Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: The Principles of Uncertainty

The uncertainty in the Principles of Uncertainty starts with what exactly to call this. I mean, it's not a graphic novel or memoir. It's not a journal, really. It's not a travelogue. It's not poetry. It's not philosophy. But it's got pieces of all of those things in it.I'm going with a collection of illustrated existential contemplations even though it makes it sound pretentious, but I can't think of anything better. OK, so that's a terrible description. Takes all the fun right out of it. It's a cool book with cool pictures, OK?

It's by Maira Kalman who originally did (contemplative essays?) as a blog for the NY Times. Her more recent blog, called The Pursuit of Happiness, mused on U.S. history and will be published as a book next month.

The Principles of Uncertainty is a bit more tenuous in its themes--nothing nearly so straightforward as The United States. Maybe it would help if I listed everything under "E" in the index. (Yes, there's an index.)

egg, man breaks, 274
egg slicer collection, 113
Einstein, Albert, 22
Einstein, Mrs. (teacher), 21
embroidery, of Ich Habe Genug, 197
empty box collection, 102-105
English hermit, 254
Eugene Onegin (opera), 257
extinction, 3-4, 6
eyes, tired, 201

There's also an appendix that includes things like the recipe for Honey Cake, postcards of the Hotel Celeste, and Names in Part I of the Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I loved this book even before I got to the part where she talks about reading the obituaries every morning ("obituaries, 50-51, 55"). All along I thought, I know this person! I understand what she's talking about. Then we get to the part about reading obituaries, and I saw my own thoughts and feelings echoed back at me. She says,

This is not morbid. Just epic. Maybe it is a way of trying to figure out, before the day begins, what is important. And I am curious about all the little things that make up a life.

Me too! I thought, and would have given her a high five if she were here.

She certainly has an eye for the little epic details: the EXCELLENT United Pickle tag, various fabulous hats, Parisian garbage cans.

Well, she could, but she doesn't. She just gives you enough to make you think, "Why, yes, that chair is magnificent! Let me see what magnificent chairs there are in my life."

There was a moment or two when I did find her work somewhat self-conscious, but by and large I was absolutely delighted by this book, and ultimately encouraged by it. Maybe it was just the shock of finding someone saying out loud the things that I suspect sometimes go through my own head. Or maybe it was because, after all her meanderings, she ended with this:

I'll remember that.


Bay Area locals may want to note that there's a retrospective of Maira Kalman's work now showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I think I'm going to have to get myself over there.

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