Tuesday, November 29, 2005

David Leavitt

I've read Leavitt's fiction, though he's come out with several books since I picked one up. Tonight I went around the block to Black Oak Books to hear Leavitt give a talk based on his new biography of Alan Turing called The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Leavitt brought transparencies and used an overhead projector to throw the images on a screen. Oddly, he didn't seem familiar with the properties of an overhead projector, the way to enlarge the image, for instance, being to physically move the projector farther from the screen. When the bookstore clerk didn't get it either I hopped up, mumbling something about grade school, and helped drag the table with the iffy legs far enough from the screen to give the people in the back (or the older people in the front) a better chance at seeing. Leavitt's transparencies were from the biography and were illustrations of Turing machines.

Leavitt wrote the book having become fascinated by the creativity of mathematicians, a creativity very different from the fiction writer's, a mathematician's way of thought, Leavitt said, being at once baffling and intriguing. I like that.

I didn't buy the book. I did buy some used copies of Leavitt novels.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

more excerpts from Kafka's diary

There may be a purpose lurking behind the fact that I never learned anything useful and -- the two are connected -- have allowed myself to become a physical wreck. I did not want to be distracted, did not want to be distracted by the pleasures life has to give a useful and healthy man. As if illness and despair were not just as much of a distraction!


An endless, dreary Sunday afternoon, an afternoon swallowing down whole years, its every hour a year. By turns walked despairingly down empty streets and lay quietly on the couch. Occasionally astonished by the leaden, meaningless clouds almost uninterruptedly drifting by. "You are reserved for a great Monday!" Fine, but Sunday will never end.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Dead but still among the best poets writing today

Elizabeth Bishop had been dead nine years by the time the annual anthology series Best American Poetry began publishing. I read BAP every year as a sort of penance for caring about poetry, the most irrelevant artform on the planet.

Jeff Bahr has a chart that logs how many times a poet has had work chosen for BAP. John Ashbery, it seems, is America's Best poet. Donald Hall is America's second Best poet. Charles Simic is America's third Best poet. And so on.

Each new BAP culls poems from magazines published in the preceding year. They have to be American (or Canadian) and written in English -- no translations are eligible. Even considering the years of backlog at many literary magazines you could be forgiven for assuming that the appearance of a dead poet in BAP would be unusual. So how many times has Elizabeth Bishop had a poem in Best American Poetry?

Four times.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Conduct Unbecoming

I always have several books going. When I sit down to read I often read a page or two from one, then move on to another and so work my way down through the pile. Conduct Unbecoming is Randy Shilts' book about the US military's ongoing assault on gay Americans, specifically rooting them from the ranks and impressing upon all those nongay that to be gay is the worst thing one can be.

The book has been on the bottom of the pile for months, maybe as long as a year. The placemark sat in place about a hundred pages in. Yesterday I picked the book up again. It's well written. But I quickly figured out what had caused its stay at the bottom of the pile to have remained unrelieved for so long. This book is fucking depressing! It tells the stories of people whose lives are destroyed by the US's crazed notions of manhood (& womanhood). Or rather, by the agents assigned by government to enforce those notions. Drill sargeants, doctors, military police ...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Man Who Tasted Shapes

The Man Who Tasted Shapes is Richard Cytowic's investigation of the phenomenon of synaesthesia, a conflation of senses wherein one sees sounds or, in the case of his subject (& friend) Michael, feels a flavor.

But I want to talk about something other than the book's purported topic. In a review on Amazon.com of George Takei's autobiography the reviewer notes, "George never mentions getting married or wanting to get married. He never mentions going out on dates. ... He never says he was too busy for a love life. He mentions that other Star Trek actors and other relatives are married, but he never says anything about himself." The reviewer asks, "Is George Takei gay?" This was back in Sept 2003. Now we have it from Sulu himself.

Reading The Man Who Tasted Shapes I also noticed that Richard Cytowic never mentions a love interest. (Though the book is not a biography, exactly, Cytowic talks a lot about his personal history.) Surely if he were married with children that would at least be included in the five paragraph bio in the back of the book. We all know there are straight men (or asexual men) who never marry. But my gaydar pings when Richard describes hanging out in the new neighbor's kitchen. The neighbor, Michael, is preparing dinner. Says Richard, "I sat nearby while he whisked the sauce he had made for the roast chickens. 'Oh, dear,' he said, slurping a spoonful, 'there aren't enough points on the chicken.'

"'Aren't enough what?' I asked.

"He froze and turned red, betraying a realization that his first impression had been as awkward as that of a debutante falling down the stairs."

... excuse me? A debutante falling down the stairs? How gay!

Later, when the scientist is trying to talk his subject into submitting to an elaborate test procedure he says, "'This is your big chance for the fame you wanted,' I cajoled him. 'I can't bestow the Tony Award, but I can promise when you're all wired up that you'll look better than the Bride of Frankenstein.'"

... better than the Bride of Frankenstein? It'd be a rare straight boy who'd feel enticed by that kind of cajoling.

No, Richard never explicitly outs his subject or himself. But how many clues do you need?

Here's an interview with Cytowic. You gotta love how he describes meeting gay artist David Hockney, "Well, David, he is so sweet. He’s brilliant. He was big news because he was painting the opera sets at the Met. And everybody was saying how totally fabulous they were, and how totally different from his painting style that everybody had been familiar with. And in these interviews I’d read, he was talking about the fact that the music had a certain shape and color. So I wrote to him.

Five or six months went by, and I finally got back a hand-written letter on a yellow legal pad in red ink which said: 'I’ve been carrying your letter around with me for months wondering whether to answer or not. Would it tell me anything that I really want to know or would it be better not to know? I’ve never heard of synaesthesia. At first I thought you were just trying to scientifically analyze what I always thought of as artistic. But, anyway, curiosity has the better of me so let’s get together and talk about this.' So we did. I went to Los Angeles and spent two days with him, a highlight of which, for me, was swimming nude in his pool. His famous pool painted with those blue marks. So I thought 'Oh, boy! I’m in David Hockney’s wavey pool.'

So that’s how we met. We did some experiments there, and sure enough he was genuine. And for him it’s the melody, it is the sequence of things that gives him the impression of size, shape, color, and form as well."