Sunday, November 27, 2016

Two "True Stories" on Film

I watch a lot of movies via Netflix. This week two recent ones, one from 2015, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," is billed as based on a true story; so is the more recent British production of New York publishing, "Genius."

Many viewers might have scant interest in the relation of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and the overblown writer Thomas Wolfe. But being a writer curious about both, and about their relationship, I was intrigued to see British actors capture some of the spirit of New York in the Thirties, even if  many of the scenes are needlessly dark and rainy.

Colin Firth as the quiet, hardworking Perkins asks the key literary question: When does the work of an editor become a collaboration? He is concerned about his role in altering and taking responsibility for the fiction of Wolfe.

Apart from the father-son (or bromantic) relationship of the older editor with the younger, hard-drinking and notoriously wordy Wolfe (Jude Law), both Perkins' wife and Wolfe's mistress resent the time and creative energy that Perkins devotes to shaping and changing the huge piles of words Wolfe produces into the huge novel, "Look Homeward, Angel."  So for me the question is, who is the genius is this movie?

I get no clue to Perkins' inner life from the always reticent Firth, whereas Wolfe is larger than life and easy to understand (in Law's great performance).  How did Perkins manage to deal with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, both difficult, while being obsessed with the obsessive and compulsive Wolfe? And what did he see in Wolfe's undisciplined, unreadable work (so different in style from the other two masters)? I also wonder what point the producers of the movie had in mind--especially for non-writers.

I have no such doubts about the other film, with Dev Patel as a young Indian man, a mathematical genius, who leaves his young wife behind in 1913 to work with England's leading mathematician, played memorably by Jeremy Irons. I like the contrast between the older scholar's skeptical atheism and Patel's mystical belief in intuition: he believes that every equation reflects the mind of God. And Irons's character seems almost persuaded that this might be true.

The story is moving, as "Genius" is not, and sad in ways I won't mention. Having spent a summer at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the action occurs, and having been an academic who clings to religious belief, I naturally gravitate to this story.

How true (historically accurate) these stories are I have no idea; suffice it to say they are based on biographical reality; one of them ("The Man Who") is true to the human heart, which is what counts in the end.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A divided America--linguistically

One of my favorite activities is to sit with a cup of coffee at the cafĂ© in our local Barnes and Noble and look at three to four new books that look interesting. Usually, by reading the opening page, I can tell whether I want to continue.

Last week, I happened on a glossy book, intended mainly for non-readers since it is filled with colorful charts and maps; it's what used to be called a coffee-table book: Speaking American by Josh Katz, who surveys several dozen words and expressions used in various ways in the U.S.  Of course, it is a fascinating topic for someone like me.

Some of the words pronounced differently in various regions are interesting for writers, especially poets concerned with sound (rhyme): "syrup" is pronounced "sir-up" by 53% of the population, we learn, whereas  36% say "seer-up." This despite many decades of TV and radio ads with their mainstream pronunciation.  Regional differences do not die out very easily.

How do you say "route"?  We seem about evenly divided, according to Katz's research, between saying "rowt" and "root."  Oddly, he doesn't include the word roof, which has a variant pronunciation.

If the Brits have take-away food, most of us say "take out" while "carry out" is used in some parts of the Midwest.

"Skillet" is regional (Northeast mainly), as is the use of "sneakers" instead of tennis shoes.  In Chicago, you might hear "gym shoes."  (Frying pan is much more widespread than "skillet.")

Which is right?  Wrong question!  In matters of usage, there is no right or wrong; the sources from  which Katz draws in his book merely record or describe what we say in this country. Of course, writers creating dialogue might be aware that their own regional usage (should we use garbage, trash, rubbish, refuse, or waste?) will impact readers in different ways.  "You guys" is preferred by 50% of Americans in contrast to "you all" (10%) and "y'all" (28%) or simply "you" (10%)

I enjoyed looking at this book, reminding myself that we are divided not only into bitter political camps, especially following the recent surreal election; but, on a lighter note, by the way we speak, which proves again the adage (applied originally to the linguistic divide between Britain and the U.S.): we are divided by a common language.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The election: detachment

I know I am one of many millions who have experienced shock, disbelief, grief and anger since the election of Trump.  I could be angry at the media and the pollsters for misleading us or at the voters who chose radical change over continuity or at the crazy system which allowed Clinton to receive the popular vote but lose the election. But anger leads to more hatred.

I know that I must detach from the news, from the emotional upset that comes each time I revisit the election results. For me, the path has to be contemplative.

It was only when I turned off the TV news and absorbed the beauty of the moment, feeling a unity between myself and nature (specifically a tree outside the window), that I felt at peace, absorbed for a while in the now. Later, I used music with the same effect.

My wise wife, Lynn, reminded me that "God writes straight with crooked lines," her way of saying that eventually some good will come out of the new order. It's up to us to work in our own garden to make that happen.

As I pray for Trump and the country, I pray that each of us can find an inner peace that moves us forward.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The end is near

Finally, after an uncommonly nasty and embarrassing election campaign, the day for voting has come here in the U.S.  Nearly everyone I know will be relieved to have it over.

What surfaced was summed up in a comment by Pope Francis over the weekend, in a veiled reference to the U.S. election:  Do not give in to the politics of fear, he said, by building walls but instead work to build bridges.

"Fear numbs us to the suffering of others. It makes us cruel."

The anger felt by many during this long, long election cycle has been fueled by the age-old fear of change (immigrants, e.g.).  I hope that fear can be replaced, more and more, by trust as the candidate of continuity (Clinton) does her best to be a builder of bridges. It is a daunting task. I pray she is up to it.