Playa Giones in Nosara, Costa Rica, was where I spent the last week, and was where I saw so many beautiful plants and animals and trees. Howler monkeys, small but sounding like King Kong, iguanas with frilled collars, green birds with dangling tail feathers, strangler figs strangling their host plants, and Halloween Moon Crabs, my new favorite crustacean. I also read a ton of books, as I always do at the beach. I had brought my Kindle so I didn’t need to haul this ton of books back and forth in my suitcase, but there was a very good bookstore at the Harmony Hotel, so I ended up bringing a lot back. Didn’t think I’d be book shopping in Nosara! I decided to read the books that were on my Kindle which had been sitting unread for a long time, and so:
- Persuasion by Jane Austen needs no introduction. Her novels seem like straightforward marriage plots, but her snarky wickedness, her summary take-downs of the vain and pretentious, and her warm sympathy for women of independent mind are always a sustaining pleasure.
- Moonglow was another competent book by Michael Chabon, one of those books existing on the border between fact and fiction. This one is about his grandfather’s life as a soldier, his grandmother’s life as a survivor and their lives together after the Second World War had shaped them. And there is a mystery: the lost history of his grandmother’s childhood.
- Next on my Kindle’s unread list was Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. Coincidentally it is also about a lost WWIIhistory, that of a boy who at four had been rescued from the Nazis and sent via Kindertransport to Wales. Reading Austerlitz and Moonglow consecutively really helps you see the difference between a journeyman and a master; though their strategies were quite different, their subjects and themes were similar, but the depth of understanding…
- One thing that is consistently reassuring about books in our world of perpetual commerce is that they’re never trying to sell you anything beyond the book itself. Which is part of the reason I only use my Kindle when I’m traveling. Because at the end of a book, say, Austerlitz, you’re immediately presented with many more books liked by the people who liked the book you just read. Among these I found Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, which I found quite gratifying. It starts out as a fairly standard “relationship” novel, cataloguing scenes between an ingenue writer and a much older tremendously famous and accomplished writer, roman a clef style–Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth when she was in her 20s and he in his 60s. But it then suddenly turns into Part Two, an Iraqi man being detained and interrogated at immigration services in Heathrow. A coda ties it all together. But it’s a book unlike other books. I am looking forward to future books by Lisa Halliday.
- Now, back home I am reading an interview with Richard Powers in the LARB, talking about his new book The Overstory, about the lives of trees. We are “plant blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.”
• An image of Totoro, comprised of the entire screenplay written by hand in Japanese.
• My favorite anecdote from Emma Cline, author of The Girls, interviewed by Vendela Vida at City Arts and Lectures. Cline grew up in a family with 7 children, and on their birthdays each kid would get their very own box of cereal. They’d write their names on the box with a sharpie and guard it with their lives.
• I serve on the board of McSweeneys, the publisher of the Internet Tendency, a humor web site, the McSweeneys Quarterly Concern , a literary magazine, and lots of lots of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, children’s books and books that make the world better. The Quarterly and the Books are in actualy, physical print, beacons of beauty in a world starved for gorgeousness. Certainly your holiday gift recipients should have some ideas, some poetry, some love, some beauty?
“I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summer, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”
from A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
…I attended a political theory Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Something happened there. One day I was reading a Time-Life book about the painter Goya. I forget who the king was at the time, but he was one of the few enlightened kings of Spain. In the capital, there was a lot of crime. Men wore these big capes and hats, which made for a great disguise. The king was mad about all the crime, so he made that outfit illegal, but then there was a riot because me were so attached to the capes and hats. So the king repealed the law. He found a new adviser and said, Look, youve got to stop all this thieving. The new guy said, Don’t worry, Your Majesty, I got it covered. And the next day, he made the cape and hat the uniform of the executioner, who worked out in the open every day. People stopped wearing them just like that. Nobody wanted to be identified with the executioner. And I thought, I’ve learned more in reading this one stupid page in this Time-Life book about Goya than I have in my Ph.D. program. So I quit.
– Walter Mosley, interviewed in The Paris Review.
Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating usability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.
– Jerome Bruner
Jerome Bruner died this week. He had lived well into his 90s and was working until the end.
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Bruner argues here that there is too much emphasis on the logical, rational and scientifically oriented parts of cognition, and too little on what he calls its “narrative” aspects, which are the source of all great storytelling, drama, myth and persuasion.
Acts of Meaning In which Bruner asks us to focus not on the mechanistic, computer-inspired way of looking at thinking, but give our focus to the rich, evocative, meaning-making aspects of our minds.