Friday, April 23, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel

Yann Martel's puzzling and disturbing new novel vibrates just a little--a frisson for the mind--quite exactly as though someone has walked over one's grave. Martel takes on big issues not because he is unafraid, but perhaps because he is. But gently, o critic, lest you silence a voice in full throat. It is a voice we need to nurture since it mirrors us, not in raging journalistic torrents which belittle us, nor in hypocritical religious diatribe meant to shame us, but in stories meant to reflect, instruct, and sustain us.

Ostensibly the book is about an author in search of a subject. We come across two writers named Henry, and two animals--dead animals--named Beatrice and Virgil. The story is deceptively simple--mostly the reading of a play with few characters. But references abound which make the mind whirl and stop and pick and think and wish and fear see the novel is not really just a novel, the play is not just a play, and the playwright is not a playwright at all. In the end, a howl, or a braying--"frank and tragic as a sob"--would be a very appropriate reaction.

I am left with questions which I will ponder with relish in the days to come. I welcome fellow travellers to unravel the mysteries with me, of the onelongword evilivingroomanerroneously, [sic] dramas, the odd hand gesture somewhat resembling a Nazi salute, a second hand gesture, and very mysteriously, tennis lessons. I have no problem with the ludicrousness of this list, nor do I have a problem with its ambiguity. There is little enough laughter in the full drama of the story--I would feel it too bleak to live otherwise. I believe the author means for us to think things through for ourselves. He's given us the signposts: Dante, Shakespeare, Diderot, Flaubert, Chagall, Mozart, among others. You see, it is not so very hard after all, and what a beautiful way to go. Kudos, Martel. Best wishes always.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich

I hadn't read any of Mezrich's earlier books, though they are extremely popular in Boston, due to the MIT angle for Bringing Down the House. I expect that some of his earlier work was easier to complete, since he had the cooperation of the people he was profiling. In the case of this book, Mezrich could not get Mark Zuckerberg to go on record. Since the book is about Zuckerberg's (and others') accomplishments in establishing Facebook, I'd have to say that must have been a big disappointment to Mezrich, since it gave his story a one-sided feel.

The bulk of the story rested on the testimony, I guess you could call it, of Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's initial financier, sounding board, and moral support while Zuckerberg was at Harvard. Zuckerberg subsequently found ways to ditch people he felt were feeding off his creation, including Saverin. What struck me most was the juvenility of everyone involved in the whole process. They were only college kids after all, but somehow one hopes that those with exquisite gifts also have exquisite sense. Unfortunately, we all know that is not true--witness Tiger Woods. If you ever wondered if sex makes the world go round, look no further than this book.

When I was first exposed to Facebook, I must admit I was awed at its reach. But this story of its founding makes me uneasy. Not that I think Zuckerberg stole anybody's idea. After all, he not only had unique ideas, he could do the programming himself, something many others could not do. But he doesn't sound like the kind of person anyone wants to have as a friend. Zuckerberg's reluctance to speak for himself could be just a desire to let his creation speak for him, a shrug at what readers think of him, a fear that the writer would not give him a fair shake. Whatever it is, he probably doesn't feel like he needs to justify himself. Shrug. He certainly doesn't care what I think, and how lonely can a billionaire be?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Bleedin' great readin'. I guess the big thing about this book is that it doesn't matter if you run or not--it's still fascinating. I mean, especially if you don't run, you probably never hear of the Leadville 100, a 100-mile race through the mountains in Colorado. It's interesting to know about it, but then you add the characters that participate in it. It's a scream. Literally.

I missed my subway stops on Chapter 28, which is about the evolutionary science behind long distance running and why some animals do better than others. Now, you may think, how interesting can this be? Try it and see for yourself. The part about training in the Kalahari with the Bushmen had me enthralled.

I am not a runner, but I wish I was after this. In fact, I may just try it again, especially after knowing I don't have to be able to afford those expensive shoes. I do think there are some among us that are 'built' for running and the rest of us may be built for some other kind of sport, but usually running can be incorporated into the cross training.

The final race is a vision: 100 degrees in the shade, 6000 foot peaks, the Tarahumara with their white, embroidered skirts, the "pretty little witch", big-mouth Ted with his green, toed socks, and a Mexican town dressed to's engrossing.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Hardcover, 287 pages Published March 30th 2010 by Random House (first published March 18th 2010) ISBN13: 9780385533416

Fiction of this caliber is too rare, but is all the more welcome for being so. Solar has a message, great prose, hilarious caricatures, and a laugh-at-aging-old-me sense of humility. The book felt like an amusing conversation with several bright friends where a number of the important discussion topics of our time are (lightly, lightly) raised: the "social construct" of genetic code, cap and trade, solar vs. wind, photosynthetic energy, government responsibility, the tentativeness of financing, the "coldhearted predation" of the media.

In a time when one might plausibly argue the world is falling down around our ears, it is heartening and enervating to have a crusty old scold and storyteller spin a tale of human greed, folly, and out-sized appetites, and how we manage to move ahead despite these things. The inexorability of the human aging process is rendered so ridiculous it makes us laugh while we weep. But what I liked most was McEwan showing us that even the greatest among us is so fatally flawed and so repulsively human, that we are bound to fail--unless...and this is the genius in the equation...we cooperate.

And how could it be otherwise? Even as free light from the sun falls on our heedless heads, we focus blearily on the changing weather through the thick glass bottoms of anesthetizing glasses of scotch. Only when weather threatens to drown or parch us do we half-heartedly sling our heavy buttocks out of our easy chairs to murmur, annoyed, that the government should do something, sue someone, drill somewhere. Folly, all.

Art may after all be an important prod to action, but here I find it a resting place, a way-station on the weary slog to changing things we feel helpless to change, even though we must. It places our finest thinkers right down among us, so we can all claim some superiority, and perhaps even some responsibility. McEwan suggests, perhaps, that even self-interest plays a role in advancing the ball towards the goal, but shows how easily it can all come undone, lest we not be vigilant.

In the following #Vimeo interview & reading by McEwan is his take on his climate change novel, Solar, starting at 18.39 in the film.

A film about Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" from hudson river films on Vimeo.