Sunday, June 29, 2008

Joseph O'Neill's "Brooklyn Dream Game"

"Netherland": A Novel by Joseph O'Neill

Glancing through the May 26th issue of the New Yorker I came across James Wood's book review titled "Beyond a Boundary". What caught my attention was the accompanying photograph of men in white playing cricket under a bright blue sky with this tantalizing caption: "In Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" cricket is at once an immigrant's imagined community, an emblem of foreignness, and, most poignantly, a dream of America." Intrigued, I quickly read Wood's review and felt an instant urge to head to a bookstore. Within days I had finished the novel and found that Wood's effusive characterization of the novel as "a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read" was indeed deserved.

James Wood is an English critic and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since August 2007. It is hard to improve on Wood's excellent review of the novel which I would urge you to read (link above). It is easy to understand why he has been called "the best literary critic of his generation" and earned plaudits from even the most curmudgeonly of literary critics like Harold Bloom. Recently Wood has published a new work of criticism called "How Fiction Works" and two recent reviews by Delia Falconer in The Australian and Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the LA Times intelligently discuss Wood's influence and approach to criticism.

Right around the time Wood's review of "Netherland"was published there was a veritable flood of laudatory reviews and O'Neill profiles. New York Times had three different pieces within 3 days including a review by Michiko Kakutani, a Dwight Garner review in the Sunday Times Book Review and a profile of the author and the Staten Island Cricket Club where Joseph O'Neill plays his cricket. The Sunday Observer had back to back pieces by Will Buckley and Peter Beaumont and not to be left behind, Cricinfo Magazine published Andrew Miller's interview with the author. To top it all off, "Netherland" was just included on the longlist for this year's Man Booker prize and is favored to win by William Hill (a British bookmaker) with 7/2 odds. It is remarkable that fiction by a relatively little known author has received this kind of lavish attention but "Netherland" richly deserves it.

Instead of feebly reviewing a book that Wood has discussed with such flair let me talk instead of my quest to try to meet the author. I was so moved by the book and felt such a kinship with the narrator, Hans, that I wished I could meet the author and discuss the book with him. On searching the web to see if O'Neill was doing a book tour that would bring him to the San Francisco Bay Area I discovered that he was scheduled to be in Northern California just for one day on Tuesday, June 24th for two readings at bookstores almost an hour and half drive from where I live. One of the readings was scheduled at 5pm at the Orinda Bookstore in Orinda, CA not far from Berkeley. This was the closer of the two bookstores and never having heard of Orinda I carefully mapped out the directions and left work early on the 24th to meet O'Neill and to listen to him talk about his novel.

I also took three books with me that I wanted autographed. First, of course, I had my copy of "Netherland" with its copious marginalia. Second was O'Neill's book on his family history called "Blood-Dark Track" which traces the lives of his maternal and paternal grandfathers who were Turkish and Irish respectively. The last book in my pile was the 1993 Duke University Press edition of "Beyond a Boundary", CLR James' masterpiece about cricket, society, color and class in colonial Trinidad. With cricket as the backdrop and the incongruous relationship between the white, upper class Dutch narrator Hans and the dodgy, disarming, new world cricket entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon at the narrative center of the novel, "Netherland" is, in part, an homage to James' wonderful book. It is no accident that "Beyond a Boundary" is also the title of Wood's New Yorker review. What I also found interesting was that in 2007, Joseph O'Neill himself wrote a piece on "Beyond a Boundary" for which was surprisingly published on 9/11 which seemed to me quite a coincidence given that day's importance in the novel's setting. (When I told Joseph O'Neill about this he told me he had missed this fact and expressed genuine surprise at this weird coincidence).

I was the first to arrive for the reading at this small bookstore in Orinda and was welcomed by a woman from England who was the store manager (her interest in cricket prompted her to say yes to the publisher for a reading by the obscure O'Neill at her bookstore). Soon Joseph O'Neill arrived and I introduced myself. We chatted a bit about playing cricket in the US (he had played at Haverford's Cope field where I played for four years as an undergrad) and I effusively praised his book. We had a brief discussion about Wood's review and some aspects of the book and he was very friendly and indulgent.

The reading was brief but in the follow up Q&A the author said a few things that I found interesting. He mentioned that all through the long process of writing the novel he was certain from the very beginning that he had a perfect name for his book. It was going to be called "The Brooklyn Dream Game". However, when he had almost completed the novel his friend, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, asked him if he had a name for the book. On hearing the intended title he asked if Joseph had also thought of an alternative. This gentle rebuke by a friend eventually led him to the present title which cleverly links many strands of the novel (the Dutch narrator, New York's old name "New Netherland" and 'nether' land meaning low land possibly implying ground zero).

After the reading I lined up to get my books signed and asked O'Neill to also autograph my copy of "Beyond a Boundary". He said he would be happy to do it and generously invited me to contact him if I was ever on the East Coast and wanted to play a game of cricket at the Walker Park with the Staten Island Cricket Club. I loved the wonderfully kind inscriptions that he wrote in my books. In "Netherland" he wrote : "To Fawad - Bat on boy, bat on" and in "Beyond a Boundary" it reads "With best wishes from a fellow man in whole".

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Annals of Medicine - Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande is a Boston-based surgeon at the Brigham and Women's hospital and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His excellent essays on the practice of medicine have appeared in the magazine for several years and they have been the basis of his two published collections titled "Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science" and "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance".

Gawande's penchant for meticulous scientific examination of his own professon yields many useful insights (even for non-practitioners) and provides laypeople an unusually clear view of the "imperfect science" of diagnosis and cure and the human element that often makes it so. Gawande's writing is precise and uncluttered and he manages to explain complex topics with an admirable clarity of thought in very readable prose.

Gawande is one of the more recent in a line of accomplished physicians who have written insightfully about their vocation and provided a much needed empathetic transparency into the seemingly impersonal workings of the American system of sickness and health. Dr. Jerome Groopman, Oliver Sacks and Sherwin Nuland particularly come to mind as I think of doctors who have contributed tremendously to American medicine and letters. (Even outside of his writings on medicine, Nuland's memoir, "Lost in America" is one of my all-time favorites with an exceptionally touching portrait of a father-son relationship).

This week Gawande has an essay in the New Yorker titled "The Itch". In this piece he investigates this poorly understood sensation, its scientific source and its function. In explaining the biological provenance of uncontrollable itching, Gawande surveys the current scientific understanding of "Perception" and this is a fascinating part of the essay.

Here are some excerpts:

Our assumption had been that the sensory data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, fingers, and so on contain all the information that we need for perception, and that perception must work something like a radio. It’s hard to conceive that a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert is in a radio wave. But it is. So you might think that it’sthe same with the signals we receive—that if you hooked up someone’s nerves to a monitor you could watch what the person is experiencing as if it were a television show.

Yet, as scientists set about analyzing the signals, they found them to be radically impoverished. Suppose someone is viewing a tree in a clearing. Given simply the transmissions along the optic nerve from the light entering the eye, one would not be able to reconstruct the three-dimensionality, or the distance, or the detail of thebark—attributes that we perceive instantly.
The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.
The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. We see a friendly yellow Labrador bounding behind a picket fence not because that is the transmission we receive but because this is the perception our weaver-brain assembles as its best hypothesis of what is
out there from the slivers of information we get. Perception is inference.
Update: In today's New York Times (July 4th, 2008) Dr. Atul Gawande answers questions about "The Itch"that some readers had after reading the original article.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin is Dead (not lost, not passed away, dead)

George Carlin, one of the greatest American stand up comedians, died on June 22nd, 2008 in Santa Monica, CA. The outpouring of appreciations and the gushing praise of his fellow comics testify to his deep influence on a generation of stand up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld has a tribute in today's New York Times.

Carlin was a unique talent who used wonderfully precise language for his acerbic social commentary. His merciless skewering of national shibboleths, political correctness and the modern American proclivity for euphemism-laced conversations was refreshing in a landscape of false pieties and a world of "manufactured consent".

Here's a piece by Carlin on "War' from the early 90's: (Hat Tip: 3QD)
Warning: Carlin is not for the squeamish and the faint of heart. This is very strong language.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"California" - Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell is simply a wonderful singer and songwriter with a career that spans several productive decades. Just the other day I was listening to my iPod in the car when Joni's song "California" came on. I was mesmerized both by her inimitable folksy voice and the vivid lyrics of the song. California has been home to me for just under 4 years so it is hardly a land where I have any substantial roots but as I thought of all my years on the East Coast I could relate deeply to Joni crooning about a different "old and cold" place and contrasting it unfavorably with the sunny youthful spirit of the Golden State:

Still a lot of lands to see
But I wouldn't want to stay here
Its too old and cold and settled in its ways here
Oh, but California
California I'm coming home

Here's Joni performing "California":


Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and writes an entertaining and informative online column called "The Wild Side" in the New York Times. Being a fan of all things Darwin I particularly enjoyed her column today titled "Darwinmania" that kicks off a 18 month celebration of Darwin and his ideas on July 1st, 2008 (150th anniversary of the announcement of his discovery of natural selection) leading into February 2009 (200th anniversary of Darwin's birth) and culminating in November 2009 (150th anniversary of the publication of the "Origin of Species").

Today's column also summarizes some of the well known history of the "origins" of explaining evolution and natural selection, arguably the most revolutionary scientific idea in human history. No matter how many times one reads the fascinating story of Wallace and Darwin competing to be "first to market" with this groundbreaking discovery, one can't help but reflect on the true nature of most scientific thought as a systematic and painstaking effort built on accumulated knowledge rather than "eureka" moments of isolated genius.

Some excerpts from Judson's column:
And the “Origin” changed everything. Before the “Origin,” the diversity of life could only be catalogued and described; afterwards, it could be explained and understood. Before the “Origin,” species were generally seen as fixed entities, the special creations of a deity; afterwards, they became connected together on a great family tree that stretches back, across billions of years, to the dawn of life. Perhaps most importantly, the “Origin” changed our view of ourselves. It made us as much a part of nature as hummingbirds and bumblebees (or humble-bees, as Darwin called them); we, too, acquired a family tree with a host of remarkable and distinguished ancestors.

The reason the “Origin” was so powerful, compelling and persuasive, the reason Darwin succeeded while his predecessors failed, is that in it he does not just describe how evolution by natural selection works. He presents an enormous body of evidence culled from every field of biology then known. He discusses subjects as diverse as pigeon breeding in Ancient Egypt, the rudimentary eyes of cave fish, the nest-building instincts of honeybees, the evolving size of gooseberries (they’ve been getting bigger), wingless beetles on the island of Madeira and algae in New Zealand. One moment, he’s considering fossil animals like brachiopods (which had hinged shells like clams, but with a different axis of symmetry); the next, he’s discussing the accessibility of nectar in clover flowers to different species of bee.
Update: Today (July 9th, 2008) Judson has Part II of the series celebrating Charles Darwin. An excerpt:

So, the difficulties notwithstanding, there are many reasons to tackle the “Origin.” Reasons above and beyond the fact that it is one of the most important books ever written, and central to our culture. But to me, perhaps the most important is that reading the “Origin” is a window into a mind. A rich and fertile mind, with a holistic view of nature. One that sees the interconnectedness of living beings — that cats can alter the number of flowers — long before ecology existed as a formal subject. A mind that sees the brutality of the natural world — the wasps that lay their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars (the caterpillars are then eaten alive by the growing larvae), the stupendous death rates of most creatures — and sees that from the terrible slaughter, great beauty can arise:

"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Obama's Father's Day Speech

Today was Father's Day in the United States. Senator Barack Obama used the occasion to give an excellent speech about the destructive effect of absentee fathers on black families. The speech was delivered at the Apostolic Church of God, one of Chicago's largest black churches on the south side of the city. It has been at least 20 years since I have been following American Presidential politics and there has never been a candidate with Obama's preternatural ability to inspire.

Here's the speech:

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Meeting Fareed Zakaria

On Tuesday May 27th, The Commonwealth Club of California's guest speaker was Fareed Zakaria, speaking to the audience about his new book "The Post-American World". The event was held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and those who live in Northern California know that the Club's events are later broadcast on National Public Radio's KQED station. I had been invited to the talk by a family friend who had an extra ticket and I was curious enough about Zakaria and his new work to be eager to attend in person.

I have found Zakaria's comments on George Stephanopoulos's Sunday morning show to be frequently insightful even if a bit timid in straying from the mainstream foreign policy establishment. He seems to have a genuinely global understanding of US foreign policy challenges but sometimes seems to strain to keep his views in check to avoid being tagged as an "international" intellectual instead of an Amercian one. (I sympathize with this natural propensity of an immigrant to seek whole hearted acceptance of a host country's elite). Also, I was impressed by his 2003 book "The Future of Freedom" in which he argues that constitutional liberalism must precede electoral democracy and that nations lacking a rule of law will inevitably end up as illiberal democracies. This squares with my own long held belief that durable democratic regimes can only be built on a constitutional rule of law and convinces me even more that the lawyer's movement in Pakistan demonstrated powerfully the country's potential to be a functioning democracy.

The main theme of "The Post-American World" (contrary to the title) is not a simplistic view of imperial America's decline. It is not another in a line of now forgotten tomes from the 80's about the Asian takeover of America (with China & India now substituted for 80's Japan). Instead Zakaria argues that the story of the 21st century is the "rise of the rest" even as America maintains significant advantages in competing with these new powers for wealth and influence. His advice to Amercan governments and people seems to be to embrace and learn to adapt and thrive in this new world rather than resist it and vainly hope for the preservation of a vanishing status quo. Zakaria's talk on his new book was an overview of this thesis peppered with anecdotes illustrating his views. He is an engaging speaker and entertained the audience with his suave wit.

After the talk there was a book signing and a long line formed in front of the podium so people could get their books personalized. After approaching him I told him how often I get asked if I am related to him (which I am not) because of our shared last name. He was very gracious and remarkably down to earth and made small talk (some of it in Urdu) for a couple of minutes showing curiosity about my vocation and the Pakistani background. He said "Khuda Hafiz" and as I walked away looking at the personalized signature in the book I was pleasantly surprised to see that below his signature he had added the inscription, "P.S. We're practically related".