Friday, November 24, 2006

Fact and Fiction

I didn't do a very good job reporting on Gary Forrester's Houseboating in the Ozarks. (See post below.) I struggled long and mightily with writing a worthy report, and then, saved by a synopsis, dumped it onto my blog and breathed a sigh of relief that I finally can check that off my "To Write" list.

One of the many interesting things about which I could, and should, have written more is the blurring of fact (which is not the same as "truth") and fiction. When a book labeled "fiction" comes out, which like Forrester's, contains so many obvious parallels with the author's own life, it is only natural for readers to try to figure out how much of what they're reading is a voyeuristic glimpse into the author's private moments and how much is a product of imagination. Much as we try to pretend otherwise, we're all voyeurs, to some extent, and enjoy those private glimpses. I believe that is why books like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces about which I wrote in January was promoted as autobiography, rather than the fiction that it was. It is one reason (besides a basic lack of talent) why I do not think I will ever write fiction; I don't want people speculating about how much of the characters' private lives and thoughts are my own.

The protagonist in Houseboating, Christian Hooker, is not a very likable person. He is a lying, scheming, self-centered jerk. Since I have gotten to know Gary Forrester, I have to say that I like him and do not regard him as a "lying, scheming, self-centered jerk," but I think Forrester would admit that there are aspects of his personality that rub some people the wrong way. (I repeat, Gary, if you're reading this, "NOT ME." There are aspects of my personality that rub people the wrong way.)

The editor of the Illinois State Bar Journal wrote a nice review of Houseboating several months ago in which he stated that if you knew a real lawyer who acted like Hooker acted in the book, you'd have to turn him in to the dreaded Attorneys' Registration and Disciplinary Committee (ARDC) which rides herd on attorneys' conduct.

I asked Forrester about this when our reading group met with him by telephone a month or so ago. His reply was that the book is "fiction." He said that he took real incidents and exaggerated them; made them more interesting. That sounds rather commonplace for such a mysterious (to me) process.

There is an interesting article in the October 9, 2006 issue of The New Yorker by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, titled What is a Novelist? in which he talks about Marcel Proust and Proust's character, Albertine, a young woman with whom Proust's protagonist is in love. Much later, Kundera found out about Proust's biography and learned that it was said that the character, Albertine, was inspired by a man with whom Proust was in love. Kundera goes on to say, "No matter who inspired her, man or woman, Albertine is Albertine, and that's that! A novel is the product of an alchemy that turns a woman into a man, a man into a woman, sludge into gold, an anecdote into drama! That divine alchemy is what makes for the power of a novelist, the secret, the splendor of his art!"

Kundera is excited by his insight, splashing exclamations around like ink from a leaky pen, but he has a right to be. He goes on then as follows:
"In In Search of Lost Time, Proust is absolutely clear: 'In this novel . . . there is not one incident that is not fictional . . . not one character a clef.' However, tightly bound to the life of its author, Proust's novel stands, without question, at the opposite pole from autobiography: there is in it no autobiographical intention; he wrote it not in order to talk about his life but to show his readers their own lives. 'Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.' Those lines of Proust's define not only the meaning of the Proustian novel; they define the meaning of the very art of the novel.

When I said in my previous post that Forrester's book is turned from the "good" to the "extraordinary," by the religious element, what I was really saying is that the spiritual aspects of the book gave me new insights into myself. That insight is what made me say, "Ah, ha, this book is "true," regardless of how much of it is factual. It follows, then, since all of us are different, and, particularly, religious experience is far from universal, that there will be some people who will read the book and not receive any insights into themselves and accordingly, will not have the "ah ha, this book is true," moment. But it's worth giving this book a try. Needless to say, I gave it five stars on my one to five scale.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Book Report; "Houseboating in the Ozarks"

I first got to know Gary Forrester as the fictional character, "Skidmore" in Philip Deaver's wonderful collection of short stories, Silent Retreats, (winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction.) I got interested in Deaver's collection of stories (which came out in 1988) because he grew up in Tuscola, just seven miles up the road from the little town, Arcola, in which I grew up in central Illinois. Although Forrester, Deaver and I all graduated from high school in 1964, I didn't know them until recently. It was my loss. (More about Deaver in a couple of months when he comes to my house to meet with our reading group to discuss his new book of poetry, How Men Pray, and a short story, Lowell and the Rolling Thunder Review, recently published in The Kenyon Review.)

We (I'm not trying to be presumptious here, putting myself in the same category as Forrester and Deaver, but I have to tell you why these books interest me) all left central Illinois soon after high school. I returned here 15 years later, and here I still am; living a rather dull life. Deaver lives in Florida where he teaches English at a small college and writes fiction and poetry, for which he has won acclaim. It is hard to describe Forrester; for one thing because I do not know him all that well, despite having read about him (as Skidmore) 15 years ago, and having gotten to know him personally in the last year.

What I do know about Forrester is that he has lived an adventurous life and he is enormously talented. Since he left the 'cola's some 40 years ago, he has lived in South America (to avoid the draft in the Vietnam era;) on an American Indian reservation where he worked in a legal aid clinic, became an expert on Indian law and wrote a treatise on Indian law; lived in Australia for many years, where he taught aboriginal law, worked in a legal aid clinic, and was involved in a long-running libel lawsuit that eventually brought down the government; wrote music and played in a bluegrass band that won awards in Australia and the United States; managed an organic farm in the middle of the Wombat Forest; taught at the University of Illinois law school; practiced law in a plaintiff-oriented class-action law firm and lived a colorful personal life (the details of which I will not try to recite because I am not sure how much of what I believe I know is fact and how much is fiction and even if I told the parts I am pretty sure are factual, you would think they are fictional)

Forrester's latest exploit is writing a book, Houseboating in the Ozarks, a book of fiction, although readers will be forgiven for believing that there are some hard facts behind the veneer of make-believe. In mid-October, our reading group read the book and then discussed it with Forrester participating by speaker phone from Wellington, New Zealand, to which he has recently emmigrated, to again work in a legal clinic.

The book is an extraordinary book, in my opinion. Not "extraordinary" as a first book or "extraordinary" as a book set in the Midwest, but "extraordinary" as in "unusual merit." It would be a good book,well written and interesting to read without the spiritual aspects, but what makes it extraordinary is the religious element. The book is as hard to describe as its author. So, I'm going to take the easy way and simply quote from a synopsis Forrester wrote for his agent (a copy of which he recently sent me to share with my reading group):

General comment: Houseboating in the Ozarks (“Houseboat”) is in a “framed” format, with the main story sandwiched between a fictional editor’s foreword and afterword. The body of the novel is told in third-person limited. It is the story of a nine-day circular journey through the heart of the American Midwest. Its theme is nicely stated in the words of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

First Chapter: We learn that the protagonist is one Christian Leonard Hooker, 57 years of age, and that his existential musings are a commingling of the sacred and the profane. The table is set with characters we will see again from time to time. Chris & family travel from central Illinois to Chicago, where Chris’s wife Kazzie and her daughter board a plane for Australia. Chris tries to connect with his perceptive son Sean, but it becomes clear that they are talking to each other from parallel universes. Through flashbacks (triggered by a horrible car crash that Chris passes along the way), we are introduced to Chris’s out-of-wedlock daughter Jishel, her new-age mother Miriam, and Chris’s old pal from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Cheeto High Bear.

Following a Wizard-of-Oz walking spree along Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s Loop, where Chris introduces his nine-year-old twins (Razor and Sharon) to his shoplifting skills, he and the twins spend the night at his youngest sister Carol’s place in a wealthy Chicago suburb. An ancient photo of his now-ancient parents haunts him as he drifts off to sleep.

In this first chapter, we have established several common denominators that will link the various stages of the journey – weird car crashes; indigenous spirituality; alienation from conventional religion; an obsession with the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball team; failures to communicate; bluegrass music; and nostalgia for times that cannot be clearly recalled and for people who were never what they seemed.

Second Chapter: After breakfast, Chris and the twins head back home for the start of their real journey. Along the way, they stop at the scene of yesterday’s crash and pick up a fellow traveler – a “Dopey the Dwarf” doll that will take on a role similar to that of “Wilson” the soccer ball in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway.

Before departing on the main journey, Chris takes Razor and Sharon to church, where he indulges his preaching fantasy, Walter Mitty-style. Chris then purloins a few dvd’s from the local Blockbuster (for the car’s dvd-player), and they are on their way. The table is set with some family history as Chris and the kids roll along the “hillbilly highway” of Chris’s ancestry – but the kids aren’t very interested in this old stuff. Still, it gets in Chris’s head, and through the third-person limited narrator, we see the basis for Chris’s childhood pain and existential angst.

Not surprisingly, there is another car crash, and although Chris acquits himself somewhat better this time (helping to rescue the victims), it is becoming clear that he is not armed with a normal capacity for feeling what others are feeling. They pass the Cahokia Indian Mounds outside St. Louis, which leads to a flashback to Italy, where Chris behaved like an idiot not that long ago. Francis of Assisi is introduced into the story – he will play a bigger role later as Chris’s faux epiphany unfolds.

They set up camp for the night near the Meramac Caverns. For some reason, Chris is deliriously happy. He tells Razor & Sharon a long night-time story about his crazy parents’ visit to Australia, years ago, when Chris & Kazzie & kids lived back-to-nature in a remote eucalypt forest.

Third Chapter: In the morning of the third day, Chris & the kids go through the Meramac Caverns, somewhat in the style of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Razor and Sharon annoy the hell out of everybody, to Chris’s delight.

After packing up tent & sleeping bags, they see an Australian hitch-hiker and pick him up. He’s o.k., but when they finally drop him off in Rolla, Missouri, he shows them a gun that gets Chris all shook up. He flashes back to his last hitch-hiker, a Lakota woman from South Dakota named Brenda Which Woman, who also had a weapon with her. This aside about Brenda Which Woman, danger, and sex bridges Chris’s remembrances of Miriam (in Chapter One) and Chris’s Aboriginal lover Yolanda Possum (who has already made a cameo appearance and who figures more prominently later).

After dropping off the Australian hitch-hiker, Chris and the twins travel on to the Ozarks. Their first stop is Branson, a real hell-hole of American schmaltz. They get out of Branson asap and go to the houseboat rental office.

Their first evening on the houseboat goes well – family singing, a barbecue on the back of the boat, a dvd. But after going to sleep, Chris wakes up in the middle of the night to pee and discovers that hurricane-force winds are pounding the lake around him. To make matters worse, the boat has become untied from the shore. Chris is scared shitless in the lightning and thunder around him.

After calming down Sharon, who woke during the storm, he tries to figure his way out of this predicament. Eventually, he climbs naked into the turbulent water, suffers an injury, but finally succeeds in re-tying the boat to the shore. The boat starts to rock like a cradle; Chris thinks sadly about his mother and father, years ago, and drops off to sleep.

Fourth Chapter: The morning is peaceful. They get breakfast and a newspaper at a nearby marina, and learn that the storm had been truly hellacious. This perturbs Razor, who slept through it all, and he pouts magnificently.

They spend the rest of the day having a Huck Finn-style adventure on Table Rock Lake. As the kids operate the houseboat, Chris tends to his sore back on the couch. He reminisces about two of his older children, far away in Australia, and that memory segues to a truly horrific episode in Chris’s Australian life, where a married lover of his was murdered by her husband. At the end of these bundle-of-joy flashbacks, Chris counts on one finger the number of friends he has in the world, and even that friend (a Florida novelist who has modeled his most successful character – a rakish sociopath – on Chris) is more fantasy than fact. Maybe Chris’s remoteness from normal human feeling is a protective device that he’s developed over the years to deal with harsh realities.

Still, there are the twins. He clearly loves them to death. They find a tiny island, and continue Huck Finning. When the stars come out, one by one, they lie down on the island and try to imagine how small they are. For all three of the Hookers – Christian, Razor, and Sharon – the wonderful “great mystery” (Wakan Tanka) of existence is profoundly felt, even if not understood.

The kids go off to sleep in their sleeping-bags on the island, and Chris wades out to the houseboat to work pro bono on a legal brief for his old Aboriginal lover, Yolanda Possum, whose estranged son Cuffy is on death row in Florida. Chris writes down the pros and cons of Cuffy’s defense on a yellow legal pad, and recalls his time with Yolanda, first in the outback, later in Melbourne. Chris and Yolanda had nearly brought down an entire government as a result of Chris’s semi-ethical legal representation of her in a sexual harassment case.

When Chris finishes working on the brief, he watches the old Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie, Bridges of Madison County, and gets annoyed by the phoniness of it all. It has become clear through these first four chapters that Chris is, in some ways, more at home in movies than he is in real life.

Fifth Chapter: More calm after the storm. More Huck Finning. Chris gets lost briefly in the middle of the lake, but works it out and they head back to the marina to return the houseboat. Chris and the twins rejoin Dopey in the Windstar and head for Independence, Missouri. They stop for lunch at Smith’s Restaurant in Collins, Missouri, where Chris catches up on the Cardinals’ scores. He phones Sean back in Illinois to check on the pets, and all are fine. Chris drifts off into memories of Sean and pets generally – Chris has not been a good custodian of family animals over the years.

The main story in this flashback is concerned with zebra finches, and in particular a female who, for a time, occupied a miner’s canary niche in Chris’s consciousness as a “main squeeze” between human lovers. This tale-within-a-tale about the zebra finch is as close as Houseboating in the Ozarks gets to overt eroticism. For the most part, a lot of sex has obviously taken place off-stage, but it doesn’t make it to the main story.

When Chris and the kids get to his sister’s home in Independence (a different sister, Lauren), his aging mother Alma Ruth is there too. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. Still, something in Chris’s weird chemistry keeps him from showing any warmth. She has brought with her a stack of family photograph albums, her most prized possessions that she will leave to her adult children. But Chris disappoints by not being very interested.

What he is interested in is an old scrapbook, somewhere in the mix, that shows him on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation with his old pal Cheeto High Bear. It turns out that Cheeto had died under mysterious circumstances involving a Lakota spirit, known as the Buffalo Calf Woman, and the sacred pipe of the tribe. As Chris is showing these old photos of Cheeto to the twins, he comes as close as we have seen him to genuine sadness for another. It was Cheeto, he tells Razor & Sharon, who taught him to play bluegrass.

Lauren is furious with Chris because of his remoteness from their mother. But Chris is unmoved, or at least appears to be. Before going to bed, he phones Kazzie in Australia. He catches up on her stories about his old Australian friends and his older kids who are still living there. The world seems huge and alien. In the words of the Bob Dylan song, “everything is broken.”

Sixth Chapter: Chris goes for a walk in Independence, and gets into a one-on-one basketball game with a local high-school player. Chris wins the game by throwing his weight around, and can’t resist bragging about it to Lauren over breakfast. Naturally, she becomes even more pissed off with him. She gives him tickets to an amusement park known as “Oceans of Fun,” just to get rid of him and the kids for the day. Chris and the kids have a great time there, and it’s becoming clearer that Chris’s true comfort zone is at the emotional-maturity level of a nine-year-old.

That night, Lauren’s husband tries to engage Chris in some heavy-duty discussion about existentialism and mysticism, but Chris won’t bite. He does, however, look through some more of Alma Ruth’s photo albums, and gets a little sad as he goes through his baseball card collection from the 1950s. So long ago.

Seventh Chapter: Chris sneaks out of Independence, with the kids, in the morning. They are now headed back across Missouri towards Illinois. They stop for lunch at a rat-hole known as New Florence, Missouri, which gets Chris flashing back again to Italy and the real Florence. He was at his anti-intellectual worst in Florence, pouting because of the endless throngs of American tourists, while Kazzie & the kids went the Uffizi, the Duomo, the Galleria dell’Accademia, etc.

After lunch, they move along the highway to St. Louis, Chris solipsistically listening to his own recordings on the car’s stereo as the kids watch a dvd, What About Bob?, that reminds them of their dad. When they get to their St. Louis hotel, they can’t get in for a while because a woman is standing on the top floor waiting to jump to her death. After that crisis is over, they check in. Chris is at his worst, parking in a disabled spot, then laying the foundation for a lawsuit against the hotel when Razor gets a speck of window glass in his foot (left-over glass from the suicide attempt).

The big event of this seventh day of the trip is taking in a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game. Razor & Sharon aren’t thrilled with this, but they are nice and indulge Chris’s neurosis. Before the game, they have dinner at a TGI Friday’s, and while they are waiting for their food, Chris demonstrates an amazing prowess at drawing pirate ships on the paper table cloth. Razor and Sharon are amazed, because they didn’t think Chris could draw anything, and these pirate ships are truly magnificent. Chris pontificates about Jackson Pollack and Philip Guston.

The Cardinals lose the game in the surreal lights of Busch Stadium, as Chris glows in the crowd and re-lives childhood moments for a couple of hours. Razor and Sharon busy themselves collecting plastic souvenir cups that fans are discarding.

Back in the hotel room after the game, the kids go to sleep and Chris mixes the sacred and profane in dramatic fashion by first reading the Gideons Bible, then turning on the television for some soft porn. He doesn’t get worked up, however, and looks at the porn as if he were a high school scientist dissecting a frog. He falls asleep obsessing about death – his, his kids’, Cheeto High Bear’s – mumbling some Dylan Thomas to try to make some sense of it all.

Eighth Chapter: Next morning, a Saturday, Chris takes the kids to the zoo. The St. Louis Zoo has been a Hooker staple for generations, and Alma Ruth’s scrapbook was filled with photos going back as far as 1904, when Alma Ruth’s grandparents posed for a photo with Geronimo at the World’s Fair (now the site of the Zoo). Chris and the kids visit puffins and penguins and scrawny kangaroos – the kangaroos are depressing, and totally unlike the robust specimens that used to roam freely around them in their eucalypt forest. They mate shamelessly in front of Chris and the twins, and for a moment Chris is back in his frog lab – the kangaroos might as well be the same actors Chris watched the night before in his hotel room.

They have to get to their campground at Pere Marquette (across the border in Illinois) before nightfall. Chris had been to Pere Marquette as a young boy, fifty years ago, and he tries to walk around with Razor & Sharon to show them his old stomping grounds, but absolutely everything he remembered is gone, replaced by new stone buildings and fancy facilities. After setting up their tent, they drive back along the Mississippi to the strange little town of Elsah, a Christian Scientist haven, which connects dots back to Chris’s “hillbilly highway” where Christian Scientists played a big role in the Hookers’ ancestral history. Chris’s recollection includes a few hints about Quincy, Illinois, which is up-river tomorrow (Sunday). Something big is going to happen there, so the stage is set for that moment.

Back in their tent, Chris and the kids draw and listen to jazz on a St. Louis station, especially John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. (Chris, naturally, draws pirate ships, the same one over and over again.) After the kids go to sleep, Chris recollects an Australian courtroom scene where he lost custody of his oldest children, making a fool of himself by appearing pro se against a brilliant barrister. The turning point in the case was the production of his Florida friend’s novel, Groin Damage, in which the Hooker-based character is a womanizing rogue who would not be a good candidate for single-fatherhood. Chris recalls how humiliated he was – but he deserved it.

Ninth Chapter: After breakfast at Pere Marquette, Chris and the kids climb a hill along the Mississippi River, which prompts a friendly debate. The kids think the hill and the surrounding forest are reminiscent of their home in the Australian eucalypts; Chris thinks it’s more like Cinque Terre in Italy, where Chris wandered alone in the hills as Kazzie and kids swam in Monterosso al Mare.

Then they head to Hannibal, through Illinois backwaters, and sure enough there is another car crash, this one resulting in an animal fatality. Chris borrows a shovel and buries the dog, complete with a dramatic Franciscan homily to his captive audience.

In Hannibal, they pay homage to the Huck Finn tourist traps, and also to the home of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, a Hannibal native. Sharon starts wailing away with the theme song from “Titanic,” to Chris’s amusement. Then it’s on to Quincy, Illinois, one of Chris’s childhood homes. First, he discovers that he does not have a Franciscan connection after all, because his old grade school was named for a different St. Francis. His whole Italian fantasy is dismantled.

Then they decide to take in a mid-day Mass at the old chapel of his youth, and Chris has the long-anticipated epiphany as he walks under a gigantic gothic mural of the face of Jesus, the monstrous image that was etched into his nine-year-old soul.
As with most of Chris’s big-time moments, he quickly settles down. Chris is a frustrating protagonist – just when he is on the verge of discovering something important, he withdraws, over and over again. He almost wills that his big moments pass him by.

Epilogue: After completing the circular journey to home, Chris goes to Chicago once again to pick up Kazzie and his step-daughter, who have returned from Australia. Everything is lovey-dovey on the way downstate, but sure enough, there is another car crash, this one the weirdest of all, involving a cocaine-induced suicide in a corn-field by one of the drivers. Kazzie shields the twins’ eyes from the horrible scene.

Life settles back down, and one day Chris strolls across the street for pre-Mass confession. At first he wonders what the hell he’s doing in the confessional, but the priest talks him into staying, and Chris manages to think up a sin worth confessing. It is the death of the woman he’d had the affair with back in Australia, the woman whose husband killed her. He knows that he was responsible for that, even though he didn’t pull the trigger, and he says so. The priest forgives him and imposes an unusual penance – just to stare at the large crucifix behind the altar. Chris does so, and he sees there a mystical connection with everything and everyone in his life. All of the characters who have appeared in this novel come together in the outstretched icon, and Chris finds himself strangely at peace. But the final paragraphs of the novel suggest that, as always, this peace will only last for a short time. Moments later, Chris is unimpressed with the reading from the gospel, that Jesus was tested like the rest of us in every way, except sin. “Some test,” says Christian Leonard Hooker. “Some test.”

To which I can only say, "Some insight!"

Friday, November 17, 2006

Reading Group Report: Our Guest Wins a Big Award

I'm in a reading group that usually meets every three to four weeks at our house. A little more than a year ago, we read a book by Richard Powers, called
The Time of Our Singing, a brilliant novel about race relations in America, music and a lot more.

I had gotten turned on to Powers about 20 years ago with his first book, Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, solely because I had picked up the book from a display about local authors in one of our local bookstores. (It is not really fair to call Powers a "local" author because he has reached international acclaim, but he does live a few blocks from my brothers, at least part of the time.) In any event, one of our reading group members is a friend of Powers and invited him to attend our meeting when we discussed his book. He was very gracious; spending more than an hour with us, eating and drinking our usual reading group refreshments, popcorn and cider.

Powers has an intensity and a seriousness that is almost scary. He treated each question and comment as if it was coming from a renowned literary scholar instead of some local yokel, and gave careful replies with a consideration that honored us beyond what we deserved. One of the questions, naturally, was about what he was working on next and he mentioned a book that is set in the Platte River country of Nebraska and explores the limits of human intelligence. Well, the book is out now, and this week it was announced that The Echo Maker has won the National Book Award for fiction, one of the highest, if not the highest, prizes given in the United States for fiction (I don't know the arguments about whether the Pulitzer ranks higher or lower than the National Book Award.)

I am trying to get some other authors to make personal appearances for our reading group, and we have one scheduled for January 7th, about which I will tell more later. My pitch is that every author who has ever personally appeared for our group has won The National Book Award. I'm hoping that Patry Francis, who regularly checks by and has her first book coming out in March is reading this and lets some of our luck rub off on her.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Son Report: Metamorphosis II

I apologize for having two posts in a row about my youngest son, the violinist/composer, but that seems to be how the stars are aligned right now. I do not intend to turn this blog into a p.r. vehicle for Chris, but I write about what interests me and right now there are interesting things going on with him. Google has this handy feature that constantly prowls the internet and sends me an email if it finds anything relating to either of my two sons. (This is how I found out that my oldest son is a prolific song parodist and that he writes poetry.)

In any event, Google this morning directed me to composer, Jeff Myers' website, on which he has posted descriptions of various pieces he has written and excerpts of some of their performances, one of which is by a quartet in which Chris was one of the violinists. This is very listenable, even for ears not yet attuned to new music. The description is from the website:

"Metamorphosis II for string quartet (2002) 23’

"Metamorphosis II, a string quartet in one movement, is a tour-de force, traversing quiet sonorities, amorphous textures, driving rhythms, and lyrical outpourings. Most of the musical motives and melodies are remotely derived from the R&B tune California Soul. Although this tune is never heard, elements of it pervade the piece is various guises. Metamorphosis II was written on a commissioning grant from the Fromm Foundation and premiered at the Eastman School of Music by Christopher Otto, Yuki Numata, Kirsten Swanson, and Kevin McFarland in February of 2003.

Metamorphosis II (premiere performance)
excerpt from beginning
excerpt from middle
excerpt from near end

Monday, November 06, 2006

Son Report: "Faces of Death," "Sharks with Wings" and "Jason and Chris"

Those of you who have been long-time friends or readers of this blog since its beginning (about a year ago) know that I have a son, who is a violinist and of whom I am quite proud. He did a concert on November 1 in Encinitas, CA with composer/pianist,
Richard Carrick, and now I find out that he is playing under the auspices of an organization called Bowerbird in Philadelphia on December 16th at LAVA(Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Space.) I take it from its website that LAVA is a place where various radicals and anarchists hang out, just the kind of venue that would appeal to Chris.

Chris will be performing with Cellist Jason Calloway. They will be doing works by Ravel, Xenakis, Pintscher, Hurt and Wilson, as well as the world premiere of a new work by Chris, as yet untitled (as a father, I sure hope as yet not unwritten!)

Also on the program that night will be a sax duo called "Faces of Death," with David Gross and Bhob Rainey, and an electronics trio called Sharks With Wings, "an experimental noise collective." This is not music for the squeamish. After seeing the names of the other groups who will be playing that night, I'm somewhat relieved that Chris's group has the innocuous name of "Colloway/Otto Duo."

In any event, my wife and I will be flying into Philly in the early afternoon of the 16th, taking in the concert and flying out early Sunday morning, but if there are any blog readers in the area who would like to get together to help brace us up with some liquid refreshments (or to recover afterwards)
let me know. My email address is: I will, of course, make a full report in this space.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Book Report: "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Today is November 3rd, time for members of Patry Francis's Third Day Book Club to blog about Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is set in the late 1960s when a part of southeastern Nigeria tried to secede to form its own country, the state of Biafra. The rebellion was crushed by January, 1970, but not before millions of people died, mostly because of illnesses and starvation.

Biafra was more than a name of some place far away to me in the late 1960s because our small college, which had a robust international student presence, had several Biafran women studying there. I believe the student newspaper, on which I worked, even had an article about Biafra. But this book is another example of fiction being able to convey a better sense of the "truth," than a mere recitation of the facts. Reading the "fact" that millions of people died of starvation in Biafra does not convey the horror of what happened like reading a book in which you, the reader, become intimately acquainted with an upper middle class, educated, family that goes over the course of several years, from having Western-style dinner parties to watching helplessly as the stomach of their little child becomes distended from malnutrition.

The story is essentially about twin sisters, Olanna, and Kainene, whose father is a corrupt businessman and who go from a life of privilege to a life in which they are fighting for their very survival. The horror of the story, for people like me and most readers of blogs, is in realizing that this could happen to us. How long after a terrorist attack that shut down the electrical grid in the United States before we would be fighting for fried lizards?

And yet, despite the horrors depicted in the book, this is not, overall, a depressing book that is hard to read. The characters maintain a humanity, even when some of them, like Ugwu, the houseboy, commit unspeakable crimes. And there is a basic sense of optimism in the future that is conveyed throughout the book. Although much of the optimism is misguided because even intelligent people believe their leaders' propaganda that they are winning the war, even when they are losing, the overall tone of the book is upbeat, not bleak, like for example, George Orwell's 1984, or Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, both of which were books I wish I had not read. And this is not because everything turns out fine for all of the main characters in the end. They do not.

On the dust jacket, Joyce Carol Oates compares this book and its author, Adichie, to Chinua Achebe, another Nigerian writer, and his book, Things Fall Apart, which is sometimes called the "seminal African novel in English." The time depicted by Achebe is the immediate post-colonial era while Half of a Yellow Sun takes place 20 years later after Nigeria has had some experience governing itself. Half of a Yellow Sun is a logical successor to Achebe's book in that it certainly depicts how things have fallen apart. And yet, there is a sense of hope in Adiche's book that I did not get in Achebe's.

My main criticism of the book is that the writing is not always smooth. Perhaps I got spoiled after recently reading Jeffrey Euginedes tour de force, Middlesex. Euginedes writes seamlessly, shifting time and perspective clearly, while I found myself getting confused at times by Adiche, going on for a number of pages before I finally figured out that we were in a retrospective.

Although the writing style leaves something to be desired, the shortcomings of Half of a Yellow Sun, are more than compensated for by the story, which, after all, is why we read fiction. I gave the book four out of five stars.

For other perspectives on this book, follow the link to Simply Wait, which will have links to about 20 bloggers who have read this book and are reviewing it today.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Movie Report: "The Departed"

I'm tempted to trash Martin Scorsese's latest movie, The Departed, just to be perverse. Scorses is one of those directors that professional critics love to love. At Metacritic, a website that compiles reviews and gives composite scores to movies, The Departed comes in at 85 (out of 100) points, the highest-rated movie currently playing. As usual, I think the professional critics are rating The Departed based on its director's previous works more than the intrinsic merits of the movie itself.

Granted, Scorsese has an impressive body of work. He has proven that he knows how to make good movies with Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, and The Aviator. But, as cruel as it sounds to say it, that was then. What have you done for us lately, Mr. Scorsese?

Warning: Plot Spoiler Ahead!

In the first place, there is nothing exciting or innovative about the story. The movie is a remake of a Chinese movie, Mou gaan dou (English title, Infernal Affairs). If you like lots of blood and gore with your cup of green tea, nobody brews that concoction like Hong Kong film makers. The story, basically, is about two young men in the Massachusetts State Police, Sullivan, played by Matt Damon, who comes from a long line of Irish cops, and Costigan, played by Leonardo DeCaprio, who comes from a family of outlaws and ne'r-do-wells. One of them is a mole infilitrating the mob; the other is a mole infiltrating the police. Guess which is which. Ho, hum, how many times have we read and seen that story?

DeCaprio, particularly, does a great job in his role. He proved to me in The Aviator that he is an actor, not just a pretty face, but, nevertheless, I was surprised at how good he was. I thought Damon, also, did an excellent job, but the rest of the all-star cast turn in forgettable performances. I was particularly irritated at seeing Jack Nicholson, once again playing the arched-eyebrow devil with the familiar sneer and mannerisms, when About Schmidt proved to me that he is capable of so much more. The cast also includes Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and other familiar names, none of whom gave particularly noteworthy performances.

Despite the temptation to trash the movie out of irritation, I am not going to do it. This is an average Hollywood movie, the one the suits come up with when they want to make sure the movie makes money and sells pop and popcorn. Take a time-worn formula, insert big name actors and directors and serve. A lot worse movies have been made and are out there in the multiplexes right now. I rated it three stars out of five, which is average.