Friday, April 28, 2017

Summer Books (Already!)

After a glut of strange reading choices this winter, I've finally found some nice footing. At one point, I had a book of intricate knitting patterns, a generic instructional on interior decorating, exercises for pregnant woman, and dozens of birthing books I had no intention of reading all crowding the corner of my desk.  It was sad, not because there was anything wrong with the books themselves, but because my days felt unfocused without the driving pleasure of being attached to one.

For some reason - I guess it's because lilacs are blooming - I started craving summer books: characters puzzling through their lives while gazing at the water, sunburns and sandy toes and sweaty, tinkling cocktails on porches at the end of the day.  When I happened upon Summer People, a debut novel by Brian Groh, on one of Tim's bookshelves, I dove right in.

I mean, give me a book with oars on its cover and the promise of snobby New Englanders from the perspective of an outsider, and I might just be your friend for life.  This particular water-front story, about an aspiring graphic novelist who takes care of an ailing woman one summer in Maine, was full of humor, strong, clean prose, and genuinely surprising twists.

I also read Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, which was seriously addictive.  The prose is electric and the story, about a young woman who moves to New York City and gets a job in a high-end restaurant, is about her education in both love and life, and takes readers along on her discovery of how much flavor exists in both palate and mind (and body) when she gives herself the chance to explore it.  Usually I'm annoyed by narratives of excess, especially when driven by young characters who keep ignoring their inner compass, but the intelligence behind this novel felt like a serious anchor, and I frankly wanted the sentences to never, ever end. 

Similarly, I read a new novel called Marlena, written by Julie Buntin, which I discovered through Twitter somehow.  I think it caught my attention because parts of it are set in northern Michigan.  I put it on my list because Buntin's writing is so clear and unflinching.  This piece about her mother's reaction to the mom character in Marlena took my breath away. 

Marlena is another story about a young woman testing her limits of self-control, this time as a fifteen-year old whose newly divorced mom moves back to the place she grew up, taking her adolescent children with her, where they are exposed to people who cook meth, deal drugs, and worse. 

The main character's best friend, Marlena, is a girl whose family life is less than ideal, and this basically drives her to grossly self-destructive behavior.  But it's the narrator's thoughts on her friend's behavior which ultimately kept me reading, and while I'm not sorry to have read a book about teenagers behaving badly (whatever that means), I do struggle with narratives about experimenting with drugs or playing adult in ways young characters aren't emotionally ready for, because I personally want to hold space for a different way of growing up.

I don't know if my middle grade years are a gold standard for kids: there were plenty of hours spent reading terrible books like The Babysitter's Club while eating too many Pecan Sandies at my parent's kitchen table.  I can recall doing strange Jane Fonda-like exercises while watching Saturday Night Live and Arsenio Hall on my basement floor when I was in sixth and seventh and eighth grade.  These are not things that make a great person.  Even though I had a few very close friends, I tended to choose solitary activities like walking in the woods and suntanning to the point of exhaustion, and by the time I got to high school where I went to for-reals parties where parents were out of town, and I started dating seriously, the hours I still watched movies by myself became some of my fondest memories later. 

Give me a blanket, a sinky couch, and a Brad Pitt movie, and I will calm like a swaddled babe, still. (These days it's probably more a Billy Crudup or Mark Ruffalo movie, to be honest.)  This might be a privileged perspective, but I don't feel like self-destruction is as necessary to learning who you are in the world as our culture may believe.  I mean, of course, we're all going to do dumb crap and no one can be in tune with themselves at every second of every day, especially a young person figuring out who to trust and who they want to be, but I appreciated the eventually sober take in Buntin's book about the chaos and loss of those adolescent days, because I believe in sanity and healthy boundaries for everyone: adults, children, and everyone in-between. 

Speaking of sanity, we celebrated Samantha's third birthday with a day at the beach and ice cream because the kid eschews cake.  After a day of reading library books on our stoop and playing under the sun, she fell asleep in one of her presents (which isn't as funny as it sounds because it was a shirt).  The next day, we were all so sleepy and worn out, Samantha and I spent the day in pjs.  She built "nests" out of blankets around the house and read books to herself while I cooked various meals.

It was heaven.

Finally, we've been Red Boxing it because Tim and I are both 102 inside and can't deal with things like cable or Netflix. The Great British Bake Off, however, is seriously rearranging my mind about Netflix, which we once had at the end of grad school and then went away for the summer, carting an overdue DVD around national parks for three months because we cannot be trusted.

About a month ago, Tim rented Manchester By the Sea and then fell asleep on the couch leaving me to sob sob sob, all by myself.  While I don't agree with some of the writing in Manchester, and this article about Casey Affleck disturbs me - as I think it should disturb all of us, I loved the technical skill of the director and could watch footage from a camera positioned on dark, cold water all day long.  (See also: Olive Kitteridge.)  

The real gem for me, though, has been 20th Century Women, which was directed by Mike Mills, who wrote and directed Beginners, starring Christopher Plumber and Ewan McGregor.  Tim thinks McGregor is only as good as the director he works with, something I hadn't really considered before, but might be true.  Thoughts there?  Actually, it was either my husband who said that or my movies-podcast partner, Lukis.  Is it bad that I can't remember which?  It's okay, I think.  They're friends and either one of them could have said it.

I knew nothing about 20th Century Women before Tim brought it home - are you getting a picture of my life yet, where Tim goes out for things and I lie in a hammock being waved with palm fronds? - and was delighted to see Billy Crudup in it because Billy Crudup is my woobie. 

Annette Bening is also high on my list of actors I would watch eat cereal or read a book or wash a car, and while Greta Gerwig can go either way for me, I really admire the writing in 20th Century Women and appreciated her character by the end.  The actor who most impressed me was perhaps Elle Fanning who is, what, eight years old now?  Just kidding, she's nineteen.  I last saw her in Sophia Coppola's truly perplexing Somewhere (which felt an awful lot like nowhere, didn't it?) and was pleased to see her with tons of lines and complexity in this film.

I'll spare you the podcast jag I've been on, except to say that I found S-Town truly mesmerizing and wasn't too conflicted while listening to it.  Missing Richard Simmons, on the other hand, feels underdeveloped, gimmicky, and sometimes just plain rude.  (I also can't get over how many trips the creator of MRS takes that result in no material.  What kind of budget were they on?)

Happy Spring, people!  I'm off to hang half a dozen boat oars around my bedroom walls.  Just kidding.  (Mostly.)  I'd probably do it if sleeping under solid oak clubs weren't such a hazard.  Then again, there's a whole blank wall facing the bed right now.  Hmm...   

Monday, March 27, 2017

Take This Waltz

I stayed up late watching Take This Waltz last week, the movie directed by Canadian director and actress Sarah Polley about a young woman at a crossroads in her cozy life.  I not-so-secretly love this movie. Because its tone is overwhelmingly melancholy, I have to be in the right mood for it, but it has a stunningly bright color palette and some smoking hot scenes that make my tongue go dry.  I do struggle with some of its essential takeaways, however, like:

  • life has a “gap” in it that you can’t really fill
  • monogamy will always iron itself out to boredom and disconnection in the end
  • switching partners will never help you escape yourself

Okay, those first and last points I do agree with, but I am consistently disappointed in the script’s efforts to put forward that middle one.  It seems to want to ruin a very hot love affair by (spoiler alert!) moving the couple in together at the end, showing them speaking different languages of domesticity that read like, Woops! Those two might not make it, after all.  I always want to re-write the ending, and re-cast the main female character as a woman who knows what she’s doing, a woman who doesn’t use baby talk to show her feelings, a woman choosing her future deliberately.

But no matter how much I want to change the ending of the movie, I will still be casting the male lead, Luke Kirby, in all my daydreams about life and boardwalk afternoons forever and ever amen.

Speaking of boardwalk afternoons, I appreciate how much the movie is a love letter to the city of Toronto.  As Polley herself said in one of the extra featurettes about the film: Toronto doesn’t think of itself as sexy but she thinks of it this way, and she wanted this movie to reflect her feelings about it. 
She also said she doesn’t want viewers to know how they feel about the main character’s decisions in the movie, like whether or not to leave her husband.  This feels right to me – this is a movie that never settles on one path or solution, which feels like something I can get behind, as both a consumer of fiction and also a participant in life. 

In this Brainpickings article, Susuan Sontag is quoted as saying: “A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine . . . The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.”

She also says: “The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions… Furnishing opinions, even correct opinions — whenever asked — cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to pursue complexity.”

This last thought feels so important to my internal life right now, which until recently was feeling utterly battered by the news cycle. I don’t really have more to say about that, but let’s just say for most of the winter I was glued to headlines and Twitter.  This sort of behavior is a departure for me, but I feel a real call to be as informed as possible lately, so I’m mostly going with it.  In this Sun interview, which a friend sent me, “radical priest” Matthew Fox has this to say about being awake and aware in the world today:

“The mystic in us is the lover. The mystic says yes. But the prophet in us is the warrior, and the warrior says, ‘No, this is unjust. No, this is suffering that we can work to relieve.’ That’s the rhythm of the mystic and the prophet, the lover and the warrior. It’s not enough to be one or the other. Pancho Ramos Stierle, who worked with the Occupy movement in Oakland, has said that it’s time for the contemplatives to become active and the activists to become contemplative. This moment in history calls for a dance between the two.”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit.  I’m seeing it in the people around me: fiery people learning how to care for themselves, patient people becoming more active. 

There’s so much more I could say about this, but lately I find myself feeling quiet about so many things, just soaking in my life.  It’s probably fitting, because I’m four and a half months pregnant with our second child.  I’m so tired and internally busy that I don’t have the energy for much outward expansion. 

That’s why I’ve been absent here this winter.  I’ve been reading and watching movies and cooking and sleeping.  Not much of it sticks with me right now.  I feel both utterly present and also in sort of a tectonic fog, where many things in my life are either underground or at rest.  I’m fine with that but it doesn’t make for many zippy posts.   

This is how I spent my whole first trimester, on the couch or bed with a pack of crackers.
If I’m slow to post from now until the fall, it’s because I’m in the kitchen listening to Dr. Dog, or on the couch reading 90’s decorating books, or in bed wondering if it’s late enough to turn out the light.  One of the surprising and blessed constants for me these days is yoga, and I’m still working on creative projects.  But most days, I’m wading through the callings: a walk, a podcast, a recipe, with one amazing kiddo inviting me to read the same four books over and over or play orange Playdough with her.  Tim bought Samantha a little basketball and the two of them have designed a game where the hoop is a wicker basket that sheds fibers all over the living room.  It’s all very rich, and somewhat mundane, a word our culture doesn’t have a lot of room for.  But truthfully, I rather like it like that: daily, sweet, and monumental only over the long haul.


P.S. Tim and I watched the movie Loving the other night, and it was so moving.  Jeff Nichols has directed Mud, Take Shelter, and Midnight Special, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, mostly because of the magnetically intense actor Michael Shannon, so we gave this one a shot.  Loving takes a little time to really start but the story of an interracial couple marrying in 1958 and enduring midnight raids and jail sentences in their state of Alabama is so incredibly important.  Here’s a great article about the movie, which details the couple’s long road to the Supreme Court to defend their marriage, a legal case that made anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in the U.S.

P.P.S. I know many people would disagree with me on this, but after reading the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, which I wrote about here, I have a hard time putting Leonard Cohen, who wrote the song "Take This Waltz," on a pedestal.  Admittedly, there are plenty of Leonard Cohen pedestals in the world already, so who will mourn the loss of one, but every time I hear the line "
Oh, I want you, I want you, I want you/ On a chair with a dead magazine," I want to scream.  It reminds me of high-end fashion advertisements of mannequin-like women stuffed into garbage cans, half-dead women in space-age makeup holding a purse or a pair of sunglasses with their legs bent at weird angles: fantasy devoid of movement, objectification supreme.  No thanks, Leonard!