Recent reading: Nada by Carmen Laforet

One of El País' re-issued classics of Spanish literature, Nada, first published in 1944, is at once a witty and a terrifying look at life in Barcelona in the wake of the Spanish civil war. It is also a pioneer "feminist" novel, where the women characters are every bit as complex (and sometimes just as crazy) as they men who try (with mixed results) to torment them. Finally, it is also a chilling but sympathetic portrait of a great, wounded city. There is an English translation by Glafyra Ennis: Nada. For a fuller note (in Spanish), see today's entry at Lecturas y lectores.


Happy birthday, Relativity!

What are you doing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's great discovery? Me, I've started reading Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, to make sense of it all. Greene writes, "In June 1905, Einstein wrote a paper with the unassuming title 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,' which once and for all spelled the end of the luminiferous aether." (p. 44) I kind of miss it, that comforting glow of something that was never there. But that's all right; Greene is terrific at explaining the biggest questions in the universe, in fact, the universe itself, space and time, and does it in terms even I can follow.


Finding new and surprising things to write

A writer colleague (my buddy Don, see below) asks a question that must occur to any of us whenever we look at a vast collection like the New York Public Library, or even a well-stocked bookstore: Has everything already been written? Sometimes it feels that way, but it won't be, until everything human has already happened. That will be some billions of years hence, when our sun dies. Meanwhile, there are always new events and new twists and even new meaning to old truths.

Proof of that is in the work of those in Robert S. Boynton's new book, The New New Journalism. It includes Boynton's interviews with 19 other practitioners of what Lawrence Weschler calls "writerly nonfiction," and Boynton wants to call "literary" or "creative" of "narrative nonfiction." I like the last term best, to describe what I try to do in my reportorial and essayistic work. At a panel at the Barnes & Noble store in Union Square the other night, I got my first chance to see and hear five of them: Bill Finnegan, Ren Weschler, Ted Conover, Adrian Leblanc and Ron Rosenbaum. They are as different from one another (in temperament, writing style, working methods) as any of them is from me, and in that difference I felt we were really united -- each of us struggling in our own peculiar ways to write the best we can. Reading Ron Rosenbaum and Gay Talese (also in this book) alone gives you an idea of how immensely wide those differences can be, and still produce works we want to read.

Religion undermining democracy?

Check out Don Monkerud, Bush Reaffirms Commitment to Government Support of Religion, IRC Right Web. He concludes, "Compromise becomes impossible when religious groups, which hold to “God’s will,” refuse to make accommodations with secular interests. The last time groups failed to compromise was over slavery. Although conditions today aren’t as volatile as they were during Lincoln’s time, when people are unprepared to compromise, civil war is often the result."


Recommended reading

I just came across this in Milk Magazine: Why The Living Theatre Is Returning to New York, by the in-my-day famous Judith Malina & Hanon Reznikov. Good for them! BTW, I have a story in the same issue, On a Page from Rilke. And check out The Living Theatre and see (among other wonders) a lovely picture of the young Judith Malina. As they say on the website, "Founded in 1947, The Living Theatre has staged more than 80 productions performed in eight languages in 25 countries on four continents - a unique body of work."


Let justice be done

Last week I didn't find time to blog partly because I was on jury duty from Monday to Thursday. I went in enthusiastic about the US jury system, came out much more dubious.

This was a civil case, a 6-person jury to decide a claim for money damages against the city (New York) and Con Edison for defects alleged to have caused a man to fall and injure himself. My co-jurors and I got along well (they elected me foreman), and I think we deliberated as fairly as possible on the evidence we had, but I'm not at all sure that the result was the most just.

Ours is an adversarial system between trial lawyers, and the plaintiff's lawyer was clearly overmatched -- we jurors had lots of further questions that we couldn't answer, because only the lawyers get to question witnesses. There is also the well-known problem of the dynamics in the jury room; one very stubborn personality can change the outcome. This was not what happened in our case, mainly because we had too many stubborn and strong personalities -- whaddaya expect? This is New York -- so nobody was intimidated, but it was easy to see how that could happen. This brief experience has re-awakened my curiosity about comparative legal systems & trial procedures, from Islamic courts to the Napoleonic Code to English common law. This may be the theme for my next project, after I get through with my current work on cities and architecture in Latin America, which has still a ways to go.

Curious coincidence: Speaking of trial procedure, I've just been invited to submit a small claims case I have pending to the TV show "The People's Court." What a weird idea! I've never seen the show, but I plan to watch today before I reply.