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White Painting (Three Panel), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951

"White Painting," by Robert Rauschenberg (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

I’ve been thinking about novel plots lately and what makes the difference between good ones, bad ones, and nonexistent ones. Of the critiques I’ve received on my last novel from various people who’ve read it, the most troubling one for me is that “almost nothing happens.” Of course, in writing it, it seemed to me that quite a bit happens in the story. People have conversations! They have thoughts, ideas even! They feel things, decide things, change their minds about things. To me, those all seem like things that happen.

I think what such criticisms are getting at is that, while “things” may technically “happen,” they are boring things.

Off the top of my head, though, I can think of a number of well-known novels in which nothing, or almost nothing happens. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, which is about a bunch of people in a mountaintop sanatorium who spend most of the book having conversations about humanism, communism, freedom, art, religion, death, life, love, and morality. Granted, one of the characters does have sex (once, and just barely), people die off every now and then, and one kills himself. Oh, and there is a seance where one of the dead people comes back to say hello.

Hmmm … actually, when you think about it, things do happen in that book. But mostly, it’s people thinking and talking.

Then there’s James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A boy grows up in Ireland, in a very Catholic setting. He wins an essay contest and uses the prize money to sleep with a lot of prostitutes. Then he hears a sermon and worries he’s going to hell, and becomes ultra religious. Then he goes to university and studies philosophy, loses his faith, and decides to become an artist. Okay, so there is some sex, but apart from that, it’s mostly thinking and talking and deciding things.

Another book I thought of in the “almost nothing happens” category is The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French author Muriel Barbery, which came out relatively recently and which I really enjoyed. The main things that “happen” in the book are: An old concierge lady is secretly intellectual. A tween girl is secretly suicidal. A rich Japanese man moves into their building. They all eventually meet and talk and like each other. A minor character is into drugs, there are a few conflicts between dogs that live in the building and [SPOILER ALERT!] somebody dies. But the death is weird, almost as if it’s tacked on as an afterthought, just to make sure no one can say of this book that “nothing happens in it.” All the same, I loved it, and liked the other two book quite a bit too. Maybe one element of this book’s success, though, is that it came out first in France, where people study philosophy in high school, and public intellectuals have celebrity status.

In any case, I wonder: Does someone have to die or have sex in order for a book to count as having something happen in it? Can it count if people almost die or almost have sex, or if they just want to die or want to have sex? I’ve long had a theory about the stories that get printed in The New Yorker. Back when I used to read them regularly, I noticed that almost every story that made it in there had either death or infidelity or both in it. Are death and sex what make a good story? Can anyone think of a good book or story in which there are neither? (One notable exception to my New Yorker stories theory that I remember was a story, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” by J.M.G. de Clézio, who I think is French. Why is it always the French who can get away with low-plot stories?)

It makes me think of the movie Adaptation, with the script by Charlie Kaufman, who also did Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It’s clear in that movie that Kaufman is also struggling with questions of what makes a good plot. He puts himself into the movie as a writer with a twin brother. The twin brother also wants to be a scriptwriter, but takes a formulaic approach, reading books about how to write good screenplays and then writing them by the numbers. The conventional twin brother becomes successful, while Charlie’s writer character struggles, trying to preserve what he thinks of as his artistic integrity. He’s assigned to adapt a nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, into a screenplay. The problem is that the book doesn’t have a plot. As the movie goes on with Charlie searching for a story, the plot twists begin to get more and more absurd. Orlean is revealed to be have an affair and doing drugs with the main character of her book, the brother gets killed, and another character gets eaten by an alligator.

The implicit question the movie asks is: Does it really make a better story if someone gets eaten by an alligator? Really? Or do we lose our honesty that way? Is fiction ideally supposed to be a flight from reality–reality with its boring, boring plots in which “nothing happens”—or a way to understand and explain it to ourselves, to make sense of it, to put structure and elegance and coherence into it?

Of course, in real life, people seldom get eaten by alligators, and often go for long stretches without having sex. Real life can be terribly boring and repetitive. And yet real life is also full of things I find fascinating. Small tragedies that fall short of death or infidelity, moments of despair, disappointments, wanting, beauty, sweetness, mysteries, deceptions, discoveries, and triumphs. Things people need to make sense of and process. I see value in writing and reading about such things, even if fiction tends to distort them as it makes sense of them, exaggerating, extending, reshaping, and rephrasing them.

I’m still wondering if someone should get eaten by an alligator in my book, though.

(This week’s music link: In Another World, by Donna the Buffalo)

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Hazelnut Tart at wd-50

Hazelnut Tart at wd-50

Happy Fourth of July!

Some good news to share: Starting next month I’ll be joining the ranks of the (fully and gainfully) employed. I’ve accepted an offer from a federal government agency and will be going back into my old line of work as a program analyst (subject, of course, to background checks and paperwork, etc. etc.) So, this Independence Day I am lucky enough to celebrate the prospect of going back into public service and also being a little more financially independent. I’m excited about the job, which is going to involve research, interviewing, writing, and analysis on all kinds of interesting topics, and even some travel.

And now, of course, all the usual disclaimers and caveats will apply: this blog isn’t and won’t be intended in any way to reflect the views of my new employer.

Thanks so much to everyone who encouraged me and kindly  passed on opportunities, tips, advice, and references during my job hunt. I can admit now that it was slightly scary to be looking for work in the middle of such a difficult economy, and all that kindness and encouragement helped me keep my chin up.

Since I wrote last, a whole adventuresome weekend trip to NYC came and went. Two weeks ago Amandine and I went on a road to trip up to Westchester County, north of New York City, to see my little sister graduate from her medical residency program.

Google maps said it would take five hours to get there, which I thought might just be doable with an almost-three-year-old in the back seat. Of course, I didn’t count on being stuck on the DC beltway for an hour in traffic on the way out, or missing the turnoff to the Jersey turnpike and getting totally lost driving around small towns in rural New Jersey … or getting stuck on the Washington Bridge on the way through NYC at 11:30 at night for 45 minutes during which Amandine woke up and cried nonstop … yeah, so in the end, seven hours give or take. And not a very fun seven hours.

But the Westchester Marriott, where we stayed with my parents, was nice, with a tasty steak and eggs breakfast the next morning. We spent the day visiting Sleepy Hollow (of headless horseman fame), the Rockefeller mansion called Kykuit, and Phillipsburg Manor. I don’t recommend trying to tour the inside of the mansion with an almost-three-year-old, but Amandine had a great time playing outside in the fountains and wandering around the gardens, which are full of cool modern scultures.

Then in the evening was the big graduation ceremony for my sister at another hotel, with dinner and dancing afterward. To everyone’s surprise, after Amandine had spent the whole day yawning and being cranky, as soon as the DJ started the dance music, she grabbed my hand, pulled me out into the middle of the ballroom, and started tearing up the dance floor. I’ll post the video on Facebook. Meanwhile, this will at least give you the flavor of it:

The next day my sister and parents went to a Broadway Show in the afternoon, while Amandine and I meandered down to Central Park. It was really hot and miserable, but they had sort of a splashpark section in the middle of it, with sprinklers and waterslides, so even though we weren’t prepared with swimsuits, I let Amandine splash around in it to cool off a little. I wish we’d gone to the Met or something more air-conditioned instead.

Then in the evening we went to a restaurant called wd-50, which looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but is actually on a list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The chef’s name is Wylie Dufresne, and I think this constituted my first brush with the so-called molecular gastronomy style of cuisine. I had a beautiful red cocktail that involved lychee and rose flavors, and in the spirit of adventure ordered the smoked eel appetizer. For a main dish I had the skate (fish) with salsify (obscure vegetable), wild rice, and butternut squash.

It was certainly all very inventive and clever and wonderfully presented, and some of the flavors were intense and pleasing … but somehow, the dishes I had just didn’t, well, taste all that amazing. I mean, it was okay, and goodness knows, it certainly wasn’t bad. But with the smoked eel it mainly tasted like, well, chunks of smoked fish. Which is not a bad taste by any means, but you know, it’s smoked fish. And the skate was actually kind of rubbery. I’ve never had skate before, so maybe that was how it’s supposed to be. Maybe all the subtleties were just lost on me.

But the dessert. Now the dessert blew me away. It was a little disk of hazelnut torte, with thin layers of cool, silky, intensely rich coconut cream and chocolate ganache. The idea of combining coconut and hazelnut was very original, I thought, and worked beautifully. But the kicker, the truly mind- and palate-blowing bit, was a slightly bittersweet chicory foam on the side. I mean, if that didn’t beat all. You know, chicory. A bitter vegetable. With a superrich, tiny, cold hazelnut tart. And it was delicious. The delicate hint of frothy bitterness was the perfect thing to compliment the cold chocolatty nuttiness. It was genius. So that saved the dinner for me, and saved wd-50’s reputation in my mind.

On the drive back, I took a different route to avoid NYC and that terrible bridge, through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This only took five hours, but when we were still two hours from home the air conditioning in the car stopped working, and it was 92 degrees outside. So again, that was not too fun.  But it was worth it to see my sister and have a little adventure.

Before I go, a few quick movie reviews:

Eclipse

Thankfully, this was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. I actually thought the first movie in the series was surprisingly well done. And then New Moon was such a disappointment, full of every imaginable cliche and silliness, complete with a flash forward of Bella running in slo-mo through a field of flowers in a flowy dress with syrupy music playing. It was so bad it was laughable. So I was wary about Eclipse, but thought I’d give it a chance. And they did better this time. Bella was less annoyingly grim, it was funnier (the scene with Bella telling her dad she’s still a virgin was priceless), and the Edward-Jake tensions and rivalry were funny, too.

Letters to Juliet

This is another one I had low expectations for. It looked totally sappy and brainless in the trailers. But I ended up enjoying it. Of course, the film’s contention that people who love each should want to spend every waking moment together was silly, and personally I wouldn’t have complained about traveling through Italy eating cheese and truffles and going to wine tastings with Gael Garcia Bernal. But the whole film was easy on the eyes (both scenery and people), and kind of refreshing in the way it managed to sneak in bits of intelligent dialogue and characterization in between the typical by-the-numbers rom-com moments.

Good Dick(on DVD)

I know, what a name! I fear it’s going to attract the totally wrong sort of traffic to this blog. But I had to mention it because this was a great, great little film. It’s about a guy who works in a video shop, his fellow misfit coworkers, and a mysterious, reclusive young woman who comes in every afternoon and rents an armload of softcore porn videos. The story is moving, funny, and original, and the acting was well-done. (Although, Mormon friends, I don’t think this is one for you, unless you are on the far-liberal end of the spectrum.)

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A shiny new bag

A Shiny New Bag

Chanson of Letters from a Broad has memed me. I am flattered to be memed, plus meming people back is much easier than thinking of a blog post on my own, so here goes. (For opaque reasons, the meme is called “Happy 101 Sweet Friends,” hence the title of my post.)

The instructions are: List 10 things that make your day & then give this award to 10 bloggers.

Okay, then, ten things that make my day, in no particular order of preference:

1. My daughter. Yes, I realize that is not very original, but really, honestly, I absolutely am monkey-bananas crazy about being a mom, and the great thing about it is that there is no social disapprobation there, the way there might be with other things I like such as eating warmed-up Spaghetti-os with meatballs from the can, or enjoying Stephenie Meyer novels. It’s rare for me to have a day that is not made far more awesome by having my daughter in it. (Although yesterday, when we had a long plane ride which began with her peeing on the seat, yesterday may have been one of those rare days …)

2. Badger sightings. There is this badger who lives in the neighborhood, and every now and then, I catch sight of him gamboling on the grassy hill between my row of townhouses and the one facing it. As sort of a city girl by nature who grew up in the desert, it never fails to astonish me that I am seeing an actual badger, live, in the flesh, right before my very eyes.

3. A shiny new bag. I get a good, old-fashioned, girly thrill from stalking a potential new purse for weeks online, drooling over it in private, mentally calculating how much I need to save up to afford it, fretting over other things I could buy instead of it, finally just breaking down and ordering it, and then wearing it everywhere even with outfits it doesn’t remotely match. Same goes for shoes.

4. Catching an obscure literary reference. It is so deeply satisfying when someone tosses off a phrase like “young Werther, here” in conversation (see the movie (500) Days of Summer), or has a quote in Classical Greek up on their Facebook page, or somebody refers to something as Proustian, and you’re all like, “Ah, yes, of course, so Proustian, that!” or “Ha, he is just like young Werther!” or “True—as they say, meden agan.” And you are suddenly filled with the happy sense that your many painful years of over-education may not have been a total waste.

5. Getting a piece of writing accepted for publication. This has happened to me a handful of times now, and it always feels like winning ten thousand dollars in the lottery, even though the most I’ve ever been paid for a piece is … oh, never mind … and even though I know from the start only my friends and family are ever going to read it.

6. Hearing about new, mind-blowing scientific research. Example: a philosophy prof friend told me about this book The Imprinted Brain, and it sounded so interesting I checked it out of the library and started reading it. So interesting, although I won’t bother trying to explain it here—read my friend’s review instead; the author has this mind-blowing theory involving the relationship between autism and psychosis and male vs. female brain characteristics and genetic expression. And then there was that great piece in the Atlantic on the orchid vs. dandelion genes a while back. Anyway, I just love stuff like that.

7. Communiqués from long-lost siblings. I love all my family to pieces, but certain siblings who shall not be named often go for weeks or months without calling or writing, which makes hearing from them extra exciting. Maybe that is all part of their devious plan, to be more appreciated as a sibling by being mysterious and rarely seen or heard from, but if so, I totally fall for it.

8. Seeing a large body of water. As mentioned previously, I grew up in the desert, so I still get a little frisson whenever I first catch sight of a river or lake or ocean or beach. All that blue, all at once. Heck, I even get excited about the creek in the park behind our neighborhood.

9.Participating in the pop-cultural zeitgeist. By this I mean those times when there’s something everybody is excited about—the new Harry Potter film, or the latest Battlestar Galactica episode, for example—and I am also excited about that same thing. I feel all swept up in the cultural  moment and one with the rest of humanity.

10. Offers of babysitting. Much as I love being a mom (see #1, above), the occasional break from motherhood is also very nice.

Here are my 10 blogs—again, in no particular order of preference. It was kind of hard to come up with this list because I don’t have too many friends who are really into blogging, at least not that I know of. I realize not everyone is into being memed, and for some of you the meme would not fit into the theme of your blog at all. So I will not be offended if you don’t meme back, no worries.

  1. Self-Portrait as
  2. Chocolate & Garlic
  3. Dan-Dee-Lyun
  4. The Post-Pessemist Association
  5. The Snarr Zoo
  6. The Sundance Burtons
  7. LDS Food Critic
  8. DCARTOONS
  9. Yopping
  10. Abdul Ali

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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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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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Escapism vs. Creativity

Last night my big sister and I went to see the movie 2012 (my daughter and I are in Phoenix this week visiting her, and I’m taking advantage of getting to go to the movies more often than I do at home). It was fun – very campy and over-the-top, not high film art or anything, but fun.

(WARNING: Potential spoilers follow …)

So it’s funny, the main character of this movie is a writer who’s separated from his wife and two kids. He’s had one book published with a small print run of 500 copies, but naturally, his writing indirectly saves hundreds of lives, because it inspires another character to make a heart-warming speech about how the self-serving government bigwigs ought to let more people onto these gigantic ships they’ve built to save humanity from the apolcalyptic floods.

And, conveniently, after this writer has proved what a big-hearted guy he is by rescuing his ex-wife and kids and her new boyfriend, and after he’s shown how mature and forgiving he is by admitting that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend isn’t so bad after all, the ex-wife’s new boyfriend just happens to get painfully ground up in a giant can opener-type contraption (whoops), and (surprise!) his ex-wife realizes that he, the writer dude, is the one she really wanted all along, even though it’s clear from the film that he was a terrible husband and spent most his time when they were together ignoring her and his kids so he could sit around and write.

This plot definitely sounds like some writer’s escapist fantasy, which isn’t to say I don’t sympathize with the guy, since of course I also like to sit around and write.

So then afterwards my sister and I were talking about how much of writing (the literary or creative kind) comes from escapism and how much of it comes from being driven to do it. Of course, every writer is different, but I find that with my own writing, I definitely go back and forth. I like to write about things that I enjoy thinking about (e.g., nice people, beautiful settings in nature). That kind of subject matter provides a great little mini-vacation from real life sometimes. It’s like with Westley in The Princess Bride when he’s getting tortured by the evil six-fingered count – when I’m stuck waiting in line at the post office, or changing the fourth poopy diaper of the day, or inching along in rush hour traffic, I can just go to my happy place and work on a story in my head.

But I also like taking on projects that are more ambitious and potentially painful, and not out of pure masochism either, but because there’s a certain drive there to construct things – to start with nothing and end up with something. It’s a creative urge that’s there regardless of how pleasant or painful the act of creation might be. It’s kind of a strange thing, sort of the opposite of entropy – a force that wants to impose new structure and order on the raw material of one’s thoughts and experiences, to push this new structure out of potentiality into actuality, to bring something into being.

And there’s a sense, too, in which this urge to make something is unrelated to how good the final product is. You might know from the outset that everyone will think it sucks, and yet you still want to do it. You might know from the outset that no one besides your mom will ever read it, and yet you still want to do it.

The escapist urge is logical and easy to understand. The creative urge is just plain weird. There’s something mysterious and miraculous about it. As with other alleged miracles, it’s entirely possible to doubt whether it’s even real and there aren’t more sordid explanations behind it, like that it’s some sort of escapism gone bent and twisted. But I think it’s for real.

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