Monday, April 01, 2013

the story of struggle and what i read in march

If this wood paneling could talk....
If I weren’t so beaten down by travel, teaching prep, family events and my Easter candy hangover (which I have all kinds of “sugar and dairy feed tumors”/“do you really want to be bald AND fat?” self-talk about)…I would tell you all about the amazing video art piece I saw at the Menil Collection in Houston. Untitled (Structures) is the story of the Civil Rights Movement as told by decaying buildings, crazy-ass wallpaper, solemn people in gorgeous Mad Men clothing and movement so slow it seems like a still photo (which is the story of all struggle, come to think of it). It’s about juxtaposition and perspective. It’s so pretty I can easily imagine it getting co-opted by a creative director at Urban Outfitters or something. There’s not a lot of video art that really mesmerizes me, but this is a big exception.

But I think there’s a connection (so the brain-science-lovin’ folks on NPR keep telling me) between exhaustion and lack of willpower, so in the interest of fending off further candy attacks, I’m going to keep this short. Here’s what I read in March:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: I am a snob (at least in the regular world; in the literary world I'm a populist), so I suspected this book would suck. It doesn't. The idea of a post-apocalyptic world in which kids fight for their lives on a reality show is not the freshest ever, but it's executed here with fresh touches. The bifurcation between a shiny, hyper-mediated society and a society in which people essentially live in the nineteenth century seems about right. The idea that winning the games isn't really winning, because the Gamemakers punish anyone who doesn't play by the rules, strikes a chord with me too. I admire Peeta's desire to maintain dignity even if he can't beat the system. The writing is solid if not spectacular. Is the love story a little contrived? Yes. Do developments like Rue's death serve plot before character? Yes. But overall I'd call this book a guilt-free pleasure.

Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy: The title story in this collection feels like a Nicholas Sparks novel for middle-aged women who subscribe to the New Yorker. (I say this as an almost-middle-aged woman who subscribes to the New Yorker.) It's dripping with sentences that seem written solely for the purpose of making the reader swoon at their profundity, but which actually mean nothing, or something really obvious. The plot: Two people who've lost someone meet cute and fall in love at first sight and say things like "Stones are really quite beautiful, aren't they?" The subsequent stories are better by varying degrees. "Tiger, Tiger" exists in a realer, less pretentious world. The narrator finds a stash of writings by a deceased pediatrician that pretty much lays out the basics of attachment theory (is that intentional?). "The Coming and Going of Strangers," about multiple generations of Irish gypsies, is genuinely moving. But "The City of Windy Trees" is back to instant love and fake profundity, this time when a depressed (but charmingly quirky! he collects kites and Italian loafers!) man discovers the six-year-old daughter he never knew he had. As soon as he learns of her existence, his life has meaning. Maybe I was just super jaded by this point (or quite possibly in general), but I just thought, "Ugh, that's the dream of bio parenthood, isn't it? All the connection and none of the work."

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom: I want to call these stories "ruthlessly human" or say they get in touch with the sharpest edges of femininity--I want to find a generalized, intelligent way of saying that when the narrator of "Stars at Elbow and Foot," who has lost her newborn son, says she hates all women because they might be pregnant, I quietly whispered yes. Most of Amy Bloom's characters are members of the upper and upper-middle classes who try to hold it together but don't fool themselves. Bloom isn't afraid to strip them down further. In the title story, a mother realizes that her perfect, confident young daughter is a boy at heart; she's devastated but immediately begins saving money for gender reassignment surgery. That's the way of these characters--they're simultaneously judgmental and empathic, and they know what they must do. Flawed as some of them are, I kind of feel like that's not a bad approach to middle age. Bloom's writing is sharp and tight and subtly strange. I often have trouble paying attention to story collections in audio format, but this one grabbed me and held on tight.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane: If Ron Carlson wrote genre, I think this is what it might look like: plain, round language and beautiful, mundane details; and a quiet exploration of masculinity's softer and darker sides. Sometimes the characters talk like they're in a movie, but it feels like a GOOD movie, which is probably why Lehane's other novels have been made into a couple of my favorites (Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island). Despite its fierce humanity--or maybe because of it--this novel feels cynical in some of its conclusions. People don't change. We meet Sean, Jimmy and Dave as a good kid from a middle class family, a smart wild daredevil and a pathetic follower, respectively. They grow up to be a cop, a criminal ringleader and a man fighting a losing battle with his demons.

So how does the book stay interesting and not just become a whodunit? (Although, as such, it's great--all literary novelists should look to good genre writing for lessons in structure and how to reveal what, when.) By showing how each man is shaped by the secrets he chooses to keep or reveal, especially to his wife, that's how. The men who reveal--who choose to see their wives as true partners--are the ones who win, whether that means enforcing the law or breaking it. For all the neatly tied plot bows and playing out of karma, you've got to admire such progressive themes.

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway: In a post-Midnight in Paris world, Hemingway sounds a lot like a parody of Hemingway. But once I got past that, I fell in love with the language and wanted to spend an infinite vacation motoring around Europe, boating and swimming and chatting up local fisherman, eating brioche and drinking whiskey with Perrier and getting my hair done every three days. And once I got past THAT, I realized, Oh, this is one of those Bitches Be Crazy books in which an absurd female disrupts the creativity of a man whose only sin was to fall for her. Said female, Catherine, is an interesting character--I liked her more than some of Philip Roth's Crazy Bitches. She's headstrong and genderqueer. I think she's supposed to represent the protagonist's self-destructive alter ego, the part of him that puts his vulnerability into the world instead of his writing and gets burned for it. That makes Marita--his blushing, passive, loyal and sexy mistress, who instantly "gets" his writing--his stronger and more successful self. If you look at the three of them as aspects of one guy, the novel is arguably less misogynist. Except what's more misogynist than writing women who are just aspects of a guy? Maybe that's why this one didn't get published until after Hemingway died. But I still want some whiskey and Perrier.

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