The Rest is … Alex Ross

Posted in Book reviews, HH Dalai Lama, Music, On writing, Press at 8:18 am by Marion

pbcover4.jpgNow that everyone is taking stock of the best books of 2008, I’m just getting around to reading one of the best books of 2007.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross.

As soon as I ordered it last January I wanted to open it, but in that old-school, protestant way, I put it off, reminding myself that I was reading two books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one or two by Jack Kerouac, a couple of French novels, not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (for the past two years).

Well, yesterday, I reminded myself that I had actually finished many of those books (though not the ones by the Dalai Lama; I have a bookcase full).

So why not just read it. And so I got started.

The Rest is Noise is a look at so-called “classical” music of the 20th century. It begins with Gustave Mahler, Richard Strauss (hint: he’s not the waltz guy) and Arnold Schoenberg and explores the music as it emerged from the times, and the writers — their personal relationships, how their work was received (or rejected), even their own personal struggles. Schoenberg, for instance, comes across as quite sensitive, concerned about the depths of poetry and even subject to personal depression, when I always thought of this abstract, whole-tone scale composer as emotionless.

From the opening words of the preface, Alex Ross rushes out of the gate with excellent, studied and meaningful writing. What a pleasure!! He really cares!!

Not only does he care, but Ross approaches topics in a modern way. If you’ve ever tried to read dry, fusty non-fiction … especially music critiques … then you know how easy it is to bore the reader to death.

It’s always been my personal approach in writing to invite the reader in, to invite the reader to care. And so with Alex Ross. He wants us to follow him; he’s not just showing off.

Though he could. It’s clear Mr. Ross not only adores music, but he understands how it works. With just enough description of chords, scales and harmonics, he allows us to see why music is daring, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with details.

If you’ve read the New Yorker, you know Mr. Ross as the magazine’s music writer. Not that he needs any qualifiers after this book!! (and not, frankly, that I hold TNY-er in esteem any longer, after that Obama parody cover, and an article last year trashing the Dalai Lama. Who trashes the Dalai Lama???)

So music lovers, treat yourself this holiday season to The Rest is Noise. And get ready to listen.

FD will return with Figuratively Speaking Friday.


H.H. Update

Posted in HH Dalai Lama, Press at 11:48 am by Marion

His smile, his sense of inner goodness, authenticity and yes, personal persuasive power … are disarming … and though he’s good to the core, His Holiness the Dalai Lama also knows how to be seen with the right people …

Slate.com article is here


Deep in Thought?

Posted in Events, On writing, Press, Writers at 7:23 am by Marion

An article on CNN.com yesterday raised an age-old question: How are creativity and mental illness connected?

Present company excluded (ahem) it’s no secret that visiting the heights of human experience also opens the doors to its depths. The writer who gave us “The Brothers Karamazov” also penned “Notes from Underground” … Fyodor Dostoevsky also gave us that unbearably true scene in the “Idiot” when the beautiful but doomed Natashya takes an enormous pile of money and tosses it into a fire.

The article looks at the life and work of David Foster Wallace, a writer who died last month of his own hand. (I am among those who will greatly miss DFW and his work.)

Of course the CNN article takes that broad-brush approach all big media have to, but IMHO it misses the nuance of what it is to be human, and searching. The search gives us art; the struggle is meaning.

I would ask instead, What drives someone to search? What compels someone, a writer say, to obsessively seek meaning? Then, not finding it in the world, we hunch over manuscripts to create one where there is meaning.

Van Gogh is the quintessential “tortured artist,” but if you read his letters, collected in Dear Theo, you understand that Van Gogh’s expansive soul drove him to feel the human experience very deeply, which he translated into those beautiful canvasses. That depth also pained him, and drove him to desperate acts of self harming.

We must be very careful when glossing over the lives of artists, writers and others whose visions come from a soul-place we don’t understand. Explaining trivializes them and robs them of the genuinely human. Instead we should be grateful for the vision and art of these enormously gifted, emotionally sensitive folks and leave the answers for the next life.

PS … For a warm send-up of DFW’s prose, see this Gawker post by “The Downsized Employee.”


On failure pt. 2

Posted in On writing, Press, Writers at 9:31 am by Marion

Two days ago I wrote about failure … I don’t like it … then yesterday catching up on Sunday’s New York Times, I read this article about growth.

It seems that our perceptions about ourselves have vast sway over our development. I mean, VAST.

Ms. Rae-Dupree sums up thoughts from a 2006 book by Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” that describes two views one holds about oneself.

We can think we’re born with talent or not. Whether we think we’re Picasso or a dolt, we limit ourselves profoundly when we adopt this view. It’s called the “Fixed Mindset.”

If we think we grow constantly … learning and doing more, becoming smarter all the time … we have a “Growth Mindset.” The author says this way of thinking allows a person to really do things … to accomplish … to lead.

I think back to my worries about failure … and realize that failure is the very seed of greatness. This article confirmed those thoughts:

People with a growth mind-set tend to demonstrate the kind of perseverance and resilience required to convert life’s setbacks into future successes. That ability to learn from experience was cited as the No. 1 ingredient for creative achievement in a poll of 143 creativity researchers cited in “Handbook of Creativity” in 1999.

It’s reassuring to read such a source as the New York Times … and the book’s author … wax about failure.

I can’t say it makes the bitter pill easier to swallow. Facing my shortcomings … my hapless tap dancing, my dull prose, my lack of original thought … still takes my breath away.

Yet once I get those mediocre thoughts out of the way … I can move on … and up … hopefully that is … to the lofty thoughts and ideas that, when they come, make it all worthwhile and make ordinary life transcendent and breathes life into ordinary words.


Overstayed our welcome?

Posted in Events, Life in general, Press at 8:34 am by Marion

I am more concerned than ever about our planet … flooding in the Midwest, earthquakes in China, cyclone in Burma.

Here in eastern North Carolina, our landscape is becoming oddly desert-like.

The change began last year, when our front yard, usually springy with healthy centipede grass, failed to grow. My husband mowed it only once or twice. Bare spots appeared.

This year, the lawn simply never came back from its winter brown. Sure, we have some green clumps, but mostly the yard is barren, with chickweed and wire grass.

My daylilies bloomed two or three weeks early this year. The bluebirds’ nesting and egg-laying habits have been irregular.

Meanwhile, we had a week of 100-degree days earlier this month, while a wildfire still burns in the peat bogs of Hyde County.

The Chinese are building a dam (Three Gorges) and the water in the resulting lake could weigh so much that it would affect the earth’s very rotation angle.

The thought is chilling … as it would mean the end of us. The weight of the water could alter the rotation by a half-degree … causing environmental calamities, weather upheavals and effects we don’t know about.

My husband once speculated that maybe human beings were a virus … and someone would come and spray us.

I love mankind and feel overjoyed and honored to be part of humanity … but without a question, we have become burdensome for the planet.

I’m not sure what to do about it … I avoid plastic foam take-out trays and cups; I no longer use disposable plastic water bottles; nor do I purchase aluminum foil or aluminum drink cans. Aluminum mining is one of the most harmful acts done to our planet.

I feed the birds, rescue turtles and help earthworms across the pavement. Is it enough? Can any of us make a difference? I believe only mandatory guidelines by world leaders will save us, but I wonder if we have the courage to demand them.


Is writing the problem?

Posted in On writing, Press, Writers at 8:27 am by Marion

So in yesterday’s post we looked at the new Atlantic Monthly article questioning the affect Net surfing has on our brain.

Today, another reason I don’t think it’s time to cry wolf just yet.

When I moved to eastern Europe in 1995, I took armfuls of my press clippings with me to help me find work at the Prague Post. I had a considerable pile of them — feature stories, news stories, a weekly arts magazine.

After I completed my first freelance assignment for the Post, I packed those old clips away and didn’t look at them again for years.

Over the two years I lived in Prague, my writing changed dramatically. My thought chains extended for miles and my stories had depth. I explored people and their undertakings, I dug into public events and decisions.

When I returned to the states and found work as a writing teacher, I went back to those clips hoping to use them in my classes.

When I re-read them, however, I was shocked.

I was a professional journalist, and yet my language use was horrible! I regularly began sentences with “but” and “and.” I guess I thought since the “big writers” did those things it was cool, or maybe it felt liberating to break the old rules.

My students were not amused. Nor was I. I felt ashamed of my writing.

I also noticed those newspaper clips from 1990-1995 used choppy sentences and short paragraphs. My stories read more like police reports than good journalism.

It was eye-opening. I declared I would no longer … or ever again … take liberties with the language I love.

Gone! The sentence fragments. Gone, too, the dependent clauses parading as sentences. Gone, too, the short, choppy paragraphs on a first-grade reading level.

Today, I still struggle with my own writing flaws … my phrases tend toward the wooden, I can’t shake my writing inhibitions; I lack musicality in my writing.

At the same time, I have grown to respect the complex sentence, the long paragraph and the well-developed idea.

So what does this have to do with the Internet or the Atlantic article (“Is Google Making us Stupid?”)?

Writers have a responsibility to write well, and to experiment and enjoy what we do. We can’t blame the Internet or television if we can’t write, or if we abandon beautiful, complicated ideas or profound topics.

It’s a two-way street. We have to read … and we have to write … in ways that allow us to remain free and fully human.

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