Sunday, July 31, 2011

Louise Erdrich

In the last couple of months I have come upon a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. I began reading her work early in her career with, I think, The Beet Queen. I have just finished The Bingo Palace and will read a few other things before I pick up The Antelope's Wifee. Erdrich is a Native American writer. She writea about people associated with a Chippewa reservation [which I take to be based on a real one but hers is fictional] in North Dakota or Minnesota. Some of her stories are mostly straightforward narratives but some include a little or a lot of magic realism which is used to emphasize myth and native ways of thinking. I enjoy magic realism in the work of Central and South American writers and I like her way of handling it also.

Erdrich has created a cast of characters, some of whom reappear in various stories. I think of her as using them as Faulkner used his Yoknapatawpha County. They have wonderful names and they have complex family relationships. The Bingo Palace has two men, uncle and nephew, who are in love with the same woman. This story uses more magic realism than any other I've read yet. It is not a recent book, I cannot say she is tending in that direction because I think I've read later ones that are almost entirely without magic.

Mostly I prefer to ignore books by American writers because they write about a culture I know from the inside out. But Erdrich's stories take me to a world I do not know and always fascinate me. I feel she is writing truly about her culture, and I feel the same about Sherman Alexie, another writer I enjoy. A few minutes ago I was very delighted when I looked up some of the items on Google about Erdrich and discovered that we share a birthday, although she's about 15 years younger than I am.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding Things

Approaching the "dog days of summer" it's a quiet time, in a nice kind of way. I go out for my morning walks on the beach and then I have the day to divide between writing, quilting, reading and maybe an errand or two or maybe back to the beach in the afternoon for an hour. Lovely!

Today was a day of finding things. Last year I found a lot of horseshoe crabs, dead, on the beach, none this year until two days ago when a live one, big, old, bronzed was at the edge of the tide fighting to stay in the water. I could not see a way to help him so I had to let nature take its course. I think he survived as I didn't see him on the shore the next day. Today I realize the time of horseshoe crabs is at hand. I found three smallish ones washed up, dead. Last year some days I found a dozen or 15 on a single walk, I hope not this year. I hope they're surviving better.

Anyway I love finding them, even dead, because they are really fossils and I find them fascinating. Today was a day for finding things. Just a few feet beyond the parking lot was a quite nice patio table, white steel and plastic [imitation glass] top with a strip of masking tape saying FREE. I've been contemplating a white Adirondack chair for my little patio and was told where I could get one that actually folds for winter storage. With this table I'd have a comfy arrangement so I brought the table home.

Then, as I was about to complete my walk by the tide line I found, floating right on the water, a five dollar bill, sodden from quite a while in the ocean. So it seems the ocean is paying me for my exercise beside it. A good start to the morning and it's been a quiet, good day, although the sun disappeared about 9:30 and hasn't been seen since. It'll be back in full force probably tomorrow and I'll have a nicely cool night's sleep.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

An explanation

Since reading Cutting for Stone, as I said in the post below, I've not really understood the reference. Rachel who read the book too was also mystified and she was ambitious enough to do some research which I quote:

Human beings have known of bladder stones ("vesical calculi") for thousands of years, and have attempted to treat them for almost as long. The oldest bladder stone that has been found was discovered in Egypt around 1900, and it has been dated to 4900 BC. The earliest written records describing bladder stones date to before the time of Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BC). However, lithotomy was a fairly common procedure in the past, and there were specialized lithotomists. The ancient Greek Hippocratic Oath includes the phrase: "I will not cut for stone, even for the patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners," a clear warning for physicians against the "cutting" of persons "laboring under the stone"; an act that was better left to surgeons (who were distinct from physicians at that time in history). Operations to remove bladder stones via the perineum, like other surgery before the invention of anesthesia, were intensely painful for the patient.[1]

In short, it is surgeons who do the really hard work of "cutting for stone." Since the pivotal characters in the novel are all surgeons of one type or another and many difficult [and blood] surgeries are described in the book, and the surgeons happen to be very skilled, they are the ones who must "cut for stone." A pun is involved as well, as Stone is the last name of the protagonist and his twin brother and, of course, their father.

I am appropriately humbled because I was too lazy to do the research myself -- in our Google-era such research is so easy not to do it is indeed lazy. In an earlier time ignorance about these "minor" but curious things might be excusable but it no longer is. i think I've just learned a les

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Veghese

"I Like Big and Long," is the teasing title of an essay I wrote a month ago about my preference for expansive novels with big themes. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Veghese,M.D.'s first novel fits that description very well and I enjoyed the long read very much especially because I like novels set in exotic countries I've never visited, in thie case mostly Ethiopia. I also enjoy "true" medical desxsriptions, in this case mostly sugery. I have read some of Dr. Verghese's essays in the NY Times Science Section and always found hin a very patient-centric doctor. This, his first novel, is a medical centric story, there are four M.D.s who are all as brilliant and dedicated and caring as we all wish our doctors were [and usually aren't]. I was a little bothered because they were so heroic and yet it's like reading about knights on a crusade, they need to be truly good.

The story gives us lots of drama, the frision of identical twins who have very different personalities, and a goodly dollop of the politics of Ethiopia. Those are all enough for me as nothing is gauche or sentimental. Yes, all the dangling ends get tied up neatly at the end but that is a writer's impulse I understand very well. it's summer and this is not a sterotypical "Summer" or "beach" novel -- it's much better than that. Verghese is a multi-talented man, a distinguished career in medicine has somehow given him enough time to write essays, a couple of nonfiction books and this quite long novel. I hope he'll write more. I hope the titles make more sense -- I can't seem to wrap my head around the title. A minor problems.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Philosopher and the Psychopath

"One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests." The statement by John Stuart Mill was on the Facebook page of the man believed to have [alone] caused the deadly explosions in Oslo yesterday. He is the same man who went to a children's camp and shot eeveral children a few days ago. Clearly he is a madman, assuming the police are correct about his identity as responsible for both horrors. At the last report 90 people were killed in the explosions.

We are quick to blame cabals of terrorists for such attacks yet Mill's statement about the effect of one man with an overwhelming belief is obviously true. It was not quite one man -- rather it was two -- who committed the Oklahoma City attack, our home grown terrorists. They had a belief. I wonder what twisted belief would make a man shoot innocent children and then plant bombs in a busy building in a peaceful city? Perhaps I don't even want to know what the belief was.

To switch the idea around, from one person believing that violence is the way to express his belief, to one person doing good with an overwhelming belief, we have to think of Ghandi,

Mill contrasted belief with mere interests. Most of us have many interests; perhaps it is a good thing not very many of us have truly strong beliefs since violence seems so much easier than nonviolene.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lucein Freud

It is sad to read that Lucien Freud has died. I saw a couple of exhibits of his work and was astonished at his portraits. I believe I saw the painting above, "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" or I've seen photos of it -- it was sold a few yeas ago for $17 million, the most ever paid for the work of a living painter. I vividly remember his painting of Leigh [Brouly - perhaps misspelled]. Freud loved painting very large people on his ratty old sofa. These were fascinating paintings but I especially was moved by a portrait he did of his mother [properly clothed], a very real and lovingly painted picture. At a small show of drawngs at MoMA maybe three years ago there was a wonderful etching of one of his whippets done just as lovingly.

I don't need to write biographical material, it will be in the major papers tomorrow. I'm always very glad I lived in a place where I could see wonderful art. One of my youthful ambitions had been to live in such a place, although at that early age I had not understood that it had to be New York City.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Maine, Briefly

One has to realize that this picture of my daughter was being taken by me, therefore, I, too, had climbed half a mile up. If I had known what kinds of rocks I'd have to scale and scramble over and go down on the seat of my pants, I probably would not have undertaken the hike to the top of Acadia mountain. But we did it. And walked the little ridge to the next mountain where we met a couple perhaps ten years younger than I but each probably 100 pounds heavier. That was humbling even if they had come the easy way. As the woman said, "It was not trivial." I'm saying all this both to brag and to say to younger readers, yes, you can too. Not so long ago a woman with an artificial hip simply couldn't do it. My muscles were and still are stiff but I have no pains. I feel like preaching about using or losing it. I say to all USE IT!

This is the kind of spectacular view one expects along the coast. That's a four masted schooner off Bar Harbor. The coast is just as dramatic and spectacular as I expected. The summer weekend couldn't have been lovelier, including a full moon outside our harbor view motel room's patio that reflected on the water and docked boats. I had borrowed Poetry Speaks from the library so we listened to poets reading their works as we drove and were delighted to find a very elegant garden in Camden a statue of Edna St. Vincent Millay who grew up there. She is a giant beside me but I tried to emulate her with a physical pose. I can't really say with her that "I burn my candle at both ends" but it's given me "a lovely light" and continues to do so.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Nukus, who knew?

In the desert of Karakulpakstan, [part of Uzbekistan] is a town called Nukus. In that town is an art museus with 44,000 paintings by Russian artists of the first half of the 20th century. They are in need of framing and restoration, but most of being recognized as the treasure they are. A documentary has been made about the museum and how an artist named Savitsky [unable to paint freely during the Stalin years] saved the works of colleagues who also painted against the Socialist realist mode of the time, many of whom were sent to the gulags for years, their paintings hidden in attics. In one case the paintings were systematically cut from their frames so the frames could be fire wood.
A documentary, Desert of Forbidden Art, has been made and shown fairly widely. It can be borrowed from Netflix and I'd urge anyone who is curious to see it. It's worth seeing some of the fascinating, brilliant art. I particularly remember one painting with a brilliant lavender road that preceded David Hockney's recent works with just that kind of color in landscape.

The world is full of the unexpected, the wonderful, the beautiful, I never get tired of discovering them through books and film.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Thining About Hair, Agism

In the news this morning is the death of Betty Ford at 93. I don't have many comments about her except that after being First Lady she seemed to flower, dealt with her problems and helped others as she had not before. Many women, especially in earlier generations, did not feel free to be their best selves until late in life when they feel they've "earned" selfhood through living the expected life.

But that's not what came to mind when I saw her picture. I have no beef with using pictures taken when the deceased was much younger, pictures that are recognizable from her period of public life. But what I thought was immediately that her carefully coiffed brown hair would have been equally or more attractive if it had been gray or white.
I think of the beautiful Carmen Del'Orifice, the fashion model who has grandly worn her white hair for twenty or thirty years now. I think of finding myself often now in a room with many white or gray haired women, at the adult ed classes, at the matinees at the local art cinema. Many look wonderful.

In The NY Times this morning was a brief note about an agism suit in the courts in Texas where a woman was told by the financial institution where she was customer service person that she should dye her hair, wear younger clothes and more jewelry, that people did not want to do business with her. A blatant matter of agism. Can there be any truth in an assertion that people would rather have financial advice from a stereotypical Jackie Collins type than a mature looking woman who might actually know something about handling money instead of conspicuously spending it? If that is not just a manager's prejudice speaking, and there's truth in the assertion, it's no wonder America is in the midst of a major financial crisis.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Years of Writing

"Challah and Raspberries" is a one-act play I wrote at least 25 years ago. It was produced a few times in a few different cities. Rachel recently suggested a friend consider it for an evening she is planning to produce. I needed to find a copy. Oh dear! I spent a whole morning looking carefully in a big box and an old trunk. I finally found a carbon copy -- yes, from THAT long ago. When I left NYC two years ago I had a general clean-out/throw-out fit. I was positive I had saved a couple of clean typescripts of that play. I guess not.

What I do have is a LOT of paper and a LOT of diaries. And a number of publications with my work in them. The earliest diaries, from age 12 to about 21 are at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. I've written about that and that they have helped a couple of researchers understand growing up rural in the '40s and '50s. As I looked I found copies of things I don't remember writing and really don't want to reread -- ever. I don't want to revisit that awkward young writer who was in some ways an awkward young woman in general. A part of me says, "just chuck it." But I won't. I should get a couple of file cabinets and put stuff in order so I don't have to spend hours looking for other things. Maybe...

Some people write with a compulsion to tell stories and to publish them. I don't think I had that compulsion because there's a quality of ambition I didn't have. I've published stuff since high school but always lived the life I was expected to live, with husband, family and community involvement. That gave me satisfaction. Then I discovered theater and that was a nice period although the truth is I do not have a talent for drama. I see life as quieter, more contemplative and that's mostly what I've written about.

Now I am working on a much researched biography; it's going slowly. And some short stories, poem and some memoir type pieces, segments that may be woven together some day. The people who come to my "Writing With the Whole Brain" class at the Academy for Advanced Learning mostly want to write memoir pieces too. I find they have wonderful stories to tell, they are very intelligent and good with words but most have had no background in the craft of writng. Writing isn't just talking with your fingers on a keyboard. Writing is a craft -- a playwright has to learn craft -- thus "wright," not "playwrite." My respect for craft increased greatly because of that.

I try to give these students craft pointers: attention getting first sentences, use of active verbs, vivid and imaginative similes and metaphors, dialogue, telling details in description, how to let their memories capture the ambiance as well as the drier facts. Most of these things I didn't understand when writing all those pages and diaries in my trunk. That's why I don't want to read them. I'll groan and be embarrassed and definitely get rid of them. But they are also who I was so a part of me doesn't want to take them to the recycling place.

I think of the old saw: if I knew then what I know now.. But "then" was a time when young women were not encouraged to do such things. I was reticent about my writing and so no one felt a need to encourage me and so on ... I think of the "might have beens" but have learned enough to know that is a useless exercise. What is now is what is. What I have now is more than I've ever had and that is good.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fireworks last night and not for another year

i don't particularly like the Fourth of July. I understand the political importance of being an independent country but I do not like celebrating that any one group of people is different [since most people think THEIR difference makes them somehow better] from the rest of the world. So I don't wave flags and I'm a grump about all kinds of patriotism.

But I love fireworks. I'm glad we have a holiday that we close with fireworks displays. I can see most of the town's fireworks, which are about a mile away over the harbor, over the tops of trees beyond my lawn. So I stood on the lawn barefoot, fending off mosquitoes and watching the bursts in the air of artfully constructed fireworks that sparkled in a great variety of ways and colors. They were glorious displays. I think fireworks remind us of archetypal satisfactions of sitting around fires way back when mankind first learned to make fire. Fire is fascinating in all its form [and terrifying in some of them]. Fireworks are our joyous use of fire, making it dance to our tune. Around the world people celebrate special events with fireworks with the same pleasure.

As I write about cairns and fireworks, I aware that my habit of thinking of the big picures the long time span seems like something that goes with aging. Only to a degre for me, I have always wanted to look at a large pictures, know the underlying meanings. Maybe most people feel this way but most don't voice it, that is a writer's job and possibly what made me write at all. I'll come back to that subject in the next post, I think.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Druids are Here Again

Each summer some one -- or group, because I imagine it's young people partying -- builds a cairn at the far end of Long Beach, a nature reserve area where I walk often. It grew in the last two or three days from the small pile of rocks the winter storms had left to this balanced arrangement which I predict will not remain as is very long although each summer the cairn has grown fairly large.

I call them Yankee Druids. Although I doubt they think of their building activities as archetypal, they certainly seem so to me. It was not only the North European Druids [or others?] who build stone artifacts. I have seen cairns on passes in the Himalayas and on the steepes of Mongolia [where stones are not plentiful and may have to be brought from a distance]. I don't know if cairns were built by New World people, like the Incans. Certainly there are the amazing desert rock figures in Peru.

Besides the cairn usually I find smaller constructions like the circle below with a big white stone in the middle and a few chair-like [or Stonehenge-like] arrangements. I shall continue taking my camera on my walks because I found last year that the structures change, probably at the hands of various groups who may or may not know each other and may or may not have a competition going.

The new header is not where I live but is fairly typical of the large oceanside homes where people have landscape companies keep the grounds looking wonderful. It's hydrangea season-- also rose season.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Modern Day Miracle

This season's final simulcast from the National Theatre of London yesterday was Chekov's The Cherry Orchard. Rachel and I joined a nearly packed theatre. There was a drab [on purpose] black and whiteness about the production with it's huge cast of characters [difficult to keep in mind who was who much of the time]. The translation seemed very up to date but only jarred when the word "Bozo" was used as an insult. No cast list was provided so only Zoe Wannamaker as the lady of the family is known to me although I very much liked both the entrepreneurial ex-peasant and the not so young student -- others were very good but these three had the big roles and were wonderful.

Later I thought more about the wonder of the experience itself. Perhaps people who have grown up in the computerized world take such things for granted but to me, who remember our family's first party line telephone, sitting in a theatre in Dennis, Massachusetts watching a play that is happening "in real time" as they say, 6,000 miles across an ocean is awesome [and that's not jargon]. I find that a pre-electronic era mind says, it would be less awesome if the theatre were in New York City only 200 miles away. Immediately the educated part of my mind says, don't be daft, distance doesn't matter today. Somehow the signals for the transmission bounce far up in the sky to satellite and bounce back down to be picked up immediately whether in Dennis, MA or in Rio de Janerio or in Sydney, Australia. And it's marvelous! It's amazing. I absolutely cannot understand it except in words, it touches nothing my senses can understand.

Have those who take such things for granted, as very little different than the live TV programs they watched from childhood on, lost something by never understanding that sense of wonder? Just as possibly, back in my childhood I had lost something my parents possibly had at the awe of a wire bringing electricity to their home -- although actually I remember that happening when I was 4 or so. And then is there any advantage to this kind of awe at technological advances. I'm sure smart, thoughtful people have written about such things and possibly about how the loss of amazement has affected us as both individuals and cultures. That's why I never stop reading, I'm always looking for insights I haven't found about the world around.