Friday, September 28, 2007

Magical Thinking and its Opposite

This week I read two books that unexpectedly turn out to have a lot in common. Because I like her blog and columns in the Nation online, I decided to read Katha Pollitt's Learning to Drive. Also, my book club's next selection is Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. Each book took only one day of reading: they aren't long and though they are emotionally difficult, they aren't challenging to read. My prejudice would lead me to think I'd like Pollitt's book and perhaps not like Didion's book so much. The opposite turns out to be the case.

Pollitt's book uses her very clever writing style for an extended bitch session about her life and life in this era. She liked things better in the 1960s or maybe some other time in her life. Even what she didn't like, she pines for. It's not that she hates getting old: she feels as if the current attitude towards aging is a personal affront to her. She makes fun of everyone and everything that is annoying her because she feels old. Despite lots of insights, I found the book really irritating.

Didion, in contrast, writes about an unbearable loss: the death of her husband of 40 years, and her grief and desperation in trying to find an equilibrium afterwards. Deeply troubling as any reader must find this book, she did a remarkable job of recording what she says is pure irrationality. Quoting a range of writers who give advice or express their own response to grief, she looks for common ground in a wide area. Even the 1922 Emily Post manners book that describes appropriate behavior for those who wish to comfort the bereaved is unbelievably on target.

I didn't exactly enjoy these books, but they make an interesting contrast. I'm glad my bookclub did select the latter, or I would never have read it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Israeli History Book

I'm currently reading Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel by Alon Tal. It's about the environmental movement in Israel, including studies of the early Zionist attitudes towards nature, of the exuberant tree-planting efforts, and the various disasters of misguided development. With 20-20 hindsight, he explains how you can understand the disasters really well. However, the reader learns, the agents of these disasters also sometimes received clear warning from people who had pretty good foresight. Some should or could have seen what was going to happen -- if they had only paid attention. Some nature lovers, for example, from the start disapproved of planting regimented pine forests all over the country. Some experts warned that draining swamps and diverting all the rivers could endanger ecological balance.

The author is himself a participant and advocate of ecological responsibility and activism. He is sympathetic, committed, and tries to understand past mistakes and help the reader to learn about the issues. He may see how overcommitment to agriculture led to problems, but he also shows its role in Zionist ideology. It's a very informative work.

My main realization in reading this book is this: Israel is so small, that its rather short history is frequently related as a series of character sketches and biographies. Many of the Israelis who made the country what it is were very colorful, so it's also a history full of anecdotes. But mainly, it's a history where each individual really made a difference, depending on his education, country of origin, politics, even personal quirks. Further, the main leaders of the pre-state efforts, participants in the Independence War, and early political leaders are important in every aspect of history -- even of ecology, air and water pollution control, and conservation. This small, personal scale just doesn't play out when I read about the history of other countries and political or social trends. It's fascinating.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Indigo is a highly processed derivative of several plants. At the Textile Museum of Canada, we watched a video about a small rural processing plant in India, where the indigo plants are soaked, the soaking liquid is fermented, and then the valuable cakes of dye finally prepared and dried. We also enjoyed the display of indigo-dyed ethnic clothing and cloth from Japan, India, and several African tribes.

The exhibit, called "The Blues," also included some Blues music, and a number of items, such as quilts, made from blue denim or from fragments of jeans. Natural indigo couldn't possibly be grown and processed in quantities large enough for the billions of pairs of jeans and other blue denim fashions now produced throughout the world. Chemical dyes, invented by BASF, have duplicated the color of natural indigo for over a century. In fact, they were available almost as soon as Levi-Strauss designed the first pair of jeans.

The curators of this exhibit managed to combine beautiful hand-made fabric displays with interesting traditional arts and crafts information, modern technology, and fashion history. It's a small museum but really impressive. The other current exhibits were also appealing.

Textile Museum of Canada
55 Centre Avenue
Toronto, Ontario

Kaifeng in Toronto

In the early part of the twentieth century, a Canadian named Bishop White visited China. Among the materials he collected were the artifacts from the fifteenth-century synagogue of Kaifeng.

I have read about the Jewish community in Kaifeng, and for me, seeing these few items was a high point of my visit to the Royal Ontario Museum. Included on display are a violin-shaped stone plaque, a stone drain outlet decorated with images of vines and monkeys, a laquer torah box, a small leaf of paper written in Hebrew, and a large stone stele displayed as a rubbing. The stele, dated 1489, specifies in Chinese that the original synagogue building dated to 1163; however, the community was already well-established.

At least a thousand years ago, when a few Jewish traders settled there, Kaifeng was the capital of the northern Song kingdom in China. As the capital it also served as an important terminus for goods from Europe and Asia. Much later, scholars began to use the term "The Silk Route;" in fact, traders of many ethnicities for many centuries transported a wide variety of goods along several routes from Turkey and the Middle East through various parts of Asia.

The Jewish traders seem to have established a community and a synagogue by the end of the Song era in the early 12th century. They were all or nearly all men, and married women from the community. At the time, a woman in that culture accepted her husband's ways, so after a few generations, the Jews were visually undistinguished from their Oriental neighbors.

Kaifang in the twelfth century was a particularly interesting capital city, and the other artifacts in the case document its fascinating ethnic diversity and its vibrant life. I'm not going to make this into a detailed description of what I've read -- you can look it up!

European discovery of this isolated Jewish community -- left in a backwater after the fall of the Song Dynasty -- is an interesting story in itself. In the early seventeenth century, a Jesuit traveler to China documented contact with the Jews of the synagogue, who were still maintaining Jewish tradition and could read their Hebrew torah. Later, the tradition was lost, though the Jews remembered their ethnic origin, and remained somewhat identifiable.

By the early 20th century when Bishop White procured the artifacts, the synagogue had been destroyed and there was virtually nothing to identity the former Jewish community; the people who sold him these objects had only a vague idea of their past. Needless to say, the events of the 20th century have further obscured the distinctness of their descendants, though a great deal of scholarship into records of early travelers has produced evidence about the history of the community.

The following map (from googlemaps) indicates the location of Kaifeng with a green arrow:

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Toronto Streets

Victorian tower near campus (above). I saw a large number of such red brick buildings. Some are very well kept up, and one guesses beautifully restored inside. Some are now university buildings, incorporated into larger modern buildings. Some are very run down with poor-quality additions and roofs, bad replacement siding, or decaying porches and weedy gardens.

Shops on Queen Street: the street where Atwood's Robber Bride opens, at a restaurant called the Toxique. It was probably fictitious, though I guess its building looked like the ones above. Maybe someone has appropriated the name by now.
The new wing of the Royal Ontario Museum -- shown above -- was just completed. The photo shows the new edgy structure and also a bit of the old yellow brick facade.
A large grocery store on Spadina Avenue, in or near Chinatown, also Robber Bride territory.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Margaret Atwood's Toronto

Here we are on Bloor Street -- Atwood territory. This morning we plan a walk along several other streets, including Chinatown, also mentioned in The Robber Bride. However, Atwood's characters weren't staying at a Holiday Inn, and they were immersed in the University of Toronto and surrounding environments, not just visiting. I always like to read about the places I visit. I thought it was a good pick for take-along reading, out of all the books in my attic.

Also, the first night we were here, I bought a Canadian edition of Atwood's The Tent. It's not "set" anywhere -- it's a series of poems and very brief sketches. But it evokes some of the atmosphere of the area: City. Not totally different from cities across the border. But more of some things, less of others. More brick Victorian buildings. Little green yards with lots of flowers. Big 60s or 70s apartment towers dwarfing the older houses. Little shops selling fruit or "natural foods" -- the kind of dusty healthfood store that's disappeared from home, thanks to Whole Foods and wider interest.

Among the nice gardens, one beautiful old fraternity was so brick and so Gothic Victorian it looked like a haunted house. The neglected yard had ailanthus trees for foundation plantings. (Those are the weediest of volunteers, if your plant vocabulary isn't great -- mine may not be great either, if ailnthus is the wrong word, I mean those weed trees!)

The museum, like many nearby buildings is 100 year old brick institutional style. It has a brand-new extension of glass and steel with very diagonal walls. Unfortunately, most of the exhibit rooms are still rearranging and I presume attending to their political correctness. I enjoyed the Chinese and Native Canadian exhibits. The new extension is the edgiest thing around, but there are lots of old buildings sprouting new steel and glass towers or bridges to nearby older buildings.

UPDATE: When I returned to Ann Arbor, I finished reading The Robber Bride. As the narrative follows three women -- Tony, Charis, and Roz -- and their nemesis, named Zenia, it continues to be fully embedded in the Toronto neighborhood where we stayed. I have been a Margaret Atwood fan from her first novels and poetry, and I definitely enjoyed this opportunity to get a new insight into one of her books.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Four books that I like

I've written recently about some books that I don't like. Here are several books that I really like. I just reread Anansi Boys -- it's really amusing and fun. I'm impressed by what Gaiman does with folk tales. I also liked American Gods. Alice likes Pele, the mean goddess, but I like Anansi, the tricky spider, and all the varied gods in American Gods much better.

I hope Stardust will turn out to be a good movie! I have seen one movie by Gaiman, but I didn't like it much.

Thinking about Charlie Nancy, his father, and his brother Spider in Anansi Boys inspired me to go outside and take some spider photos, and write a spider story in the story blog: Spider Stories, September 11, 2007.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Boredom on the Silk Road

It's too bad, maybe, that Shadow of the Silk Road is the first book by Colin Thubron, the noted travel writer, that I've read. I assume his reputation came from much better books -- maybe the title is a clue that this is the shadow of his former writing skill. Anyway, I find the book very boring. Every hotel is seedy, cold, and run down. Transportation is rickety. Drivers are reckless. Distances are vast.

"My bus winds up into the land of carved dust. The hills circle and uncoil around us..." (p. 58)

"For hundreds of miles my bus crossed a wind-torn wilderness, its surface glazed with pulverised stone...Somewhere in the desert's core a storm was raging..." (p. 113)

"My bus moved through a country of lush calm, under a sky dissolved in haze... Its roof was pitted with holes for air and lights now gone, shaking above the passengers' heads." [I checked and re-checked that last sentence -- yes, it's very hard to parse!] (p. 188)

I feel like I read these words over and over.

All the locals he meets ask him to write about them. They all have long, sad stories about how bad things were under the Soviets or Chinese and how disappointed they are that the new regime/new century/whatever hasn't improved their lives. Some of them he met when writing earlier books. Were they more interesting the first time around?

It gets harder and harder, as the book goes on, to distinguish between one ancient glory and another. The Mongols. Tamarlane. Genghis Khan. Greeks and Romans. Ruins from other eras -- with eerie beauty, predictably. Ethnic variety among travelers who don't go there any more. Over and over.

Risky border crossings. Ragged beggars. Ambitious young people. Spiritual or cynical or manipulative religious leaders (Imams, Russian Orthodox priests, whatever.) Discouraged, disillusioned older people. Abandoned hopes. Terrible exotic food. Appalling dangerous hotels. Over and over.

Enough said: I can't find enough difference between one place and another along the very long, dangerous string of backwaters. It seems less and less relevant that this silk route was once a major trading artery and now is so isolated. Is it his fault or just the material? I don't know. Maybe it's my fault. I wish I had tried the library instead of buying this new book.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Maias: from the 19th Century

In his novel The Maias, author José Maria Eça de Queirós gives his total attention for over 600 pages to a single character, the nobly born and wealthy Carlos, descendant of the noble Maias family. A number of chapters give his background: the marriage of his father to an unworthy woman, her abandonment of her son and husband, the father's suicide leaving him to be reared by his grandfather, and Carlos's education as a doctor. Carlos and his grandfather, sole survivors of the great family, own and live in grand houses filled with precious art and expensive furnishings. The author seems to love describing the possessions of the family.

Despite his resolve to practice medicine (and maybe even to serve his fellow-humans), Carlos becomes absorbed by possessions, by his shallow friends, by time-wasting activities, and by flirtations with married women. He decides to write a book but never really gets started on it -- it's all talk. Much is typical of the end of the 19th century when the book was written & published (this is a brand-new translation), but I think some of the qualities of the finest 19th century novels are missing.

The Maias is ponderous. Descriptions of houses and gardens sometimes seem endless. Portrayals of Carlos' and his companions' interests constantly refer to works of contemporary music and literature, especially French, and to life in Paris and other centers of sophisticated life. The grandfather is a shadow, living in the same house and rarely making an appearance. A variety of friends, enemies, and rivals come and go, but never become full-fledged characters. At a poetic evening, all the local poets read from their works, but the fragments quoted in the text are not, in my opinion, impressive at all -- not at all like the best works of the century they seem to be echoing.

The spirit of the times -- especially politics in France -- plays a role, but all the characters seem to be posing more than really experiencing anything. Eça is not Zola, he's not Flaubert, his characters don't transcend sordid behavior or shallowness through vivid description and penetrating analysis, at least not for me. They don't quite become parodies or larger-than-life satiric figures like the minor characters of Dickens, either. Oddly, he virtually never portrays local color or lower-class characters; the faithful family retainer and English governess are far from lower class. The author knows Portugal is a backwater, the characters know it, and it's a painful fact for the reader, too.

A plot emerges during approximately the last 250 pages. It involves a love affair, which begins with one more seduction of a married woman. I won't give the details of this final plot-line, which despite copious hints earlier in the book I would say involves an excess of improbability. As revelations pile up, Carlos confides in his friend Ega (a writer that seems to be the author's alter ego: even the names: Eça/Ega) and Ega acts to help him cope with all his pitiful challenges. But it's still all Carlos, all the time: affronts to his honor, threats to reveal his deepest and most embarrassing secrets, fear that his grandfather will find out and the like.

My major response to the book is to how little it engages the reader in any empathy for Carlos, and above all how completely the author fails to develop a convincing portrait of a single one of the women in the book: Carlos' mother, his mistresses, and his friends' mistresses. Women and possessions are handled with exactly the same attitude and love of external details. Signs of emotions may appear on their faces; they may faint; they may fall at the feet of their spurning lovers; they may suffer from rejection -- but these details seem painfully parallel to the changes in the scenery, the light coming through curtained windows, or the atmosphere in a theater.

Carlos sometimes asks himself probing questions, but he quickly goes on with his shallow behavior. For example, discovering that his mistress has never been married to her "husband," he loses all respect for her, as he was really convinced that he had seduced an innocent (or something similar). Then he muses -- "...she was already a woman running away from her husband, which, not to be too harsh, is neither a very pure nor a very dignified thing to do. Such a humiliation [he's humiliated to have seduced an unmarried woman!] was, of course, galling, but no more so than that of a man who owns a Madonna which he contemplates with religious awe, believing it to be by Raphael, only to discover one day that the divine work was painted in Bahia by some fellow..." (p. 419)

As he comes to terms with the new status of his mistress, Carlos goes through many other thoughts, and eventually, they reconcile in a melodramatic scene. But in essence, she seems to mean to him just what possessions mean: a sign of his status and position in life, regarded with deep though melodramatic emotions. I think the role of women as something other than humans is my main problem with this book.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The River is Higher

Elaine and Larry visited for the weekend. Sunday morning we repeated the canoe trip that we did a few weeks ago. We had two canoes this time.

Again, we started at Argo pond, went under the little tunnel into the canal that bypasses the Argo Dam, portaged at the end of the canal, and then began our trip on the Huron River. We've walked most of the route, past the Gandy Dancer restaurant, along the banks of Riverside Park and Island Park, around the big bend in the river from which you glimpse Fuller Pool, past the playing fields and hospital, along the edge of the Arb, and then into Gallup Park for pickup. Because we had walked along the river so often, we could always see exactly where we were. Elaine and Larry had not walked these paths, so we were constantly pointing out what we saw and recognized.

A week of incessant rain when we had just returned from Hawaii had raised the level of the river quite a bit, and had made the current much faster. It carried our canoes downstream at a pace that was startling in contrast to the previous trip.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Next Book: The Maias

My friend Olga said I should read The Maias, by 19th-century author, José Maria Eça de Queirós. I've already sent off to and it's waiting on my shelf. Surprise: the NYT book review wrote it up TODAY!

See the review:
Lisbon Story
Published: September 2, 2007