Sunday, July 31, 2011

Miniaturists and the Mystery of Books

My Name Is Red
My Name Is Red 


"Books, which we mistake for consolation, only add depth to our sorrow. " 
— Orhan Pamuk (My Name Is Red)


My reading enjoyment was increased when I discovered Orhan Pamuk through this novel that is filled with jeweled prose and alluring digressions, nesting stories within stories. But if that was all there was to this book my enjoyment would be severely limited. Instead there is more including a story of an oriental mystery: In Istanbul, in the late 1590s, the Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day - in the European manner. But when one of the miniaturists goes missing and is feared murdered, their master seeks outside help. Each chapter of the novel has a different narrator, and usually there are thematic and chronological connections between chapters. In addition, unexpected voices are used, such as the corpse of the murdered, a coin, Satan, two dervishes, and the color red. Each of these "unusual" narrators is contributed by specific characters, which detail the philosophical system of 16th century Istanbul. The novel blends mystery, romance, and philosophical puzzles, illustrating the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III during nine snowy winter days in 1591. There is also embedded within the miniaturists and their stories and digressions the wonder of literature itself, of the nature of books and of their impact on life, culture and history. This makes for a great book that I would recommend to all.


"A letter doesn't communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it. Thereby, intelligent folk will say, 'Go on then, read what the letter tells you!' whereas the dull-witted will say, 'Go on then, read what he's written!" 
— Orhan Pamuk (My Name Is Red)


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Saturday, July 30, 2011

New England Holiday

Red Lights (New York Review Books Classics)
Red Lights  
by Georges Simenon

"He called it 'going into the tunnel', an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife.  He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel;  yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late.  As for determining the precise moment when he entered it, he had often tried to do this afterwards, but never with success." (p 5)


What do you do when you are rushing toward the unknown, possibly a dangerous situation, and you are unable to stop? Georges Simenon takes us through just such an experience in this novel as we join Steve Hogan as he begins an unexceptional Labor Day weekend sharing a drink with his wife before they head north to Maine to retrieve their two children from Summer Camp. What we know is that Steve has premonitions about the trip almost from the beginning. What we don't know is how serious and dangerous a trip it may become. Simenon succeeds in creating a seemingly mundane life for Steve and that makes the suspense which builds throughout the story even more effective. The power of the novel comes from this suspense and from the psychological portrait of solitude and alienation that is slowly created moment by moment as Steve struggles, yet continually slips inexorably toward danger and out of control. Simenon lived in the United States for just a few years and set nine of his American novels on the east coast. This novel, however, reads like the work of a writer who had lived here all his life.


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Rococo Art

Giambattista Tiepolo: His Life and Art                   Giambattista Tiepolo: 
His Life and Art 




Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was the greatest of the Venetian painters of the Rococo period and, indeed, all of the 18th century. His characteristic style displays numerous active figures in vivid pastel colors ranged across vast, airy spaces. Critic Robert Hughes described Tiepolo's work as "full of soaring and twisting space, transparency and delicious shot-silk color -- a place dedicated to the imagination and filled with idealized personages from history, myth and fable." Yet arts historian Paul Holberton observed that Tiepolo "could temper the graceful, operatic posturing typical of the Rococo school with an Olympian grandeur."


Tiepolo began his career as a student of Gregorio Lazzarini, but his elegant and sumptuous style was perhaps most heavily influenced by his study of the work of his predecessor more than 100 years earlier, Paolo Caliari [Veronese].


Tiepolo executed paintings and frescos throughout Venice and the Veneto, with excursions to Bergamo (Colleoni Chapel) and Milan (ceiling, Palazzzo Clerici). Among prominent installations of his work in Venice are the ceiling panels of the Scuola Grande dei Carmine (early 1740s). His earliest surviving frescos were created, 1734, for the then newly-rebuilt villa of Count Loschi at Brion de Monteviale near Vicenza.
Tiepolo is buried in Venice in his parish church of Madonna dell'Orto, where he is represented by the giant canvas The Worship of the Golden Calf and by The Last Judgment. Tiepolo's reputation has seen ups and downs over the last century but the "distanced, self-aware theatrics of his style" are seen as precociously modern -- but with a virtuosity unique to Tiepolo himself.


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A Commonplace Entry 
for Summer



Then Malemute Kid arose, cup in hand, and glanced at the greased-paper window, where the frost stood full three inches thick. "A health to the man on trail this night; may his grub hold out; may his dogs keep their legs; may his matches never miss fire."
—from “To the Man on the Trail,” the first of Jack London’s Klondike stories

This entry seems apropos on days in the Summer for which the temperature for some interminable period has been consistently in the  eighties or higher.  An inch of frost would be sufficient, but since the days of the frost-free freezer have arrived I must wait for late November. - JH

Thursday, July 28, 2011




 A Poem





Love 20 cents the First Quarter Mile

All right. I may have lied to you and about you, and made a 
few pronouncements a bit too sweeping, perhaps, and 
possibly forgotten to tag the bases here or there,
And damned your extravagance, and maligned your tastes, 
and libeled your relatives, and slandered a few of your 
friends, O. K. ,
Nevertheless, come back.

Come home. I will agree to forget the statements that you 
issued so copiously to the neighbors and the press,
And you will forget that figment of your imagination, the 
blonde from Detroit;
I will agree that your lady friend who lives above us is not 
crazy, bats, nutty as they come, but on the contrary rather 
bright,
And you will concede that poor old Steinberg is neither a 
drunk, nor a swindler, but simply a guy, on the eccentric 
side, trying to get along.
(Are you listening, you bitch, and have you got this straight?)

Because I forgive you, yes, for everything. I forgive you for 
being beautiful and generous and wise,
I forgive you, to put it simply, for being alive, and pardon 
you, in short, for being you.

Because tonight you are in my hair and eyes,
And every street light that our taxi passes shows me you 
again, still you,
And because tonight all other nights are black, all other hours 
are cold and far away, and now, this minute, the stars are 
very near and bright.

Come back. We will have a celebration to end all celebrations.
We will invite the undertaker who lives beneath us, and a 
couple of boys from the office, and some other friends.
And Steinberg, who is off the wagon, and that 
insane woman who lives upstairs, and a few reporters, if 
anything should break.




Oak Park, Illinois is famous in literary circles as the birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway.   But three years after Hemingway was born Oak Park saw the birth of the noted poet-novelist, Kenneth Fearing. He is probably best known for his novel The Big Clock and other novels, however he was also a poet of note and considered one of the most important writers to come into their own during the Great Depression of the thirties. After reading his poems it is perhaps not surprising to observe that, among other things, Fearing was an alcoholic and often seen as a mere proletariat poet. But I see more in his work, a great poet who was able to blend anti-romanticism and idealism into memorable messages and music-like moments of poetic experience.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Commonplace Entry


Quotation for Today





"We live only by lack of knowledge. Once we know, we are at odds with everything. As long as we are ignorance, appearances prosper and preserve a flavor of inviolability which permits us to love and to hate them, to come to grips with them. How match ourselves against ghosts? That is what appearances become when. disabused, we can no longer promote them to the rank of essences. Knowledge, or rather the waking state, produces between them and ourselves a hiatus which is not, unfortunately, a conflict; if it were, all would be well; no, this hiatus is the suppression of all conflicts, it is the deadly abolition of the tragic." ("The Dangers of Wisdom" p 155-56)



E. M. Cioran, The Fall into Time 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Border Trilogy, Part 3

Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy, #3)
A Dream of the Old West
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

"The fire burned down and it grew colder and they sat close to the flames and hand fed them with sticks and with old brittle limbs they broke from the windtwisted wrecks of trees along the rimrock.  They told stories of the old west that once was. The older men talked and the younger men listened and light began to show in the gap of the mountain above them and then faintly along the desert floor below." (p 91)

Cormac McCarthy concludes his trilogy about the west with a book that is spare and almost allegorical in its storytelling.  All the Pretty Horses combined intensely lyrical prose with the laconic wit of its cowboy protagonists while its sequel, The Crossing, sent two young brothers on a quest that plunged them into the bloody maelstrom of Mexican politics. With Cities of the Plain the dreams have receded, the young men Billy and John Grady are older and their journeys have goals.   McCarthy concludes the trilogy with a book that is bleaker in the telling even as the romanticism of John Grady Cole sparks some interest for the reader.  The time is 1952, the place a cattle ranch in New Mexico. The West is changing as suggested by a brief interchange between John Grady and Billy early in the novel:

"What are you readin? Destry." (p 59)

Destry Rides Again
by Max Brand is a classic example of the "myth of the old West". This is the life that is fading in the early 1950's and the question is will our heroes adapt or rebel against the inevitability of change.  The change is not without difficulty and there are the ghosts of the past which they face.

"They sat against a rock bluff high in the Franklins with a fire before them that heeled in the wind and their figures cast up upon the rocks behind them enshadowed the petroglyphs carved there by other hunters a thousand years before." (p 87)
 
Chastened but not defeated by their youthful misadventures, John Grady Cole of All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham of The Crossing have become blood brothers of a sort, clinging stubbornly to a vanishing way of life. With the U.S. Army proposing to turn their employer's ranch into a military base, the two fantasize about owning a little spread in the mountains, where they might run a few cattle and hunt their own meat. But then John Grady falls in love with a teenage prostitute in a brothel called "White Lake" across the Rio Grande. 

''There's a son of a bitch owns her outright that I guarangoddamntee you will kill you graveyard dead if you mess with him,'' Billy warns him. ''Son, aint there no girls on this side of the damn river?''

Alas, for John Grady there are none that can compare with Magdalena. He does not worry about Eduardo with whom he must deal if he is to have Magdalena and his stubborn idealism sets in motion a chain of events that cannot be avoided.  Before the ultimate scenes of the novel there is one more telling exchange between Billy and John Grady.
 
"John Grady nodded. What would you do if you coundnt be a cowboy?
I dont know. I reckon I'd think of somethin. You?
I dont know what it would be I'd think of.
Well we may all have to think of somethin." (p 217)

Combine McCarthy's two previous novels with this somber tome and you have a masterpiece of contemporary fiction and a worthy contribution to the literature of the West.  All three are works of a master story-teller, an author who speculates (some might say pontificates) on the nature of stories.   So I will leave you with one moment of speculation about stories among many that I encountered during my journey through the trilogy:


"These dreams reveal the world also, he said.  We wake remembering the events of which they are composed while often the narrative is fugitive and difficult to recall. Yet it is the narrative that is the life of the dream while the events themselves are often interchangeable. The events of the waking world on the other hand are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung. It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence." (p 283)  

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Life in Medicine

Arrowsmith
  Arrowsmith 

"The boy, normal village youngster though he was, given to stoning cats and to playing pom-pom-pullaway, gained something of the intoxication of treasure-hunting as the Doc struggled to convey his vision of the pride of learning, the universality of biology, the triumphant exactness of chemistry. A fat old man and dirty and unvirtuous was the Doc; his grammar was doubtful, his vocabulary alarming, and his references to his rival, good Dr. Needham, were scandalous; yet he invoked in Martin a vision of making chemicals explode with much noise and stink and of seeing animalcules that no boy in Elk Mills had ever beheld." (Chapter 1, p. 5)


Arrowsmith is primarily a novel of social commentary on the state of and prospects for medicine in the United States in the 1920s. The protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, is something of a rebel, and often challenges the existing state of things when he finds it wanting.  
However he engages in much agonizing along the way concerning his career and life decisions. While detailing Martin's pursuit of the noble ideals of medical research for the benefit of mankind and of selfless devotion to the care of patients, Lewis throws many less noble temptations and self-deceptions in Martin's path. In addition he is disappointed that his wife is not better suited to partner with him in his success. The attractions of financial security, recognition, even wealth and power distract Arrowsmith from his original plan to follow in the footsteps of his first mentor, Max Gottlieb, a brilliant but abrasive bacteriologist. His derailment from his ideals, while differing in the details, reminds me a bit of Lydgate in Middlemarch.  
In the course of the novel Lewis describes many aspects of medical training, medical practice, scientific research, scientific fraud, medical ethics, public health, and of both personal and professional conflicts that are still relevant today. Professional jealousy, institutional pressures, greed, stupidity, and negligence are all satirically depicted, and Martin himself is exasperatingly self-involved. But there is also tireless dedication, and respect for the scientific method and intellectual honesty. The result is an engaging novel that deserved the Pulitzer which the author rejected.


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Friday, July 22, 2011


Among the Trees

by William Cullen Bryant





Oh ye who love to overhang the springs,
And stand by running waters, ye whose boughs
Make beautiful the rocks o'er which they play,
Who pile with foliage the great hills, and rear
A paradise upon the lonely plain,
Trees of the forest, and the open field!
Have ye no sense of being? Does the air,
The pure air, which I breathe with gladness, pass
In gushes o'er your delicate lungs, your leaves,
All unenjoyed? When on your winter's sleep
The sun shines warm, have ye no dreams of spring?
And when the glorious spring-time comes at last,
Have ye no joy of all your bursting buds,
And fragrant blooms, and melody of birds
To which your young leaves shiver? Do ye strive
And wrestle with the wind, yet know it not?
Feel ye no glory in your strength when he,
The exhausted Blusterer, flies beyond the hills,
And leaves you stronger yet? Or have ye not
A sense of loss when he has stripped your leaves,
Yet tender, and has splintered your fair boughs?
Does the loud bolt that smites you from the cloud
And rends you, fall unfelt? Do there not run
Strange shudderings through your fibres when the axe
Is raised against you, and the shining blade
Deals blow on blow, until, with all their boughs,
Your summits waver and ye fall to earth?
Know ye no sadness when the hurricane
Has swept the wood and snapped its sturdy stems
Asunder, or has wrenched, from out the soil,
The mightiest with their circles of strong roots,
And piled the ruin all along his path?

Nay, doubt we not that under the rough rind,
In the green veins of these fair growths of earth,
There dwells a nature that receives delight
From all the gentle processes of life,
And shrinks from loss of being. Dim and faint
May be the sense of pleasure and of pain,
As in our dreams; but, haply, real still.

Our sorrows touch you not. We watch beside
The beds of those who languish or who die,
And minister in sadness, while our hearts
Offer perpetual prayer for life and ease
And health to the beloved sufferers.
But ye, while anxious fear and fainting hope
Are in our chambers, ye rejoice without.
The funeral goes forth; a silent train
Moves slowly from the desolate home; our hearts
Are breaking as we lay away the loved,
Whom we shall see no more, in their last rest,
Their little cells within the burial-place.
Ye have no part in this distress; for still
The February sunshine steeps your boughs
And tints the buds and swells the leaves within;
While the song-sparrow, warbling from her perch,
Tells you that spring is near. The wind of May
Is sweet with breath of orchards, in whose boughs
The bees and every insect of the air
Make a perpetual murmur of delight,
And by whose flowers the humming-bird hangs poised
In air, and draws their sweets and darts away.
The linden, in the fervors of July,
Hums with a louder concert. When the wind
Sweeps the broad forest in its summer prime,
As when some master-hand exulting sweeps
The keys of some great organ, ye give forth
The music of the woodland depths, a hymn
Of gladness and of thanks. The hermit-thrush
Pipes his sweet note to make your arches ring;
The faithful robin, from the wayside elm,
Carols all day to cheer his sitting mate;
And when the autumn comes, the kings of earth,
In all their majesty, are not arrayed
As ye are, clothing the broad mountain-side
And spotting the smooth vales with red and gold;
While, swaying to the sudden breeze, ye fling
Your nuts to earth, and the brisk squirrel comes
To gather them, and barks with childish glee,
And scampers with them to his hollow oak.

Thus, as the seasons pass, ye keep alive
The cheerfulness of Nature, till in time
The constant misery which wrings the heart
Relents, and we rejoice with you again,
And glory in your beauty; till once more
We look with pleasure on your varnished leaves,
That gayly glance in sunshine, and can hear,
Delighted, the soft answer which your boughs
Utter in whispers to the babbling brook.

Ye have no history. I cannot know
Who, when the hillside trees were hewn away,
Haply two centuries since, bade spare this oak,
Leaning to shade, with his irregular arms,
Low-bent and long, the fount that from his roots
Slips through a bed of cresses toward the bay--
I know not who, but thank him that he left
The tree to flourish where the acorn fell,
And join these later days to that far time
While yet the Indian hunter drew the bow
In the dim woods, and the white woodman first
Opened these fields to sunshine, turned the soil
And strewed the wheat. An unremembered Past
Broods, like a presence, mid the long gray boughs
Of this old tree, which has outlived so long
The flitting generations of mankind.

Ye have no history. I ask in vain
Who planted on the slope this lofty group
Of ancient pear-trees that with spring-time burst
Into such breadth of bloom. One bears a scar
Where the quick lightning scored its trunk, yet still
It feels the breath of Spring, and every May
Is white with blossoms. Who it was that laid
Their infant roots in earth, and tenderly
Cherished the delicate sprays, I ask in vain,
Yet bless the unknown hand to which I owe
This annual festival of bees, these songs
Of birds within their leafy screen, these shouts
Of joy from children gathering up the fruit
Shaken in August from the willing boughs.

Ye that my hands have planted, or have spared,
Beside the way, or in the orchard-ground,
Or in the open meadow, ye whose boughs
With every summer spread a wider shade,
Whose herd in coming years shall lie at rest
Beneath your noontide shelter? who shall pluck
Your ripened fruit? who grave, as was the wont
Of simple pastoral ages, on the rind
Of my smooth beeches some beloved name?
Idly I ask; yet may the eyes that look
Upon you, in your later, nobler growth,
Look also on a nobler age than ours;
An age when, in the eternal strife between
Evil and Good, the Power of Good shall win
A grander mastery; when kings no more
Shall summon millions from the plough to learn
The trade of slaughter, and of populous realms
Make camps of war; when in our younger land
The hand of ruffian Violence, that now
Is insolently raised to smite, shall fall
Unnerved before the calm rebuke of Law,
And Fraud, his sly confederate, shrink, in shame,
Back to his covert, and forego his prey.




William Cullen Bryant, who was born during the presidency of George Washington and while still a teen wrote his best-known poem "Thanatopsis", is considered an early advocate of American literary nationalism.  His poetry, focusing on nature as a metaphor for truth as can be seen in the above, established a central pattern in the American literary tradition.

"Among the Trees" from The Poems of William Cullen Bryant.  The Heritage Press, New York.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Paul from Pittsburgh or Into the Wild

Brendan Wolf
Brendan Wolf 


"Brendan closes his eyes, hugs his worn copy of Into the Wild, the book he loves better than any other. He opens it again, stares at the haunting self-portrait of Christopher McCandless, the handsome and enigmatic young man who had renamed himself Alexander Supertramp before he abandoned society and wandered alone into the Alaskan wilderness. How Brendan fell in love with him during the first breathless read, convinced that if only he had known Alex Supertramp, he could have saved him, and together they's\d live in their northwoods cabin, surrounded by books." (p 5)


When you read about a young man who in his brief life has adopted at least five aliases while attempting to live a life mostly depending on others you wonder what is going on in the mind of this character. The book is a little strange and the title character is a little strange, a little reminiscent of a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel but without her panache and wit. Brendan Wolf, just one of the aliases of Victor Hall, is a reader, and the book is filled with literary references that remind you of his interest in reading.  References and quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jack London, Boris Pasternak, Leo Tolstoy, Willa Cather, and Eudora Welty speak to an obsessional interest in books which he still maintains when everything else in his life is stripped away. His personal hero is the ill-fated wanderer Christopher McCandless who was chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his book, Into the Wild. This reference, reinforced in the second chapter, titled "The Call of the Wild", foreshadows the eventual arc of Brendan's own journey. The book is filled with strange characters none of whom are particularly likable and with few exceptions are also unmemorable. While written in a clear and lucid style I found myself working much too hard to finish the book to give it more than a tepid okay.


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Monday, July 18, 2011

An Historical Delight

Son of the Morning Star
Son of the Morning Star 


"Like Crazy Horse, he almost always escaped unhurt.  In a skirmish near Brandy Station he was cut by shrapnel.  Otherwise he charged through the Civil War with nothing worse than a touch of influenza or poison oak." (p 113)


Once in a while you find a book that is so well written that beyond the days of reading, long after you have finished it, the book continues to haunt you. Son of the Morning Star is one of those books. The beauty of Evan Connell's prose and the excellence of his history make this book a minor masterpiece. Perhaps the larger-than-life presence of the central character, who the Indians named "son of the morning star", General George Armstrong Custer, is partly the reason for the magnificence of the book.


“Even now,” Evan Connell writes in his book, “after a hundred years, his name alone will start an argument. More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.”


Who knows the mind of Custer and the reasons that led to his demise at Little Big Horn. Maybe Evan S. Connell hits on the right one by thinking the most simply: Custer had never known defeat, perhaps couldn’t see it even when it was only one hilltop away. Few non-academic histories have been so well-written as this and have such compelling central themes that you can't put them down. Near-masterpiece is the best thing I can say when recommending this to anyone who enjoys reading a great book. It was simply a delight to read.


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Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Play About Friends - and Best Friends




The Homosexuals
by Philip Dawkins






Another Saturday evening and it is time to take in another play.  This week I attended a performance of The Homosexuals presented by About Face Theatre at the Victory Gardens Theater on North Lincoln Avenue.  The sold-out audience that I joined saw a play about a young gay man from Iowa who arrives in Chicago at the beginning of the first decade of the twenty-first century with literally nothing, no place to stay, no job, no friends and, importantly, no support from his family back in Iowa.  But he meets another young man in a candy shop and is invited to a party at which he meets a group of people who will become his friends - some best friends - for the the decade.  The playwright presents the story through vignettes in the life of the boy, Evan (played by Patrick Andrews), told in reverse chronological order.  It is a tribute to Patrick's acting ability that he succeeds in convincingly making the gradual transition from the first scene set in 2010 to the final one which depicts his arrival at the party in 2000 as a nervous young man from Iowa.  Nervous though he surely is, but he knows himself well enough to have made it to Chicago even as he still has difficulty discussing this knowledge with others.  The rest of the ensemble under the direction of Bonnie Metzgar was excellent as they also captured the changing momentum as scene by scene Evan's relationship with his friends changed and as his experience with some of them as lovers changed as well.  I was also impressed with the seamless scene changes that had the look of quiet ballets of movement as the scenes were set up.  
Prior to attending the play I had heard it compared favorably with Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, an  ensemble about gay men from an earlier and very different era (an era I remember well as I saw the film version as a young gay man in college).  But after seeing the play performed I found myself comparing it to Terrence McNally's 1994 play, Love! Valour! Compassion!  The relationships depicted seemed much more like the latter play although this too is from a different era albeit one closer to our own.  Dawkins even incorporates a reference to it as part of Evan's somewhat nervous comments about his background at the party where he encounters or rather is inundated by the gayness and gaiety of his new friends.  This play successfully incorporates references to contemporary gay life and in doing so provides a marker for gay culture of the Millennials (born after 1980) while entertaining those of us from earlier generations with witty dialogue and plenty of laughter.





Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Double Helix

The Beauty of Science
                          The Double Helix by James D. Watson

"Science moves with the spirit of an adventure characterized both by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty."  - James D. Watson




This is a memoir of a Nobel prize-winning Scientist that reads like a cross between a personal autobiography and a detective story. Add the insights into the imagination of one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century and you have a unique book. I read the book with wonder, delight and puzzlement alternatively as I encountered different aspects of the life of James Watson. He is unafraid to compliment his colleagues and competitors yet is also uncompromising in his criticism of those scientists (Linus Pauling, for example) who are either on the wrong track or just wrong-headed in their ideas or both. I was impressed with his methods which involved serious study combined with leisure activities, tennis being a favorite, that did not seem to detract from his scientific thinking and probably helped his imagination achieve more than it might otherwise have.


The book describes a different time, the 1950s, when the "Red scare" was predominant in the United States and Europe (not without reason) to the detriment of the free exchange of scientific ideas (again Linus Pauling is a prominent example in his sufferings at the hand of the United States government). But more importantly it describes the collaboration of two colleagues (James Watson and Francis Crick) with very different personal styles of scientific endeavor in their pursuit of the goal of identifying the essential nature of DNA. This includes giving credit to those who provided helpful details that made their discovery possible. Written with a lucid style that put this reader at ease this is one of the best memoirs of any kind that I have read. While there are a number of scientific details and references, they are not terribly difficult to digest and I would particularly recommend this memoir to readers who might otherwise shy away from scientific tomes - Watson makes scientific endeavor the most interesting if not exciting thing in the world.


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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Border Trilogy, Part 2

The Crossing (Border Trilogy, #2)              The Enmity of the World
                       The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy


"He turned the horse and set out along the road south, shadowless in the gray day, riding with the shotgun unscabbarded across the bow of the saddle.  For the enmity of the world was newly plain to him that day and cold and inameliorate as it must be to all who have no longer cause except themselves to stand against it. (p 331)


The Crossing is filled with moments like that described above telling of Billy Parham's movements south and north through a country that seems to be perpetually gray, with little room for the sun.  This is the second novel of  The Border Trilogy. In it we are introduced to Billy Parham who is sixteen years old as the story begins, recently moved to New Mexico and fated to travel to Mexico and back - it follows Billy's travels and travails as he crosses and recrosses the border. These begin with Billy and his father setting traps for a she-wolf which has been marauding and killing their sheep.  Billy is able to catch it in one of his traps, however instead of killing it he decides to take it to Mexico presumably to let it loose. 


"Ahead an hour's ride lay Cloverdale and the road north. South lay the open country. The yellow grass heeled under the blowing wind and sunlight was running over the country before the moving clouds. The horse shook its head and stamped and stood. Damn all of it, the boy said. Just damn all of it.
He turned the horse and crossed through the ditch and rode up onto the broad plain that stretched away before him south toward the mountains of Mexico." (p 63)


 It is with this act that his adventures begin and, operating without any apparent overarching aim, Billy who is later joined by his younger brother Boyd, set out on a series of quests, all of which are doomed to failure. While the travels of Billy make up the action of the novel, like All the Pretty Horses, the first novel in the trilogy, this novel is less about achieving goals and more about larger themes of good and evil, fate and responsibility, and the nature of friendship and relationships in this gray and desolate world. Related to these themes permeating the novel is the characters' ability or inability to see the world around them.


"Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them." (p 46)


This was related by an "old man" that Billy met as he was headed to Mexico on his first trip. As in All the Pretty Horses McCarthy inserts characters like this who make pronouncements , usually in the process of relating stories about themselves.  In addition to the old man there is a Priest, a Mormon, others. These characters along with the narrator raise issues that Billy may or may not understand. Among these issues are those about story-telling itself which may be key to understanding Billy's world and ours.  McCarthy's odd narrational devices, his inimitable use of metaphor set against a background of realistic detail makes this volume the equal of the first in the trilogy.  The story is bleak and narrates a tale of preservation in a world filled with enmity, yet it is a world that has many kind people and one in which Billy survives to see visions of unusual days and nights and perhaps a future.


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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Finding the Beautiful

A Day of Beauty


"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." 
 ~Ralph Waldo Emerson



My day was one that seemed to careen from one area of interest to another with not much connection between them.  I began the day with continued reading of  Cormac McCarthy's novel The Crossing, the second volume of The Border Trilogy.  In the late morning I took a break to attend a performance of the great Romantic ballet Giselle by Adolphe Adam.  This was shown at the AMC River East theaters in a 3D film from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburgh.  Returning home I ended the day preparing discussion questions to accompany a reading of The Double Helix by James D. Watson.  The finest memoir of a scientist I have encountered. 
 Now what do all of these activities have in common?  You might say, well, nothing.  But on reflection I would disagree for each of the activities include and even have as an important part of their essence, the attribute of beauty.  The beauty of Giselle is obvious as it is the epitome of Romantic ballet and set the standard for decades to come.  It is more difficult to discern the beauty of McCarthy's novel or Watson's memoir, yet it is there in each one and is an important part of the essence of the work.  Cormac McCarthy is a prose stylist of the highest order and his ability to blend dream-like prose poems with gritty realism is amazing both in its beauty and its existence.  It is a wonder that he succeeds, but he does.  While James Watson had the unenviable task of attempting to communicate complicated scientific ideas, yet also succeeded in his own way, and in doing so shared the beauty of nature as exemplified in the double helix.  So a day of contemporary American fiction and nineteenth century Romantic ballet and great science writing was brought together by a simple idea:  the beauty inherent in it all.  What a day!


Giselle 








The marriage of technology and art provided a real treat for a Chicago audience of ballet aficionados today. We attended a performance of the ballet Giselle as produced by the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg Russia and shown in 3D. The ballet stars were Natalia Osipova as Giselle and Leonid Sarafanov as Count Albert. Sometimes they seemed almost too perfect in their performance but both were outstanding and their ballet skills combined with Adam's music managed to bring tears of joy to my eyes. This is the epitome of Romantic ballet with music and story that touches your heart.


Giselle is the age-old story of a prince who has disguised himself as a peasant, and gains the love of a simple village girl. This fairytale love story falls to pieces when the tale turns to that of betrayal and heartbreak. Giselle joins the vengeful Wilis to bring revenge upon her beloved prince, but ultimately her deep love transcends even death and she grants forgiveness upon her lover. The second act is particularly eerie with the corps de ballet covered with white costumes against the dark background of the setting beside the grave of Giselle.  


The pervasive atmosphere of the ballet was indebted to the works of Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, and the ballet critic Théophile Gautier. The librettist Verney de Saint-Georges had first been attracted to Hugo's Orientales with its evocation of a ballroom where dancers were condemned to dance all night, and to Heine's De l'Allemagne and its depiction of the Wilis, Slavonic supernatural beings who lured young men to death by dancing. I had seen the ballet performed once before by the American Ballet Theatre in a live performance at the Civic Opera House. The Mariinsky's 3D extravaganza was even better.