Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie

In his more-relevant-than-ever memoir of life under the Iranian fatwa announced on Valentine's Day 1989 and only lifted over a decade later, Salman Rushdie chronicles with unvarnished exactitude the life of a man constantly under death threat. He lived with police protectors ("prot"), doing battle with their higher-ups who would have been happier had he simply retreated to some unmarked hole in the ground never to re-emerge.  His team told him he was as vulnerable as any head of state - yet those people were allowed to set foot outside, and the world knew where they lived - he was hidden away, and it was only the flawless cooperation of his friends and family that prevented his home from being known to those bent on murdering him.

The point on which he continued to insist, unheeded, is that The Satanic Verses, far from being a satire on Islam, actually reflected the history of that religion, which he studied at Cambridge. He writes about Muhammad's revelation:

"But the Qur'an spoke of how all the prophets had been tested by temptation. "Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before you with whose wishes Satan did not tamper," it said in Sura 22. And if the incident of the Satanic verses was the Temptation of Muhammed, it had to be said that he came out of it pretty well. He both confessed to having been tempted and also repudiated that temptation. Tabari quotes him thus: "I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken." After that the monotheism of Islam, having been tested in the cauldron, remained unwavering and strong, in spite of persecution, exile and war, and before long the Prophet had the victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.
"Shall God have daughters while you have sons? That would be an unjust division."
The "true" verses, angelic or divine, were clear: It was the femaleness of the winged goddesses - the "exalted birds" - that rendered them inferior and fraudulent and proved they could not be the children of God, as the angels were. Sometimes the birth of a great idea revealed things about its future; the way in which newness enters the world prophesied how it would behave when it grew old. At the birth of this particular idea, femaleness was seen as a disqualification from exaltation."

Across the Muslim world he was vilified, officially and personally, by people who did not read The Satanic Verses nor bother to know anything more about them than that they referred to the Qur'an and used the word Satanic, which must mean the author was calling the Qur'an Satanic. Once the fatwa was in effect, the truth scarcely mattered - his novel was unavailable in those countries and so people had only the imams' and Ayatollahs' word for what he had written: blasphemy.

One cannot fault Rushdie, living so long in the crosshairs, for speaking out against the way the liberal tolerant cultures of Europe and the Americas defended what they thought of as Islam, up to and including citizens who made specific death threats against him. He makes the case for the right of artists to say what they think, to imagine what they dare, and to share those visions with the world without the censorship of offending those who can't even be bothered to know what they are condemning.
"Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot... 
It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors and things. ... There were Islamist attacks on socialists and unionists, cartoonists and journalists, prostitutes and homosexuals, women in skirts and beardless men, and also, surreally, on such evils as frozen chickens and samosas."

Once the fatwa was lifted he was eager to resume his disrupted creative life:
"It would be wise to withdraw from the world of commentary and polemic and rededicate himself to what he loved most, the art that had claimed his heart, mind and spirit ever since he was a young man, and to live again in the universe of once upon a time, of kan ma kan, it was so and it was not so, and to make the journey to the truth upon the waters of make-believe." [emphasis mine]

Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for your courage and for sharing your long drinks from the Sea of Stories.

Monday, November 9, 2015

When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle, in his storytelling prime, weaves the inevitable and improbable into a tapestry, giving individual faces to social movements and global issues.  His 2011 novel When the Killing's Done sets up a clash between fanatical nature-lovers, raising questions that should make any thoughtful person uncomfortable:

Why should some species be allowed to flourish while others, considered invasive, merit eradication?
What makes any species "native" to an isolated place?
To what extent is it even possible for us to undo the mistakes of earlier generations?
Why do we still think, "We know what we're doing"?

The setting is a California archipelago opposite Santa Barbara, twenty to thirty miles offshore but a world apart: three small rocky Anacapa Islands, and the larger Santa Cruz Island.
The main characters, tenacious and intolerant in pursuit of causes on collision course, are:
Alma Takesue, Ph.D biologist working for the National Park Service, in charge of restoration of the islands - which means extermination of the rats on the Anacapas and the pigs on Santa Cruz; and
David LaJoy, successful businessman and leader of FPA, For the Protection of Animals, a local animal rights group resisting the slaughter of rats and pigs.

Takesue's circle is rounded out with biologists, Park rangers, her lover Tim who's both, the exterminators, the local representative of The Nature Conservancy - which owns a large portion of Santa Cruz Island; her grandmother whose husband and his brother died in a storm off the Anacapas while she, pregnant, survived; and her own father, a sea urchin diver until an accident off those islands ended his life.

LaJoy's compatriots are his musician girlfriend Anise, who spent her youth and adolescence on Santa Cruz Island where her mother Rita was cook and general factotum for a sheeping operation; his right-hand-man Wilson, skilled handling a boat, delighting in the mischief LaJoy dreams up to interfere with the Park Service's plans; journalist Tina who applies her muckraking skills on behalf of LaJoy's cause; a young woman who works in Takesue's office, sharing inside information with FPA; and a group of impassioned youth following their fearless leader.

The other significant characters are sea and land and sky:
Glassy still one moment, raging the next, the unpredictable Pacific.
The craggy inhospitable islands - rocky coastlines, the only fresh water what falls from the sky.
The sky, by turns blistering, torrential and fog-bound, as different from Santa Barbara as if the islands were a thousand miles away.

Along the way, we learn enough about the ecology of the islands and what they demand of those who would survive on them, to confront the big questions and come up empty-handed.  A rat is a living creature.  Rats have lived on the Anacapas for centuries, survivors of a shipwreck.  The island birds, having no experience with them, have made easy prey for nest-robbers.  The sheep, imported to the islands as a money-making concern in the 19th century, wreak environmental havoc as they overgraze, denuding the landscape which is then at the mercy of erosion and runoff from fierce storms.  But to the sheepherders, the worst enemy is the ravens that gather at lambing time, bewildering the ewes then picking off their newborns with appalling efficiency.

Boyle is unsparing about the devastation of invasives: brown snakes, stowaways on planes or ships during World War II, have eradicated nearly all bird life from Guam.  That ecosystem is changed - the Guam before the snakes showed up is irretrievable.  Foxes and skunks live on Santa Cruz Island - how and when did they arrive?  They've been there long enough to evolve into smaller versions of their mainland counterparts, but does that make them "native"?  More "native" than the rats?  By what measure?

We can't un-break the egg.  Here in the Anthropocene era, we rely on the twin indices of appeal and efficiency, in deciding which species are good and which must go.  Water managers across the American West have declared war on Russian olive and tamarisk, which crowd riverbanks, sucking up water and blocking access for native creatures - but the primary creatures that want that water, and that riverbank access, are humans.  Fish and elk have no voice, neither do Russian olive trees.  Rats and snakes are "pest" species, raiding the nests of other creatures - but they're just doing what nature has equipped them to, and perhaps it's their survival skill that makes us hate them.  A weed is a successful plant; a pest is a successful animal. Human interference is the beating heart of the problem.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Separation - Film Review

The Iranian film (2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film) A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a window onto the court-ruled lives of modern Iranians. The story opens with Simin, a woman in her thirties, seeking divorce from her husband, Nader. The sticking-point is that Simin wants to leave the country, and take their 11-year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader is willing to allow divorce, but he wants Termeh to stay with him. His Alzheimer's-stricken father, who lives with them, cannot travel, and he won't leave him. Simin oversimplifies matters - Nader should come with her: his father doesn't know him anyway, she claims, so anyone could look after him - nothing would stand in her way. She sees his refusal as stubbornness and antipathy. But as the story unfolds, we see that Nader's father does in fact know his family, and needs them.

Simin walks out, so to care for his father while he's at work, Nader hires a caregiver. This woman, who comes with her 4-year-old daughter, is so pious that before helping, she consults an imam, asking if assisting a senile man who has soiled himself is a sin. But she is also pregnant, which her little girl knows but is a secret from Nader - and from Simin, who provided her name. According to the law, this woman must have her husband's permission to work for Nader. The men meet and Nader thinks the man will be coming to look after his father - instead, it's the woman who continues to come, though her long bus commute and trek up multiple flights of stairs to Nader's apartment exhaust her.

Spoiler Alert - read no further if you plan to see the film!

Nader comes home early and discovers his father alone, crumpled on the floor barely alive, one arm tied to his bed-frame. In his rage, Nader sees that the cash he had set aside to pay the woman is gone. When she and her daughter return from their errand, he confronts her, accusing her of theft. She argues, and he pushes her out of his apartment.

Next thing we know, Nader is informed that the woman fell on the stairs and miscarried, and therefore he is charged with murder of the 19-week-old fetus. He and Simin, concerned when they hear the woman is hospitalized, go to visit her, only to be confronted by her angry distraught husband who declares they have only come out of guilt. The men are soon at each other's throats.

The referee requires witnesses; clearly this arbiter of justice is exasperated trying to get to the bottom of who knew what, whether Nader pushed the woman, whether he knew she was pregnant, why the woman tied his father to his bed then left - the story becomes more convoluted. Costly bail is set which Simin's wealthy parents willingly pay, while we learn that the caregiver's husband was recently in debtor's prison and takes several medications to treat mental illness. More and more, Simin's plan to leave Iran looks like the choice of a person of means.

Simin continues to negotiate with the woman, forcing Nader into a position of having to say he knew the woman was pregnant when he pushed her, or else face prison time. He doesn't want a deal, he wants justice. The other man also wants justice, which to him appears to mean that others must suffer as he has. He stalks Termeh at her school, which throws Simin into panic, her own role in Termeh's anguish quickly forgotten.

At every turn, Termeh is forced to bear witness to her parents' behavior. She wants only for her mother and father to stay together, and she'll say whatever she thinks will enable that - but they withhold what they know, urging her to "tell the truth" though she knows that will not help. She's constantly weighing what they tell her - If I say this, will Mom stay with Dad? If I say that, will Mom leave for sure? It's heartbreaking.

This glimpse into a society as litigious as modern America is depressing: Sharia (Quranic law) solves nothing - piety is just one more weapon people use against each other. Class divisions spark resentment and jealousy, and justice is blind. When Nader is first charged with murder, he pleads with the judge: who will care for his father if he's in prison? But it's not the judge's problem.

At the end, Simin, Nader and Termeh are again meeting with a judge about the divorce, this time to determine custody. By now Nader has passed the burden to their daughter - whichever parent she chooses, he'll agree. The judge asks Termeh if she has decided, she says yes. But she won't utter the name. He presses, she continues to say yes, she's decided. Tears flood her face. He sends Simin and Nader out into the corridor, which is filled with petitioners, some bickering and others slumped in chairs in a scene out of Kafka. They wait as the credits roll.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Fasting Meditation

I'm not Jewish, but for the last 15 years have been celebrating events on the Jewish calendar. I have learned that my digestive system is unhappy without bread, and that I don't mind fasting. That's not a contradiction.
A week of Passover turns my gut inside out.
A day of fasting for Yom Kippur is welcome.

Fasting is not about food.
It has to do with how we spend our daily lives, and what happens when we interrupt routine.  When you get up in the morning, thoughts of eating are not far off. Brush teeth, wash face, put on the day's clothes - and on to breakfast. It's comforting, stabilizing, sets you up for a typical day.

Break the pattern.
Wander the kitchen for a few minutes: no, no coffee, no toast, no yogurt or piece of fruit. The morning news isn't the same without them - just skip that. Leave the kitchen - what are you doing in there anyway? You're not eating today, and you can only drink water to keep from passing out.

Go outside. Talk to god, whatever/whomever/wherever that is for you. Follow love from what you know brings joy, into the crevices where you doubt it can reach. And seek it there: in the face of the homeless woman who sells you a newspaper, in the bees pollinating trash cans, in contrails painting the sky with a gigantic Y.

What is atonement? Apology for what you did that you shouldn't have, or an effort to turn the opposite direction? Acknowledging the existence and humanity of someone invisible might be the kindest possible act.

Atoms packed close together form a solid - see it, touch it, manipulate it. Further apart, they form liquid - still visible, still tangible, but restless, taking on the forms of its containers. More space, they become gas. Now we can't quite see it, can't feel it. The vibrational space between atoms is god - more intense in a solid, more malleable in liquid, more ubiquitous in gas.
Bones, tears, breath - fragments of god, surrounded by an infinity of fragments.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station all the time

This rumpled sky, rough worthy of Van Gogh,
a hundred colors graying into dusk
a palette mixed of white in black to mimic coming dark.

At Fruitvale Station New Years Eve (2008-9) a young black man was jumped then
    policed to death
      subway crowd recording pictures under threat
         till the train moved out.
Fear, hysteria, chaos, reactions under duress -
      we have divided our nation into warring camps while
Justice, head in hands,
      catches the action too late for
                          the weighing and balancing for which we turn to her after, torn,
                          we have berserked.
We grieve an instant before the next bad-news pulse
     beats away this alarm.
Shrug or shout later, how change that fraught interface between
        what we fear and
        those anointed as our bulwark,
                            frail tho they be,
                            not up to correct swift determinations,
                            just jumping at noise, struggle,
         a young man harmless till they thugged him?

It's coming evening now, and for now
    cicadas soundtrack the time -
pop of guns come later
    - Friday night in America
           young men and cops are cruising armed,
                   looking for a hair out of place,
                   trigger to take offense.
How do we collectively learn to draw a breath,
             to see past the fear-paintings that debase our nature,
             to prove we are the homo sapiens -
              the thinking beings -
 we are named?

Fruitvale Station again and again -
      why are young men of color the enemy?
      why are police an occupying army?
Life is a wink between waking and gone -
       why do we invest in damage and defense
       when the door to the stars yawns near and cold?
When we lie in ashes, my atoms and yours rejoin once more.

Start by remembering:
   this is who we are:
       bits of one whole
           so soon to return
    having learned -


Friday, July 31, 2015

Self Portraits: Fictions, by Frederic Tuten

Frederic Tuten's series of linked short stories, most titled Self Portrait (followed by such varied qualifiers as "with Bullfight", "with Cheese", "with Icebergs"), examine love and adventure in magical ways. The narrator, the I of these pieces, is variously a lover, husband, father, son, and a man spending time alone in a public place where he can observe those around him. Tuten makes frequent allusions to paintings and films, which must either alienate the inexperienced, or draw closer those for whom these arts are familiar.

His story The Park Near Marienbad, for example, refers to Alain Resnais' film "Last Year at Marienbad", in which at a spa a man approaches a woman with intent to seduce her, insisting on details of what they did "last year at Marienbad." She has never seen him before, and knows this, but though she puts him off, gradually his stories insinuate themselves into her thoughts. The narrator weaves his fondness for this film into his museum-going travels with his wife: they too are among the few who have the time to visit places for no purpose except pleasure. He watches his wife hoping to see a repeat of Delphine Seyrig's enchanting gesture, so singular in the film. If she can slip across the boundary between the closed reality of a story and the larger world in which they have wed, perhaps their marriage will touch him on that deeper level where he seeks consonance between artistic vision and life.

Often a story's setting is a restaurant or cafe; a newlywed couple's interactions with their waiter are key to the progress of Self Portrait with Bullfight:
"...[I]f you turn you may notice [the waiter's] appearance, accompanied by two guests."
"Just a coincidence," I averred, deigning not to seem amazed by two bulls, festooned with garlands of garlic and roses, being ushered to their table.
"It is the custom," our waiter explained, finally returning to us, "to host a banquet for those bulls who survive the day. Of course, they may stay the night, on the house, naturally, and leave when they want and return to their mothers, if they wish."

In this brief exchange we see Tuten's method: his mingling of familiar and fantastic in ways that challenge the reader's comfort with what we think we're used to, and also question whether the magical is as removed from daily life as we might prefer.

The cycle's progress takes us from a man recalling his grandmother, to the death of the narrator's mother, and his son's pursuit and rescue of her soul from pirates. In that first piece, stories are the binding skein that holds a child to his grandmother. In the last, the grandmother's fond final desire was to be alone through eternity with the Borges-sized library of stories she loved so well.

Tuten's spare precise language is a marvel, the stories he tells the more wonderful because of the delights of his prose.  Seek, and enjoy!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali

In May 2015, partners involved in the extensive restoration/reconstruction of Satyajit Ray's masterworks The Apu Trilogy released meticulously restored versions in a digital format. I've just seen the first film, Pather Panchali, about the birth and childhood of Apu. The sound is Ravi Shankar's music which in many cases renders dialogue unnecessary, expressing the emotional layers of life in a variegated stream of notes and beats. Mischief, mystery, argument, discovery - the wedding of sitar and drums to the camera's keen eye creates a rapturous and all-encompassing experience.

The camera loves everything it sees: a large lidded basket of kittens; a girl hiding in an orchard, stealing a piece of fruit, then skipping home where she places her bounty in the bowl of ancient Auntie, the penniless woman who shares her family's house; water striders moving on the surface of a river; a distant shot of sister and brother hurrying along the right-angle paths flanking rice paddies, in search of the family's calf, an excuse to go see the railroad tracks.

Whether the image is of Auntie struggling by the light of her oil lamp to thread a needle, or of young Apu fascinated by the behavior of his teacher who is also a merchant, or the exaggerated costumes and dialogue of the traveling troupe who entertain the village, this black-and-white film is eloquent, shedding light on family, on village society, on the full tapestry of life.

Satyajit Ray was master of his medium, and we are the richer for his vision. If you have the opportunity to see these restored films on a big screen, go!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon © 2006
Reviewed by NC Weil

In the nearly-1100-page steppes of this novel, Pynchon starts at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, carrying us through the tumult, political and scientific, that lay the tracks to World War I. We cross continents and oceans to linger in the mining boom-towns of Colorado; observe competing strains of obsessed mathematicians who gather in Illinois, at Yale, in London, Gottingen and Ostend to disagree about the shape of time; fly with a crew of perpetually adolescent extra-dimensional balloonists - The Chums of Chance - materialized from the pages of dime novels to ply the skies, unseen by the earthbound as they undertake missions-for-hire; loathe an evil plutocrat who perceives that money is the next ruler of the world; and most especially, follow the family of Webb Traverse, Anarchist dynamiter of mines whose murder scatters his wife Mayva, sons Frank, Reef and Kit, and daughter Lake to lives seasoned by explosion, whose travels suggest the scattering of bomb shrapnel: revolts in Mexico, mines and railway tunnels of the Alps, uprising in the Balkans, a journey in Siberia during the Tunguska Event of 1908. And to Venice, where they don't have purpose so much as compulsion to spend time.

Secret organizations advance their chess-games of strategic mayhem, at times in opposition but perhaps always in cahoots, their purpose the domination of masses of people by means of exhausting work, controlled information, and the lure and necessity of money, using nationalism and war to stamp out the anarchist dream of humanity in cooperation.

The students of time gather annually at Candlebrow University in Grossdale, Illinois, where one might find patrons, professors, lunatics, and a time machine junkyard:
"Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines - Chronoclipses, Asimov Transeculars, Tempomorph Q-98s - broken, defective, scorched by catastrophic flares of misrouted energy, corroded often beyond recognition by unintended immersion in the terrible Flow over which they had been designed and built, so hopefully, to prevail... A strewn field of conjecture, superstition, blind faith, and bad engineering, expressed in sheet-aluminum, vulcanite, Heusler's alloy, bonzoline, electrum, lignum vitae, platinoid, magnalium, and packfong silver, much of it stripped away by scavengers over the years. Where was  the safe harbor in Time their pilots might have found, so allowing their craft to avoid such ignominious fates?"  The time machines' names are made up, and some of those materials would seem to be too (packfong silver? bonzoline?), but Pynchon didn't invent them - he's just very skilled at finding obscure terms and ideas, then making them both exotic and necessary.

Meanwhile, gaps open between dimensions, and the alert and perceptive can use them to inhabit paired worlds. And it wouldn't be a Pynchon novel without hefty doses of kinky sex.

As a lover of words, Pynchon gives us indelible names: Scarsdale Vibe, the American financier/archvillain.  We also have Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematical genius of Russian descent; her inamorata spy-bait Cyprian Latewood; Merle Rideout, an itinerant American photographer and his daughter Dahlia (Dally), abandoned by wife/mother when Dally was little; Lew Basnight, a private detective hired by Vibe and his henchman Foley Walker to break up Anarchist gangs in the Colorado mines; the Quaternions (a mathematical cult who believe in four-space) vs. the Vector Analysts who dispute their conclusions. And there is Shambhala, an other-dimensional paradise to which only the pure of purpose have access.

There are mystical instruments: the paramorphoscope, which allows the viewer to see "...Earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface, the optical arrangements for whose eventual projection onto the two-dimensional page proved to be very queer indeed." And the Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus, or Hypops, "revolutionizing desert travel by providing a practical way to submerge oneself beneath the sands and still be able to breathe, walk around, so forth."

He gives us Iceland Spar, a calcite crystal through which one may see a pair of refractions - the same image in different space/time. Mined in Iceland and Mexico, it was used by mirror-makers in a sunken portion of Venice where the craftsmen were held prisoner and eventually went mad thanks to the clarity of their creations.

Okay, so what happens? Plot, please! Thematically, we have the hegemony of money and nationalism against unions and anarchists; war against cooperation; light against darkness, but with light the villain; we have the dominance of materialism over mystic options and dimensions; we have the importance and the futility of family ties - though the murderers of Webb Traverse are soon known, and two of his sons agree to go after Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, years go by and the brothers keep getting sidetracked. Revenge tugs at them like ill-fitting clothes, not quite annoying enough to do something about.

Pynchon draws some parallels between that era a century gone, and our own: the acceleration of travel and communications forming a web that entraps and constrains us as surely as the network of train tracks bound the earth; military uses of light in the 1900's evolving to today's lasers; sophistication of weapons enabling less human-to-human combat, tending instead toward large-scale deployment and slaughter; Muscle, whether in the guise of private enforcers like Pinkertons and thugs or well-funded armies, does the unquestioned bidding of Authority; and surely, the more factually-"understood" our world, the more we crave the lighter touch of mysticism: Tarot, travel through dimensions and time, the hidden relationships between things, places, people which our logical minds deny, but whose connections govern us.

He frames the Tunguska Event in Siberia as a rupture in the fabric of space-time. We think of it now as a large meteorite impact, but in this novel, people all over the world are affected by it in varying ways, depending on their sensitivity to extra-rational activity. It represents a great pause in the onrush of mechanization, war and the pitting of groups against one another by nationality, belief and class. As memory of it fades, accessibility to a higher plane of existence is lost.

When a novelist creates and populates a world, the details have to ring true. Recognizing inaccuracy ejects a reader from the story, damaging our faith in our guide through a place we do not know. My travels and interests have intersected Pynchon's at many points, and not once did I catch him in error. In an era of sloppy off-the-cuff "information" I find it refreshing to read a well-researched book. He so skillfully interweaves what we only believe with what we have proven, that his most outlandish-sounding ideas make more sense than much of what we take for "reality" these days.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mary Coin, a novel by Marisa Silver

--> Mary Coin is the fictional name given the woman in the iconic Depression photograph taken by Dorothea Lange; she became the face of Okies struggling to survive as migrant workers in California. Four story-lines carry Marisa Silver's novel to convergence: a professor in the modern era considers history and how images shape our perceptions, while also trying to connect with his estranged teenage daughter; the woman of the title grows up in Oklahoma then relocates with her young family to California where as opportunities narrow they move from cabin to tent to living in a car; a grower in California blinds himself to the consequences of below-subsistence pay for the pickers; a lame woman who has made a modest living photographing society ladies in San Francisco finds herself without clients, and takes a job with the WPA, traveling to migrant encampments to document living conditions.

In the novel, these different strands establish a tempo that eases us toward its conclusions, but I find only two useful: photographer and subject. The professor asks questions that in the end seem redundant, and the story involving the grower's family is smudged with the authorial fingerprints of Plot Device. Without those sections it's a much shorter book, and perhaps that's why they are included, but as editor I would have stricken them, and sent the manuscript back to Silver to reshape. The parts that work are profound; it seems unworthy to pad them with trivia.

The questions this book raises have to do with perception, and how we can and cannot affect how others see our lives. Silver's artistry is that, without asserting an answer, she lets us see the consequences. Do photographs lie, or mislead us? We think we know something about people by seeing their picture, but aren't we projecting our own ideas? What do we - can we - really know, just from a photo? When context is subtracted from the captured instant, aren't we at the mercy of our own experience and conjectures? A few sentences about the subject give us the illusion of empathy: surely we would rather believe a photo can make us feel more human, than acknowledge how isolated we are, how vast the gulf between my life as observer, and yours in one moment observed.

This photographed instant has its own trajectory. Even as the woman's life continues, largely anonymous, the photo becomes an icon: a rallying point for reformers pleading for migrant workers, an image that epitomizes a historic moment, an artistic statement that transcends both photographer and subject. Yet for her, it's a trap: some part of her is chained to that desperation. Even as she claws her way to a better life - her own home, her children grown - a glimpse of that picture tells her the rest of her experience is illusory: one shutter-click is all the world will ever know. It's a bitter irony: as time obliterates her and the progress she has made, the photo lives on, caught forever in hopelessness.

This book is also about women, and the added burden of being female in a world that limits what they can do. But they are strong, and stubborn: the photographer sets aside her work to be with her painter husband - but the drive to express her own vision finally frees her, and when she resumes, she understands more clearly what she wants her images to show. Mary Coin survives one catastrophe after another, because she does not give up - somewhere in her future her children will thrive; her persistence is the only force that will get them there.

By making these women characters not archetypes, this novel pulls us in without insisting we take sides. We can argue logically that Mary Coin should have had a smaller family - but she loves her children - if she could go back in time and prevent any of those seven pregnancies, we know she would not. We might think that the photographer - a woman, a cripple - would excite the sympathy of the migrant workers. She feels solidarity, that she's using her skill to help them - but no: they feel hostile toward her and her camera, her car, her life that can record theirs then go away. These unexpected attitudes animate the story. We're not reading a report, or a soap opera: these are real people, and their dilemmas don't have neat solutions.

Photography is distinct from other arts in that it gives the illusion of subtracting the artist from the encounter between viewer and image. When we see a painting, we understand it as an interpretation of a person, a scene, an emotional state. The factual nature of a painting is secondary, if it exists at all.  But a photograph supposedly shows something Real. That woman was not acting at being impoverished or hungry or hopeless - whatever we see on her face was really there. But what about the photographer? She chose to frame the recorded image. She considered the light, the background, the area of focus - and out of many pictures, she was seeking one that would express directly the impact she felt. Though we do not see her, it is through her eyes, mind, experience that we see the subject.

And once the picture has been printed and published, she has no more control over it than does the woman depicted. It comes to encapsulate her work. She intended her portfolio to stir politicians to action, to rectify the circumstances she captured - but its immediacy and pathos remain potent today, long after we have forgotten the specifics of that injustice. That's what art does - it escapes the limits of its creation, reaching us years or centuries later with a still-familiar truth about the human condition.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boyhood - a Review

Richard Linklater's Oscar-nominated film Boyhood is not just a time-lapse snapshot of the lives of a family - it is an exploration of time itself, shrewd and philosophical while staying true to the ages of its characters.

We start with Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as a seven-year-old, and nine-year-old sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), living with their mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in a small Texas town. Fed up with feeling stuck, Olivia packs up the kids and moves to Houston to pursue a Masters degree. Her ex, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), returns from Alaska and becomes a sometime presence in his children's lives. And they grow up, all of them, in a film shot over a ten year period. Samantha develops from a blunt-spoken (smart-mouthed) older sister, to a poised and confident young woman. Mason, Jr. survives the milestones of boyhood with the awkwardness, curiosity and half-step-back contemplation that help us to remember our own experiences: not just the times we were pretty sure we knew what we were doing, but the cringe-worthy assertions and blithe mistakes we have surely stuffed into a forgettory closet.

The standard narrative story-arc - conflict, climax, resolution - is missing here. What we get in its place is the flow of life told in moments - a camping trip, a drunken rage, an embarrassing haircut, being the New Kid at school, a teenage boy's heartfelt conversation with a girl he hopes understands him, the ways a marriage sours. Along the way, Mason, Jr. and Samantha learn about themselves and their parents. The film ends with Mason in college, visiting his mom at her new apartment.

"I like your mom," one of Mason's friends tells him.
"I like her too, but she's as confused as I am," Mason says in a tone of baffled worry: how can she have lived so long and done so much, and still have no idea what her life's about? The adults around him are more cautionary than positive role models.

The moments we see are scripted, but acting works hand-in-glove with the passage of time to create the film's impact. Arquette does the most masterful job, in my estimation - her character keeps trying, keeps failing, keeps choosing a new path and trying again. Her struggles and self-doubts, and her successes, prevent her from living a life on automatic pilot. Hawke settles into a role he finds comfortable and lets it expand around him, simplifying his character's life by dulling that hunger-for-answers. He's the happier of the two - because he's stopped asking questions?

Linklater has a philosophical bent: his 2001 roto-scope animated Waking Life examines dreams and ideas in a way that gives us dreams and ideas of our own. In Boyhood the actuality of time is the driver. This cinematic journey is a long trip to a destination we can name as a point on a map while knowing nothing about it, except that if we keep going, eventually we'll find what's there.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bring up the Bodies - review

Hilary Mantel's Booker Award winning novel Bring up the Bodies continues the story, begun in Wolf Hall, of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to King Henry VIII. In that first volume, Mantel paints a sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who through intelligence, alertness and luck has risen far, serving first Cardinal Wolsey, then after his death, appointed Secretary to the King. It was in large part his machinations that removed Henry's first wife, Katherine, and put Anne in her place. We have seen him as a loving husband and father, who lost his wife and both daughters to illness one devastating summer, who gathers into his household young men of promise, mentoring them to service in noble households where they report back on intrigues. He has a spy in his own house but doesn't worry - it's how news travels, alliances are made and careers improved.

This second volume opens with Anne Boleyn, now Queen (at great cost to England's standing in Europe, where the Catholic Church holds sway), becoming an impediment to Henry - he wants a son, but her only progeny is a girl, Elizabeth. Henry already has a daughter, Mary (child of the repudiated Katherine), as well as a bastard son. He wants a legitimate male heir. His eye falls on Jane Seymour, a virginal young woman with whom he feels he can succeed where Anne has failed him. But how to get Anne, crowned amid acrimony, out of the way? For this he depends on his advisers, none more than Cromwell.

And so the Secretary gathers gossip and witnesses to build a case against Anne - and her numerous family, who have profited greatly from her rise and intend to keep their wealth and honors. His allies are those put out of favor by the king's divorce of Katherine - which makes them his deadly enemies too - once he has engineered the ouster of Anne, they will have no further use for him. He has seen the deaths of those who loyally serve the king through his shifting demands, and knows he must act with especial care.

But this Cromwell is a loathsome man, using his power to take revenge on those who dishonored Wolsey after the Cardinal's death, making them the means for removing Anne. In some accounts of this fascinating period in English history, Anne Boleyn is a sympathetic character, but in Mantel's telling she is not only an adulterer but incestuous, and even as the executioner's blade swings, imagines herself redeemable, that Henry will let her retire in peace.

Having spent formative years in Italy, Cromwell learned from masters about manipulation, extortion and torture, tools he puts to effective use in the intrigues he must put in motion. Now we see the man in harsh light - he is kind when it costs him nothing, but he is without scruples, letting his position dictate what he must do, not pushing back against the cruel methods required. Even as his enemies grow more numerous, he will serve his king as demanded. Henry expects the path to be cleared quickly to his next desire, so his minions use whatever means they think they must, to achieve that end.

Cromwell observes: "He once thought... he might die of grief... but the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone."

Mantel's next book will surely chronicle Jane Seymour's failings as a bearer of sons, and perhaps the author will take us further in the succession of Henry's queens, along with the end of Cromwell. We have seen the man's good side and his ugly one - which will win out?