27 July 2007

Animals in Translation

I have mixed feelings about this book, which is perhaps appropriate as it is itself a mix--of personal memoir, professional mea culpa, behavioral reference, and (perhaps primarily) anecdote collection. It is written by Temple Grandin, a high-functioning person with autism who became much better known when Oliver Sacks wrote about her in An Anthropologist on Mars.

Grandin has a Ph.D. in Animal Science, and has spent her professional career designing humane(r) slaughter facilities for cattle, pigs, and sheep. Animals in Translation presents the lessons she's learned about animal behavior filtered through her unique perspective as an autistic person; she believes that the way autistic people think and the way animals think are very similar.

The book offers many compelling insights. Grandin talks about how animals don't generalize the way typical humans do--an animal once traumatized by a man in a black hat may forever rear at the sight of a black hat; a cow can be stopped in its tracks by a shiny reflection. They're attentive to details because they don't have a sense of the whole--or at least not as easily as typical humans do.

In spite of some interesting points, the book's idiosyncratic, circular, and often redundant style put a damper on my enjoyment of it. There's little distinction between conclusions drawn from anecdote, scientific research, or personal experience--all are given equal weight. The old saw about essay writing ("Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them") is adhered to rather too literally: a paragraph introduces an idea including its conclusion, comes to a conclusion, and then affirms that conclusion (often with a not very persuasive, "That's my guess" or "I've seen this again and again."). Animals in Translation does have a co-author, but either that co-author was asleep at the wheel or she's simply a poor writer/editor.

Worth reading? Sure. But the reading can start to feel like trudging after a while.

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25 July 2007

My Best Friend

It's movie pass week. This new French movie stars Daniel Auteuil as an antique dealer who's made to realize he has plenty of business contacts but not a single friend. (In the words of one old classmate, since the age of 11 he has been a "smug son of a bitch.")

After a bet with his business partner (she has to meet his best friend in 10 days), he engages an amiable taxi driver (Dany Boon) to teach him how to make friendly connections. The driver's lessons fail, but the antique dealer ends up friends with the taxi driver. Then the dealer betrays the friendship because he still doesn't really understand what friendship is and loses the friend. Then he sincerely repents, secretly makes amends, and eventually he and his friend reconcile. In the process he has become a much better person, and everybody likes him.

Have we heard this story before? Yes. Is it pretty predictable? Yes. Is it still fun to watch? Absolutely. Terrific performances and details that are not entirely expected (the cab driver is an autodidact with complete mastery of the sort of trivia featured on quiz shows) make this movie continuously entertaining, and in spite of the familiar story, it provides some acute observations that make you think about the nature of friendship and its relative scarcity.

Not to mention deeply thankful to have friends.

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23 July 2007


Got a pass to see a screening of this new movie, which turned out to be better than I expected: a light-hearted fairy tale with a little romance, a little adventure, a little magic, and so on. One surprise was how funny it was--you're expecting an earnest little "happily ever after" story, and then Michelle Pfeiffer's witch is watching her breasts deflate (the result of too much hexing), and Ricky Gervais is trying to weasel his way out of paying a fair price for a shipment of lightning, and Robert DeNiro's pirate captain is happiest in drag.
Fun escapist fare, with some lovely evocations of the magical world.

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Pan's Labyrinth

Although some parts of this movie were so violent that I could not watch (particularly scenes of torture), it was quite wonderful. Still not entirely clear on what it is trying to say--you want to find an affirming lesson about the power of imagination or somesuch, but the ending of the movie rather contradicts that. Still, the human (or humane) spirit shines very brightly in this dark tale, and that's what makes the violence bearable in the end.

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21 July 2007

Curiosity: the Anti-Depression Emotion

I have been reading Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation and she spends a lot of time talking about emotions, particularly emotions shared by people and animals. She discusses curiosity as an emotion. I had never thought of curiosity as an emotion, but I guess it is, as she describes it: a sense of excitement and anticipation about the things around you.

Which strikes me as the opposite of depression, and part of why going for a walk or drive, or taking a trip, can help a person shake the blues.

Just as I thought: you can run away from your problems.

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20 July 2007

Houseplant Survey

Our plants don't do as well in this apartment as they used to in our house in Columbus, even though we have a lot more light here. Of course, we have different plants here, ones that are supposed to be suited to higher light levels. They survive, but not very well. In a way, it would be easier if they didn't stay alive (it's easier to discard a dead plant than a struggling one). Two big ones have been especially bothering me lately; it's hard to think of replacing them, because large plants are expensive. Two smaller leafy plants keep growing but just don't seem that healthy--the leaves quickly brown, or the plants get spindly instead of bushy. Maybe they're rootbound? It's been a couple of years since they were transplanted...

In the warm weather, when it's cheaper, I try to have a lot of cut flowers. Jewel always has a special--three bunches for $12, and during the warm season the bunches can be pretty nice. Treasure Island usually has one kind of flower on special at a time--say, $5.99 for a big bunch of sunflowers--but everything else is really expensive.

I have also been buying small flowering plants, which are pretty inexpensive right now. Little $3 mini-rose plants are cheaper than a bouquet and can last longer. Found some small succulents ($4.99 each) at Trader Joe's which seem to be doing well on our east-facing window sills. Splurged on a live orchid about a week ago, and so far it seems to be doing well (I figure if the bloom lasts four weeks I'll have gotten my money's worth).

Victor's mom is coming next week and she's really good with plants, so maybe we'll go plant shopping together. When they're healthy, plants make a home so happy!

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19 July 2007

Talk to Me

Our friend Teresa invited me to go see this movie with her at the last minute, and Victor rushed from work to join us.

It was terrific. Great performances, especially by Don Cheadle and Taraji P. Henson, who I remembered from Hustle and Flow. Great evocation of times past. We loved it.

Later, Victor said, "I thought it was going to be an Almodovar movie." I said, "No, that's Talk to Her."

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13 July 2007

Baryshnikov and Hell's Kitchen Dance

We've seen Baryshnikov only a couple of times before: in 2003, at a benefit performance in Columbus, Ohio, and in 2004 in a staged interview as part of the New Yorker Festival. This time, he was performing with his dance troupe, Hell's Kitchen Dance, in Chicago's Harris Theater, and he and they were phenomenal.

All three dances included Baryshnikov. The first dance was a solo--or sort of a duet with himself--video of a very young Baryshnikov was projected on the back wall and he danced in relation to it. It was so moving, somehow. I found myself weeping without knowing why.

The next dance also included two young female dancers. After an intermission, there was a performance that included the whole troupe. The choreography was splendid--thrilling and imaginative. Lots of arms and hands, heads--not just legs and jumping up and down. (Though there were plenty of leaps and pirouettes.)

What's great about Baryshnikov? Presence and grace. When he's on stage, he's just magnetic. You can't take your eyes off him. And when he moves, he's like liquid. He flows.

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12 July 2007


In the past, Joe Haldeman has been one of my favorite science fiction writers, but this book makes me reconsider. I found the writing pedestrian and the story pretty pointless.

Why do I get so annoyed when books are bad? Because there are so many books to read, and so little time.

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11 July 2007

Three Junes

This is a wonderful novel, told in three novellas from different perspectives: a father, his eldest son, and a woman who turns out to be, coincidentally, an acquaintance of both of them. It is beautifully written, and one of those books about which the question "what's it about?" is irrelevant, because it's about life.

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The Foreign Correspondent

Alan Furst is a favorite writer of mine; for what he does, he can do no wrong. And what he does is write espionage thrillers that take place in Europe on the cusp of World War 2. These stories have heroes who typically never planned to have anything to do with politics, who would have been happy to sit out the war in Tahiti (ideally with a warm blonde), but whom circumstances have forced into engagement against the forces of fascism.

Basically, they're ordinary people who get mixed up with spies, and end up becoming spies themselves, or helping spies, which amounts to the same thing.

The great thing about these heroes is they seem ordinary and peaceful enough that you can really imagine yourself in their shoes; when the daring missions ensue, you've identified with them so much that you can convincingly flatter yourself you'd have done the same.

Furst writes simply and well, and while you could complain that his several novels tell essentially the same story again and again, that's hardly surprising. This is popular fiction at its best, but it remains popular fiction.

This latest novel centers on an Italian Reuters correspondent living in Paris just before Mussolini and Hitler cement their alliance. He works for an emigre newspaper, writing anonymous articles against Mussolini's government, but his relatively placid existence is disturbed when the Italian fascist secret service sets out to terrorize everyone involved with the newspaper.

A great read for the train or when you just feel like an escape.

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You Kill Me

We haven't been excited about too many movies lately. Spiderman 3, which we might have otherwise been eager about, got terrible press, and none of the other sequels seemed too interesting.

So this movie seemed promising: Ben Kingsley who is always wonderful, likable Tea Leoni, and super-likable Luke Wilson. Not to mention terrifically slimy Bill Pullman, amusingly long-suffering Philip Baker Hall, etc. (It really doesn't end there--it's a fabulous cast.)

However. Actually there is no "however," to our great surprise. We went to this movie hopeful, but with dimmed expectations, since it wouldn't be the first time a movie with a great cast turned out rotten. But this movie was almost exactly what we'd hoped for: a reasonably adult and intelligent black comedy, with some juicy performances and good laughs. It has nothing profound to say about love, addiction, crime, or anything else, but it says nothing insultingly stupid about them either.

I feel like I'm saying the best thing about this movie is its inoffensiveness, but that's not what I mean to convey; rather, this movie is exactly what it ought to be, which isn't as common as it should be, and which gives considerable pleasure.

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10 July 2007


We went with friends the other night to see Kumail Nanjiani's one-man show Unpronounceable at the Lakeshore Theater. It was our first time in that theater, although it is only a couple of blocks from our apartment. A pleasant enough venue, except they play music ridiculously loud while you are waiting for the show to start, so you can't carry on a conversation. Very irritating.

The show was good, though. Nanjiani highlights a lot of the startling inconsistencies you notice when you've been brought up as a fundamentalist, and then traces his own journey from fundamentalism to atheism. Quite funny, as well. You certainly don't have to be Muslim to appreciate it. In fact, it's quite possibly better if you're not.

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Victor was iffy about this movie because Val Kilmer stars in it, and he's been in a lot of bad stuff. But I tend to remember the good stuff he's been in--Tombstone, Thunderheart--and don't so much hold the bad stuff against him.

Indeed, Spartan is not a bad movie. It's not a great movie, either, but that's not Kilmer's fault. He tries.

The movie is written and directed by David Mamet, who I like, but I wonder whether the trademark delivery of lines--the repetitions, the emphases, the repressed violence--might work better in a story about repressed violence. This movie incorporates so much actual violence that the stylized dialogue seems to almost mock the seriousness of the events, making the movie harder to believe in.

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09 July 2007


I first saw this movie when it came out, which was 1979, so I was 14 years old. It made a huge impression on me then--the amazing colors, the great music, and Twyla Tharp's choreography. It mostly took place in my city, New York, in Central Park and Washington Square Park, so I guess I felt a special identification for that reason as well.

When you're 14, you think everything's about you.

More than 25 years later, the movie holds up pretty well. You have to suspend a bit of disbelief to see 28-year-old Beverly D'Angelo as a 16 year old (Treat Williams also looks a lot older than he should be), but the color still looks great, the music is still wonderful, and the choreography is still invigorating. Moreover, even though many of the songs became so popular they are cliches now (especially "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In"), in the context of the film they remain profoundly moving.

I was crying at the end even though I knew what was going to happen, even though I'm sick of that song, even though I was internally criticizing the film's logic (the gravestone should have said Bukowski, not Berger, since Berger took Bukowski's place). And just as my 14-year-old self gazed wistfully at the joyful scenes of protest on the Washington Mall, I wished I'd been there then.

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Just terrible. We couldn't watch it straight through; skimmed it using the DVD player. If there is anything redeeming about this movie, which follows a year or two in the lives of a handful of shallow LA professionals, we couldn't find it. The great cast does it no good at all.

Nasty and vapid.

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500 Clown Frankenstein

After enjoying 500 Clown Macbeth so much, we got some friends together to see 500 Clown Frankenstein, also at Steppenwolf, the other night. It was a good show, but not as tight and well-composed as Macbeth. The three clowns telling the Frankenstein story all try to avoid portraying the monster (an understandably thankless job).

Regardless of its shortcomings, the show is highly entertaining; it more deeply engages with the audience than Macbeth, with multiple chases through empty and populated rows of seats, and audience members enjoined to torment the monster as it attempts to escape its fate. As with Macbeth, the clowns succeed in conveying the major themes of Mary Shelley's novel in spite of their narrative incompetence.

One key difference from the other show is that here nobody wants to be something (the monster), while in Macbeth, everybody wants to be something (king). Perhaps it is more inherently compelling to watch characters vie with each other for something they want than watch them try to avoid something they don't want.

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A Summer Affair

I have had a couple of books by Ivan Klima on my shelf for years, and finally got around to reading one. Sort of. After a while, I skimmed it. Here's a synopsis: middle-aged man, bored with family life, insecure about his professional accomplishments, encounters attractive younger woman, becomes obsessed with her, they have an affair, he destroys his family and career to be with her, and she kills herself.

See why I skimmed it? Not only have I read this story before, but I don't think I ever want to read it again...

This book goes on the giveaway pile.

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06 July 2007

Cuter Still

OK, this is cuter. But you can see the puppet bike in person.

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Instant Smiles on Michigan

What's cuter than a couple of furry handpuppets? How about furry handpuppets dancing? How about furry handpuppets swing-dancing? How about furry handpuppets swing-dancing to "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"?

If you think of something, let me know. In the meantime, check out the Puppet Bike, which generally hangs out opposite the Art Institute, or this YouTube video (there are several others), and add some smiles to your day.

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I'm a big science fiction fan, but picky, and slow to find new authors. Once I find one I like, I hunt down everything I can find. That's why I was stunned, last time I was in the wonderful Women and Children First bookstore, to find this book.

Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist as well as a novelist, and her books Native Tongue and The Judas Rose reflect that study. In these books Elgin describes a future world where women are oppressed to the extent that they are only valued for the children they can bear and for their surprising linguistic talents--needed to communicate with the technology-rich aliens who have come to trade with the people of Earth. These two books chart the women's realization that creating their own language would essentially create a new reality; ultimately the invention of Laadan enables the women to get a degree of independence from their men.

In the third book, Earth Song, which was published in 1994, but which I only discovered last month, the planet is facing catastrophe because the aliens, who were responsible for Earth's tremendous technological advancement, have abruptly departed. They have left their gadgets behind, but nobody understands how they work, and they are bound to start falling apart. Entire economies that had been based on trade with the aliens are shattered. Nobody understands why the aliens have left.

This novel speculates on the "inevitability" of human violence in some very entertaining ways. It is perhaps not as cohesive as the first two books, but it was lovely to be back in the world of a very thoughtful and interesting writer.

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05 July 2007


Talking with my friend Ellen recently, she brought up this movie, which I thought I had seen, but realized I may have been mixing up with A Man for All Seasons, which has similar themes. So I added it to my Netflix list and nudged it up the queue, and Victor and I watched it last night.

They sure don't make movies like this anymore. Based on the play by Jean Anouilh, it is a lot more verbose than anything contemporary, providing the actors with some really meaty speeches. Which both stars, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, are very good at performing.

The homoerotic subtext--really subplot, since there was nothing particularly hidden about it--makes parts of the movie seem a bit campy today and it's pretty long, at about two and a half hours; however, Burton's performance is a standout. Any impatience disappears when he's on screen.

Worth seeing? Yes. But I'm not sure it would be worth seeing again.

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High School

I had a miserable time in high school. Not during the high school years--because I was lucky enough to have access to other social spheres where I didn't feel like quite such an outcast--but in high school itself I felt fortunate if I had a single friend at a time. I was a member of no clique; the most fun I had in high school was in class. It is certain of my teachers who I remember with the most fondness.

That tells you something.

So I've not gone to any of the high school reunions, not the 10th, 15th, 20th, or (most recently) 25th; I could never imagine what I would have to say to these people. But this year's reunion was capped by the start of a Yahoo group, which I joined out of curiosity. And soon became rather addicted. The brief bios, musings, and reminiscences of those who had been among the most popular of my year interested me because they seemed actually like pretty nice, thoughtful, intelligent adults. (Not at all as I had remembered them.) I started to wonder what defect in me had made me feel so separate from these folks in high school. I felt excluded, but maybe I had excluded myself.

When I shared this thought with Victor, he issued a swift corrective: high school students are stupid. Don't be so hard on yourself.

And then I ventured to the Photos section of the Yahoo group where someone had posted photos from back then and the sight of a few of those young faces gave me a nearly physical reaction. And I thought how lurking on the Yahoo group, I was an outsider all over again. I had nothing to reminisce about with these people. Their memories were very different from mine. The bittersweetness of nostalgia had become much more bitter than sweet.

So I unsubscribed. The class of '82 can manage without me.

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03 July 2007

Throw Like a Girl

I am not sure I have ever done this before: read a review in the New York Times Book Review and then ordered the book. Certainly I've bought books I've heard good things about, but usually there's more of a delay between the hearing about and the buying.

I find the stories in this book not just good, but inspiring. And soon will be off to find every other book that Jean Thompson ever wrote...

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