Saturday, August 23, 2014

Holling C. and Lucille Holling: The Book of Indians

From Walter Giersbach. You may also want to read Giersbach's essay on Holling and his Paddle to the Sea from April 2008.

The Book of Indians:
Working from Points of Authenticity

I’ve eagerly anticipated reviewing The Book of Indians.  But first I had to buy the book ($12, used, through Amazon).  And read it, pushing aside other commitments.  And doing some background investigation.

It’s necessary to begin by repeating that Holling and his wife Lucille were, among all their other qualities, authentic writers, illustrators, naturalists and historians.  After marrying in 1925, they traveled extensively throughout the Southwest.  (Holling’s first exposure had been a year-long stay in New Mexico after graduating college in 1923.)

Their work reflected their knowledge, as described by Hazel Gibb Hinman in her Master’s thesis in 1958.  She reports that in 1929, they stayed at the Nine Quarter Circle guest ranch northwest of Yellowstone Park, helping design the buildings.  Traveling that winter up to Alberta, Canada, they took a tepee for camping.  (Going to search for tent poles, they came back to find tribeswomen had already set up their tent.)  After returning to the ranch to finish their work, they went on to Lubbock, Texas, to paint murals.  Then it was out to California, sketching and writing, with their Coleman stove, tent and camping equipment.  Never staying overlong in one place, they drove back to Phoenix at rodeo time where they drew and painted, selling their work to finance their travels.  (Ms. Hinman notes that in 1934 Holling demonstrated his fire-making skills at a luncheon lecture, starting a fire with two sticks in just seven minutes and so impressing a club member that he asked Holling to design his restaurant.)

That was just the winter of 1929, and all the while Holling and Lucille were making notes and sketches for two collaborative landmark books, The Book of Indians, (published in 1935 by Platt & Munk) and The Book of Cowboys (published a year later).

The Book of Indians attempts a grand perspective on North American tribes people in 13 chapters:  An introduction into the “types of Indians living in different kinds of country,” four chapters about the home life of children and eight chapters relating their adventures.  The book is essentially divided geographically among People of the Forests and Lakes, the Plains, the Deserts and Mesas, and the Rivers and the Seas

There are six beautiful colored illustrations in the plein-art style of the Southwest, plus many, many  sidebar illustrations of children, their homes, tools and weapons, graphic artwork, and animals.  The sepia pen-and-ink style drawings make a reader linger and digest each detail of the small pictures in the margins.

A critical element of this children’s book is the cultural and historical distinctions made by the Hollings.  The Native American nations were as different as the European countries, and this is explained in the first chapter.  Most dramatically, the Plains Indians changed radically from planters to hunters when horses were introduced in the 1600s.  The horse might well have been the cultural equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

I believe we can forgive someone writing in the 1930s about misconceptions that today would be viewed as culturally suspect.  Columbus did not think he had arrived in India.  (The Spanish term might originally have been hijos in Dios—children of God.)  And when a tribes person died it’s insensitive to say “He went to the Happy Hunting Ground.”  But these lapses are rare in comparison to the facts that abound: how teepees are constructed and how they evolved, tool-making, housing adapted to the environment, and plant life that forms lifestyles.  Happily, the Hollings provide a glossary of 31 words any pre-teen child should be familiar with.

The Book of Indians is first and foremost educational — and of particular value to home-schooled children.  The writing is generally expository, with touches of drama to make the lesson more amiable.  The narratives of the children, who are the main characters driving each of the geographical sections, are somewhat two-dimensional.  In this, Holling’s narrative ability developed tremendously in the decade until Paddle-to-the-Sea was published.  However, the Indian children’s plotting and personalities do grow toward the end when Raven joins the whale hunt and almost drowns (pp. 109-110) and when the slave child Cedar Bough negotiates her freedom by finding a great cache of copper (pp. 115-118).

The success of Holling’s writing also lies in its simplicity.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea has a Fog Index of 6.9, meaning 91% of everyday words we use are more difficult to read.  His Flesch Reading Index score is 75.2, meaning 90% of other vocabulary is harder.  (A Flesch score of 90-100 means the writing is understood by an average 11-year-old.)  And no one complains because something is too simple.  Or because it lacks entertainment.  So generations return to Holling Clancy Holling’s remarkable writing — and his wife’s collaborative illustration — year after year.

July 7, 2014

Graham Greene's The Tenth Man

Walter Giersbach reviews Graham Greene. You can (will be happy to) find more writings by Walter Giersbach at

What Would You Trade for Your Life?

Graham Greene is a truly amazing writer for having “outlined” a novella — 30,000 words — that lay fallow from 1948 until it was discovered at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1987 and finally published.

“The Tenth Man” takes place in wartime France.  Thirty men have been imprisoned by the Gestapo, who insist three must die — the prisoners are to choose which.  Jean-Louis Charlot, the lawyer, trades his marked ballot in return for giving another prisoner his house and all his belongings.  Upon being released, Charlot drifts back to the home he once owned to find young Thérèse and her aged mother (the dead man’s sister and mother) occupying the estate.

Never admitting who he is, Charlot receives all the anger the young woman has for the man who bargained away her brother’s life.

Without reprising the plot — the criminal who appears claiming he was the rightful owner of the estate and who accuses Charlot of being the charlatan and two other characters who are simply plot devices — this story offers a tight examination of guilt and the search for absolution.  Greene presents a deep examination of remorse and redemption within a tightly written plot of accusations, deception and lies.  The writing is extremely tight, with no extraneous description that doesn’t move the plot forward.

A specific time period frames the story, when the Nazis still occupied France, but it is a universal story of fear and cowardice that leads to spiritual emancipation.

You will remember Greene, probably, for his “Our Man in Havana” and “The Quiet American,” both of which were made into movies with, respectively, Alec Guinness and Michael Caine.  It was while Greene was working on “The Third Man” under contract with MGM that he remembers dashing off the story line of “The Tenth Man.”  Thirty-five years later, MGM (which owned the copyright) had the book published, with Greene’s revisions.  Is it too late for MGM or another studio or film maker to put this story on the screen?  Like much of Greene’s writing, it is a timely story for our times.

MIkhail Epstein: Tranformative Humanities: A Manifesto

 I am beginning Mikhail Epstein’s Transformative Humanities for the second time. My plan is to write something about each chapter. Looking back to April 2013, you’ll find a post on Epstein's Chapter 6, entitled "Semiurgy: From Language Analysis to Language Synthesis,"chapter. But I am starting over again with the introduction. You can find Professor Epstein’s smiling and friendly face on the Web. At his Emory University Website you might sum up his areas of expertise, by using the old fashioned term Renaissance individual: “cultural and literary theory; the history of Russian literature (especially Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and 20th century poetry); contemporary philosophy and religion; Western and Russian postmodernism; new methods and interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities; semiotics; modalities; lexicology and neologisms; ideological discourse; ideas and electronic media.” Many of these interests, especially, Western and Russian postmodernism through to electronic media are evident in the “Introduction” to his work. Professor Epstein was born in 1950 in Moscow, and, according to his “brief biography” at, he graduated from Moscow State University in 1972. From 1978 he was a member of the Union of Soviet Writers specifically for literary studies and criticism, the founder and director of the  Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow. In 1990 he moved to the United States.

Something that comes across strongly in the opening pages of Epstein’s book is a sense of optimism not only for the humanities but maybe even for humanity.  In short, the humanities should be about becomings and initiations, rather than “a consummated past” (19).

Epstein considers the “crisis” in the humanities, and reviews some of its practitioner's more pessimistic prognostications. He suggests that alienation has long been a trait of humanists, who saw themselves as outside of a production and consuming, materialist world. Epstein suggests that this is no longer a meaningful stance to take, because we now live in a world where “ideas rather than material riches makes up the wealth of society” (3). [I’ll have to give this a little thought—we do claim to live in an information world, but consumption of and amassing of material goods is still very much part our society]. If this is the case, humanists gain nothing by cultivating a sense of alienation from the societies of which they are a part…what if humanities were viewed as fully integral parts of the societies  from which they have been in long opposition, what would that mean for the humanities? For the world?

Epstein calls out the humanities for having taken a turn away from the study of humans to the study of texts. “Humanities stopped being human studies and became textual studies” (2). Criticism rather than creativity became the focus. You could say that the humanities lost site of the power of texts to transform humans, to impart ideas that make us more human as we learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. If the text is the subject and the object, can there be transformation, can the world be changed?

While the humanities seek to, in some respects, imitate the sciences, the sciences, claims Epstein, are looking to concepts from the humanities. In coming to an understanding of the universe, in the development of artificial intelligence, in the exploration of consciousness, the sciences need the humanities for its fuzziness, metaphor, concepts of free will, language, investigation of ethical and theological problems, creativity, and intuition. How can one even begin to conceive of and describe the extent and nature of an infinite universe without imagination and metaphor? In considering the humanities' tension between criticism and creativity, he suggests a new term, techno-humanities, which would encourage a move toward the ancient Greek term techne, defined as craftsmanship. As such, techno-humanities aligns the humanities not with the sciences but with artistic creativity, with the power of imagination and the ability to create new concepts that will lead to new ways of thinking and newly constructed paths.  Thinking of creation as opposed to criticism, Epstein considers the manifesto. Manifestos propose something new, not yet realized. They are not written by scholars nor are they a result of scholarship, they are acts of creative inventorship that have the power to transform institutions, create movements, foment ideas, and lead to entirely new disciplines. As a rule, we are not taught to write manifestos in academia.

Techno-humanities and inventorhsip are two of Epsteins’ Futurlogisms: new words that embrace concepts that do not as yet exist. Some of the terms he offers up in the introduction are culturonics and pragmo-humanities, techno-humanities as already mentioned, and of course, transformative humanities. A futurlogism is a one word manifesto. In turn, Epstein tells us that a manifesto is a book length futurlogism.

Finally, Epstein does not see the machine as the enemy to humanities, rather it is a tool; a prospect for innovation.  Indeed, the mechanical manipulation of texts by scholars can leave the humanities still mired within the realm of textual studies, still missing the link to how engagement with texts can lead to the transformation of our understanding of self and human society.  The tools enable the scholar to “ask new questions” of the text, but where do the answers lead?  Epstein wants us to expand our language, create words that help us to envision new meaning and that lead us from ourselves to the rest of the world and back to ourselves. This journey should leave us transformed and make it possible for us to transform the world we live in.

Epstein concludes the introduction with the following questionsj (20):

What makes a theory interesting?
How can these criteria be equally applied to a work of fiction and to a work of scholarship?
What is the modality of humanistic discourse?
Why does the category of possibility acquire a new meaning in contemporary philosophy?
What is understood by research in academia and why should the acquisition of knowledge as its goal be complemented, in our professional orientation, with the value of conceptually creative and hypothetical thinking?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Calvino's On a Winter's Night and Haggis's Third Person

I am currently reading Italo Calvino's On a Winter's Night a Traveler and have just seen the film "Third Person" written and directed by Paul Haggis. Surprisingly, they have much in common. They are both about the process of writing and feature a tangle of connected or overlapping plots. Of course, when one is absorbed in one thing, it is easy to see it another. I saw "The Grand Budapest Hotel" while deeply immersed in reading W. G. Sebald and was convinced that the movie was an homage to Sebald. Of course it was an homage to a different German writer, Stefan Zweig, but Zweig and Sebald must have a lot in common. I read Sebald so closely, that there is very little that I experience in the world right now that doesn't strike me as Sebaldian. His writing swept broadly across nature and human history so it isn't surprising that I recognize touches of him everywhere. Calvino's novel was written in 1979, and so while I might recognize some Kafkaesque touches (and I would judge that Sebald did like Kafka very much), I can't give Sebald any credit for Calvino--perhaps the credit goes the other way. Calvino's novel is about the art of the novel, reading and readers, language, and plot with some healthy jabs at academic criticism and vocabulary. It is a text that appears and disintegrates and evolves into another text.  It is about a writer in friendly conversation with his readers. This whiley narrative persona hooks us (his readers) and drops us, hooks us again and drops us again. It is serious and hilarious. As I read this novel on the trolley got on my way to the movie theater, I kept finding myself smiling or laughing out right. More on Calvino's novel, later ... I hope. But in the meantime, what does this have to do with "Third Person."

"Third Person" is also about writing, writers, evolving and disintegrating plots. Haggis uses a structure similar to his film "Crash" (as you'll read in most descriptions of this film). That is, there are several stories going on at one time. The stories have a less straightforward connection than do those that make up "Crash." At first the similarities are in the setting and props. The opening scenes all involve water in some fashion, being frustrated, being late, and getting somewhere in a hurry. One characters swears, cut to another character also swearing, a shirt begins to come off of one person in one scene, and continues coming off of another person in following scene. Soon, larger plot elements of estranged marriages and lost children appear across the narratives. In one case there is an impossible conjunction between two characters who are on different continents. As the film progresses, the similarities become more apparent and these similarities take us back to the writer, Michael who may be in conversation with himself, perhaps his readers, and certainly with the universe.

"Third Person" is a kind of puzzle that you come close to figuring out by the end of the movie. Calvino's novel is a kind of game as well, one that he is playing with his readers and most likely with his critics. I am about halfway through. So, more later. In the meantime, find yourself a copy of the novel and see the movie. My copy is from the library at the University of Pennsylvania. I saw "Third Person" right here in Philly at the Ritz 5.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Reading Stanley Lombardo's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses and watching Top of the Lake

Phaëthon and Callisto

How is Ovid's Metamorphoses like the television miniseries Top of the Lake?

Parents do love their children: Phoebus's misery at the death of Phaëthon

"Meanwhile, Phaëthon's father mourns, bereft
Of his bright glory, as if he were in eclipse.
He hates the light, hates himself, hates the day.
He gives his soul over to grief, to grief adds rage,
And refuses his duty to the world." p. 44

Children do not receive proper guidance from their elders: Phoebus grants Phaëthon whatever he wishes as proof of his fatherly love. 

"His words were no sooner out than the boy asked
To drive his father's chariot for a day
And take control of all that horsepower.
The father regretted his oath. Three times
Four times, he shook his luminous head saying,

"'Your words show that my own were rash. I wish
That I could take back my promise.'" p. 34

 Men are predatory ... 

"When she started to talk about which woods to hunt,
He stopped her with an embrace, betraying himself
With a less than innocent act. She did struggle,
As much as a woman can--had you seen it,
Juno,you would have been kinder--but what man
Can a girl overcome, and who can overcome Jove?" p. 46

Sometimes it might be better to undergo a metamorphosis than to carry on in the world as it is.
Juno turns Callisto into a bear in revenge for Jove's lust for Callisto

"And now Lycaon's grandson, Arcas, who knew
Nothing of his parents, had just turned fifteen.
While he was out hunging, scouting the best spots,
And enmeshing Arcadia's woods with his nets,
He came upon his mother, who stopped in her tracks
At the sight of Arcas. She seemed to recognize him.
He shrank back from the gaze of those unmoving eyes,
Afraid without knowing why; and as the bear
Started to advance, panting and eager,
He raised his sharp spear to pierce her breast.
But the Olympian stoped him, removing at once
Both of the principals and the crime from the scene.
He whisked the pair up through the void in a whirlwind
And set them in the sky as conjoined constellations." p. 49

"Top of the Lake was written" by noted New Zealand author Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. It is set in a remote New Zealand town, Top of the Lake, which has a strange misogynistic culture.

The women at the piece of land known as Paradise are like Diana and her forest women, not virgins in this case, but self-exiled from the world of men. Unlike Callisto, Tui is not exiled from their company because of her pregnancy, she would have been welcomed and nourished, but even among these forest women, she is not safe. She exiles herself to protect herself from all of the  grown men including her father ...She lives like a bear living in the woods and caves throughout the winter, relying on her wits and her young friends to see her through.

Robin, the detective is searching for the twelve year old Tui, the father of her unborn child not yet revealed, or who may be, as Tui claims, "no one." In searching for Tui, Robin learns that she and Tui not only share the experience of rape and pregnancy as a child, but they share the same biological father. By the end of the story, the trauma that they have witnessed and experienced leaves them no better off than Callisto, chased by men, who, drunk with their divinity and power, believe they should not be denied anything or anyone. In the final scene of "Top of the Lake," as the two sisters sit at the water's edge, we can imagine them transformed into graceful fish or birds who can leave everything behind, disappear without a trace, but continue to thrive in a newly opened up world known only to them.  Even Paradise is too close.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Morning News Tournament of Books

Favorite Books has blogged about the The Morning News's [] Tournament of Books--I was first alerted to this interesting exercise by my good friend and proprietor of Mar's Cafe in Des Moines, Iowa, Mark Movic (thank you Mark!).

Find TMN's announcement here:

It is worth it (to me anyway) to list the Long list first because it includes Dissident Gardens and Night Film, both reviewed just now in this very blog. (The long list also includes a book I completely disliked but I won't mention its title or give it any undue publicity).

S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker
Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway
Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Y by Marjorie Celona
The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
Harvest by Jim Crace
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Duplex by Kathryn Davis
Pacific by Tom Drury
The Circle by Dave Eggers
The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Middle C by William H. Gass
& Sons by David Gilbert
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Hild by Nicola Griffith
The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
The Morels by Christopher Hacker
Enon by Paul Harding
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
The Facades by Eric Lundgren
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Hill William by Scott McClanahan
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Want Not by Jonathan Miles
The Returned by Jason Mott
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Rontel by Sam Pink
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge
All That Is by James Salter
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
Mary Coin by Marissa Silver
The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Brewster by Mark Slouka
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
The Kings and Queens of Roam by Daniel Wallace
The President in Her Towers by Tom Whalen
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
Stupid Children by Lenore Zion

Not a bad way to stay in touch with the year's best (except for that one I won't be mentioning)? Where to start? Here is the short list:

Finalists for the 2014 Tournament of Books

Pre-Tournament Playoff Round

 All the links take you to Powell's book store, but don't forget to check out Philly's bookstores, The Penn Book Center, Joseph Fox bookshop, Bindlestiff's (right in my neighborhood!), House of our Own on Spruce Street in University City, and Penn's own hardworking bookstore, The Penn Bookstore (you won't find books on their Web site, but they do have them!)

The tournament of books is something along the lines of the collegiate basketball playoffs. Judges take on pairs of books, with only one from each pair moving on to the next round. You can follow the judging and the reviews at The Morning News.

 Go Tournament of Books!

One last plug in this blog posting of plugs. Many of these books have been reviewed at Full-Stop: Reviews, Interviews, and Marginalia, so please check it out.

Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens

Jonathan Lethem. Dissident Gardens: A Novel. Doubleday, 2013.

One of my favorite Jonathan Lethem books was his 1997 novel As She Climbed Across the Table. This is a great comic novel of academia. The main character refers to himself as Mr. Interdisciplinary and his girlfriend, a physicist, falls in love with the lack she and her colleagues have created in the lab (the "she" that crawls across the table...into the lack). I bring this up, because this novel is rarely listed in the blurbs on the backs of Lethem novels that extol Lethem's literary prowess [Wait -- it is mentioned in his biographical blurb on the back flap!]. One of my best friends, someone with his own brand of literary prowess, recommended this 1997 gem to me and it remains at the top of my favorites ... so check it out. I'm talking myself into reading it again.

But, this isn't a review of an academic lack, this is a review of Dissident Gardens--something very far from the light and easy Table. This novel requires some attention and thought and probably some re-reading--but don't let this dissuade you--it also rewards this same attention and thought.  Do you like to have something to think about and ponder? Dissident Gardens provides a picture of post war (World War II) America from the perspective of New York City and the American Communist Party--or at least a few of its most devoted. [And before I'm done I have to say something about Inside Llewyn Davis (the film) and Dawn Powell's Golden Spur, and Philadelphia in fiction.]

This novel deserves a visualization. It would start with Rose Angrush Zimmer at the top, the matriarch, conscience, and avenging angel of Sunnyside Gardens. The novel opens with Rose's ejection from the local Communist Party cell. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Rose may be the one true remaining Communist in the American Communist Party with her daughter Miriam and her nephew Lenny who were brought into the fold by Rose willingly or not, both of whom come to separate but early and tragic deaths. Lethem is all about character in this novel. Rose haunts everyone--driving them away with her intensity and her bordering-on-crazy single-mindedness. She is the constant in this novel that spans decades, but remains geographically centered in Queens and Manhattan, with diversions to Philly and rural Pennsylvania, Germany and Nicaragua.

Back to the visualization: Rose's daughter Miriam is next in line (by my estimation) in importance. Her father, Albert, also a Communist, leaves Rose and baby Miriam to do the work of the party in Germany. Later, we learn something about Albert in the letters that he writes to Miriam after she re-establish contact with her long absent father. Miriam has all the iron will and determination of her mother, forged through her constant rebellion against Rose's authority. She marries at a young age, Tommy Gogan, one of the Gogan Boys, who together and apart, garner moderate fame during the NYC folk revival. Miriam and Tommy bring Sergius into the world, and Sergius spends most of his childhood and young adult years at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania following the death of both of his parents in the jungles of Nicaragua.

So, we have Rose and Miriam, Albert a bit off to the left, Tommy and Sergius a little below and to the right of Miriam. Now a little to the left and below Rose, we have the American Communist Party and Douglas Lookins, Rose's African American cop lover. Her affair with Lookins catapults her out of the party--is it because he is a cop? is it because he is Black? Either way, the American Communist Party is wrong and Rose is right. His son Cicero becomes Rose's protege. Under her vise-like tutelage, Cicero rises to the top of schools and scholarship competitions to land at Princeton, and then, ultimately, as a professor at a small liberal arts school in Maine. Cicero, like Miriam, does not know whether to love or hate Rose, to be grateful for the direction in which she rocket launched him, or to resent her powerful grip.

Archie Bunker is another of Rose's lovers and it is up to you, the reader, to decide whether he is a flesh and blood man who in every way resembles Archie Bunker, or an entity existing only in Rose's mind. Not least among the characters, and perhaps the most tragic of all the characters, for being the most lovable and the most unlovable a the same time, is Lenny Angrush, a brilliant chess player, expert in numismatics, devoted Communist and man of the people, baseball fan, and hopelessly, tragically in love with his younger cousin Miriam. Lenny's judgment fails him and puts him in the way of the blood thirsty, almost evaporated into thin air.

There you have the beginnings of a visualization and yet you still know so little of this novel. Each character has their own tragic center. Rose tenaciously holding onto everything even as she loses everything and everyone who has ever been important to her. Cicero, not her own child, is the last living member of her circle to remember and care for Rose. Cicero is himself an orphan, with Rose being his only connection to family as he is hers. After her death, she continues to be very much part of his burden of memory. Sergius also survives Rose, but of all the Angrush's he is the only one to be mostly untouched by Rose. Orphaned at 8, he is prevented from being taken under Rose's wing by his a letter that his mother posts to her friend Stella Kim and that arrives posthumously. Sergius barely remembers his parents having worked to forget them and the brief period in which his life overlapped with theirs. Miriam, Rose's only child, is driven by her love-hate relationship with her mother and mirrors her mother's tenacious need to control and mold. Miriam embodies the peace and non-violent movements of the 60s. She and Tommy leave Sergius in the hands of the Pennsylvania Quakers as they seek to kindle their folk sensibilities within the Nicaraguan revolution.

Here I have to digress. While reading Dissident Gardens, I took a short break and read Dawn Powell's Golden Spur. In her novel, the Golden Spur is a bar frequented by artists. This is in the 50s. By the time of Lethem's narrative, the Golden Spur is a home to the folk movement. This is the same early, pre-Dylan era that is portrayed in  the film "Inside Llewyn Davis." Interesting that this novel and film should come out so closely together. Powell's novel was written in the 50s, so the only coincidence is that I read it at the same time that I was reading Dissident Gardens and viewing Inside Llewyn Davis. In Tommy Gogan's portion of the novel, Lethem has Tommy thinking about his place among the folks as Bob Dylan takes over the stage and the air waives:  "He was disgruntled less on his own behalf than on that of Van Ronk, Clayton, so many others, all swallowed and disgorged, all eclipsed, all savaged by the splenetic fusillade pouring from the radio . . . to think yourself defined, however cursory one's own talent, by immersion in a collective voicing deeper than that of which any sole practitioner could be capable, and then to have every third remark be did you ever open for Dylan, did you ever meet Dylan, was Dylan there is Dylan coming was it like Dylan I think I saw Dylan he's a second rate Dylan...." Tommy finds his last inspiration far away from Dylan with first love and muse Miriam in Nicaragua.

Tommy and Miriam's trip to Nicaragua leaves Sergius to reinvent himself. He, the most distant from Rose, and the least affected by her often cruel intensity, brings the novel to a close. Trying to reconnect himself with the ghosts of his family, Sergius seeks out Cicero, a meeting that does neither one of them any good. As the novel ends, Sergius is making taking a personal stand against Homeland Security in a nondescript room in a nondescript airport in Maine.

More about Jonathan Lethem.

Infoglut by Mark Andrejevic

Mark Andrejevic's Infoglut*: How Too Much Information is Changing the Way we Think and Know. Routledge, 2013.

We have all been hearing about Big Data. Many a magazine has devoted an issue to the topic, and libraries are exploring ways to provide access to and storage for Big Data in all of its many manifestations across the disciplines. In the humanities, at least one way that we think about big data is in terms of large searchable text databases derived from collections of novels, letters, newspapers, perhaps legislation, the files in full text databases, or even phone books. When we talk about mining these troves of raw text data, we take note of the way a query is constructed and the kind of stop list that is created because we know that these things can drive our results. We know that results are not precisely replicable. Conducting research with big data in the humanities requires attention to detail and process, but it seems pleasantly benign after reading Infoglut.

Variations on this catchy title carry through the table of contents with the chapters “Intelligence Glut,” “Emotional Glut,” “Future Glut,” “Glut Instinct,” “Neuro-Glut,” “Theory Glut,” and finally, “Cutting through the Glut.” These clever and descriptive chapter headings are the only cheery aspects of the book. For good news on our info world, cozy up with Richard Harper’s Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload (MIT Press, 2010). Settle in for some serious reflection on life as a consumed consumer as you embark on the journey through Infoglut.

Andrejevic takes us through the monitoring, tracking, quantifying and auctioning off of our online lives as we share on social media, shop, and send emails. He describes a “post-truth” world of politics beyond the imagining of George Orwell, that takes advantage of the noise of information to float half-truths and inaccuracies, and you can add post-narrative and post-comprehension to your political vocabulary as well.  This is just the smallest taste of Andrejevic’s dark, but carefully argued text. While we see the advantages of the rapid advancement in technologies, we are not surprised that it comes with its cost. Server farms are energy hungry, privacy is easily relinquished, and truth is hard to come by. We are not strangers to these concerns in the library profession and this book reminds us of our roles in providing access without discrimination, protecting the privacy of our communities, and making available a wide range of perspectives with an eye to quality and reliability. So, I encourage you to take a look at a chapter or more of this book, but cue up your favorite comedy before calling it a night.

*Infoglut, according to the OED has been in the English language since at least 1984 appearing in the book The Netweaver's Sourcebook. It (almost) achieved title status early on in David Shenk's 1997 Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, and again in the Guardian in 2005. It also appears as the title to a book, the title of which, sounds more like a party:  Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Infoglut by Kristin Luker (You can get this book at the Free Library of Philadelphia). Find Infoglut at a library near you.

Any thoughts on info glut? There is plenty of room in this blog for a little more.

Giersbach on Night Film by Marisha Pessl

An Artist Needs Darkness

Marisha Pessl's Night Film, Random House, 2013.

By Walter Giersbach 

“Special Projects in Calamity Physics” marked 27-year-old Marisha Pessl’s debut in 2006, garnering a front-page New York Times Book Review.  Pessl writes with a unique “voice” as she follows motherless teenager Blue van Meer into school and introduces a cast of idiosyncratic characters.  A teacher is murdered, Dad is not who he appears to be, and the teenaged Bluebloods are uniquely quirky.  Is Blue discovering life or is she being led by forces she doesn’t recognize?  A tough-but-rewarding read.”

My review above was published November 2012 by the Asbury Park Press.  I was overjoyed to see that Pessl has followed her debut work with “Night Film,” another novel in which things aren’t what they seem.  This captivating almost-thriller follows a newsman’s search for Cordova, the underground film maker who hasn’t been seen in years.  Cordova had won a libel suit against the narrator, but in the interest of news the writer begins investigating the death of Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter Ashley.  Was she an apparent suicide by falling down the elevator shaft of an abandoned building in New York’s Chinatown— or was she pushed?  Careful steps through a Funhouse Arcade of deception, mystery, supernatural manifestations and coincidences take the narrator into the lives of a cult figure.

Interspersed with the narrative are graphic pages from Web sites, police reports, news clippings and ephemera that tell the tale alongside the narrative arc of the plot.  Like David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” this is less a straight-forward story and more the unfolding of characters, motives and existential questions.

Key to peeling away layers of plot deception is Cordova’s former wife, who explains,

“Darkness.  I know it’s hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create.  It gives him power.  His invisibility.  The less the world knows about him, her whereabouts, his origins and secret methods, the more strength he has.  The more inanities about him the world eats, the smaller and drier his art until it shrinks and shrivels into a Lucky Charms marshmallow to be consumed in a little bowl with milk for breakfast.”

We need more Cordovas…and more Pessls.  She’s marvelous as a stylist.  The now 35-year-old writer describes, for example, a young hat check employee at the Four Seasons:

According to the police report, she’d been working here only a few weeks.  She was about 5’7” and scrawny as a question mark, with pale blond hair in a French twist — curls around her face channeling alfalfa.  She wore a brown skirt and brown blouse too big for her — the restaurant uniform visible shoulder pads sitting unevenly over her frame….

“Good evening, sir,” she said brightly, removing her glasses, revealing big blue eyes and delicate features that would have made her an “it girl” about four hundred years ago….  She was wearing harsh pink lipstick, which didn’t look like it’d been applied in good light or within two feet of a mirror.”

Don’t let this emerging literary giant — Pessl, not the hat check girl — pass you by!

For more on Marisha Pessl
Find more reviews by Walter Giersbach in this blog or even more at his own blog:‎