§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: February 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich

Initially I was enchanted with The Painted Drum. I found the first character’s musing interesting and the language in places was stunning. She described the eyes of a character as “peach-colored granite with specs of angry mica”. I was also intrigued by the theme of life and death, the presence of the dead in the lives of the living, particularly as influenced by Ojibwe thought.

But I was ultimately disappointed. Once the narration passed from Faye to the Ojibwe on the North Dakota reservation, I was bored. It was like every other story I’ve read by people fascinated by aboriginal peoples—reverent and wondering, but with little substantial to say. The stories were so typical as to be completely forgettable. It read like a mediocre public television documentary. I hate to say it but I didn’t care about anyone in the book except Faye. I was glad to get back to her in the end, but disappointed that she was settling for a relationship with the sculptor who seemed to me a huge big fake.

I was particularly disappointed with the novel as it focused on the theme of the influence of the dead on living people. Yes that was there, but there seemed little of interest attached to the theme, except for the notion that dead children came back or at least were perceived as birds. There was no Indian mythology that was either fascinating or that seemed to provide a meaningful lesson to non-indigenous people.

The writing was good, very good in places, but it wasn’t used to advance significant plot, themes, or characters. That writing is all that keeps me from rating this novel as frankly awful. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb

For some reason I’ve always felt essentially uneducated because I didn’t have a “classical education”. I didn’t learn Latin or Greek (though I worked a fair way through a Teach Yourself Latin book once when I was reading Ulysses and felt my lack most particularly). I never studied Greek or Roman history either after high school. My interests tended to be contemporary and American. I also only remember taking one philosophy class and it was not very memorable. I’ve read some Plato and Aristotle, The Iliad and the Odyssey and a fair number of Greek plays. I want to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but I started it and was lost because I had so little background (though I could see the writing was superb—no wonder it’s lasted so long.). Hence my interest in this book.

It’s well written and even humorous in spots; Gottlieb doesn’t stand in awe of classical philosophy as a subject or of classical writers because they’re classical. I’m not knowledgeable enough to know whether he treats them fairly. It made sense to me. I note that Amazon reviewers rate the book either 5 or 1 which means it’s probably a book worth looking at, certainly by non-specialists. I was least interested in the pre-Socratics though and most interested, modernist that I am, in the last chapter, called The Haven of Piety: From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. It was particularly interesting to see how increasingly western philosophy had to “accommodate itself” to Christianity. The themes were not all that different from controversies which have been raging ever since, no matter how often they were put to rest, like whether the world was created all at once by God or existed or evolved independently.

Two things this book reminded me of particularly. First that philosophy first embraced all learning and only later separated itself out into first philosophy and theology and later into literature and science and history and mathematics, etc. etc. It was particularly interesting to see the evolution of science out of what was called “natural philosophy” and to discover that pre-Socratic philosophers first came up with the “atomistic theory”—a crude hypothesis about the “tiny particles” that made up all matter. Secondly, it reminded me that in the period that we call the “Dark Ages” in Europe, much of the learning of the classical period was preserved and advanced by Arab scholars. It’s so easy to forget, in today’s focus on fundamental Islamist politics that glorious period of academic brilliance in the Arab world. Posted by Picasa

Friday, February 17, 2006

Eleanor Roosevelt Rabbit

Eleanor's relaxing in the rabbitat after dinner. Much as she loves Charlie, she relishes her time alone when he gets confined to his own room to eat. (She had to get used to it at first because she'd been in the habit of finishing off his food. She's allowed as how, though, she likes her more swelt figure since she's only eating for one.)

Eleanor's a rescued rabbit, picked out as companion by Charlie who's half her size. She wasn't too sure about him to begin with—his attention was kind of annoying—but she likes the accommodations and when no one's watching she cuddles with Charlie. She's been peeved though since Topsy came and got part of her space. I can't get them to make friends; they've never been together without the fur flying.

Eleanor tends not to make up to visitors and even I have to catch her to pick her up, but once captured she's more than willing to be petted and coddled. It may be that she takes her illustrious name too seriously. These days she's using her political acumen to try to convince her cousin Archie (a beagle-dachshund) who's running for mayor of Elgin, TX to adopt a "furry creature friendly" platform. He's resisting because that would include cats. Though he emails Eleanor regularly, he was none to happy when he met her in person [in the flesh perhaps?] to discover she was a rabbit. Not as bad as a cat, but.... At home he has to put up with a chicken that's moved into his yard. Eleanor tells him she understands the chicken-in-the-yard problem; she's had to put up with cats and possums in her yard on occasion. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

This is really an extraordinary novel. The language as so many have commented derives from Melville and Faulkner and, and like both, ultimately the language and the tone owe much to the King James Version of Bible. I find it interesting, though, that both Faulkner and Melville are writing about their own times, while McCarthy attempts to recreate a 19th century narrative, not only the setting in 1849 and the Biblical overtones but the preview of the events at the beginning of each chapter. Occasionally I run across a word that seemed anachronistic to me, but if so there’s not more than a word or two that breaks the illusion of a 19th century narrative.

The point of view of the narrative is fascinating. Who is it speaking? Many readers have reported putting this novel down because of the extreme violence—and it is violent, with gratuitous killing, mutilation, and absolutely no evidence that any character dwells much on the moral issues involved in killing. Yet the novel is not violent in the sense that a current movie or TV show is violent, because of the distance the narrator puts between the reader and the adventures befall the young boy who is at the center of the novel. The narrator reports what happens pretty dispassionately. I found myself having to reread a paragraph to makes sure that the atrocity I think happened really happened. The narrator reports what happens in the third person but he focuses exclusively on the group of men under Glanton who are hired to bring Indian scalps to various Mexican officials—mercenaries in every sense of the word, particularly on the one called only “the kid”, the boy from Tennessee who at 14 crosses by himself into Texas and eventually become part of Glanton’s group.

The debunking of romantic myths of the West is an obvious theme of the novel, but I’m puzzled at the end exactly why. In the novel, the Judge’s last speech sounds very much like sentiments that a New York Times book reviewed heard directly from McCarthy: As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. McCarthy is reported to have said the following to reporter Richard Woodward: There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.
 Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Olympic Ads

I never watch the Superbowl and don’t care about the score but am interested in the ads. This year my sister says the Olympic ads are even better. I do watch the Olympics and I’ve certainly got my favorites:

  1. Prairie dogs on vacation. The scene is an endless prairie—the kind so flat and wide it made early Norwegian settlers sea sick. Prairie dogs emerge from their holes around a big new SUV. They can get into anything and are soon investigating inside—one appears on the TV screen—and jumps right out into the front seat. They pop up, scurry around, collapse the bucket seats as if testing how easy the process. The camera catches their every expression—you’ll consider a trip to the SPCA. Might they have prairie dogs to adopt? Suddenly the little creatures leave, pop back down their holes, and as the voiceover suggests that “every large family will want one” the earth begins to boil and the SUV sinks down to prairie dog world.
  2. Baby boomers skating. A couple on the couch in front of the TV watching pairs figure skating. A twinkle in her eye, she puts her hand on her husband’s arm and they rush to the car, drive to a rural skating pond and park by a metal shed. They dance on the ice, without the grace of Olympians but with love and fun in their eyes. An ambitious move. He falls and slides up against the shed. Laughs. Assures her he’s just fine. But he’s not the one in danger. An avalanche of snow falls off the roof of the shed crushing their car. Camera pans to her face as it moves—slowly and gracefully—from delight to dismay. The voiceover assures you you can get a new car when yours is totaled.
  3. The Magic Fridge. Guys are stocking up on beer, just closing the door on a beerfridgeful. Will we have enough? Yes, look what I’ve done! He pushes a button and the wall turns on an axel, an ordinary table and lamp appearing in its place. Camera pans to the left—through the wall. More guys clamoring to open the fridge that appears. Yey! The Magic Fridge is back. They remove the beer as fast as they can until the wall turns again. Down on their knees, bowing as they chant “magicfridge, magicfridge, maficfridge".

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divarkaruni

I nominated this for my f2f book group because I was curious. The author lives in Houston and is a friend of a friend. I was expecting a relatively simple, domestic novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find a dazzlingly original example of magical realism.

The main character doesn’t even have a stable name. It changes as her life changes: first she’s Nayan Tara, the disappointing girl child who’s ugly—the color of mud—but who has psychic gifts that make the family’s fortune in a small village on a river in India. She grows up impatient and sullen from all the attention and wills pirates to comes and take her away. That happens and she becomes the Queen of the pirates for a while until she travels to the island to meet the First Mother to whom she apprentices herself as a Mistress of Spices, taking the name Tila. As the novel ends she takes yet another name.

The novel opens with Tila, an old, dark-skinned and wrinkled woman, the mistress of spices, who runs a small Indian grocery in Oakland, CA. She listens to the stories of the Indian immigrants who are her customers and “prescribes” the appropriate spices to ameliorate their problems. But she's a rebel and impatient. She can’t be satisfied following the rules—staying inside the store always, listening and dispensing advice and spices but not interfering. There’s the taxi driver who gets involved with shady characters, the bride whose husband beats her, the young boy who finds gang members to protect him from bullies in school in exchange for keeping and delivering mysterious packages, there’s the grandfather whose family rejects the daughter who is in love with a Mexican fellow student. Tila disobeys the spices, exceeds her mission by going out and getting involved in people’s lives. About the same time a handsome American turns up in her shop, eventually tells his story and a strange love affair develops. Using the most powerful of the spices, Tila turns herself into a beauty for one day with the Raven, as the American calls himself.

Unbelievably the story is concluded satisfactorily on both the mythical and the realistic levels. The style is original and inviting—the first third of the novel so sucked me in that I literally couldn’t stop reading.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Mother and Daughter

 Posted by Picasa

Isadora and the jar

Don't you just love to watch babies try to figure out the world? And that look of concentration? She's nearing a year now. Posted by Picasa

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

When I first read about this book I was a bit turned off, so was very surprised to find a novel that I liked enormously. It’s a social satire/novel of manners, a bit slow at first until you start catching on that the main character says one thing in a given situation but lets you know what he ‘really’ thinks. He’s not the narrator though, but a “center of consciousness” (Henry James style—fittingly since Nick is a recent Oxford grad come to London to work on a doctorate with a dissertation on James). The narrator soon lets you know that all of the characters have their inside and outside views and the book is all about recognizing what’s under the surface, not only of the characters themselves, but of the era (The Thatcher years).

It’s the story of Nick Guest whose name is significant in a number of ways: first, he’s a guest, living while he studies, in the posh (Kensington Park Gardens) house of an MP, the father of an Oxford friend with whom he’s secretly been in love for years. Toby, the son, is off on his own and the inhabitants of the house are father Gerald Fedden, MP and rising star in the Thatcher government, Rachel, beautiful wife who’s from a very wealthy family—brother is a Lord with a family estate—and Catherine, younger sister of Toby, who’s a bit wild and has some psychological and personality problems. Nick’s name also recalls two other literary Nicks, those from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—both fascinated by and observers of the upper class. Remember FSF’s “the rich are different from you and me”. This Nick, though, is not the narrator, but more a Jamesian “centre of consciousness” (a point of view HJ describes in The Art of Fiction as what the writer would see if he could see through the back of the character’s head and understand the world from his point of view, but also see the outside world). Turns out to be used very effectively by Hollinghurst.

Nick is homosexual, recognizes it and is “out” in his way, but he’s very young and has never had a homosexual relationship. So he writes a letter to a dating service and meets Leo, a lower middle class black of Caribbean descent, older and more experienced than Nick, who lives with his mother (heavily religious) and sister in a small flat in the northern suburbs. Their first sex—neither having a place of their own—happens in the private garden at the Feddens—one of those private gardens in Central London with high iron gates where only the householders have a key.

The novel has some wonderfully drawn characters, even the “Lady” herself (as they call Thatcher). Gerald Fedden’s goal in life is to have her visit socially which finally happens when she attends his Silver Wedding Anniversary party. The scene is marvelously done. Gerald is shallow and self-centered, his wife Rachel is beautiful, kind and sort of “dreamy”. The daughter Catherine has various unsuitable boyfriends and muddles along, with the help of a psychiatrist—and with Nick as her main ally at home. Then there’s Toby, who loves Nick but not sexually, and Wani, an Oxford chum of both who’s the son of a super rich Middle Eastern immigrant (one reviewer likened him to Doti Fayed)—gay like Nick and they eventually have a secret affair. They also go into business together, putting out an elegant journal which Nick names Ogee after the curve with Hogarth called, "the line of beauty"--hence the title, though "the line" recalls also the frequent lines of cocaine used increasingly by Nick and Wani and Toby.... The business also plans what Nick imagines as a Merchant-Ivorie-type film of James' novel, the Spoils of Poynton which Nick will adapt to film.

The novel begins in 1983 and is divided in three parts, the other two happening in 1986 and 1987, and the reader gradually comes to realize that this is the crucial beginning of the AIDS epidemic that will devastate the gay community. I didn’t put this together at first so it only gradually dawned on me—which is, I think, what the author intended. Posted by Picasa