Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Me, Who Dove Into The Heart Of The World by Sabina Berman

title: Me, Who Dove Into The Heart of the World [purchase here]
author: Sabina Berman
translated by: Lisa Dillman
genre: fiction
pages: 242
published: August 2012
source: I received an advanced reader's copy from Henry Holt via 
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

     That's what I said to Pena and my aunt over the radio; they were awaiting news in the tower in the dock.
     I like that word very much: okay.  It's from the 19th century, the American Civil War.  Generals used to write it in their war reports when nobody had died that day.
     Zero killed = 0 killed = 0K= Okay.
     Okay, over and out, my aunt responded.
     Outside the radio cabin on deck, the man from Greenpeace tugged off the hood of his wetsuit.  He had brown hair with blonde tips like Ricardo.
     The most stress-free tuna catch on the planet, he said.  Congratulations.
     I corrected him.
     Except for those in Palermo, where they still use preindustrial methods. 
     No, he smiled.  More stress-free than those.
     And then he added:
     And 100% dolphin-safe." (page 112)

Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World follows the story of Karen Nieto, a woman who started her life as a feral child, and is later diagnosed an autistic savant who has the unique ability to put herself in the "shoes" of animals, specifically fish, specifically tuna.

From the back jacket: "Karen Nieto passed her earliest years as a feral child, left alone to wander the vast beach property near her family's failing tuna cannery.  But when her aunt Isabelle comes to Mexico to take over the family business, she discovers among the squalor a real girl.  So begins a miraculous journey for autistic savant Karen, who finds freedom not only in the love and patient instruction of her aunt but eventually at the bottom of the ocean swimming among the creatures of the sea."

Berman's plot is really engaging and very clever. Who knew a book about a tuna cannery could be so engaging? And Karen is such strong, fully realized character.  How Berman is able to completely assert herself into Karen's psyche and write so truthfully from her perspective is really something. The way Karen thinks and reasons is so consistent, so thought through down to the detail...such a brilliantly rendered character.  My favorite parts were when Karen described other people's emotions, and how she would have to consciously go into "relating mode" to decipher what people were feeling.  Reminded me of Dr. Sheldon Cooper... the best possible way (he is currently my FAVORITE character on TV).  

What was fascinating was the way Karen chose to approach Descartes infamous statement: I think, therefore I am.  Karen would argue that we are, and then we think, and it's hard to argue with her reasoning.  Through Karen, Berman presents a way of looking at the world so vastly different than what's expected, but so refreshing and very much needed.

Rubric rating: 7.  I would love to read more from Berman.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Literary Link List

Links to pieces, old and new, on literature: 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

title: Mrs. Dalloway [purchase here]
author: Virginia Woolf
published: originally 1925; my edition 1953
genre: literary fiction
pages: 296
source: my parent's bookshelf and now mine :)

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT:  If you've never read Mrs. Dalloway, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here.  Since it was published in 1925, I'm writing with the assumption that I'm the one late to the party (which is usually the case with the classics) and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot.  So, if not, stop.  Now.  You've been warned. 

"So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.  Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking." (page 58-59)

My parents are in the midst of a remodeling project (they're adding french doors that open onto a deck off of the dining room), and a crucial part of any home project is the purge, the figuring out of what to get rid of and what to keep.  On the chopping block was a bookshelf full of vintage books, mostly classics, that they'd acquired over the years.  With the exception of my recent splurge at Strand, I've been willfully resisting bookstores, so I'm excited for the shopping bag full of books that I'll be taking home to NYC bit by bit over my next several visits.

The first book from my haul I dove into was Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, chosen because it was referenced multiple times in Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, and I wanted in on the references.

This copy was my mom's, evidently for a class in college.  I LOVED reading her notes in the front and back of the book (doesn't she have neat handwriting!?!), and it was pretty fascinating to see how they were teaching the tome when she was in college, though I wish I had read the notes after I read the book.  I kept looking for evidence of Clarissa's latent lesbianism and kept waiting for Septimus to finally crack.

I really enjoyed Woolf's narrative style.  It reminded me of a clean, steady continuous shot in a film, where the director is able to jump from one character's perspective to another seamlessly.  The shift between each characters' perspective seemed effortless and Woolf was able to weave the central characters' story lines together in a way that made sense and didn't seem forced (which is an issue many authors have when they try to compose a coherent novel comprised of multiple interconnecting stories).  

Like Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway takes place on a Wednesday in June (the entire 700+ pages of Ulysses takes place on June 16th, 1904), and like Joyce, Woolf is incredibly focused on the interior life of her characters, on the innumerable thoughts, experiences and impressions that collectively make up how an individual experiences the world. However, Woolf succeeds where I've often felt Joyce fails, in that her purpose seems to be communication whereas Joyce many times seems content with incomprehension and inaccessibility for the common reader (ex:  Finnegan's Wake).  To be fair, I haven't read Ulysses yet (I will!  It's on the list and is coming, along with a Bloomsday Reader, in that same shopping bag full of books from my parents!), but reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school left a bad taste in my mouth.  Even though both Woolf and Joyce are exploring the interior lives of characters, Joyce's exploration seems masturbatory and personal whereas Woolf's feels open and communicative.  Maybe I'll change my mind after spending more time with Joyce...

Balance and counterbalance seem to factor heavily into Mrs. Dalloway.  Woolf is constantly balancing two oppositional forces (desire v. duty, coming together v. falling apart, masculine v. feminine) and these conflicts serve to unify all the disparate action occurring over the course of the story: Clarissa pulling herself together at her dressing table in preparation for the evening's party balanced against Septimus' slow descent and unraveling to the point of suicide; her desire for Peter Walsh balanced against her dutiful marriage to Richard Dalloway; the vibrant Sally Seton of Clarissa's youth (with whom she shared a passionate kiss) balanced against the woman Sally becomes post-marriage to Lord Rosseter; women who feel deeply yet pull themselves together and press on balanced against the men, acculturated to feel nothing, who give up and fall apart.  There is just so much going on in terms of detail and imagery but it was all essential and working toward the common unifying themes.  Such a tight piece of writing!  Mrs. Dalloway is a master class in revision and paring down a lengthy piece to just the purely essential.

And the semi-colons!  Recently, I listened to UC Berkeley Professor John Bishop via iTunesU discuss Mrs. Dalloway, and he pointed out that her use of semi-colons were another example of coming together v. falling apart:  semi-colons take two sentences/ideas and bring them together, making them one sentence.  Pretty damn clever, Mrs. Woolf.  

Bishop also pointed out some interesting parallels between Woolf's life and that of her central characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, which I hadn't realized because I haven't read much on Woolf's biography.  Woolf was a central member of the Bloomsbury Group, and often hosted parties and gatherings for those involved, so, like Mrs. Dalloway, a part of her life concerned the bringing of people together.  Woolf later committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and drowning herself, allowing herself to come apart like Septimus.  Crazy how life imitates art.

Rubric rating: 9. I loved it and I'm excited to explore more by Woolf.  In fact, To The Lighthouse is on my nightstand...

Monday, September 24, 2012

The weight of their words...

"...'But it's always when a thing sounds not true that it is true,' he says.
Of course.  I know that...You imagine the carefully-pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth.  That is just what it isn't.  The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it's in what you think is a distorting mirror that you will see the truth."

~Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

For your listening pleasure: Leslie DiNicola: It's Alright

I caught my friend Leslie at City Winery on Thursday night, and thought I'd start your week off with a track from her new album.  Happy Monday :)

Leslie DiNicola's website

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Literary Link List

Links to pieces, old and new, on literature:  

And now, James Dean reading.  Though he looks a lot like James Franco here.  Regardless, you're welcome.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Coney Island

Before we go wordless, a few words:  Sorry for the lack of posting!!  I'm not dead!  Well, almost, but not quite heehee.  I have been battling the cold/flu-like bug from hell and even sitting upright has been a struggle.  Boo.  I've been inundating my system with vitamin C and cold meds, so hopefully posting should resume in a somewhat normal manner soon :)  In the meantime, some images I shot on a recent trip to Coney Island.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Charles Simic in conversation with Tea Obreht at Stand, NYC

Monday night, I had the pleasure of spending an hour at Strand listening to former Poet Laureate Charles Simic being interviewed by Tea Obreht.  He read from his massive oeuvre (34 volumes!!!) and from his new collection of poems, Master of Disguises, and spoke a bit about his influences and memories that inspired his work.  

Simic was hilarious!  Approachable, with a self-deprecating humility, his work is grounded in his experience, but heightened by his masterful command of language and image. A few gems from the interview/discussion:

  • Simic on writing poetry over a 50+ year career:  "The nice thing about poems is that you have no memory of how they were written."
  • Simic on confessional poetry:  "If a poet is a good liar, I think that's fine."
  • Simic talked about how important revision was in his work, about how he can write 4-5 pages and end up with a five line poem.  
  • He also talked a lot about translation, and about how there are a few works he would love to go back and re-translate, because the more time he spends with a piece, the more things he discovers in the writing and meaning.
All in all, a great evening.  I discovered the work of a supremely talented poet and got to meet Obreht, who is unbelievably talented for being so young.

Some of Simic's work:
By Charles Simic

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Strand Splurge

My name is Jacki, and I am incapable of leaving a bookstore without purchasing something.

**Hi, Jacki**

Last night, I went to Strand to hear Tea Obreht in conversation with Charles Simic (more on that tomorrow), and besides finally purchasing a copy of The Tiger's Wife, which Ms. Obreht signed (!!!), I ended up leaving with:

strand haul

1. The Yellow Wall-Paper, Herland, and Selected Writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman   I've wanted to re-read The Yellow Wallpaper, and Herland has an intriguing premise.  $6.50.
2. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy   I had to return this to the library before I could finish it, and at $6.95, I'm all about buying my own copy.
3.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens   It's on my list of classics I should really read, and at $4.95, I'm not going to say no.
4.  Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh   Loved it when I read it and have wanted my own copy. Can't beat $5.95.
5.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf   On the PW list of most difficult books that I am determined to conquer.  I LOVED Mrs. Dalloway (and I will share my thoughts with you soon!  Promise!) so I figured this was worth owning.  $6.95.

I love Strand's prices :)  

Bought any good books lately?

Monday, September 10, 2012

So excited!!!

The HIGHLIGHT of my literary life last year was reading Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. I never officially reviewed it here, but it was nothing short of fabulous.

I first encountered Obreht's work when I read her short story of the same name in the New Yorker and was blown away.  Obreht seems to have an effortless command of everything I wish I could do as a writer: her work is richly researched, lyrical and vivid and deeply moving.  And she's 26. If this is what she's capable of at 26, I cannot wait to read her at 40.

Tonight, I'm headed to Strand to hear her in conversation with former Poet Laureate Charles Simic, and I'm super excited!!! I'm embarrassingly unfamiliar with Charles Simic's work, and I've never seen Obreht speak, so I promise to report back. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In honor of Super Saturday at the Open, DFW on playing the wind...

From his essay "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" from the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace talks about the challenges of playing tennis in the wind (as Murray and Berdych are attempting to do right now):

"Wind did massive damage to many Central Illinois junior players, particularly in the period from April to July when it needed lithium badly, tending to gust without pattern, swirl and backtrack and die and rise, sometimes blowing one direction at court level and in another altogether ten feet overhead.  The precision in thinking required one to induct trends in percentage, thrust, and retaliatory angle--precision our guy and the other townships' volunteer coaches were good at abstracting about with chalk and board, attaching a pupil's leg to the fence with clothesline to restrict his arc of movement in practice, placing laundry baskets in different corners and making us sink ball after ball, taking masking tape and laying down Chinese boxes within the court's own boxes for drills and wind sprints--all this theoretical prep went out the window when sneakers hit  actual court in a tournament.  The best-planned, best-hit ball often just blew out of bounds, was the basic unlyrical problem.  It drove some kids near-mad with the caprice and unfairness of it all, and on real windy days these kids, usually with talent out the bazoo, would have their first apoplectic racket-throwing tantrum in  about the match's third game and lapse into a kind of sullen coma by the end of the first set, now bitterly expecting to get screwed over by wind, net, tape and sun." (page 9).

Think positive thoughts for Nole this evening!!!!

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Literary Link List

Links to pieces, old and new, on literature: 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Global Weirdness by Climate Central

title:  Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, 
Rising Seas and the Weather of the Future [purchase here]
author: Climate Central
pages: 214
genre:  nonfiction
published: 2012
source:  New York Public Library

One of my LEAST favorite political arguments to have with "people of alternate political persuasions" is about climate change. Over the years, I've read multiple books and articles by journalists and scientists that all arrive at the same conclusion:  the climate is changing because of choices made by human beings.  Yet some people STILL cling to the notion that this fact is subject to debate (?????), and this BLOWS my mind.  I feel like I've read enough to understand generally what's happening, but not enough to synthesize all the evidence and explain concisely and persuasively what's going on.  Thankfully, Climate Central does EXACTLY that with their new book Global Weirdness.

A few weeks ago, I caught Michael Lemonick on NPR's Fresh Air discussing the book and the goals of Climate Central, which prompted me to put it on my holds list.  Check out the interview here.

Climate Central is a nonpartisan nonprofit collective of scientist and journalists, and they do an excellent job of presenting climate science in a balanced, accurate way.  Global Weirdness is organized ingeniously:  each chapter addresses a specific question or concern about climate science in a researched but accessible, bite-sized way.  The authors are also really careful with how they present the info:  this is what we (as scientists) know, this is what we don't know, here's what we have questions about or are unsure of, here's our best guess and here's how we arrived at that hypothesis.  It was peer reviewed multiple times, and despite the scary subtitle, the version of the future they project, if carbon emissions continue at present levels (or even if they are stopped completely, which, let's face it, isn't likely) sucks, but isn't apocalyptic-sounding (which has been a critique of the green movement in the past).

Some of the best chapters (imho):

Chapter 17:  deals with the effect of the carbon we've already emitted into the atmosphere, and what will happen if (when) we keep emitting more.  They use a great analogy and include a diagram that's super instructive.

Chapter 49:  deals with freshwater and why there's so much talk about our diminishing supply.

Chapters 38 & 44: deals with hurricanes and addresses fears around the severe weather of the future.

One of the other general themes of the book is the difference between climate and weather.  Even some of my more enlightened friends have said in the past: "well, if scientists can't predict what the weather will be like next week, how are they really going to try to tell me what the weather will be like years from now?"  Global Weirdness definitely addresses this, along with so many other facets of science. The facts are alarming, but the tone of the book is not alarmist.

It's a quick read (I finished it on a day full of heavy commuting...4 hours spent on a train!) and is written in language everyone can understand, even if they don't have a background in climate science.  In fact, this would make a great beginning of the year read for any high school science class.

Rubric ruling: 8.5.  Absolutely accomplishes what they set out to accomplish.  And I haven't seen it priced at more than $15 anywhere, which is super for a hardcover, and really lends credibility to their mission (message over profit).