If I had to guess where I came across Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, I’d say it was probably Maria Popova’s Brainpickings. Only a guess, but it makes a lot of sense and there’s this post to go along with my supposition. Regardless, here’s the short form. Radioactive is a biography of Marie Curie. That is roughly accurate, but thoroughly uninteresting. In addition to being beautiful and beautifully told, this book is the story of Marie Curie, of her discoveries of radium and polonium, and of the legacies of them all.
Redniss begins her first chapter, Symmetry, cleverly and counter-intutively. On the left hand page is information about Pierre Curie, whom, we can pretty safely deduce, will be the husband of Marie. On the right hand page is the first news of Marie Skłodowska. So far so good. Turn the page and a non sequitur, more information about Pierre but written in a way that doesn’t connect to the previous page.
The left hand pages of Symmetry are all Pierre. The right hand pages are all Marie.
Redniss is not always so aggressive about her structure, but it’s smart to make her move in the opening pages because it teaches us that we have to be ready for the next trick, whatever it might be. Throughout her writing, the author locates the parallels between the Curies’ love, lives, and research, and intertwines them from one chapter to the next. It is a tight and smart dramaturgical trick and she doesn’t get carried away with it. She discusses Marie Curie’s first Nobel prize – in physics, with her husband and fellow researcher Henri Becquerel – and how Alfred Nobel made his fortune from which he could dispense philanthropic cheer via his development of dynamite. Similarly, Redniss notes, the Curies’ discovery of radium and its use as a tool for treating cancer is also the foundation of the knowledge that will bring us the atomic bomb.
Then there’s the artwork.
“Cyanotype” is a photographic processing technique that results in a distinctive blue tint – blueprints! – and is the basis of Redniss’s work, although she goes on to paint and add to the basic backdrop throughout. The results are washes of bright color that often as not echo the content of the associated text. Or in the example above, the text on the right mirrors the positive space of the portrait on the left.
Not to be leave anything to someone else’s choices, she further designed her own font for the book. The details of the artwork and the design are included at the end of the book.
I’m trying to keep in mind that all of the reasons I think this book is amazing and fantastic are the exact same reasons you might find it pretentious or cloying or overwrought or overly complicated. For me, it is a marvel of nonfiction storytelling that honors not only the subject’s chronological life, but also the fallout of that life (Redniss’s pun, not mine) and how one person (or one discovery) can ripple out forward. The metaphorical and symbolic possibilities of the artwork further enhance the writing by suggesting ideas and details without claiming them as written text would have to do, albeit perhaps with a caveat here and a caveat there.
This is probably a work that will divide its readership quickly and easily. If you don’t care for the artwork, you’ll be turned away from the text. The structure is the next hurdle, but I’m willing to bet that if you embrace the first, you’ll embrace the second.
Lauren Redness with a 12 minute TED talk on her technique and approach.
I’m working on the next manuscript again today. Again. Today. I spent three-ish months in the spring drafting the story, and it was okay. Unfortunately, it was a better story than it was good storytelling. When I started work on the house, I began to re-imagine how I might improve that storytelling. I’ve since cut probably a third of the text, overhauled the structure, strengthened the motives and operations of the Bad Guys. It hurts a little bit, it’s so much better than the first version. I made some good discoveries.
The thing: just because it’s better than the first version does not make it good storytelling. Now I’m wondering if I’ve overplayed my hand in terms of narrative devices, even as I work through the new story parameters I’ve created by making the changes I’ve made. I’ve sent out the first 48 pages to a reader who’s completely unfamiliar with the first manuscript (very important not to have inside information), and while the narrative devices should be okay (the non-linearity in particular), I’m not sure that it makes sense. Stupid non-linearity. Whose idea was that? I’m not sure if it’s clear who’s the main character. But I believe I’m on the right track.
I’m not a fan of this guy (wait for the connection, it’ll come).
1) Imagine the piece, i.e. a balloon dog! But huge! Made out of steel!
2) Contract with fabricators
3) Pick up huge steel balloon dog
4) install in museum
5) collect wealth and plaudits; feed off naysayers’ naysaying. mmm, tasty.
Based on talking with a couple of “conceptual sculptors” (their words, not mine), I believe Jeff Koons is one of them. He’s an IDEA MAN. He’s commenting on art and on the idea of art while creating “art.” Part of me wonders why there’s still a market for this after Dada, Duchamp, and Warhol, but that’s the free market for you. Invincible and evaluating things at their proper worth (that’s a joke, son). For Koons, there is simply the IDEA. There is no discovery.
When I was contracted to build a costume that looked like a guy in a giant powerball (the lottery, doncha know), I had to figure out how to make him look like this (note: I had nothing to do with the locker room):
Red arms and legs. Yellow hands and feet. Giant red ball body. Yellow starburst head. Human face. BALL text. Those were my instructions. Someone else had the IDEA, and I was just the fabricator. I made many, many phone calls. I hired specialists who wouldn’t have my learning curve with fabric (we had to dye the gloves and shoes) and who were faster than I am at sign application and painting (the text letters). I made a couple of discoveries. It was a lot of fun to build.
When the Spouse produces commercials and films, it’s a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with moving pieces that keep changing their shape. The challenge and the delight in the better jobs is the juggle, keeping it all together. That’s not to say that discovery is a necessary and sufficient quality to the artistic process, but at least that process is made more delightful when there are discoveries to be had, like you just came across a bit of gold.
Of course, the actual excavating can be a drag. And as I slog my way through my next round of edits to create a readable, understandable, captivating, and page-turning first act, I keep reminding myself to look for the discoveries of gold.
By the way – got a comment? Please leave it here, not on the facebook feed. I’d rather have conversations on this page than on Mark Zuckerberg’s. Thanks!
When I was teaching Freshman Comp at Carroll University, I asked my class how they felt about picking up the anthology of essays I had required them to purchase for the class. I had a good enough rapport with them that I was rewarded with heartfelt groans of despair and disgust. You don’t like reading, I pursued. Hems and haws, lots of “sometimes.” Do you mind reading your text messages? (Chelsea, put your phone away.) They were surprised at the thought, that texting was reading. You look forward to one, but not the other. Part of this is just what you expect. Adjust your expectations and the experience won’t be so onerous.
I don’t know if that helped them with my assignments, but I hope that it helped them in their later years at school.
First Ladies is an opaque play by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab, which I saw this past weekend at Trap Door Theatre. The production was very, very good. In spite of this, my friend and I, theater pros that we are, having each studied in college and worked in the industry for 20ish years, we didn’t really get it. But we agreed that Trap Door had put on a hell of a show.
I saw A Serious Man with three other people, all of whom work in the film business and all of whom really like the Coen brothers. We all agreed that it was a beautifully realized movie, but none of could make heads or tails of it. Did we not have enough background? If we’d been raised Jewish or educated in Judaism, would we have made sense of the story? Didn’t get it = didn’t like it.
This past weekend was the six month anniversary of my friend Anthony’s death. Coincidentally, I came across the book review linked at the top – in which the reviewer wonders why we write about grief.
This afternoon I read Lore Segal’s “The Ice Worm” in the April, ’11 issue of Harper’s, which is a wonderfully executed story about a sudden horrible event. I understood it, I appreciated it, and I wondered why someone tells a story of despair, for that is how I read it.
The last link up there, that’s Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, singing a rockin’ song with punchy lyrics, but whose overall meaning I don’t think about.
A question that I used to pose to my students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one that I didn’t have an answer to, was this: why do we fret about meaning in film and theater and not in songs? Why do I dwell on First Ladies and A Serious Man, but not “Woke up near Chelsea”? Why can I go a different direction entirely with prose, and simply admire the craft of Lore Segal’s writing?
More to the point, why can’t I simply admire the craft of the film? Why don’t I fret about what the song means?
There’s something about the form that makes me hung up on interpretation – not how I should interpret it, because I don’t think about how. I simply leave the theater and say, wow, what was that about? Obviously, I can appreciate the craft of the play, but that’s only a stopping point. My goal for it, for the film, is the meaning.
I’d be grateful if you had any insights or similar takes.
I’m stuck on the line between doing, action, and performance.
Basically, the problem is trying to write something that relates to an artistic performance and not necessarily how we act in our daily lives. Because I’d really like to think about some other things besides my friends dying, and I suspect other people would, too.
Part of what I’d like to perform for you is Competence. I don’t have my form down in this different vein, so rather than subject you to something to long, I’m going to sit on it for a while and leave it at this: if you’re in the Twin Cities, go to the Fringe, go see many, many shows, and include in your selection Your Mother Dances at the Southern, which I saw tonight. Good, fun, sexy.
Dream of competency.
I stopped reading for pleasure nearly 15 years ago. It wasn’t on purpose. I entered grad school and set upon a diligent bout of reading for the next 6 years, all of which was interesting and little of which was pleasurable. In the two years it took me to write and defend my dissertation, I spent a lot more time writing than reading, but still, reading for pleasure was not in the cards. Then I started teaching, a job I was both eager and grateful to have. And I spent time reading textbooks, doing lesson prep, grading.
Reading was part of working. Rarely did it seem like something fun. This is probably part of the reason why I’m not constitutionally cut out for academic life.
There was the occasional periodic jag of reading for fun, if there was a good book to read before bed. But honestly, I find Sudoku or crosswords a bit more palatable in the hours when my eyes begin to hurt and my brain starts to shut down.
I used to read all the time. I’d bring a stack of upwards of twenty books on vacation. A librarian once told me I couldn’t check out all of the books that I wanted. I scowled and told her I’d come back for the other half next week.
I like letting my brain shut down. I like escapism. But dumb escapism hurts. Tim Burton has a killer design sense, but can’t tell a good story. Terry Gilliam struggles as well. I just saw Alice in Wonderland and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus upon my sickened return from Prague and had both of those feelings re-affirmed.
One of my resolutions for 2010 was that I would make more of an effort to watch better movies this year. Of the three I watched on the return trip at the end of the Fringe, The Messenger in my five-hour layover in Chopin, and Pirate Radio and Fantastic Mr. Fox on the flight, the first was far and away my preferred film. No two ways about it. Good storytelling, good emotional connection, good dramatic tension. It worked for me on all levels.
I’m reading heavy-duty stuff right now. Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, and I’m picking up (again) John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? And it is pleasurable, but the same way a good workout is. It’s hard, but refreshing. I just turned off a bad old Bond film, The Living Daylights, and later on I’ll pick up Daniel Pinkwater’s Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl.
Some of my favorite fiction is the stuff called “young adult.” It’s often more imaginative that what passes for “fantasy,” and the best writers are as engaging as the classical stuff. I’ll take The Amulet of Samarkand over The Sorrows of Young Werther any day.
Speaking of exercising, World Cup is on.