Saturday, February 27, 2016

elements of style

This is not the Strunk & White version, but the title is inspired by a copy of that book. Elements of Style is a story of the upper echelons of New York socialite society, and what its like to live on the outskirts of that group looking in. One gets the feeling pretty quickly that Wendy Wasserstein knows a little about which she speaks, and if I'm not mistaken has written herself into the story. Her avatar is Frankie Weissman, a nice, well mannered and caring pediatrician who is well know enough to be sought after by the social queen bees, and she takes care of their children.

Frankie's eye is the lens through which we view this twisted group of men and women, but it seems pretty clear that the majority of the movers and shakers are the women, and Frankie has access to their private discussions and plots. And its seems like plots is the right word, for some in any event.

Some have clear sights on moving up the social ladder, and seem prepared to do whatever is necessary to elevate themselves, even at the expense of others. I suppose we already knew that, but its hard to read about it in some ways. As amusing as this book is, and it is funny, its also a little depressing. I guess I'd call it a dark comedy.

Frankie's small group of acquaintances is a loosely knit bunch that all seem to know each other business, but often not directly from one another, but rather through the grapevine of gossip and rumor. There are those that thrive on the rumor mill, and propagate its growth, presumably so that they can feed from it at a later date, and there are others that don't seem to care, and are merely hung out on it occasionally. I've never watched 'Sex in the City,' but from the endless ads and pop culture surrounding it, I think we all know enough about it that I can compare this to that series, with the only caveat that this story doesn't seem as exclusively focused on the women as 'Sex in the City' seems like it is; rather a group of men and women, perhaps 10 years older, with tween age children.

An interesting read, copyrighted in 2006, but is set in New York in the year or so after 9/11. Wendy Wasserstein was an award winning playwright of plays such as The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig. She died in 2006 of leukemia.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

haiku meditations

I guess you could say Haiku Inspirations is a coffee table book, although those are usually larger affairs with lots of glossy pictures. This book is much smaller, more of a gift shop book. You know the kind they sell in museum shops.

Tom Lowenstein seems to know his business and tells the story of the history of haiku in a series of short essays about various well known authors, their followers, the political climate they lived in and the other religious and artistic influences on the form. Victoria James is listed as a co-author.

The book does have beautiful photographs and imagery, including yamato-e (painting), shodo (calligraphy) and woodblock prints. At the end of each 2 or 3 page chapter is a double page spread of 3 haiku some calligraphy (presumably related) on suitable background image.

One of the useful pieces of information I came away with is this feeling of aware; melancholy or sadness that permeates haiku. It's a sadness born of joy it seems to me; an understanding or the impermanence of things. A dew drop is lovely mainly because it is so evanescent. Haiku is meant to capture or at least remind one of these precious tiny moments in nature. Another structural concept is kigo which are season words, nearly always referred to either directly or through any number of key words or phrases that refer to the season. Snow for winter, or cherry blossoms for spring, for example.

As far as inspiration goes, I guess it worked. Here's mine for winter, preceded by three drafts. I left the drafts because I think they help show the progression for where I started--thinking about my favorite imagery from winter--to where I ended up; a very specific moment in time. The rabbit tracks are fleeting and will quickly be covered over by the snow, the branches dip under the weight of the snow.

Snow rests quietly on the
Evergreen branches] draft 1

[Moonlight shines softly
Snow, slipping quietly from
Evergreen branches. ] draft 2

[Snow in the moonlight
Clinging in soft mounds on the
Evergreen branches.] draft 3

Snow in the moonlight;
A rabbit has left her tracks.
Evergreen boughs dip. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

art forger

B.A. Shapiro writes a fast paced, fun-to-read novel, that doesn't require a lot of heavy lifting by the reader. In fact, there were a couple of minor plot holes, that Shapiro wrote around pretty well. As long as you're not bothered by that, this story moved along at a quick pace.

Shapiro spends some time in The Art Forger talking about both the techniques involved in copying an old painting, as well as the history of the painting, the original painter (Degas) and his patron (Isabella Stewart Gardner.) It was fun to read a story about the history and intrigues (albeit, fictional) of this local museum and its eccentric founder, and to hear about how forgeries may have been done.

Shapiro took some liberties with the history of the museum, its construction, the personal affairs of Gardner herself, the paints included in the collection, and those stolen in the major heist a number of year ago, even the existence of certain relatives and extant descendants. Like I said, it was fun but its harder to suspend disbelieve when the story revolving around such as well-known local personality is stretched this way.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

system of the world

The System of the World is the third and final volume of The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson, and baroque is right. I've never read a story so ornamented, festooned, and gilded as this trilogy. Stephenson seems to have gotten lost in the research of the period, and then in the minutiae of his storyline and its characters. There are letters, secret messages, stories taken from broadsheets, and the text of entire pamphlets and libels, discovered under the feet of the characters as they walked about London in the early 1700s; garlands, embellishments, ornaments, and flourishes, all, to the main story. Stephenson doesn't tell the story, so much as take us there. With all of the stink, coal soot, pockmarks, and horse dung hanging on to us as we wander with him, and learn the details of this story with him. The sub-plots all have sub-sub-plots, and Stephenson juggles them all masterfully.
And the cast of characters is enormous; I may have mentioned in my review of the first book that it included a Cast of Characters in the frontmatter. If I hadn't borrowed that volume from the library, I may have gone back to it a few times, as nearly everyone has a title, or two. Just keeping track of the Natural Philosophers alone is difficult enough, never mind the lords and ladies, French, English, German, and other wise, soldiers, pirates, vagabonds, and thieves, clock-makers, counterfeiters, jailers, and executioners. No character is so minor, that we don't learn a little bit about him or her, and perhaps their family.

I was reminded of Herman Melville in some of the detail Stephenson provided, altho I'm happy to report there are few whole chapters dedicated to the history, construction and use of harpoons. Stephenson himself honors two novelists in his acknowledgements--a multi-page affair in the backmatter-- Alexandre Dumas, and Dorothy Dunnett. I don't know Dorothy Dunnett, but I'm going to look her up based on this mention alone.

Not everyone is up for a 3000 page novel, so you need to in it for the long haul. This is a novel form that seems to be designed to entertain, night after night, in the years and centuries before television and movies. I can imagine dark, candle-lit nights, coal fires and quiet reading for an hour or two before bedtime. If you are that type of reader I'm looking at you Chuck then read this book. All three of them.