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Archive for April, 2010

William Boyd's "Any Human Heart"

William Boyd's "Any Human Heart"

Last night I finally finished reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which I’d been working at for a while (it was one of those tragic cases where I was halfway through the book when my library renewals ran out and I had to return it, and was too sheepish to turn around and special-request it again immediately; but then I was lucky enough to come into a used copy of it, a cause for celebration). It’s a novel about the fictional life of an English writer spanning nearly the whole twentieth century. He meets everyone who’s anyone: Picasso, Hemingway, James Joyce, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, gets involved with the Bader-Meinhoff Gang, etc. It’s nicely written and the story pulls you in. After a while you feel as if this character has become a friend, and you care about his ups and downs.

The thing that really drew me to the book, though, was that it was presented in journal format. Since the second half of my own most recent novel was also in journal format, I was keen to see an example of this technique being used well, and this book was helpful for that.

Now I’m beginning another chapter-by-chapter read-off between Wolf Hall, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and a nonfiction compendium of fairy lore originally published in 1880 (lent to me by a writer friend who, incidentally, just had a lovely short story published involving alligators). This is going to be a pretty fierce competition, I think.

I’m tempted, though, to drop them all and read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. My last moms’ night out with Ms. Connect-the-Dots and friends, we went to see the movie version. It was a bit violent for me, and I definitely do not (!!) recommend it to any of my Mormon friends.* But apart from the violence, it was well-done, exciting, and suspenseful and made me want to read all the books.

Productive literary activity (e.g. revising my novel, drafting anything new) has sadly been at a standstill this month due to the stresses of job hunting, etc. But next week my daughter (the one who swears like a sailor) will be starting daycare three mornings a week, so that she can gradually get used to it before I actually start a new job and also so that I’ll have a reliable place for her to stay if I get called in for any interviews (fingers crossed). So I’m hoping I can go off and work in my usual neighborhood coffee shop and get something done that way. Even without job hunting, making time to write has gotten a lot harder since my daughter stopped taking regular naps. I’ve only had evenings for relatively-less-interrupted work, and at the end of a day of chasing Amandine around, I am often so kaputt that I just don’t have energy for anything but collapsing in a heap. So this daycare thing is sort of an exciting development if it works out. We’ll see how it goes.

In gastronomic news, I had a girls’ night out with some non-mom friends and we went (sans Amandine) to a restaurant called Dino in Cleveland Park. It was great, just my sort of place, fresh and sophisticated Italian, pretty presentations but not too fussy, and—my favorite part—a focus on seasonal, local, sustainably-grown ingredients. The owner and his wife both popped by to say hello. I highly recommend this place. Also in gastronomic news: A friend of mine from college, a sweet, bright, and wonderful guy, turns out to be in the restaurant business these days and has started a fun blog called LDSFoodCritic.

And I already told all my Facebook friends, but one more piece of news is that I’ve had another essay accepted for publication. The title is “The Economy of Souls,” and it will appear in the Summer 2010 issue of Jabberwock Review. I am happy to have found such a good home for this piece, for one thing because the essay is long at 10K words, and I was worried that the length would be prohibitive for getting it published. But more importantly, because it’s the most ambitious writing project I’ve taken on so far. It actually took longer to write than either of my novels, so it will be quite a thing for me to see it in print.

That’s all for today, Amandine and I are off to a brunch/playdate at the house of a Finnish friend to celebrate a Finnish holiday called Vappu. (It’s the Finns’ version of Walpurgis Night. Who knew?)

(Stolen from here.)

*And for everyone else, if you do go see the movie, I recommend closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears, and singing “La la la la” during the awful parts.

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Sailor Baby

If, like me, you’ve got a child who’s learning to talk, you may occasionally hear some shocking things coming out of his or her mouth. Rest assured, these are not what they sound like. Here is a handy decoder chart to set your mind at ease:

Sounds Like Means
THE F-WORD “Fork.” Or maybe “Frog.”
POON No, your child is not a PUA discussing the results of a night of sarging. This means “spoon.”
ASS “Ask” or “asked.” As in “I ass Mommy fo’ chockit” (I asked Mommy for chocolate).
THE S-WORD “Sit.” As in “Mommy – I sh**ting on a tair!” (Mommy, I’m sitting on a chair!)
THE D-WORD Okay, this just means Mommy has been swearing too much and really needs to start watching her language better.

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Working 9 to 5I’m not going to do a real post this week, because as my title suggests I am pretty busy at the moment looking for a (paying) full-time job. Not that being a stay-at-home mom/wannabe novelist isn’t full of its own kind of benefits, but circumstances dictate that I will be needing a salary of my own fairly soon …

So, that said, if anyone might be interested in hiring me, or if you know anyone who might be interested in hiring me, please do get in touch and I will be happy to send a resume. You can also read a little about my professional background here. Thanks!

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Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel"

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel" (via Vimooz.com)

A 5-hour plane ride with a two-and-a-half-year-old, if you’ve never tried it, is kind of an Olympics-level parenting event, and I’m still recovering. So forgive me if this post lacks the normal verve and panache due to mental and physical exhaustion.

The orgy of cultural consumption has continued unabated since my last post. I read The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta, a middle grade novel called When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage and also saw the movie Coco Before Chanel. Phew!

So, I think Tom Perotta is well on his way to becoming a favorite author for me.  The Abstinence Teacher is about a high school female sex ed teacher forced to teach an abstinence-only curriculum and a recovering drug addict who’s been saved by his conversation to evangelical Christianity. It’s a great story with a lot of compassion, heart, and humor. You get the sense Perotta is coming from a secular point of view, but in this novel wanted to experiment with putting himself in the shoes of someone who thinks in a way that’s entirely opposite to his worldview. This strikes me as an extremely worthwhile thing to do, both as a writer and as a human being.

The book did have a few sentences near the beginning, though, that were so clunky I almost stopped reading. E.g., this one:

Defying the Sex and the City stereotype of randy, uninhibited single gals dishing colorful secrets to their friends, the three women rarely spoke about anything but work and movies.

Or is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this sentence is horrible? If this had been a new author to me, I might have given up on him then and there. But since I’d enjoyed Little Children so much, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and am glad I did, because things picked up after that. And that bad sentence was balanced by a wonderful one later on:

With three soccer-age kids, John spent his Saturdays rushing maniacally from one field to the next, driving like he had a freshly harvested liver packed in a cooler on the front seat.

*blissful sigh*

Now there’s a sentence. But Mr. Perotta, if you’re reading this, next time be sure to let me take a look at your manuscript before it goes to press so we can make sure we don’t have any horrible clunker sentences like that “defying the Sex and the City stereotype” one making it past your editor again. Thank you. Incidentally, this all goes to prove my point that no detail in writing fiction is too small to sweat over. One out-of-place comma can ruin a sentence, one poor word choice can spoil a paragraph, and one ugly sentence can alienate a reader forever.

The Rebecca Stead book was okay. I’ll talk about Committed next week, because I’m going to a book club meeting on it tomorrow and maybe will have interesting comments from other people to report on.

I liked Coco Before Chanel a lot—it’s about the life of famous fashion designer Coco Chanel before she became famous. The two major relationships she has in the film with men are both really interesting (and I must admit, I thought the one with Alessandro Nivola was totally hot). But perhaps most interesting of all was the way Audrey Tautou, the actress who plays Chanel, almost never smiles. It becomes exhausting to watch her, because you keep waiting for her to break down and smile, but she keeps up the serious expression all through. Somehow that made the movie for me, if only because it was so unusual. It was like I was almost forced to take her and the movie seriously because of her seriousness. The Chanel character doesn’t just break down all the assumptions about femininity and ornament in dressing, but also breaks down our expectations about women as inherently responsible for being sweet and smiling and entertaining. Instead her attitude is: I am who I am, what I see matters to me, I am not just here to please you.

Sorry, words are totally failing me here. But I really liked it.

Lastly, you know how I was going on last time about character likeability, character likeability, character likeability? Well, then I came across this really interesting post by a writer who likes unlikeable characters. I have to think more about this whole likeability issue and how important it is to good writing. I won’t attempt to talk more about it right now as my brain is so muddled, but I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts.

Here are some songs to send you on your way, this week’s theme being A Few Totally Random Song I Just Happen To Like:

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Fragonard "The Reader"

"The Reader" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806)

 

Since I’ve been here in Tucson, my work ethic has flown out the window. I had grand ideas of doing tons of revisions on my novel, finishing my line-edits on a friend’s novel, and possibly writing the first draft of a short nonfiction essay.

Ha.

Instead I’ve given myself over to what I do best in the lazy atmosphere of vacation life here at my parents’ house: an orgy of reading and watching movies. Here’s what I’ve gotten through so far.

Books

This turned out, surprisingly, to capture and keep my attention pretty handily, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought it would be one of those plodding, depressing dirge novels, but no. Instead it starts out a bit like chick-lit, with the heroine doing an internship at a Vogue. 

One thing I didn’t like was that the heroine comes across as kind of a cold, self-absorbed, unsympathetic person, so the book suffered on the character-likeability measure. Also, the part where she goes full-on crazy seems to come out of the blue and is never really made comprehensible. One minute, the character seems sane, and the next minute she’s clearly got something very, very wrong with her. It seems some sort of development or transition is missing. Maybe that reflects the real experience of this type of mental illness, but from a literary standpoint, it felt like a flaw in the narrative.

This was really good. Beautifully written, with lots of philosophy and thoughtfulness, which I loved. On the negative side, I thought there were some plotting and timing problems. There are three major characters, and the third (Ozu) comes in very late in the book; I’d have liked to see him make his entrance earlier. Also, the first two characters (the concierge and the little girl) don’t become acquainted with each other until the book is two-thirds of the way through or more; I wanted more interaction between them, and sooner.

Other issues for me: the ending seemed a bit contrived and, I’ll admit, too sad. I’m not against sad endings per se, but if they come across as having been contrived especially to elicit sadness, that’s bad. It felt a bit manipulative to me. And lastly, I don’t think the assessment of phenomenology was very fair. In the book it’s characterized as “a fraud.” Sadly, I can’t say I understand phenomenology myself, but my impression from reading bits of it here and there is that it has to do with much more than just losing interest in the real reality behind appearances. It strikes me more as a method of almost zen-like attentivenss to phenomena, a kind of worshipfulness even. Which could actually have tied in well with other themes in the book, so it was sort of a missed opportunity in my view.

I haven’t seen the movie, but wanted to read the book ever since I found out Kirn was an ex-Mormon, which I learned when the people over at Main Street Plaza gave him an X-Mormon of the year award. So, the book. I didn’t like it all that much. Again, there was the character-likeability problem. The guy was so self-absorbed, shallow, and materialistic, that it took a fair bit of effort to care what happened to him. And then the ending was very vague and literary (in the pejorative sense) so that it left me all confused as to what actually happened.

After that, I was ready for something lighter. I’d been wanting to check out Maeve Binchy’s writing for a while already. First off, she’s Irish, and I like Ireland (my ex-husband and I spent two weeks in Connemara and Kerry on our honeymoon, and I still have fond mem0ries of that trip). Also, any author whose books take up a whole shelf in the library and bookstore must be doing something right, you’d think. The sheer volume of her writing was intriguing. And third, I’d seen this movie Circle of Friends a while back and wondered if the book was better than the movie (the movie was somewhat eh, but the plot seemed to have a lot of potential).

Anyway, the book was a lot of fun. As expected, it was light and full o’ Irishness. Beyond that, it was funny and hard to put down. (I feel like books generally ought to be hard to put down, regardless of how literary they’re intended to be. It’s a lot to ask of someone, to read a long book you’ve written, so writing a page-turner seems the least an author can do.) The characters were likeable, too. The only negatives that bear mentioning are that in spots the prose is a bit “telly” rather than “showy” (writers of fiction are constantly, constantly being told to “show, don’t tell”), and that the last quarter of the book does drag a bit.

The funniness was a happy surprise. I’d been promised Roddy Doyle would be hilarious, and in my opinion the books I read by him (The Commitmentsand The Snapper) did not live up to that hype, so it was all the nicer to approach this book with no particular hype in mind and yet find myself giggling and laughing through whole pages.

Movies

  • Bright Star(on DVD) – This is the Jane Campion pic about the Romantic poet John Keats and his all-engulfing love for obscure seamstress Fanny Brawne. I had high hopes for it, as I’d read some very positive reviews. Sadly, I found it kind of boring. My favorite parts were Fanny’s clothes, and the way she compares fashion design to writing poetry in the beginning.
  • Where the Wild Things Are(on DVD) – I had no high hopes for this, having read some negative reviews, but I did want to give it a shot. I liked maybe the first third of it, and then it started to seem a lot like this spoof I’d seen where the monster are equated to a bunch of bored, unconventionaler-than-thou hipsters. But I did think the beginning part did a good job of capturing how hard it can be to be a kid, the fact that it’s not all sunshine and light and goofing around.
  • Crazy Heart – I loved this. Loved the music, loved the characters, loved the dialogue, loved the emotional complexity, the refusal to oversimplify, really just loved it top to bottom. The ending could have been cheesy and cliche, and maybe was a bit cliche (we come back years later and find that everyone is doing much better), but not enough to spoil the overall wonderfulness of it.  I guess it helps that I’ve had a soft spot for country music ever since I had a college roommate who was into it. We always used to belt out Garth Brooks‘ “I Got Friends in Low Places” together and another song about this farmer who comes home to find his wife with “nothing but her apron on” … ah, those were the days.

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