"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: Cosmopolis

Another read for my dissertation, picked because it's about cities and modernity. I got through this book in a couple of long days of reading, and it does have a way of sucking you in. The whole book (with a few exceptions) is set inside of a limo driving around NYC and, more specifically, inside the mind of Eric Packer, its bajillionaire passenger. This is not the nicest space to be in for 200 pages. Eric is, quite frankly, a strange guy, with very weird relationships to the people in his life who climb in and out of his limo. These include his wife, his body guards, his doctor, and his various assistants and employees. Actually there's no one likable or easy to relate to in this book. The fascination it holds is more the fascination of peering in at some weird subculture than the fascination of learning something about humanity or yourself (although maybe DeLillo would say that we can learn about humanity and ourselves from getting a glimpse of Eric's life).

The style of the book isn't very friendly either. The characters talk in some kind of strange mixture of philosophy professor and New York slang. Maybe that's how multi-billionaires in NYC actually talk, but for me it just felt like another thing distancing me from the characters, making them sound like the mouthpieces of DeLillo's abstract ideas about modern life.

What I found effective about this book was actually precisely what I'm complaining about - that it makes the city strange, as if by putting us inside this limo, DeLillo has plucked us from earth and put us in an alien spaceship so that we can see our lives from a totally new perspective. Eric does in some sense live above the world. However, his perspective doesn't offer much insight. Maybe the space ship is just too high up (excuse me while I beat this metaphor to death), so that the view becomes too simplified.

This was my first DeLillo novel, and I don't think I'll be reading any more of his writing. It was just too rarefied, too fascinated with messed-up people in a messed-up world, too stylistically stilted for me. But I'm glad I read it, as part of my goal to become better-versed in contemporary literature. Now if someone brings up DeLillo at a dinner party, I'll have something to say.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

May Things

Favorite food:

Summer fruit and vegetables! I've been stubbornly eating mediocre, early berries for months now, but just this week the blueberries acquired that shocking sweet kick that means summer is actually here. It feels so great to be eating more things raw, more cucumbers, fruit, bell peppers, lettuce. I even discovered a new kind of lettuce that I'd never had before (me, a Californian!) - lamb's lettuce, a really delicate little baby green.

Favorite book(s):

This month I've been re-reading all of David Mitchell's books and also discovering contemporary novels that are part of the same orbit. Books with multiple storylines, global awareness, and certain recurring themes, including Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis and Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days. Both were very interesting, although not some of my favorite novels. Most interesting has been to really dive into a pocket of contemporary literature and see novelists overlapping so much. You really can see that they're writing about the same world, breathing in the same air, as it were, but producing different words on the outbreath. The sense of cities as places where people and events collide like molecules (or is it atoms? I'm forgetting my science), the idea of non-corporeal life forms floating around us, the exploration of where our current, globalized, mechanized, capitalized world might take us in the future - all keep emerging from these different novels, so much that they're starting to blur in my mind. Suddenly reading novels seems less like an escape from the world and more like another, slant way into it.

Favorite movie:

 I actually haven't been watching much of anything, which is unusual for me. I've been so busy seeing shows at the local arts festival and so often arriving home just in time to collapse into bed, that I haven't even finished re-watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I got half-way through about two weeks ago...
I did see Gatsby, which I may write a review of. We'll see. I enjoyed it, but it doesn't qualify as a favorite.

Favorite fashion:

I've tentatively decided to grow out my hair again, and I've been experimenting with braids as a way to keep slightly awkward-length hair out of my face. And I'm looking forward to the day when I can do fancy stuff with braids, like wrapping them around my head. It's nice to play with hair now that it's not tucked under a hat or scarf most of the time, although I have been thinking about making or finding a light, crocheted maybe, summery, slouchy hat. That would mean mastering the art of knitting hats.

Favorite music:

I discovered two new bands, who played a show during the festival I've been going to. They are Emily Portman, who plays traditional and original songs based on fairy tale and myth, and Sam Lee & Friends, who play traditional songs from the British Isles, but with very unique and exciting arrangements for an international assortment of instruments. They both played fantastic concerts in an beautiful old church, and their music just glowed (if that's the right word). It was such a treat to hear an old Scottish ballad, for example, sung to the accompaniment of a tabla, a violin, a cello, and a horn - who would've thunk? And the best part about it was seeing how old treasures like these songs or the myths Portman's songs are based on, can be turned to such new and wonderful forms without losing any of their original power.

Favorite experience:

The past two weeks have brought their fair share of memorable, magical experiences with all the circus and music shows I've seen. Impossible to put down in words, of course, but wonderful nonetheless. Great live performance can really transport you, and I love that. I'm grateful that festivals like this one make it possible to experience so much transportation and inspiration without traveling far or spending much. This definitely inspires me to pursue the idea of working for arts festivals, making them happen. They're such great experiences.