Sunday, August 29, 2010


I am in love with this book. I just started it yesterday, but it’s making me dance inside.

Anne Fadiman culls the column she edited at American Scholar for this collection of seventeen writers revisiting books they loved earlier in life. I'm a fan of hers - I've read her other two books of essays: At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, and Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, as well as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a non-fiction account of a Hmong girl with profound seizure disorder and the differing ways in which the Hmong and Western doctors deal with illness. That one will break your heart. More than once. So she's a great writer. She's so great a writer.

Her own introductory essay is wonderful. At times, when I’m very into an essay (doesn’t happen as much with fiction, but it does occasionally), I’ll actually take off into other places – not from boredom, but because something in the essay has sparked something in my own imagination. This was such an essay – her introduction is framed by her re-reading C.S. Lewis’ “A Horse and His Boy” from the Narnia chronicles to her eight-year old son. She’s shocked by it’s casual racism and sexism, something she hadn’t seen before, but by the end is rapt in a good story that still can touch her even though she knows that parts of it are now to her offensive. And she sees it again through the eyes of her son, who just wants a good yarn.

In the meantime she meditates a bit on readers, as does at least the first essayist (I'm only half-way through the second essay). Reading is a solitary activity, and one in which the reader has to on some level prefer the company of imaginary people to real ones. The joy she describes in a good book, though, is one I’ve palpably felt; I’m also a re-reader. She argues that as kids we become what we’re reading, that we are easier able to mold ourselves than when we’re more solid adults – as we age a lot of us move to non-fiction, as it doesn’t ask of us to pour ourselves into another’s mold as fiction might.

It’s an interesting idea. I was thinking of it in relation to War and Peace, which I’m still reading (until January). I was trying to pinpoint that emotion I felt while reading it, which is different than a non-fiction book. I feel in a novel that I walk through, and into, a world . I look through the eyes of the character and see what they are seeing – perhaps that’s why I am more emotionally drawn to books than movies somewhat. In a memoir I can feel something deeply, but it’s usually empathy. In a novel, many times I’m feeling through a character – it’s a curious other empathy. In War & Peace, I can see Andrei Bolkonsky from outside as perhaps a cold, judgmental, distanced man; at the same time I am feeling from the inside his hurt, injury, and worldview. His actions make sense and I can see through his eyes. And it’s not empathy, it feels like an actual feeling. I’m stepping into the driver’s seat, even though I know it’s all a simulation. I do love that about books.

This book made me remember mye own obsessive reading as a kid. David Samuels, in his essay on Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” (coincidentally the only Salinger book I’ve read - I always feel dorky for never having read Catcher in the Rye. I've tried a few times. Oh well. I don't even remember this book too well - time for a re-read.) talks about kid readers as being the unhappy ones, or from a difficult family situation. I don’t think that’s true for everyone, but I can relate. There’s something about being a reader. I’ve talked to people who don’t read for pleasure, and it’s clear for most it begins early. I’m sure for Samuels it was an escape from an unhappy situation, but it can just as easily be an escape from what feels like endless boredom as a child as well, from the routine of daily life, into a world of adventure.

I remember reading “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” over and over in the 4th grade, rotating with “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”, which I read on the bus to school, reading about Claudia and Jamie’s bus ride to school during which they hatched a plan to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the also far away Greenwich, Jamie counting his change. GreenWitch, I thought it was. I remember reading “A Horse and His Boy” along with all the Narnia books the year my parents were getting divorced. Prince Caspian I took out on the back patio in Omaha, laying on a plastic covered metal lounge chair – the kind that made the ratchet sound when you adjusted them - in the shade while my mother sunbathed in a brown bikini covered in Bain de Soleil. I remember her being so sad, and that book being the most boring in the series. Maybe it was just hard to concentrate. In my twenties and early 30’s I read “Howards End” every summer for 7 years. Howards End I remember, but all I can remember of Mrs. Frisby was that the lab looked like my 4th grade classroom, and the grass like the grasses in the fields at the end of our block. I wonder how it would read now? A lot of times when I'm finished with a book I don't remember much plot, but I don't forget the feelings. I’m excited about what these authors remember and remember to love about something that was once important enough to in some cases form a world view around.

This also makes me think about reading itself –the romance of it. I don’t know why it sticks in my mind, but a friend of mine told me once how her high school speech teacher described the best thing about her relationship with her husband being that they would sit and read together. And one day when I was living in New York, I was walking down Lafayette right below Houston and saw two men reading the morning paper at a cafĂ©, one of them absent-mindedly stroking the other’s forearm. The intimacy and affection struck me deeply and is still burned in my mind, but also that they were reading. Reading is intimate and old to me – to be tethered to someone while off exploring other worlds, surfacing to share what treasure you may have found, is a beautiful thing.

While I was reading the introduction yesterday at breakfast, I looked up and saw a woman sitting opposite her husband start to laugh and laugh while thumping the spine of the open Terry Pratchett book she had been reading in preparation of sharing with him what she had found so entertaining. His t-shirt said “Life is Short” on the back. It’s true, and that’s why we have books.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Colorful Pasts

A friend on facebook posted this video today, and I was mesmerized. They’re 1922 color tests for film by Kodak. This is 13 years before the first Technicolor process. I’ve written before about Andreyev’s photos from turn of the century Russia before (see the main blog photo – that was in color about 1913).

It’s an interesting time period, but more so I’m fascinated by how close it makes the past. We see ourselves so much through film, more than any other art I think – at least it’s become our main historical record for how people actually looked and behaved, even if it’s fictional. So seeing these women mug for the camera, or just talk in between, is hypnotizing. They seem just like us, not women from nearly 100 years ago. The color palette makes perfect sense – it reminds me of the color glazes you see on pottery of the period, or in a Mucha painting.

At the core, though, is just the immediacy of them seeming like you’d see on the street. We’re humans – we haven’t changed that much. Like that Joni Mitchell line – “Everything comes and goes/marked by lovers and styles of clothes”. Who knows if these women would be movie stars today, but they’re fascinating, with their translucent skin made up, and their hair coiffed perfectly. They seem innocent, too – it’s tempting to think that this is 20 years before the Holocaust so they would not have experienced that particular horror, though it was waiting for them—but they would have just come out of World War I and the horrors and loss of that one, though unaware of the grinding Depression a few years away. They’re so sweet, though. The woman and boy hug in a way that looks very familiar, and somehow the color makes it feel like it is happening today.

I don’t know why I’m so touched by these things – I just am. It’s beautiful to see that we don’t really change, and history is happening now. Through these images, I can pull it a little closer.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Staying Entertained

It’s been way too long. My list below is not inspiring me. And heck, I haven’t even watched “Beaches of Agnes” yet, or the rest of Season 1 of True Blood. Or anything on my DVR but Project Runway. Can we just admit I’m not a TV person?

Saw “Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Taper. Really bloody. Good performances, but the play struck me as just a further strike at “Playboy of the Western World” for some reason. And a little obvious, I guess. Aside from the grossout, the most I got was that violence is senseless and eats itself, consuming all. Yes, they killed people ON STAGE, which is a trick, but aside from the horror, I didn’t get much from it, except sad. Maybe that’s the point, but from the laughs I don’t think so. I couldn’t get in the frame to take it lightly.

That’s been it for theater, except for the light “LA Tool and Die Live” at the Celebration. Full disclosure: Sean Abley, who wrote and directed it, is a friend of mine. So I really couldn’t help but love it. It’s smart, silly, fast and fun. And I hope it does very well for him.

I did see “Eat Pray Love” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” this weekend. I liked EPL for what it was – it reads less like the complete Cinderella story it comes off as. I wonder if some of the flack Gilbert gets and the movie is getting is that it seems selfish for a woman to just take off and say she wants to do things for herself. A roaming man is Jack Kerouac, but a roaming woman is selfish. Dunno. Part of it probably is that self-discovery can be masterful and identifiable in a book, yet look self-obsessed when boiled down to actions.  For instance, a favorite moment in the book is when she reaches the "blue pearl" meditation state of all feeling one only when she is given a job to be her true, chatty self. It's the summation of the India section in some ways, and it's her sitting in the back of a room in the movie.  And bummed they didn't keep the thing about the Richard Jenkins character having open heart surgery because he kept praying for his heart to open. But it was a good travelogue. I like the cast, and enjoyed it.

Scott Pilgrim made me laugh, and it’s a great gimmick making it a cross between a graphic novel and a video game, with the attendant graphics, sounds, and time changes. The film got a little long for me, and dragged a bit when the gimmick wore off, but I did like it. Kieran Culkin is great as the gay best friend who is the most self-assured guy in any room. Any film that ends with Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman dueling to the death is quite the nerdgasm.

I went to visit friends in Idyllwild up in the San Jacinto mountains as well. Very beautiful, small town. I enjoyed it, and sneezed a lot. I’ve been reading Noah Levine’s “Dharma Punx” a memoir about his recovery from drugs and path to Buddhism (it’s a fascinating coupling with “An Unquiet Mind” that I’m reading at the same time). It’s an interesting story, but as I was sitting out reading it on the patio on Sunday morning, I just thought to put the book down and actually meditate outdoors. Of course, a fly buzzed in my ear the moment I started. But it was so beautiful, and there were those loud sounds of nature – if you ever just want to sit and do a mindfulness meditation, outdoors is the best place to be aware of all that’s happening around you – distant chainsaw, then stopping; a barking dog; birdsong; an insect that sounds as if an electric wire is being snapped. And right as my timer was going off for 20 minutes, Lion, the dog who had been sitting around with me, came up and nudged me in the elbow. It was perfect.

This morning I had two MRI’s and that was an exercise in mindfulness – not to feel claustrophobic, and to not move. I asked between them if the radiation was a problem, and the technician told me it was all magnets, and that there is zero harm. “Well, I can’t say zero harm, “ he said, “but no harm. In training we had to practice on each other so I had one a week. It’s magnets. It’s good for you. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but they’ve been doing it forty years and no problems yet.”

I don’t know if you’ve had one, but it’s a very loud swinging magnet. There were about six sequences each 3-5 minutes long. There would be the initial buzz beep, then some taps, then the long sequence. It sounds like some Phillip Glass punk band – loud loud sound like some hitting an electric base string amped up, then some taps like testing a microphone, and then setting into a long rhythmic assault. The bass line changes, and that was entertaining. There was the machine gun with the occasional high pitch whoosh. There was a fast four count of two tones, one that sounded to me like “emer emer, emer, emer” and a slightly higher pitched “I, I, I, I” so when sounding together it was like “emer, emer, I, I” – MRI. Then there was the one that started sounding like an enormous male voicing “bah bah bah bah bah” over and over into a very loud microphone. Over that one there was a little bell rhythm that would sound above on about the 3 count and then the 2 (I couldn’t quite count since it was pretty fast, but blessedly regular) like bedebedebeep pause, pause, bedebeep”. Jazzy. Once it became clear that it was too loud to even think about meditation, I just went into the sound. And each time it stopped there was a tick, tock, like a clock but twice as fast. I can see why those electric base lines can be so satisfying. And the overtones were nifty to pick out.

It’s best to be entertained when you can be.