Books etc.


I was so delighted to read this morning (well okay, it’s now two mornings ago) that Kazuo Ishiguro is the winner of the 2017 Nobel in Literature. I’m stoked because I’ve been an admirer of his for a while now (check out this long ago post about his books). I won’t say fan because I don’t unreservedly love everything he writes, but I do whole-heartedly love the way he writes it. It reminded me too that I have a unread treat in my Kindle in the guise of the first of his books that I heard about, The Remains of the Day.

But this is not the only Nobel that I have ties of connection or affection to. There is the Physiology or Medicine award, one of the three recipients this year of which was Michael Young. The award brought back memories of my time in the information office at Rockefeller University (and which is now headed by a former colleague from another place and time) where the annual task in September was to draft out announcements in anticipation of certain  winners. Might that be taken as a conceit? Yes, but not an idle one, for that small university does have a formidable number of winners in its roster of employees past and present (and even some future). True there were not winner in the two years that I was there (1996 & 97), but then there were consecutive awards in 1999 and 2000 to Rockefeller faculty, and then in 2001 Sir Paul Nurse got it, and he later became Director at the Rock for several years. Then again in 2011. Not too shabby.

I also have a connection to this year’s prize in chemistry. It was for a technique called cryo-electron microscopy and I’ve already managed to mention it in a paper that I’m working on (my co-author was also pleased).

Three out of five ain’t half bad, to mangle a quote by Jack Nicholson in a dreadful (so bad it was good) film. Five I say, because I don’t necessarily count the Peace Prize.. but while we’re counting, this post brings me up (down?) to #34.

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The thought occurred, while answering an email about my current book project, that in  that I should write about the various strategies I have adopted in the years since I conceived of this book, in order to tackle a large project  more manageable. That my title is alliterative is just a happy co-incidence.

Stepping stones: Every project has its stepping stones and they come in many forms. I am reminded as I am typing this that a formal proposal is a natural stepping stone, but the one that I was thinking of particularly when I started to write this is what I call a stepping-stone publication. Undertaking such a project eases one into the larger task so by the time one actually officially “begins” the latter, there are already bits and pieces ready and available to be patched-in, expanded or otherwise modified. Two papers that I published, in 2014 and last year, are two stepping stones of slightly different types. The first was a “preview” of sorts–call it testing ground–where I first floated the central idea that eventually became the basis for the book. The inception of this this paper goes back a few years earlier actually–but at time the “book” was yet a dim possibility. It still serves as the outline for my larger project–10 pages to the roughly 200 that my book is supposed to be. The second paper, is a far more specific, and details a specific argument based on a specific archival find. It was an actual stepping stone, the first official paper that I wrote before picking up the courage to tackle the larger, more intimidating book itself. Funny thing is that I didn’t actually get to the content of the paper until recently, almost two thirds of the way into the book. But having it there helped. A third project currently underway, is a segue from the book–a way to suss out some ideas and get into material that is less familiar to me.

Spin-offs: Such articles are exactly what the label implies. Home in on a particular aspect–one idea or something–that has already been written into the book and spin a slightly different angle or go into greater depth about it. I recently submitted my first spin-off effort (which I actually began as a stepping stone) but didn’t really get into until recently by which time the chapter had been written. But as I wrote the paper I found myself revisiting the chapter and changing details (of course I do that at almost every reread in any case, but this time the changes were more substantive as opposed to merely cosmetic. I have more spin-offs from my dissertation (but no stepping-stones, although paradoxically, the first paper has that phrase in the title). And while it may seem repetitive, I think spin-offs are hugely useful exercises because they keep you in the game.

So that’s my two bits worth on my writing life (#38)

The title of my post is actually the title of a book by Pat Conroy (of the Prince of Tides fame) which I happen to be reading write now and enjoying very much…Plagiarism? one might ask, to which I’ll offer a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about immature poets imitating vs. mature poets stealing. Actually he goes on to talk about bad poets defacing what they imitate and the good ones taking something and making it better “or at least different” but that part is not germane to this post. So I’ll defer a discussion of the American Schoolteacher to another day and post (perhaps) and get to the the subject at hand, which as the titles proclaim, is about my writing life.

What triggered this post is a description by Conroy of his writing habits. To him, “the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos.” Funny I should encounter that statement today of all days, when earlier in the morning (many hours before Pat Conroy was in my psyche) I was thinking about what makes me tick as a writer. And the conclusion I came to, in an impassioned monologue in my head that I delivered to no-one (and would never have done so but for the inspiration) was quite the opposite of Conroy’s description: that routine for me is anathema.

I thrive, or at least my writing self does, on chaos. I mean, I can’t even sit at the same spot 3 days in a row without getting restless and losing productivity. I need to mix something up–go to a cafe (if I’ve been working at home); a different cafe if I’ve visited the same one more than once; or change the hours I work or what I’m working on. Consider my inability to keep to my once-a-week resolution on this blog. I tried I really did, but it hasn’t really worked has it. I often go several days without writing and then suddenly have a succession of entries. As a PhD student I indulged myself in what I called “productive procrastination” with at least one other major project–what became The Human Genome Sourcebook, a reference book about the human genome, which I wrote over a period of 4 years all told, with a co-author. And this wasn’t even the first book to come out of my years as a grad student–the first, another reference book on microbes, was a solo effort that I had embarked on even before I had begun my Ph.D. Of course the first year of grad school brought the progress on that book (which bears the long and boring title of Microbes and People: An A to Z of the Important Micro-organisms in Our Lives. My father wanted me to call it The World of Small Things–another Eliot follower even if unknowingly so–but the title was not up to me) to a screeching halt. But then came my first summer, which I spent with Dad as my roomie at the oddly organized, I. M. Pei designed, East West Center at the University of Hawaii, where over a period of two-and-a-half months I wrote most of the book. Again–or I should say setting the pattern for the future–following a gloriously chaotic non-schedule that entailed some midnight visits to my Dad’s office and some dawn time walks from the Math Dept. to the EWC!

My current book–about 5 sevenths (or 5 eighths) of the way in since I began writing for real and in earnest last (2016) February or March–has been yet another exercise in discipline through chaos, written in bits and pieces in cafes and friends and cousins homes  all over the world–Melbourne in Australia, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Savannah (Georgia), the Bay Area, Bangalore… so far. (The proposal was written up entirely in Seoul I think). Fair enough since its geographic reach is similarly worldwide, though not quite as peripatetic. Most of the individual scientists that I am writing about–the eccentric Felix d’Herelle being the notable exception that proves the rule–were remarkably stable in their careers spending decades if not their entire careers in one place.  But there is method to my madness as the saying goes, or a consistency to my chaos. And once again I’ve found a way (actually multiple ways) to procrastinate productively with other projects, as yet too undefined, some even embryonic this.  (#43)

My alliterative self has not been just dampened by dengue but also down-trodden, depressed, debilitated, and just downright doggone defeated (well not quite) by it. Certainly it threw me off my weekly post goal (or is that goal-post) on this blog which was lagging by a few weeks already but (I fondly hoped) almost on track to getting caught up.  And then came the horrible virus and drained my energies and flattened my resolve. Just for my personal record, this should have been my tenth entry, given I made the the once-a-week resolution on the 10th of June, but is only my 7th. I wonder if or when I will catch up.

Anyway.. inspired by blog lists on other sites, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pay tribute to a few books that have helped or are helping sustain me through the duel with dengue and with a few other challenges. Unlike earlier periods of illness and convalescence when I would read voraciously, this illness left me with a headache that made reading impossible. Luckily my trusty audible.com collection has helped and in reverse order here are some books that I’ve really enjoyed listening to over the past several months–not the the dengue weeks, but also the driving ones in Wisconsin/Minnesota and in California. In reverse order (most recent backward)

1. In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. This book, which is still in progress actually, has been long overdue. I remember beginning to read it and being excited by its premise years ago (as I recall it was Aziza Ellozy who lent me a copy) but as I’ve been listening to it, I am realizing that I had barely made a dent into the book at the time. Am not sure who the narrator is — he is pleasing enough — but the book itself, what a treat! Ghosh’s shifting back and forth between the 12th century world of trade between Mangalore, Aden (in Yemen) and Cairo’s Geniza and the modern (1980s) Egyptian Delta is a pleasing device at least to my ears, but what really endears this book to me is the way it brings aspects of my own new millennial life in Cairo (2007-2011) back in such vivid detail and color. The nostalgia it conjures up is actually a false one for the descriptions of the life, speech and attitudes of the Egyptians in his book are in truth a very different slice of society than what I experienced. But nevertheless his narrative (aided and abetted by the skillful narrator) brings these people alive: I can see the guy, his grey galabeya flapping in the breeze and cigarette dangling from fingers or mouth, and hear him expounding on some aspect of life. Ghosh being a man was likely not exposed as I was to the numerous propositions from taxi drivers et al, that I and my female colleagues were privileged to receive, but something about the words ring so true… which I think is the mark of great writing. It transcends time and space.

2. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes. This was a random buy–I think I was actually looking for a version of the original book itself–but one of those lucky strikes. In a day an age where I think Robin Wright has become defined by her “role of a lifetime” as the ruthless Claire Underwood, it was fun to learn about her in the days she was Buttercup, the most beautiful princess in all the lands, imperiously ordering the farmboy (the author and narrator) about. Elwes is a great narrator and mimic and while this book might seem a bit of a sentimental tribute–it is–it does bring back memories of a great film that I really love! I had a lot of fun storming the castle with Elwes and crew, learning about the figures behind the ROUS’s, and of course the famous Inigo Montoya (of the “you killed my father prepare to die” fame) and about others such as André the kindly Giant among others. Now to buy and rewatch the film itself.

3. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, an absolute delight of an irreverent romp by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I’ll be eternally grateful to my cousin Pramodh for this recommendation… and can’t think of the number of times I’d take the long way to somewhere just to get to listen to a bit more of the book. It certainly helped me stave off some of the darkest days of depression. Enough said–read it and enjoy impending Armageddon as you never will again for sadly Pratchett is no more, having died in 2015, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was only 66. A side benefit of reading this book was I got better acquainted with Queen, and not just the Bohemian Rhapsody.

4. The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family. This last one does not qualify as a book but was/is great and does not get erased from my audio device (presently my iPhone 4S)… Ever! John Lithgow compiled this collection and got a bunch of friends (stellar actors all) to read poems by a large list of his own favorites. He provides his own commentary and associations for each poet. You’ll get to listen to old favorites or learn about new men and women you didn’t know you might like. Auden and Yeats, Wordsworth and the impenetrable (to me) Gertrude Stein.. they and about fifty others are all in there. This one is definitely worth several listens.

(#45)

I recently read The Woman on the Orient Express a fictional account of a snippet (well actually a grand chunk) of Agatha Christie’s life. I thought it a nice blend of the real facts and Christie’s fiction–especially the subtle ways in which scenes and characters from various books wound their way into the story, the latter interesting touted as the inspiration for her plots when in fact the reverse is truer. I always give points to a book when it makes me want to read new ones or revisit old favorites and this book certainly did that. I really thought some of the real characters that Lindsay Jayne Ashford brought into the book resembled certain characters in some of Christie’s novels.

What really drove me to write about this book here (as it happens for I reviewed it already on Amazon) was a chance to marvel anew at the really small world this is. For never in a million years did I think that the I could claim anything less than six degrees of separation with an author who had died before I had started reading her books! (at least I don’t think I had read any of her books before I turned eleven…) Here’s how that unfolds: My dear friend Emmanuelle Salgues is an Assyriologist–which means she can read Gilgamesh in it’s original chicken scratch script but that’s another story– and her PhD advisor was a student of Max Mallowan, who was Agatha Christie’s second husband. I think that officially connects me to Agatha Christie through 4  (3?) degrees. Cool bragging right isn’t it? And guess what, now that you’ve read this post, you too will be able to claim the same (if you know Emmanuelle) or 5 by dint of knowing me who knows E, etc etc.  So my fellow nerds.. enjoy..  (#49).

I recently caught a TV screening of the new(ish) version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and it reminded me forcefully of the power of the word. It also drove home a point that I make constantly as a historian, namely that the context in which a book is read and the state of mind of a reader goes a long way toward what one will take out of a reading, or remember. For instance, There was a description in Gatsby toward the end, which I had missed or rather not noticed particulary when I read the book, but given all that I’ve been through in the past couple of years jumped out almost immediately this time. It was a description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and it went like this:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Replace careless with callous and to me that passage sums up  a couple of former colleagues (or for that matter the entire institution) as nothing else can. For I know first hand what it is to be subject to the “smashing up” described by F. S. F. Nearly two years later, I’m still picking up, or attempting to pick up, the pieces while those callous Tom and Daisy equivalents go on blithely with their lives, wrecking still others, no doubt. I could go on, I suppose and wallow further in dregs of bitterness (to pick up the words of another American classic: “I am big, I contain multitudes”) but I think I’ve already given them more rent-free space in my blog and brain than I should have.

The following is an expansion of a book review I wrote for Amazon and I thought it apt for this blog, which has been untouched for many a month (or is that years?) now. The book in question is John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels about Venice. (I’ve indented the part from the Amazon review and then reverted to my own ramblings):

Two may be a small sample size to make a fair generalization but I sense a pattern to Berendt’s books. First, find a city with character, whether by accident or design. In very different ways and for vastly different reasons Savannah, GA and Venice both certainly fit that first requirement. Any place with character has its fair share of characters (of the human variety) and so, the second thing to do then, is to find them, talk to them and get to know their stories. For Berendt, a career writer and editor, that would be second nature. Finally, loosely weave the personalities and stories you find around some central event that is/was important to the city. In Savannah it was a murder and its aftermath. In Venice it was a murder (maybe?) of a different sort. Fire – negligence or arson the jury is still sort of out – was the form this murder took and the victim was La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. Voila! you have an interesting mosaic of vignettes and profiles that makes for a charming & quirky book.

Berendt pulled it off both times, I think. I have visited both cities more than once, but in both cases before reading his books about them. I think I would enjoy going back with his book in hand (disguised in my Kindle no one need ever know!) and scope out some of the locations he’s mentioned. Then maybe one day I can write a following-in-his-footsteps sort of book.

Interestingly – and here I take off on a Berendt-esque tangent – one factoid the author didn’t mention in his book or if he did I missed it, was the metaphoric significance of La Fenice’s name. Fenice is Italian (unlike Venice which isn’t but is rather the Anglicization of Venezia)… but I digress again. Fenice means phoenix, that legendary bird which dies by fire and is reborn time and again from its own ashes – and how apropos is that for this opera house which has been resurrected from it ashes more than once in its history?

Another thing Berendt failed to mention is Venice’s title of La Serenisima, something I picked up from my avid reading of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. Leon is another absentee despite the fact that the book is chock full of expat personalities (maybe Leon is not enough of of personality as she too busy creating others for paper).  But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise immensely enjoyable read. It’s also a read that has inspired me to read Henry James, who is also mentioned frequently by Leon as the protagonist’s wife’s hero. And Berendt mentioned one of James’ shorter works, The Aspern Papers which apparently bears some uncanny parallels to the real life story of Ezra Pound’s papers and his lifelong love-not wife-Olga.

As to my my own literary aspirations? What city would I pick if I had to write a Berendt-style profile? Well Cairo obviously comes to mind with its glorious character and accompanying caste of characters, many of whom I am delighted to call my friends. But then again that’s the very reason I couldn’t write this book because pinning them down in print as it were might be such an awful invasion of their privacy. But yet, Cairo is the place, as I described to a non-Cairene friend of mine, where the people i knew and sat and enjoyed coffee or other libations with, are literally characters you would read about in books! Only they’re real. Salima, John Swanson and Hoath come to mind immediately from those near and dear to me, but also a few others who are larger than life and twice as natural, personality wise. And then there are those to whom I have positive antipathy – in code now so as to avoid slander charges, but friends in the know will be able to guess – include the ubiquitous A (a.k.a. Big Ears), the slimy dead-ringer for KFC’s Colonel Sanders and how can I forget the equally slimy wannabe-bitten Meatloaf wannabe? But ‘nuf said…

So, having steps one and two of the Berendt formula, what of the third? Some central event around which to build the book. Well for most people that would be the no brainer right? After all, I lived in Cairo right through the Tahrir-square demonstrations (and still have an unfinished “revolutionary diary” post that may yet see the light of day!) But here’s the thing about that. The revolution (for lack of a better word) is still ongoing and is a serious story, not one for amusing and whimsical vignettes, though Cairo is a source of the latter in spades! Also given my laxity over this and other blogs, is it ever likely that I’ll get a non-work related book to a publisher? Fat chance! Meanwhile though here’s a snapshot that distills the essence of that Cairo for me:

One year after the resignation of Mubarak I went back to Cairo for a short visit. For part of the time I was staying at the the apartment of my dearest friends there, right downtown on Sherif Street. One of his balconies overlooks the Ministry of the Interior, where one could see tear gas and men in uniform lined up with shields to protect the place from (justifiably) angry mobs. Looking out the wall of windows on the other side (90 degrees from the to give a sense of orientation) one sees a part of the city with pedestrian alleys lines with tables where local men and tourists used to stop for aahwah (coffee) and shisha. Well, but for the tourists the place was still the same! regular still sat around table smoking shishas and sipping coffee like the world wasn’t falling apart just a few corner away!

(I put crumbling rather than falling there first, but then realized, crumbling facades are very much a part of Cairo’s natural landscape and thus nothing for the shisha smokers to think much less worry about). So there it is, the heart of what makes Cairo live up to her name of El Kaahira, The Undefeated. No matter how much things change, there is a core to her that will endure, much like her pyramids!

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