Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Denver Film Festival - Viktoria

It's been a long time since I've seen such a visually exquisite film. Every frame is a breathtaking still. If you're after a narrative - beginning, middle, end, with a nicely-tied-up conclusion - Viktoria, the debut film by Bulgarian Maya Vitkova, is not for you. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez, who brings her expression to life, is one to watch - what arresting imagery!

Three generations of women are featured: Boryana, daughter of a silent (eventually we learn: mute) mother, lives with her husband in the mother's apartment. In 1979 the film opens with Boryana longing to leave Iron Curtain Bulgaria - but she is pregnant, and the connection who arranges escapes will not risk her passage. Though her husband is thrilled, Boryana  tries to miscarry. Still, Viktoria is born - with no navel. The baby is hailed as a Socialist hero, and her parents are given a car and a new apartment. You might think Boryana would be happy to live away from her mother, whom she despises, but she asks the Party chief if she can have the money instead. No deal, but Viktoria is the Party chief's godchild, lavished with gifts and privileges, spoiled and nasty because the other children don't dare touch her. As Viktoria gets older, she loses her hauteur - when the regime fails and the Party chief cannot protect her, she learns to live a more normal life, finding love with her grandmother, who communicates through embraces and notes.

A sampling of images:
A poster of Venice becomes the city: night falls, and lights wink on in the buildings.
Milk emptied from a packet onto the ground puddles, slowly soaking in, a close-range image showing the bubbles, earth receiving, grass stubble emerging as the milk absorbs.
Viktoria bicycles at night down a forested path, each streetlight catching her features, then her forward motion returning her to darkness.
Boryana, driving the red car on the day she and her lover attempt to emigrate, comes to a roadblock, a camera shot from above of a circular-patterned dark stone plaza with red car in the center, white cars converging from three directions.
Another time, the husband drives with a neighbor woman (his refuge after Boryana's rejection), the windshield reflecting trees and sky, giving us glimpses of their contented faces.
After the grandmother's death, Boryana, her husband, and Viktoria struggle up a long snowy slope and stand at the top, the landscape black-and-white except one sunset-rosy cloud.

Symbols: blood, milk: red, white. Boryana, 6 months pregnant, lies in the bath, and blood begins to seep from her and spread through the water. She has nosebleeds, as does Viktoria. Viktoria lies dreaming, and a snaking line of blood curls from where her navel should be, up to her red phone (her personal hotline to the Party chief). Viktoria wears a red coat and carries a red satchel to school. The car Viktoria's parents are awarded is red.

When Boryana is far along in her pregnancy, she abruptly craves milk (before this, we see her consume only cigarettes and Coke), and when she has drunk all the milk in the house, accuses her husband of using too much in his coffee, thereby depriving her. But Boryana's breasts are barren - in one sequence she dreams of a fountain of milk exploding from one nipple - her husband is the one who nurses the baby, with a bottle.

Viktoria regularly visits her grandmother, and the old woman gives her packets of milk to take home. But Boryana has demanded no milk be brought into the apartment, so after leaving her grandmother, Viktoria pours the milk onto the ground. After the old woman's death, Boryana comes to her apartment and cuts the night-dress off her, then gives her exposed body a loving sponge-bath, much as the grandmother bathed Viktoria earlier. As Boryana washes the belly, she finds a scar running from her mother's navel to her right side. Is this why Viktoria had no navel? Is this scar the reason mother could not love daughter, for three generations?

Near the end, after the grandmother's death, Boryana stands in a rain of milk, high contrast to her black hair and dark clothes. Thwarted in expressing it, nevertheless these women do finally love each other - at the end Viktoria sends a postcard to Boryana from Venice, telling her it is only 1243 km away - which brings us full circle to Boryana's musing at the beginning - though the poster she treasures is of the Statue of Liberty, her first longing was to escape to Venice.

If you get a chance, see this film. Leave your expectations at home, come with your eyes and ears open, your heart receptive. Let the images wash over you, and be glad for film festivals - likely your only chance to view such beauty on the big screen where it belongs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour

A beautifully restored version of Alain Resnais' 1959 black-and-white film Hiroshima Mon Amour is making the rounds, and you should see it. In a time of noisy, violent, in-your-face cinema, step into a story with a jarring reality - stones that burned in the 10,000 degree A-Bomb blast, iron that melted, people whose hair fell out and skin sloughed off, deformed babies and disfigured burn victims - presented calmly. The horror is not in gore, but in realization that humans did these things to each other.

Intercut with these images is the lovemaking, in a Hiroshima hotel room, of a French woman and a Japanese man. Gradually their story unfolds: she is an actress, finishing an international film about peace; only last night did she invite him to her room, and tomorrow she returns to Paris. They are in love, and yet she intends to leave. She describes herself as a woman of dubious morals, then jokes she is dubious of morals. Both say they are happily married.

As he questions, she talks about her youth in Nevers, a French city on the Loire. During the war, she and a German soldier fell in love, and met wherever they could. On the day France was liberated someone shot him, and as she lay with the dying man she was found out, her hair hacked off, humiliated and scorned, and descended into madness. Two years later, restored to sanity, she made her way to Paris and never went back, and blocked out the experience.

Marguerite Duras, who won the Prix Goncourt for the script, asks us to think about memory, about how forgetting is both healing - allowing us to continue with life - and ravaging - we lose what matters most when we can no longer bring its details to mind. The touch of a lover's hand, his warmth, their full hearts - when these fade, we lose something precious. Not to remember is not to have lived.

The French woman makes a gift of her secret loss to this stranger/lover, this Japanese man she will never see again, and in the process he allows her to re-experience that first momentous love. When she tells him she has never shared this story with her husband, the Japanese man is thrilled and elated - only he holds this potent memory, feels its power over her. Through her last night in Hiroshima they sit in a tea-house where he plies her with beer while she confesses, then we think maybe she will stay with him - we know it's impossible and they both agree it's impossible but so is love: surely there is a way to sustain this experience They want it, we want it for them, we know it can't happen.

Many masterfully-composed images benefit from the restoration - the patterns made by overlapping palm fronds against the sky while the lovers fill the foreground; long dolly-shots through a series of high-roofed market buildings; a vertical bar of light reflected off the river behind her as they sit in the tea-house; the peeping of frogs, that same soundtrack in her Nevers memories. Hiroshima Mon Amour touches heart and mind profoundly - see it on a big screen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand

Lives don't often provide the satisfying arc we appreciate in fiction - Unbroken does. The first third is an adventure, the middle half is sheer torment, and the end is redemptive.

In 1936 Louie Zamperini was an Olympic distance-runner, drafted before he could fulfill his dream of winning the 1500 meters in 1940. He served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater in WWII, escaped the wreckage when his plane crashed in the ocean, and spent over 40 days in a raft, living by ingenuity and luck amid sharks, on what meager food and water they could capture from sea and sky, only to land emaciated on a Japanese-occupied island where he and his surviving crew member were taken prisoner. He spent the next two horrific years interned first in a secret interrogation camp then in two notorious POW camps where he endured unimaginable torments at the hands of cruel men.  

The rebuilding of Japan into an ally against the communist countries of Asia required the US to turn a blind eye to Japanese wartime abuses, so it is a revelation for anyone younger than the generation who fought them, to read about the deliberate starvation, ghastly medical experiments and calculated barbarities that claimed the lives of many POWs and twisted the post-war existence of the rest. From our comfortable distance of hindsight we decry the use of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this story bolsters the contention of members of the war generation, that use of this shocking new weapon was the only thing that prevented a full-scale invasion of Japan, to end that war.

During the castaway section, when one of the ever-present circling sharks leaps from the water attempting to grip "Zamp" in its maw, we feel a thrill - what an adventure, what a feat of survival. But when after many days in their small raft, starving, the men are spotted by a plane (rescue! at last!) then that plane strafes them, passes, and returns to strafe again, the reader feels jolted by the world's injustice. And that's only the beginning, the first step into their long hell.

Incarceration is a terrible ordeal, gripping and appalling, and Hillenbrand tells it vividly - the men's starvation, illness and thirst, the small measures of defiance that bring on added punishments but keep their wills alive, the whole twisted world of prison camp commanders and staff in which the POWs' rations are sold off on the black market while the dregs of the military wield absolute control. These men's experience is more Holocaust than The Great Escape.

But we, like Zamperini, do finally achieve peace. Barbarity wasn't invented in the wars being fought now - it is as old as human altercation. This book is as powerful an argument in favor of diplomacy and peace, as you could find. War is not a heroic enterprise, War is Hell. We do well to remember that when we clamor for vengeance, for matching destruction by "our enemies" with our own.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's new movie The Zero Theorem returns again to the cosmic questions that must plague his sleep, and to a vision of a not-far-enough-distant future where a dazzling mix of bright busy noisy public spaces contrasts with the cavernous decaying church where our hero Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) sleeps upstairs amid the organ pipes. He works as a programmer for Mancom, the organization which watches everything and controls everyone. But he is really waiting for a phone call, a voice on the line that will tell him why he exists. Which is why he exists: to wait for the call. Samuel Beckett would love this movie.

Qohen's supervisor makes him attend a party where, stepping into a quiet room, he meets the Master (Matt Damon); he also meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a call girl whose enticements he rebuffs: "I don't like touch." These encounters change the pattern of his days: The Master recruits him to work on the Zero Theorem in a perfectly-Gilliam space with old mosaic floors and iron circles and the hoses and tubes so familiar from Brazil, all surrounding and feeding some gigantic machine, the nerve center of this highly-controlled-in-chaos society. Here Qohen meets Bob (well, the Master's 15-year-old son, played by Lucas Hedges, who calls everyone Bob because he can't spare brain power to remember names), who explains that everyone is a tool.

Qohen is given permission to work at home (where he wants to be, in case his phone call comes). His computer screen looks like a giant smart-phone, and using a video-game controller he manipulates equation-cubes in a vast structure where sometimes they fit perfectly and he achieves Upload, but other times cause avalanches or explosions of already-constructed areas. Bob visits to explain the Zero Theorem - that we are nothing and to nothing we return, so nothing matters. Bainsley shows up. Bob tells Qohen she's a tool, but Qohen thinks maybe she really does like him, as she claims. She gives him a Virtual Reality suit he can wear when he visits her website, and they have virtual interludes in a tropical paradise, just the two of them - and Qohen's isolation begins to crack.

Surveillance is constant, which we're reminded of by black-and-white camera-eye sequences. Gilliam's vision is a chaos of speeding, flashing, blasting - as if the world were a combination Times Square and game arcade. The mash-up seems futuristic, but the elements already exist: targeted ads, cameras everywhere, blind constant pursuit of money, sex, drugs and drink. No contemplation, no silence. Are we there yet, Terry?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

...And Ladies of the Club

..And Ladies of the Club is a journey through time. Much is being made of Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood whose characters, filmed over a decade, grow up in real time. This novel uses the full lifespans of its characters to tell not only their stories, but to illuminate the times as they lived them.

This tome came out in 1984 as a supermarket best-seller (hundreds of thousands of copies), the first published work by Helen Hooven Santmyer, age 88 when it went paperback and hit the big time. I read it then, and recently a book group member chose it. We allowed ourselves 2 months to read it (1433 pages!) but even so, I fear I am the only one who made it to the end.

The book is well worth reading. Santmyer follows a group of women in a small Ohio town from their college (we would think of it as high school) graduation in 1868, to the ends of their lives in the early 1930's. In that span we get history as people lived it (depressions, issues of race and class, politics, the powerful impact of war on the lives of veterans) as well as changes in transportation, communication and expectations. She is a fine writer, expressive and clear, using well-crafted sentences to tell her saga.

The primary character is Anne Alexander Gordon, whose father is a doctor, and who marries a (Civil War veteran) doctor, then their son becomes one, and against the odds of his upbringing, her grandson does as well. Anne believes most deeply in a life of joy, and through her struggles she is always able to find it in unexpected places and people.

The other principal is her best friend, Sally Cochran Rausch, whose husband, an ambitious Civil War vet, becomes the town's leading citizen. He buys a decrepit rope-mill and builds the business through economic surges and crashes. Union organizers can get nowhere with his loyal workers - he demonstrates during crises that he considers it his duty to look after them. Sally is a sensualist, taking pleasure in being a gracious hostess, filling her house with music, family and friends, and holding grand parties. She is a snob, but loyal and strong.

The Club of the title is the Women's Club, formed when Anne and Sally graduate, as a way of advancing literary life in their community. At first, only high-status ladies, teachers and ministers' wives are invited to be members, but over time the group's cliquish tendency gives way to recognizing the intelligence and scholarship of lower class women, even avowed Socialists.

Characters are finely-drawn: we see generational continuity, and the foibles and mistakes of the heart that cloud futures. But we also see the enduring comfort of long friendships, the sparks of sudden love, mischievous children, adults who make the best of second-best. 

Well done!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beach Read: The Truth, by Michael Palin

It's August - time to read something light. At my favorite Venice, California bookstore, Small World Books, I picked up Michael Palin's 2012 novel The Truth.

In brief, it's the story of Keith Mabbut, middle-aged British pen-for-hire and frustrated novelist. He is offered a shocking amount of money to write a biography of Hamish Melville, an elusive environmental crusader who pops up in the world's hot spots to mobilize indigenous peoples to resist the destruction of their homelands by resource-greedy corporations. Mabbut has to find Melville, gain his trust, and glean his story on a short deadline.

But why is Urgent Books offering him so much money, and why is its CEO such a creep? Meanwhile, Mabbut's wife, separated from him for a year or two, wants to marry her new lover, his twenty-something daughter is in love with an Iranian refugee, and his slightly-younger son won't speak to him. And his historical-recreation "not science fiction" novel languishes while he tracks Melville to India. In the process of pursuing this story, he's surprised by his own environmental activism reawakening after decades of slumber.

The book is more serious than I'd expected of a Python, but it's a decently written page-turner. And it's aptly named: variants of Truth shimmer in every chapter: what people live and die for, what they will corrupt those around them for, the mundane truths of how to treat people, and that humans are not really trustworthy. Mabbut ultimately has to decide what his truth is, and to speak it - just as everyone he encounters must voice their own version.

One can do worse for beach reading - go find a copy!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lord of the Flies

Fred and I worked with a Boy Scout troop for close to 15 years, and he used to pull out his copy of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies by way of explaining to the dads of the 11-year-olds what they could expect from a pack of teenage boys.

Standout theater director Peter Brooks filmed the book in 1963 - in black and white, with a group of English schoolboys. Updated from the original shipwreck, the boys are marooned by a plane crash. Nevertheless, the story is the same: how easily the veneer of civilization rubs away to reveal the savage.

At the start, Ralph and the boy we'll only know as Piggy promote rules and fairness, but already we recognize a boy, Jack, who itches to be in control and soon finds ways to attract a following. Ralph, with his insistence on allowing anyone to speak while holding the conch shell, and emphasizing the importance of using a fire to signal rescuers, represents civilization itself. Piggy, nearsighted, asthmatic and chubby, represents physical weakness - but his limitations make him kind to the younger boys - he looks after them, tells them stories, comforts them. Jack represents savage remorselessness, favoring those boys who accept his authority and using fear to control the rest.

There is also a Beast. When the camera finally gives us a clear look at a dead paratrooper, we understand it doesn't matter that this apparition is human and dead - the boys are afraid of an external threat. Guarding against the Beast gives them purpose and community, but it also drives them to extremity. And they forget what Ralph tries again and again to remind them: their first duty is to signal for help - that is, to remember the civilization they have left, to maintain loyalty to it, to keep themselves in a state such that they can return to it.

Fire, killing the pigs, blood, discarding their clothes in favor of body paint and masks - these elements mark the group's descent. Ralph's signal fire is a cry for help, but the bonfires that incite the others to bloodlust are its opposite. To someone who worked with boys for many years, this was all so familiar: pyromania, struggles for dominance, scapegoating, the animal just beneath the surface - but always there were boys willing to help the younger and weaker in their midst, to tolerate difference, to uphold (at least some of) the aims of civilization. The savage cannot be removed from within us - the best we can do is to give that wildness forms of expression that allow our humanity to flourish.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Locke - a Film Review

Spoiler Alert! If you're planning to see Stephen Knight's Locke, stop reading now - I'm going to discuss the entire movie.

It's tricky to make a film succeed when only one character is on-screen, even more so in the limited space of a car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is project manager for a high-level concrete company, and on the eve of a pour of historic proportions, he is interrupted: a woman with whom he had a single sexual encounter is pregnant, and her baby is coming early - coming now. As we learn, his own father abandoned him, only showing up when Locke was an adult. Indeed, our protagonist's success in life - his attention to detail, his reliability, his calm and professional way of handling problems - may all be attributable to rejection of everything his father was: selfish, drunk, ineffectual, weak.

He makes a choice, at the beginning of the film, to be with Bethan, a woman he hardly knows (and as he assures her, feels no affection for), as she gives birth. She is 43, alone, and this baby is her last chance at joy. And Locke, whatever it costs him, claims the child as his own, and will be there with its fearful distraught lonely mother. In addition to being the eve of the Big Pour, this is also the night of a big soccer match. His sons are excited, his wife is even wearing the team jersey. And he is driving away from them all: from the job for which he has primary responsibility, from the family life he would rather be part of.

On the one hand, the simultaneity of these events is a contrivance. On the other hand, life is exactly like this, challenging our priorities and our humanity. When we first learn of his errand, we think he is leaving his wife for "the other woman" - but very quickly we realize the two women are poles apart in his thinking. He tells Bethan they hardly know each other, he is only coming because he is set on doing the right thing. His wife Katrina's reaction is not surprising, given that he is in a car and not face-to-face with her: by their third conversation, she informs him that the difference between one night of infidelity and none, is a world of difference, an intolerable breach. His explanation: a rainy night, two bottles of wine, the flush of success from completing a difficult job (Bethan was his assistant on-site for several months), and a profoundly lonely person. He says he felt sorry for her. Katrina isn't buying that. And the fact that he is choosing an out-of-wedlock child over the rest of his life, only strengthens her conviction that there's more to this liaison than he is letting on.

Locke has abandoned his job at a critical juncture: the night before the early morning start of pouring 300-plus trucks' worth of concrete for the foundation of a skyscraper. If any of the concrete is inferior, or the rebar set incorrectly, the whole structure is vulnerable - and he is clearly a man who takes pride in his work, this project the capstone to his career. He knows his boss will fire him, which indeed he does. Yet he calls his foreman Donal to walk him through the procedures of the night, which are numerous and nerve-wracking, so that the project will succeed despite his absence. His loyalty to his work is both admirable and exasperating - if it's so important to him, why is he not at that construction office instead of hectoring Donal over the details? But he has chosen a human over a building, a life over a job. At the same time, he has devastated the lives of those closest to him: his wife, his sons, his boss, his foreman. Is it fair for this birth to trump everyone else in his life? Is he really doing "the right thing"? We understand why he makes his choice - but do we concur?

This is one of those movies that can spark profound reflection on morals, ethics, and how the ripples from a seemingly insignificant action can change everything.

Quibbles: we're familiar with product placement in movies; this is a veritable infomercial for BMW. The contrast between the concrete-encrusted boots he removes before getting in, and the sleek new car, shows that this man, successful enough in his work to afford a luxury car, is still a get-your-hands-dirty kind of manager. But I confess I gagged a bit.
My major complaint is that Locke is a poster-child for distracted driving, yet there are no consequences. He has a flow of wrenching conversations, he initiates calls, he leafs through and reads from a folder, and gazing in the rear-view mirror he addresses his dead father, all while tooling down the motorway. Emergency vehicles scream past from time to time, he is passed by tractor-trailers - and the fact that his mind is all over the place apparently has no effect on his driving. Only at the beginning does he sit at a green light while a truck behind him honks repeatedly - for the rest of the movie he drives competently. Not likely!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The "Other" WNBA

I'm in Detroit at the National Meeting of Women's National Book Association - the most fun, energetic, accomplished group I've ever come across. Our mission: members are women and men dedicated to promoting reading and to supporting the role of women in the community of the book.

Unlike many book-oriented organizations, WNBA is full-spectrum. Writer? You belong. Reader? Certainly. Librarian? Literacy advocate, publisher, editor, literary agent, poet, children's book illustrator, blogger, graphic novel creator, journalist, memoirist, crossword-puzzle creator...? YES! All of these and more.  As we approach our 100th Anniversary in 2017, we can look at many proud accomplishments:

Since 1940, we have presented the WNBA Award to “a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation.” (WNBA website)
Some recent recipients: Ann Patchett, who not only writes prize-winning novels but founded Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, in defiance of the trend of bricks-and-mortar stores shuttering; Masha Hamilton, noted international journalist and women's advocate; the late Kathi Kamen Goldmark, author and co-founder of Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock group composed of well-known writers (Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Stephen King) who raise funds for literacy programs.
Since 1959 we have held a non-voting seat as Non-Governmental Organization in the United Nations. Of particular interest to WNBA are, among the UN's Millennium Development Goals: Achieving universal primary education; Promoting gender equality and empowering women; Reducing child mortality rates; and Country Focus: United States and Afghanistan. We partner with Afghan Women Writers Project (AWWP) which encourages expression through writing among Afghani women and girls. (WNBA website)

Since 1983 we have given the Pannell Award to a pair of bookstores, one children's specialty and one general, to "recognize bookstores that enhance their communities by bringing exceptional creativity to foster a love of reading in their young patrons. The winning stores receive a check for $1,000 and a piece of original art from a children’s book illustrator." (WNBA website) The awards are presented at BookExpo America's Children's Book and Author Breakfast in New York.

In 2007, WNBA initiated National Reading Group Month (October) which celebrates the joy of shared reading. In a time when people feel increasingly isolated, reading groups foster community, promote love of literature, and highlight literacy. (NRGM)

But all that is secondary - I love this organization because these people (most but not all, women) love books and are lively, engaging, dedicated, and very good at the wide range of skills WNBA represents.

Sound appealing? Check us out!

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's lovely fluid prose in her 770-page Pulitzer-prize-winning novel The Goldfinch carried me through the convenient events and deus ex machina ending that would have dammed up a lesser book. I read it in a week because I had to know what happened next, whether our young narrator was learning from his mistakes or merely being more clever about concealing them. And I had to know what would happen to the exquisite small painting, The Goldfinch of the title.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his art-history-passionate mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when a bomb goes off. Separated from his mother in the chaos, Theo assists a fatally-wounded man who gives him his signet ring, tells him to seek out his partner, and also urges him to take the painting The Goldfinch, otherwise likely to be damaged in the collapsing gallery. Slipping past the firemen, Theo flees the museum with the ring in his pocket and the painting in a bag. Soon he learns his mother was killed in the blast. The ring connects him to an antiques restorer on the Lower East Side, and in the company of this kindly man, the appreciation for beauty Theo's mother planted in him takes root.

His estranged father shows up, girlfriend in tow, and they bring him to her house in a nearly deserted exurb of Las Vegas, where he is left to his own devices. In the local school he meets Boris, a Ukrainian youth whose father is an engineer, in the field weeks at a time. With virtually no supervision, this pair do what you might expect from teenage boys: they drink, they use whatever drugs come their way, they steal from the local market, they fight and remain friends. Boris is fearless, whether in accepting beatings from his drunken father or in shoplifting groceries so he and Theo won't starve, and he persuades his less-worldly friend that his own father is a kinder man and better parent than he gives him credit for.

Avoiding spoilers, I'll stop there with the plot, except to say that there's a hiatus of some years in which Theo grows up and finds his niche in the world - and remains in thrall to this non-negotiable treasure, the painting.

Tartt makes some fine observations about the transitory nature of human life and the longer span of art:  
"I was different, but it wasn't. And as the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past."
"It's there in the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are - hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible - and then, at a distance, the miracle... the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone."

And with a painting as inspiration, Tartt has made her own work of art.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

In The Blue Flower, winner of the Booker Prize for 1995, Penelope Fitzgerald starts with the known fragments of a 17th Century German poet's life, and from them creates a full picture of a passionate young man, equal parts dreamer, philosopher and man of the world. Fritz von Hardenberg (eventually known as Novalis) "in a quarter hour" falls in love with a vapid twelve-year-old girl, baffling his friends and family, breaking the heart of the woman in whom he confides, who is his mind's twin.
We meet von Hardenberg's strict religious family, among them his world-renouncing father, self-effacing mother, clever and perceptive sister, wild danger-loving little brother. His fiance's family, the von Kuhns, are coarse but joyous, unconstrained, generous. Fritz's beloved Sophie, simple-minded and flighty, grows on the reader as tuberculosis erodes her health but not her urge to laugh, to dance. Her older sister, the canny and practical Frau Leutnant Mandelsloh, managing the huge von Kuhn household while her husband is away in the military, tempers instinctive kindness with unrestrained honesty.

The book's structure makes for easy entry: most chapters are only a few pages, providing vignettes which like pointillism create a complete picture. And these moments range from a discourse on the annual wash-day, to the poet's telling of the story he has begun: a young man longs for a blue flower. "It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else... It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers?" When his listeners wonder how the story concludes, he asks them to tell him. He cannot imagine the end - indeed, our poet never completed the story - but Fitzgerald tantalizes us with her sympathetic rendering. Sophie is like the flower: captivating, fragile, unique, the light she gives off piercing directly to the heart.

The men and women we meet in this slim book offer many examples of relationships: Herr von Hardenberg and his subservient wife; the boisterous Herr von Kuhn and his relaxed and cheerful wife; young Sophie who comes to accept Fritz's attentions without ever really understanding him; Fritz's friend Karoline who understands him quite well but can say nothing when he declares that Sophie is "my heart's heart" and tells Karoline, "I see there is one thing, the most important of all, unfortunately, that you don't grasp, the nature of desire between a man and a woman." The irony of this line stings the reader: Karoline grasps far better than Fritz, the nature of desire. He imagines Sophie reciprocates his passion, though despite agreeing to marry him she never feels it. Karoline, on the other hand, so loves Fritz that she endures his oblivious rejection, remaining his friend and confidante, even going along with his pretense that she has a man waiting for her, and the four of them will be happy together.

Near the end the poet speculates: "As things are, we are enemies of the world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this is animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, so that one cannot be measured without the other. I want to exert myself to find a different kind of measurement."

In telling this story from so deep inside its characters, Fitzgerald gives the poet's philosophy vitality and urgency, creating within the reader a place in which the truth of these observations will resonate long after we have closed the book.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


It's time we freed Gaia from the New Age cell where she's been imprisoned since the Seventies. 

As James Lovelock said, Gaia is Earth seen as a single physiological system, an entity that is alive at least to the extent that, like other living organisms, its chemistry and temperature are self-regulated at a state favorable to life. It is a whole system, not arbitrarily divided into biosphere, atmosphere etc.  

Lovelock was not a mystic, he was a British chemist, hired in 1963 by NASA to investigate through spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere of Mars, whether that planet would support life. To provide data points for comparison, Lovelock analyzed the atmospheres of Venus and Earth as well. Abiological Earth is what one would interpolate, on the continuum of planetary proximity to our sun. He was not looking for Gaia, but there she was, irrefutably present in his data.

Here's what he found:
Component             Mars      Abiological Earth      Earth         Venus     
CO2                         95%                  98%                .00033           98%
Nitrogen                  2.7%                 3%                    77%            3-4%
Oxygen                  trace                trace                    21%           trace
Surface temp         -53 C               290 C                  13-15 C       477 C
Barometric Pres.    .064 bars         60 bars                1 bar            90 bars            
(Source: J. E. Lovelock (1979). Gaia: A new Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.)  Read more at

That's the chemical part. Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist, provided the Life part of the equation. She posited that bacteria were the first, simplest organisms to evolve. Cyanobacteria developed the ability to photosynthesize (to make food from sunlight). Through a process she called endosymbiosis, micro-organisms, instead of ingesting other micro-organisms, began to combine, forming larger more complex organisms. A cell is a community of micro-organisms. Read more at

Gaia is described as symbiosis as seen from space  - the same process occurring within organisms is also taking place on a planetary scale.

Neither Lovelock nor Margulis approached the question of consciousness, either in regard to our own species, nor to any other. But as research continues to find awareness of pain and pleasure, a sense of time, tool use, and planning among species besides our own, I can't help thinking that, as some religious and mystical traditions have long asserted, life has consciousness. And Earth is alive.

Caveat: In summarizing much larger amounts of information, I may have introduced inaccuracies. Please visit the cited sources to learn in depth about ideas I have touched on here.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Anna Quindlen's memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake comes at an opportune moment in my life. Her reflections coincide with the author turning 60, which is about to happen to me. Like Quindlen, I have numerous friends so far past this big round number that I dare not whine to them about the prospect. Her thoughts are helpful in putting time into perspective.

Along the way she makes some worthwhile observations, among them Henry James's statement, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind." To those polarized by mean-spirited public figures and contradictory interpretations of reality, being kind may seem foolish, wrongheaded, naive. "How can you say "be kind" to people who are f***ing up the world?!" they may explode. And yet, as we log more years in our skins, we find that nastiness and delight in the misery of others weigh us down. With the passing of Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, I was pleased to see how many of my social-media-friends declined to exult. Instead, we've hoped that the hate he devoted his life to has died with him, and his spirit is now at peace. And maybe without his vitriol, his followers will find better ways to spend their time. That's a lesson time teaches us: that resentment and ill-will take a greater toll on the person expressing them, than they ever can on the objects of that hostility.

I've come to see "Don't feed the bear" as a wise proscriptive rule for life - when someone is spewing invective, particularly from the remove of the internet, I strive to be calm, courteous, and to modulate my responses. I shake my head at how teenagers (and pre-teens) bully the weak, shy, different kids in their midst. Amplifying the tensions of adolescence just makes them harder to leave behind. Don't feed that bear.

Quindlen also observes, "...[W]e understand that being a parent is not transactional, that we do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor..." Indeed, life is not really transactional. While pregnant with my firstborn, I attended a no-cost meditation retreat, and on the last morning the teacher gave a talk on payment. He said some of us would "calculate our hotel bill" and pay what we thought our presence cost: meals, lodging, his time. But he cautioned us against that mindset. "This retreat has already been paid for. What you give today will enable others to participate. And for some of you, the most liberating thing will be to pay nothing, to free yourself from the conviction that you can pay your own way and break even with the world."

Timely advice. I'd thought the Hamlet character Polonius (father of Laertes and Ophelia) was wise when he said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend." That was me: I was never going to be in debt, nor have anyone indebted to me. I was going to sail through life unencumbered. Solitary. Free. Ha!

Life is about interaction. Give, accept, don't count the change. Withholding - our money, our time, our affection - ultimately walls us off. When you want to talk to someone who agrees with you 100%, pull up a mirror. Cut everyone else some slack. Listen, reflect before responding, and don't feed the bear.

And I still live by the blessing I offered a friend at his wedding: "May you have sufficient silliness."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Zappa on Zappa

Valentines Day, full moon, Dweezil Zappa in his tight 6-piece band performing his father's 40-year-old Roxy and Elsewhere compilation - the Future has arrived, and I think we're finally ready. Vocalist Ben Thomas not only sounded like Frank Zappa, he exuded the energy of Neal Cassady as he sang, recited, and played trumpet, trombone, and miscellaneous percussion instruments. Scheila Gonzalez played sax, flute and keys, wailing and crushing out tunes in her stiletto boots, Chris Norton noodled on his rack of keyboards, Ryan Brown drummed up a storm, and a bassist I'm going to apologize to for not catching his name kept things rocking.

Zappa Sr's tongue-in-cheek style and unexpected melodies irritated more people than they convinced, back in the day (which is not to say the man lacked his fans) - but perhaps the world has caught up and we're finally ready to hear jarring juxtapositions, shifting rhythms, and sardonic songs. That's what the crowd got Friday night, and judging from the screams and roars, a new Zappa has launched his father's music for a new generation. Frank was a composer, and Dweezil carries on: at one point he invited members of the audience on stage to dance to "Bebop Tango" where they twitched and jerked along with the music. Meanwhile DZ directed the crowd ranging in age from 60-somethings to teenagers, conducting noise levels and tones in mass participation.

Frank Zappa never doubted that the powers-that-be are out to screw us. BOHICA!, we all shouted: Bend Over, Here It Comes Again! He's completely at home in our modern world, where our "protectors" are spying on us (hey, they were in the 70's too, but they lacked modern-day tools that really vacuum up everything we're doing). I'm sure he would have written some great songs about drones, waterboarding, and our compulsion to police the world - well, the part that has resources we want, anyway. The rest of them can murder each other as they like.

For me the evening was a confluence of two life-streams: in the 70's the Ogden Theater was a down-at-the-mouth repertory movie house, no flick running more than 2 nights. For a dollar you could see Tallulah Bankhead, Errol Flynn, Alfred Hitchcock's early movies, and many more. And I discovered the Mothers of Invention at about that time, spending a spellbound half-hour listening to "Billy the Mountain," laughing to "Broken Hearts are for A**holes" and "Goin to Montana Soon, Goin to be a Dental Floss Tycoon."

So my advice, if you think Indie music is a little too restrained and diffident, if you want to hear intention behind the noise, if you appreciate rock bands but what they play on Classic Rock stations is a bore, is: get yourself some Zappa! Listen to Roxy by Proxy and rediscover music!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It's been a while since I read a Vonnegut novel, so it was fun to fall back into his wide-open storytelling style: dramatic tension? Nah. Good guys and bad guys? To him, we are all both. Mysteries solved by the characters? He deflates those by telling us right away what they do not know: how it turns out, who did it, etc.

Vonnegut does offer up a real mystery, about the Galapagos Islands ecosystem, without pretending he knows the answer:  How did the creatures documented by Charles Darwin on the islands get there? A thousand miles of deep water separate the islands from mainland South America. No land bridge, no evidence that they were ever part of the continent. They are volcanic in origin, which suggests they formed by erupting from the sea floor. Some evolutionary biologists have posited that animals floated over there on rafts of vegetation, and Vonnegut states this theory in a way that would make you squirm if that were your explanation. He just leaves you to ponder. This calls to mind lines from Cat's Cradle: "Fish got to swim, bird got to fly, man got to sit and wonder why, why, why."

What he does tell us is who's going to die, when and where. Which they do. Having laid bare the fates of his characters from the very start, he then shares their defining moments of life so we can appreciate them anyway. He weaves the twin species drivers of sex and death into an often funny story, whether he's describing the mating dance of the blue-footed boobies or the way one character met her husband-to-be.

In brief, a cruise ship runs aground on one of the Galapagos Islands. Some of the dozen people on board repopulate the world with vastly-modified descendants while everyone on the mainland is rendered sterile by a virus invading their reproductive systems.

As in previous stories, Vonnegut shows little respect for intelligence, finding it cause for misery far oftener than benefit. He calls us big brained creatures, making clear that this is no compliment:
"If I may insert a personal note at this point: When I was alive, I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of my own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example:  It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.
Thanks a lot, big brain."

His characters have no more consistency in their behavior or judgment than any batch of humans you could assemble: the retired school teacher heroine marries a con-man who stalks wealthy widows then disappears with their money. She believes the lies he tells, including his made-up name. But he dies before he can do her any harm, thus bringing her happiness. And the ship's captain, an arrogant racist, is the father of the only surviving branch of the human family, though he doesn't even know it. The fertile females, members of a primitive tribe rescued from starvation in the rainforest, are able to communicate among themselves but with no one else among the shipwrecked. I'm sure Vonnegut took special joy in launching this stone-age tribe past modern technology and culture (all doomed) to give birth to our future.

In Happy Birthday Wanda June, Vonnegut took us to Heaven where everyone dead is hanging out, including Hitler - and they're all happy and getting along wonderfully. In this writer's cosmos we are all good and evil, no matter our sins. He faults our brains, which are as attracted to creating havoc as to helping one another, and our fecundity, which keeps us from acknowledging the precariousness of life.  Your big brain may very well enjoy this book. Just keep in mind that the world as you know it could change drastically in an instant. And when you figure out how those land tortoises got to the Galapagos, let me know!