Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Conversations — Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje got to know the film editor Walter Murch when Murch worked on the film version of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. He discovered a Renaissance man who is not only a brilliant film editor but a translator of a prose work he admires into English poetry and a creator of the musical flow of a movie. A good editor, working with a gifted and confident director, can shape the story of the film. Murch works with Lucas, Coppola, Minghella and other luminaries–the oldest relationships date from early days in film school–and has worked on legendary cinema like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and American Graffiti.

Ondaatje’s idea is that editing film is a lot like editing a novel, with its many iterations of revising and rethinking and carving away the words until the story emerges.  He explores this and other notions with Murch in a far-ranging series of  conversations that stretched over a year and covered a lifetime of distinguished work and invention. Lots of wonderful anecdotes about what stayed in and what got cut–and what went back in eventually. Even more intelligent chat about music (revolutiuonary Beethoven), strokes of genius (Thomas Edison) and the effects of extremely subtle sound on a movie audience.

It’s a very readable record and one I hope I find time to skim again before it goes back to the library. As a writer, I am fascinated by the observations and I can make the connections between the crafts. Much to learn from two people honored for their contributions to their professions who can critique Japanese and French New Wave filmmakers as easily as they share stories about Marlon Brando shaving his head after he read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Good book. Good idea to write it. A ton af great movie stills and archival photographs on every page. Recommended to novelists and cinephiles everywhere.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film   Michael Ondaatje | Alfred A. Knopf   2002

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

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Now I have to get my hands on Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel weaves spells with her novels about Thomas Cromwell and the bombastic, bloody reign of Henry VIII. Bring Up the Bodies ensnares you–and it is unusual, dense with names and tricky to follow unless you are paying close attention. I thought it was absolutely great.

Bring Up the Bodies follows on from Wolf Hall, chronicling the months and weeks leading up to the beheading of Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London. Cromwell is wiley, strategically brilliant, flexible of principle and self-protective in this account. He is also dedicated to the king, vulnerable to reflections on the losses in his life and his harsh childhood, witty, and smooth in his dealings with the treacherous operators in and around the court. Mantel’s Cromwell is at once a despicable and likeable character and tremendously sympathetic. Anne Boleyn doesn’t come off quite so well but there are no complete villains in this book, and certainly no saints.

The matter of a suitable heir to the kingdom looms large but not so large that the king’s disaffection, his roving eye, and the headstrong and imperious personality of the queen are as much to credit for the rush to the Tower and the executioner’s sword. Many people lose their heads on the block when Henry loses his in pursuit of Jane Seymour.  Jane doesn’t seem entirely competitive with the colorful Boleyn but she is surprisingly astute. So is Cromwell as he goes about  changing history–again–in the name of honor and love. Or maybe just lust.

It’s very intelligent–reads like a contemporary reign or campaign, actually, with really sharp people in many of the lead roles. The point of view is interesting–I think an intense third person subjective with Cromwell’s thoughts and dialog reported and himself referred to as “he” frequently with no attribution. That POV required some work on my part, due to the wealth of characters, locations and events, but the effort was a pleasure. You are in capable hands in this book–Mantel is a master and Cromwell is a surprisingly worthy subject for her meticulous attentions. I’m looking forward to the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, the prequel to Bringing Up the Bodies, to track how Cromwell helped Henry to dispose of Katherine of Aragon to pave the way for wife #2 and Henry’s historic role as a royal serial killer.  

Bring Up the Bodies  Hilary Mantel | Henry Holt and Company   2012

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

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Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

Odes to Common Things – Pablo Neruda

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I love Pablo Neruda–complete fan girl, always. I love him in Spanish and in English and it is a tribute to his lovely lucid language that he sounds irresistible in both. Odes to Common Things is a collection of poems translated by Ken Krabbenhoft and published more than  20 years after Neruda’s death. He was so prolific and wrote so often of subjects that fascinated him that there are twenty-five odes about everything from scissors to gillyflowers. Scissors have cut the shape of all life, loves, grave clothes and fingernails. Gillyflowers have evolved from discarded weeds to “fragrant light, perfect protagonists of silence”. Neruda makes you think about the commonplace as if you are encountering it for the first time–and as if you have the eyes of a poet.

La mesa fiel


sueño y vida

titánico cuadrúpedo.

Tables are trustworthy:

titanic quadrupeds,

they sustain

our hopes and our daily life.

Ode to French Fries — What sizzles / in boiling / oil / is the world’s / pleasure 

Ode to a Pair of Socks — So this is / the moral of my ode: / beauty is beauty / twice over / and good things are doubly / good / when you’re talking about a pair of wool / socks / in the dead of winter.  

Ode to the Cat — There was something wrong / with the animals: / their tails were too long, and they had / unfortunate heads. / Then they started coming together, / little by little / fitting together to make a landscape, / developing birthmarks, / grace, / pep. / But the cat, / only the cat / turned out finished, / and proud: / born in a state of total completion, / it sticks to itself and knows exactly what it wants… / Nothing hangs together / quite like a cat

Neruda touches on loneliness, war, hunger, kindness, memory in his adoration of things. He is lush, rich and sensual–an apple is an opportunity to seduce:

You, apple, / are the object / of my praise. / I want to fill / my mouth / with your name. / I want to eat you whole.

A ti, manzana, / quiero / celebrarte / llenándome / con tu nombre / la boca, / comiéndote.

How could you not love things and the poet who enshrines them?  I would write an ode to Pablo Neruda, but my Spanish is nowhere near as mellifluous as his.  

Odes to Common Things, Bilingual Edition   Pablo Neruda / Bulfinch Press  1994

If You Find a Rock – Peggy Christian

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If You Find a Rock is a magical, reflective meditation on the bits of quartz, granite and fossil you might find in your meanderings–and what they might signify. Peggy Christian’s prose and Barbara Hirsch Lember’s tinted photographs give the book a timeless air that makes it a classic–at least I think it should be a classic. Get acquainted with skipping rocks, mossy boulders, climbing rocks, chalk rocks, and wishing rocks and then wander outside and imagine a meaning for the rock you find.

The wishing rock has a stripe embedded all the way around that you trace as you make a wish. A walking rock is one you kick in front of you along the sidewalk home and a splashing rock is for pitching into a pool of water that will produce an explosion of gleaming drops. A worry rock is smooth enough to rub, like fingering worry beads, to soothe away cares.

The language of this book is spare and almost poetic. You could read it quietly with someone still small enough to wonder at found things like pebbles on a walk. And then you might take that walk and hunt for a big rock to scale or a tiny rock that just fits in your palm.  A rock to help you remember how to be in this physical world like a child, capable of discovering magic everywhere. 

If You Find a Rock   Peggy Christian | Harcourt   2000

Imagine – Jonah Lehrer

NOTE: Cover art for this alleged nonfiction book apparently yanked by Amazon. Book was a fraud and Amazon is Big Brother. Literature is many things but never dull. (It was, despite the perfidy of the delusional author, a very attractive cover.)

Original post–pre-disclosure of certain fictional elements in the book:

Jonah Lehrer has assembled a fascinating study of how creativity works–where it lives in the brain, what in a culture acts as a petri dish. Imagine is fun to read, hopeful, filled with examples of genius at work–from Steve Jobs to Shakespeare–studded with genesis stories of brilliant new products–from Scotch tape to Swiffers–and awash in statistics and study results that make sense. Lehrer has a gift for translating nerd to common language.

Bob Dylan burnt out on tour and gave up music, heading for a house in Woodstock where he was inspired to scribble down a wonky poem that became “Like a Rolling Stone.” He invented a new kind of music that changed his work and the music world profoundly. Milton Glaser couldn’t stop fiddling with the art for a New York ad campaign, even after it had been approved. The result was a do-over that became the famous “I [heart] NY graphic. Jack Kerouac lived on Benzadrine while he wrote “On the Road” in near-continuous sessions at the typewriter for three weeks straight. Shakespeare ripped off Marlowe and everything else he could find to create his masterpieces.  

So, what’s up with all of that? (And where are the women in this epic tale of genius?  — but that’s another story, isn’t it?) Turns out the brain lights up in interesting ways when creative juices start flowing. A good idea might sneak up on you while you are doing something else. A chance encounter with a stranger in a crowded city or a co-worker in a coffee bar could trigger the Next Big Thing. Scientists can measure bits of that process now and they have mapped the various parts of the brain that get in gear, connect with other brain areas, or relax their guards and allow uninhibited ideas and behaviors to flow.  

But it’s not all neurons and anterior superior temporal gyruses. It’s also just noticing something from a different perspective–like the guy who invented Post-it notes did. It’s about encouraging alpha waves so your nice, relaxed mind coughs up an insight. It can also be about caffeine, amphetamines and alcohol–not too much, though, or you slide right past creative into incoherent.  And studies conclude that cities are hotbeds of genius (sometimes, and some cities), the urban experience is more conducive to a rich foment of ideas than the suburbs. Widely available education that encourages making things and de-emphasizes filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil  is a societal predictor of innovation. Critique sessions, but not creative brainstorming in which all ideas are supported, lead to breakthroughs and new inventions. Pixar gets some ink in this book and the story of how its culture developed is as much fun as any of its movies.

I’d highly recommend wandering through Imagine for insight about how your own strokes of creative genius come about–or how you might encourage some. The anecdotes that prove the points are terrific and the focus down on what makes creativity happen is instructive. I doubt anyone will ever be able to define creativity and imagination with the pure application of science but Lehrer makes a noble effort and his ideas are good ones. Now someone needs to write a book about why there aren’t more female names in the roster of Western genius–and how we might encourage that.

Imagine: How Creativity Works  Jonah Lehrer | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Coda: It seems this post was miscategorized as nonfiction. Galleycat reported today (July 30) that Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker after it was revealed that he manufactured Bob Dylan’s quotes for Imagine. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is “halting shipment of all physical copies of the book,” according to Galleycat reporter Jason Boog. The subtitle of Imagine is How Creativity Works–or doesn’t.  And so it goes… 

The Magic – Rhonda Byrne

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I never read bazillion-seller The Secret, although I did see lengthy excerpts from the movie. It seemed like a very cleverly packaged version of the Law of Attraction and other manifestation practices based on older traditions of being in harmony with what surrounds you. Interesting enough. So, as I reluctantly returned A. N. Wilson’s The Elizabethans (great book) to the library half-read–can’t renew it if someone else is waiting for it–I picked up Rhonda Byrne’s The Magic which was sitting on the new-book shelf. I believe in magic–a deep, pagan, animistic, astrophysical, inspiriting force that is omnipresent, innate and infrangible–and I am always happy to explore theories and thinking about it. This was not that book.

What The Magic is is a book-length reminder to practice gratitude, not a bad thing to consider. Real gratitude, the understanding and appreciation for what exists in our lives, is more or less trained out of us in this consumer culture. Gratitude requires reflection, focus, savoring the moment, recognizing a true gift, seeing with the intelligence of the heart. It is very positive and very powerful and can shift your mood, your behavior, your relationships, and your beliefs almost instantly. For me, at least, it’s a lesson to learn over and over again and has more to do with stepping outside the facade of this illusory world and into clear, spare being. Needs more work.

Byrne has produced a workbook with essays in the popular self-help format that targets a general audience. Some of the logic is, um, forced. It’s predictable. You could find several suggestions silly. But beneath the packaged lessons are a few good ideas and a basic premise that can open your eyes. Think about what is good and delightful and valuable for you. Be glad you know it/have it/enjoy it. Say so, if only to yourself. Gratitude can push back the veil that obscures the light we really live in.

I won’t take up Byrne’s 28-day chapter-by-chapter program to change my life–there are stronger ways for me to tap into magic.  But I do like the advice about the magic rock that you hold every night before you go to sleep as you conjure up the best thing that happened in your day. That’s a great idea. So much negativity batters us from all sides, all the time, that it’s easy to forget what blessings we have. I have just the rock, a smooth, palm-size chunk of white quartz that was sitting on the kitchen counter next to a jade plant that has stubbornly survived every possible kind of neglect. Pure magic.

The Magic (The Secret)   Rhonda Byrne | Atria Books   2012

The Age of Miracles — Karen Thompson Walker

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 The Age of Miracles is an amazing book–a dystopia that reads like the front page and echoes the dark scariness of the crumbling world we live in. The earth is slowing in Karen Thompson Walker’s fictional account. Days and nights are getting longer and almost at once time goes completely off the rails. The birds begin to die, gravity is affected, droughts and tides intensify, people panic. Julia is eleven on the day they announce the news and this is a coming of age novel in which everything in her personal and planetary world will be stood on its head.

Julia’s best friend Hanna leaves at once for a Mormon encampment in Utah with her family.  The oceanfront Cailfornia properties are immediately abandoned as the sea washes over them at high tide. Julia’s mother starts to hoard emergency supplies and her father keeps delivering babies at the hospital. Seth, the skateboarder who is Julia’s secret crush, continues to ignore her but nasty bullies at her bus stop don’t. It starts to be dark when the sun should come up and stays light far past bedtime. Six astronauts are trapped at the space station because it is too dangerous to bring them back.

This is a pick-it-up-don’t-put-it-down book that reminds you of how perilous it is to be on the cusp of adolescence and then ratchets that challenge up a million times as the earth spins slowly–and more slowly–into a dead zone. The governments declare “clock time” that follows the old twenty-four hours even though the days and nights don’t sync. Some people cling to “real time” and hostilities break out. Julia’s grandfather suspects a conspiracy and starts to act distressingly weird. Julia spies her father through the window of her piano teacher’s house across the street, through her telescope. He is not taking a piano lesson. Hundreds of whales beach themselves and Seth invites Julia to the beach to try to save them.

That’s enough story. You should acquire a copy of this book at once and read it. Tremendously good, subtle, polished and true. My only quibble is that it seems so real, such a simple extension of our time, that it left me slightly depressed about the apocalypse of our civilization–the snowballing calamities people madly pretend do not exist. Our earth is off-kilter and losing its moorings. We are out of alignment, wide-eyed at the destruction all around us and wondering what’s next, waiting and hoping for miracles with none, so far, in sight.

The Age of Miracles: A Novel   Karen Thompson Walker | Random House  2012

The Age of Doubt – Andrea Camilleri

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Andrea Camilleri’s The Age of Doubt started off with a promising weather event that washed out part of a road leading to an encounter that…well, it looked like a good mystery from an Italian who sets his crime puzzles in Sicily. This is an Inspector Montalbano mystery and, apparently, they are best sellers. I remain unconvinced. Maybe it was the translation.

Several of the characters had odd speech patterns. One administrative staffer was so befuddled and ignorant it was a wonder he had a job at all–and he spoke in some bad 1940s Brooklyn half-literate vernacular that was not clever, not funny, just dumb. The guys are all panting over hot babes–some of the babes are cops and some are criminals.  Hook-ups are foiled again and again for lame reasons or no reason at all. Lot of smoking and drinking but no Bogart.

The motive for the crimes was explained as if it was news that no reader would be familiar with but those readers in need of enlightenment must live in caves.  The plot revolves around a not particularly imaginative criminal enterprise–no spoilers. But no surprises either. Really disappointed as I could have used the delightful mental break the book promised. And there are doubtless many many people who devour these detective stories–they collect kudos from all the major papers and magazines–so maybe it was just me. Or the translation. I thought Inspector Salvo Montalbano might have been more convincing with a little more Bogart and a lot less Southern Italian Inspector Clouseau.

The Age of Doubt (Inspector Montalbano)   Andrea Camilleri | Penguin   2012

The Art of Fiction – David Lodge

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David Lodge collected a series of newspaper columns and embellished them–restoring the edited-for-length bits–to make this exploration of how fiction is constructed. As a writer, I find The Art of Fiction fascinating, if somewhat frustrating. There’s a little bit of everything in it: beginnings, point of view, time shift, showing and telling, stream of consciousness, epistolary novels, magic realism, weather, comic novels, different voices, suspense, surrealism, narrative structure, unreliable narrators, symbolism–a long list. There’s even a chapter about lists.

Each subject is illustrated with an excerpt from a novel that Lodge diligently deconstructs to show how the thing works. Pretty useful but occasionally too ambiguous to leave you with a clear sense of how you might achieve the same effect, or what the general elements of a particular style might be. Lodge rips through some of my favorite writers–John Fowles, Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, et cetera, et cetera, and points out what I never noticed. There are a lot of classic and sort of contemporary (not current) excerpts and their authors.

Fun things poke their heads up in the middle of serious topics. For “Repetition,” we get an excerpt form Hemingway’s “In Another Country” that sounds as if Gertrude Stein wrote it. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in  the fall in Milan and the dark came very early…It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”  Oh, Ernest, how was I ever so smitten with you?

Lodge reminds us that chapters are not a sacred law of novels and early fiction was one continuous flow of writing without chapter breaks. This can be exhausting to read–note James Joyce–and chapters can serve to give the reader a breather or transition from one time or place to another. Sir Walter Scott started the fad for introducing a chapter with an epigraphic quotation. I’ve recently read mysteries where each chapter was introduced by a chocolate recipe. Distracting but delectable.

The Art of Fiction is worth a read. It opens your eyes to what the writer is really doing  to manipulate the reader–at times, successfully, at other times, annoyingly. I’m going to give it a quick re-read before I have to return  it to the library. Much to learn but little time to ponder it.

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts   David Lodge | Viking   1993