Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A novel should be novel ...

"It's always struck me as elemental,"says Jonathan Karp, "that a novel should be novel." in an interview in the Nov.-Dec. Writers and Poets. Karp is the editor in chief of Twelve, the publishing company. He goes on to say, "I've never understood why somebody would write a novel knowing that the story has been done millions of times before. If your work is not novel on the conceptual level, I'm not sure why you should expect somebody to stop what he's doing and pay attention."

Mr. Karp seems to prefer nonfiction that is serious and impactful. He publishes twelve books a year and gives each great attention and publicity. He goes on to note that no less a novelist than Norman Mailer once predicted that novelists would come to have "the cultural influence of landscape painters." This makes Mr. Karp conclude, "if you're setting out to write a novel, or literary nonfiction, for that matter, I think you have to have very high standards."

Mr. Karp's comments leave me feeling pulled left and right at the same time. I search for those novels with something novel to tell me, I try to avoid the ones that offer nothing new [or novel] and I feel cheated when I am disappointed by the same old, same old. On the other hand I began a novel in the NanNoWriMo frenzy and am now struggling to find out how it ends. While I think the characters are novel and are unlike ones written about previously I'm wondering about how high my standards are for my own work. I'm having such a good time getting to know my characters and trying to figure out how to make them vivid and alive that my writing time seems almost playtime. Probably I'm aiming for a nice landscape painting. I will not submit it to Twelve, I'm not even sure I'll be able to find anyone to publish it. But I am not young and ambitious as I once imagined I was; I am now older and more easy going with myself but my opinions and standards for works of art have become more demanding. So a double standard ... not such a novel situation.

[the photo is in Cracow - it feels like a moment in a Central European novel - could the lone young man be a novelist?]

[Second thought: I don't believe I ever enlarged this photo before. I certainly didn't look carefully at the man in the background. It was quite early in the morning and I was wandering around before breakfast as I'm apt to do when traveling, hardly anyone was out yet. Now that I look and think about it, the man seems to be using that pretty building as his personal urinal. Hmmm....]

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tuva or Bust

We have a super used bookstore on Main Street, Hyannis. I try to restrict myself to three books a visit. On my last visit I bought Tuva or Bust by Ralph Leighton. Published in 1991, it was about attempts made by Leighton, his friend the eccentric Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman and assorted friends to visit the tiny country of Tuva mainly because it's capital has no vowels, Kyzyl however is pronounced as if the Ys are vowels. Tuva also contains a monument by a little known adventurer named Proctor who tried to visit the absolute center of various continents. Apparently by Proctor's calculations Tuva is at the center of Asia.

I tried to find a map of all of Asia that showed Tuva but failed. The map below is of Russia, Tuva is in blue, and you have to imagine beneath it Mongolia, then Tibet [okay, imagine all the territory China claims plus it's legitimate land mass, and below that India and all of the countries of southeast Asia. Then to the east beneath Russia all the countries we are now hearing more than enough about, the "stans" Iraq,Iran, and all the Middle Eastern countries. Makes you wonder if Tuva is really the center of Asia.

The book is a fun read from this distance because most of it is about trying to deal with late cold war Soviet bureaucracy. I did know about Tuva, partly from having gone to Mongolia and hearing a great deal of throat singing, which was apparently invented in Tuva. It's musically amazing!! Recordings are available. The difficulty was so great that Feynman actually died before the permissions came through. I love reading about travelers, especially when I can learn things I didn't know about the geography and people and politics of a place. Hurray for used book atores.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Latest Terrorist

Airline security is a major sore point with me. I totally despise the attitude of the security people in airports. I am a plain white haired old lady, to the best of my knowledge I have no FBI or CIA files. I definitely know I've done nothing that would warrant the attention of either organization. Nothing about me fits a terrorist profile. But I, ring the warning bells with my artificial hip. I have a card that says I have a artificial hip. No one at security cares about that, I'm told to stand aside and then am thoroughly patted down, wanded and once went through a "puffer" machine [I don't know what it's called]. I consider all of this unnecessary and invasive of my personal dignity. That's my rant.

So why is it that the airport security spends their time and effort harassing ordinary citizens, making us remove our shoes and discard our water bottles, but they do not give extraordinary attention to a person on the terrorist suspect list and allow him to board an international flight where he presumably spends several hours savoring what he thinks will he his final ones before attempting to detonate whatever kind of device he carried on board? The security system seems to be planned for maximum tyranny and harassment of ordinary passengers but don't have a method for truly examining person on their terrorist watch list. El Al has been doing it right for over twenty years. Why can't American airlines learn from others' experience.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lost Glove

The lost glove,
frozen stiff,
pointed at footprints
in the snow
leading to my door.

Not an intruder.

My own steps
as I came home
on a cold winter night.

[sorry about stock picture with steps going the wrong way.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts

Dense books take time to read so I've been working on Sven Birkerts' Gutenberg Elegiess for a week or more. To greatly simplify: he bemoans what seems a cultural change for the worse, i.e., serious literature has become so marginalized that it has no real cultural influence anymore, in contrast to, say in the 19th century and first half of the 20th. He makes a good case and I agree that we as a culture are and will in the future be poorer because we are overloaded with information and entertainment but are not challenged, and rarely challenge ourselves, to look deeply at ourselves or our cultures. And we certainly do not go to serious literature for insight.

Two things came to mind when I closed the book: I'm tardy in reading it, for it was published several years ago and probably written about 10 years ago. He emphasizes the digital takeover but he wrote before cell phones, iPods, internet social networks -- all of which have been electronic kudzu burying, choking and cloaking many people's individuality and stifling thought.

But, to counter some of the fear and trembling Birkerts inspires there is a movement towards meditation and inwardness. I see it most promisingly in the Buddhist varieties but there are Christian groups as well that truly try to look beneath superficiality of every day life. It's far from a majority but it is a growing movement. Serious writing of all sorts is very marginalize, but it's not dead but the voices are difficult to hear in the cacophony.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Done! Well, almost...

A couple of hours of shopping, and about half an hour of VERY slow traffic, and I am done with purchasing Christmas gifts. I came home and wrapped them ... well, I'm almost done. Doesn't something always remain as a tag end? One gift to go but it is one of those "make a donation in my name" kind of things and I know what I'd like to donate to but I don't know if that's particularly appealing to the giftee. So I'm pondering. I've got time as he's out of touch during the week so ... I can procrastinate. That is one of my premier traits; I've been working on perfecting it most of my life. That's why, only there days before Christmas, I finally went and purchased the last of the gifts.

Going to the mall was insane! But I wrapped myself in my down jacket and a resolve to be patient and off I went. I thought parking will be a nightmare, for a bit it seemed like it was, but then, moving from back lot to front lot a space opened for me, magically almost. When done there, at the next shopping area, same thing. This used to happen often 30 years ago when I lived in mall-land [not NYC where I had no car]; it seems to be happening again. Why this luck? Many things do not have explanations and I can just accept them and not look for "why?" when it's good, like a very nice parking space, I notice and I'm happy. I believe it was Ben Franklin whose quote I read in a blog recently but cannot recite verbatim. The gist is that true happiness is the little every day pleasures, not the big wish-come-true that hardly ever happens. We know it's happiness when we pay attention to those small pleasures -- the car backing out of the parking space just as you turn into that lane. My word is serendipity.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deep reading

"Deep reading", a term I came across in some casual [definitely not deep] reading referred to The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. Oh, I've got that book, I remembered. I've had it maybe three years. What does he call deep reading? I thought it would be pondering the philosophers or digging into literature as the New Critics did mid-20th century dissecting structure, etc. Happily not the latter although I studied with New Critics way back when. And strangely not the former which surprised me.

Birkerts believes that serious literary novels have a deep impact, they change our personality because we live the experiences within the story as vividly [sometimes more so] as our own lives. He believes those of us who read intensely acquire complex ways of seeing the world and [in my words] live a more richly nuanced life. I've looked for quotable take-outs to quote but he is not that kind of writer. He emphasizes, as I would also, that the novels must be literary, serious writing. For example, we white readers can know the worlds of black experience through Toni Morrison with reality that would be impossible otherwise. This, of course extends to writers in other countries and of other time periods. I have lately explained to friends that I rarely read American writers because I know American life, I would rather read Coetze or Julian Barnes [as I am right now], a Norwegian, German, Chinese, Indian writer, etc. to see the world their characters live in.
Birkerts' book was mostly reviewed because he believes such reading is in danger of disappearing, that, in fact, books as we know and love them, are on their way out of general use. I hope he's a premature alarmist but, sadly, I think it may be true. What is disturbing is the shallowness of experience available to people who do not read, the visual media which is omnipresent does not contain the layers of psychology and story telling and experience available in the novels of fine writers.

It's a huge subject, I'll be pondering it a long time, meanwhile reading as many good novels as I can, mixed in with nonfiction which may not change my personality but gives me perspectives consider. [Top picture if Mary Cassatt, bottom is Berthe Marisot]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter approaches

Winter will be here in just a few days. Yesterday could be called "nippy" but it was sunny and I took a decent sort of walk since I'm a firm believer in "use it or lose it." I believe much of the reason my age group have so many aches and pains is they sit around and get stiff and then the body screams at them for moving those joints. If you keep moving them they won't scream at you. So I walked and it felt very good. I came in with rosy red cheeks.

Today was sunny too, but notably colder and I have been in a cleaning mood, I had a bag of things to take to the Goodwill shop. So I drove. Being there, of course, I had to check out the store. There were unopened rolls of nice wrapping paper for 50 cents each [$5 in the stores], and, being chilly, I had to check out the fleece and sweaters. I'm feeling the need to go along with the native folk costume, fleece and knits over T-necks. So I found two warm tops at $5 each. This is a sensible way to dress but was quite unnecessary in overheated NYC. Can't beat the prices. So let the solstice come! Two months of cold also means that in two or three weeks the light will noticeably begin to return, days lengthen. It's an uncertain world in many ways, but this we can count on, global warming or not, the great Earth keeps turning and tilting predictably.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cascade effect

At times doing A leads to B, leads to C and soon you're at Z and nothing is the same anymore. It's called the cascade effect. It happened to me today when I had to replace a light bulb. I didn't like another light where it was so I decided to change it. C lead to D lead to E ... Now almost everything in my living room is in a different place. I finally hung the last unhung picture, I cleaned off my desk -- yippee! -- I sorted books and magazines. I got so enthusiastic I changed the bulbs in the kitchen's daunting fixture, I changed the drapes at the windows. I think I like it, but I'll have to live with it a while.

The photo above might be called a cascade but that barely covers the majesty and magnificent of the mighty Victoria Falls. "Oh, I don't care much about seeing it," said I chavansitically. "I've seen Niagara." WELL! This is only one of half a dozen pictures I took of the falls. Some places I could not take a picture because the air was so full of spume everything not tucked away in a backpack got wet, including me. I never saw the bottom because the spume was too think. It was the rainy season and the great Zambezi River was very full. Victoria is about six Niagaras and I may have been humbled enough to never be ho-hum about natural wonders again. I'm having these vivid and valued memories while recouping from my cascade of home rearrangement exertions.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Scandal of the Week

I am so tired of the scandal of the week mentality, I can barely stand to go to my AOL homepage which wants me to think that Tiger Wood's philandering is important. Last week it was someone else and when they can't find the scandal of the moment they look at child stars to see if they can find a sob story. BARF! Forever and ever men have wanted to sleep with more than one woman -- many women want to sleep with more than one man. This is not news, it is not interesting. It is supremely boring.

Do headline writers think we're all stuck at age 12 tittering about who kissed who? We have an ugly war going on, we have major legislation in Congress, we have world climate controversy in Copenhagen, the rich guys on Wall Street continue to find ways to stay rich while most of us get poorer and poorer, the ugly murders continue. I am insulted by headlines telling me about Tiger Woods "alleged mistresses." What does this old fashioned word mean, anyway? Now that they've smeared another hero who will be next? I really don't want to know about it. I'd like NEWs, not the same OLD, same OLD. End of today's rant.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Big Pharma

Today the Sunday NY Times had an article about "big pharma" which creates a drug for everything, be it a disorder, disease, or delusion. The picture is of benzodiazopines [psychotropic drugs]. I have strong feeling about big pharma because in my former job when I transcribed many meetings and events held by the advertising agencies which promoted the products of big pharma, I developed many strong feelings about just how they operate and bend our minds.

Today's article in the Times business section was especially about a "Viagra for women" but covered a lot of other territory. I was especially stunned by a picture of a woman in an ad who said that she had been using Prempro for 16 [yes, 16!] years to control the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes. Has any woman ever experienced hot flashes for 16 years?

The average American consumer cannot have sufficient information to understand how he or she -- and the doctors who "treat" them -- are influenced by advertising. I vividly remember the day a cardiologist wrote a prescription for Lipitor for me because I had a somewhat obstructed left ventricle. I told him that a week earlier I had transcribed [in my job where I transcribed all kinds of meetings] a talk by one of the Nobel prize winners who invented statins, the drug category of which Lipitor was then [maybe still is] the biggest seller. This brilliant scientist, by then retired and an aging [therefore not entirely esteemed] figure, said that he had been working for years to figure out why statins seem to help only 17% of the people who take them. 17%, it seemed to me, was a VERY low percentage. But my cardiologist said, "Well, we'll hope you're in the 17%." He did not believe me nor the Great Man, he believed the propaganda of Big Pharma and the guidelines of the American Heart Association which, in turn, believed Big Pharma.

My point is that although I knew the point of taking that drug was not necessarily good medicine [I do not now take Lipitor!] it was pushed at me. This is only one example of many hundreds -- like that unquestioning woman who has somehow thought she needed something to help with hot flashes for 16 years -- something, by the way, that has been shown to contribute to breast cancer in many women.

How can we be smart enough and informed enough to understand what we might be putting into and doing to our bodies? Most of us would rather live our every day life than even think about the question, let alone do the research to learn even a little bit about it. We want to trust the experts. But many of the experts mainly want to sell a product and the doctors want not to be sued for malpractice because they didn't prescribe something that "might" be helpful. This is an ongoing rant of mine. I try not to give in to my cynicism and anger -- but then I read an article that doesn't even bother to point out that 16 years is a ridiculous amount of time to take a drug for a symptom that few experience for more than a year or two.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mature Brain

[Image of human brain while doing yoga] ... A brief but satisfying conversation last evening with a psychiatrist at a social gathering where the topic was writing and performing. I mentioned that since being retired I've found writing in new forms {especially short story] flowing on demand -- maybe not wonderful poems, short stories or the NaNoWriMo novel but easily written. The images and voices come and the word follow effortlessly. I trust the subconscious to continue yesterday's story when I have left it although I do not know where it might go and only sometimes know how it will end.

Said he, "It's neurological. The mature brain has acquired that ability, it's a fact." There were many other people around, interruptions, I wanted to ask for sources, for references to research. He seemed so certain and factual, I believed him. I've followed a lot of the brain research with Tibetan monk meditaters and of people doing yoga -- MRIs very definitely show changes in parts of the brain used. I find all this very exciting. It is also part of the reason I feel older people who have written little but now want to should not only be encouraged to "just do it" but should also be offered pointers and structures toward good writing that goes deeper than the surface, tells more truth than the sentimentalities and nostalgia I see too much encouraged. The capability is there, let us not be afraid of the truths we have learned through all our living.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Smara, a dreadful journey

I am a slow reader. Some books I read very slowly because they are difficult and I need to taste them in small spoonfuls. Some books are too painful to read all at once because they engage my imagination in a world I would only wish to enter vicariously, often one that is totally foreign to my experience and I would not wish to actually live it.

Smara, Journey to a Forbidden City by Michel Viewchange is the latter. With the romantic sense of adventure of a very young man, French, he decided to be the first European to go to Smara, a ruined city deep in the Sahara which in 1930 was peopled by warring tribes of Berbers. He enlisted a guide who enlisted three others. Michel traveled partly in the disguise of a woman, sometimes in male clothing. He could not speak the languages although he picked up some, apparently enough to curse at his guides when ill treated by them. It was a torturous journey, physically debilitating. He kept a diary and took photographs, the book is his diary, reading it is very painful and strangely not monotonous although it is repetitious, sores on his feet, marches over various dessert terrains, long periods of waiting in a village, in a lice infested room, terrible food, bad water when it was available, etc. He reached Smara, was there only three hours and hurried away by his guides who were terrified of being found by local tribals.

Throughout the most vivid picture is of the men he must trust although they are not trustworthy. The men of the region are illiterate, they are constantly aware that all others are dangerous. They live the lives of wild animals, constantly thinking only of safety and food, sometimes scheming against one another. They are capable of amazing physical feats, marching across the dessert for 80, 90 miles a day, wearing out their camels and themselves. Always on guard, always fearful. A terrifying way to live, perhaps the way human beings have lived in some parts of the world for thousand upon thousands of years.

Michel Viewchange reached his goal and was exalted by that accomplishment. He was so physically devastated, however, that he died of dysentery a couple of weeks after he returned to a French held town where he met his brother a doctor, who had helped him plan the trip. Knowing this at the outset made reading of his physical endurance bittersweet. The book is a classic of travel literature that I had read references to. I found it in a second hand store. One of the readings in the I Ching says we are the sum of all we put into our bodies and minds, which of course is true. I try to live vicarious journeys like this, which my imagination lived vividly, to understand the varieties of human experience. I'm happy i finally found this book.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The First Emperor, opera

Tan Dun's The First Emperor is that rarity, a new opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. I had not seen it but in the class today they showed a DVD of the live performance shortly after it opened. I expected to dislike it and possibly leave at the midpoint break. But I stayed, held by curiosity not delight. I was often fascinated by the musical instruments and their players [the drummers who held stones in their hands, for instance]. Very much so by the occasional visions of the composer conducting -- so alive, so totally a part of the music. When the Met wishes to present grand opera no one can do it grander -- the set, the lighting, the costumes, the choreography, the stage direction were all spectacular and beautiful.

The story was simpler than it needed to be, the various plot moments sometimes seemed like plot months. Although sung in English subtitles were a great help, although the poetic was sometimes pathetic. Although there was a final great peaon to "China" the anthem that was a propelling motive was that of the hapless and almost hopeless laborers, the untold thousands who built the great wall under the whip. The first emperor was a despot upon whom Mao could have modeled himself [possibly did]. A book burning tyrant who, unlike Mao [and the current crew] actually allowed someone to call him "tyrant" to his face, and listened, but did not learn from, criticism. [I take this as purest fiction.] One cannot see this opera without political thoughts, of course. It could have been shorter and more powerful. I'm glad I saw it. It's rather like reading a book that is hard to get through, but that finally gives one food for thought. I've gone to Wikipedia for reviews and will go back and read more. This is probably the one mentally challenging bit from my foray into "adult education" this fall.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Owls and Other Fantasies, Mary Oliver

"Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." This quote is the end of a poem, "Yes! No!" from the very lovely little book of Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver Such serendipitous things happen, I think, partly because I try to follow her advice and pay attention. Some of that paying attention is acting on impulse, which is a matter of paying attention to some not-quite-verbal inner impulse.

In her well known poem, "The Summer Day" she told us she knew how to pay attention and proved it in a few lines describing a grasshopper. Here she offers another thought to ponder: I believe "imagination is better than a sharp instrument" but, at the same time, I believe we must use our logic as a sharp instrument to cut through some of the inanities that imagination run rampant comes up with. Imagination is an instrument of all our needs and neuroses as well as a conglomerater of all that we have paid attention to. The latter function is a tool of wonderful poets like Oliver and of all find writers, especially novels. But we need that sharp instrument when we consider the products of our imagination.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tapping Talent

I wrote with discouragement a couple of times about the writing class I'm taking at the adult ed division of local community college. All is not despair. Throughout the course, but especially today, I have watched one man find his voice. At introductions he said he had only written dry science-work related stuff but he wanted "to tell stories, true stories." He wrote well about his love of a sailboat, he wrote touchingly of helping his wive deal with neuropathy, he wrote movingly of his work as a hospice volunteer. He is open and honest and straight forward.

Today he wrote of an encounter with a coyote and his search in his neighborhood for the horned owl he heard on summer nights. He even described stalking through the densely settled neighborhood on an August midnight in his underwear, dodging behind bushes when police showed up. He did not see the owl but he learned lessons about himself and about wildlife which he told using poetry as his reference. His work was very beautifully done.

It is a thrill to watch a sensitive person opening his personality, at 67 years old, and finding expression not only of an incident that could happen to anyone such as seeing a coyote cross in your car headlights, but in an active pursuit of an experience, searching for the owl and finding himself something of an outlaw in the staid neighborhood where he lives. He has found this voice simply by coming to a welcoming class. He has had no instruction, no editorial input. He wanted to write and his personality is such that he wants to write truthfully, not hiding behind any reticence or ego need to be a certain kind of person. He is truly a writer. I'm thrilled for him.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A white haired old lady

At 15 a beautician cutting my hair said, "You have some gray hairs." For many years I did my part to support the bottom line of Clairol and L'Oreal. At 40 my hair was very salt and pepper-y. It's been truly white for a good while. I like it that way!

In the past week two clerks in two stores where I would never think of asking offered me a "senior discount." I don't know if such discounts are particularly prevalent in this part of the country, if it's a result of the recession to encourage return visits or if it's becoming the rule in general. I like it!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Getting aculturated

[Dawn over the parking lot]

Shopping in a real department store this morning I realized I have to think about how I want, and need, to dress for the coming winter season. My life is different and as I look around I see people are also dressing differently. I have a collection of cashmere sweaters [mostly versions of NYC black/gray] and I normally have worn with black/gray pants. Fine. But now I'm home most days, and when I go out even that casual sweater and pants combo is dressier than the people around me who are in fleeces and fisherman sweaters, jeans and sneakers.

Then there's the simple practical matter of how to be comfortable. In my nearly 100 year old Manhattan apartment building the steam heat was controlled by management. It came on Oct. 15th and was shut off May 1. The radiators had been painted so many times the handles to adjust the amount of steam were long ago painted solidly open. Anyway, I always used the radiator cover as an extra shelf from which I did not want to move things. Therefore the apartment in winter was often nearly 80 degrees. When too warm I opened a window the amount needed to adjust the temperature of the room.

Not so in this more modern apartment. I can adjust the thermometer but it seems profligate and actually ridiculous to set it over 68 or 70 and I know most people keep their homes at about 65. Here people wear sweaters and fleeces and sweatshirts at home all winter. This makes sense to me although I feel a little cool doing so. I can adjust and I WANT to adjust. I think it's better for me and for the environment. That is what I was thinking as I shopped. Adjustments. A different way to live even when alone at home, all because I moved 250 miles north to a different milieu.

Winter is coming. I KNOW winter from years of living upstate in New York. Winter in this kind of place can be very different from winter in NYC. This morning I saw someone in the parking lot scraping ice off the car's windshield. When I went out almost two hours later the sun had melted the frosting on my windshield but this was a harbinger. I will adjust ... probably while wearing a layer of fleece.

The Sound of Fear

In an forum I read, the line, "What is the sound of fear" was given as a prompt for a poem. It seemed almost as enigmatic as the well known zen koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I thought of fear for several days. Here is my answer.

What is the sound of fear?
A shriek? And eek?
Whimpers? Moans?
Mute silence?

Once fear abounded
in dark forests,
outside the walls,
beyond the boundary.

Fear once frightened us,
paralyzed and choked us.
Now it is tame or neurotic
or entertainingly titillating.

Here we buy tickets
to be frightened on the rollercoaster,
to scream at movie monsters and disasters,
or to bungee jump to conquer terror.

Safe and arrogant old men
send boys to far away wars
where fear is not a game
but part of their day's work.

Soldiers hear the sound of fear
when their comrades vomit
their own teeth chatter
they hear the rattling breath of death.