Wittgenstein’s Mistress

I’m here to write about Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson because I need to return it to the library. I have no idea what to say.

The book is about a woman, alone on a beach, and nothing happens but what’s already happened, and her sporadic trips for laundry, water, and other needs. She is, or believes herself to be, alone in the world. A review in The Nation said this, “Suspense is generated not by action but by thought.” That’s excellent.

The story moves forward. Somehow. With lots of backpedaling and so much uncertainty that certainty becomes unnecessary. This is typical:

“In Madrid, I once lived in a hotel named after Azurbaran.
Unless perhaps it was named after Goya.
And was in Pamplona.”

The story isn’t what happened but what Kate, the narrator, thinks happened. And that might change from day to day, from writing to writing, from one sentence to the next.

She is concerned with language too, how we often misspeak but know nonetheless what we mean.

“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm. Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm. One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.”

Is there an order to madness? Kate used to be a painter and she catalogues the madness of many painters, and philosophers, and many others. Characters in Greek literature share time with Leonardo and Picasso and Rembrandt, the way they do and did in space, Leonardo in the ruins of Rome; the way they did in time – -painters could paint those character in their day, many days after the characters came to life in a different kind of painting – words – also representation, and also free from the confines by time and space.

Kate is fascinated by the fact that three thousand years ago soldiers died in the Greek wars, and then died in the same place again in World War II. Not the same soldiers.

One of her favorite quotes that are interwoven in and out of other thoughts, stories, memories.

“The world is everything that is the case.”

That’s Wittgenstein, though as far as I can recall she never says so. She then says, “I have no idea what I mean by the sentence I have just typed.”
A second is some variation of this:

“Doubtless these are inconsequential perplexities. Still, inconsequential perplexities have now and again been known to become the fundamental mood of existence, one suspects.”

She attributes it alternatively to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, possibly Heidegger.

I would recommend it to anyone interesting in writing or language. It’s unclear why it works, how it works, but it does. It’s so unconventional that it shakes the entire foundation of storytelling. It isn’t a story. It’s the inside of someone’ mind. Unreliable, recurring, full of accidental debris of a life lived, some thoughts you can’t let go of, some that won’t return, stray bits of songs. What are facts without context? What’s a mind without context?

The Square (Review)

A documentary about the Egyptian revolution, the Arab spring of 2011 that became summer, then fall, then winter, and then spring again and it still wasn’t over. The people back in the square, demanding the fall of the regime.

We read the news, we saw the clips, shuddered a little at the violence, thrilled at little at the youth and idealism and power of the people, for us it was a show.

Is it a great documentary? Does it tell the whole story? It gives a neat timeline, helps sew together the snippets of NPR interviews, the NY Times articles, the headlines and analysis, the predictions, the exposes, the photo essays, from the last 3 years.

The people overthrew three regimes. First Mubarak, then the army, then Morsi. Now the army is back.

Before the film I didn’t see the three stages. Before the film I didn’t understand that the Muslim Brotherhood betrayed the revolution. When the Brotherhood’s rise to power was in the news I worried about extremism, about mixing religion and politics, less about what it meant for the Egyptians that had chanted “Freedom” in Tahrir. Before the film I thought Morsi was democratically elected, not anymore.

Besides for a few brutal moments, there is very little violence in the film, and more of the rise and fall of disillusion and hope, the flares of outrage, the rifts that grow between former friends, the hard choices.

It follows a few revolutionaries, uses their voices, sometimes talking to the camera, or each other, or people around them.

Ahemed Hassan is the Marius or Enjolras of Les Miserables, the fiery young revolutionary with the beautiful smile, prepared to die, optimistic for the future. His voice is frequently hoarse from yelling in the streets. He repeats the same speeches every two hours to new groups of people, half of which agree with him, he says, and they join.

Khalid is the intellectual, a British-Egyptian actor. “We communicate with slogans,” he says and always seems a little weary. He Skypes with his father, “I’m not going to vote,” he says, “We’re not ready for elections.” He’s often on YouTube, a leader in the media war. Get everyone you know with a digital camera, they need to know what’s really going on. They being us, here. When the police chase them, the people hide their cameras.

Magdy is the beard, the Muslim Brother. He disarms us all with his sincerity, his eagerness. He brings his kids to the revolution, he sometimes refers to himself as an individual, sometimes as a brother. At the end, when the country is split between the Brotherhood and the people’s revolution, Magdy is on the opposite side of Khalid and Ahmed. Magdy’s at the sit-in for Morsi while the revolutionaries celebrate his removal. They’re still friends though, they talk on the phone.

“If I die I’ll blame it on you,” Ahmed says, joking.

Other things I noticed: A lot of curly hair, obvious glasses, women dressed in everything from eye-only burkas to pants and trendy haircuts, how very frightening the power of religion, the image of the thousands of Brothers who turned up at the square on orders of the Brotherhood. Like Mecca, thousands bow together,and thousands rise together. That was the leverage, the card the Brotherhood played to make a deal with the army that gave them the parliament.

Since the movie was produced by Ahmed and Khalid and a few others, it’s hard not to suspect that the narrative was too easy, and still it leaves enough to the viewer.

Did the revolution accomplish anything? Khalid says we won’t know for 30 years, Ahmed the people took Tahrir square three times. If we need to we’ll take it again.

The Square is available on Netflix and was nominated for 2014 Best Documentary Feature.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart, by David Samuels

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is a collection of magazine pieces by the journalist David Samuels.

The book is difficult to rate because the quality is inconsistent, though it leans towards mediocre, with a few standouts.

The first essay, “Woodstock 1999”, is an excellent mix of fact, insight, and storytelling. The tone is conversational, a little ironic, a little nostalgic, a little nonplussed by the state of the universe.

Aside from that, my favorite pieces were the personal ones – “Being Paul McCartney”, about the kind of man he is and the kind of man he’s trying to be for his girlfriend, “Life is full of important choices,” about living in New York post 9/11. As a Detroiter I also enjoyed the piece on Detroit.

The rest of the essays follow a similar format, and I found myself skipping through them. He describes the main character of the story, and simply reports on his time with them – things they said, what they were wearing, what they did. He was trying to be the fly on the wall, to ‘show not tell’, to give us the story wholesale, and let us draw conclusions. To me, it just felt remote and formulaic.

Postmodern Horatio Alger

A review of Ben and Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop by Fred “Chico” Lager

Who knew that the making of a company could be such an enthralling story? Written by Ben and Jerry’s former CEO, the story includes conflict, suspense, and a series of highs and lows, that as the stakes get higher become progressively higher and lower.

The plot follows the creation of the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company – beginning with the opening of their first ice cream shop in a converted gas station, to becoming a public company and a nationally recognized brand.

Ben, the main character, is complex. He’s genius and visionary and authentic, but unrealistic, capricious, and difficult to get along with. He’s supported by a cast of characters that include Jerry, his partner, Fred, the author, along with members of the “Ice Cream for Life” club, unscrupulous competitors, and loyal customers.

The overarching conflict involves Ben and Jerry’s quest to build a socially conscious business. They started as two anti-establishment hippies and were almost dismayed by their company’s growth. As they grew they resist becoming the establishment and try to remain the fun, quirky business with a symbiotic relationship with the community they service.

Happily, in good vs. evil, good wins this one. The reader is left with the message that the little guy can triumph over greed and Big Business with hard work, good will and authenticity.

It’s a Horatio Alger story with a twist. Two little guys build a big company. Instead of being satisfied with monetary success, they continue to take the position of the little guy, against greed and soulless capitalism.

Nearly 20 years after this book was published (1994), Ben and Jerry’s has become both the inspiration for and the cautionary tale of the social enterprise. Throughout the nineties, Ben and Jerry’s was not able to live up to Wall Street’s standards, and in 2000 they sold to Unilever. Read about the implications of the sale in Ben and Jerry’s sale: truth or myth?

Before and after reviews

Before/
This is where you give a synopsis of what the book/movie is about, without revealing any spoilers. This is where you recommend or don’t recommend it. This is where you convince a reader who hasn’t yet read it why the book is important, or ugly, or wrong, or delightful. You might talk about the form, the author’s other books, the genre.

After/
This is where you discuss the content. This is where you quote the pieces that troubled you, or enlightened you, or surprised you the most. This is where you ask questions and ruminate about the characters or the argument or the research.

I wish there were more after reviews.
If I already read the book, I don’t want a synopsis of it. I want to discuss the burning questions, or celebrate good writing, or share my thoughts on the content of the book.
If I haven’t read the book, I do want to get a feel of what it’s about so I know whether or not to read it.

Second Person Singular*

Review of ‘Second Person Singular’, a novel by Sayed Kashua.

I wish I’d read this book in Hebrew. I’ve read this author’s column in Ha’aretz magazine and his writing is funny and honest, sometimes too honest. In a good way.

It would be nice to judge the book purely on its literary merits, but as the author is an Arab Israeli who writes in Hebrew, I couldn’t help but pay attention to its politics.

I was pleasantly surprised, because the book is so apolitical. There are no heroes or villains, just characters going about their lives – trying to belong, building relationships, questioning their identities.

Since the story takes place in West Jerusalem, the characters navigate the challenges of that particular place, where the question of identity – Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, from West or East Jerusalem – is always present.

The story itself is kind of slow. There are two plots that intertwine – an Arab Israeli lawyer in search of his wife’s alleged lover, and a caretaker who steals the Israeli identity of the invalid under his care. The characters are barely interesting enough to make up for the lack of suspense. Nevertheless, I appreciated the story for giving me a glimpse into the life of an Israeli Arab without (seemingly) a political agenda.

Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua