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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The American by Henry James

This was a reread, I think the third time, but I haven’t read it since the mid-Seventies at the latest. Rereading, I must say, was a huge enjoyment. This is James at the best of his earlier period, where he was exploring the naïve American in Europe, packing enormous meaning in every sentence, but before he began with the super subtle detail and very long and complex sentences that characterize his later masterpieces like A Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. [By the way, the difference between James’ long sentence and Faulkner’s is simple: James are architected sentences that depend on intricacies of English syntax while Faulkner’s sentences are not so complex as they are conversational and accretive, where he adds and modifies rather than subordinates.]

The story is of Christopher Newman (new man, right? Not only from “the new world” but from “the West”, practically a hero riding on a white horse) who left school very early somewhere in the East and by 35 had made himself a millionaire businessman in California. He wakes up one morning and thinks there must be more to life. Like other Americans of his generation who can afford it he heads for Europe to learn about the rest of life. In Paris—for James always the center of European culture—one of the first things he does is order several paintings from a beautiful young girl copying paintings in the Louvre—always supervised by her father. We gradually come to realize that Mlle. Noiche is a very bad painter. Later she plays a more sinister role in the plot but early on Newman’s business relationship with her and her father (who teaches him some conversational French) helps to establish Newman’s naiveté.

Newman thinks he will look for a wife in Paris and an ambitious American ex-patriot rather mischievously suggests Madame de Cintré, widowed daughter of the late Marquis de Bellegarde. Her family is 1000 years old. Her older brother, the present Marquis, declares his loyalty to the Bourbons and refuses to go to the Napoleonic Court. Claire de Cintré, it is clear, was married young to an old man chosen by her family who has mercifully died before the story begins. She is beautiful, delicate, shy and completely under the thumb of her family. Nevertheless she is drawn to Newman and for whatever reasons after some initial insults her mother and brother agree to the marriage. While you must have the patience to wait for James to set the scene, the novel contains a full measure of suspense so I’ll not give away the plot, except to suggest that aristocratic French families have traditionally looked down their noses at "commercial men".

Finally, I was struck by how completely and effectively James followed his own theory of narrative point of view in The American. All readers recognize that novels are most often told from the point of view of a third person narrator (often not even identifiable as a person) who “knows everything” or from the point of view of one person, in which case the author has to work hard to give the reader knowledge that the narrator doesn’t have. James thought there was a better way. He called it “centre of consciousness” and it’s so familiar now we rarely single it out, but James used it to radically change narrative from the 19th century “dear reader” style to something much more subtle. James described it as the narrator looking through the back of the character's head, seeing what he sees, though described from the larger experience of the invisible narrator. It combines the virtues of the omnipotent narrator and the first person narrator. Here James uses detail brilliantly to characterize both Newman and the people he interacts with, always telling the reader far more than Newman understands, but rarely revealing who’s telling the story. Posted by Picasa

The Kitchen Computer

By 1985 Alex and I had shopped two years before being able to afford a home computer—and within six months we had to have two; they had become very quickly essential to how we lived our lives.

Now I see my son’s family of 5 daughters with computers as part of the fabric of the household. I’ve no idea how many computers they have—most are still exclusively adult machines, but there are two that are family machines, a desktop in a workroom/schoolroom and a new iMac in the kitchen.

In the picture Hannah, the oldest, has discovered a website on cryptography and with her dad’s help she’s crafting some coded emails for her friends—with a reference to the website where they can learn how to decode them.

They’re often found gathering around the kitchen computer to view family pictures or films. Being allowed to play a favorite game can be a reward for good behavior, but the player is likely to have the whole family kibitzing. Parents check on their ebay sales and purchases. The older kids research for school work. Those who cook—everyone over 5 or 6—look up recipes.

The computer has become one more “necessity” in the big family kitchen gathering place. What used to be a kitchen desk with space to spread out cookbooks and pay bills has been upgraded to a computer where you can find recipes, pay bill, look up a word you don’t know or find a picture to illustrate what you’re talking about. Posted by Picasa

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I was more than anything else curious about this book. I heard friends with very different attitudes toward life and religion and books say that they liked it very much. In fact, I'd hardly heard anyone who didn't like it. And yet the ramblings of an aging preacher from rural Iowa didn't particularly interest me as subject matter, though the different responses I heard to the book did.

At first I was disappointed. "No, I am not interested in the life of a elderly preacher in 1950ies Iowa," I thought. "Why did I think I would be?" But I recognized an accomplished prose style that was worth reading no matter what. Then I found I was reading with more interest, recognizing the suspense, understanding the characters, identifying with the 80-year-old father who knew he had heart disease and was not likely in any case to live to see his young son grown. He wanted to pass on values and understanding and history, not only of himself and his family but of the country and the region and his church. I understood his impulse to write it down for his son—I once wrote a 90-page memoir of childhood to give to my own children at Christmas because I wanted to pass on what I remembered, also of Iowa as it happens.

Because I also found something personal of interest. I didn't think much about where in Iowa Gilead was supposed to be. I assumed it was a fictitious town. Then the narrator mentioned Tabor, a town I knew about. I actually lived my formative years (from about 3 to 12) in a small town not far from Tabor. We moved to Shenandoah, Iowa in the middle of WWII, from Chicago to a small town I remember as buried amid cornfields that spread out on all sides. There was also a river that flooded occasionally but dramatically (once my father had to move his airplane in the middle of the night because the tiny airport flooded). I thought of that river when John Ames (the narrator of Gilead) mentioned walking by the river. Later he mentioned the West Nishnabotna and it was the same river. A different fork possibly. Tabor was somewhat west and north of us.

One of the historical issues in the book was the move of the grandfather to Kansas during the time when settlers fought wars to keep slavery out of Kansas—in contrast to Missouri which was admitted as a slave state. That part of Iowa—immediately north of Missouri—had been a refuge for slaves fleeing Missouri (like fleeing to Ohio from Kentucky in Uncle Tom's Cabin) and a hotbed of liberalism. I suppose if I'd lived in Iowa longer I'd have got interested in that historical period and been proud of it. Posted by Picasa

Studying the Sociology of Smoking

I just heard a piece on NPR this morning about Scotland and its smoking ban in all enclosed places—soon to be extended to all of Britain. What I didn't know was that the ban will extend to film sets so that Winston Churchill cannot be portrayed with his cigar. Although California has similar laws, movie sets obtain "industrial permits" of some sort to allow smoking on sets. Since I just saw George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck (about Edward R Murrow and the McCarthy Era) which was full of smoking, I guess that's true. Morrow hosted Person to Person with a cigarette elegantly poised in his hand and many of his public photos show him smoking.

I also saw Brief Encounter last night on TCM. One of my favorite old films—I LOVE films of the 30ies and 40ies. Anyway not only do the characters smoke in that film but there's this odd “smoking rule” I'd forgotten about. The heroine is emotionally upset and wandering around the town in the rain. A policeman approaches her to see if she needs help. She says no and tries to calm herself so that she doesn't look as distraught as she feels. She sits on a park bench and lights up a cigarette to calm down. She's narrating the story retrospectively in the most of the film and says at this point (to her husband whom she can never tell about this brief affair) that she knows he disapproves of women smoking on the street and she does too, really, but it was necessary in this instance.

I do remember my mother preaching that doctrine. She didn't approve of smoking in the street. In fact she didn't approve of smoking while walking around. You could sit at the dinner table with a cigarette, smoke at your chair while you read or watched TV or even smoke in your lawn chair outside taking the sun, but you could not "walk around" with a cigarette, not inside and definitely not outside. These rules applied generally but did not apply equally to men; breaking the rules (as breaking sexual rules) reflected more negatively on women. A man walking around with a cigarette was much more acceptable, though it might be used to characterize him as “low” and “tough”.

I suspect there are academics right now doing research on smoking in films—imagine the distinctions one could tease out? Wouldn't it be interesting to see how smoking on film compared in the 30ies, the 50ies and the 90ies for instance? An interesting pop culture thesis, huh?

And look, Murrow was even photographed with the President, cigarette in hand! Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 17, 2006


Naomi is the other baby in my life, though she's fast becoming a toddler, not a baby. Only 3 and a half months older than Isadora, she watches the action in her busy family of seven as if she understood everything better than any of them.

She's tall for her age, and has curly hair in a family where that's practically unknown. She refuses to sit in a high chair (that's for babies) or use a bib, though she accepts a booster chair so she's on the same level with everyone else. I swear she repeats all the words her four sisters say. She'll be speaking in sentences quite soon. Posted by Picasa

Stealing Apples

Isadora got into the pantry and fed herself apples for breakfast! Posted by Picasa

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I never had any interest in this author and didn’t read Everything is Illuminated. Until I read Nicole Krauss' (his wife’s) novel The History of Love and the reviews all complained how much the two had in common, I didn't even think of reading Foer. Possibly because of the gimmicky titles but also because I’d heard he used child narrators and, in my opinion, it’s the rare author who manages to make a novel with a child narrator anything but sentimental. As usual when I come up with such arbitrary pronouncements, I was wrong about that one.

I did like this one and I think Foer’s creation of Oscar Schell as narrator is one of the best, most sustained performances of writing as a child I’ve ever read. You probably already know the story. Oscar is 7 when his father, a family jewelry store owner at a meeting at the World Trade Center, was killed in 9/11. He’s 9 when he’s telling his story. He’s become obsessed with a key hidden in a blue vase among his father’s possessions. He’s convinced that the key holds some clue to why his father died and embarks on what seems a hopeless quest—talking to everyone in New York with the surname Black (which name he’s rather tangentially associated with the key).

Oscar is precocious and emotionally fragile. He’s worn heavy boots and given himself bruises since his father died. He depends on his mother and grandmother—who lives across the street—but doesn’t confide in either, nor in the psychiatrist his mother takes him too. The narrative slowly builds to the understanding of what really bothers Oscar.

At the same time, the novel also tells the story of Thomas Schell, Oscar’s grandfather, who left his grandmother in NY when she told him she was pregnant with their only child. Thomas' unsent letters to his son form part of the story's narration—there's some in his grandmother's voice as well—and their struggle to deal (or avoid dealing) with the tragedy in their lives (the firebombing of Dresden at the end of WWII where Thomas lost his lover and both their families) parallels Oscar’s tragedy.

Oscar’s peculiarities make this book. They provide humor, suspense and raw human feeling in a way you’d never get from an adult. Indeed the tragedy of the grandparents who survived the firebombing when their loved one's didn't and then were estranged for 40 years pales in the face of Oscar’s own tragedy. It works in the novel the way a secondary theme works in a symphony.

As to comparison’s between this book and Nicole Krauss’ there are lots of them: the child narrator (though hers is a teen), the dead father, childish lists, an odyssey around NY to find someone, an elderly man who never meets his son, survivors who at the end of their lives realize they’ve refused to live. But they are not the same book by any stretch of the imagination and each is worth reading.

Oh, I found the graphic shenanigans kind of silly. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Isadora's One Year Old

My daughter reported that she's been to the doctor and is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Big girl: in the 80%tile for weight and 90% for height. My daughter's hoping for tall since the bane of her childhood was that, unlike her friends, she was not taller than her mother. Here Isadora is eating a piece of birthday cake baked for her by her oldest cousin. She got a second birthday cake at home. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Pride & Prejudice: The Movie

I finally saw the new Pride & Prejudice film last night. I can't say that I thought it was a great movie or even that it will stand as a "classic" among the films of that novel. What I did like was the setting. I suspect someone did a lot of research on every aspect of life in the Napoleonic Wars—even the manners, though the little bow and curtsy gestures got irritating if no doubt authentic. The houses and servants and interiors were wonderful though I suspect some were a bit posh for the class Austen was writing about. The chickens and pigs in the yard struck me as very likely, though.

The star, as far as I was concerned, was Donald Sutherland, a different reading of Mr. Bennett but perfectly within the spirit of Austen's text. He was also the only one capable of seeing the humor in the text. I was disappointed in Judi Dench as Lady Catherine. She said some hilarious lines in ways that no one could possible laugh at. She played Lady Catherine like she played Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love—much more appropriate for Elizabeth. But then for humor no one can top Edna Mae Oliver's over-the-top Lady Catherine from the 1940 film. The other disappointment was Mr. Collins who, in Austen, is hugely comic and who was taken seriously in this film. The conversation between Charlotte and Elizabeth about Charlotte's engagement really beats the sociological reality about spinsters into the dirt.

My biggest issue is that the film was played as heavy drama, rather than as comedy of manners. In a way it reminded me of The Great Gatsby film that starred Robert Redford. The filmmakers seemed to think that using the exact words of the famous writer of the book would make a great movie. Characters in this version of P&P said lines that cause me to giggle every time I read Austen, but which were delivered in this film with no sense of the humor at all. Some even came across as garbled rather than witty—such as when Darcy responds to the "stroll around the room" which Caroline Bingley proposes to Elizabeth at Netherfield Park. When Darcy is asked to join them he remarks that they could have only two reasons to stroll, one to share confidences and the other to show off their figures and that in the first instance he would be in the way and in the second he could appreciate their figures more from where he sat. It's as if Matthew Macfadyen got flustered with such a long retort and couldn't possible deliver the lines with the wit intended in the novel.

I didn't see the sense in the changes in the plot. Wickam's role was played down and that interfered with the motivations of the characters. Elizabeth's belief in Wickam played a huge role in her rejection of Darcy, but in this film Elizabeth and Wickam had virtually no relationship. That muddled the runaway Lydia episode too. And speaking of Lydia, the scene where she returns after her forced marriage showing off her "doting" husband, with carriage and footman, is sort of pathetic but also very funny; it was played this film as only pathetic. Similarly, Mrs. Bennett's match-making in the film has more than a touch of desparation, as no doubt would have been the case in that period. But Austen's novel is a comedy of manners, not a sociological tract and Austen made the point about marriage realities with a twinkle not a tear in her eye.The end of the film was simply dreadful and dragged on and on and on. All night in fact as the lovers pace and finally meet (was Elizabeth in her house coat? how scandalous!) and embrace at dawn. Heavy drama, but not in the least romantic.The 1940 film had lots wrong with it, but you must admit that the antebellum gowns were more attractive than the "authentic" Empire styles. That film too took liberties with the plot—some frankly slapstick—but it didn't miss the humor that's put Pride and Prejudice at the top of the all-time bestseller list for nearly 200 years! The BBC miniseries from the 90ies was more authentic than that 1940 film but didn't turn its back on the marvelous Austen wit. Those two very different versions remain my favorite versions of Jane Austen on film.

When I looked up the 2005 Pride & Prejudice in the Internet Movie Database, I found it has a tagline: "a romance ahead of its time". Are they assuming that "romance" is something new?

It also seems to me that "romantic comedy" is pretty looked down on these days. One can't help but wonder if that genre was seen as "not hefty enough" for a serious movie of a classic book. But every romantic comedy ever made has its roots in Pride and Prejudice.
Posted by Picasa

A Plug for Online Reading Groups

I recently compiled a list of the best books I've read since joining an online book group. The group turned out to be an excellent way to find fellow readers and discuss books. Over the years—I joined in 1999—I've read and discussed a bunch of books and just made a quick list of some of my favorites. The group reads a different book every two weeks. Just about anything currently in print is eligible to be chosen. While most selections are fiction, some are non-fiction. We've even read children's books and one cook book.

These are the 20 of the most rewarding books I first encountered and read with this group:
· Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
· Stones in the River by Ursula Hegi
· Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
· Underworld by Don DeLillo
· Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
· Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
· Mercy Among the Children by David Adams
· A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
· Regeneration by Pat Barker
· The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
· Independent People by Haldor Laxness
· When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
· Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
· The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
· True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
· The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
· House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
· Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
· The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
· Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Honorable mention goes to a couple of books the group read before I joined but that were mentioned so often that I had eventually to read them. I loved both of them:
· A Fine Balance by Robinson Mistry
· Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

The group doesn't read just new books and I re-read a bunch of favorites with this group as well, including the following:
· Bleak House by Charles Dickens
· Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
· Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
· Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner
· The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
· Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
· Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
· Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
· The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein
· The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
· All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
· The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
· Moby Dick by Herman Melville

If you're interested, the group can be found on Yahoo Groups. It’s called The Book Group List. It has a separate website with lists of books read and links to past discussions. Posted by Picasa

Monday, March 13, 2006

Four Granddaughters

They're sitting in the kitchen looking at something on the screen of the kitchen computer. I played with the photograph in Photoshop to highlight the expressions on their faces and minimize the background. Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 10, 2006

Two Oldest Grandchildren

I just came home from visiting my son, daughter-in-law and five daughters. Here are Hannah and Grace, the oldest, aged 11 and 9. Posted by Picasa

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

I was fascinated with this book. It’s told by multiple narrators but the main ones are a 14 year-old Jewish girl named Alma Singer, living with her widowed mother Charlotte and brother Bird in New York and by an elderly Jewish man, Leopold Gursky, who came to NY in 1941 from Poland after losing family and hiding out from the Nazis himself. When he was a young boy, he fell in love with a girl named Alma Meriminski. He wanted to become a writer and by the time he came to the US, he’d already written a book called The History of Love inspired by his love for Alma (who had already escaped to the US). Leopold gave the manuscript of his book to his friend Svi Litvinoff for safe keeping, but Litvinoff went to Chile and his wife reported that unfortunately the manuscript had been destroyed in a house flood. In fact, Litvinoff had published it under his own name—part of his wooing of Rosa to be his wife. Narrator Alma Singer is told by her mother that she was named for the Alma in the book which her father, an Israeli traveling in South America, found in a bookshop in Buenos Aires and used to woo Charlotte, a British visitor to Israel to become his wife. A complication is that Charlotte, whose job is to translate from Spanish to English, is approached (in a letter) by a man named Jacob Marcus, to do a private translation of a book called The History of Love into English. Alma, who thinks her mother is pining after her dead husband, wants to foster romance, rewrites her mother’s spare acceptance letter, hoping that Jacob Marcus might become “the one” for her mother.

In Leopold’s section we learn that he arrived in NY to find that his Alma had married but she also that she had given birth to his child. He cannot convince her to leave her husband, so in a sense he lives his entire adult live through this child, Isaac Moritz, to whom he never reveals himself but whose whole life—and career as a well-known writer—he follows closely. Basically Leopold settles down to a limited life of surviving and, in the present of the novel, is doing odd things (like posing nude for an artist’s class) so that he won’t die on a day when no one has noticed him. He had become locksmith, worked his whole life and retired. When his Alma was dying in a NY hospital and no family member stayed with her all the time, he did—talked to her, read to her, met any need he imagined she might have.

Fairly early on, it’s clear that the novel will proceed through fits and starts until Leopold Gursky and Alma Singer meet. The plot is complex—possibly unbelievably complex—but the voices of the two main characters to say nothing of their activities and those of the people around them are fascinating. The meeting does come and while some reviewers have described it as overly sentimental, I experienced it as startlingly poignant.

Now I'm going to read the book by her husband, Jonathon Safran Foer: Exceedingly Loud and Incredibly Close. In the first pages, I've already seen lots of similarities. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Old Boys by Charles McCarry

McCarry was always one of my favorites in the age of the Cold War thriller (in books like The Last Supper and The Tears of Autumn). This one is maybe not as good as Le Carre’s one about “old spies” (Absolute Friends) but it’s good and I enjoyed it a lot. Basically it’s the story of 5 old spies, superannuated from the CIA, who join forces to find another one of them who’s disappeared and been reported dead in Western China. They don’t believe it and set out to find him. They’re all 60ish or more—one has to reach for his nitro pills when eluding militant Russians who want to kill him as he comes down the stairs from the apartment of an informer—he later takes a brief respite in the US to get a pacemaker installed before proceeding toKyrgystan and the novel's denouement in the desert.

They’re searching for Paul Christopher (spy-hero of earlier novels, like the rest out to pasture at 70). He’s off because someone brought word that his mother who was kidnapped by the Nazi commander, Heydrich, in WWII when Paul was a teenager, and then never seen again, has surfaced and is in danger. She’s 94. Paul left his friend and cousin, Horace Hubbard, the leader of the old boys, a cryptic letter and a clue to find a hidden safe in his house. There Horace finds a painting (one he’s always hated but worth a million on more) he’s to sell to finance the romp. Eventually Christopher’s daughter Zarah joins the tribe. The enemies are the Chinese secret service (Christopher spend 10 years in a Chinese prison camp in his earlier life), Russian mafia (i.e., ex, KGB), an old Arab millionaire named Ibn Awad who’s stolen some dirty bombs from the Russians which he plans to unleash on American cities. Then there’s Kevin (with his Ohio accent) whose loyalties no one is ever very sure of, though he's mostly likely an American gray (unacknowledged) force or some variation of Russian freelancer.

There’s a subplot that maybe imitates (or covers similar ground as) The Da Vinci Code: the Amphora Scroll, a Roman document hidden in a jar that “proves” that Jesus of Nazareth was an unwitting agent of Roman Intelligence. Lori Christopher (the 94-year old mother) stole it from Heydrich and hid out in the remote reaches of the Taklimakan desert most of her life to keep it away from anyone likely to exploit it. Ibn Awad, he with the dirty bombs, now wants it to discredit Christianity.

The best parts feature the doings of the old boys themselves. Both the Amphora Scroll and the long-lost Lori Christopher plots peter out by the end and the reader doesn’t much care. Posted by Picasa