Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Fairy Tale

     Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth- floor window and vomited on the carpet.
     "Sorry," said one.
     "Don't worry," said the other. "Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans."
                    (From The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar)

New York City, early 1990s, Lower East Side, at that time still the gritty and dangerous neighborhood that nurtured the punk rock music scene in the US. Think Rent.

Heather MacKintosh and Morag MacPherson, thistle fairies from rival clans who have become bickering friends, have fled Scotland to escape a band of fairies from the MacLeod clan because they have somehow offended the MacLeods by unwittingly mutilating an historic banner. Expert fiddlers in the traditional Scottish tradition, both claim to be the best fiddler in Scotland and compete for bragging rights. New York City will allow them to stretch their boundaries. They befriend antisocial, overweight Dinnie (referenced above as the worst violinist in New York) and a young woman named Kerry and in well-meaning attempts to help each of these humans with some very real challenges, experience a series of mishaps and adventures.  They also manage to stir up local fairies including rival bands from Chinatown, Little Italy, and Harlem. 

Our protagonists antagonized fellow fairies in the old country by playing garage-punk versions of Scottish reels and wearing torn kilts. They are using their East Village sojourn to learn to play guitar solos by the Ramones and the New York Dolls on their fiddles. There is even a search for a lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top guitar on behalf of the ghost of Johnny Thunders.

They experience New York with all of its charm, eccentricity and color as well as its drug culture, poverty and underlying presence of violence. They drink plenty, offer illuminating observations on New York culture and behavior, and engage the contemporary music world even as they share  Scottish fiddle tunes and musical lore with their new friends. There is a threatening army of Cornish fairies led by the Tala, the Fairy King of Cornwall.  A community production of Midsummer Night's Dream presents an opportunity from some real fairy versus human fairy slapstick. A homeless woman named Magenta thinks she is leading a legion of ancient Greek hoplites in military maneuvers against the Persians as she wanders about the neighborhoods of New York.

If what I have described hear appeals or amuses, you are a good candidate for enjoying The Good Fairies of New York. If on the other hand, you are not the kind of reader who appreciates the suggestion that fairy vomit might be sweet-smelling to humans, or who does not see the wonderful congruity between Scottish reels and the Ramones, you will need to approach with caution or stay away entirely. 

The  2006 edition by Soft Skull Press, issued nearly fifteen years after the book was written, contains an introduction by Neil Gaiman that qualifies as a model for literary appreciation. This introduction is worth the price of the book itself.  Gaiman concludes:

     This is a book for every fiddler who has realised, half-way through playing an ancient Scottish air, that the Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is what folk music is all about, and gone straight into it. It's a book for every girl with home-dyed hair and fairy wings who can't honestly remember what happened last night. It's a book for people of whatever shape and size who like reading good books.

     I owned it for more than five years before reading it, then lent my copy to someone I thought should read it, and never got it back. Do not make either of my mistakes. Read it now and then make your friends buy their own copies. You'll thank me one day.

One more selection, this time by Heather MacIntosh in the way of a denouement:

     Meanwhile we are off for a few drams and a bit of serious fiddling. If the Irish and everyone else think they've heard Scottish music at its best just because Wee Maggie MacGowan managed to struggle through a few simple tunes without making any mistakes they have a lot to learn.

     Collum MacHardie has promised to make us some amplifiers. When our radical Celtic band gets going, the hills and glens will never be the same.

Note: this book deserves a soundtrack and perhaps I can enlist some help in creating one.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New York is Book Country

On a recent sunny Sunday, PYZ and I had finished a noonish brunch at the Indian Road Cafe in Inwood and a quick browse through the little antique cum used books shop next door before continuing on a walk through Inwood Park when an excited woman waving a hardcover book approached a couple nearby and exclaimed, "Have you seen my new book! It just came out!" As she stopped to show off her newly published creation, I glanced at the cover to note the title and author. Rude, perhaps, or perhaps a little impertinent to insert myself into their interaction but she had made something of a public announcement.

I scuttled to catch up with PYZ and explained to her that this woman had just had a book published and I had captured title and author and might research it just to see if her excitement was justified. This is called guerrilla reviewing.

PYZ, ever so much more commonsensible than I, asked why I hadn't just stayed and talked with her and with that slight breeze of encouragement, I turned around and walked back to the group and politeley inquired, "So, you just had a book published? What's it about?"

In that way, we found ourselves in an engaging conversation with Hyah Leah Molnar about her new memoir, Under a Red Sky, a memoir that shares her experience growing up in Communist Romania after World War II.    

The book is about her childhood and adolescence and her memory of her family experiences but was not written specifically for the "young adult" genre. Her editor and publishers help make a decision to market it as such (enhancing some marketing opportunities and shutting off some others) and our conversation turned to "young adult" literature and some of the artificiality of the distinction, something that has occupied my thoughts for some time.

If you haven't read Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian or Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, I encourage you to do so to experience examples of books that may be marketed as "young adult" but that defy the label and deserve to be read simply for what they offer any reader lucky enough to be introduced to them. Should Wind in the Willows or Alice in Wonderland be found only in the adolescent sections of libraries or in children's departments of bookstores? (This last question, by the way, is rhetorical.)

We continued our conversation on the significance of the development of individual, family and cultural identies, and the mechanics of writing and publishing, and left having exchanged emails and website information. Subsequent web research on her book suggests that it is worthy of her excitement that day and perhaps I will read it and report some time.

Later that evening, before settling in for Sunday evening showing of The Pacific, we ambled over to an  Irish pub in our neighborhood that features live Irish music on Sunday evenings. We settled in at the bar for Guinness and a view of the band. Sitting next to us was a woman nursing a beer, intent on reading a book opened up in front of her. Neither the beer, the bar conversation nor the lively music of an accordion, a fiddle, a guitar and drums seemed to intrude on her concentration.

Eventually she ordered a second beer and disappeared for some time outside where other customers were seated, but she had left the book at her place at the bar. I was curious but did not reach over to see the title. When some acquaintances spotted us at the bar, they moved to join us and eyed the empty seat. We explained that a patron had recently occupied that seat and still had her book there but whether that meant she had abandoned her space was unclear. Our friends temporarily took over the barstool and after some long time, the woman reappeared.

All necessary and appropriate words of apology and deferral were made by both parties, with the clear understanding that any barstool left unoccupied that long was actually fair territory, and she said that she had relocated outside but had only returned to reclaim her book. At that time, she showed us the book, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, and explained that she had become so enraptured that she couldn't resist reading it even in this social environment. We proceeded to have an interesting discussion about the book which some of us had read and she proceeded to read a passage aloud to share her enthusiasm for Ali's writing. We are huddled in a crowded bar, filled with happy, drinking and loud customers, with an Irish band going full tilt, unselfconsciously listening to a book reading by a woman standing next to us!

On the stroll home I shared both my wonder and my gratitude that I lived in a city where books are present, common, and important enough to be included in the fabric of everyday experience. I hadn't even browsed a bookstore and had still enjoyed a spontaneous and literary Sunday, complete with a walk in the park and Guinness!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Long for This World

I was introduced to Sonya Chung and her first novel, Long for this World, at a bookstore author appearance and I anticipated liking it. (See my post Author Readings, March 12th.) Still, I was really impressed by how good it is and how compelling the characters and the story are.

The story is that of the members of the Han family, some of whom have emigrated to the United States and some who have remained in Korea. Told from the perspective of Jane, an American-born daughter of immigrants, it develops the personal stories and the emotions of a handful of characters and in so doing, explores a number of themes including: the Korean-American experience; the immigrant experience; family and sibling relationships; friendship and attraction; and ultimately, on how the currents on which our lives float are formed by people and events around us, some close and some at some distance in time and place.

The portrait of Jane, the narrator, a photojournalist, is a real achievement. I was interested in her as soon as the story began and she just kept becoming more fascinating throughout the book. Making her a photojournalist and in fact a war correspondent was a very good artistic decision. It allows the author to describe events and characters visually within the media of a novel that is after all created of words and in that way, abstract. Jane views the world through a camera’s lens and we see it framed in ways that she chooses. It is a very effective device. At her presentation, Ms. Chung indicated that she had worked hard to render this character realistically despite the fact that she herself had little personal experience with photography or photojournalism before researching for the book.

There seems to be conversation at how this book speaks to female readers especially.  I would like to add that I find the portrayal of male characters especially engaging. As an older man, father of three grown daughters, I identified with the immigrant physician Han Hyun-kyu and understood deeply his need to return to Korea and take a different look at his life and his world. He is an especially silent man but his character is somehow eloquent at conveying an unidentified longing for something more. (Note the title).

In Korea, we are introduced to Chae Min-suk, a visual artist, who helps move the plot forward, but whose personal life and art are of great interest as well. I was especially impressed with the depiction of Jane’s younger brother Henry. His struggle with addiction and recovery, and his sister's sense of responsibility for him, is central to understanding her and her family. His is a different kind of “longing” and I was left thinking a lot about him and his relationship to his sister. I believe that Ms. Chung has succeeded wonderfully at writing a book about interesting men who deserve our attention and who have something to say to us, both male and female readers.

Jane’s mother, pointedly referred to as Dr. Lee by her own children, is a complicated and difficult character. The author has written honestly about her and the damage she inflicts on her family, but I still found the description of the character respectful and ultimately understanding. 

One reviewer comented that reading Ms. Chung’s exploration of the history of the Han family will make readers examine their own families  I had that same sense. In fact, I felt that if I could provide Ms. Chung with stories about my own immediate and extended family, she could develop an exciting, descriptive narrative to help make sense of it all.

Sonya Chung’s writing reminds me of Chekhov. I think it might be the development of character and family relationships through attention to small but significant details and events.

Another reviewer compares reading Long for this World to attending a photo display at a gallery, but in such a way that the reader is required to make the connections between the images displayed and any larger meaning of the book. I agree that we are treated to a number of very vivid images but I feel that the novel is also tightly structured and very effective in narrating a larger, comprehensive story.

The title is wonderful and promises what the book delivers. The cover photo of the hardcover edition is also perfect and this visual image conveys the tone precisely. I am sure it will entice some readers to the book.

Long for this World is a fascinating and compelling read. I am recommending this book to friends and I eagerly look forward to reading more of Sonya Chung’s work in the future. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Phoebe and Rachel in the 18th Century

I have learned from my daughter, a college English professor who specializes in the 18th century, that the period  has much to teach us about satire, blogging, coffee-shops, popular music, and popular culture of all kinds. And vice versa. Now, another English professor of 18th century literature introduces the concept that reading fiction (and following the story) has much to teach us about the evolution of human intelligence.

According to the NY Times article linked here, "the layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking - of mind reading - is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill." The article goes on to talk about the application of science not only to insights into individual texts but to fundamental questions about literature itself. "Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?"

The article discusses Professor Zunshine's interest in the "theory of mind" which involves one person's ability to interpret another person's mental state and to pinpoint the sources of a particular piece of information in order to assess its validity.

Humans, apparently, are generally able to keep track of three different mental states at a time. Fiction can challenge us to do more than that, and provides a neurological and biological satisfaction in our ability to perceive and decode misinterpretations. Jane Austen's novels are cited as an example of the satisfaction of following and understanding misinterpretations through a story.

William Flesch, a researcher from Brandeis University, explains that this direction of research can help explain how altruism evolved despite our "selfish genes".  He call fictional heros "'altruistic punishers,'" people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain." Nature, he feels, gives us a pleasing sense of outrage at cheaters, and delight when they are punished. We enjoy fiction, he believes, because it is "teeming with altruistic punishers: Odyssus,Don Quixonte, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot."

Mr. Flesch concludes that "It's not that evolution gives us insight into fiction, but that fiction gives us insight into evolution."

The entire article is introduced by a plot summary of an episode of Friends involving Phoebe, Rachel, Monica, and Chandler and a series of understandings and misunderstandings of the various mental states.   At one point, Phoebe tells Rachel, "They don't know that we know they know we know."

The fact that we know exactly what she is saying, and enjoy it, speaks to the value of this argument. The fact that I occasionally watch Friends reruns and remember this episode and enjoyed it speaks to my deep commitment to the study of literature and the workings of the brain. The fact that it took a professor of 18th century English literature to bring this association of popular culture,  historic literature, and cognitive psychology together may be front-page news. It cannot come as  a surprise to my daughter who has been saying much the same thing since she was thirteen.