Monday, February 28, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A NovelWhen talking about Emily Dickinson, author Jerome Charyn comments that "in her writing she broke every rule." In The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Jerome Charyn breaks a certain kind of rule himself--a rule many writers these days are beginning to break--and uses a literary figure as the central character in his novel.  His book is a fictionalized biography of Dickinson from her early years until her death.  Charyn uses deep readings of the real Dickinson's poetry and her letters to provide the basis for his own fictionalized Emily.  In his hands, she is wild, strange, distant yet in-your-face, overly self-assured and yet wildly timid at the same time.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing in Charyn's book is his attempts to channel the private voice of Emily Dickinson.  Often he accomplishes this beautifully, echoing the sometimes-erratic and strange tone of her poetry in a way that sounds authentic and meaningful.  I'll give a few examples:

"I will let Imagination run to folly."

"Who was this lioness?  Could it have been the same lightning that arrived so suddenly and seemed to rip Verses out of my skin?"

"She conspired and bled bitter smoke, as erupting volcanoes often do.  But none had been as beautiful as she."

"And so I should like a horn, but my horn is meager and not made of fine metal."

But there are also times when the cipher-code of Dickinson's reconstructed voice pushes the reader away.  The choice to use first person narration usually helps a reader understand the internal world of a character.  In this case, the convoluted voice of this shrouded poet felt alienating.  Of course, this strange voice of hers (and his) keeps her mysterious and private--and almost certainly that is what she would have wanted.

More troubling than the strangeness of her voice is the fact that his Emily seems to have no desire to understand or analyze herself.  She seems remarkably immature, completely petty and selfish, and awfully thoughtless.  Perhaps this is the true Dickinson, but if so, I fail to understand how she could have produced such deep and powerful poetry.  His Emily, at least to me, winds up seeming like a poorly drawn character.

Although The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson was shaped profoundly by the writings of the real Dickinson, I was bothered by two wild departures from evidence:

1.  the creation of two major characters, wholly fictional, who seem to explain almost everything that happens in Dickinson's life and appears in her poetry.  The story of her life when explained this way starts seeming too pat, too complete.  Every little bit of added detail seems to fit into some grand puzzle.

2. the striking absence of the real Dickinson's poems.  Although there are allusions to many of them, I kept wanting Charyn to provide a more concrete or substantial link between his story of the poet and her poetry.  The choice to do so would have not only paid tribute to Dickinson but strengthened the power of the novel.

I have mixed opinions about this book.  I am drawn to the sometimes-beautiful language of the novel.  I love Charyn's efforts to make connections to other writers of Dickinson's day such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.  And there are certainly some imaginative insights that ring true.  Fundamentally, though, the novel does not seem to accomplish what it sets out to do.  Overall, it did not give me a deeper understanding of Emily Dickinson.  Nor do I think the book with its skeleton characters and predetermined episodic plot works as an independent novel.

My verdict: read it if you are obsessed with all things Emily--and then follow your reading of Charyn with the words of the poet herself in a new and fabulous edition of some of her poems complete with commentary by the brilliant Helen Vendler.

*  *  *

This post is part of the Tribute Blog Tour of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.  Click on the link to see a list of other blogger's opinions and ideas about this book.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Persephone Weekend

I've spent the last few days taking a hint from Allie and giving myself a little personal readathon time. I've immersed myself in contemporary books: one wonderfully funny twentieth-century novel--which I will discuss today--and two brand new novels, both referring to classic authors. I'll be returning to Homer's The Odyssey for a few additional posts about the original bard soon.

* * *


I've become intrigued by the recent republication of books by Persephone Books.  Most (but not all) were written in the early twentieth century by English women writers and aimed primarily for a female readership.  Every time I glance through the press's catalog, I wind up putting more titles on my list of books to read during vacation.  Persephone says their books "are designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget."  So many readers I admire love these books for their cozy, smart entertainment.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics)Somehow, though, despite the fact that the Persephone books appeal to me so much in theory, I am only now reading my very first one.  Thanks to this weekend's celebration of Persephone books organized by Verity and Claire, I finally opened Winifred Watson's delightful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

This book seemed like a perfect introduction to Persephone for me since Miss Pettigrew was one of the stories that helped me discover the world of book blogs in the first place.  When I saw the film adaptation of the novel (starring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew), I fell in love with it and immediately googled the title to find more about the book upon which the movie was based.  And voila: I found this amazing conversation going on online between book bloggers writing about what they read --this book and of course many many others. Since I had just started planning a big reading challenge for myself, I was thrilled to find a community of readers, thinkers, and writers to learn from.

The book version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is more charming than the movie, if anything.  Although both the plots and characterizations vary slightly in the novel and its film adaptation, both convey a similar mood of joy, humor, adventurousness, and tremendous hope.

One thing that struck me is how this book both mirrors and shifts the terrain of P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves books.  Like Wodehouse, Watson gives us a picture of somewhat irresponsible but charming wealthy employers and their serious and wise domestic servant who help smooth over their employers' scrapes.  While Wodehouse explores the relationship between a gentleman and his "gentleman's gentleman," Watson turns to explore a similar relationship between a wealthy woman and her female employee.  Where the difference is most pronounced between Wodehouse's and Watson's books, however, is not in the gender of the characters but in their growth.  Wodehouse casts Wooster as the playboy who needs saving by the inimitable Jeeves.  Watson expands this scenario: the monied Miss LaFosse is saved by the resourceful Miss Pettigrew, but Miss Pettigrew is saved by Miss LaFosse as well.

The development in the character of Miss Pettigrew gives surprising depth to this book.  What is most fascinating to me is how much--and how believably--Miss Pettigrew matures and changes over the course of the single day the book recounts.  She opens to the world, not discarding her own moral compass but nevertheless allowing herself to imagine the moral universes of other people.  It is a story that carries the book beyond sly wit or simple diversion.

All in all, this book is a wonderful read.  I am very much looking forward to many more Persephones in my future and hope you'll try them out with me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

O Brother...

O Brother, Where Art Thou?Imagine a Three Stooges episode where the stooges act out The Odyssey--to an authentic bluegrass soundtrack.  As improbable as that might sound, it is exactly the recipe for the amazing movie O Brother Where Art Thou.  You will laugh at the silly stupidity of it all, marvel at the intellectual jokes, admire the film-making techniques, and cry with real emotion at the epic heartbreak of it all.

Unlike the movie Troy, O Brother does not pretend to be a retelling of Homer.  However, there are numerous parallels and remakings.  Some of the references are obvious, but many are not.  If you've just read The Odyssey, you'll appreciate all that playfulness and cleverness all the  more.

George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a man who escapes from a chain gang with two of his fellow inmates.  He is definitely the clever one of the three, and he leads them through episodic adventures and tribulations roughly parallel to what Odysseus experiences.  And like Odysseus, Everett seeks to go home to his wife and offspring.  In the film, "Penny" is played brilliantly by Holly Hunter.

In some of the episodes, film characters carry echoes of several storylines from the book.  For example, the women who sing so beautifully that the men are pulled off the path are the Sirens--but also reflect Circe, Calypso, and even Nausicaa doing her laundry.


Occasionally I found myself trying to force the scenes to fit together--but that is just not the way this movie works.  Nods to Homer are everywhere, but this is in no way just a modernization of the Odyssey.  Everything from the Cyclops to Helios' cattle appear, but not always in their right places or plot-lines. I had to let myself sit back and enjoy the brilliant quirkiness.

Everett is cunning and well-spoken, just as Odysseus is.  The two characters also share a tremendous pride or vanity.  Everett's vanity is shown through his special concern about how his hair looks and his great love of Dapper Dan hair pomade.  Although his vanity is played for laughs through almost the entire movie, the picture changes at the end and left me with a lump in my throat.  I won't say more, but if any of you know what I'm talking about, I'd love to hear what you thought.

My very favorite scene: When the Odysseus character yells at his young daughters, "I am the only Daddy you got!  I am the damn pater familias!" in his intense Deep South accent.

*  *  *

Of course the music is one of the best parts about the movie.  Traditional music threads throughout--as an integral part of the movie rather than as background.  Perhaps the highlight is when the three jailbreaks form the Soggy Bottom Boys and record a song together: "Man of Constant Sorrow":



Note: The name Odysseus can be translated as "the hated man" or "troubled man" or "the man who brings and receives pain"--that is, "the man of constant sorrow."

And here is an audio of the immortal Ralph Stanley singing the same traditional song:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Speak, Memory, to us on our journey

Just a short post today:

OdysseyYou may have noticed that when I gave clips of the beginnings of many translations of The Odyssey, I did not include the words Stanley Lombardo uses in the first paragraph of his translation.


SPEAK, MEMORY--
                                   Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy's sacred heights.


Lombardo replaces the more traditional "muse" with "memory"--a choice that translates not only Homer's words but his meaning into a modern idiom. Instead of an external supernatural figure shaping the text, the story emerges from within: from Homer's memories, from our memories.  The phrase also emphasizes the importance of the preservation of memory in the Odysseus's story.  Lombardo takes the words from the title of Nabokov's memoir.  Fascinatingly, it is a phrase which Nabokov uses partially in reference to Homer.  (The echo of an echo makes me feel like I am opening a series of Russian dolls.)

Lombardo makes another modern reference in his choice of cover art.  We see NASA's "Earthrise"--a picture taken by astronauts on an Apollo mission as they looked back from space to our planet.  The image reminds us how much our world calls to us even when we seem unbelievably far from home.  It also emphasizes how much we are pulled away from home by the idea of journey--that is, that we feel the pull to make our own odysseys.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Theme of Connection in Homerian Epics

Yesterday in the comments to my post about Odysseus's twists and turns in Homer's The Odyssey, Dwight points out that both The Iliad and The Odyssey are books fundamentally about life and death.  While Achilles tries to make sense of physical mortality, Odysseus struggles with humanity and the choice he makes to be a mortal.  (Dwight lays out his arguments more fully in a terrific post on his own blog.)

As I was thinking about these comparisons, it struck me how much The Iliad and The Odyssey are also both about making connections with the world.  Achilles fights his own alienation to make connections with his countrymen and with his enemies.  Odysseus, on the other hand, struggles against his alienation to make connections with his family and with strangers.  These 4 levels of connection--to small group (family), to large group (country), to enemies, and to strangers--can express the depth of human relationships.

Some of the recent debates about "boy" books and "girl" books cast a divide between books that focus on "masculine" connections to the larger culture of country versus the more "feminine" connections to family and close friends.  Homer's exploration of the connections made with enemies and strangers might be an especially fruitful avenue for novelistic exploration right now.

In The Odyssey, Homer details the tenets of xenia--the ancient Greek word for the guest-host relationship strictly codified in tradition.  In a time and place without hotels, restaurants, cell phones, or speedy transportation, it seems almost natural that particular customs and expectations would arise to facilitate what by necessity was a fairly common situation: the arrival of a stranger seeking food and shelter at the door of someone else's home.  The traditions that arose included feasting and toasting the gods, sharing the entertainments of storytelling, and giving extravagant gifts.  Even after the visit, guests and hosts were bound to each other in a way not completely dissimilar to the relationship between relatives.  The guest-host relationship was even passed on to the next generation.  Such relationships might have underlay a certain degree of ambassadorship or peacemaking in ancient Greece.

The idea of respectful connections with strangers is also a central theme in the literature of the Old Testament, which I promise to discuss when I get there.  At least in modern interpretations of those texts, the idea of treating the stranger properly is portrayed as the moral thing to do.  In ancient Greece, "morality" doesn't seem to be a major preoccupation.  But treating the stranger properly is still seen as a way to please the gods.

As I thought about Odysseus's connection to family--that is, to the small group--I was brought back to another comment yesterday, by OfTroy (a perfect person to comment on Homer!).  She points out a religious use of the idea of turning that I had not thought of at all--the Shaker one:

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.


Many of the lines of this hymn fit perfectly with The Odyssey. In fact, Odysseus's main goal is return "to the place he ought to be."

But does he learn to turn to "true simplicity"?

Perhaps learning to be simple is exactly the lesson he needs to learn. Odysseus has been used to being the war hero who everyone celebrates. Now he has to return home to be a family man--a normal plain life rather than the exciting-dangerous world of war. Perhaps struggling through all the twists and turns of his journey helps him conceive of himself as something other than a warrior. These times of imprisonment or punishment turn him into a "Nobody" (see book 9). He rejects the possibilities of immortality and embraces a desire to return home to his valley of love and delight instead.

What I am not so sure of is whether, in the end, Odysseus actually learns these lessons of simple connection to family.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Twists and Turns: The Character of Odysseus

Sing to me of the man, Muse, 
the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course.

--The Odyssey by Homer, translation by Robert Fagles (1996)

* * *

In the opening of Homer's The Odyssey, the main character Odysseus is referred to as an anthropos polytropos (a phrase translated above as "man of twists and turns").  You might be able to guess the basic meaning of the phrase if you think of similar words such as anthropology and anthropomorphic, polygon and polygamous, and tropical and troposphere.

In these very first lines of The Iliad, Homer points to two major themes that will be central to his epic--the rage of Achilles and the glory promised by heroic death in war.  In The Odyssey, we turn to a story of what happens after war--that is, the story of peace.  Today I want to talk about some of the themes of the Odyssey highlighted by Homer's use of the word polytropos in these crucial first lines.

First, the central drive of The Odyssey is Odysseus's efforts to return home to his wife and child on Ithaca.  This turning--or rather returning--is the specific story of an individual, but clearly Homer is comparing the return Odysseus makes to the homecomings of other war heroes.  From other literature and mythology, we know what became of other leaders from the long years at Troy.  By the time The Odyssey begins, however, all of the other warriors are either home or dead (or both, as we'll see soon when I read Aeschylus).  Only Odysseus has not yet returned home.

The former warrior's homecoming is threatened and delayed constantly by the vagaries of fortune, the vengeance of gods, and the missteps of his crew.  That is, Odysseus's attempts to return home are thwarted by the twists and turns, leading him from one danger to another and from delay to further delay.

A final meaning of polytropos is the twists and turns of his own mind.  Odysseus was praised in The Iliad for being one of the Greek's best warriors, not because of this physical strength but because of his intelligence.  Perhaps "intelligence" is the wrong word.  Instead we might call Odysseus crafty, conniving, or tricky.  In a future post, I want to talk more about this aspect of Odysseus, how his cleverness is echoed in other characters, and what Homer might have meant by it.

* * *

The Greek word polytropos, weighted with these various meanings, creates both a complication and an opportunity for translators. Here are a few of their various attempts at conveying the polytropic nature of Odysseus:


1. Allen Mandelbaum (1990)

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile



2. Richard Lattimore (1965)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys



3. Robert Fitzgerald (1961)

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end



4. Rieu and Rieu (Originally translated in the mid-1940s and recently revised by the translator's son)

Tell me, Muse, the story of that very resourceful man
who was driven to wander far and wide



5. Samuel Butler (1900)

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide


6. Alexander Pope (1725)

The man for wisdom's various arts renown'd,
Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound



*  *  *

Depending on which translator we read, Odysseus might be wily or ingenious, cunning or resourceful.  Clearly some of these words are more negative than others.  But even when we use the most positive words, it is very hard to conceive of the hero of The Odyssey as a man trying to live by his moral compass.

*  *  *

When I think of the meanings of the word turning, my thoughts always have a Pete Seeger soundtrack featuring "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and its lyrics straight from the King James translation of Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; 
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

In The Odyssey, Homer takes the turn mentioned at the end of this passage--from "a time of war" to "a time of peace."  Other than that, the words of the Bible and the words of Homer are radically different.  Homer is not engaging with the complex message of the acceptance of change that seems to be coming out of Ecclesiastes.  Instead we have a story --albeit with a a somewhat convoluted and twisting narrative structure--of a journey with a clear beginning and a foreordained end.  (More about the narrative structure later.)  In other words, the turning stops when the book stops.

Religious ideas about turning also appear in the Jewish concept of t'shuvah, one of the central conceits of Yom Kippur.  The literal meaning of t'shuvah actually is "turning"--but the Hebrew word carries the idea of repentance as well. T'shuvah only comes when we turn away from lives of dishonesty or injustice, and turn towards a commitment to a changed self.  T'shuvah requires that we acknowledge our limits and our weaknesses and take responsibility for our past actions.

It is this kind of turning that is furthest from what we see in The Odyssey.  Odysseus uses lies and deceit to trick monsters, gods, and good people alike.  He brags about his strengths and tries to erase any perceived cases of weakness or fault.  He blames the men of his crew for many of their setbacks.  He even lies and cheats his way into his palace at Ithaca.

And yet Homer makes sure his listeners and readers are cheering for Odysseus all the way to the end.  This lack of change or thought makes Odysseus seem like a cartoon figure, a character with no depth and no change.  Although I am stunned to say it, The Iliad resonates for me as a modern reader far more than The Odyssey does.  Achilles struggles through such intense personal growth that the book feels like a very modern and meaningful book.  The Odyssey feels more like a superhero adventure story, entertaining but not necessarily transformative.  Did any of you have a similar reaction?  I would love to hear any ideas you have.

(The post of a part of the Book Beginnings meme hosted by Katy of the blog A Few More Pages.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick explores a time of monumental change in Western culture.  Dolnick argues that major advances in mathematics and science, spurred on by religious faith, led to a revolution in the way people understood the world.  Sceintists such as Galileo, Leibniz, Newton, and Copernicus did no less than "fling open the gates to the modern world," helping transform the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 1650s and 1660s, people in England believed their world was in crisis--a chaos that many were sure would end in Apocalypse.  As the year 1666 with its ominous last three digits drew near, fears of the Apocalypse reached a fever pitch.  During the summer and fall of 1665, the Great Plague tore through the country, decimating countryside and city alike.  Cries of "Bring out your dead!" were not some Monty Python skit.  One hundred thousand people died in London alone--20% of the city's population.  Many people, consumed with the belief that God was punishing them, saw the plague as the beginning of the end.

When the plague began to abate, it was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, starting near London Bridge and destroying wide swaths as the flames burned for days.  Seeing the devestation around them, many people wondered why God was so full of wrath against them.  What had they done?

Dolnick portrays the fear that the world was ending as "exactly backward."  As he says, "The 1660s did not mark the end of time but the beginning of the modern age."  Rather than a world of chaos, Isaac Newton and other scientists of his day saw mathematical perfection.  They
believed that God had created an orderly world--one as intricate and well-tuned as a clock.  As Newton said, “God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”  These early scientists believed that they could decode the workings of divinity.  With the tools of intellectual inquiry, they "set out to read God's mind."

The Clockwork Universe recounts their explorations, discoveries, and teachings in detail.  Instead of trusting in the supernatural, these scientists discovered a world that seemed to be decipherable, to follow an elaborate code and extensive laws that humans could comprehend through dedicated study.  Although their intention was to make  "men...fall to their knees in awe" as Dolnick writes, the developing field of science sometimes had the opposite effect of encouraging people to question the relevance of God.  "Newton wanted above all else to portray God as a participant in the world, not a spectator," summarizes the author.  "But Newton's universe seemed to run by itself."  In other words, "Newton had built a universe that had no place within it for God.

I am reminded of Richard Dawkins's 1996 The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.   Dawkins tells the tale of 18th-century theologian William Paley who argued that the universe, like a watch in its complexity, must have had a watchmaker to design it.  It seemed impossible to him to imagine that life was merely an accident.  Dawkins doesn't imagine life as an accident, either, although he does not believe in a conscious or personal watchmaker or divinity.  He explains how even great complexity develops naturally from the process of evolution.  What Paley saw in the watch and what Newton had earlier seen in the clock was an idea that the world made sense--that it was not a world which revolved due to conditional love or vengeance.  Although both believed that orderly world was created by God, their thinking also led to something they did not anticipate: the beginnings of irreligious science.

The Clockwork Universe is a perfect blending of history, science, and religion--completely accessible for non-specialists and a thoroughly engrossing read for all.  Whether you are an atheist or have deep religious faith, you will find this book non-controversial since Dolnick is laying out the conflict and its historical context rather than writing a polemic.

Thank very much to Harper Books for providing me a review copy of this fascinating book.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Journey Round My Skull, pt. 2

A Journey Round My Skull (New York Review Books Classics)A Journey Round My Skull by distinguished Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy is an extraordinary non-fiction account of the author's diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from a brain tumor in 1936.  Tom, the friend I talked about yesterday, lent me the book when we first met many years ago.  When I saw the recent New York Review Books (NYRB) edition (featuring an introduction by Oliver Sacks), I knew I needed to reread it and let you all know about it.

Karinthy begins his book with the experience of his first symptom.  As he sits in a cafe in Budapest contemplating the next literary work to produce, he hears the roaring of a train.  He is surprised; when did the last trains in the city disappear?  When he looks up and sees that no one else seems to have heard the sound, it slowly becomes clear to him that he was experiencing an auditory hallucination.  As the days passed by, Karinthy's symptoms increased.  He continued to hear trains--and those hallucinations were joined by fainting and retching, giddiness, and eventually a loss of vision.

While the topic of this book sounds tragic and depressing, it is anything but.  Karinthy is a master at satire, at gentle loving humor, and also at what feels like disinterested character analysis.  He doesn't have a shred of pity for himself.  His tale is not a simple account of what it was like for him to survive a brain tumor in early-twentieth-century Hungary.  Instead it is a sweeping story full of philosophical musings, medical history, personal reflection and analysis, and a great deal of humor.  It is the story of a man who is trying to make sense of what is to him a new self and a new world.

*  *  *

Some of the most powerful discussions in A Journey Round My Skull are Karinthy's stories of how medical professionals immediately saw "a case" rather than "a person" once they heard his diagnosis.  Groups of physicians and students would congregate around him, all coming "to join the fun" as Karinthy puts it.  "My congratulations! A really admirable diagnosis!" said one physician to another.  When the patient raised his voice and spoke up, "it was as if they had only just realized that [he] was one of the party."

*  *  *

Karinthy's tumor was non-cancerous.  Neurosurgeons often avoid the use of the word "benign" when classifying non-cancerous brain tumors since they so frequently have such severe consequences.  In Karinthy's case, the expected outcome of his tumor was a quick death.  The author recounts how his doctors as well as his friends and coworkers--and even his readers--reacted to his prognosis.  These stories are among the most insightful parts of the book.

Like Karinthy, I knew my tumor was non-cancerous.  Unlike the author, I went into surgery knowing that the outcome was extremely likely to be a positive one.  I had a different kind of tumor--and medical science has changed radically since the 1930s.  Nevertheless, I was struck again and again by similarities or parallels in our stories.  In my case, my first-year medical student boyfriend suggested the diagnosis and I pooh-poohed it as a variation of typical first-year exaggeration.  In Karinthy's case, his physician wife teases him when he begins to suspect that he might have a brain tumor: "You talk like a first-year medical student!"

*  *  *

Oliver Sacks, the author of such amazing books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Awakenings, writes in the introduction to Karinthy's book that the memoir had a profound affect on him as a young boy of thirteen or fourteen.  It is easy to see how Sacks's phenomenally humanistic portrayals of how the mind works--and how it can go awry--were sparked by reading A Journey Round My Skull.

As I recovered from the surgery for my own brain tumor and began to regain the ability to read, one of the first books I read was by Oliver Sacks.  It was his Seeing Voices, an analysis of the meanings of audiological deafness and its cultural expression (Deafness, with a capital D).  His book, along with my deficits following surgery, shaped my life and career profoundly.  How incredible that his career was also, in a very different way, shaped by a brain tumor.

*  *  *

When I told the NYRB twitter team how pleased I was to see their edition, they steered me to an amazing blog named after this book.  Make sure you take a look.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Journey Round My Skull, pt 1



I met Tom and his wife and daughter at a party held by mutual friends.  Our two families hit it off--and by the end of a long but casual conversation, they invited us to what they said might seem kind of weird: a brain surgery anniversary.

I almost fell off my chair.  "You're kidding!  I celebrate the anniversaries of my brain surgery, too!"

I think they might have thought I was teasing or making fun of Tom--but I was completely serious, as I wrote about yesterday.   Although my experience was intense, I was very lucky to have a non-cancerous tumor which did not threaten my life.  Although I have some side effects from the tumor and surgery, my status is completely stable and I am now healthy. Tom was not so lucky. From the beginning, his illness has manifested itself in much more serious ways.

Tom continues to face new symptoms, new doctors, and new treatments all the time.  There are new dangers and fears as well.  But as he says, "It doesn't make sense to me to approach any of this with pity or a lack of joy. There are a lot of ways all of us can approach fear and uncertainty. Humor is one of them. I wouldn't choose it any other way."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Whole Story

A follow up to Two Lies and a Truth:

I used to hate Valentine's Day.  Red roses gave me hives and the artificial "express your love only in these assigned commercial ways" mentality drove me nuts.  The fact that I had never really been in love with someone on Valentine's Day before just intensified things.

One year, a friend of mine had even planned an Anti-Valentine's Day party where everyone would paint their fingernails black and play albums by the Cure or the Cocteau Twins.  That same year was going to be different for me, though.  David and I had only been officially dating for a few months, but most people assumed we'd been together forever. 

It often felt that way to us, too.  We had met one another while we were both teaching at a summer camp several years before (a program for "heinously gifted" kids, as a friend of ours quips).  After a brief conversation across the table in the cafeteria, we sat on a bench outside where we talked and talked and talked about everything important in our lives: our intellectual interests, our favorite authors, our family backgrounds, the importance of our brothers in our lives. We talked about our dreams, our politics, justice, social activism, God-and-no-God, etc.  The conversation went on until we began to see the sun rise.  Although we had just met, I felt like I knew him deep down, and better than people I had known all my life.

Although we were dating other people at the time and did not think of our intense connection as romantic, we stayed in touch over the years.  When we found ourselves in the same city living around the corner from each other while I was in graduate school and David was starting medical school, we started spending every moment together--taking yoga classes, cooking, studying.  After dinner we hit the books and ate pomegranates, staining all the pages with the red juice.  The whole time I was staring into his eyes--mesmerizing and calming at the same time.

David knew I was skittish about Valentine's Day.  When his parents called and said they'd be in town that day and wanted to meet me, he laughed a bit as he watched my nervousness skyrocket.  He always says I cooked up an ingenious plan to avoid it all.

*   *   *

I came back from spending the holidays at home with what I thought was a sinus infection.  When a course of antibiotics did not cure it, I asked David to pour over his first-year medical student books for information about how a stubborn case like this might be treated.  When he looked up my symptoms, he pointed out that facial numbness is not a traditional sign of sinus infection.  Without any facial paralysis to go along it, the only real diagnosis was a brain tumor.  Chuckle.  Ha.  David must have so much left to learn in medical school....

Eighteen years ago on February 12, I headed to Student Health again, still assuming I really had a sinus infection and hoping for an antibiotics refill. Initially, the docs there had agreed with me that it was probably a sinus infection.  But after this month when the facial numbness around my left eye began to spread, Student Health referred me immediately to the neurologist, telling me to go straight across the street right away.  Dr. Pleasure sent me for an MRI immediately.  When I emerged from the dressing room, the doctor sat in the waiting room, pizza in one hand and MRI in the other, and said, "Good news!  You don't have Multiple Sclerosis.  It's just a brain tumor." Everyone was surprised to discover that my tumor was actually on the right.  The 7cm-plus tumor was pressing on my brainstem, smooshing the facial nerves on the left against the inside of my skull.

I spent the rest of the morning being admitted, sneaking home (a 10-minute walk) to get pajamas and lots of books to read (I was studying for comps), and calling my family.  I met with lots of medical residents who asked me to remember lists ("Spruce   Street, Baseball, and the Palladium"--still remember them after eighteen years...), or to touch my nose then touch their moving fingers.

*  *  *

As soon as David walked home from med school classes that day, he received my message on his answering machine and turned right back to come see me at the hospital.  He spent the next two months there--reassuring me, comforting me, entertaining me, and making me fall ever more deeply in love with him.

I also called my parents.  My mother flew up on Sunday, February 14th.  Although I did not get to meet David's parents that day, he very unexpectedly got to meet one of mine.

The surgery on February 16th lasted almost 24 hours.  I still think they must have ordered out for pizza and a movie.  One of my friends, a 4th year medical student, caught some of the surgery on closed circuit TV.  Several of my friends from the history department joined David and my mother in the waiting room off and on during the day and early evening.  They all entertained her with song and silly jokes.  In return she taught them how to dance the shag, the official dance of her home state.  David stayed with my mother all night in the hospital waiting room, waiting for me to emerge from the operating room.

*  *  *

After a short stay in the ICU, I moved to the neuro floor and worked on recovery.  I had the whole range of side effects.  A severed 8th cranial nerve left me deaf in one ear and with impaired balance.  I also had paralysis on one side of my face, wide-open dry eyes, serious nystagmus, difficulty with speech, difficulty thinking with words, difficulty reading, handwriting illegibility, difficulty walking, etc.  Because of my balance adjustment, I sometimes felt like I was being dumped out of the bed and held onto the rails for dear life.  Eventually I went to occupational therapy and learned to draw lines between pictures and words.  I went to physical therapy and practiced walking halls with patterned floors, and then later, up and down stairs.  And the nutritionist kept sending up cases of Sustacal, the most foul drink in the universe, despite the fact that I was eating just fine.

*  *  *

Eventually, I was given a pass to go out of the hospital: My family and friends helped me trod slowly through the snow (with a cane) to the garden show at the convention center next to the hospital. I still have the postcard I sent to my grandmother--scribbles that don't even seem to be words, with a translation filled in by my mother.  It sounds like a 3-year-old composed it.

*  *  *

Soon, I was signing discharge papers.  As I bent over to try to sign my name (a great difficulty), a drop of spinal fluid dripped from my nose onto the paper.  My neurosurgeon slid the paper away from me, mumbled something about culturing it, and told me to take off my shoes and lie right back down.  I spent the next few weeks getting spinal taps, a long-term tap that stayed in my back, and IV Vancomyecin for meningitis.  Meanwhile my main neuro resident went bungee-jumping in Australia.

Eventually I was released with a small CSF leak that refused to heal outside the hospital.  On April Fool's Day, my ENT told me I'd be coming back in for a second surgery to correct the leak.  After this surgery, I had a more serious case of meningitis and more Vancomyecin.  I eventually went home with a IV line in my arm, a refrigerator filled with IV antibiotics, and no remaining veins.

*  *  *

Before my doctors cleared me to leave town for a few days to visit my family, David and I drove down from Philadelphia to DC in his old clunker for the 1993 GLBT March, just for the day.  His car was an old beater with a Fisher Price toy phone.  He loved to joke that it was his car phone.  I spent my birthday with hundreds of thousands of other protesters on the National Mall.  It felt like a day of new wholeness and strength, for everyone there but especially for me.

I started learning American Sign Language soon after surgery, partly to help regain control of my right hand and partly to help me deal with my now-merely-decorative right ear.  David began to learn Sign as well, taking classes at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. 

*  *  *

Our relationship continued to grow as the months of recovery passed.  When David went home for Rosh Hashanah that fall, I decided to knit him a sweater.  Immediately after I attended morning services on campus, I went to my local yarn store, a below-street-level establishment around the corner from where Rosie's Yarn Cellar is today, and bought light Lopi yarn.  Luckily, I did not buy straight needles (see story number 3) and was therefore able to complete the sweater in time to give it to him for Hanukkah. The Boyfriend Sweater Curse seems to have passed us by.

I eventually accepted a teaching job at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf students in Washington DC, where classes are all taught in Sign.  My first book grew out of my dissertation on deafness in the 19th century South.  My second book, co-written with a friend, is a biography of a deaf black man in early 20th-century North Carolina and relies on signed interviews.  It could not have happened without the experiences I had due to the tumor.

*  *  *

There are things that remind me of my surgery every day.  The lack of a vestibular nerve still makes it hard to walk in the dark or on the snow and ice.  I get frustrated in loud parties when I can't follow conversations.  My handwriting is only barely legible.  Sometimes the person cutting my hair will ask why I have a hole in my head.  And I am totally amazed when two-eared people can tell from sound where they dropped a penny.  Best of all, I have a funky talent of closing one eye when I pucker my lips (apparently my nerves regenerated in a less-than-typical way).  I still drip (spinal fluid?) from my nose upon exertion or in hot weather, become nauseated, and get a headache.   I keep a copy of an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip that came out while I was in the hospital:


Since my surgery, I've met many people who've had the same kind of tumor, some whose tumors were quite small and others more like mine.  Seeing what kind of experiences they've had, I feel so lucky.  Despite the fact that I had a very large tumor and a whole lot of immediate side effects, two years after surgery I was -- well, not at all my old self, but a new and whole human being living a new kind of life with new expectations, new limitations, and new goals.

My tumor and the surgery changed my life, in ways both difficult and very positive.  In addition to deepening relationships and changing my academic interests, my experiences allowed me to understand much more about the experience of health and disability, about strength and love.  Surgery took me in a new direction, one that I never expected and one that has been filled with surprises and delights.  Life is not the same after something like this, but it can take you on an amazing new path.

And I've got the scar to prove it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

For You, Dear Slow Plot-Driven Reader*

Valentine's Day scones
Scones, made by my partner David

Sonnet XVII

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

--Pablo Neruda

read at our wedding celebration


*  "Slow Plot-Driven Reader" is a frequent commentator on this blog--and someone who has put up with my book obsession for nearly twenty years in real life (even through several household moves and all that entails for bibliophiles).  I can think of no other reader with whom I'd rather spend time reading and talking about books.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Two Lies and a Truth

This coming week is a special one for me and I will be posting a series of non-classics posts during my week-long celebration.  Back to normally scheduled programming next week.

*  *  *

One of these stories is true:


1. How we met...

Nineteen years ago when I was in graduate school in history, I found myself in the emergency room a couple of days before Valentine's Day with abdominal pain. A young man in a short white coat walked into my examining room.  I lamented, "Another in the long chain of medical students and residents who have come to learn from my case of simple appendicitis...."  Because I was learning to be a teacher and because I have a very high pain threshold, I must have seemed to be a good patient to introduce to students: someone willing to answer their questions again and again.  The fact that the teaching docs knew I was getting free medical care because it was my university's hospital must have made their decision even easier.

This young man was different, though.  His eyes were mesmerizing and calming at the same time.  (They still are.)  David was charged with giving me a mental status exam and gave me three random words to remember.  He was supposed to ask me to repeat those words after five minutes, but we got so carried away in conversation that he never asked me to say them back.  (I still remember the three words to this day: Spruce Street, baseball, Palladium.)  Eventually, he ran out of the room, hastily explaining he needed to give his findings to his attending.

David returned a few minutes later and we continued our conversation.  Hours seemed to pass. He sat down and seemed to have all the time in the world to comfort me and keep me company.  We shared our intellectual interests, our favorite authors, our family backgrounds, the importance of our brothers in our lives.  We talked about our dreams, our politics, justice, social activism,  God-and-no-God, etc.

It turns out David did not have to be there at all. I was supposed to be his last quick interview.  He was finally able to leave the hospital after his long stint on call.  But he didn't.  He stayed with me, a total stranger alone in a hospital room facing surgery the next day.

He stopped by to see me after my surgery.  The next morning when I was well enough to go home, he offered to drive me the half-mile down the road to my apartment.  "Do I really know him well enough to get in his car?" I thought to myself.  His car was an old beater with a Fisher Price toy phone that he joked was his car phone.

I felt like I was glowing the whole ride home.    Of course, the answer to my question was yes--I knew him well enough, I knew him deep down, and better than people I had known all my life.

And I've got the scar to prove it.


2. Meeting the 'Rents...

Eighteen years ago when David and I were preparing for our first "real" dating Valentine's Day, his parents announced the week before that they would be passing through town on the 14th and would like to have lunch.  They suggested that David bring me to meet them for the first time.  I was excited but nervous. Were we really serious enough for a meet-the-parents session, on Valentine's Day no less?

A couple of days before they arrived, I went to Student Health with what I thought was a sinus infection.  They sent me directly to the neurologist, who sent me directly to get an MRI.  While I was in the machine, the doc headed out to grab a bite.  When I returned from the scan, I found Dr. Pleasure (his real name) holding the film in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other.  "Thank goodness," he said.  "I thought you had MS.  It's only a brain tumor."

I was immediately admitted to the hospital and my mother flew up on the 14th to be with me in time for my surgery.  Instead of me meeting David's parents that Valentine's Day, he met mine.  While I was in the operating room, the two of them and many of my grad school friends danced the evening away in the hospital waiting room.  David stayed all night to look after my mother. I loved him even more after that.

And I've got the scar to prove it.


3. Never Knit Your Man a Sweater...

Seventeen years ago on our third Valentine's Day, David and I were pretty sure we were in it for the long haul.  While he was on an away rotation (studying medicine at a hospital in a very different kind of community), I decided to knit him a sweater.  At the time I did not know the proscription against knitting your sweetie a sweater before you were really committed or he would never marry you--but I suspect it would not have fazed me in any way had I known.  Just a silly old wives' tale--and while I was ready to commit, I wasn't so sure I wanted wanted to be a real wife, with all the baggage that legal marriage carries.

Although I had knit as a child and as a teenager and as a college student, I had not knit during grad school.  Looking back, I am amazed.  There is no more perfect time to knit than graduate school.

Due to a disturbance with my hearing/vestibular nerve, I have lousy balance and fall fairly frequently. This is related to my hearing issues, too.  At the time, my balance issues were significant enough that I often used a cane to help me stabilize.  Nevertheless, I headed out into the February snow to my local yarn store, climbed down the stairs from the street, picked out some light Icelandic yarn in a couple of neutral colors, and sketched out a basic sweater pattern with the owners.  I picked up a couple of pairs of straight knitting needles--sized 6 and 8--and threw them in the bag.  After paying, I climbed back to the street.

Except I slipped on the icy stairs.

I tried to catch myself but missed the rail and fell hard onto the side of my bag.  One of the knitting needles plunged into my soft belly and pierced the skin rather deeply.  I caught a cab home and was fine after cleaning myself up, bandaging the wound, taking some serious pain relievers, and having a long sleep.

The idea of knitting a sweater had lost all its charm.  Don't knit your boyfriend a sweater, indeed.

I put the yarn in the top of my closet--creating my first real stash.  The sweater didn't get knit until the next Valentine's day, but from then on, I was hooked.  David and I have been knitted together ever since.

And I've got the scar to prove it.

*  *  *

So which is it? Send in your guesses!

The correct story will be announced on the morning of Feb. 16.

*  *  *

This post is a slightly edited version of a game I posted on my old personal blog, The Purloined Letter, several years ago.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fame, by Tom Payne

I've just finished a book that made me feel like I was a party--one of those strange literary-magazine parties in college full of brilliant and well-educated friends, slowly getting drunk on Black Russians, coming up with crazy visionary ideas which I, still sober and not so well educated, could almost follow.

Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of CelebrityTom Payne's new Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity is an enormously clever reading of the concept of celebrity across time and place.  The author explores everything  from the ancient Greeks to Goethe, from Michael Jackson to Angelina Jolie.  He starts off by comparing a newly-bald Britney Spears to Euripides's heriones--and if anything, the books gets more surprising from there on out.

Fame is a brilliantly playful book, the product of a man enormously well versed in classical literature, the latest in pop culture, and everything in between.  What fun the author must have had plotting out this book!  His style fits his topic perfectly: witty, light-hearted, and at least a wee bit mischievous.

Payne argues, only somewhat facetiously, that social historians trying to understand the world by studying the everyday lives of normal working people are going about their endeavor all wrong.  "This book says phooey to all that," writes Payne.  "We shouldn't rule out heroes and villains.  Even if they don't really explain how things are today, it's still important that we made heroes and villains out of them; and that tells us so much about us."

I know neither all the classical literature to which Payne refers nor the pop-culture allusions.  (Let me acknowledge up front that I live in a bubble.  I grew up without television and we don't have one now.  I listen to NPR.   When in the airport, I pick up The Economist at the newsstand before I board the plane.  Almost everything I know about pop culture comes from the sidebar headlines over at Huffington Post.  Well--that was all true, until I read this book.  I learned a tremendous amount about current pop culture from Fame.)  But Payne does not assume his readers will know everything he is comparing.  Although some of the comparisons seem far-fetched as he begins particular anecdotes, I was consistently stunned as I reached the end of his analyses, nodding my head and smiling with the pleasure of nerdy cleverness.

Although process seems more important than point in this book, Fame does have a thesis--one that will last long after some of the pop icons have disappeared from the rumor-mill radar screen.  Payne argues that we treat our celebrities as demi-gods: larger than life, more exciting and beautiful than we could ever be, often with bigger flaws than normal mortals have.  He writes, "We allow these quasi-divine people the hedonism that cannot last. They live for us, and we live through them."  And, disturbingly, when that hedonism leads to downfall, we delight in their destruction as it feeds our desire for human sacrifice.

* * *

Have you ever read a book that left you wondering in the morning if that wild party could have really happened last night? I think I felt that way after reading Oliver Sack's amazingly mind-expanding The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Please share with me some of your favorites!

* * *

Thanks to Picador press for providing a review copy of this entertaining and fascinating book.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Troy Wars

Troy (Two-Disc Widescreen Edition)I recently watched the movie version of Homer's Iliad, Troy.  I think I normally would have hated the movie's intense violence, over-the-top special effects, and mediocre acting.  As it was, while Troy was certainly not my favorite movie of all time, I found it quite a bit more interesting to see immediately after reading Homer's epic.

By far the greatest strength of the movie is the gorgeous visuals.  The scenes where we see a thousand ships filling the sea on their way to Troy is beautiful and terrifying.  The enormous cast that fills out battle scenes adds to the larger-than life feel of the movie, as does the historically inaccurate enormity of the castles and city walls.  And then there is the beauty that is Brad Pitt--that is, if you look at his body and not his acting.  Or you might interpret his look as "a creepy yoga teacher at an overpriced Californian spa," as Alex von Tunzelmann does:


This film definitely puts us in mind of an epic.  Unfortunately, "epic" here does not refer to the old Homeric kind with dactylic hexameter, but the Hollywood box-office hit kind of epic.

There are many changes from Homer's story to Troy's screenplay.  Some are deliberate changes or additions, while others are codified interpretations of open questions.  Although they are not accurate as true translations of Homer, some are quite interesting and make certain themes from the book perhaps more relevant to a modern audience.  Others are just annoying.

Perhaps the most obvious change is the removal of the gods from the action at Troy.  While some of the Trojans talk about temples and the gods, Hector routinely laughs at the idea of believing in omens.  (In contrast, Homer has the gods determining everyday events as their whims dictate.)  At first, I found this to be a relief.  The idea that characters might believe gods control human destinies works well for me, but I struggle when authors explain the actual events that way.  But as the movie went on, I realized that by removing the gods, the film overplays the roles of individuals.  Homer, I think, means the characters to be both heroic and weak--that is, immortal in name but mortal in body, distinguished hero but also a diminished everyman.  The lack of gods leaves Achilles seeming like the most powerful one in the story.

Achilles in the film states that the gods are jealous of humans precisely because humans can die: "Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed."  Of course, it is death that creates human immortality, as he acknowledges when he urges his troops to fight the bloody battles that will make their names last throughout history.  This theme certainly echoes one of the main Homeric ideas.

Some of the other changes from book to film were in an effort to unify the story.  One that especially bothered me was the the movie portrays the war from beginning to end--all happening quickly and with great excitement.  There is none of the drawn-out boredom and exhaustion of a long war that Homer allows us to see.

I love the "in medias rex" style that Homer uses, beginning and ending his story in the middle.  The central story of the film is the story of the war as a whole.  In Homer, Achilles's changing rage and emotional growth is the central story, a story that takes place in the setting of the great war.  And this smaller story allows character analysis that seems erased by the film.  In other words, since Homer wasn't thinking that "epic" meant telling a big story about a big thing, we could get a deeper story about an individual's transformation.

The filmmakers create parallel characters throughout the story.  Some are hinted at in Homer where others are totally new.  I found many of them to be fascinating riffs on the story--sometimes bringing out themes which would otherwise be missing (many of which were absent in the original epic).

Images of Hector getting dressed for battle are alternated with images of Achilles getting dressed for battle, while Achilles' lover and Hector's wife are each distraught.  But the contrast between the two men is even more obvious that the parallel: Achilles fights for pride and fame, while Hector fights out of duty and love of family.

Another parallel--completely invented in the film--is the relationships among cousins.  Although Homer tells a different story, in the movie we are told that Patroclus is Achilles' cousin, and Briseis is Hector's cousin.  Achilles grieves when his cousin dies at the hands of Hector, and Briseis grieves when her cousin dies at the hands of Achilles.

Although the cousin echo emphasizes the humanity of both sides (a theme Homer also presents), I was annoyed that this move allowed the filmmakers to placate anti-gay activists and remove all the questions about the intense relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

In sum, I wasn't too keen on the movie, but I found it fascinating to consider why the filmmakers made particular decisions and interpretations.  I was reminded how much I like the character of Hector--who was very well played by Eric Bana.  Definitely one of the best performances of the film.


Least favorite change in the movie: the way Agamemnon dies.  What?!  Change of fortune in the house of Atreus!

Favorite moment in the movie: King Priam, played by Peter O'Toole and looking for all the world like Obi-Wan Kenobi in his robes, solemnly intones, "May the Gods be with you."
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