Michael Pollan approaches the relationship between plants and humans through the aperture of the plant. The altered perspective displays the multipleMichael Pollan approaches the relationship between plants and humans through the aperture of the plant. The altered perspective displays the multiple props of genetic diversity — color, shape, size, fragrance, taste and robustness — offered to seduce the gardener's favors. Of course Pollan realizes that intent cannot be ascribed to the plant. These are merely the standard tools available to the plant for survival and procreation. ”Our desires are simply more grist for evolution's mill, no different from a change in the weather: a peril for some species, an opportunity for others.” (xxi) Nevertheless, this novel perspective shifts the focus away from a narrative of static human mastery to a dynamic Pollan calls the coevolutionary relationship.
Pollan divides his exploration into four sections whose titles are consistent with his theme. The third section is titled “Desire: Intoxication/Plant: Marijuana.” Some readers might be tempted to skip ahead to this intriguing chapter. Don't! What looks at first glance like four separate essays are carefully structured stories of historical change reflecting abstract and ironic connections. The apple of chapter 1 is a plant of extreme biodiversity. The five seeds of a single fruit are a roll of the genetic dice. To bear fruit that resemble the parent apple, the tree must be grafted, a technique developed by the Chinese by the dawn of their dynastic history. This extreme biodiversity enabled the apple to adapt. The seeds John Chapman planted with both evangelical and entrepreneurial zeal sprouted all manner of fruit, most of it harvested for cider. Its familiarity was a welcome symbol of civilization. By contrast “Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato (chapter four) chronicles a recurring tragedy of monoculture. The tulip of chapter two and marijuana of chapter three, two unlikely fellow-travelers, have obverse stories that intersect in Holland.
Pollan reminds the readers of changes now taken for granted. Gardens were not always landscaped for aesthetic appeal. Plants were prized for their utility. Not only did they provide food, but they were an important source for apothecary experiment. Sweetness was once a metaphor for rarity and perfection, as in the Shakespearean sense. This was before plentiful cheap sugar reduced the sensation to something commonplace and without nuance. (Talk to a Japanese person and she will aver that Japanese desserts have a “different” kind of sweetness if you doubt the flavor's true complexity). ”Like a shimmering equal sign, the word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire: it stood for fulfillment. Since then sweetness has lost much of its power and become slightly … well, saccarine.” The Incas were model farmers. They combated mountainous terrain, variegated microclimates and plant infestation by planting multiple varieties of potato. Hence, the affliction that destroyed them was not a potato famine. Of course no account of the tulip would be complete without a review of tulipomania. Pollan travels the route of John Chapman through the then Northwest Territory and journeys to Idaho and Holland to interview modern day growers. He also inserts colorful and truly funny anecdotes from his own garden. His chapter on marijuana is a sobering reflection on the effects of a misguided public policy, and a fascinating look at ongoing research in neuroscience. Finally, his thoughts on genetic engineering are thought provoking. He presents the efforts of genetic engineers, commercial growers and small-scale organic farmers with depth and objectivity.
Pollan's writing is transcendent. He is informative, poetic and philosophical. His phrasings are experiences to be savored over and over again. ...more
A sense of inevitable tragedy stalks the Iowa farming family author Jane Smiley portrays in A THOUSAND ACRES. It's the fruit of three generations — boA sense of inevitable tragedy stalks the Iowa farming family author Jane Smiley portrays in A THOUSAND ACRES. It's the fruit of three generations — both the gift and the vengeance of the reconfigured land. Drainage, agrichemicals, factory methods and mechanization are only part of the story. The land has shaped society. It's a society that equates acquisition with success, and confuses good luck with moral virtue. Smiley intersperses other hints about this society throughout the book. The phrase 'family farm' conjured for me the image of the barn raising scene in the movie “Witness.” Isolation, not communitarianism prevails here: “The families who lived here had only the most tenuous links to one another. Each lived a distinct style, to divergent ends.” (p.147) Smiley buttresses this idea with the example of the Ericson farm with its inviting household of pets and congeniality. These very characteristics make it a doomed farm, and neighbors anticipate the day when the Ericsons will be forced to sell. Smiley creates other images as well: The importance of appearances; the insularity that casts anyone born outside the community in an unsympathetic light; the sense of affront prompted by mention of new farming practices. There's an oft-repeated phrase these farmers use to condense misfortune's inflictions: “That's farming.” The underlying sentiment, however, reflects the fine line between stoicism and callousness
Layers and layers of rationalization are peeled away as Ginny Cook, a person who prides herself on her objectivity, narrates the story of her family. At the center is her father Larry Cook, the domineering patriarch, successful, rigid and respected by the community. Ginny seems accepting of even the coarsest of his behaviors, when she confides that Larry thinks his unmarried youngest daughter Carolyn is getting “old for a breeder.” (p.13) Early in the book she recalls as a child watching Larry with affection as he works the fields, seemingly unaffected by the recent death of his wife. Ginny's view of her father is immediately divergent from the reader's. As a child she sees him as a symbolic protector. As an adult she assumes he is merely difficult. The reader sees a remote demanding figure who nurtures his anger, and dictates the services his daughters must provide on an inflexible timetable. Ginny's transformation is incremental. Only later does it occur to her that she cannot imagine her father viewing his daughters with tenderness and affection in the way that she views her sleeping nieces.
Ginny's story is an awakening from emotional paralysis. “It was easy, sitting there and looking at him [Larry], to see it his way. What did we deserve after all? There he stood, the living source of us all. I squirmed, remembering my ungrateful thoughts....Of course it was silly to talk about 'my point of view'. When my father asserted his own point of view, mine vanished. Not even I could remember it.” (p.176)
Ginny is an honest but unreliable narrator. This is readily apparent to the reader. She links her sister Rose's apparent contentment with farming to an absence of ambition visible from early childhood. Yet, in practically the same sentence, she also recalls a youthful Rose who considered the possibility of a Kentucky horse farm in her future.
The marriage choices of Ginny and Rose are puzzling. Ginny married Ty, a farmer with less land than Larry, but with appropriate farming ambitions. Ty is polite, hard-working, soft-spoken, predictable and easy for Ginny to read. More important, his farming lineage had won Larry's approval. Yet, as the story progresses, the reader sees how his passivity encourages Ginny's diffidence. He likes the illusion that Ginny always agrees with him. Ginny's younger sister Rose is outspoken, practical and tough, but she married Pete, a volatile musician with artistic aspirations before he decided to 'settle down.'
Ginny is haunted by a history of multiple miscarriages. Rose is haunted by the future. She has had a radical mastectomy and since then her goals have assumed a new urgency. Ginny and Rose have always been close. It is a complex family bond that Ty finds incomprehensible.
The story opens in 1979. After an absence of 13 years, Jess Clark returns from Vancouver where he fled after being drafted. Even more astonishing than his return is his father Harold's enthusiastic welcome. Harold throws a barbecue where he puts both Jess and his newly acquired top-of-the-line tractor on display. Jess's return is a catalyst. His physical resemblance to his brother Loren provokes an analogy in Ginny's mind. Jess looks like an alternative version of Loren, just as there might be alternative versions of life. It is a novel thought for someone as emotionally repressed as Ginny.
At the barbecue Larry makes an uncharacteristic impulsive decision. He announces he plans to retire and turn the farm over to his three daughters. When Carolyn, a lawyer who lives in the city, advises caution, he explodes and cuts her out of the land transfer. Both Rose and Ty are pleased with the decision to transfer the land. Ty has harbored ambitions to expand the pig-raising operation, so this is a dream come true. Neither of them are alarmed by Larry's treatment of Carolyn, since she doesn't want to farm anyway. Ginny allows her sense of unease about this sudden change to be outweighed by Rose and Ty and assumes her usual agreeable posture.
(view spoiler)[I loved the character of Rose. She never flinches in the face of cancer, and her blunt honesty is a refreshing contrast to Ginny's cautiousness. Yet, she is animated by a destructive rage. Her affair with Jess contributes to her husband Pete's suicide. Her disclosure to Ginny ignites a murderous impulse. Rose is both a powerful and frightening character.
Ginny's deferral of the present is reflected when she muses: “...I felt the familiar sensation of storing up virtue for a later date.” (p.286) If virtue can be stored, however, so can anger. Discovering her own sense of self frees her to act, but the act is one of selfish violence. (hide spoiler)]
Smiley's book is a thoughtful examination of relationships and the destructive power of the most cherished assumptions.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Author Bella Pollen has a gift for inhabiting the experiential worlds of her characters — even when the character is a bear. The book opens in the OutAuthor Bella Pollen has a gift for inhabiting the experiential worlds of her characters — even when the character is a bear. The book opens in the Outer Hebrides, remote islands off the western coast of Scotland. The rough icy water is saturated with the fragrances of plants and animals. The bear is tame, but in a chance moment his tether snaps and he seizes his freedom, swimming through the surf and disappearing into shadowy crags.
The other characters are the unsettled remnants of the Fleming family. Georgie, 17, is the quiet observant peace-maker. Alba, at 14, is the difficult one, chafing at everything and everyone around her and projecting her diffuse unhappiness as rage, particularly rage aimed at her little brother Jamie. Jamie is 8 but still dwells in a netherworld where fantasy and reality connect. His dyslexia adds to that world of poetry where boundaries between order and chaos are tenuous. Finally, there is Letty, their mother. She has brought them to the Outer Hebrides because this is where she grew up. This is home, and right now, she needs a home, or more accurately, a refuge.
The family was accustomed to a rootless existence. Letty's husband Nicky was in the British foreign service and re-postings were frequent. This nomadic existence was exciting and the family had always adapted. However, this last change, from the freedom of Africa to the stifling confines of Bonn, has been particularly difficult. The diplomatic pecking order with its rigid protocols and dress codes is as oppressive as the atmosphere of Cold War suspicion that permeates German life in the '70's. Even Nicky who loves his job is affected by the stress of career building, Cold War tensions and government secrets.
Secrecy is a strong current that runs through this book. The imperious wife of the ambassador warns Letty that her role is to support Nicky's career. (Of course, by this calculus, if his career falters, Letty will have been to blame). Dutifully, Letty resolves to shrink into this diminutive mold. “At first the difference in their relationship was so subtle, she barely noticed it. It was as though each sentence had one word less and each conversation was short of one sentence. Slowly but surely though, whole paragraphs began to disappear from their lives until information was being exchanged on a need-to-know basis only....Communication operates according to the law of diminishing returns. The less there is, the less is generated.” (p.255)
Then, suddenly, Nicky dies. It looks like a suicide. But why would a man in his position commit suicide? What exactly was his position? The reader knows of Nicky only through the eyes of the various family members. Therefore, it's an idealized picture. He was charming, brilliant, patient, imaginative, funny... perfect?
Jamie's viewpoint dominates the story. Well-wishers express sorrow at the family's loss. To Jamie, this means his father went somewhere but now he is lost and can't get home again. Nicky had promised to take Jamie to the circus to see the performing bear, and Nicky always kept his promises, so this is a serious puzzle. When they move to the Hebrides, Jamie dispatches a fleet of bottles each filled with a map marking their destination.
It is this rich fantasy life that immerses the reader. The remote isolation of the land with its insular ideas, folklore, and family legends adds to that alternative reality. Reject that fantasy and the options are limited. There is Letty withdrawing into the muffled world of depression. There is Georgie with her own secret conflicts. Finally, there is Alba's cruel fury. It is a tribute to Pollen's writing that the reader is drawn to sympathize even with Alba. The energy of her derisive comments provides a certain momentum to the story. When a stray cow wanders on to their property, she suggests with venomous glee that they name the cow “The Ambassadress.”
The problem with this book is the attempt to find resolution by re-introducing the real world elements. The set-up and exposition of these components felt extraneous. It is unclear until the very end how these elements will become relevant. There is a feeling of dissonance with the mood that dominates most of the book. Still, this was an engaging story with memorable characters and a convincing setting. The closure the characters feel at its ending will be shared by the reader. ...more
Author Jane Smiley offers brevity and astute analysis in this biography of Charles Dickens from the Penguin Lives series. Its brevity (212 pages) willAuthor Jane Smiley offers brevity and astute analysis in this biography of Charles Dickens from the Penguin Lives series. Its brevity (212 pages) will relieve apprehensive readers familiar with Dickens's hefty novels (DAVID COPPERFIELD runs over 800 pages). Her analysis is even more welcome. It pairs themes in his books with concurrent events in his life. What emerges is a conflicted man whose contradictions are not easily reconciled.
Smiley is critical of the lax usage of the adjective “Dickensian.” She argues that Dickens was constantly rethinking old themes and evolving throughout his long career. ”Dickens's works are often seen to be all of a piece — he did a certain sort of thing, or he employed a certain sort of technique, from the beginning to the end of his career. He was Dickensy. In fact, though, Dickens's novels, stories, plans and letters show that his ideas and his worldview were dynamic, not static....His novels propose different solutions to the dilemma of incompatibility while his analysis of the dilemma gets more and more complex and refined.” (p.204)
The most prominent theme of course is his concern with social ills. The transformation of England from a rural to an urban society magnified poverty, crime, lack of sanitation, housing shortages and class disparity. The workhouse in OLIVER TWIST and debtor's prison in DAVID COPPERFIELD are examples of society's disposal of those afflicted. Respectability is another theme. Dickens was secretive about his own unrespectable origins and the painful memories of his early life. His adulthood looks like a relentless pursuit of the ideal of Victorian respectability. He married young. Catherine Hogarth was 21 and Charles Dickens was 24 when they married in 1836. Their first child was born the following year and the family quickly expanded to ten children in close succession.
Dickens was a reformer, not a revolutionary. He believed in volunteerism and charitable organizations rather than a government managed social safety net. He was a tireless contributor and fundraiser for charitable causes. With Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy banking heiress, he worked to improve Urania College, one of the “ragged schools” that existed to warehouse unwanted children. He was also an active supporter of a home for reformed prostitutes. In DAVID COPPERFIELD Dickens focuses his critique on individuals rather than institutions. The Micawbers end up in debtor's prison as much due to Mr. Micawber's spendthrift ways as his inability to find employment. The Victorian conception of marriage seems bad only because of the Murdstones's joyless self-righteousness and rigid regimentation. Salem House is a poor excuse for a school primarily because of Mr. Creakle. He pays the masters poorly, he fires Mr. Mill when learning of his mother's “disgraceful” poverty, he humiliates Traddles relentlessly, toadies to Steerforth, and disciplines the students with beatings.
Smiley points to the Crimean War (1853-1856) as a turning point in Dickens's optimism. LITTLE DORRIT (1857) was initially titled “Nobody's Fault,” and Smiley views it both as an attack on middle-class values and a rebuke of an incompetent, indifferent and irresponsible ruling class. ”Dickens's vision of Little Dorrit is not only an exceptionally dark view of human nature; it is specifically a dark view of British society and of the effects of British social and economic structure upon British citizens.” (p.125)
Dickens's attitude toward respectability was likewise ambivalent. The marital bliss promised by Victorian conventionality failed to materialize. Catherine had a loving, sedate temperament and was both compliant and fruitful. Dickens wanted more. Intellectual companionship? Artistic accomplishment? Smiley characterizes it as an oscillation between virginal and maternal figures. In DAVID COPPERFIELD the conflict is played out in the contrast between Dora and Agnes. In life, his ambivalence was played out in a succession of experiments in female relationships: An expanded family circle which included Catherine's younger sister Georgina who was only 17 when she died a year after his marriage to Catherine; a brief infatuation with 18 year old Christiana Weller, a gifted pianist, in 1844; a dabbling in hypnosis with a Madame de la Rue the following year, a meeting in 1855 with an old flame, Maria Beadnell Winter; and finally, his liaison with the 18 year old actress Ellen Ternan in 1857. The institution of marriage, at least in its Victorian form, was never suitable to Dickens's temperament. ”He expected absolute order and meticulous cleanliness, quiet when he was working, and boisterous fun, with many visitors when he was ready for it. He was, in short, something of a domestic tyrant, whose sensitivity to the needs of his wife (toward whom he still seems to have felt considerable affection at this point), and children (in whose lives he always interfered) was minimal.” (p.24) In true Victorian fashion, he repressed his dissatisfaction, at least in the beginning, and filled his time with long solitary walks, extensive travel, evenings out socializing, and of course his editing and writing.
As a combination of artist, agent and impressario, Dickens was ill-suited for Victorian conventionality. His flamboyant attire was criticized as déclassé. His search for interesting names took him through cemetaries. His curiosity led him through tenements and red-light districts. He had a sharp ear for mimicry and great dramatic talent, which he applied in public readings that elevated him from author to celebrity and forged an energizing collaborative connection with his audience more comparable to the performance of a stand-up comedian than an author on book tour. Friends urged him to desist from these performances on the grounds that they were undignified. Birth, temperament and talent condemned him to an outsider status, the very vantage point that honed his understanding of class differences and human nature.
Dickens was creatively active between 1833 when his first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published and his death in 1870 while he was working on the novel EDWIN DROOD. Smiley views his career as a bridge between the romanticism of Sir Walter Scott (one of Dickens's famorite authors) and later Victorian authors. It is easy to forget that he began his career four years before Victoria was crowned. Smiley notes that there was a big difference between the early and later Victorian years.
Inevitably, readers and critics are drawn to view Dickens's work in a historical context. Yet, Smiley highlights a modern sense of Dickens. He was outraged to learn that his works were being freely printed in America without payment of any royalty to him. Despite his success he always harbored a sense of financial insecurity. Through DAVID COPPERFIELD his observations of Parliament could have been written today: ”Night after night, I record predictions that never came to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.” (p.606 of DAVID COPPERFIELD) The creepiness of characters like Uriah Heep continues to feed a psychological longing for memorable villains. The lively humor in Dickens's prose continues to entertain and delight readers today.
I came to this book familiar in detail only with DAVID COPPERFIELD, as obvious from the examples I have cited. Smiley covers the full spectrum of Dickens's work,making this a book with appeal to both the novice and the knowledgeable reader....more
36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD pairs philosophy and fiction as if they were conjoined twins. An appendix summarizing both 36 philosophical argu36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD pairs philosophy and fiction as if they were conjoined twins. An appendix summarizing both 36 philosophical arguments for the existence of God and refutations performs double duty. In addition to summarizing a branch of philosophical inquiry, the appendix is also the conclusion of the fictional book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” authored by the main character Cass (Chaim) Seltzer, professor of the psychology of religion. The attentive reader should jump to the appendix shortly after being introduced to Cass. (I neglected to do so and suffered from my ignorance of Goldstein's many literary allusions).
Although requiring a shift in mindset, the “Arguments” are far from pedantic. Argument #1, the Cosmological or First Cause argument, will even feel familiar to students of Thomas Aquinas, or attendees of parochial school. Goldstein formulates it as follows: 1.Everything that exists must have a cause. 2.The universe must have a cause. 3.Nothing can be the cause of itself. 4.The universe cannot be the cause of itself 5.Something outside this universe must have caused the universe. 6.God is the only thing that is outside of the universe. 7.God caused the universe
Another familiar argument is her Argument #3, the "Argument from Design" (appropriated by the Creationists). Argument #31, "Pascal's Wager", introduces a decision matrix as an analytic tool. It posits four choices based on parameters of belief and the fact or fiction of God. Goldstein follows her formulation with a witty commentary on the flaws of the argument. Even those unschooled in philosophy (like myself) will delight in her refreshing prose: “[Pascal's Wager] assumes a petty, egotistical, and vindictive God who punishes anyone who does not believe in him. But the great monotheistic religions all declare that 'mercy' is one of God's essential traits. A merciful God would surely have some understanding of why a person may not believe in him (if the evidence for God were obvious, the fancy reasoning of Pascal's Wager would not be necessary), and so would extend compassion to a non-believer. (Bertrand Russell, when asked what he would have to say to God, if, despite his reasoned atheism, he were to die and face his Creator, responded, 'Oh Lord, why did you not provide more evidence?').”
The fictional work is structured into 36 chapters titled as “Arguments...” like the appendix. However, these arguments are a succession of shifting perspectives. Chapter 1, the “Argument from the Improbable Self,” introduces the reader to Cass, a professor in the psychology department at Frankfurter University, an institution forced to glean provender in the shade of mighty Harvard. Seltzer is the improbable author of “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” a book which has improbably catapulted him to rock star status. Earnest, self-effacing Cass is now a celebrity. The book has risen to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. NPR courts him. His fame is the conduit to a highly improbable relationship with Lucinda Mandelbaum, a colleague at the opposite end of both the personality and scholarly spectrums. Admirers have dubbed her the Goddess of Game Theory; readers will find the appellation of The Fanger, bestowed for her ferocious debating style, a more eloquent fit.
Cass has a history of improbable experiences. Chapter 3, the “Argument from Dappled Things”, relates his romantic misadventures, one of the recurring themes of the book. His first wife, Pascale, was a neurotic, emotionally volatile, self-absorbed French poet. Cass adored her. The reader's own opinion is soon validated by the snarky appraisal of Cass' sympathetic colleague Mona, after Pascale divorces Cass.
Like the dappling effects of sunlight, ironies and shifting perspectives nicitate in this book. When a fellow graduate student, Gideon Raven, mentions the View from Nowhere, Cass mistakes his reference to the nondescript bar and student hangout for a book authored by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. At a lecture on moral choice, Lucinda Mandelbaum argues that the Milgram experiment is an example of escalation game theory. Gideon exemplifies that same escalation game in action. He has spent 12 years and counting as a graduate student and acolyte of famed professor Jonas Elijah Klapper. Gideon advises Cass to cut his losses and go back to his pre-med major. Gideon admits that he is doubling down on the receding goal of a doctorate because he doesn't want to write off the years he has already invested.
Serious symbolism and comic reality collide in Goldstein's description of the Hassidic ritual of shirayim, a ritual meant to connect the mystical powers of the Rebbe to his people through the sharing of food. Cass notes: “They [the congregants] looked like the fans at Fenway Park when a long foul ball was hit into the grandstand. Hasidim had flung themselves onto the gigantic table, squirming forward on their bellies to get a piece of fruit that hadn't made it into the tiers. There had also been pieces of potato kugel that the Rebbe had distributed with his bare hands. The pandemonium of the event — there was shouting and tussling, not to speak of food being flung — had ripped Cass entirely out of the rapture that had seized him while Azarya spoke.”
Goldstein excels at creating memorable characters. Jonas Elijah Klapper, Cass' charismatic mentor, is a megalomaniac with a penchant for obscure courses with alliterative titles like “The Sublime, the Subliminal and the Self"; and “The Manic, the Mantic and the Mimetic.” Klapper delivers a prestigious lecture entitled “The Irony of Eternity.” Unfortunately, the academic host introduces it as “The Eternity of Irony.” Cass' horrified reaction contrasts with the reader's perception that the transposition is insignificant to any grasp of meaning. Cass' hero-worship is balanced by Roz Margolis' irreverent ridicule. Roz is a free-wheeling anthropology student. She dubbs Klapper “the Klap” and his pontifications as “thunder-Klaps.” Likewise, Sy Auerbach, Cass' literary agent, seems to have Klapper in mind when he derides expounders of “obscure references rendered in dead languages falling from their lips like flecks of food off a messy eater.”
Despite Gideon's warning, Cass is drawn to the brink of the rabbit hole, and the reader is treated to an ever escalating spoof of academic vanity and delusion which climaxes when Klapper learns that Cass is related to the Rebe of Valdener, the head of a nearby Hassidic community called New Walden. After a madcap roadtrip with Roz as chauffeur, the character of Azaria, the 6 year old son of the Rebbe is instroduced. Azaria is a math genius, innocently enchanted with the mysteries of prime numbers, the occasion for Goldstein to launch into yet another tangent.
Despite the array of memorable characters and engaging prose, this book never coalesced into a satisfying novel for me. The “36 arguments” template and the nomenclature of the chapters felt forced. “The Argument From the Longing on the Gate” (Chapter 16) and “The Argument from Fraught Distance (Chapter 22), for example, document a series of email exchanges between Cass and Gideon. The material was superfluous, as if the author was grasping for material to fill a requisite 36 vessels.
Deprived of its philosophical twin the fictional narrative would proceed with a diminished resonance. However, the arbitrary chapters that jump backwards and forwards in time contributed to a choppiness in the narrative. Goldstein unleashes too many variables into her story. The trajectories of Cass' relationships with Pascale, Roz and Lucinda jostle for space with Klapper's paradox shift, Hassidic ritual and genealogy, a philosophic debate with a neo-conservative Harvard economist, Euclid's proof for an infinite number of prime numbers, musings on gematria, the riotous absurdities of academic rivalries, elemental game theory, a riff on the thoughts of Thomas Nagel, an exploration of moral value, and a brush with the technical meaning of the term “rigid designator”. The result is a chaotic narrative which feels overly long.
This was one of my forays outside of my comfort zone. While appealing to a wide spectrum of interests, Goldstein also runs the risk of leaving many in that spectrum, myself included, dissatisfied....more
Carolyn Parkhurst builds on the reader's long-standing familiarity with Reality TV in this book. Whether that familiarity is based on the meltdown ofCarolyn Parkhurst builds on the reader's long-standing familiarity with Reality TV in this book. Whether that familiarity is based on the meltdown of the Loud Family on the 1971 PBS series or current iterations like “Survivor”, the reader will recognize the formula of relentless scrutiny and contrived stress. The game show in this book is called “Lost and Found.” Pairs of contestants compete with each other to decipher clues to locating random objects. It's a global scavenger hunt. With an ever increasing collection of ludicrous objects in tow, the contestants trundle on to planes, buses, trains, jitney cabs and hitched rides in pursuit of the next object. It's a race. At the end of each round one pair is eliminated. The show presses the exhausted losers for a plucky, telegenic valedictory. The host, Barbara Fox, intones: “ 'You've lost the race....But what have you found?'” One contestant, eliminated early in the game, didn't do too well with that one.
Parkhurst's characters seem like recognizable types. Laura and Cassie are a mother-daughter team. Juliet and Dallas are two “where are they now” vintage TV celebs. Carl and Jeff are middle-aged brothers, both divorced. Justin and Abby (“Team Brimstone,” Carl quips in an aside), are an ex-gay married couple on an ex-gayness evangelical mission. Laura, Cassie, Carl, Juliet, Justin and Abby narrate in alternating chapters. Their separate first-person narratives add intimacy. The reader is quickly drawn from spectator to an emotionally involved confidant. As they speak they reveal to the reader their unrealized motives for wanting to be on the show, as well as their messy past lives. Laura, for example, has told the producers she wants one last chance to bond with her college-bound daughter. To the reader she confides a more anguished version. Cassie gave birth to a daughter a scant four months ago. Laura didn't even know Cassie was pregnant. Giving the child up for adoption haunts both of them. Against this poignant story is the backdrop of the comical scramble in the present-day timeline.
Each character reveals unexpected depth. With his brother Jeff, Carl is the vigilant straight-man, constantly reining in the forced, raucous, non-stop patter of Jeff. Away from Jeff, he reveals a subdued self-deprecating wit that provides respite from his painful memories and concern about his ailing son. Justin transforms into an unexpectedly sympathetic character.
Parkhurst is an expert at creating unique voices for her characters. Laura does not wonder how they came to be picked for the show. She doesn't know they know about the baby. She assumes she and Cassie are just lucky. The producers were probably swayed by their likeability. Cassie, the savvy teen, views her clueless mother with dismay. ”They picked us because they think we're this big, mother-daughter time bomb ticking away with secrets and they're just waiting for us to explode.”
Parkhurst inserts the right amount of humor into this progressively revealing drama. The game show commences as an entertaining interlude. The contestants stampede through Egypt, Japan and Sweden with hardly a glance at the sights. Justin and Abby spin their ex-gay spiel to an incredulous Swedish couple. At one point, Parkhurst sidles up to a clichéd image with deceptive charm before delivering her jolt. Laura describes the tent set up under the Swedish summer night sky. “I can see that the Theater of Sleep is quite lovely; I imagine it will look even better on TV. They've made a kind of fairy bower out here in the summer night: five brass beds, piled with pillows and covered with satin and velvet, under a tent of mosquito netting draped like a bridal veil. There are ropes of flowers and strings of tiny lights. It's like a honeymoon suite for ten.”
LOST AND FOUND explores the flow of past into future; the present is a mix of aspiration and self-delusion. Its characters must sift through the sediment of memories, dreams, disappointment and fear where the public eye will expose them to unique vulnerability. As in life, what they find isn't always what they sought, and sometimes, that's a good thing....more
Phrases like “curious incident” and “night-time” lure the reader into the framework of a mystery. However, this is as much a murder mystery as THE HOUPhrases like “curious incident” and “night-time” lure the reader into the framework of a mystery. However, this is as much a murder mystery as THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES was about two dogs being killed (Mortimer's Spaniel and the Hound, for those like me with fuzzy memories). In the eyes of the fictional narrator/author, 15 year old Christopher Boone, that was the subject of Arthur Conan Doyle's story, and this is a murder mystery. Christopher Boone is autistic and he is recording real life events as seen through his eyes into a book. He uses the formulaic devices of a mystery to help him with structure: Open with an attention grabber, acknowledge “Red Herrings,” consider motives.... The reader is cognizant throughout of how autism skews Christopher's perception, and sympathizes. Read this as a straight-forward mystery and you will be disappointed. This is a multi-layered story of relationships as well as a touching account of how it feels to be autistic.
Christopher has difficulty interpreting facial expressions. His teacher, Siobhan, draws some simplified examples of happy, sad, frightened, etc. as cues, but Christopher rightly perceives that in real life people are changing their expressions so quickly that it is difficult to use these cues with consistent accuracy. (To relate, you need only imagine Bill Belichick's tortured press conference “smile.” Is it a grimace of badly concealed pain or a mask for his boredom with the whole process? How we actually “read” facial expression is a combination of perception and associations formed from past experiences). He has difficulty dealing with new people and new situations. Simple statements and questions feel out of context and disordered to him. Almost inevitably, he experiences sensory overload and even his attempts at self-calming come across as bizarre and off-putting. There is a black and white quality to Christopher's world. He is particularly insistent that lies are bad. This is one reason he likes dogs. They do not lie because they can't talk. Nevertheless, he seems particularly adept at rationalizing his own “white lies.” These, he explains simply, are when you tell only a partial truth. Finally, Christopher really can't stand being touched. It triggers a sense of losing control over himself, as well as a sensory revulsion, and often ends not just with screams of horror, but panicked violence.
All of these problems surface as the story proceeds. When a policeman questions him, his confusion is mistaken for affront. When the policeman puts a hand on him, his response gets him arrested for attacking an officer of the law.
Christopher is aware that his “Behavior Problems”, which he helpfully lists, cause tensions in his family. Occasionally he permits glimpses of their frustration. Those glimpses, however, are presented as a backdrop, parenthetical to his storyline.
One of the reasons this book is so effective is that the language and cadences are so convincing. The sentences are short; the descriptions are unembellished. At the same time, the narrator's candor is charming. His literal minded observations offer insight, and his intelligence is reflected in a keen sense of observation, and extraordinary curiosity. Christopher is a math genius and loves prime numbers and solving mathematical problems. He even uses these gifts as part of his self-calming arsenal. He displays extraordinary insight when he reviews the connection between his sense of being overwhelmed and his experience of memory storage and retrieval. “My memory's like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like, because my memory has a smell track which is like a soundtrack.” (p.76) This is a film that is crammed with hundreds of random details that can be configured into a staggering quantity of patterns. New events trigger a comprehensive and time-consuming search for the right pattern. “And this is also how I know how to act in difficult situations when I don't know what to do. For example, if people say things which don't make sense like, 'see you later, alligator' ...I do a search and see if I have ever heard someone say this before.” (p.78) Equally interesting is Christopher's views on time. “...time is not like space....time is only the relationship between the way different things change...if you get lost in time it is like being lost in a desert....And this is why I like timetables, because they make sure you don't get lost in time.” (p. 158)
I liked this book, but felt there was a disconnect between Christopher's mystery story, and the story of family relationships. The portrayal of Christopher's parents lacked emotional resonance, and calls on the reader's ability to embrace with equal compassion a kind of negative space of emotional drama.
This book is perfectly paired with the nonfiction book, THE REASON I JUMP, by Naoki Higashi. I highly recommend reading the two books together. The combination of fiction and nonfiction complement each other perfectly. ...more
Translator David Mitchell's introduction to this book rekindled my experience of the character Christopher Boone in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG INTranslator David Mitchell's introduction to this book rekindled my experience of the character Christopher Boone in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (A book I have just finished reading). Mitchell's own son is autistic so this book, written by an autistic teen in Japan, held special meaning for him. His introduction is written with both feeling and wit.
Thirteen year old Naoki Higashida's challenges are more fundamental, however, than the fictional Christopher's. Higashida does not communicate verbally, but by use of a keyboard grid which an assistant transcribes. However, like Christopher, his curiosity, resourcefulness, intelligence and creativity are reflected in the writing.
Higashida has formatted this book as a series of questions and answers. Some of the questions deal with social impediments. He often asks the same questions repeatedly. Sometimes he uses an inappropriate voice. Other questions deal with parental tensions he knows his behavior causes. He has acute sensory issues and dislikes being touched. Repeatedly, he seems to disobey rules and commands. Other questions he poses deal with his own sense of isolation, a consequence of being misunderstood. Because he is easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by events which others accept as a normal part of life, he often needs to withdraw. Many people assume this defensive withdrawal indicates he prefers to be alone and isolated.
These issues are not addressed in neat compartments. Instead, it is as if Higashida is recalling incidents from his past as they surface in his memory and is struggling to identify and make sense of these incidents. As a result, his narrative may seem rambling and repetitive to the cursory reader. Each illustration he writes about provides new insight into Higashida's thoughts and frustrations. It is particularly affecting to realize that these problems and frustrations occur multiple times over the course of each day of his life.
Higashida's explanations are the result of deep probing. A simple but common complaint he hears is that autistic children never make eye contact. He explains, simply: “What we're actually looking at is the other person's voice. Voices may not be visible things, but we're trying to listen to the other person with all our sense organs.” (p.42) How logical! If you have difficulty identifying the nuances of facial expression and focus energy on contextualizing what you are hearing, is it any wonder that eye contact is one of the first elements to be jettisoned? His explanation is also a reminder that conformity rather than connectivity is the implicit goal for many behavior modification techniques. Does that fact in itself send a message that devalues the worth of the autistic person?
Higashida reflects on the exhaustion, loneliness and shame he often feels due to his autism. However, his optimism and spirit triumph. He concludes with a special gift. The final chapter is an emotionally intense short story he has written. The story reflects his own spiritual compassion and sense of empathy. This is a rewarding book for anyone familiar with some of the symptoms of autism. It's reading, however, should be complemented by some of the other works, both fictional and nonfictional, about autism. I started this book previously. It was only after I read THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, that I appreciated Higashida's message sufficiently to read the book in its entirety. ...more
The set-up is intriguing. A hacker, dubbed “Vespers,” breaks into the Pope's personal email and leaves a cryptic plea to save an obscure historic churThe set-up is intriguing. A hacker, dubbed “Vespers,” breaks into the Pope's personal email and leaves a cryptic plea to save an obscure historic church in Seville. Political and financial interests including the archbishop of Seville want the church demolished to exploit the value of the real estate. The hacker has been careful to conceal his tracks, and the security breach seems to disturb the Vatican hierarchy more than the contents of the message, despite the disclosure that recently, two deaths occurred during the repair work on the church. The deaths were apparent accidents. A municipal architect fell due to a loose balustrade; the archbishop's secretary was crushed by a chunk of debris from the ceiling. The email drops dark insinuations about the hand of God. The focus, however, is on the hacker, who has elevated the affair to a high stakes political confrontation between Archbishop Paolo Spada and Cardinal Iwaszkiewicz. The Pope has directed the Institute for External Affairs, a kind of Internal Affairs Department headed by Archbishop Spada, to discover the identity of the hacker. Cardinal Iwaszkiewicz hopes for a misstep that can be blamed on his rival.
From the start, the dissonance between a computer hacker and Vatican emails commands interest which is intensified by the delineation of the political rivalries. Pérez-Reverte involves even the most secular-minded of readers in this maneuvering for power.
He creates a long list of colorful characters. Cardinal Iwaszkiewicz is immediately established as shadowy and dangerous. His department, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was formerly called the Office of the Inquisition. When introduced into the story, he lingers by the window rather than taking a seat across from Archbishop Speda. There is an electrical outage that shrouds the meeting in semi-darkness. Their conversation is thick with careful formality that exudes even more menace. The third attendee at this meeting is Father Lorenzo Quart, Spada's agent. He's reliable and discreet, “as precise and stable as a Swiss Army knife.” (p.7) Hints of his childhood also suggest he is a brittle vessel of guarded emotions. He is the embodiment of religious inversion. Celibacy is the foundation of his pride; obedience is a replacement for piety. Drop-dead handsome and elegantly tailored, Quart is the enigmatic agent dispatched to Seville to conduct the delicate and highly secret investigation.
In Seville more characters appear. Pencho Gavira is an ambitious banker; his assistant Celestino Perégil is a toad-like toady with a gambling problem. Don Ibraham is a disbarred lawyer whose wistful memories mingle fact and fiction; El Potro del Mantelete is a perpetually benumbed ex-boxer and failed bullfighter; La Niña Puñales is an alcoholic chanteuse scraping by at seedy nightclubs. Gris Marsala is the chief architect and art historian in charge of the stalled restoration project; Macarena Bruner de Lebrija is the banker Gaviras's estranged wife; Maria Cruz Eugenia Bruner is the dowager duchess and Macarena's mother; and Don Octavo Machuca is Macarena's godfather and the about-to-retire chairman of Gavira's bank. It's worth the time to keep a notebook of these names while reading the book. There are additional characters drawn from the past as well as the story's present. The author gives each character, particularly the comedic ones, a compelling set of intentions and then releases them to pursue their convoluted schemes. The characters do not disappoint. Some even warm to their roles.
Quart arrives in Seville protesting that he is only there as a neutral observer — a mere reporter of sorts. He is blind to the fact that his very objectivity is what is objectionable to the impassioned supporters of the church. Strip away the emotional connections to history and art and all that remains is a monetary assessment. Obviously, no one provides any clues about the identity of the mysterious hacker. The person with the strongest motive is the parish priest so old he hardly seems a candidate for computer literacy.
Neutrality is a convenient conceit that not even Quart fully believes. There are always consequences. A past investigation by Quart had disturbing results. An activist Brazilian priest was brutally murdered after one of his “neutral” reports. (The ethical position of neutrality is a central theme in Pérez-Reverte's next book).
That the church's supporters are not motivated by religious fervor is a surprising conundrum. Father Ferro, the parish priest, is a battered relic whose religious belief dried up long ago. He rebukes Quart's taunts with a defiant declaration: “Faith doesn't ever need the existence of God.” (p.134). Quart dismissively assesses Father Oscar the assistant priest's fervor: “At your age, life is more dramatic. Ideas and lost causes carry you away.” (p.132). The story slips from a thriller to variations on the theme of existential crisis.
Pérez-Reverte is most successful at evoking the spirit of Seville. The Plaza Virgen de los Reyes is described as the “crossroads of three religions.” (p.69) White washed walls, the scent of orange blossoms, manzanilla crafted over the centuries, and azure skies dotted by pigeons envelope the senses. In his epigram he offers the usual caution that this is a work of fiction, but adds: “Only the setting is true. Nobody could invent a city like Seville.”
The touches of humor that are interspersed are somewhat less successful. The reader is complicit in these attempts, not so much due to the skill of the writing as to the fondness developed for the characters and their foibles. (view spoiler)[When Gavira in frustration orders the church to be torched, can a botched job not be in the cards? (hide spoiler)]
Readers of Pérez-Reverte's earlier books will be delighted with his love for art, history and story-telling. Despite the existential exploration that preoccupies much of the story, he also returns to the tonal color of mystery he opened with. His conclusion reverts to a satisfying mix of closure and beguiling ambiguity. Yet, it is clear he is an author in transition. His mind is already focusing on more somber thoughts that draw on his career as a journalist and which are explored in his next book, THE PAINTER OF BATTLES. I didn't enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed THE CLUB DUMAS, but a book by Pérez-Reverte is always a worthwhile read.
The polychrome sculpture of the Spanish baroque period is central to the church's mystique. Gregorio Fernandez and Juan Martinez Montanes are two of the primary artists of the period. This website is one example of the pieces from this period. http://caravaggista.com/2011/09/baroq...["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more