we were unaware of before seeing it on the page. The act of reading also sets the occasion for looking more closely at our beliefs and viewing them from another point of view. Yes we read for pleasure, both aesthetic and intellectual, but we also read for personal insight and those truths that might otherwise pass us by.

I think we often read ourselves into literature without thinking twice if it is true for others. Instead, the truth of any given passage or character becomes true for a reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before. “Yes,” we say, “that is true for me. This is my story. That’s exactly the way I felt. I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page.”

11.07.2011

Perlmann's Silence


Philipp Perlmann is attending a conference on linguistics, his academic discipline. There was a time when he was deeply engaged by the field, spoke and wrote eloquently about it. But that sense of purpose has slowly disappeared from his life, the field means little to him anymore.

Yet he is about to take the podium at an important linguistics conference to deliver the opening address. He realizes he has nothing to say, has prepared no remarks, hasn’t even thought about it.

This is the second book of Pascal Mercier’s that I have read. The first was A Night Train to Lisbon, one the finest novels I’ve ever read. Both novels are about academic linguists who speak several languages but have grown weary of their discipline and seek in one way or another to take flight from it.

But Perlmann’s Silence is perhaps twice as long, twice as heavy and already, after only 65 of 616 pages, I am growing weary of reading it. So I have set it aside for a bit. (Why are so many novels so “fat” today? Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 is close to a thousand pages and Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is over a thousand.)

I am surprised at this turn of events, couldn’t wait to get my hands on Mercier’s new novel, ordered and had it sent from England. (It won’t be available in the US until January of next year.) How can one great book be followed by one so unappealing?

The novel scarcely moves a centimeter away of Perlmann’s ruminations, worries, headaches, troubles, broodings, anxieties, ambivalences, hesitations, etc. He cannot sleep, he is out of ideas, and I am about to cast the book in the recycling bin.

Now that I think of it, I had the same experience in reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar. His earlier novel, Saturday, is also one of my favorites, as is most everything McEwan writes. Solar is said to be a comic novel. But it never seemed the least bit humorous to me.

After reading Saturday a few years ago, a novel that still percolates in my mind, I found Solar a bit of ordeal and at times also considered giving up on it. I found its central character utterly repulsive and, in spite of the fact that he was a Nobel-Prize winning physicist with a sharp and crafty mind, I could not overcome my distaste for his excesses.

In order to enjoy a novel, does its central character need to be likeable, provocative, or deserve our sympathy? As I think back upon the novels I have most enjoyed they are always peopled with individuals I admire and respect. While Henry Perowne in McEwan’s Saturday and Raimund Gregorious in Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon are certainly among them, the physicist in Solar definitely is not.

I remain hopeful that Phillip Perlmann will not continue to displease me. I will give him another chance for he has already made some noteworthy comments, albeit the same ones more than once and ever so laboriously.

The interest in methodical investigation, analysis and the development of theories, hitherto a constant, an unquestioned, self-evident element in his life and in a sense its centre of gravity—he had utterly lost that interest, and so completely that he was no longer sure he understood how it could once have been otherwise.

Running away: at first it must be wonderful; he imagined it as a quick bold rush, headlong through all feelings of obligation, out into freedom.

…he could never experience the present as it was taking place; he always woke up too late, and then there was only the substitute, the visualization, a field in which he had, out of pure desperation, become a virtuoso.


Expressions like this are the reason I keep reading novels, why I like Mercier so much and why I will return to this tome, in spite of its length and sense of weariness.

11.04.2011

Knowing Is Not Enough


To get to the point, Daniel Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) makes a striking claim in writing about his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In spite of years of study and important research on shortcomings in human reasoning, he confesses that he still subject to them.

He is fully aware of the biases and inferential errors that we all make in evaluating the information we have in an uncertain situation and yet he continues to make such errors.

He admits he is simply unable to do anything about it.

“My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”

In writing about his early work on predicting the future leadership ability of individual Israeli Army soldiers (New York Times October 10, 2011) he concludes:

“I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgment of particular candidates, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false.”

Can knowledge or self-awareness of our judgment biases help to avoid them? Like most everyone else, Kahneman hoped that his research findings would contribute to that end. But if even he admits they haven’t, how can the rest of us do any better?

In his post about Kahneman’s book on the New Yorker Book Bench (October 25, 2011), Jonah Lehrer concludes:

“But his greatest legacy, perhaps, is also his bleakest: By categorizing our cognitive flaws, documenting not just our error, but also their embarrassing predictability, he has revealed the hollowness of a very ancient aspiration. Knowing thyself is not enough. Not even close.”

This is bleak, isn’t it? And yet, can it be true? Must it be true? I am more optimistic than Lehrer or even Kahneman. The question is clear—we need to learn how to make our knowledge of mental flaws more salient in situations where it might prove useful.

This often occurs naturally, when, for example, newly acquired information is still readily available. However, as the information is gradually forgotten with the passage of time, we need to be reminded of its relevance by a conspicuous signal or prompt to ourselves. Until we figure out how to do this more reliably, we must be careful not to overestimate the extent to which knowing about our biases influences our reasoning.

11.02.2011

Higher Ground

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves... And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”
Rilke

Higher Ground is a movie about individuals who never stop asking questions, who wonder if they have taken the right path or if their beliefs make as much sense as they once did. How many individuals do you know who live a life of such questioning?

On the surface the film depicts the gradual erosion of a woman’s faith in the religion she was born into. We first see her as a young child, then a teenager, and then for most of the film an adult, around 40, who is born again with a full immersion in the midst of her friends and eventual husband.

Vera Farmiga directed the film and also plays the role of the adult (Corrine), while her sister is the teenager and a young look-alike is the child. Farmiga brings the film alive as she did in Up in the Air. She has deep-set eyes and an expressive face that reflects skepticism and uncertainty at every turn without uttering a word.

Little by little she begins to have doubts, her religion lets her down, doesn't answer her questions, and cannot explain the tragedies she sees and experiences. She prays, implores, almost pleads again and again for evidence, anything would do, but nothing is forthcoming.

It is all done so subtly, without the usual rancor or dispute. You see Corrine’s gradual changes in her expressions and behavior exclusively.

Beyond the story of how a woman grows in and out of religion, I also viewed the movie more generally, the way people gradually loose their faith in something that once meant a great deal to them—their profession, marriage, fundamental beliefs. There are some who simply put these doubts aside, others grow to accept them, while some act upon them.

In writing about this film, Roger Ebert comments, “…a person who suffers great misfortune is unlikely to be comforted by the assurance that God’s will has been done. (In the case of my own misfortune I prefer to think that God’s will had nothing to do with it. People who tell me it did are singularly tactless.)”

Ebert has undergone several operations to control his thyroid cancer and has recently lost his voice and lower jaw. He communicates using text-to-speech software that produces a robot-like voice that takes his written words and translates them into sound. Regardless of this debilitating condition, he continues to write with as much energy and insight as ever.

Corrine did something about her doubts and the absence of evidence. Acting on your doubts is not always easy and sometimes takes considerable courage and hard work. It is an exceptional person who alters their fundamental beliefs when the evidence for them is sparse or even contradictory.

10.31.2011

I Married You For Happiness

“There is nothing more scandalous than a happy marriage.”
Adam Phillips, Monogamy

The memories keep coming back, out of nowhere so it would seem, not in any particular order, simply times and places we were together. A day in Paris, a movie we saw, the first time we met.

This is the kind of experience Lily Tuck recounts in her recent novel I Married You for Happiness. Phillip is a mathematician; Nina is a painter. They met in Paris in the 60s while he was on a Fullbright and she studying to be an artist. The novel opens as Nina is preparing dinner, realizes that Phillip has not come down to join her, and goes upstairs to find he has suddenly died.

She spends the night by his side, recalling one experience after another of their forty-two years together. They arrive in short, unrelated flashbacks that are recounted in equally short fragments. It is cold, she puts on a coat he bought her in China, opens a bottle of wine, and lays down by his side.

“Spring. The weather is warm, the chestnut trees are in flower, brilliant tulips bloom in the Luxembourg Garden.”

It does not take long, however, before we learn that their marriage is less than perfect. Whose is? Phillip lectures her on mathematical theory from Fermant to Schrodinger, from the simple to the complex.

“The probability of an event occurring when there are two possible outcomes is known as a binomial probability…A chance event is not influenced by the events that have gone before it. Each [coin] toss is an independent event”

“She does not like his tone. The way he emphasizes certain words to make his point and the way he speaks to her as if she were a child.” Nina begins to realize the extent to which she has ceded her identity to Phillip’s.

And yet this collision of two different worlds is overlaid with deep love. “She can feel his arms around her. … Sweet, teasing familiar. They have a good time together. They laugh a lot. Is laughter the secret to a good marriage, she wonders? They know each other well. Just what I was thinking, she say…They nearly have the same dream once.”

Nina wonders if there were secrets he kept from her. Did Philip have a lover, someone like Lorna, a physicist he knows, would he have married Iris had she not been killed in a car crash? “She believes Philip loves her but how can she be certain of this.”

She had an affair and later an abortion that Phillip never knew about--“Lies of awful omission.”

“How long ago everything seems to her. And how unreal…She cannot imagine a life without Philip. Nor does she want to.”

Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness is a beautiful prose poem of the defining moments of a marriage. It is the third memoir I have read recently written by a woman after the sudden death of her husband. The two others were Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story. Of the three, Tucks memoir is the only fictional account.

I am not sure if this is the reason why it also seems truer than the others to the experience of a long marriage, particularly a couple from two different worlds. Because it is written in fragments, it also seems true to the way memories, the real and imagined, return to us in a seemingly random fashion, like the way probability theory teaches us to expect the unexpected.

10.28.2011

Why Keep a Commonplace Book?


Make your own Bible. Select and Collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.
Emerson Journals July 1836

Recently I published a short monograph on commonplace books, A Commonplace Book Primer. As regular readers of this blog are fully aware, keeping such a collection is an essential component of my reading experience.

In the Prologue I note that most of the readers I know or observe do not keep a record of the memorable passages they come upon in the books they read. The Primer is written in the belief that there is much to be gained by doing so.

There is nothing complicated about this. One need only think of it as a notebook where you record some of the ideas, questions, poems, or expressions that strike you as notable in some way.

The commonplace book concept originated in Greek and Roman antiquity for students and scholars to keep a record of the knowledge and moral wisdom of the day. It was intended as a source to draw upon in writing, speeches, education, and legal argument.

That was pretty much their sole purpose until the development of printed encyclopedias after which the practice gradually became less common and the few that were kept became a personal record of notable passages from a person’s reading history.

This remains its primary purpose today. I am often asked, “Why keep a commonplace book? After all, reading is such a great pleasure, why interrupt it by turning away from the page to spend the time recording a pithy passage?” It is not hard for me to answer.

First, I believe that keeping a commonplace book gives rise to a deeper form of reading. If you stop to think further about something you have read, then mark it in some way, and eventually add it to your commonplace book, you will inevitably read more carefully, more reflectively, and no doubt more slowly than you normally do.

Secondly, memories are fleeting and what we read is quickly forgotten. However, if we have added the quotations, poems, and fragments we wish to save to our commonplace book, they can be preserved and readily reviewed or drawn upon whenever we wish.

Finally, I have also come to believe there is genuine personal value served by keeping a commonplace book. Not only is it a fund of knowledge and source of new ideas, it can also lead to personal insight and understanding. This has been true for me each time I go back to review the entries I have made, as well as in the informal studies I have carried out on my own commonplace book.

In the Primer I review the history of commonplace books, their future in a world where electronic readers are becoming increasingly popular, and the variety of benefits the practice of keeping this kind of record can have for readers of all forms of literature.

10.26.2011

Decriminalizing Drugs


“We are not hunted or scared or looked upon as criminals. And that has made it possible to live and to breathe.” Nuno Miranda Portuguese heroin addict

Michael Specter writes in his October 17th New Yorker article, “Getting a Fix,” that almost 1%--100,000 individuals--of the population in Portugal were heroin addicts in 1999. Portugal also reported the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union that year.

In response to these numbers, along with the failure of all previous efforts, largely punitive, to curtail drug use, Portugal took what Specter calls an “unlikely gamble” and passed a law that made it the first country to decriminalize drug use.

What is the best way to determine the effects of this law? Ideally we would like to have a pre-legislation measure of drug use, then one while the law is in effect, and a final period when drug use was then made illegal again. As is usually the case, it is impossible to employ this design outside the laboratory.

(An exception was the natural experiment of Prohibition in the U.S.—it began with a lengthy period when alcohol consumption was legal, then it was prohibited in 1919 by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and 14 years later, it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.)

Absent such a design, we are left with a pre-and-post intervention measure of behavior. Again it would be best to have a comparative (control) group, say in another non-European Union country, that received no intervention to assess the effects of several alternative interpretations, usually historical trends, that might account for whatever changes occurred during the intervention.

In the end, Portugal fell back on the usual approach to measure the effects of any large scale social “experiment”—a pre-post test, no control group design.

Regardless of these methodological concerns, what were the effects of this radical Portuguese legislation? Specter provides three outcome measures:

• 37% of injecting drug users were receiving methadone to manage their addiction [in 1999]; ten years later that figure was 67%.

• The number of people convicted of drug offenses fell from 44% of the prison population in 2000 to 21% in 2005.

• The percentage of people using heroin in prison also fell sharply.

More generally Specter believes “In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”

But has the law really worked? Could these changes be accounted for by other concurrent events? Specter does acknowledge this possibility.

For example, he notes that the number of treatment facilities increased significantly at the same time the law was passed. Another possibility is that the observed changes were due to changes in European views about drug addiction, as well as wider knowledge of the consequences of excessive drug use. Without comparative data, it is impossible to rule out either of these alternative accounts.

There are also larger issues that go beyond the data, moral and philosophical issues of how a society should deal with drug addiction, an addiction that many claim is in fact a medical disease, more like a chronic illness.

Still, as Specter concludes, citing a clinical psychologist who works with a drug outreach group, “It is a program that reduces harm and I don’t see a better approach.”

10.24.2011

American Resistance Heroine


In the late fall of 1943 Virginia D’Albert-Lake and her husband Phillipe were contacted by a local baker in the town of Nesles, France where they were living at the time. He asked the couple if they would come to his shop to meet some strangers.

Virginia was a young American teacher who met Philippe d’Albert-Lake in 1936 while traveling in France. Philippe was from a family of substantial means with two apartments in Paris and a home in Brittany. They were married in 1937 and moved to a small cottage in Nesles, north of Paris.

The strangers the baker asked them to meet were several downed American pilots that he was hiding until he could arrange their return to England. He asked the young couple if they could help. They agreed to do what they could.

Virginia and Phillipe contacted the French Resistance to organize their return to England via the Comet escape line, a key part of the Resistance that transported downed airman through France, across the Pyrenees, into Spain and eventually back to England where they could resume their missions.

Returning military servicemen to England was a crucial part of the wartime effort since it took considerable time and money to train new airman. It is estimated that 4,000 Allied airmen were successfully returned to England by means of the Comet escape line before the D-Day landings in 1944. It is also believed that at least 12,000 individuals took part in this highly risky wartime activity.

Virginia was one of three American women who participated in the French Resistance and is thought to be the only one who has provided a first-hand account of her experiences in her diary and memoir An American Heroine in the French Resistance.

In this account she makes it clear that she did not join the Resistance out of any deep political conviction, but rather because she “was simply doing the right thing.” No matter her motivation, she “had a share” in helping to ensure the successful escape of approximately 200 downed Allied airman. Much of this work involved providing the aviators shelter and assistance in Paris, moving them to secret hideouts in apartments there, or at a hidden forest encampment south of Paris.

It was on one of these risky journeys south of Paris that the Germans captured her. At the time she was on a scouting expedition ahead of the group of airmen she was escorting to the hideaway. She spent the next eleven months in one German camp after another finally ending up at the “infamous” Ravensbruck concentration camp where she almost died.

In her memoir Virginia describes a premonition she had just before she was captured:

“Something broke inside me. I knew somehow that it was all over. There was no more reason to hope. The sun that only a few moments ago was so bright and warm, now seemed eclipsed by a grey fog….I had no choice but to stand there in the center of the dusty road, grip my [bicycle] handle bars, and wait.”

While she participated in the Resistance barely a year, the tasks she undertook were both dangerous and significant. After the war was over, she received numerous awards from the Allied governments including the United States Metal of Honor, the Order of the British Empire and the Legion of Honneur, France’s highest honor.

I imagine of equal if not more personal importance to her was the gratitude expressed by the many airmen whose life she had saved, as well as those concentration survivors who after the war testified to her “courage” and “generosity.”

Note: I am grateful to Judy Litoff for the background information she provided in the Introduction to An American Heroine in the French Resistance.

10.19.2011

Essays on Elsewhere


The Egypt I craved to return to was not the one I knew, or couldn’t wait to flee, but the one where I learned to invent being somewhere else, someone else. Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman wanders around the labyrinth of his mind like a person who can’t find his way out of the Hampton Court maze. He tries one direction, it is blocked, turns around, goes back over the same route only to come to another dead end. Meanwhile, he wishes he was on the path over the next hedge and when he finally reaches it, he yearns to be back on the one he just left.

This is the way his essays are written. You have to enjoy this way of meandering around your synapses to enjoy them. His latest collection, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, consists of eighteen partially linked essays about memory, place, exile, and identity.

Aciman says he always begins his mental meanderings by writing about place. “Some do so by writing about love, war, suffering, cruelty, power, God, or country. I write about place, or the memory of place. I write about a city called Alexandria, which I’m supposed to have loved and about other cities that remind me of a vanished world to which I allegedly wish to return. I write about exile, remembrance and the passage of time. I write—so it would seem—to recapture, to preserve and return to the past, though I might just as easily be writing to forget and put that past behind me.”

In Alibis he writes about New York, where he lives, Paris, where he always dreams of being, Rome where he lived for three years with his family after leaving Alexandria which he also writes about, as well as Tuscany, which may be the one place where he doesn’t dream of being elsewhere-- Barcelona, Cambridge, a bookstore someplace or the Tuscany that he dreamed of being in while living in Egypt.

“And this is what I’ve always suspected about Tuscany. It is about many beautiful things—about small towns, magnificent vistas, and fabulous cuisine, art, culture, history—but it is ultimately about the love of books. It is a reader’s paradise. People come here because of books. Tuscany may well be for people who love life in the present—simple, elaborate, whimsical, complicated life in the present—but it is also for people who love the present when it bears the shadow of the past, who love the world provided it’s at a slight angle Bookish people.”

How I wish I had written that for it is precisely the way I feel when I am in Tuscany.

Aciman is Jewish which is to say that his parents were Jewish, the reason they had to flee Egypt. But also like myself, he is and isn’t Jewish. Neither of us wants to be anything but Jewish provided we don’t have to practice it, learn its rituals, or accept its religious tenets. At times he also wonders what it would be like to live in a place where everyone is Jewish but at other times knows it would not be easy.

Aciman cites an exchange or imagined exchange he had with a woman he was hoping to see in Paris, an exchange that is a perfect reflection of the manner in which he thinks or at least writes about the way he thinks or imagines he does. “Since you’re going to Paris, you don’t want to go to Paris. But if you were staying in New York, you’d want to be in Paris. But since you’re not staying, but going, just do me a favor. When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.”

All the essays in this collection are written in this manner. Oddly I am one who greatly enjoys reading them, their contradictions, paradoxes, ambiguities, questions, uncertainties, backtrackings, recollections, sometimes true, sometimes false, or partially false, that become true in the writing. I think that is the way my mind works sometimes, but not all the times or the way I might like it to work, since it rarely works that way at all.