Sometimes it’s good to be a culture snob.

(To clarify: the concert was good, and the conductor actually often chooses things that are more obscure and difficult than the ensemble or audience might appreciate. But wow…Titanic…I mean, I had a revelation last concert when they played selections from The Phantom of the Opera – that’s what Lloyd-Webber writes his music for, is to be performed a community musical group. And now, I know the same thing about James Horner. ‘Cause it sure wasn’t interesting music in its own right.)


March 30, 2009

I’ve got two very different books out from the library right now. One’s read, and one’s in process, and I’ve been working hard at figuring out what to write about them, without much luck.

Which is strange, for me. I’m a woman of strong opinions, especially about what I read. I mean, I like a lot of different kinds of things, but I either love a book (lots of them) or hate it (I even keep one or two literary disasters on my bookshelves just as cautionary tales).

But these books…I don’t know, can’t say.

I should say what they are.

The first, the one I’ve finished, is Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel / memoir Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood.  Many have raved, and I can appreciate what they see in the book, but…it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t find it artistically interesting (and yes, I get it, it’s supposed to be naive), and as much as I wanted to like the story (since it’s “An Important Story”, and I usually dig that), I found the writing somewhat stilted.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone who thinks s/he’s interested from reading it…I’d love to hear other’s opinions…but for now…meh.

The second book, my current read, is James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand. He’s the author of LA Confidential, among other things. And this, I thought, for sure would be a hit. It’s a literary sort of contemporary novel, different perspectives and an unusual narrative style. Plus it’s about the US in the 1960s, starting with Kennedy’s assassination (one of my major non-fiction interests a couple of years back), which I like.

But again…meh. I don’t know what it is. I usually either devour a book or have to put it down, and I’m just, sort of, reading this. Hmmm….

Weekend Reading

March 16, 2009

I have figured it out. Infinite Jest is going to be a year-long project, because I keep on reading other things instead.

This weekend, those other things were John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Abraham Bolden’s Echoes from Dealey Plaza: the true story of the first African-American on the White House Secret Service detail and his quest for justice after the assassination of JFK. Oh, how I love working with hundreds of books a day…my reading list expands exponentially.

Anyway, Bolden first.  An autobiography about racism and incompetence encountered in the Secret Service.  After the assassination, Bolden spoke out about the lax standards he feels led directly to Kennedy’s death, and was then the target of a conspiracy himself. Charged with soliciting a bribe, he spent six years in prison (including being forced into a mental facility – they claimed he was paranoid and sociopathic) and even still the documents that could demonstrate his innocence can’t be found. It is a terrible, terrible history, and yet I couldn’t say I was shocked.  In fact, one of the most interesting things about the narrative is his description of his own loss of faith. Between Kennedy’s death and Nixon’s resignation, I think a lot of Americans changed their opinions about what their government and their countrymen were capable of. My generation inherited this attitude whole.

Anyway, if you’re interested in such things, it’s worth a read, even if Bolden isn’t one of those amazing, innate writers one finds every once in a long while.

I’m torn about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  I found it an incredibly heartwrenching story. Boyne writes, “In April 2004 an image came into my mind of two boys sitting on either side of a fence. I knew they had been taken away from their homes and friends and brought, separately, to a terrible place. Neither of them knew what they were doing there, but I did, and it was the story of these two boys, whom I named Bruno and Shmuel, that I wanted to tell.”

Mostly, though, it’s Bruno’s story. The narrative follows him along and is limited to his understanding. I found this poignant and effective; especially, for instance, in the way the book never actually names Auschwitz (“Out-With”), and other techniques like that.

But this is one of the main criticisms of the book – that this perspective wouldn’t have existed, at least not in this case. As the 9 year old son of an important Nazi commander, critics argue that Bruno wouldn’t have been so ignorant of the political, military and racial ideas surrounding him. They also argue that as a small 9 year old boy at Auschwitz, Shmuel wouldn’t have survived past arriving.

I understand the importance of these arguments. In a world where (God knows how) there can be confusion and disagreement and disbelief in the Holocaust, we don’t need more inaccuracy. But, by the same token, I have to respect Boyne’s right to write whatever story he wants, whatever story is true to him. And, in less historical ways, the story is true, as a story of friendship, and spirit, and learning. But…

It reminds me of a poem from Kay Ryan’s collection The Niagara River:

“In the wake of

horrible events

each act or word

is fortified with

added significance,

unabsorbable as

nutrients added

to the outside

of food: it can’t

do any good.

As if significance

weren’t burdensome

enough. Now

the wave-slapped

beach rocks not

just made to talk

but made to teach.”

I don’t know what to do with this problem.

This morning I took a couple hours and finally saw the movie Pollock, from 2001, produced, directed by and starring Ed Harris as the artist and Marcia Gay Harden as Pollock’s wife, and an artist in her own right, Lee Krasner. It was an excellent movie, and it also got me thinking about something I ponder over every once in a while.

First, though, I should talk about my experience with Pollock’s work. When the movie came out, there were all kinds of articles in magazines and things like that, and I remember being entirely unimpressed. I don’t need my art to be directly representational, but it just didn’t speak to me, at least in that medium.

The next year I went to an Impressionist exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and they’re the stewards of a large Pollock work, right from the middle of his most innovative and widely-known phase, with the drip-painting and such.

And I stood there, confronted by that painting, and was struck by the energy and emotion of the work, which was something that had never come across in any magazine.

Back to the movie. One thing to mention is how it depicts Pollock and his personal relationships. I’m always sad yet grateful for the women who support artistic men (and the other way around, although that doesn’t seem to happen as often) – Krasner was successful and intelligent, and who knows what she could have done if she wasn’t in that position (which she chose, obviously). Who knows what Pollock would have done without her. It’s hard to say. Maybe all there is to say is that marriage is strange. And hard. And wonderful.

But also, the movie made me rethink abstractionism. Seeing the work in person had already convinced me of its efficacy, of the success of a work being about the act of painting rather than, necessarily, the result. Not that its creation is happenstance, or by accident – in the movie, Pollock says he “denies the accident.”

It was also about the artistic expression of the subconscious being as valuable as conscious expression; early on in the film, when Krasner mentions the idea of painting from life, Pollock retorts, “I am life”, and then, later, tells an interviewer that “painters do not have to go to a source outside themselves.”

What made the painting I saw successful, to me, was how it showed and shared the painter’s energy and emotion, even if it was a very subconscious and personal effort.

I had an instructor that talked about “the sister arts” : visual art, poetry, music. And another that said that great poetry must be great thought, great feeling, great expression.

But these ideas bring me back to my feelings and thoughts on abstractionism. If it is a conscious (rather than subconscious) expression, say, something like the work Lawren Harris began later in his career, is that great thought enough? I mean, obviously the desire to communicate and create is always a conscious one, even if not one at all understood. But what of works that seem to be created solely for their creator? Where others have difficulty finding meaning or communication at all? And I don’t mean that we can “relate” to them (I hate that idea as a grounds for criticism or enjoyment), but only that both the experience and the expression are so personal that they can’t be experienced by outsiders at all?

In the movie Pollock talks to interviewers about people looking at his paintings and needing to “leave all their stuff behind. Just look. You don’t need to know the meaning of a flowerbed, or want to take it apart.” And I found, that once I experienced the painting and took it on its own terms and the terms of its creation, I did love it and could understand it.

But I’ve read some poetry, and not just confessional poetry, with which I cannot come to terms like that. Great thought…perhaps, it’s hard to know. Great feeling, I’m sure. Great expression…well, again, I feel like cultural work is created because of our desire to communicate, and if it can’t, something’s gone wrong, somewhere a connection has been lost.

The film, and all these related ideas, left me with one final question that I’m sure I’ll never resolve (and I like questions like that): is an absolute philosophy, absolutely and truly lived, even possible? It seems much too difficult for a person to bear, an absolute idea.