Monday, June 28, 2010

Bare walls, Quiet rooms

My piano is gone, the wall is bare, and the carpet under where it had been is oddly puckered and bleached and dirty. The living room which has been a collection of oddly (but dearly) matched objects scattered around in half-purpose half-despair is now all too aware of its imminent dismantling.

It had to happen. Days after I received my acceptance letter I knew. This means my library, I thought, and my piano. It has a good home now – it’s to be a birthday surprise for the husband of a coworker who has always wanted a piano and has had to make do with a keyboard for too long.

But I have betrayed my old friend, my own family. I feel like I’ve given up my grandmother; like she’s died all over again.

There it is my journal: September 24. 6pm. I bought a piano.

It was a miraculous Goodwill find: “light oak, almost perfectly in tune, pedals that work, and when you uncover the keys, the music stand pops forward…” I stood it at the store like a dog guarding its master’s suitcase. I gnashed my teeth at anyone who touched it. Everyone did touch it because of the surprise that such a lovely piano, with its carved rosettes and the decorative border near the lid, was on sale for so little. It wasn’t perfect. The G two octaves below middle C stuck and one of the upper Es were silent. I didn’t care.

Just under two years we’ve had the piano. We played duets on Christmas morning; I struggled and smeared my way through the Debussy pieces that I like. We tried to recreate Regina Spektor’s newest album and bungled all the words except the nonsense ones. It was a focal part of the living room and visitors couldn’t believe that we actually had one. Of course most of the times I played I felt horribly conscious that you could hear me in the laundry room (which you could) and suspected that our neighbors were bitterly plotting to sabotage us.

Selling it has made me feel both guilty and melancholy. My grandmother was a great organist and pianist. Our whole family is quite musical and I always felt that this made us special as a clan, as though I inherited the magical gene. I began when I was a girl and nearly gave it up, but for my parents’ insistence that I try it a little longer. By the time I remembered this “little longer,” it was too late. I was too used to the hours of practice, the exams and eisteddfords in June and July, keeping my fingers warm under the hot water bottle. I began to cultivate my own ambitions of being a musician, of singing and accompanying myself. I wrote many sincere songs. They are embarrassing but I keep them around like old homely photographs. It’s good to know where you come from.

When I played my grandmother’s piano she would call from the other room “That’s a B-flat!” or “You forgot the raised seventh!” She would stiffly walk over in her flowered housewifely dress to where I sat gritting my teeth at the page and would snap on the little lamp. “Save your eyes,” she’d say. “It’s so dark.” I would smell her old person breath as she leaned over my shoulder and could hear her stomach rumble, the humiliations of aging. I resented her corrections but she was always right.

The other grandchildren played instruments – violin, guitar, drums – but I played her instrument. In the music she left to us after her death, I’ve found piano scores marked up, the exact piano scores I marked: Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 118 No 2, the Raindrop Prelude. She left me her piano. It is more than just a wooden instrument; it’s a prophet’s mantle. She has given me the warm acknowledgment of something we shared. It’s sitting somewhere in Minnesota, waiting for me to make up my mind on where I want to plant my feet.

The piano has become an albatross. I wear it around my neck always wondering if my grandmother knew I loved her, knew that I am now thankful for her corrections, though I’m still a sloppy player and, like everything else I do, plunge myself into it with a lot of passion and little attention to detail.

Now June has flown at us and we are left to contemplate the near future. We must leave next month and everything must be gone. I must shrug off most of my possessions. They must be sold, lent, given or thrown away. Very little can be saved, though K and P will bring some of the household items to their new conjugal apartment.

Things are never just things; at least, they aren’t to me. I am a pack rat because I easily endow objects with emotional connections. To a certain extent I like this about myself. It makes my living space personal. It demonstrates that I am creature of meaning and that I affirm the physical, dimensional world. But now, confronting the things I must leave behind, I wonder if it isn’t a very bad thing. Monastics and contemplatives are able to divest themselves of all their worldly goods; why can’t I?

This piano’s departure is a symbol of something so much larger. By saying goodbye to this piano, I am practicing saying goodbye to the life I lead here, to the possessions that anchor me here. (I feel hasty saying this, as I have the sneaking suspicion that something can always go wrong, I will be prevented from going to Oxford and all of this will have to be retracted.)

So it’s gone now. Like Terry said, it’s not like there aren’t any more pianos in the world. But today it’s good to feel sad; it is right for me to mourn my grandmother and the passing of this way of life. It is the beginning of the process.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ruthless Self-examination

So I’ve only ever been to Australia that once, those ten days in 2006. A close high school friend who had immigrated to the Perth area was getting married. After being apart for three years, I flew to Australia just before Christmas to be her maid of honor. Little did I know that very close by, Elizabeth Jolley, the famous Anglo-Australian writer, was about to die. She died in February 2007, but for ten days we overlapped geographically. We may have passed each other on the street. (Unlikely, as she had dementia. But I'd like to imagine.)

Ah, the pleasure of making my way through a whole book. It’s been a while. Elizabeth Jolley’s autobiographical trilogy was both beautiful written and quietly innovative. Where many writers journey through memory and explore the past, Jolley is one of the first I’ve read to actually recreate the way memories work. Though distinctive, she is not a true stream-of-conscious writer; nor is she especially avant-garde. “Dotty,” her obituary in the Guardian said. But as Jonathan Franzen in his essay on Alzheimer’s “My Father’s Brain” (which I’ve been listening to on cassette in my CD-less car) writes (paraphrased), we remember what we remember precisely because we have remembered it before; that memories are like little pegs we stake in the brain. We remember things not because they are more significant but because we have gone over them in our minds and traced their patterns. Those patterns remain, engraved, on the surface of our brains. “These memories that I do retain,” writes Franzen, “I tend to revisit and, thereby, strengthen.” Jolley revisits her memories, the same loop of memories, numerous times in the three books that make up the Vera Wright trilogy (My Father’s Moon; Cabin Fever; The Georges’ Wife).

These memories create a very circular narrative. Whether Vera is in the hospital as a child, working as a nurse through the blackouts in wartime London, cradling her baby, suffering from TB, or doctoring in Western Australia, she remembers her father’s habit of walking to see her off at the train station, remembers his belief that they share the same moon, re-experiences her mother’s disapproval of the children she bears out of wedlock, remembers her fascination for Staff Nurse Ramsden who reads Rilke in German and plays the cello, and she remembers her lovers, male and female. The first time Jolley repeated a scene word-for-word I had the nagging sense that I had been there before. The scene fit in the context of its first use, and it fit in the context of its second use. But where did it come chronologically? And does that matter?

“Ruthless self-examination,” is a phrase Vera uses to describe her approach towards life, and it is the phrase that Karen Russell (a writer appearing in this week’s New Yorker on the list of 20 writers to watch under 40) repeats in her praise of the book. Vera is both devious and hapless; she falls into difficult situations and she finds her way through them, not through strength of character or lucky circumstance, but a combination of helplessness, manipulation and tenacity. Vera is neither likable nor reprehensible, but Jolley’s prose is reflective, melancholic, quietly watchful and occasionally startling.

I’m eager to read her other work. She only began to be published in her 50s and I prefer (conceptually, at least) late-flowering authors to virtuosic freakishly young prodigies. Ironic, as I'm now reading Martin Amis. I have The Sugar Mother (from “Surrogate Mother”) on the shelf. Now if only for enough time…

Sunday, June 20, 2010

From the last entry in The Notebook (English edition pub. 2010):

"The motto says that all things, good and bad, must pass, and that fits like a glove the work that is ending here and the person who did it...Farewells are always best when briefly bidden. This is no opera aria into which can now be inserted an interminable addio, addio." - Jose Saramago

Friday, June 18, 2010


Jose Saramago is dead. I wonder if Chris knows.

A Poem a Day

Today the new Oxford Professor of Poetry has been announced. Today on his 78th birthday, Geoffrey Hill won “by a landslide” the papers reported. The election had some bickering but none of the publicized underhandedness of last year. I hope, I hope, to hear him read in person.

I found this in the Guardian and liked it:
“Nobody reads a poem to find out what’s in the last line,” George Szirtes is quoted in Stephen Moss’ article about the future of poetry. “They read the poem for the experience of traveling through it.”

This week, urged by Clive James, I read Auden’s “The Fall of Rome.” (Auden was another Oxford Professor of Poetry.) I like it more as I re-read it. My favorite phrase is “Private rites of magic,” which sounds like a great title for a book, and also the lines “An unimportant clerk/writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/ on a pink official form.” And most of all, the last stanza, which is one compact and beautiful dappled image in motion:

“Altogether elsewhere vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently and very fast.”

You can read the whole poem here.

On another note, I come to Allegro’s every Friday morning to drink a mocha and type à la machine, and there are two young men who also come in every week just before eight o’clock. The first time I saw them, I couldn’t stop listening to their conversation, because carried on in smooth and cultivated tones (the kind never heard in Seattle from straight males) was the most preposterous student-ish back-and-forth about who read what in the original Russian and what Nabokov really meant in Pnin and Chopin’s best piano concerto and whether to go on to Princeton or Duke or Stanford and how to spend one’s time intellectually during the summer… They are endlessly fascinating. Like a pair of politely verbal ballroom dancers.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"It is this hour of a day in mid June"

It’s Bloomsday again and it’s raining and dreary, like most of the rest of June. It seems we are granted no summer this year and it will rain from January through December.

I’ve been paging through Ulysses to find some gobbet to put up here, and instead of finding a sparkling paragraph, I’ve taken a dip. It’s been two years since I read it, but I don’t seem to remember anything but flashes: Leopold Bloom reading on his toilet, one of them (is it Dedalus?) at the beach gazing at the beautiful girl with the ruined leg, and the last few pages, the ecstasy of Molly Bloom. It was all a big wash of words for me, and instead of slowing down, as you should do when your brain is tired, I sped up. I saw the book as this wall, this gauntlet – a challenge and a test of will-power (much like how I see Infinite Jest.) But this does the book an injustice as a work of art. It may be challenging, but it can’t be seen as a measure of capability. It is first and foremost an experience.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Goodnight & Go

In the saturated movie-influenced experience of daily life, it is always the same soundtrack I return to. (You know you do it too: you’re walking and you can imagine yourself like a salmon, walking in a trench coat against a tide of people walking in the opposite direction, with some song that underlies – or imbues with irony – the whole scene.) For me, it is always Imogen Heap.

Heap played at the Paramount last night, an ornate movie palace from the twenties in downtown Seattle with beaded chandeliers and a Baroque ceiling covered in golden sunbursts, orbs, fleur-de-lis, curlicues and Celtic knots. The seats had been removed. The stage was set with one tree in the middle, white and cardboard like the White Tree in Lord of the Rings, and a glass piano, several electrical consoles, various percussive instruments, electric drum sets, and guitars.

She was preceded by three acts: a collection of local singers who were to join her later and who performed solo works and backed each other up; a British singer, Ben Christophers, who had a lovely Thom Yorkish voice and whose songs were strophic and melodic and chromatic; and Geese, a two-piece London-based band of a man and a woman who each played an electric violin able to explore a full range of sounds through their pedal use and looping. Of the three, it will be Geese who will draw the most attention. Their songs were avant-garde soundscapes, both expansive and minute. Those violins could sound like a range of other instruments, could soar and pluck and clash atonally, aleatorically. I’d love to hear more – their Cds were entirely sold out by the end of the concert.

Heap herself came in between sets to stutteringly introduce the performers. But after the interlude, she walked on in concert gear – a spandexy black outfit with a black shrug, and hair teased into an elevated reproduction of Georgian fashion – swinging a long tube above her head. The tube whistled above her, and with her arm outstretched she still managed to look serious.

She has Patti Smith’s long-limbed, long-faced dead-panned coltishness, but she also has the stereotypically endearing British trait of bumbling chatter. She made awkwardly polite talk between songs and the crowd loved it. She scampered around the stage pushing buttons, looping instruments, looping herself, recording wine glasses (there were microphones around her wrists), playing the piano, making the piano sound like another instrument; and she danced and whirled delightedly around the front like a large fairy, stalking around the stage with her hands held out in front of her as though physically feeling the pulse of the music.

Though it was enough just to be – at last! – watching Imogen Heap in person and seeing if her voice really could go that high and that low (it could), the draw of the concert was the chance to find out exactly how she could manufacture those very electronically reproduced and developed sounds within the limits of the stage.

Her ethos is simple: when extemporaneously composing a song snatch based on a key and melody from the audience (f-sharp minor) to sell online for charity, she said “I’ll make mistakes; I always do. I’ll edit it later.” But no one cares that her skill is in the knife and the cutting room, because her genius is her ear for sounds and combinations. She spoke about going to Africa and running around taking samples of pots and boilers, brush fires and “my bare ass,” she laughed. She is an all-round composer, but her lyrics will always be secondary to her sonic experimentation. She described her future endeavors as a "musical ecosystem."

She was accompanied by the two Geese violinists, a percussionist who played a mean marimba, Ben Christophers on the guitar, and a bassist/ secondary percussionist. She sang all my favorites and the show was well-balanced between her three albums (easy, as she played for two and a half hours); she played her own drum set; she coaxed the audience into being her own looped harmonies in “Just for Now” and did an acapella version of “Earth” with the seven solo singers from the first act; she played the rippling piano part on “Tidal” that I have always wondered if she could actual play while singing live; she started “First Train Home” with the wineglasses, and sang “Let Go” to tremendous applause, accompanied by the voices of ever emotive hipster who’d ever seen Garden State.

But the finale was, of course, what we hoped for. It was what everyone wanted in every city on every tour, and I had been eager to see performed since hearing the recorded track. Some sort of white synthesizer that hung around her neck that she could thread her voice through. By playing chords and singing, she replicated her voice live to create the cluster chords that make “Hide and Seek” so beautiful, all the while able to detach her voice from the chords and swoop elastically from her middle to her highest range. In the darkened auditorium everyone knew the words; we sang the lines “Ransom notes keep falling out your mouth” as she soared above us, and it was still and sincere like little flickering candles.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Happening upon a good pairing of book and place is one of my favorite things, just like the right wine with dinner. A good synchronism enhances both the book and the place in which it’s read, but the desire for a good pairing can be creative – or paralyzing - challenge when planning a trip. In this case, it worked out well. I kind of wish I had brought the Origin of Species along with me, because I want to read it and I’m afraid I’m never going to unless in the right place at the right time. Instead, I brought Jim Lynch’s Highest Tide to Shi Shi and though it spent the first day in a tent and then on and around several piles of sand, it was brought out around the campfire Saturday night. I’m not sure we would have been so engaged by the sea, the tides and the story of Mike O’Malley and his tidal finds in the waters of the Puget Sound had I not had to speak up above the roar and slap of the waves, and we not remembered our own tidal pooling efforts that morning.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I am going to spend three days camping out on the Olympic Peninsula, on the northwestern tip at Shi Shi Beach. I will leave the following, mentally adding ocean to Thoreau’s lakes and rivers:

I should wither up and die if it were not for lakes and rivers. I am conscious that my body derives its genesis from their waters as much as the muskrat or the herbage on their brink. The thought of Walden in the woods yonder makes me supple jointed and limber for the duties of the day. Sometimes I thirst for it.
There it lies all the year reflecting the sky – and from its surface there seems to go up a pillar of ether, which bridges over the space between earth and heaven.
Water seems a middle element between earth and air. The most in which a man can float.
Across the surface of every lake there sweeps a hushed music.

– Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Aussies are Coming

The best thing about being from Australia or New Zealand is that one can use the word antipodean.

We've started watching LOST. Mostly late at night, three to a couch, crouching over P's computer. It's a guilty, lush pleasure that is accompanied with the kind of ongoing verbal abuse and dialogue that accompanies most of our DVD experiences. I love Claire's flashbacks because she is surrounded by that unassuming but estranging accent, the one we made fun of in high school for being ugly. Ironic, now, as it seems so congenial.

Momentarily post-Frame, I realize that I am surrounded by Antipodeans, those with their feet opposite mine.

After Book-Expo America (BEA) in New York City two weeks ago, my managers returned to the store with a well-chosen select group of Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs) that they had intended for certain staff members. (Apparently the number of ARCs offered by publishers was much reduced this year; usually there is a glut of ARCs sitting on a cart in our back office.)

E, the night manager, a fantastic traveler and cognoscente, brought The Sugar Mother over to me, a novel I had passed on, thinking it was another motherhood memoir, and said that he was surprised I hadn’t grabbed it. I looked at the blurb on the back and realized my mistake. Elizabeth Jolley is a well-known English/Australian author who I had wanted to read earlier when I saw a copy of her Vera Wright Trilogy come into the store. I am endlessly grateful to E. Also must admit that – despite the impending doom and required disassembling of my library - I immediately special-ordered a pristine copy of the Vera Wright Trilogy, which has a thumbs-up from J.M. Coetzee on the front. Both books are from Persea, who is publishing more of Jolley’s work later this year. Jolley lived in Western Australia, where my dear friends Catherine & Cale and their baby Maye live; the one part of Australia I have visited. Those Western Australians are fiercely proud of their province, and surprisingly contemptuous of Sydney-ans and other East-Siders. I can only assume Jolley is a point of provincial – and national – pride.

In the New York Times Book Review this Sunday, I read an excellent review by Jonathan Franzen about the Australian Christina Stead’s underrated novel The Man Who Loved Children. Though Franzen’s first paragraph is testy and reminds me of a teenager’s posturing spiky challenges, the essay converted me and I special-ordered a copy. The Man Who Loved Children is (just barely) available, but Capuchin, a publisher I like, is bringing it out in September. Read the essay; you’ll be sold.

And last week I picked up a copy of Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a cultural compendium that contains twentieth-century figures (and a few anomalies) James believes we must not forget. Ranging from Louis Armstrong to Borges, and Tacitus to Stefan Zweig, James presents a passionate advocacy for humanism and writes what Elizabeth Gilbert called in this week’s NYT Book Review a portable Master of Arts. One of James’ first sentences sold me:

“Several times, in my early days, I had to sell my best books to buy food, so I never underlined anything…”

Ah, so familiar.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Infinite Pages

Still reading Infinite Jest, laboriously. (Am reading small, portable UK edition.) I'm about a seventh way through. On the whole, I tend to be a speedy reader. This is not always something I'm proud of. But Long Books tend to give me the jitters. This one is giving me the jitters. I'm horrible at reading acronyms and hexa-syllabic chemical compounds and yet I can't put it down. This may be because I Will Not Admit Defeat or because I find David Foster Wallace fascinating or because it is so rare to be so close, so close, in the time-space-continuum to someone generally thought to be a genius or because it is - in all its heft and sickening fatness - engaging.

Because I do too many things that are easy; this is like trying to digest machinery and getting pieces of metal stuck in my teeth. There is resistance.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

V for Viola, Victor and Valsing

I can’t remember how I found Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, the funny book that opened wide the delightful doors of middlebrow interwar fiction. Delightful. I was excited to hear that Penguin was republishing Nightingale Wood, a later work generally regarded as not as good at CCF (but Gibbons nonetheless).

At the dour Eagles, the Withers' recently widowed daughter-in-law comes to stay. Viola, an orphan and a once-shopgirl, hates the dull house and her Victorian parents-in-law. Her sisters-in-law are old and no fun. Madge is consumed with thoughts of dogs and other sporting pursuits, and tiny Tina is concerned with her appearance and her lack of love.

Across the way is the brash Spring mansion where Viola’s Prince Charming, Victor Spring, stays when not motoring off around London. Victor’s bookish cousin Hetty is dissatisfied with the frivolity of the Spring household and can’t wait to find her own flat in Bloomsbury and read poetry full-time.

What do you get when a cast of cardboard characters are driven by desire? Light comedy. Viola wants excitement and Victor, Madge wants a dog, Tina wants the handsome young chauffeur Saxon, Mr. Withers wants to manage everyone’s money, Hetty wants to gain independence (and delve into the interesting psychology of the gloomy Eagles), Mrs. Spring wants Victor to marry Phyllis, his unofficial fiancée, a Hermit wants to sell walking sticks and cause mischief…

Nightingale Wood might not be as clever as Cold Comfort Farm, but it is a light, amusing adaptation of Cinderella which showcases Gibbons’ humor. It was as though she was required to write an airy novel, but would not go without her own wry commentary and obstinately subverting the most clichéd situations into going a little bit wrong. Her characters are never wholly likable: Viola is vague and blurry; Hetty is poetic to the point of sentimentality; Victor has fits about people missing their trains and is not really the faithful sort; Saxon is so ambitious that he becomes ruthless and manipulative and only barely able to be checked by his conscious.

Despite Nightingale Wood’s meringue consistency, its balletic fripperies, Gibbons inserts sharp comments about the times she’s writing in, the undercurrent of worry in 1938. Let’s remember the turmoil of the late ‘30s as the countries of Europe struggled to both maintain their alliances and rearm:

“For though people under forty might laugh ringingly at the shocking things heard by Mr. Spurrey about Abyssinia and the Means test, about Hitler and Mussolini, and Armaments and Fascism, about Abdication and Spain, and the Special Areas and Air Defense…”

The post-Great War awareness of instant oblivion and senseless waste is present (Gibbons was 16 when WWI ended), contrasting the ecstasy of a nocturnal ball, the “milk-warm water…the beauty of the sea rolling under that green magian-light,” with “a world toppling with monster guns and violent death.” This paradox is repeated later when she writes, “The music swelled and fell as the waves of warm, moon-swayed water rolled round and round, and the dancers dreamed that life was beautiful, in a world toppling with monster guns and violent death.”

Is she acknowledging her character’s blind oblivion to their national climate, or ironically ridiculing her own construction of an alternate fairyland during a time of political and social anxiety? (This is clearly not a novel interested in social critique.) At the end of the novel when we learn “what happens next” for her characters, it is notable that there is (obviously) no talk of the war only one year away or future post-war austerities. How odd that we know what will happen and she doesn’t.

Gibbons has a special hatred for psychology, especially the German school (“Tina looked up the chapter on Fathers and Daughters in the book on feminine psychology…’What a mind the woman’s got! Just like a German.’”).

Class politics appeared more often than I expected. The author seems to know a bit (or hypothesize) about what goes on “downstairs”. The servants grumble about calling a visitor – the washerwoman who is the mother of the chauffeur/ son-in-law – madam and eventually settle on a good ol’ honest “Mrs. Caker.” The inferior classes subordinate and step off their chessboard to the Withers’ shock: “Chaffeurs, shopgirls, washerwomen…where were the Withers drifting?”

Despite the upheaval, this is no soft-shelled socialist manifesto. Communists get a bit of a jibe:

“It was a tranquil scene; it would have annoyed a Communist. Five non-productive members of the bourgeoisie sat in a room as large as a small hall, each breathing more air, warmed by more fire…In the kitchen underneath them three members of the working class swinked ignobly at getting their dinner…But perhaps this is not a very interesting way of regarding poor Mr. Wither and the rest."

This last line is telling of the author’s intent. Ms. Gibbons is informed and both aware of the uneasy political climate of her times and the ideological discussions on the table. But in the end, she, as a novelist, wants not what is correct but what is interesting.

And all her women come to happy (but not perfect) endings, and all remain cheerfully subjugated under their menfolk.

I sped through Nightingale Farm and must now forgo the nostalgia and light music for something with more overt grit: David Foster Wallace and his gargantuan monster, the Infinite Jest. We shall see.