Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nabokov: The pencil that needs resharpening, the bladder that has to be drained, the words that I always mispell and always have to look up...

If you have the patience to listen to (and therefore forgive) the old-fashioned, pretentious tone of this video, you will discover something long gone: wisdom.  Pure, burdensome and necessary as water or air.

I can not think of any contemporary writer (American or otherwise) who forces us to remain honest to our principles with such brutality and such grace. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Time travel to 1911: The world according to Meyer Brothers Druggist

Ahh!  The good old times in therapeutics, when syphilis was "treated" with arsenic...when everyone had his or her opium little bottle in their armoire....or when radium became the panacea for all ailments...

Here is how the world looked like in early 1900 according to vol.32, 1911 edition of the Meyer Brothers Druggist {published "In the interests of the Entire Drug Trade"} 

"Radium as a Therapeutic Agent.— The Department of Commerce, of Vienna, issues a warning to the effect that great caution must be observed in the use of radium in the treatment of disease. It is stated, however, that radium therapeutics has a great future, especially as it maybe applied easily both externally and internally and the effect is constant. (page 42, 1911)

Also, in case you did not know, the same magazine informs us that at the beginning of the twentieth century, "The most expensive medicine is radium, which at present has a market price of about $5,000,000.00 an ounce."

Just saying.

Finally, the pharmacists turn to arts, for a change:

"Are You Familiar with Emerson's Writing? — If so, perhaps you can tell which, if either of the following quotations are from Emerson. If you can locate just what Emerson said on the subject it will please the editor of the West Publishing Company's Docket, and satisfy the curiosity of many other persons:
  • "If you write a better book, or preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap than your neighbor, the world will make a beaten path to your door.
  • "If a man can preach a better sermon, write a bettor book, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though h* build his house In the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.
  • "If a man can build a better mousetrap or preach a better sermon than his neighbor, though his house be built in the woods, the world will find him out and wear a beate-i path to his door."
The quiz is followed by the following piece of information:
"Saccharin was discovered in 1887."

Sunday, January 5, 2014

I miss McCourt...

Sometimes, you come across a book that just explodes in your head, like crazy fireworks on a  July evening.  Such was Angela's Ashes for me. 
The Dickensian dimension, the unbearable decrepitude of Irish life in that period!  The father coming home drunk, waking up his children, aligning them by the side of the bed and forcing them to sing along patriotic songs... 
How I know all that although I have never been to Ireland and those things  never happened to me.  But... thinking more about it... those exact particular things never happened to me, but similar, tangential, or maybe just barely comparable things DID...and my mind was so hungry to listen to them, so avid to listen to McCourt story because, somehow, in small subtitles, in small metaphors or sometimes as loud as a gun pulverizing human life without scope or justification, his story was also the story of children who lived in poverty - material or spiritual - and in fear.  In an interview   on Academy of Achievement McCourt talks about the Ireland of his childhood:
" economic circumstances it was desperate. It was Calcutta with rain. At least they're warm in Calcutta. But it was desperate because of certain things, ingredients like my father being an alcoholic, my mother having too many babies in too short a time, no work available in Ireland, and even when my father did get a job he drank the wages. Then there was the harsh kind of schooling we had with school masters who ruled with a stick and then because of the overwhelming presence of the church, which imbued us with fear all the time. So it was fear, dampness, poverty, alcoholism, fear of the church, fear of the school masters, fear in general."  

But also, scarcity made things precious.  This is how you learn the value of a slice of bread...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reality is not always probable...

File:Borges y Sabato - 1.jpg
Borges & Sabato
 I love this picture.  This is what I imagine these two guys are saying to each other:

"I believe" says Sabato, "that truth is perfect for maths, chemistry and philosophy, but not for life. In life, in this reality we are dealing with on a daily basis, aspiration, imagination, yearning and hope are more important." 

[In passing being said, only a scientist who quit science (nuclear physics, of all...) to  play with  a different fantasy could have come up with something like this.]

Borges (he's the quiet one), seems to ponder, then says, dryly:

"My dear Sabato, keep in mind, kindly, that reality is not always probable, or likely."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

He opened up the path for GENETIC ENGINEERING, thus propelling biology from the dark ages into the future...

A scientist who influenced our lives more than we'll ever know, Frederick Sanger has died today at the glorious age of 95. 
Although he described himself as a "chap who messes up in the lab", he got two Nobel Prizes for work that reached deeply into curing diseases like diabetes and into advancing the toolbox needed to understand the Human Genome.  Through his work, he opened up the path for genetic engineering, an awesome scientific paradigm that will still bear fruit years and years from now...
I remember spending long evenings in the lab as a fresh postdoc, sequencing DNA gels based on the method he developed.  It was tedious work, starting with pouring a finicky gel between two extra-large glass plates and sometimes getting dreaded air bubbles exactly where the most critical part of the DNA sequence was supposed to be  (the so-called  "bubblerama" in postdoc jargon...)
But more importantly I remember the thrill of getting clean, useful DNA sequence, that gave me answers no other technology or method could.  The DNA sequence from the gel could be assembled into genes that could explain or predict the complicated circuitry of life or death.   
And I recall (as I was reading those DNA sequencing gels or I was waiting for my turn in the dark room) my awe on his coming up (along with other brilliant scientists) with his magical method that deciphered what bases make up a string of DNA.  And how his esteemed "Sanger method" gave any scientist out there (including a budding one like me) the toolbox necessary to bring his or her little contribution to the world of science.
And as a final confession:  I admire him for his scientific accomplishments, but I love him because (through all the brouhaha of his two Nobel prizes) he had the guts to remain himself.  So much so that at 65 he actually retired - to simply devote time to his garden...

And while I do not know the reasons for his retirement, I think one of his quotes  gives some directional insights:  "I was married to Margaret Joan Howe in 1940. Although not a scientist herself she has contributed more to my work than anyone else by providing a peaceful and happy home."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What's the best way to kill a novelist's passion for writing?

"Success!" says

Thursday, June 20, 2013

...a voice in my head...

Phillip Lopate, Columbia University
I am reading (and enjoying) Phillip Lopate's To Show and To Tell, a slim volume about the craft of literary nonfiction.  It is a nicely paced, mature elaboration on non-fiction with a special focus on essay. 

Here is a little morsel, to give you a taste, from a chapter entitled The made-Up Self :

"When I sit down to write, I hear a voice in my head.  Who sent me that voice?  Did I fabricate it?  If I did, I can't remember.  In my case (pace those who insist the self is multivalent), that voice is singular.  I don't hear voices; at this stage of life I'm too rigid and set in my ways, and so it tends to be the same damn voice jabbering on.  All I know is that I keep listening to that voice to surprise me, say something out of ordinary, provocative, mischievous, borderline dangerous."