Category Archives: Books

The End

You can never quite be sure of how a book will hit you, but it’s been a while since I’ve felt so disconnected to a novel as The Echo Maker.  Emotional distance is a good way to put it. I never quite feel involved with the story or the characters. I feel like a scientist peering into a diorama where these characters glide around each other— moving eerily on different tracts—as disconnected with each other as I am with them.

While the ruminations of the novel are interesting, there is an inauthenticity to how the characters connect to each other. There’s something very anti-septic about it all. For a book about connections, about our relationship with ourselves, nature, and our loved ones…I felt very little connection to any of it.

But I finished the novel. After two years of trying to read the damn book, I finally finished. I bought the book a couple of weeks after I moved to California. And now on the cusp of me finding myself again, I’ve finished it.

This book will always have a symbolic meaning for me. I have not taken away that much from it’s pages….not because it didn’t have much to say, but because it wasn’t the sort of book that ever made me feel receptive to the messages within. However, the act of finishing the book is for me an end of a chapter. It’s strangely appropriate. The characters find some sort of rendemption in the end…it’s not at all what they expect, but find it they do.

The message is that no matter what happens, no matter how much our life distentegrates or loses the precious meaning that we cling onto day in and day out, there is always redemption. The only thing that is asked, is that we survive and endure.  If we are capable of that, no great tragedy can knock us down. Tragedy passes, life will always tend towards normalcy if we let ourselves accept it.


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“Cranes keep landing as night falls.”

So begins The Echo Maker, Richard Power’s book about Capgras Syndrome. And so marks the end of my attempt to read Galatea 2.2.

Maybe it’s telling that I have been unable to finish both of the novel-length books I’ve started this year. Perhaps it’s implicates that I no longer have the patience for reading material that I don’t enjoy.  But I fear that my tastes and tolerance have narrowed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve stop dabbling and started honing in my preferences becoming less maleable and more certain of what I do and do not like.

I’ve always been proud of my electic and unconventional taste in reading material. But now I wonder if I give up on books because I’ve lost the broad-minded, willing-to-explore attitude of my youth. In my defense, I found  Galatea 2.2 clinical and lacking in emotional impact.  It is not Power’s best work (whatever best work may mean). And it’s time to read something that I am motivated to pick up and finish.

The Echo Maker, another Richard Power novel, is about a man who has a near fatal accident on a lonely stretch of road deep in the heartland of Nebraska. While he survives, he is no longer able to recognize the closest person in his life believing her to be an imposter. Capgras syndrome as Wikipedia defines it, “is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.”

The Echo Maker gives a better explanation.  The brain recognizes the loved one but can no longer emotionally connect to them. Because of recognition but lack of connection, the brain convinces itself  that the loved one is an impostor.

I’ve always been fascinated by disorders of the brain, especially those dealing with disorders of memory. Memory has been the obsession of my adulthood. It’s the reason I’m snap-happy with the camera.  Why any book about memory or forgetting has an immediate hold over me.

When and how did it start? Ever since watching Memento, I’ve developed a low-level curiosity for memory disorders. The Radio Lab program on Memory and Forgetting made me realize just exactly how shaky a structure our memory is. My brief encounters with Philosophy over the years has taught me about the subjective nature of perception and memory. My own personal beliefs about life, reality, and the ability for one’s perceptions to shape one’s life has solidified the importance and inaccuracies of memory in my life.

In the case of Capgras Syndrome, the memory is still there, but the emotions behind those memories are removed. This is so disturbing to the patient that his brain conjures and accepts the explanation of an imposter. He sacrifices logic when the connection of his memories to his emotions are in question. It pinpoints to the importance of memory to human beings.

Memory serves as the vehicle for our emotional connection to places, things, people. Without memory, we lose our connection to the world.

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Your best work

I always wonder if it’s a good idea to research the author of the book I’m reading.

When the author names his protagonist after himself…the question is even more relevant. Many authors write fragments of themselves into characters in their books. Good fiction observes some kernel of truth.  You have to write what you know for there to be truth.

Galatea 2.2’s fictional Richard Powers is in many ways similar to the author Richard Powers. The real Powers like his fictional counterpart gave up a career in science to pursue the arts. He moved to the Netherlands to avoid the attention and maybe the pressure of the success of his first novel. Galatea seems like a deeply personal rumination on the fear of failing and the fear that your best, most brilliant work is behind you. Many authors must live in terror of this. Writing like most art is a constantly changing process. If you challenge yourself as all great authors must, your art changes from book to book.  But what happens after you’ve written what may be your best work? What happens when everything you produce afterwards is just a shadow in compairson?

I’m struggling through Galatea 2.2.  Even though the writing can be beautiful…most of it strains my patience. The writing is erudite, sometimes overly technical…I worry that by the time I finish the book, I will no longer want to read The Echo Maker.

But I trudge on. While it isn’t especially pleasurable, I find that the book sparks of new ideas and thought paths. I also have to go slow, because it’s so challenging to read. The slowness of the reading allows me to get more out of the reading material. It is a new way of reading, one that tests my fleeting patience but will ultimately make me a better reader.

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Do what you love

I realize the things I love and have been a constant in my life are things that I do without pressure. There’s no pressure for me to read. My parent’s discouraged reading anything but text books when I was young. They thought novels were no better for me than tv. The way they would say the word “novel” in chinese made it sound like a dirty word.

“Stop reading those novels of yours, and go study.” Reading was not a productive thing in their eyes. And because of it, there was never any pressure to read. So I read. My reading habits ebb and flow. I have years where I’ve finished more than a hundred books, and I’ve had years where I couldn’t even finish one. But what  makes me come back to reading is is the lack of pressure or expectation. No doing it well vs. doing it poorly judgements. If I’m not in a mood to read, I don’t read. There is no guilt associated with it.

I hope to take my experience with reading to other parts of my life. There are many things that I do that often don’t hold joy for me because I’m so judgemental of my performance. What I need to remember is that, it doesn’t matter how I do. If I love it, I will do it, and if I don’t, I should stop. It doesn’t matter if I’m a fast learner, or I can’t get something right, or I’m learning better or worse than someone else. All that matters is that I enjoy what I’m doing. Enjoy the moment without evaluation. I hope this is the lesson I can take this weekend as I prepare to snowboard.

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Galatea 2.2: Grasping for things lost in memory and first lines

Galatea 2.2 is a retelling of the greek myth of Pygamalion.

Pygmalion was a great sculptor. In order to prove his skill, Pygmalion decides to carve a statue so life-like that it would rival the beauty of any real woman. When he is finished, his work is so spectacular, so beautiful, that he promptly falls in love. It is a tragedy to fall in love with your own creation.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a play based on this myth. In the play, two linguist make a bet to turn a flower woman into an elegant duchess. You probably recognize the plot since it was made into a movie called My Fair Lady.

Galatea 2.2 retells this story in the modern age. A group of scientists and an author make a wager to create a machine that can interpret great works of literature in such a way as to fool everyone into thinking it was human.

The story centers around the protagonist, Richard Powers.  In the story, Powers, adrift in a mid-life crisis, believes he is at the end of his writing career. He knows only the first sentence of his next novel.

“Picture a train heading south.”

But this sentence leads him nowhere. He wonders if he has read it before somewhere. He searches in the catacombs of his memory for it’s genesis.

It reminds me of plots that still haunt me; books that I must’ve read as a child but can no remember the titles of no matter how long I search.  Even as I try to access that memory of those books, they slip further into the recesses of my memory, until I’m not sure how much of the plot I’m making up.

One book from my childhood haunts me particularly. It’s ghost-like in quality. I remember yellow paper, some odd drawings. It was about magic…some sort of transformation took place…something haunting or terrible happened…I think. When I try to access memories of this particular plot, I end up pulling in other storylines, plot points, objects from other books I read as a kid. I will have to be resigned to this unsolved mystery.

But Galatea 2.2 has given me an idea, it would be nice to document the first lines of every book I read when I start them. It’d be an interesting exercise.

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The problem of too many choices

One of the things I hate about my iPod is that despite the fact that it contains thousands of songs, I only end up listening to a handful. Given too much choice, we are overwhelmed.  This has always been a problem for me. At the store, the more choice I’m given, the more miserable I am. I agonize painfully over which pillow to get, what cereal to eat, what shampoo or skirt to buy.  If I chose the wrong one, I imagine myself being gypped out of some imagined advantage that another item would have provided me.

In the day of the iPod, the e-book, the internet, I notice these problems are exacerbated. When I was young, I read with abandon. I would go to the library, pick up a book with an interesting cover, and read it. I read almost the entire paperback children’s section of my library that way.

Now time is more precious, I chose books carefully, sometimes I research them painstakingly before making a selection. Still, I’ve managed to accumulate hundreds of unread books during the last 5 years. Which creates a problem.  If I were stuck in a room with one book and no internet. I’d read the book. I’d finish it. But now, everytime I read, I take down 5 different books.

Because I have so many options, I find it hard to really read or concentrate on any. I keep on switching, starting a line here, reading a line there. The addition of my computer further complicates the issue.

I find myself seriously considering whether I have ADD because my attention is so fractured between things. Time to simplify. Maybe instead of reading several books, for a little bit I can focus on one at a time. Just pick one book up and stick to it without further consideration. Let’s see how it goes.

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Growing Up

Sometimes when I revisit a book, I find it’s nothing like what I remembered. Often it’s because I’ve moved on…I have different interests, different taste. Sometimes its a mood thing. For an entire year and a half, I read nothing but short stories.  Sometimes it’s because I’m in a different place in my life…I used to love super-violent, Quentin Tarantino-esque movies.  Now I find them tiring and upsetting.

Generally it means that I’m in a different place, different mood.  When one of my favorite books doesn’t stand up to a test of time…it can be a little upsetting. Because these books stand as markers in my life, its difficult to know that you’ve moved so far away from any point in your life, that the books you once cherished now seem slightly silly.

It’s with great relief that I can read The Beggar Maid and Magic For Beginners without feeling such things. Though the books have changed for me…everything seems slightly shifted 90 degrees in my perception and interpretation of the stories, I still love them for what they are at the core—smart, perceptive, but more importantly sly and odd stories about what it is to be human.

They are different though. There is sometimes a wistful sadness or bitterness to the stories that I missed when I was younger. I hadn’t learned yet that life can be disappointing, misleading, not at all what you expect. I don’t think I had properly internalized the notion that life can disappoint you. Not that I have a strong grasp of that notion yet. Life has been kind to me…dangerously so. But the twist and turns these past years have shown me at least that I have no idea where I’m going or what life has yet in store for me. It makes me understand the people in these stories better.

On a complete different note, I happened upon this while surfing the internet. It’s from Cselaw Mioz’s, A Captive Mind:

“It is sometimes better to stammer from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases. The inner voice that stops us when we might say too much is wise.”


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