Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eighteen Truths; Four Lies

12.5 inches of snow fell; the city killed its engine. We at Aphaeresis, however, put the pedal to the metal:
  • Sleep
  • Nap
  • Save the world
  • Dawdle
  • Toss water from cup to see if it will freeze in air
  • Shovel driveway
  • Think Great Thoughts
  • Drink unladylike quantities of tea
  • Bake raspberry muffins
  • Omit raspberries
  • Curse self; curse parentage
  • Nap #2
  • Abuse weather radar
  • Read books
  • Weep; gnash teeth
  • Brave snow-bound wilderness to reach branch library
  • Ponder loves lost
  • Ponder navel
  • Maunder
  • Sing
  • Sleep

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

#1: The Inheritance of Loss

There is a frisson of danger in every reading venture. It sharpens as you grow older and begin to understand that reading does not last forever; you will lose your eyesight or your money or your mind; and eventually some book -the thought of it roils my gut- will be your last.

It's an Apocalyptic notion, the end of reading, and in its wake trot the four horsemen of bibliophiliac anxiety. You will read something bad. You will read something unpleasant. You will read something not as good as something else. You will read something you don't like, and meanwhile your book -the book that will scrub you, turn you inside out, hang you up to dry- remains undiscovered.

It's especially dangerous, then, to pick up a book you're afraid you won't like. This month, for the first installment of my year of reading dangerously, I inched chapter by chapter through The Inheritance of Loss, the Booker Prize-winning novel by the young Anglo-Indian author Kiran Desai.

I knew the writing would be good -the Booker Prize committee is like a really large, really intimidating literary bouncer; you don't get past the velvet rope without gleaming prose- but I had the sense that, as in so many novels of colonial and post-colonial India, bad shit would happen to the characters. And the times are few and far between when I can race eagerly across pages and pages toward the humiliation/rape/torture/death of someone in whom I've invested.

As it turned out, The Inheritance of Loss was dangerous. Just not in the way I'd guessed.

In the most northerly part of India, under the shadow of the Himalayas, seventeen-year-old Sai is raised by her sour, Anglophile grandfather and a rag-tag passel of servants and neighbors, all of whom seem to live their lives splayed between First and Third Worlds. Sai's grandfather, the Judge, was the object of scorn when he studied in England; now he indicts everything and everyone around him. Father Booty, a former Swiss monk, makes cheese and guzzles liquor with his particular (Indian) friend. Mrs. Sen and Lola grow their gardens to bursting but dream of the lives of their children in India and America. The Cook -who is never named- lives for letters from his son, Biju, who's working his way through the restaurant kitchens of America.

Meanwhile, cultural unrest in the remote province intensifies. Tibetan nationalists march in the streets and prey upon non-natives. Sai and her neighbors are caught up in the crisis, and yes, indeed, bad shit happens.

Fortunately, by that time, I didn't care. Desai writes with a finely-tuned ear and a sharp wit- too sharp. Her depictions are on-target; her language is exquisitely wielded; yet, just as a history of violence underlays every pleasure in the province, Desai treats every passage as a weapon, mercilessly flaying her characters until, stripped of all pretensions, all illusions, all dignity, all humanity, they're nothing but lumpen narrative clay.

It's a ruthless novel, a novel that gives no quarter. Every person is revealed as base, every motive as petty, every struggle as shameful. In the novel's final pages, the cook's son, Biju, is torn between returning to India or sticking with his thankless American life. He muses:

"If he continued his life in New York, he might never see his pitaji again. It happened all the time; ten years passed, fifteen, the telegram arrived, or the phone call, the parent was gone and the child was too late. Or they returned and found they'd missed the entire last quarter of a lifetime, their parents like photograph negatives. And there were worse tragedies. After the initial excitement was over, it often became obvious that the love was gone; for affection was only a habit after all, and people, they forgot, or they became accustomed to its absence. They returned and found just the facade; it had been eaten from inside..."

The loss of the habit of affection is, indeed, dangerous. Forget how to love even the most odious of your characters, lose the trick of forgiving them, and a rich, bustling, narrative collapses into a stark account of crime and punishment.

Do yourself a favor: go back a year in the Booker Prize cycle and read John Banville's The Sea, instead. Our books are numbered.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


So I've been tagged for the "25 random things" meme. The title's pretty transparent: you publicize 25 random things about yourself, then invite other people to do the same. I have a (not so) secret, shameful fondness for memes, so you'd think I'd jump on this one, but in fact it leaves me cold. 25 random things? Not about me, friends. If you want to know something, just ask.

See, the whole attraction of a meme is that it's a little machine, a tiny apparatus that takes your useless input, turns it, tweaks it, and turns it into useless output! Something is demanded of you, and your response shapes, and is shaped by, the product. Kind of like filling out forms (another of my secret, shameful addictions, and the reason I don't mind doing my taxes as much as I should). There's a constant -the meme- and you supply the variability. And as in theme and variations, the tension between the constant and the variable is where the interest lies.

25 random things is just 25 random things. You supply both the question and the answer, so there's nothing constant, no interaction between input and output -just you nattering about yourself. That's not a machine; that's a wind tunnel.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Do You Buy It?

We all know the maxim you are what you eat. And it's true: most vegans are stringy and pale. Chocoholics smile sweetly. Steak-and-potatoes guys have round, soft bodies and faces the color of medium rare.

But is it equally true that you are what you read? Oh, sure, the words you knock back make their careful or heedless ways through your body, to be excreted through your mouth or, alternatively, to form tenacious deposits, like fat. But beyond that, is your identity determined by your choice of reading material? Do your periodical subscriptions betray who you are?

Recently, I broke down and began double-timing The Atlantic. The New Yorker was so succulent, so god-damned weekly. Confused, fallen, alone, I turned to advertising. Advertising, after all, attempts to sell us ourselves. I subscribed to the New Yorker: Who was I? What were my cravings, my peccadillos, my dreams?

Advertising, The New Yorker, Jan 26, 2009, p. 67-78:

Psychiatric hospitals (3)
Maine-made furniture
Greek fisherman's cap
London Phil playing Peter and the Wolf
Italian villa rentals (2)
Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession
Business book summaries
Specialty bow ties

Evidently, I am one f**ked-up fashion plate. I feel much better now.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Three and Change

The branch library: a casualty of popular taste. I mean, I enjoy my trashy novels as much as the next person, but couldn't we have, in addition to the collected works of Fern Michaels, a single copy of To the Lighthouse? Or more than one book by Anne Tyler? Is that really too much to ask?


Ah, well. The branch library's selection may be anything but catholic (does this make it Protestant? Hahahahahaha!! Wow, I'm lame), but restricted range does have one interesting side effect. You inevitably, in the course of skirting the Anne Rices whilst trying to prevent an effluence of Nora Robertses from crushing your feet, pick up something you ordinarily wouldn't have gotten around to.

In my case it's a novel called Mrs. Kimble, in which first-time novelist Jennifer Haigh portrays a ne'er do well swain who loves and leaves a succession of women. It's an enjoyable enough book: a little MFA-y, but I'm used to that. The problem is that I just can't seem to lower myself into it, can't descend into the damp/wet/dark like you would in caving, like you should in literature.

I'm hung up, you see. Just one detail, just a teensy snag. The daughter of the first wife, described as "three and change," is also described as knowing "only about a dozen words." In dialogue, she repeats them, very occasionally combining two at a time.

My professional alarm bells ring like a glockenspiel in the grip of demonic possession. Never mind details of plot or character; forget graceful turns of phrase. I'm consumed by the desire to grab mother by the shoulders and scream THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOUR KID. At three and change we should be talking 900 words, 3-5 word sentences. AND HAVE YOU CONSIDERED SPECIAL SERVICES FOR YOUR CHILD, MA'AM?

From a writer's perspective, it's kind of scary how a little ignorance can torpedo your narrative. But even scarier is how difficult it is to guard against. Think about it: not only was the author -and presumably the editor- ignorant of developmental language milestones, all parties were ignorant of their ignorance! How many bodies of knowledge I don't even know exist are out there? How many things do I not know that I don't know?

The world may look like a grassy field, but it's rotten with rabbit holes.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Year of Reading Dangerously

If I were a cow, I would be the watch cow. You know the watch cow: the one standing at the edge of the herd swishing its tail while all its bovine brethren sleep standing up. The watch cow is on guard. It's nobly alert. Its liquid eye is fixed on you.

Unfortunately, I'm not a cow, so the fact that I have a nervous system tuned like a really sharp e string is just annoying. Danger jangles me. I know it's not lurking in even a fraction of the places I think it is, but I can't help but spend an inordinate amount of time identifying, tracking, and responding to its movements in my life. As long as I'm alert for danger, it can't sneak up on me.

It's in the spirit of the watch cow, then, that I approach My Year of Reading Dangerously. To participate in this blogosphere book challenge, you pick 12 "dangerous" books and finish approximately one a month. They can be banned books, books you're afraid of, books you're loath to tackle without public accountability -just as long as they're in some way threatening.

I've developed a list of 13 fanged, slavering, yellow-eyed books for 2009. 12 I'll read; one will end up being too scary. Once I've sussed out dangers of each, I'll be sure to sound the alarm.

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
An Abundance of Katherines, John Green
Netherland, Joseph O'Neill
My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories, ed. Jeffrey Eugenides
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
Twilight, Stephanie Meyer
The Ambassadors, Henry James
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
I See You Everywhere, Julia Glass
Downtown Owl, Chuck Klosterman
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Nothing convinces me more thoroughly of the diversity of the human genome than the people who think cilantro tastes like soap. The virgin queen of herbs, the lissome lovely of the plant kingdom: likened to a cake you use to lather up your ass! It's almost too awful to contemplate.

Why am I not buying more cilantro? Why am I not stuffing my face with the stuff morning, noon, and night, until I turn pale green and emit the odor of a thousand tacos? Ah, my friends, we've come to the fly in the ointment, the beast in the basement, the darkness lurking in the depths of glory like Judas at the right hand of the Lord.

YOU HAVE TO BUY TOO MUCH. That's right: cilantro is a guilt machine. Buy it in those bunches; fret all week about how you're going to wrest that final leaf from its stalk. Inevitably, you fail. Invariably, you toss out precious herbal ambrosia reduced, in its extremity, to a sorry mat of leaves. Pleasure, Janus-faced, reveals itself as burden; joy quickens into dread.

Help me out, here, folks.

Friday, January 16, 2009

On my Radar

You're not supposed to talk about the weather. Or politics, or religion, but that's because politics and religion are too fraught, too potent for everyday use. The weather, on the other hand, is too mild: talking about the sun or the rain or the clouds is conversation's panacea, a sop with a pleasant aftertaste.

Lately, though, I've taken to dissecting those clouds, this sun, that barometric rise. I commiserate about cold, defend the color gray, bemoan the segue into sleet. I check the weather online two times a day, or three, or sixteen, tracking every distant disturbance of air.

It's gone beyond small talk. As well it should, for weather is not small. Not very many years ago it was life or death, riches or ruin. Plant before a rainstorm, fail to stockpile enough fuel or food to survive the cold, and there you were: toast. Only in the last hundred years has toast become food for a weak stomach, has weather become a smudge on the horizons of our lives.

Weather's not small, but we forget. We creep like ants along predetermined routes, crawl into our little cars to hide. Negative six degrees and snowy, yet we head to work anyway, waddling over the ice-covered parking lot until the muscles in our thighs cramp and we've forgotten what it's like to walk.

How's it going? we ask. How about this cold? More than a pleasantry but less than a question: just a a way to get our mouths around something bigger than our tongues.

Check out the sky.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Finland Forever

There's a pretty good argument to be made that music school ruins music. Once you learn the habit of listening critically -and once your ear has been fine-tuned to detect subtle differences of pitch and timing- it's tough to just sit back, listen, and enjoy.

Handicapped as I am, I still schlep to the symphony. And sit. And listen. And enjoy. And make snarky comments in my head. (Was that a note, or did you accidentally hiccup into your flute?) On Saturday I took in a Thomas Ades suite (Hmmm), Beethoven's second piano concerto (he got more interesting later), and an entire Sibelius symphony (LIKE TAKING A BATH IN A VAT OF SCALDING VELVEETA CHEESE.) Program summation: Eh.

Still, I'm grateful I went. The piano soloist played two encores, little Chopin pieces that skirled along the keyboard and skittered from one color to the next. The pieces were beautiful, but they weren't what grabbed me. Nor was the pianist, though she was possessed of a shiny shirt and an attractive fluidity of line. Close by, silent, seated, on display, the 50-plus orchestral musicians cocked their ears.

It is quite something to watch a symphony orchestra listen. I'd sit through another Sibelius symphony for it. Maybe.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Decent Exposure

I am fascinated by this blog. The site design is vaguely queasy-making, but I stuck the address in my feed reader and now every day they come to me, stripped of their sidebars: the pictures of people reading in public.

I'm not sure why these pictures move me like they do. When I say 'move' I don't mean it in the high-flown, seven-hanky sense, but more prosaically: the pictures displace me, twist me a millimeter off my axis. The people reading read books of astonishing variety and sometimes questionable quality, masterpieces and dog-eared paperbacks and books that instruct them on how to operate themselves or machinery or the whole wide world. The people look content, or absorbed, or troubled. Hunched over their books, even the handsomest of them are ungainly.

I've always read in private. Usually in bed, lying down, a couple of pillows propping up my head. Or shut up in some small space during the day, hiding. Reading is an inward-turning act, a transgression of the rules of living which say: be here, now. To read in public is to transgress in public, to stage a miniature insurrection. Talking on your cell-phone, listening to the ipod: these are ways to alienate yourself from your physical surroundings, but you are still moving in the world, even if the people you speak to, or watch, exist at one remove.

You haven't turned your back. You aren't off the grid, untethered from your senses, powering a universe apart. There's something hideous or lovely, here. I scan the titles, trying to make it out.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Poll Me! Poll Me Good!

Courtesy of Daniel Wolf by way of Osbert Parsley

1. Josquin or Palestrina?

2. Bach or Händel?
This is clearly a rhetorical question.

3. Haydn or Mozart?
Mozart! Mozart, you sexy, forbidden thing, you.

4. Beethoven or Rossini?
Beethoven hands down. This pairing is creepy.

5. Brahms or Wagner?
Brahms. Though I admit to a perverse -possibly even perverted- fondness for Wagner.

6. Verdi or Puccini?
Beige vs. taupe. Verdi.

7. Debussy or Ravel
Ravel. But both of them make my teeth hurt.

8. Strauss or Mahler?
Help! I'm drowning in a vat of potage! Strauss? Only because it's over sooner.

9. Stravinsky or Schönberg?
Stravinsky by a nose hair.

10. Cage or Carter?

Tag! You're it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Scarlet S

I don't really like to publicize my New Year's Resolutions. (I don't really like to publicize much of anything, though I recognize that's an odd assertion for someone with a blog to make. It's just that I like to sit on my secrets; you never know what they might hatch.)

Still, those Puritans had something when they stitched that scarlet A onto poor Hester's chest: there's nothing like a little public exposure to GRIND YOU INTO DUST. Oh, sorry, I meant to help you keep your New Year's Resolutions. I made three this year, and I'm sharing, in a special limited-time offer, one. The most embarrassing, dire, dismally earnest one, though. Does this qualify as public indecency yet?

See, I don't believe it's an accident that resolution and revolution share a passel of phonemes. The essence of every New Year's Resolution is revolt: turning against the great dark army of your natural tendencies and fighting them off using only the dinky little saber that is your will.
En garde, cookies! To me, frontal lobe!

Any time you make a resolution, you're walking widdershins, traveling against the grain. For 2009, I figured I'd leave off skirmishing and take on the big kahuna, the citadel, the dark fortress of my personality: snarkiness.

Every day this year I vow to come up with one thing for which I am truly, earnestly, saccharinely grateful. And list it. This despite the fact that the idea of making such a list makes me want to keel over, vomit, and/or deface stuffed animals. I'm resolved, folks. I'm holding my hand in the boiling vat of earnestness until somebody gives.

And I'm doing it in public. See sidebar.

Thursday, January 1, 2009