Journalogue.

September 3, 2008

Do you keep a journal, or does it keep you? I often wonder about this, the systematic recording of one’s thoughts, feelings, wishes, fears, desires, episodes, et cetera. I mean, why? Why do it?

Because it’s cathartic, it reminds us of where we’ve been, it shows us how strong we are when we see how far we’ve come.

In college, I was enchanted with author and libertine Peter McWilliams. He wrote a couple of books that were absolutely critical to me. One of them was Come Love With Me and Be My Life. In it, he records the beginning, middle, and end of a romantic love experience. It’s almost voyeuristic to read, because it’s journalistic in nature, and no doubt anyone who’s been through a heartbreak (or two) could relate. One of my favorite entries:

I write only
until I cry,
which is why
so few poems
this month
have been
completed.
It’s just
that
I…

###

Wright.

August 10, 2008


It has taken me a couple of weeks to post about the novel Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan. I’ve been perplexed by it–seriously have wondered if the book was put forth with any expectation by the author that the reader would find any sympathy for the characters.

I had to let the book sink into my consciousness, because my judgments were so harsh and so quick. The book centers on the fictionalized, though probable, account of Frank Lloyd Wright and his affair with the wife of one of his clients, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Horan attempts to put forth their affair so that we should believe their actions are justifiable and even noble. Wright and Cheney fancy themselves other, different, exempt from the mores of society. They are geniuses and forward-thinking: they need not bother with the usual concerns that those in an affair would face–the breaking up of one’s marriage, the terrible impact on the children, the judgment of one’s peers. No, they were above it all (or we are asked to think so) because they were talented.

I work in a building designed by Wright, and his persona is celebrated and hovers in the air each day as I make my way to my desk. I’ve often wondered about the man who thought up those walls, the angles of those staircases, those halls. I imagined him brilliant and eccentric. The truth? He was those things. Mamah was too, to some extent. But, they were also egocentric, pompous, self-absorbed, ugly. ###

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I just finished I Cannot Get You Close Enough, a compilation of three novellas (or mini-novels) by Ellen Gilchrist.

I am charmed by this collection of stories because Gilchrist uses some interesting writing tactics here–she doesn’t write in full sentences, she doesn’t fully describe the physicality of the characters, she doesn’t wholly tell a story from beginning to end but instead gives you small glimpses into the lives of her characters. It took a while to get used to this writing style, but I found I enjoyed her writing quite a lot once I got over the strange English usage and stopped the editing/proofreading that comes automatically to me.

For those who are writing and are having difficulty grappling with a whole manuscript, pick up this book and check it out. It may give you ideas on how to handle material in a new, refreshing way.

Novellas, while smaller in width, can have an impact, be memorable, and let a story shine without being weighed down by stretching itself into a Big Book.

Well, now. I just finished my upcurrrent swim through the tome Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund. Set in the 1800s during the height of the whaling industry, the book examines slavery, and equity, love, and yes–whales. The book examines the notion that Ahab, of Moby Dick, had a wife who kept notes and eventually wrote a novel regarding her experiences before and after meeting Ahab.

It was a struggle to get through, and pedantic, and terribly perfect in ways that made it feel remote and unreal. I could never relate to Una, the novel’s protagonist. She is intact always, regardless of her struggles, regardless of the heartbreaks she endures (too easily endures, really). Lose a lover, lose a child…it’s a tragedy until she contemplates the stars and the sea, and all her grief becomes unrealistically poetic and she is just…her…just Una, the same, never changed. Perfect, always.

But one small thing I have to admit to: I am in the minority here. The book is celebrated. It’s comparisions to Moby Dick broad and loved. For me, (and if you know me–you know I’m not the sort to say this!) the best portions of the book are in the heart of the action scenes, the swashbuckling whale chases, the try-pots burning with whale blubber.

But just re-read Moby Dick. Skip this one.

This weekend, we made a quick get-away to Monterey. I was reminded of how relaxing the coastal drive is, and it was made even more beautiful by absolutely *perfect* weather.

Cannery Row and the various signs and images of Steinbeck all have a certain romance for me. I was excited because I picked up a copy of East of Eden, which I’ve only read parts of before. But, even better…I bought something called The East of Eden Papers…essentially it’s Steinbeck’s personal letters to his editor at Viking Press, along with his musings and notes about the craft of writing.

I started the Papers last night, and was blown away. Steinbeck was, of course, a truly talented writer, but this glimpse into his preparation and practice of writing is fascinating! It’s almost like a writers-workshop…but infinitely better because he never intended that it be made public.

I’ll post more about Steinbeck, I’m sure. Reading his work and his thoughts on his work is inspiring.

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A friend gave me Jennifer Weiner’s book, Little Earthquakes, to read. I was glad she did, too, because this isn’t a book I’d have pulled off the shelf on my own, and so by her passing it on, I got to read something that was fresh and new to me.

The book centers on four women who are all new moms (well, three of them are…one of the women has lost her baby to SIDS…a tragedy). The notion is that new motherhood is terrifically difficult–much more so than we may be led to believe by a society that focuses on which stroller or diaper bag we should register for, or which darling outfit we’ll bring the baby home in…that kind of thing. The truth is, the first year of motherhood is baptism by fire.

For some (like myself) early motherhood is an exercise in humility, in self-doubt, and most of all, an exercise in extreme, relentless exhaustion. Jennifer Weiner captures all of this well. She chronicles with humor how strangers and family members alike offer up well-meaning advice, and how it invariably leads one to feel resentment…as in “Thank you very much for your opinion…now beat it.”

This book is an amusing and warm read, even if you are not a mom. If you are a new mom, well then, enjoy this during one of your 3:00 a.m. feedings. You’ll find something of yourself in one (if not all) of the characters.

Keeping secrets.

December 28, 2006

I just finished reading While I was Gone, by Susan Miller. Quick outline of plot: a woman in her 50’s is happily married with 3 grown children, when she runs into someone from her bohemian, wildish past. She goes through a sense of unease as she’s reminded of this past and as she finds herself attracted to this man from it.

The central theme of the book seems to be the self-examination of one’s life and how your actions impact others. What I got from the story was that sometimes a secret really should be kept a secret. The main character, Jo, ends up confessing her attraction to the man from her past to her husband. She did not have a physical affair with him–but she did think about doing so…in detail.

I had a hard time liking Jo. I found her to be self-indulgent, even cruel in her attempts to be honest with her husband. Is it virtuous to share these kinds of feelings with your significant other? I don’t think it is–not when the outcome is so much pain, distrust, disappointment. It seems to me that the burden of the secret is the price the unfaithful should have to bear for their crime.  To unburden oneself by laying it on an innocent party is just, well, rotton.

Susan Miller does write beautifully. At one point, she writes a sermon for one of the characters to give…it’s a moving and thought-provoking piece of the book. For this part alone, the novel is worth reading. You may feel, as I did, some frustration with a sense of repitition in the novel–the language is lyrical in a way that makes you feel that you’ve already read certain passages (particulary where Jo is examining her feelings about the past and her role in it).

My recommendation: go ahead and read it, if you’ve got the time.

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Twenty years later.

December 20, 2006

In 1987, Sue Grafton started her “alphabetical mystery novel” series…A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar…and so on, and she has now come to the letter S. I purchased S is for Silence (the 19th book in the series; I’ve read them all) with not a little anticipation.  Nineteen books, one book a year=twenty years.

I feel I know the main character, Kinsey Millhone. I have a picture in my head of what she looks like, and I can hear her voice when I read these books.  When I spied S is for Silence in paperback at Costco, I was game.

So it was with surprise that I did not enjoy this book. What happened? Same character, basically same style.  What’s happened is that it’s twenty years later, and I’ve changed so much in those twenty years that I no longer really like this kind of writing.  The series was great when I was younger, but it is too simplistic and trite to work for me now.  What was once comfortable has become, well, too comfortable.  Yawn.

I realized this with a bit of regret.  I like being devoted to a particular author and series.  But…if the author, the author’s writing, and/or the series don’t evolve with you…if the characters don’t “grow up” as you mature, it becomes stale.

Note to my writing self: real people change, fictitious people need to change, too.

My recommendation: read it if you’re a long-time Grafton fan.  Otherwise, take a pass.

When good people aren’t.

December 10, 2006

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I just read House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III.  I had picked the book up with a fair amount of interest, even though a friend of mine “hated” the book.  I realized somewhere in the first 100 pages that the book had been made into a movie…a major disappointment to me as I typically avoid books that eventually become movies.

The book is set in the California Bay Area, so it was particularly interesting to me.  I recognized several of the locations in the novel and it was entertaining to read about places I’ve been.  The book centers on two main characters who both have a claim to the same house.  The house is the mechanism that the author uses to introduce conflict, as both characters fight for this house emotionally and physically.  Essentially, the fight leads two decent people into a warren of questionable actions, finally coming to a grandiose crescendo at the end that is reminiscent of Greek tragedies.  Indeed, the ending was a bit over the top…but it made it’s point.  Nobody can miss the lesson that sometimes people get in over their heads.

I have not seen the movie, nor do I want to.  I enjoyed the book on its merits, and I have yet to see a movie based on a book that lived up to the novel. 

My recommendation: pick it up at the library or borrow it from someone (a major bestseller and an Oprah pick–someone you know owns this book), but be prepared for a bit of a downer.  This story doesn’t uplift and it highlights many sad flaws in our human nature.  Not a “must-read,” but good nonetheless.

How classy are you?

November 20, 2006

I’ve carried around Paul Fussel’s book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, for years and through several moves.  I recently re-read the book for somewhere around the 10th time, and was as amused and intrigued as the first time I read it when I was just out of college.

Class is an entertaining expose of how the truly “out-of-sight wealthy” (this means those royalty in places like Greece, not wealthy “debutantes” like Paris Hilton–according to this book, she’d merely be rich, not upper class) live as opposed to how those of us in the mundane middle classes live.  But…which “middle class” are you?  There are, according to Fussel, several levels of middle class–upper-middle, middle-middle, and lower-middle.  He goes into detail about these and also the “proletariat” or lower classes. 

You’ll like this book if you “get” why a worn, threadbare rug is higher class than a brand spanking new rug.  Or, that a dusty room messy with books and newspapers is higher class than a sparkling clean living room with the latest t.v. set.  What bespeaks “really old money”–an old chevy that’s been kept up or the flashy Ferrari? 

It’s fun to take a glimpse at the snobbery of the upper classes and the sometimes sad yearning and pretensions of the middle classes.  A caveat: this book was written years ago, so some of the standards have changed…some of the upper class trappings are far more attainable than they used to be, so some folks can pretend to the upper classes.  Still, a very fun read.

For reviews and other info on Class:

http://www.amazon.com/Class-Through-American-Status-System/dp/0671792253/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_a/002-8262244-7318437