Saturday, November 18, 2006

Kudos to Isthmus


Excuse me while I enthuse for a moment and congratulate Isthmus on their marvelously functional database-driven redesign of their website. The future of the news business clearly belongs to media that intelligently combine print and online capabilities, and the Madison weekly is a clear leader in the expansion into cyberspace among local print media, with a site that is much more appealing than the confusing Madison.com site of the local dailies. Among other things, they provide a clean interface that resists the temptation to turn as many square inches of screen space as possible into advertising.

Not only does Isthmus have good local event coverage and some of the best reviewers in town, but their slick integration with local bloggers is beginning to fill in for the absence of a large reporting staff, providing a new version of the kind of daily local coverage we used to only be able to get from a daily newspaper. And what I really admire is the slick, intelligent design of their website. For example, I haven't read much by Jennifer Smith, but when I read her review of the Sol LeWitt show at MMoCA and wondered what else she had written, all I had to do was click on her byline, and a clickable list of her stories showed up. Computer technology makes this easy to do, but all to often they're not programmed to deliver these simple, pleasing touches. Thanks, Isthmus.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Tablet PC becomes novelist's tool. Who knew?

When you get right down to it, keyboards are highly klunky unnatural are hardly intuitive far from ideal writing tools, because they focus your attention at the level of the keystroke, the word or the sentence break the flow of what should be a fluid, holistic intuitive process and encourage the writer to make endless revisions constantly keep changing the text and lose sight of the macro rather than micro the big picture.

Writing with pen and paper is somewhat more fluid and less fragmented, but you're still dealing with individual words -- and besides, you eventually have to retype everything anyhow, unless you can afford a typist. Dictation is probably the most spontaneous and natural, once you master its rhythms, and great works have been dictated going back as far as Milton. But who's going to take your dictation? You could record your own words and transcribe them later, but that seems more trouble than it's worth.

Fortunately, modern technology appears ready to help. Richard Powers recently told Wired he composed most of The Echo Maker on a tablet PC equipped with voice recognition software and on which, as an added bonus, he could draw and file sketches of characters and scenes.
I've always wanted the freedom to be completely disembodied when I'm writing, to feel as if I'm in a pure compositional state. Typing is a highly unnatural activity, and your writing style ends up reflecting the cognitive shackles. When I started to use the tablet, things that are extremely difficult to do on a word processor opened up to me. I could also make drawings to see what a character looked like, and these sketches would be integrated into my research. Part of the mystery of The Echo Maker hinges upon what happened on a certain stretch of road on the night of the accident. I figured that out visually by drawing the scene over and over and seeing how all the elements moved in relationship to one another.
Interesting. When I read The Echo Maker recently, its style did seem more vernacular and less mannered than some of his earlier novels. I wonder if this was why. (Thanks to Maud Newton for the link.)

Richard Powers, in whose smart, empathetic novels art and science meet, wins National Book Award


Chicago Reader / Jason Lindsey

I was glad to see Richard Powers receive the National Book Award for fiction. It should increase the audience for this brainy, empathetic midwestern novelist and help lead more readers to his beautiful, award-winning novel, The Echo Maker. "The Genius in the Cornfield" is how the Chicago Reader headlined last month's profile of Powers, who lives in Urbana and teaches English at the University of Illinois -- a reference not only to his smart fiction but to the MacArthur "genius" fellowship that helped jump-start his career in 1989, as well as his midwestern heritage (Powers was born in Evanston, about 30 miles and nearly 40 years south of another Illinois native son and midwestern fabulist, Ray Bradbury). Stephen J. Lyons asked Powers about his feel for the midwest and the interest in science that are reflected in his fiction.
You seem to have found a narrative for the midwest, a place that is often dismissed as a bland fly-over region.

I don’t think there’s a single midwestern narrative. I’ve tried different ways in several books to tap into some of those long rhythms that the midwest invites us to hear. But it’s a subtle place that opens up only gradually as you keep looking at it, and keep listening.

But I think there’s something else about the midwest. It’s the portion of the country that supports the coasts and makes the coasts possible, so it’s absolutely essential to how the American mind works in its role as a kind of primary producer for all the rest of this complex ecosystem. So that’s always intrigued me: America stripped bare. America without props and without distractions or disguises and protections.

A brief bit about your history—you seem drawn to science.

I always thought I would be a scientist—an oceanographer, geologist, or physicist. I’ve tried to connect those disparate passions to fiction and to show, in my writing, ways in which science and art are not as far apart as a lot of people might think. Science and fiction are profoundly different cultures, profoundly different processes, yet they partake of each other, and they change each other. They are mutually defining, like nodes in a tangled network. You can’t understand humans without looking at both art and science.
His interest in science places Powers on the loosely defined border between science fiction and fiction about science. In the turf-conscious world of literary fiction, where even a whiff of genre writing can drop a career dead in its tracks, this has led to a certain amount of ambivalence and occasionally outright hostility to Powers. A dramatic recent example was Yale English prof William Deresiewicz's notorious takedown of Powers in the pages of the Nation. It was titled "Science Fiction," as if that were the ultimate insult.
The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers' other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.
That, crudely put, is a slander. Or at least not The Echo Maker I read. Perhaps there's a portal to an alternate universe on the Yale campus, and Deresiewicz came across his version of the book there.

I prefer Stephen Burt's depiction in Slate of what he calls the scientific humanism of Powers.
If the term "science fiction" had no prior meaning, it would describe all the novels of Richard Powers. The MacArthur "genius"-grant winner, whose ninth novel, The Echo Maker, comes out this fall (and is nominated for a National Book Award), does not just write about scientists, programmers, and engineers, though such professions populate most of his books. Nor does he write about made-up future worlds. Rather, Powers' works depend on (often they pause to explain) how the sciences work. His best-crafted and most lyrical novel, Galatea 2.2 (1995), described a contest in which a computer program tries to pass for a human being. Plowing the Dark (2000) depicts the computerized studios where "virtual reality" came to be. And The Time of Our Singing (2003)—this very white novelist's shockingly ambitious 600-page look at race in America—takes its central metaphor from the problem particle physicists call "symmetry," whose equations ask (roughly) whether time is real. In his latest, The Echo Maker, half the plot concerns the ecology of a crane refuge in western Nebraska, and the other half delves into neuroscience via a character modeled on Oliver Sacks.

After reading Powers, C.P. Snow's once-famous complaint about the "two cultures"—scientists and humanists, each unable to listen to the other—melts away. The novelist trained as a physicist himself. No wonder he gets celebrated as a cerebral novelist, as an explainer, as the smartest writer on the block. Yet the interest in Powers as a man of science misses what keeps his characters alive. All his information-rich protagonists—teachers, programmers, professors, singers, accompanists, homemakers, hostages—have to master a vast array of data: All of them make, from that data, refuges, new spaces, kinds of art. All of them (Powers argues) need both the arts and the sciences in order to share a household, a nation, or a world.
His intellect often gets Powers lumped in with other writers like Pynchon and DeLillo, who are also known for their brilliance, but Burt sees a difference, and reaches back much further for a comparison.
Powers' insistence that we make one another up, that our personalities coalesce from clouds of floating information, practically requires reviewers to call him "Postmodern"; some would link him to Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, even William Gibson. Yet Powers is less these Postmodernistas' companion than he is their opposite: warm where they are cold, lyrical where they are clinical or satirical, most involved where they would be most distant. Powers wants to know not how and why we fall apart, amid paranoid systems, but how (with the help of the arts and the sciences) we might put one another together. His subject is not collapse but convalescence, and so reading Powers feels less like reading (say) Gravity's Rainbow than it feels like reading Middlemarch.
The reference to Mary Anne Evans is startling and apt, but I would supplement it with a comparison to a name rescued from the inventory Burt sets aside -- the William Gibson of Pattern Recognition, which is, like The Echo Maker, a novel about modern consciousness, about how the patterns we perceive are endowed with meaning through empathy and imagination.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

At last, the New York Times gets serious

New York Times / Leslie Lammie

Forget about Iraq, Iran and all the changes in Washington. A major issue is troubling the nation's men, according to Michelle Slatalla in the NYT -- they want better underwear. Men -- or at least Slatalla's husband -- want broxers, underwear that combines the advantages of briefs and boxers, but nobody is selling them. And they're becoming more aggressive in seeking out just the right thing to put between themselves and their pants.
"Five years ago, only 60 percent of men purchased or influenced the purchase of their underwear," Mr. Phelan said. "Now it's 80 percent, and about 17 percent are what we call 'highly involved.'" In the old days, a man got up in the morning, put on underwear -- boxers or briefs -- and never gave it a second thought. But now, men see their underwear as a "situational thing," Mr. Phelan said.
Will the market respond to the "situational thing" and all that pent-up demand? Stay tuned.

Abu Ghraib paintings about to end their short U.S. run, but available as a book


Fernando Botero with one of his "Abu Ghraib" paintings. Their first United States show, at the Marlborough Gallery, ends on Saturday. Gary Hershorn/Reuters

"Botero's paintings of Abu Ghraib shunned in U.S" is how Reuters headlined their story about the opening of an exhibit of Abu Ghraib paintings by 74-year-old Fernando Botero at New York's Marlborough Gallery last month.
Colombian artist Fernando Botero's paintings and sculptures grace museums and public spaces around the world, but he suddenly had trouble exhibiting his work in America when the topic was Abu Ghraib.

A series of paintings depicting U.S. military abuse of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison was rejected by all the U.S. museums to which it was offered before it found a home at the Marlborough Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, where it opened [October 18] and will remain on display until November 18.

"Here there is total freedom of expression. That's why it was so alarming that the museums didn't want to show these works," Botero told Reuters in an interview at the gallery on Tuesday, surrounded by paintings of stripped and bound prisoners being abused by guards with dogs.

The paintings are derived from texts describing the events, Botero said, and do not mimic the famous photos.
Botero told reporter Daniel Trotta that he was so shocked by Abu Ghraib that he set everything else aside after Seymour Hersh broke the story in 2004 and devoted 14 months to creating 42 drawings and 38 large oil paintings about the torture of the prisoners. The works were exhibited at several European museums, but found no takers among U.S. museums. Botero has since returned to painting what Trotta called "his jolly, oversized crowd-pleasers."
"They are never fat. They are volumetric," Botero said, correcting what he considered a reporter's oversimplification of his characters.
Botero, well known for his uniquely rotund depictions of the human figure in painting and sculpture, is enormously popular with the general public around the world, but usually doesn't get much respect from art critics. This exhibit is an exception, however.

Roberta Smith gives the show a respectful review in the NYT, asserting "Botero restores the dignity of prisoners at Abu Ghraib." It's probably significant, however, that she waited until three days before the exhibit closed, and more than a week after the midterm elections, to write about it.

In The Nation, critic Arthur C. Danto titles his review "The Body in Pain" and offers a thoughtful discussion of how the paintings have a power to move us in ways that the unmediated Abu Ghraib photographs do not.
As it turns out, his images of torture, now on view at the Marlborough Gallery in midtown Manhattan and compiled in the book Botero: Abu Ghraib, are masterpieces of what I have called disturbatory art--art whose point and purpose is to make vivid and objective our most frightening subjective thoughts. Botero's astonishing works make us realize this: We knew that Abu Ghraib's prisoners were suffering, but we did not feel that suffering as ours. When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.

Botero's images, by contrast, establish a visceral sense of identification with the victims, whose suffering we are compelled to internalize and make vicariously our own. As Botero once remarked: "A painter can do things a photographer can't do, because a painter can make the invisible visible." What is invisible is the felt anguish of humiliation, and of pain. Photographs can only show what is visible; what Susan Sontag memorably called the "pain of others" lies outside their reach. But it can be conveyed in painting, as Botero's Abu Ghraib series reminds us, for the limits of photography are not the limits of art. The mystery of painting, almost forgotten since the Counter-Reformation, lies in its power to generate a kind of illusion that has less to do with pictorial perception than it does with feeling.
The feelings expressed by Botero put him squarely in a line that stretches back at least as far as Goya. He has said that he will not sell the works, because he does not want to profit from the suffering, but that he would like to donate the complete collection to a museum in the U.S. or Europe. So far no one has taken him up on the offer. The show closes Saturday, but if you can't get to New York in time, the book Botero: Abu Ghraib is available on Amazon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Zuny Tunes -- fine print written by nitwits undermines Microsoft's wannabe iPod-killer

"In Reviews, you must only reference the name of the device and service(s) in the following ways: Zune, Zune device, Zune Marketplace, Zune software, www.zune.net, and not the Zune Reviewer Kit." -- Microsoft Zune reviewer's agreement

Sorry, Microsoft -- this is not a review, I never got one of your Zune Reviewer's Kits, and so I can make all the dumb puns I want about your wannabe iPod-killer. The name is part of the problem. The words iPod and iTunes are variations of recognizable words that point to real things. What's a Zune? What does it point to? Nothing. Plus, it rhymes with all kinds of things you probably don't want to rhyme with, including your competitor's dominant and highly successful music marketplace. Not smart. Downright Zuny (sorry).

The quote from the reviewer's agreement is from John C. Dvorak's comments in PC Magazine -- "Zoon Swoon: Microsoft's music player has no future." In his view, the legalistic sludge the review version comes soaked in serves as handwriting on the wall all by itself.
All I can tell you is that when the marketing process is hijacked by the legal department of any company, this sort of annoyance appears. It usually appears because a company is getting freaky cautious, and a typical corporate hack lawyer will always suggest the most outrageous precautions. These lawyers were not around when Microsoft was running roughshod over the industry, and now when Microsoft tries to do something new they crop up with what can only be described as an idiotic document. It actually makes no sense.

In fact, to get any attention for the Zune, Microsoft should be maniacally seeding review units to anyone with a pulse, including bloggers. But no. This is yet another indicator that Zune will fail miserably -- a clear marker. It will be a matter of time before this legal-driven creeping negative marketing impact will strangle the entire company. Meanwhile, Bill Gates is too busy buying hotel chains to even notice this sort of lunacy.
Dean Takahashi at the San Jose Mercury News looks at product features and thinks it may eventually catch on, given the market power Microsoft can bring to bear over the long run. But first, there's some consumer-unfriendly fine print the company may want to work on.
Sharing a song is easy and it can ``spark a conversation,'' says Zune product manager Matt Jubelirer. Within a couple minutes of charging my two Zune players, I was sharing a song. But it's not a lasting relationship. Each song you share lasts for only three plays or three days on your friend's Zune.

And if you share a song with a friend, you can never share that same song with that friend again. To me that is a lame concession to the music studios, not the rights of users.

[...]

To buy songs, you spend points that you must purchase in $5 increments, a system that is similar to the e-commerce model on the Xbox 360 but annoying compared to the convenience of using your credit card to buy songs on iTunes for 99 cents. Deceptively, Microsoft sells its songs for 79 points, but it costs you 99 cents to accumulate that many points.
Takahashi suggests waiting for versions 2.0 or 3.0. I don't know. Will there ever be a version 3.0? Microsoft wanted to hit a home run against the iPod, and this doesn't seem to be it.

Three tries is often what it takes Microsoft to get it right. But getting corporations to standardize on an operating system or a suite of office software is one thing. It's another to ask consumers to switch music players, giving up the sizable investment in time and money they've already made in music for their iPod.

What does Russ Feingold do now?

Sitting in the living room of his home outside Madison, Russ Feingold talked to John Nichols not long after announcing he would not be a candidate for president in 2008. Nichols blogged at the Nation that Feingold seemed to feel good about the decision to rededicate himself to his Senate career.
Feingold sounded, if anything, more engaged, more enthusiastic and more prepared to advance the progressive agenda that would have been the centerpiece of a presidential bid.
Feingold is expected to serve on four major committees: Budget, Judiciary, Intelligence and Foreign Relations. In the Judiciary Committee, in particular, Feingold will be able to shine a spotlight on the troubling constitutional issues that attended our misleading rush to war in Iraq and its dreadful aftermath.
On the Judiciary Committee, where it's anticipated he will chair the Constitution Subcommittee, Feingold will be able to reopen discussions about the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping and other civil liberties issues. Feingold also wants to examine questions relating to how the Bush administration rushed the country to war in Iraq without a formal declaration of war and without respecting the War Powers Act. The Wisconsinite talks of using his committee chairmanship to hold hearings that will reassert "the sense our founders had about what you had to do before you go to war."
Now that Democrats control the congressional committees, there is plenty of corruption connected with Iraq that needs to be exposed and punished. But even more important are the constitutional issues related to the war that need to be brought out into the open. I can't think of a better person to lead the way.

Back to earth and its grubby shades of gray

Political powerlessness has its compensations, and one of them is the exhilarating clarity of moral vision it makes possible, unsullied by any compromise. Compromise is a strange word. While compromise is the very heart and genius of political democracy, an affirmation that politics is the art of the possible, it may also signify the shabbiness of abject moral failure. The two senses of the word reflect our understanding that compromise can be a slippery slope, one on which we hope our political leaders will keep their ethical balance, while we fear that they won't.

It seems that nothing fuels moral judgment like being without political power. It's like standing on a mountain with a moral telescope of exceptional resolving power. Wherever you focus your lens on those in power, you see every manner of ethical lapse, from the most serious to the most trivial. You're confident that your side would never stoop so low. When you return to power and come down from the high ground, you suddenly find everything has turned a grubby shade of gray. As congressional Republicans found over the course of the last 12 years, what begins as shades of gray can, over time, become an impenetrable miasma of corruption. Where on that slippery slope do you draw the line?

It's easier to give examples than to define exactly where the elusive line should be. For example, John McCain walked right up to the edge of the line as one of the Keating Five, flirting with the end of his political career before seeing the light, being forgiven by the voters and becoming an advocate of campaign finance reform. McCain's fellow naval aviator and war hero, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, sailed right over the line to the tune of millions of dollars in bribes and is now doing hard time as a result. Ultimately, except in the rare cases that go to the courts, it's the voters who sort it all out. They're not naive, and they usually make their decision based on the total context of a politician's career, and they are capable of forgiving transgressions -- as they demonstrated not just with McCain, but with President Clinton as well.

The Democrats had a few days to relish their victory in the midterms, but the shades of gray were quick to settle in. Nancy Pelosi's backing of John Murtha for the House Majority Leader position over Rep. Steny Hoyer quickly became controversial. Ruth Marcus savaged Pelosi's decision in the Washington Post, pointing to Murtha's skating up to the very edge of the Abscam scandal 26 years ago.
"I'm not interested -- at this point," he says of the dangled bribe. "You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know." Indeed, he acknowledges, even though he needs to be careful -- "I expect to be in the [expletive] leadership of the House," he notes -- the money's awfully tempting. "It's hard for me to say, just the hell with it."
John Amato -- who also has good links to Kos, Matt Stoller and Howie Klein on the issue -- takes a very different view at Crooks and Liars.
As you all know, I think Jack Murtha changed the narrative about the war in Iraq. When he spoke out, it shocked the nation and the Bush administration in his clarity and sincerity almost a year ago. He stepped up and articulated a clear vision of what we needed to do and admitted that he made a mistake with his vote. He went through the terrible swiftboating from the right for months and yet came out of it still breathing fire on the terrible situation in Iraq.

I know that he's from a very conservative district when it comes to social values, but I was able to talk to him for a few minutes Tuesday and he made it clear that his focus is on Iraq and he'll leave the rest up to Nancy Pelosi. I take him at his word.
Makes sense to me. If we can cut McCain some slack over the Keating Five incident, we should be able to cut Murtha some slack over something that happened nearly three decades ago and for which he was never charged -- as have the voters in his district. His opposition to the Iraq war was courageous and played a vital role, while Hoyer's record on the war was dismal. The war will be the biggest issue in the next session of Congress. Murtha, who supported Pelosi in the past and has earned her loyalty, can play a major role in helping to end it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How could Rove get it so wrong? He looked for his stats in all the wrong places, and believed the results.

As Michael Wolffe explains in Newsweek, Karl Rove headed into the election confident of victory, thinking Republicans would hold onto razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, and even refused to believe the early exit polls showing his side was losing. How could he be so wrong?
He wasn't just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his "metrics" were far superior to plain old polls. Two weeks before the elections, Rove showed NEWSWEEK his magic numbers: a series of graphs and bar charts that tallied early voting and voter outreach. Both were running far higher than in 2004. In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones. Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the House—enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republican political scientists—to study just how wrong the polls were.
Commenting on the Newsweek story, Digby has what should probably be the next to the last word on the former genius.
I think what shocks me the most about this article is that it reveals that Rove actually believed they would definitely win based on his magic numbers. I assumed he was "projecting" confidence as any political strategist would do. I honestly didn't know he was delusional.
As well as the last word.
Karl Rove never got Bush a mandate and yet advised him to govern as if he'd won in a landslide. (Maybe he showed Junior some "metrics" that proved that even though he had a tiny majority, it meant his wingnut policies were hugely popular.) And he's been as responsible for the awful state of American politics and malfeasance in office as anyone in the White House. He barely escaped indictment earlier this year.

Can somebody explain to me why the taxpayers are still paying his salary?

Winged avatars of memory and return

New York Times / Brian Michael Weaver

It was the illustration of an overturned truck surrounded by sandhill cranes in the middle of the night that first caught my eye. It accompanied the Colson Whitehead review of a new book by one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, but it was the cranes that quickened my pulse.

Sometimes I'll be driving to work through the southern Wisconsin countryside and a pair of cranes will sweep low across the road, on a glide path from one feeding ground to another.

I'm always in danger of driving right off the road, because I keep my eyes fixed on their descent as long as I can. There's a supernatural grace to these magnificent creatures that has haunted human legend for thousands of years. Watching them coast back to earth is like watching a jetliner come in for a landing, their wings -- broader than a man is tall -- making minute adjustment to the local air currents to keep their flight level, canting their wings downward like a 737 extending its flaps to kill airspeed, and then touching down, not with landing gear, but with spindly legs that, with a few nimble, dancing steps bring them to a complete halt.

A much more dramatic version of the same experience led novelist and MacArthur Fellow Richard Powers to make sandhill cranes, their annual migration and their spring migratory staging area on the Platte River, the thematic center of his new novel, The Echo Maker, which takes its name from an Anishinaabe word for the birds. Powers reminisced with Stephen J. Lyons in the Chicago Reader.
Richard Powers calls it highway hypnosis—the hallucinatory state of mind that descends upon a weary traveler at the end of a long day on the road. In the late 1990s, the novelist was driving alone from Illinois to Arizona when in Nebraska he came upon what he thought was a mirage: thousands of three-foot-tall birds falling from the heavens. Powers was so shocked that he almost drove off the highway. The next day he learned that what he’d seen were sandhill cranes on their annual migration to the Platte River.

“I got a hotel room and woke up early the next morning and saw the massed departure of the birds from the fields at dawn,” he says. “I had this awed sense of what these creatures do every single year, traveling thousands of miles to converge on this spot, teaching their offspring how to follow and time this migration. I glimpsed how these solitary creatures, for a brief moment out of the year, become incredibly social and form this enormous city of birds. And I was so taken by the richness of these processes that I knew I would have to write about this.”
The resulting novel begins with the birds and their migration, a round-trip they have made for millions of years, long before there were human beings on this earth, and long before there even was a Platte River. And unlike many other migrating species, they find their way not by magnetic fields, not by celestial navigation, but by memorizing landmarks -- a memory so accurate that it guides a pair back to exactly the same nest in the arctic tundra where they hatch their young, year after year, and within months begin teaching them the same route.
They converge on the river at winter's end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it's a beginner's world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.
A speeding truck careens off the road and rolls over near the cranes.
A squeal of brakes, the crunch of metal on asphalt, one broken scream and then another rouse the flock. The truck arcs through the air, corkscrewing into the field. A plume shoots through the birds. They lurch off the ground, wings beating. The panicked carpet lifts, circles, and falls again. Calls that seem to come from creatures twice their size carry miles before fading.

By morning, that sound never happened. Again there is only here, now, the river's braid, a feast of waste grain that will carry these flocks north, beyond the Arctic Circle.
The driver of the truck, 27-year-old Mark Schluter, an underachieving mechanic at a meatpacking plant, goes into a 14-day coma and comes out of suffering from Capgras syndrome, a rare brain disorder. The memories of Capgras sufferers are intact in every way except that they come to think that those closest to them are not who they claim to be. The transcribing component of memory has become completely severed from its emotional roots.

One thread of the story is Mark's attempt to recover with the help of his older sister, Karin, his only living relative, and who seems to him to be an imposter. (When he returns home, he also sees the dog he loves as having been replaced by a poor copy for unknown, nefarious reasons.) It's intertwined with the midlife crisis of a famous neurologist and best-selling author named Gerald Weber, who has been called in to try to help Mark, and whose character is loosely modeled on Oliver Sacks. Another subplot involves efforts to keep real estate developers from encroaching on the diminishing crane habitat south of Kearney, Neb., where the novel is set and where every spring half a million of the birds -- four-fifths of all the sandhill cranes in the world -- gather before their long flight north. Binding the narrative strands together is a page-turning plot regarding the mystery of what happened to cause Mark to roll his truck, and who was the mysterious "guardian" who saved his life and left a mysterious note at his hospital bedside.

If you're looking for more about the book Colson Whitehead's review in the NYT is a good place to start and also brings out some of the book's post-9/11 resonance. James Gibbons provides an insightful look at both the book and the author in Bookforum. Ed Champion's blog Return of the Reluctant has a marvelous five-part roundtable discussion of The Echo Maker by a number of writers, and part five consists of Richard Powers commenting on his commenters.

It's hard to summarize all the complex resonances in the book without making it seem reductionist and contrived, but I found it a haunting meditation on consciousness, mind and memory -- illuminated by real characters struggling to create meaning in their own lives. Capgras becomes a metaphor for our failure to recognize each other, and our broader failure to recognize the fellow beings on this planet as our kin. At the same time, the novel offers a sort of provisional hope that healing is possible.

UPDATE: More thoughts about Richard Powers here and here after it was announced he won the 2006 National Book Award for fiction. Think Mary Anne Evans and William Gibson.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

After the election


I'm still speechless, frankly. Can't think of a word to say that wouldn't be redundant. Have been working, reading, walking. This was Madison's Owen Conservation Park Saturday afternoon, with Friday night's snow still covering the ground.