Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Books


Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). There are two modes of thought that we each employ: we use the fast "System 1" for things like emotional responses, intuitions, or snap judgments, and the slow "System 2" for things like calculation or logical argument. But this division of mental labor often leads us into error when we use System 1 for tasks that really require System 2. We confuse familiarity with truth, allow random suggestions to affect our judgments, assume small samples are representative, and focus on the details of a problem to the exclusion of important information from its larger context. And advertisers, politicians, and others who want to manipulate us take full advantage of these cognitive failings. In my post on Thinking, Fast and Slow I wrote "You'll never look at apparently simple choices in the same way again—and that's a good thing." This very entertaining book is a must-read for anyone who has a brain.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). In her brilliant graphic memoir Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Bechdel depicted the emotional consequences of her closeted gay father's secret life on him and on the rest of her family. Now she turns to her difficult relationship with her mother. In my post Alison Bechdel: DTWOF, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother? I wrote of this "very rewarding" book that it had "many of the strengths of Fun Home—emotional honesty, thoughtfulness, and a clear-eyed portrayal of everyone involved..."


Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012). This widely praised book has been marketed as nonfiction; indeed, it is the winner of the 2012 National Book Award in that category. However, Boo confesses in her afterword that she speaks no Indian languages and relied on translators for all of her interactions with the struggling residents of Annawadi, an impoverished settlement adjacent to the luxury hotels that surround Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Despite her language handicap, though, Boo is somehow able to transcribe lengthy internal monologues by her characters, and record verbatim conversations at which it is extremely unlikely that she or her translators were present. There's a word for books which feature these sorts of things: novels. This is a well-written and affecting work of imaginative recreation, or, as we say in my house, fiction.

William Thackeray: Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844). Barry Lyndon is a charming rogue, a soldier of fortune, a gambler, a brawler, and an extremely unreliable narrator of his highly entertaining memoirs. "The great and rich are welcomed, smiling, up the grand staircase of the world; the poor but aspiring must clamber up the wall, or push and struggle up the back stair, or, pardi, crawl through any of the conduits of the house, never mind how foul and narrow, that lead to the top" (Ch. 10).

Orhan Pamuk: Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009). Kemal begins a passionate affair with his beautiful 18-year-old niece Füsun that shatters his complacent existence. After the affair ends abruptly, Kemal turns the apartment where he and Füsun made love in the afternoons into a shrine to Füsun and their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by her presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

As I wrote in Orhan Pamuk, "In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them' (p. 510). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim these everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a kind of catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012)."

Michael Frayn: Headlong (Faber, 1999). Martin believes he's stumbled across a previously unknown Bruegel in his neighbor's country house. His discovery inaugurates a chain of bad behavior and worse decisions. In Trapped in subjectivity: Michael Frayn I wrote, "Exactly who is using whom grows less and less certain, while the likelihood that all of these entanglements are going to lead to disaster for Martin becomes more and more so."

Biggest disappointment

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 (Knopf, 2011). Aomame is a beautiful, bisexual assassin who favors miniskirts and lusts after middle-aged men with receding hairlines; Tengo is an aspiring writer. In childhood they shared a moment of intense emotional connection. Two decades later they find themselves in an alternate version of 1984 Tokyo, trying desperately to connect with one another.

The novel's odd details—fanatical religious cults, a women's shelter that assures the safety of its residents by murdering their abusers, a dogged detective, and Little People who can move between the parallel worlds of 1984 and 1Q84—held my interest for about three-quarters of this 900-page book. But then it became increasingly difficult to ignore the novel's clunky writing (perhaps partly the fault of hasty translation by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) and schematic plot. As I wrote in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84: "The novel seemed to be ending just when the most interesting part of the story—Tengo and Aomame's emergence from their emotional shells—was about to begin."

More Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Television, and Music

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Music

For me 2012 was The Year of Haydn. In Haydn Chamber Music I wrote, "For many years I resisted the appeal of Joseph Haydn's music. It seemed too clever to be profound, too pleasant to be emotionally affecting." Well, his music is clever and pleasant, although those virtues don't seem as minor to me as they once did. But they are also intricate, beautifully structured, melodically appealing, and (yes) emotionally moving.

The performances of Haydn's string quartets by the period-instrument ensemble Quatuor Mosaïques are revelatory, and helped me to appreciate the quartet form in a way that I never had managed to do before. And while in his operas Haydn doesn't quite achieve the emotional depth of, say, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, they are filled with wonderful music. I wrote a full-length post on Haydn's operas; here is mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus singing "Se non piange un infelice" from Haydn's L'Isola Disabitata (The Desert Island), accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis:

More arias from the operas are included in the "Haydn's operas" post.

The Met Live in HD: The Enchanted Island and La Clemenza di Tito

The Met Live in HD continues to be an excellent series, and it's a fun way to spend a Saturday morning (on the West Coast the matinee broadcasts begin between 9 and 10 am). This year was notable for two outstanding productions. On January 21 we saw The Enchanted Island, a modern pasticcio of arias by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others. The original words were replaced with a new English-language libretto by Jeremy Sams that shipwrecks the lovers from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream on Prospero's island from The Tempest. Great music, Sams' witty libretto, and the committed performances of a cast that included David Daniels, Danielle De Niese, Joyce Didonato, Plácido Domingo, Luca Pisaroni and Lisette Oropesa (a delightful Romilda in the SF Opera's 2011 production of Handel's Xerxes) made this new-old opera an utter delight.

But for me the biggest discovery of The Enchanted Island was Elizabeth DeShong, who sang the role of Hermia. She has a scene at the opening of Act II, based on "Where shall I fly?" from Handel's oratorio Hercules, that shows off her thrilling voice. She's a singer we'll definitely be looking for in the future.

On December 1, the Met broadcast Mozart's next-to-last opera, La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, 1791) in a handsome Jean-Pierre Ponelle production. Speaking of handsome, the gorgeous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča performed the role of the conflicted Sesto, lover of the vengeful Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli). While her fashion-model looks haven't hurt Garanča's career, more importantly she brings to her roles a fierce commitment and a meltingly beautiful voice:

Also outstanding in this production were Lucy Crowe as Sesto's sister Servilia, and Kate Lindsey as Annio, Servilia's lover and Sesto's steadfast friend. If the libretto makes the Emperor Titus (a subdued Giuseppe Filianoti) too good to be true, the singers and conductor Harry Bicket made as convincing as possible a case for the opera.

Favorite live music event: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, Friday, Feb. 3. Produced by Cal Performances.

The best concert we saw in 2012 wasn't the three-hour-long show put on by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Oakland on November 30 (the obnoxious drunken morons sitting behind us made sure of that). It was of music written more than 400 years before "Born To Run": Alessandro Striggio's mass "Ecco si beato giorno," whose final Agnus Dei is performed by five separate 12-voice choirs. In the post Sixteenth-century psychedelia: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance, I wrote that being enveloped by this wave of sound was "a consciousness-altering experience." The awe-inspiring performances of 40-, 50- and 60-part polychoral works by the combined choruses of several Bay Area early music groups under the direction of conductor and musicologist Davitt Moroney were a musical experience that we will never forget.

Favorite recording: Mission. Cecilia Bartoli with Philippe Jaroussky. I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis, conductor. Decca 4784732.

Cecilia Bartoli's catalog of recordings is filled with rarities, such as her recent aria collections from 17th-century Italian oratorios (Opera Proibita) and from roles written for castrati (Sacrificium). But few of the composers whose work she has revived have been less recorded than Agostino Steffani (1654-1728). A contemporary of Alessandro Scarlatti, Steffani was the Kappellmeister for the Hanoverian court before Handel was appointed to the post. Handel and Steffani knew one another, and Handel thought so highly of Steffani's vocal duets that he used them as models for his own.

Four duets (with electrifying countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who starred in the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Niobe, Regina di Tebe) appear on this very generous 25-track album, which also includes solo arias from a dozen of Steffani's operas. And the music is of exceptional quality; it's astonishing that it is so little known:

Other Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Television, and Books

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Television

Francesca Annis in Lillie

Most of our favorite television series of 2011—among them Daniel Deronda, The Barchester Chronicles, Cranford, and Desperate Romantics—were set in the high Victorian Era of the mid-1800s. In 2012 we seemed to be following a chronological thread forward to the Vicwardian age of the late 1800s and early 1900s (Lillie, The Duchess of Duke Street, and Tipping the Velvet), and beyond to the 1920s and 30s (The House of Eliott).

Mrs. Langtry by Edward Poynter, 1878

Lillie (ITV, 1978) is based on the scandalous life of Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), who cut a swath through the late-Victorian artistic and aristocratic worlds. A renowned beauty, she was painted by John Everett Millais, Frank Miles, James Sant, Edward Poynter and others. A famous actress, she was a close friend of Oscar Wilde (the character of Lady Windermere is said to have been based on her). And she took many lovers, including the Prince of Wales—later, of course, to become King Edward VII.

The superb actress Francesca Annis (Wives and Daughters, Cranford) doesn't merely portray Lillie, she inhabits her, making her passions and contradictions utterly believable. My only regret is that we don't see more of Lillie in her roles onstage, but given her eventful life offstage (multiple lovers, numerous scandals, and an illegitimate child) perhaps there simply wasn't enough time.  

Gemma Jones as Louisa

The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-1977) is also based on a real-life figure: Rosa Lewis, "The Duchess of Jermyn Street." Like Lewis, the fictional Louisa Leyton (Gemma Jones) is a working-class girl who comes to London determined to become a celebrated chef. At one of the aristocratic dinners she prepares, she encounters the Prince of Wales (historically, this would have been about a decade after the end of his affair with Lillie Langtry). The depiction of the Prince of Wales in The Duchess isn't as flattering as it is in Lillie: he is less the charming rogue and more the sexual predator, using blackmail and bribery to coerce the pretty Louisa into sex.

Rosa Lewis, early 1900s
As a result of the affair Louisa acquires just enough means to purchase the Bentick Hotel on Duke Street (Lewis became the proprietor of the Cavendish Hotel, at the corner of Jermyn and Duke Streets), and the bulk of the series follows her attempts to keep the hotel going. If the most compelling episodes are the early ones that feature Louisa's struggles to establish herself against all odds, she remains a sympathetic (if hard-nosed) figure throughout, and Jones' performance is a delight.

Tipping the Velvet (BBC, 2002): Based on Sarah Waters' 1998 novel of the same title, this 3-episode series has a great cast that includes Rachel Stirling (Diana Riggs' daughter), Keeley Hawes (of Wives and Daughters), Anna Chancellor (of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice), Jodhi May (of Daniel Deronda), and Sally Hawkins (of Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education and Never Let Me Go). It also has a daring Andrew Davies script that features cross-dressing and same-sex attraction in the music halls of 1890s London. Lavish production values, excellent performances and a sexy, literate screenplay: what more could you ask?

The House of Eliott (BBC, 1991-1994) follows the fortunes of the Eliott sisters Beatrice (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline (Louise Lombard) as they try to establish their own clothing design studio in 1920s London.

The two main actresses are talented and lovely, although it's something of a stretch to imagine them as sisters. But a key reason to watch this series is the costumes. Designer Joan Wadge (along with James Keast in the 1992 season) made the fabulous creations worn by the cast: backless flapper dresses, stunning evening gowns, cloche hats. Every episode is a visual feast of 1920s clothes, cars, chaises, and cocktail shakers.

The scripts aren't quite as strong as the chic. Perhaps because there were so many writers in this Jean Marsh- and Eileen Atkins-produced series (at least 9 over the three seasons) the narrative can suddenly lurch in unexpected directions. For example, in the first series we're introduced to the daredevil pilot Sebastian (Jeremy Brudenell) as Bea and Evie's evil half brother who is plotting to steal their inheritance. But then it turns out that their philandering father left them no inheritance. And then Sebastian turns out not to be evil, and not to be their half brother. And then he becomes Evie's romantic interest. And then—spoiler alert!—he dies in a plane crash.

There's an episode that clearly seems intended to wrap up all the first-season storylines: on a trip to Paris, movie director Jack (Aden Gillett) proposes to Bea, while Evie is offered a five-year contract as a designer for (and embarks on an affair with the head of) the firm of Maison Gilles. Only, because the show was renewed for another year, this episode was apparently shifted to the beginning of the second series. Rather than wrapping everything up, the writers had to furiously backpedal: in the very next episode Evie ends her affair and returns from Paris to rejoin the House of Eliott, and Jack and Bea's marriage comes under strain.

So don't watch this series for narrative consistency, but do watch it for the gorgeous recreations of 1920s couture.

Other Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Music, and Books

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Movies

Here are my favorite (non-Indian) movies first seen in the past twelve months; for Indian films, see Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa, 2010): Chilean director Raúl Ruiz's next-to-last film is more than four hours long, but its length is fully justified by its sweep, complexity, and visual splendor. Adapted by screenwriter Carlos Saboga from a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, the film begins with an orphan boy's search for his origins, and soon takes us into stories nested within stories about forbidden passions and social upheaval in the aristocratic world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ruiz's camerawork is sometimes deliberately obtrusive in a way that will be familiar if you saw his version of Proust's Time Regained (1999). Perhaps intended as a Brechtian alenation effect, or perhaps as a way of making the action seem more dreamlike, the gliding camera sometimes seems overdone to me. But this is a minor quibble in such a rich and involving film.

Romantics Anonymous (Les émotifs anonymes, 2010): At the other end of several spectrums from Ruiz's epic is writer/director Jean-Pierre Améris' short, slight and sweetly charming film. Angélique (Isabelle Carré) and Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde) are two cripplingly shy people trying to overcome their fears and find a soulmate. To add to the pleasures of the writing and performances, much of the film revolves around the preparation and tasting of exquisite-looking chocolates.

Babette's Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987): Speaking of exquisite food, half of this film's 100-minute running time is taken up with the preparation and consumption of the title's once-in-a-lifetime meal. Based on an Isak Dinesen story, Babette's Feast portrays the thwarted lives of two sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), in an isolated, windswept Scandinavian village. The women are the daughters of a sternly ascetic pastor, and after their father's death they grow old ministering to his dwindling congregation. Into their lives comes Babette (Stéphane Audran), a refugee from Paris, who agrees to become their housekeeper. Babette is concealing a secret, though, which changes everyone's lives when it is revealed by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune.

I had avoided seeing this film when it came out because it seemed to dovetail a little too neatly with the focus on gourmandizing and the retreat from political engagement apparent in the yuppified Berkeley of the mid-1980s. I'm glad I finally rectified my mistake: this is a film not only about the sensuous pleasures of food, but about love, loyalty, and the joys of making use of one's gifts and sharing one's passions.

Outsourced (2006): A call-center manager finds that his entire department has been outsourced, and that he is being sent to India to train his own replacement. As I wrote in the post "Cross-cultural comedy: Outsourced and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," the message of writer/director John Jeffcoat's movie "is one of tolerance, openness to new ideas and experiences, and acceptance of differences."

Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956):  Director Kenzi Mizoguchi's final film, based in part on Yoshiko Shibaki's short stories "Susaki paradaisu" and "Yako no Onna," depicts the intertwined lives of five women who work at a brothel in Tokyo's seamy red-light district. The brothel is named "Dreamland," and each woman dreams of escape—dreams that for most of them will inevitably be shattered. Most of the women have been trapped in prostitution by poverty and familial responsibility, and face ostracism by a hypocritical society that allowed them no other choices. The film's final images of an innocent new recruit timidly beckoning the drunken, reeling men passing by in the street suggest that the bitter experiences of the women are doomed to be endlessly repeated.

First Position (2011): Bess Kargman's documentary follows seven young dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, an international competition that will determine their futures. The dancers come from North and South America and the Middle East, range in age from 10 to 17, and come from very diverse backgrounds. Aran Bell, 11 at the time of filming, is the son of a military doctor; Michaela DePrince, 14 at the time of filming, was orphaned by the civil war in Sierra Leone; and Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16 at the time of filming, lives and trains in New York, thousands of miles away from his family in Columbia. As with The Audition, Susan Froemke's compelling 2008 documentary about the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, the competition provides built-in drama. The film isn't flawless—we see only brief excerpts of most of the dances, and there are no interviews with anyone who offers a critical perspective on dance competitions. But the stories of these dancers and their struggles to excel at their chosen art are riveting.

Update 16 December 2012: For more favorites, see Bollywood and Bengal, Television, Music, and Books

Monday, December 10, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal

Meena Kumari as Lalita in Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953)

This wasn't a great year for our Bollywood viewing. Films first seen this year included:
  • Anamika (The Nameless Girl, 1973): a young Jaya Bhaduri and great songs by R.D. Burman don't quite compensate for the credulity-stretching script;
  • Bhool Bhulaiyaa (The Maze, 2007) and Kismat Konnection (2008): Vidya Balan with a couple of misses after the successes of Parineeta (The Married Woman, 2005) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Go on, Brother Munna, 2006);
  • Dil Maange More (The Heart Wants More, 2004): Shahid Kapoor before Vivah (Marriage, 2006) or Kareena;
  • Don 2 (2011): SRK in a dispiriting and pointless sequel;
  • Ek Baar Phir (One More Time, 1980): Pradeep Verma and the lovely Deepti Naval in a too-schematic story;
  • Ek Main aur Ekk Tu (One Me and One You, 2012): Kareena in her umpteenth MPDG role;
  • Mausam (Seasons, 2011): Shahid Kapoor and (fatally) Sonam Kapoor separated once too often by history;
  • Namastey London (Greetings, London, 2007): Katrina Kaif before she got better;
  • Ra.One (2011): SRK aiming for the teen boys market;
  • Raajneeti (Politics, 2010): A Godfather remake, only without any of the touches that made Coppola's film so compelling;
  • Satyam Shivam Sundaram (True, Eternal, Beautiful, 1978): Zeenat Aman wearing a fake scar and little else. 
As my capsule descriptions imply, all were disappointing in one way or another.

Old Is Gold

My favorite Indian film of 2012 was Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953), made 60 years ago. You can read my full-length post, with screen caps and videos, by clicking the title link. The short version of that post is that this film fully deserves its classic status; Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari give heartrending performances as the lovers separated by a family feud.

Dev Anand and Shakila in C.I.D.

 C.I.D. (1956): Coming in a close second is this effective Bollywood noir. It features Dev Anand as a detective investigating the murder of a crusading newspaper editor and Waheeda Rehman (in her (Hindi) debut!) as a femme fatale with a heart of gold (à la Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953)). O.P. Nayyar's soundtrack is filled with memorable songs performed by Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, and Mohd. Rafi, such as the bitterly ironic "Bombay Meri Jaan." As he did for so many Guru Dutt-produced films, V. K. Murthy provided the atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. On the Ultra DVD of the film, though, his haunting images are marred by a hideous red, white and blue logo on every frame.

Honorable mention:

Tanuja as Sunita in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi

Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (Spring Will Always Come Again, 1966): Until it goes off the rails with madness and melodrama in the final half hour, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi is a compelling love triangle between investigative reporter Jitendra (Dharmendra at the peak of his attractiveness), his courageous editor Amita (Mala Sinha), and her vivacious younger sister Sunita (a charming Tanuja). When the two women discover each other's true feelings towards Jitendra, each decides to sacrifice her own love for her sister's happiness. Very much worth watching for the cast, the gorgeous black and white cinematography of K.G. Prabhakar, and the lovely music by O.P. Nayyar. As I wrote in my full-length post, "...who can resist the combination of Tanuja and Asha in "Koi Kehde"? Certainly not Dharmendra:"

More Favorites of 2012: Movies, Television, Music, and Books

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot

In Who Cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The New Bollywood Romantic Comedy I asked, "in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible?"

This question is also central to Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). Madeleine Hanna is a Brown University undergraduate in the early 1980s who is somewhat adrift. "She'd become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read," the narrator tells us on page 20, and what she loves to read most of all are the the great but academically unfashionable 19th-century novelists: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Henry James.

The 19th-century novel is driven by the marriage plot, the heroine's crucial choice of her marriage partner, and Madeleine is also beset by romantic choices. It doesn't hurt that she's beautiful enough to carry off "the Annie Lennox look" (though she's a little premature: when she gets her new hairstyle in the fall of 1981, the Eurhythmics' Sweet Dreams won't be released for another year).* The earnest religious studies major Mitchell Grammaticus desperately wants to change his status from friend to lover, but is unsure how to go about it in the face of Madeline's lack of encouragement. Instead, her erotic interest is focussed on her Semiotics 211 classmate Leonard Bankhead, who is tall, handsome, and popular, but who is concealing a debilitating manic depression.

The novel is strongest, at least for me, in the scenes set at Brown. Eugenides evidently went to college around the same time I did, and he captures his characters' confusions, uncertainties and cultural referents so uncannily well that halfway through the book I turned to my partner and said, "I feel as though I could have written this book." A delusionary feeling, of course, but it does say something about Eugenides' skill that he could make his characters' dilemmas seem so real and his narrative read so effortlessly well.

The novel loses a bit of steam in the second half, as it follows the travails of Madeleine and Leonard, and Mitchell's soul-searching post-graduation trip to Europe and India. Here again, though, Eugenides nails the at times bewildering difficulties of making the transition to adulthood.

Eugenides' models for The Marriage Plot seem to be James' Portrait of a Lady (1881), Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence (1920), and especially Eliot's Middlemarch (1874): novels that don't end with the heroine's wedding, but continue into the compromises and unhappinesses of married life. Of course, we live in an age of premarital sex and easy divorce, which means that the heroine's choices have far fewer permanent consequences. Eugenides doesn't pretend that 19th-century mores still pertain; early in the novel he even has one of Madeleine's English professors declare that the novel is now defunct because the marriage plot is no longer possible:

...the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.  And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as [Professor] Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. (p. 22)

Eugenides seems to be setting himself the task of proving that the novel of romantic choice is still possible. As it turns out, he's up to something a little more complicated. Romantic choice for his characters is hugely important and emotionally fraught—but, perhaps, not quite as destiny-defining as it once was. Romantic choice is now only one of a range of decisions we have to make about the course of our lives. By the end of The Marriage Plot, each of the characters recognizes that there are no happy endings, only a series of beginnings. And while that may not be as satisfying as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy recognizing their true feelings for one another, in our contemporary world it's the best they, and we, can do.


* I noticed another minor anachronism: Madeleine sees a girl in the library "who was unfortunately rather cute in a busty Bettie Page way" (p. 41). But The Betty Pages, the fanzine which sparked the resurgence of interest in 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, wasn't published until 1987.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cross-cultural comedy: Outsourced and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Late to the party, as ever, my partner and I watched Outsourced (2006) last night, and thought it was pretty delightful.

Todd (Josh Hamilton), a Seattle call-center manager, discovers that the jobs of his entire department have been outsourced to India, and he is asked to go to there to train his replacement. At first, predictably, things don't go well. Todd is overwhelmed by the crowds, noise and poverty—not to mention the intestinal distress from unwisely sampling a street vendor's gola ganda. He's unfamiliar with Indian customs and practices, and makes more than a few embarrassing mistakes. The call center turns out to be in a raw, unfinished building and the crew is hopeless at pretending that they're from "Chicahgo" as they try to sell Americans cheap patriotic figurines made in China.

But Todd is a resilient, practical guy. When he exasperatedly tells the crew, "You have a lot to learn about America," and Asha (the terrific Ayesha Dharker from Loins of Punjab Presents) responds, "And you have a lot to learn about India," he realizes that she's right. The rest of the film follows Todd's deepening involvement in the lives of his Indian neighbors and co-workers, and his and Asha's growing mutual attraction. And fortunately, although writer/director John Jeffcoat's script does stretch our credulity a few times, it's smart enough to leave some important questions unresolved.

And there are some pointed asides about American lifestyles, as well. Through the eyes of the Indian characters it's clear that we look like we're isolated and atomized, filling our emotional voids with an addiction to cheap junk and oversized appliances. After his weeks in India, Todd's Seattle apartment seems huge, and his refrigerator and microwave look like artifacts from a technologically-advanced alien civilization.

Josh Hamilton is not my idea of a man that would set a desi girl's heart aflutter, but he's perfectly cast as the go-getting but fundamentally good-hearted Todd. And while I see that Ayesha Dharker works steadily, mostly in British TV, on the basis of Loins and Outsourced I'm not sure why she isn't besieged with good film roles.

The message of Outsourced is one of tolerance, openness to new ideas and experiences, and acceptance of differences. That's also the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), which features an ensemble cast of acclaimed British actors. A group of retirees (including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy) come to live at the hotel, which they've been led to believe is a glorious palace but which is now decidedly run down. The film follows the accommodations that each character chooses (or refuses) to make with their new circumstances. The film is also the story of Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire), the hotel's visionary but inexperienced owner-manager who has to battle his own family to realize his dreams of resurrecting the hotel and of marrying the woman he loves.

My one hesitation about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel relates to this narrative, though, and there's no way to discuss it without spoilers. So you've been warned: spoilers ahead! Maggie Smith plays Muriel, a housekeeper with racist attitudes who has come to India for a cheaper hip replacement than she can get at home. While she's recovering, she comes to realize that the hotel could succeed with better management. At the end of the film we see her acting as the manager of the newly renovated hotel, with Sonny reduced to standing in the lobby in traditional dress and showing guests to their rooms. Essentially, he's become a figurehead in his own hotel.

I'd like to think that writer Ol Parker and director John Madden were being deliberately ironic, but somehow I can't quite believe it. Or perhaps the fault lies with the source, Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things (Chatto & Windus, 2004). Wherever the blame lies, the film ends on a note that seems to recapitulate the colonialist ideology of the Raj: that the British know how to run India (for the benefit of Britons, anyway) better than the Indians themselves.

—End of spoilers—

It's the one sour note in a film that for 99% of its length is about the wisdom of accepting India on its own terms. But don't let a misstep in the final moments dissuade you from watching these wonderful actors in what is, for the most part, a very enjoyable story.

Next on our viewing list: the Outsourced television series.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading"

Every time I pick up a Nick Hornby book I'm reminded how pleasurable it is to read him. His style is straightforward and unpretentious, he's disarming in his willingness to say what he thinks, even if it's uncool, and he's got an offhand, self-deprecating sense of humor. Reading one of his "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns for The Believer is like having a great conversation with a friend over a beer.

So why did I feel a hint of reluctance every time I thought about picking up a volume of his columns (published by Believer Books as The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (2006), Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008), and More Baths Less Talking (2012))? After all, I can honestly say that I've enjoyed everything of his I've ever read, although my favorite of his books remains the first one I encountered, High Fidelity (Riverhead, 1995). When he published Songbook (McSweeney's, 2002), a series of essays about his favorite songs (at least, of the moment), I even wrote an "answer book" about my favorite opera arias.

But somehow I didn't overcome my hesitation until last week, when I heard Judson True's interview with him on NPR's City Arts & Lectures program and enjoyed it so much I sought out The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (Penguin, 2006, a compilation of the first two titles in the series). I immediately followed it with the remaining two.

I think there were a couple of reasons for my hesitation. Partly it was because, as appealing as I find Hornby's voice on the page (or the radio), our tastes don't always completely coincide—except when they do, and then I'm disappointed. Of course I recognize that these are contradictory objections; clearly, I can't be satisfied. And since I was having these feelings before I even took the trouble to read the books, they're doubly unfair. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that what I want from a collection of book reviews is a sense of discovery, not a discussion of books I doubt I'll ever read or a confirmation of my own taste. And it seems that I didn't feel confident enough that Hornby's columns would provide that sense of discovery.

As it turned out, they largely don't. So I wouldn't recommend picking up his collected columns to learn about some overlooked masterpiece or neglected minor classic; at least for me, they mostly didn't work that way. What they do, very entertainingly, is give a picture of Hornby's own reading habits: his tendencies to buy more books than he can read (there's a list of "books bought" and "books read" every month), to forget the books he's already read with alarming alacrity, to attempt to read while other distractions surround him, and finally to abandon books that aren't giving him sufficient pleasure, even if he's "supposed" to read them.

With his unflinching and at times very funny honesty about his own modes of reading—and no one would bother to fabricate stories about this stuff—Hornby wins my sympathy and frequent identification. And although I've had mixed luck with his book recommendations, there's nothing mixed about how enjoyable his columns are. 

Who are the Polysyllabic Spree?

A running joke in Hornby's columns is that he can't pan any of the books he reads, because a fluctuating group of humorless young editors he calls the Polysyllabic Spree, all dressed in white robes, polices The Believer for negative reviews. (One of the founding editors, Heidi Julavits, wrote a famous statement of principle for the first issue that established an editorial policy against critical snarkiness.) Whenever Hornby's column skips a month or two, he claims that it's because he's been suspended for trangressing this policy (I'm guessing he's really on a book tour).

What I hadn't realized before I Googled was that the description of the Polysyllabic Spree is based on the Texas band Polyphonic Spree, a fluctuating group of musicians and singers who performed in white robes. Here's the Polyphonic Spree's version of Nirvana's "Lithium":

The robes, the earnestness, the slightly self-conscious hair-tossing, and the special emphasis given to the line "I found God" (0:44 and 3:15) offer more than a hint of Christian rock, or, at least, rock by Christians. And in this context the lines "I'm so horny / That's OK my will is good...I'm not gonna crack" come to seem like they're about a group abstinence pledge, or something.

I don't want to be too hard on these guys; my problem with the Polyphonic Spree is less their implied religiosity than their fresh-scrubbed optimism. I don't turn to rock music to see people who are better adjusted, more wholesome, and having more fun than I am. Where is the rage, the pain, the fear, the self-laceration, and the compelling spectacle of decadent self-destruction that all of your finest rock bands display in such abundance?

Reading as an addiction
The last time I was here, I promised to return to Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, which I hadn't quite finished. Well, I finished it, and liked it (although not as much as I liked Empire Falls, which is an all-time favorite), and no longer feel competent to write about it. I started it on a sun-lounger in France, and it's now November, and Lou "Lucy" Lynch and his careful, gentle ruminations seem a lifetime ago. The same goes for Paul Zindel's The Pigman, this month's YA experience—I know I read it, but I'm not entirely sure I could tell you an awful lot about it. Maybe I should have done my book report the moment I finished it.

I recently discovered that when my friend Mary has finished a book, she won't start another for a couple of days—she wants to give her most recent reading experience a little more time to breathe, before it's suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it's an entirely laudable policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however—to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths—can't afford the time. (January 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 97)

I feel a bit like this (and like Francis Spufford, whose knotty memoir The Child That Books Built is discussed in Hornby's February 2008 column): as I wrote in 7 things about me, "I get anxious when I finish a book and don't have another one that I can begin immediately. Perhaps that explains why I'm a bookseller who's in library school—I'll go to any lengths to insure a continuous supply!" Spufford attributes his early development of a reading habit to needing a refuge from an outer world that contained too many unresolvable difficulties. While I've experienced my share of pain and confusion, my love of books stems from the sheer childhood pleasure of being read to by my mother. That may make me less profound than Spufford; on the other hand, once I've finished a book, until I've got a new one I feel like a caged rat desperately pressing a bar for a reward and coming up empty.

The downside of motivating by bribery
I turned back to Spufford's book [The Child That Books Built] because my five-year-old is on the verge of reading...Writing hasn't softened for him: three-letter words are as insoluble as granite, and he can no more look through writing than he can look through his bedroom wall. The good news is that he's almost frenetically motivated; the bad news is that he is so eager to learn because he has got it into his head that he will be given a Nintendo DS machine when he can read and write, which he argues that he can do now to his own satisfaction—he can write his own name, and read the words Mum, Dad, Spider, Man, and at least eight others. As far as he is concerned, literacy is something that he can dispense with altogether in a couple of months, when the Nintendo turns up. It will have served its purpose. (February 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 102-103)

On "age-appropriate" viewing
There were two visits to cinemas this month, a family outing to see The Simpsons Movie, and a rare adults-only evening out for Juno. I can tell you little about The Simpsons Movie because—and I'm not big enough to resist naming names—Mila Douglas, five-year-old best friend of my middle son, was scared of it, and as her parents weren't with her, it was me that had to keep taking her out into the foyer, where she made a miraculous and immediate recovery every time. Scared! Of the Simpsons! I will cheerfully admit that I have failed as a father in pretty much every way bar one: my boys have been trained ruthlessly to watch whatever I make them watch. They won't flinch for a second, no matter who is being disemboweled on the screen in front of them. Mila (who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a girl) has, by contrast, clearly been "well brought up," by parents who "care," and who probably "think" about what is "age-appropriate." Yeah, well. What good did that do her on an afternoon excursion with the Hornby family? (March/April 2008, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, p. 113-114)

One night, years ago, when the son of some dear friends of ours was seven, I suggested capping a day that had featured a highly popular visit to the dinosaur exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences with a viewing of King Kong (1933), a movie that I remembered featured some dinosaur scenes.

"Is it violent?" asked one of the concerned parents.

"King Kong? No, it's not violent," I confidently assured them.

No, it's not violent. The scene where a carnivorous brontosaur devours screaming, terrified men isn't violent. The scene where Kong vanquishes a T. Rex by forcing its jaws open until gouts of black blood gush out isn't violent (judge for yourself!). The scene where Kong hurls an elevated train full of panicking commuters to the street isn't violent. And the scene where planes strafe Kong with machine-gun fire as he clings to the spire of the Empire State Building isn't violent. (Not to mention that the scenes of the "natives" on Skull Island don't indulge in any offensive racial stereotyping, either.)

"It's OK, 'cause this is just make-believe—right, Mom?" my wide-eyed seven-year-old victim kept asking. Fortunately, despite the years of nightmares that must have afflicted their son after that night, my friends have forgiven me. I think.

On ignoring the big picture for the nagging detail
[Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin] is a rich, warm, deeply felt and imagined book, destined, I think, to be loved for a long time. Regrettably, however, McCann makes a very small mistake relating to popular music toward the beginning, and, as has happened so many times before, I spent way too long muttering at both the novel and the author. I must stress, once again—because this has come up before—that my inability to forgive negligible errors of this kind is a disfiguring disease, and I am determined to find a cure for it; I mention it here merely to explain why a book I liked a lot has not become a book that I have bought over and over again, to press on anybody who happens to be passing by. And it would be unforgivably small-minded to go into it... Ach. Donovan wasn't an Irish folk-singer, OK? He was a Scottish hippie, and I hate myself. (January 2011, More Baths Less Talking, p. 69)

I have my own experience of a minor detail poisoning the experience of a novel. In Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000), a character decides to perform a Houdini-like escape from the frigid, swiftly flowing waters of the Vltava:
Josef held up a long, glinting glass wand and brandished it as Kornblum himself might have done.

"A thermometer," he said.

"What for? Whose temperature are you going to take?"

"The river's," Josef said.

At four o’clock on the morning of Friday, September 27, 1935, the temperature of the water of the River Moldau, black as a church bell and ringing against the stone embankment at the north end of Kampa Island, stood at 22.2 ° on the Celsius scale... (p. 31)

Um, wait a minute. Chabon goes to a lot of trouble to establish the precise water temperature. He has Josef find a thermometer and bring it with him to the bank of the river, because he wants to establish unequivocally that the water is really, really cold. But 22.2 degrees Celsius isn't cold. It's actually 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and swimming in 72-degree water doesn't seem like much of a hardship. The temperature is not a typo, by the way: it was published in a New Yorker excerpt and in multiple printings of both the hardback and the paperback edition of the novel. Instead, it's simply an error. (It's one that obviously has since been called to Chabon's attention, because in the book's 2012 edition it has been changed to 2.2 degrees Celsius.*)

After Chabon went to such elaborate lengths to make his point and blew it so spectacularly, I found it impossible to disentangle the sources of my dislike of the novel. Would I have enjoyed it more without such a glaring (and easily avoidable) error? It's impossible to say.

Farewell to "Stuff I've Been Reading"?

I notice that Hornby's last "Stuff I've Been Reading" column was written in September 2012; he's missed the October and November/December issues of The Believer. He's threatened to stop before: Shakespeare Wrote for Money calls itself "the final collection" on the back cover, and indeed his column was on hiatus from September 2008 until May 2010. Here's hoping that he's simply undergoing another of his periodic "suspensions" by the Polysyllabic Spree, and that "Stuff I've Been Reading" will soon return.


* Update 24 November 2012: Sorry, I can't let this go: Chabon's new version is no better than his old one. 2.2 degrees Celsius (36 °F) isn't a realistic temperature for the Vltava at Prague in September.

The summer of 1935 was unusually warm in Prague (the city has one of the longest continuously-operating weather stations, the Prague Klemintinum, whose records go back to 1775). On September 27, 1935, it looks like the high temperature was about 21 °C (70 °F) and the low was about 13 °C (55 °F). That's the air temperature, of course; it's harder to find records of the water temperature, but I did find a scientific article that measured the river's average temperature on October 29-31, 1968 to be 11 °C (52 °F).

So when would the river get that cold? Here's an article from the Atlantic magazine, "Deep Freeze Spreads Across Europe," about the European cold snap this past winter; one of the images (#12) is captioned "A member of local polar swimmers club gets out of the Vltava River where water temperatures reached 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees F) and air temperatures reached minus 9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees F) in Prague, on February 4, 2012." In February, in the dead of a historically bitter winter. Not in September, at the end of an unusually warm summer.

OK, now I hate myself.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films

Yash Chopra, 1932-2012 (Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Yash Chopra on October 21. Although I'm not an uncritical fan of every Yash Chopra film—see my posts The "Arrgh!" factor: Chandni and Forbidden Love: Silsila and Lamhe—his films are justly renowned for their great music. In memory of this legendary figure, I've selected six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films spanning five decades.

 Aye Meri Zohra Jabeen from Waqt (Time, 1965):

Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Playback singer: Manna Dey

You may recognize this as the song interpolated into Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Win The Bride, 1995), written and directed by Yash Chopra's son Aditya.

Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein from Kabhi Kabhie (Sometimes..., 1976):

Music: Khayyam
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Playback singer: Mukesh

Khayyam won the Filmfare Award for Best Music, while Sahir Ludhianvi won Best Lyrics and Mukesh won Best Male Playback Singer for this song.

Pehli Pehli Bar. . .Ladki Hai Ya Shola from Silsila (The Affair, 1981):

Music: Shiv-Hari
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Playback singers: Kishor Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar

Rekha warns Amitabh not to get burned by her flame...

Lagi Aaj Sawan Ki from Chandni (Moonlight, 1989):

Music: Shiv-Hari
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Playback singer: Suresh Wadkar

A monsoon song, of which there are many examples in Yash Chopra films. This one is unusual for its melancholy mood.

Bholi Si Surat from Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy, 1997):

Music: Uttam Singh
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Playback singers: Udit Narayan, Lata Mangeshkar

Shah Rukh teases Karisma, but she's hurt because she recognizes (sooner than he does) that his feelings aren't really in earnest. Click on the CC button for English subtitles.

Main Yahaan Hoon from Veer-Zaara (2004):

Music: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Playback singer: Udit Narayan

One of the best soundtracks of the past decade, at the very least.

Yash Chopra is no more, but the music of his films is timeless.

Update 16 July 2013: Since this post was published a few days before Yash Chopra's last film was released, I thought I would include something from it as a bonus 7th song, from a sixth decade:

Ishq Shava from Jab Tak Hai Jaan (As Long As I Live, 2012):

Music: AR Rahman
Lyrics: Gulzar
Playback singers: Raghav Mathur, Shilpa Rao

What makes this song work for me is Shilpa Rao's passionate vocal performance.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gangnam Style in alternate worlds: Duncan Watts' Everything is Obvious

Stanford University Gangnam Style flash mob

I first heard about PSY's "Gangnam Style" video in mid-summer, although I didn't get around to actually watching it until a couple of weeks ago. Throughout August and September the Gangnam Style references proliferated, and Gangnam Style parodies started showing up (including on the scoreboard at an Oakland A's game I attended). As of the time of this post, PSY's original video has been viewed on YouTube more than half a billion times. It has become a pop culture phenomenon which will only be eclipsed by overexposure, age ("Gangnam? That's so three months ago") or replacement by the next viral meme. (If somehow you still haven't seen it, there's a link at the bottom of this post.)

One question that has been argued endlessly about hit songs, movies, TV shows and books is whether there's something intrinsic that explains their success. Are hits simply of higher quality (or, to avoid qualitative judgments, do they better match consumer preferences) than less successful songs, movies, TV shows and books? Or are they popular because the mass culture industry spends billions of dollars annually to manufacture a demand for what is essentially interchangeable product?

If success is just a matter of knowing the existing market or jamming prefabricated product down our throats, the surprise is that success comes so infrequently. As Duncan Watts reports in his book Everything is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer) (Crown, 2011), the Beatles had trouble getting their first recording contract, George Lucas struggled to get financing for Star Wars, the Fox network turned down Friends, and JK Rowling's Harry Potter was rejected by eight publishers. Part of the problem is that our knowledge of the success of these cultural products is retrospective: each of them helped create a mass consumer demand for products like themselves. It's not clear that if you had exhaustively polled pop music fans in 1962 you would have come up with the Beatles as the ideal group, since very few people had ever heard them.

But there's another reason that it's so hard to predict success. Yes, there are differences among cultural products, and yes, the culture industry tries mightily to create demand. But especially in the instant-feedback age of the internet, a chief reason why certain products become popular is because, well, they're popular. It's a process that sociologists term "cumulative advantage": once a song or movie gains a slight popularity advantage over its rivals, that advantage tends to get amplified. Once enough of your friends, workmates or other information sources are mentioning this goofy Gangnam Style video, you have to see it yourself (particularly since the barriers of cost and inconvenience for doing so are minimal), and soon hundreds of millions of people have done likewise. We may also use information about other people's choices as a filter mechanism: faced with an overwhelming number of new novels, movies, and songs, we may be tempted to assume that there's a correlation between popularity and quality.

Watts and his research partners decided to try to measure the size of social influence on musical choice. We obviously can't re-run the early 1960s to see if the Beatles become popular again, so Watts and his collaborators came up with an ingenious solution. They created a website offering free downloads of 48 songs by new bands. What the visitors to the website didn't realize was that they were seeing one of 9 different versions of the site. On one version (the "independent world"), the songs were arranged randomly, and no information about other visitors' ratings or downloads was given. In eight other versions (the "social influence worlds") the number of downloads was shown. The researchers ran two experiments on the social influence worlds, one in which the songs were arranged randomly, and one in which the songs were listed in descending order by the number of downloads. Visitors could not download a song without listening to it.

So how much of an effect did social influence have on the songs visitors chose to listen to and download? A huge one. In the randomly-arranged independent world, the chances that any two songs would be listened to were equal, as we might expect. In the social influence worlds where the songs were arranged randomly, the visitors were three times more likely to listen to the most popular song than to songs of average popularity. And in the social influence worlds where the songs were ordered by the number of downloads, visitors were ten times more likely to listen to the most popular song than a song of average popularity.

And the popular songs were not always the same in each of the worlds. The researchers measured popularity by the number of downloads, and used the results from the independent world as establishing a baseline ranking of each song's appeal. While the songs with the most appeal generally did better in all the social influence worlds, the results for individual songs were highly unpredictable. Watts gives the example of the song "Lockdown" by 52 Metro, which ranked 26th out of 48 in appeal in the independent world. In one social influence world, it ended up as no. 1 in downloads, while in another it ended up as no. 40. Across all the worlds, a song in the top 5 in appeal had only a 50 percent chance of winding up among the top 5 downloads.

So this result suggests that if we could re-run the pop culture history of the past six months or so, there's a good chance that "Gangnam Style" would not have become a worldwide phenomenon. But then we wouldn't have had the pleasure (?) of watching the Stanford University Gangnam Style Flash Mob.



Watts, Duncan. (2012). Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer). New York: Crown Publishing. Chapter 3: The wisdom (and madness) of crowds, pp. 54-81.

Salganik, M. J. & Watts, D. J. (2009). Web-based experiments for the study of collective social dynamics in cultural markets. Topics in Cognitive Science 1, 439-468.

PSY: Gangnam Style (Official video)

The original dancing flash mob: Sound of Music | Central Station Antwerp  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Orhan Pamuk

Still from Orhan Pamuk: My Istanbul (Günther Schilhan, dir.; 2008)
A man seeks a beautiful and mysterious woman through the streets, squares, cafes and apartments of a city that is simultaneously ancient and modern. Despite the man's obsessive pursuit the woman ultimately escapes him, remaining forever elusive and unknowable.

This story is one that the Nobel-Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has returned to again and again in his novels. Along with the narrator's obsession with a beautiful woman, his books feature doubles, masks, mirrors, hidden meanings, and the yearning for a sudden break with the dissatisfactions and compromises of ordinary life. And (almost) always, the city of Istanbul surrounds the characters as a palpable presence, described with an attention to closely observed physical details that make it seem so real and vivid that it is almost another character.

As Pamuk said in the Norton Lectures collected in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (Harvard University Press, 2010), "...the 'landscape' of the novel...should be seen as integral to, and an extension of, the hero's emotions....The landscape I speak of in these lectures is the landscape of cities, streets, shops, display windows, rooms, interiors, furniture, and everyday objects..." (p. 105).

Pamuk is a master at creating an emotional atmosphere from such concrete details. In The Black Book (Can Yayinlavi, 1990; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994; Vintage, 2006) there is a stunning set piece early in the novel where the writer imagines that the Bosphorus has dried up, and examines the broken, useless detritus left behind by a millennium of urban life as clues not only to the history of the city but of the protagonist himself.

The writer of this nightmarish vision is Celâl, a newspaper columnist. The Black Book alternates his poetic columns with the story of Galip, his brother-in-law, and Rüya, Galip's wife. Rüya loves mystery novels, and one day, like a character in a mystery novel, she suddenly disappears. Galip suspects that she has gone into hiding with Celâl and hunts them both through the locations Celâl has memorialized in his columns. As Galip delves ever deeper into Celâl's existence for clues to Rüya's whereabouts, he begins to take on Celâl's identity—and even begins writing columns under Celâl's name. For Galip, as for his creator, writing becomes "the only consolation" (p. 461).

If writing can console, it can also transform. "Novels are second lives" is the opening sentence of the first lecture in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, and "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed," is the first utterance of the narrator of The New Life (Iletişim, 1994; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998). Osman abandons school and family, and takes endless bus trips across the countryside to follow (yes) a beautiful and enigmatic woman. Pamuk writes with great sympathy about characters who find their old lives unsupportable, but, trapped in themselves, can't find their way to a more authentic existence.

Like Rüya in The Black Book, Pamuk likes mysteries, and My Name Is Red (Iletişim, 1998; Knopf, 2001) is structured as a murder mystery centered on a group of painters of miniatures in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. But unlike a typical mystery novel, My Name Is Red is filled with digressions, stories, art-historical details about miniature painting and book illumination, and multiple points of view, including a narrator who is killed in the first chapter.

Because of their emphasis on atmosphere, Pamuk's books resist straightforward summarization. Snow (Iletişim, 2002; Knopf, 2004) follows the journalist and poet Ka, who comes to the mountain city of Kars to investigate a series of suicides by young women forced to remove their headscarves. He also hopes to renew his affair with a former lover, the beautiful İpek, now married to another man. His visit is complicated by a blizzard that strands him in the city, the eruption of violence, a declaration of martial law and attempts by actors on all sides of the situation to draw him in. Meanwhile, he discovers that his poetic inspiration has never been greater; the more uncertain the situation becomes, the greater the outpouring of new work.

The Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009) features another obsessed protagonist, Kemal. Kemal is engaged to the attractive but conventional Sibel and is sailing uneventfully towards marriage, children, and a predictable existence well-insulated by family money. But one day he encounters Füsun, a "poor, distant relation" whom he barely remembers as a gangly child. Now, she is 18 and breathtakingly beautiful. They begin a passionate affair that shatters Kemal's well-ordered existence. The affair ends badly, and in its aftermath Kemal turns the apartment where they met for their afternoon assignations into a shrine to Füsun and their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by Füsun's presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them' (p. 510). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim these everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a kind of catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012).

Pamuk has also written three earlier novels; a screenplay based on The Black Book; a collection of essays (Other Colors: Essays and a Story, Iletişim, 1999; Knopf, 2007); and three books of memoirs, including Istanbul: Memories and the City (Iletişim, 2003; Knopf, 2005). For a complete bibliography with links to reviews, see Iletişim's Orhan Pamuk site.

Update 26 February 2013: Kaya Genç has written a post for the LRB blog looking back at thirty years of Iletişim.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bimal Roy's Parineeta

Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953) is based on a 1914 novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterji, as the film's titles have it), who also wrote Devdas. And there are some striking parallels between the two stories. (Of course, two years after Parineeta Roy also filmed a famous version of Devdas.)

Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), the son of a wealthy Brahmin family, discovers that he's fallen in love with Lalita (Meena Kumari), the young ward of the family in the neighboring house. Shekhar has known Lalita since she was eight years old and came to live with her uncle Gurucharan and his wife after the death of her parents. The two families live in connecting houses, and Lalita spends as much time in Shekhar's household as in her own. Shekhar has taken on the role of teasing elder brother to Lalita—we first see her doing lessons at Shekhar's desk. But Lalita has now grown into a beautiful young woman, and Shekhar's feelings have become more tender. (In the novel Lalita is 13 (!); Meena Kumari was 20 at the time of filming.)

Shekhar's grasping father Navin  (Badriprasad) has other plans for Shekhar, however. He wants to arrange his marriage with the daughter of Choudary, another wealthy Brahmin who has promised Navin a dowry of 10,000 rupees. Shekhar's mother Bhuvaneshwari (the striking Pratima Devi), though, defies Navin and insists that Shekhar must choose his own bride:

[Un]like our times, partners cannot be chosen on parents' choice

Shekhar makes his choice when Lalita's young cousin is staging a marriage for her dolls. Wedding garlands are made, and Lalita playfully garlands Shekhar. He then meaningfully places a garland on her to complete the ritual.

Why did you garland me? I'm not worthy of you.

Lalita tries to resist, but Shekhar confesses his love:

Today I realised that I cannot live without you.

From this moment on, Lalita considers herself married to Shekhar. Immediately afterwards, all the girls of the family sing "the auspicious song" for the marriage of the dolls, but Lalita hears every verse as though it is meant for her:

Lalita's uncle Gurucharan (Nazir Husein) is overdue on repaying a loan to Navin. Gurucharan needed the money to pay the ruinous dowry for the marriage of one of his daughters, and now can't even pay the interest on the loan. While Navin becomes more and more insistent in his demands for payment, secretly he's pleased: Gurucharan has put up his house as collateral, and once Navin can seize it he plans to evict his troublesome neighbors, raze their home and build a second house.

To the rescue comes Giren (Asit Baran), the kind, good-looking, wealthy and lower-caste uncle of Lalita's friend Charu. Giren too is smitten with Lalita, and when he learns of Guruchand's plight he gives him the money to repay Navin—without interest. Enraged by the thwarting of his plans and by rumors that Lalita will marry Giren, Navin erects a wall between the two houses. The wall seems to be mainly a symbolic gesture, as Lalita and her cousins still enter Shekhar's house whenever they want:

Lalita's cousin climbing into Shekhar's house

Shekhar also hears the rumors of Lalita's marriage, and is deeply hurt:

Your uncle has sold you and made money.

Gurucharand takes his family away so that they don't have to live in proximity to Navin; the haunting "Chali Radhe Rani" (music by Arun Kumar Mukharji, lyrics by Bharat Vyas) echoes the anguish of the two lovers:

Shekhar finally consents to the engagement with Choudary's daughter; when news reaches Lalita, she returns with her family and tries to speak to Shekhar, but he refuses to hear what she has to say:

Won't you listen to me?

Will Shekhar agree to a loveless marriage? Will Lalita finally accept the kind and generous Giren? Will the families be reconciled, or remain forever at odds?

Parineeta is beautifully observed and structured. Roy's depiction of the two households is humane and deeply sympathetic, and all of the principle actors give excellent performances. (I was especially delighted by Lalita's vivacious 9-year-old cousin, I believe played by Baby Sheela—someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)

The problem with Parineeta is Shekhar. Like Devdas, he's petulant, spoiled, a bit cowed by his domineering father, and so convinced of his own righteousness that he doesn't bother to listen to anyone else. Throughout the second half of the film I was hoping that Lalita would realize that she would be better off with the devoted and selfless Giren. But my own wishes for an alternative ending aside, Parineeta richly deserves its classic status.

One final note: the "Bollywood Platinum Collection" DVD of Parineeta is taken directly from a not very pristine VHS source. Be forewarned that, as you can see from some of the stills, the image quality is not very good, and at times you can see places where the tape was creased or damaged.