A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What's in a Name?

A nurse I hadn't seen before was hanging my IV bag the other day when I noticed her name tag.

"Is your name Arsenic?"

"Ar-say-nich," she said softly, a little wearily, as if answering the question was a burden she had borne for a long time. She was Croatian, she said, and the "c" was pronounced "ch."

Even so, it's an unsettling name for a nurse. You couldn't get away with a Nurse Arsenic in fiction. It would be like calling a surgeon Jack Ripper.

The word "arsenic," I learn from Wikipedia, is from the Greek, meaning "masculine" or "potent," which is how, I suspect, it became a Croatian surname. The Greeks got the word from the Persian, where it meant "yellow orpiment" -- a pigment. (Artists used to get arsenic poisoning from their paints.)

I suspect that Miss Arsenic, if she stays in the United States, will change her name, just as countless Vietnamese named Phuc have decided to do.

I don't mention all of this to make fun. No doubt there's a language somewhere in which "Matthews" means "foreskin" or monkey dung."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's All in My Head

I can't imagine driving a car. That fierce and constant calculus of velocity, distance, and direction, which the ordinary brain does more deftly than any computer, is beyond me.

But on the other hand, just a few weeks ago I thought I'd never be able to read again. When I woke up that morning and the clock said 26 and Julian Barnes had become Ian Barnes, it wasn't that there was a blot or a blur in front of the 7 or the Jul-. It was as if my brain was telling me they weren't there. Later, lying on a gurney in a hallway at Stanford Hospital, I would watch people going by in a hall that crossed the one I was in. They would walk in from the right and then at a certain point simply vanish, as in some cheesy movie special effect. And other people would appear from the left out of sheer nothingness.

My brain was simply incapable of processing some of the information it was receiving. But it was doing the best it could. I think Julian became Ian because my brain knew Ian was a proper name. But Barnes didn't become Nes, because it knew that to be a nonsensical name.

Things got worse over the next few days, which I spent in a very nice private room in the ground floor isolation ward while they made sure I didn't have tuberculosis (another story for another day). It had a big window opening onto an enclosed garden. But I couldn't make sense of what was outside, couldn't distinguish trees from walls, shrubs from flowers; it was a mass of green with dots of colors that I toook to be blossoms. Later, I moved to a third-floor ward in which occasionally you could hear the hum of an engine starting up. It was the Medevac helicopter, which landed on the roof nearby. Visitors told me that from my window they could see the chopper taking off. But I never brought it into view. Maybe my brain thought it wasn't worth seeing.

As for reading, I developed a kind of dyslexia: Words refused to shape themselves into coherent syllables. Letters swapped places. The name "MERYL" was written on a dry-erase board on the wall -- presumably the name of a supervising nurse, not the actress. But my brain kept rearranging and substituting the letters. "Meryl" became "Merlyn" became "Merry." Was it simply trying out variations to see what worked?

Nor was watching TV any better. Profoundly bored, I wound up listening to a classical music station when I wasn't sleeping. But classical music on the radio is "easy listening" for office workers: classical Muzak. After several days of Baroque jangle I gave up. I don't care if I never hear Vivaldi again.

Finally, a few days after I left the hospital for the rehab facility, an occupational therapist put a book in front of me and asked me to try to read it. Maybe several weeks of ennui had persuaded my brain that this was a good thing to do, because the words took shape and stayed in place.

They say that when one part of the brain is injured, the other parts try to compensate, to work around the crippled part, to form new neural pathways or something. I believe it now. I haven't regained my sight completely. Occasionally someone will speak to me on my left and I'll have to search for the speaker. I look at cartoons on the Internet and don't get the joke -- the new pathway in my brain hasn't developed a sense of humor, perhaps.

Most embarrassing, I seem to have lost the easy automatic approach to familiar tasks: I put my shoes on the wrong feet. I have to be careful pulling a polo shirt over my head lest it go on inside-out or wrong-side front. I've been known to make several attempts at this before succeeding. Yet there are tasks -- like tying my shoelaces -- that are as automatic as they've been since I learned them many decades ago.
Some day, a long while from now, maybe I'll try driving. But I can't think about that now.

Friday, November 28, 2008

List, List, O List!

This review appeared recently in the Washington Post Book World:


A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

By David Thomson

Knopf, 1024 pp., $39.95

Everybody loves a list. The American Film Institute, for example, gets a couple of TV specials every year out of listing the 100 best movies in some genre or other. And every film critic in the country is annually obligated to come up with a list of the top ten movies of the year.

But a list of 1,000 films? The vastness of such a project betrays its absurdity: No one's critical sensibility is so fine-tuned as to allow a convincing distinction in quality between the thousandth film on the list and the dismissed thousand-and-first.

David Thomson is the author of numerous film books – biographies, histories, essays, even novels – all marked by passion, curiosity, scholarship and wit. His Biographical Dictionary of Film, with its blend of factual information and critical insight, is one of the essential movie books, and “Have You Seen...?” was proposed by his editors as a kind of companion volume. Thomson says in the introduction that he designed it to answer the question he's asked frequently: “What should I see?” But really, the book is an excuse for Thomson to wander around the gargantuan buffet table of movies, gleefully picking and choosing, sampling, savoring (and sometimes spitting out) whatever catches his fancy.
He also makes it clear from the beginning that he's not going to be tied down by any list-making principle other than that there have to be 1,000 entries of approximately 500 words each. The first entry – the book is arranged alphabetically -- is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which he says is there because a friend told him he couldn't lead off the book with any film so solemn and earnest as the one he first chose: Abe Lincoln in Illinois. High seriousness is not Thomson's typical mode, so to set the right tone for the book, Bud and Lou replaced Abe and Mary.

Blithely making up the rules for inclusion as he goes along, he slips in entire TV series (“Monty Python's Flying Circus,” “The Sopranos”) when it suits him and when he can make a point (e.g., “The Sopranos” shows how much better the Godfather films are). There were to be no documentaries until he decided to include one because it was made by Orson Welles (F for Fake). And he even includes a film that he hasn't seen for more than 30 years and hasn't been able to find a print of: Roger Vadim's Sait-On Jamais..., which Thomson admits is “not a great movie,” but remembers for its great jazz soundtrack. The entry leaves you wondering about the thousand-and-first movie that got dropped so one he saw nearly half his lifetime ago could be included.

To put it succinctly, “Have You Seen...?” is a big, glorious, infuriating and illuminating mess. You'll be happiest with it if you're on Thomson's wave length, that is, if your favorite directors include Renoir, Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Antonioni, Bergman. You'll be less happy if you prefer Ford, Wilder, David Lean, Woody Allen, Scorsese, Kubrick, Kurosawa or Fellini, all of whom he finds wanting in one way or another. He acknowledges what he regards as their best work, but even then his preferences can be startling. He thinks, for example, that Otto Preminger's Exodus is better than Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. His favorite Allen film is Radio Days, which he calls “a masterpiece.” Annie Hall, on the other hand, he regards as “disastrously empty.” Taxi Driver, he says, “is a great film ... hallucinatory, beautiful and scarring.” Whereas the movie a lot of people think of as Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull, he finds “fascinating, but truly confused.”
You don't come to such books just to sate your complacent taste, but to bristle at the things you disagree with and to whet your counter-arguments.

But with a universe of films to choose from, it's sad that Thomson wastes space and energy getting in a few more kicks at a movie like The Sound of Music, which has been stomped on by every reputable critic for the past 43 years and still keeps cheerfully toddling along, chirping about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. It's the Teflon musical, and Thomson's treatment of it is more like bullying than criticism. He says he includes it because “millions of the stupid and aggrieved will write in to the publisher, 'Where was The Sound of Music?'” But so what if they do? This belies the advice he had given only a few entries earlier, writing about why he includes Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running instead instead of his Gigi: “If you love Colette, Gigi is ghastly. If you don't love Colette, put this book aside.”

In the end, everyone who doesn't put it aside will find much to like and learn from. Thomson is, after all, an incisive observer and a tremendously clever writer, and his enthusiasms have taken him into dusty corners: He's a great fan of film noir, for example, so the book is dotted with obscure melodramas from the 1940s. There are also films in the volume that only a few fanatics like Thomson have even heard of, let alone seen.
But everyone will also find something missing. For example, he stints on the great genre of animation, including only a few Disney classics, an odd little essay on the Tom and Jerry short “The Cat Concerto,” and a nice tribute to Sylvain Chomet's The Triplettes of Belleville, in which he disses the Pixar films because he finds their “sunniness ... boring and complacent.” That's his prerogative, but why no acknowledgment of the work of Chuck Jones and others at Warner Bros.? Or the miraculous films, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, of Hayao Miyazaki?

See, that's the thing about lists. Give us a thousand films to think about, and we'll still think about the ones you left out.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Own Private 9/11

It was September 11 of this year when I discovered that my brain wasn't working right. (Don't even try. Every possible joke based on that set-up has already been made. Mostly by me.) I woke up that morning and looked at the digital clock by the bed. It said: 26. It's not supposed to do that. And then I looked at the book I had been reading the night before. The author listed on the jacket was"Ian Barnes." That wasn't right either. His name is Julian Barnes. And the time was 7:26. Somehow, I couldn't see the leftmost number in the time and the first three letters in the name.

My first thought was: Stroke. My second was: Tumor.

Many hours and several CTs and MRIs later, I learned that I had a brain abscess, an infection that had left me with limited peripheral vision in my left eye. As it turns out, the stroke or the tumor might have been more manageable.

"How do you get an infection in your brain?" my daughter asked.

I didn't know. I'd never heard of such a thing. But typically, the infection spreads there from somewhere else. Once they figure out where, and can identify the culpable bacteria, they can deal with it.

The trouble is, almost three months later, the culprit remains at large. I've had a brain biopsy (I needed another hole in my head). And they've run tests on every part of me, with no success. "The Mystery Man!" a neurologist recently greeted me when I went for a checkup. I can't share his enthusiasm for becoming a medical anomaly.

Still, the antibiotics they've been flooding me with -- intravenously as well as orally -- seem to be helping. At my last checkup, about a month ago, the lesions had begun to shrink -- or so the MRI suggested.

(Ever had an MRI? It's like lying in a sewer pipe on which someone is banging with a ball peen hammer, and next to which someone is using a jackhammer and occasionally blowing an air horn next to your ear.)

Anyway, this is all to explain to anyone who might have tuned in to this blog to read about books why I haven't been much in evidence lately. I spent the month of September in Stanford Hospital. Since then, I've been in a skilled nursing facility -- largely because Medicare pays for most of it. (The anomalies of the American health care system -- if "system" is the right word for it -- are something I've experienced firsthand. It's possible that I'll be here for six months longer.)

The thing is, I'm feeling great. I've recovered much of my sight -- or at least have learned how to overcome the deficiency -- and I've been working out with physical and occupational therapists every day. I'm in better physical shape (aside from the pus in my brain) than I've been in years.

But I can't go home. I'm tethered to an IV pump that feeds antibiotics into my system via a PICC line. PICC is "Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter," but nobody calls it that because nobody can pronounce "peripherally." Mine runs from my left biceps through my veins to my heart. Every eight hours, I get a new bag of antibiotics, and a nurse shoots a syringe of saline through the PICC to flush it.

Too much information?

Anyway, I'm back. I'm taking a break from reviewing for obvious reasons. But a couple of reviews of mine have been published since I got sick, and I'll post them soon.

Stay healthy!