Friday, March 20, 2020

Welcome to the Jungle

Greetings from the apocalypse.  My notes for this post disappeared weeks ago which is appropriate.  Half of the people in our house have the flu, and those standing don't look so hot.  But it's okay because I started watching Love Is Blind a few nights ago - though I can't believe I'm leading with this.  It's a Netflix show about people who get to know each other by talking in "pods," who propose to each other without ever meeting in person.  It's ludicrous and fun, and I watched while cattily positing who was going to make it and who was not.  The whole experience has been a welcome distraction from the general stress of a pandemic, and the specific stress of two fevered, whining children. 

Another distraction has been, quelle surprise, a rock bio about Axl Rose called W.A.R. - The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose.  I can't explain why reading about people who soak their lives in adrenaline and chemicals soothes me so much, but it sure does. 
I drank it down.  A while back, I heard GN'R bassist Duff McKagan on Marc Maron's podcast, on this episode of WTF, and he just sounded so dang sweet.  Of course, the real reason I picked up the book was because of the stigma and enigma that is Axl Rose himself. 

Moving on.  At someone's suggestion, I read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and really, really dug it.  The title is not my favorite, but who asked me?  The ending was also a little wobbly for me, but I consumed the book in great big draughts, including one stint when I sat down at eleven at night, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind that I would stay up reading until I finished it, which I did with no regrets. 

I picked up a pretty cookbook called The New Sugar & Spice: a Recipe for Bolder Baking after hearing the author, Samantha Seneviratne, on my friend Amelia's podcastThe New Sugar & Spice has a narrative bent and is broken into these sections: Peppercorn & Chile, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove & Cardamom (my fave), Vanilla, and Ginger.  The book is infused with histories of all the spices, has beautiful photos, and was deeply relaxing to read, though I haven't baked from it yet.  Seneviratne's second book, The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life is on my list to read. 

I read Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill shortly after reading She Said, which I wrote about here, and really loved Catch and Kill's style.  Since then, I've heard Farrow describe his "preparation" for writing the book (read: procrastination), which was to plow through stacks and stacks of novels, in an effort to structure his own book with as much suspense as possible.  I appreciated this effort and think it paid off.  Though I knew much of the information in the book already, its pacing and the way its details rolled out made it a compelling read, indeed. 

I have heard Farrow intimate, in a few podcasts, that he's somewhat neurotic and an overachiever, and he writes in the book that he was no picnic to be around, when all the events of the book were unfolding.  But it is plain fun for me when a young writer reaches so big and sticks the landing.  It reminds me of how enamored I was of Karen Russell's debut, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, although let's be real, the wolf on Russell's cover won probably half of my devotion.

Speaking of youth, and its passage - while glancing right past my latest birthday in February - I watched Echo in the Canyon, which was not at all what I thought it would be.  I was expecting a deep dive on musical groups coming out of L.A. in the 60's, and while I got a little of that, it was more of a celebration of a concert put on by Jacob Dylan in 2015 celebrating the 50th year anniversary of the Byrds's Mr. Tambourine Man.  There were some beautiful parts to the movie, including some heavenly shots of Tom Petty (RIP) discussing musicians who influenced everyone, and there were details about Neil Young that made him look a little jerkish, which I welcome even though he has been one of my idols.  But discussion of Joni Mitchell was nowhere to be found and, in some ways, the whole thing was a little wan, though still worth a watch.  There were shots of David Crosby saying wonderfully arrogant things, making the assertion he made in Remember My Name, which I wrote about here, that Dylan went electric after watching the Byrds rehearse with electric guitars one day.  But probably the most touching scene was when Steven Stills was leaving a studio and clasped hands with Jacob Dylan.  The casual intimacy between them was moving.  It seemed simple and real and made me wonder, because of his father, if all these musical heroes are somehow family friends, too. 

Other books on my side tables right now: Sally Rooney's book Ordinary People and Dani Shapiro's Devotion.  Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss, and Muriel Hemingway's memoir Out Came the Sun, about mental illness, depression, and addiction in the Hemingway clan, await me on a shelf behind my desk, and I may never finish any of them.  Staying home all day with sick kids doesn't undo me the way it would some.  If I never had to get in a car and drop another kid off somewhere for the rest of my life, I would not miss it.  But the whining and clinging is not much fun, and I find myself unable to accomplish anything beyond drinking coffee some days. 

March is supposedly Women's History Month and while I don't love contrived, calendrical reasons to become more conscious, I haven't minded perusing National Geographic's Women book, which came out last fall and which I recently checked out with some hefty suspicion.  I don't always love National Geographic's take on the world, and I'm never eager to delve into human beings like they are exotic zebras, but there are some beautiful pictures in the book and nice interviews in the middle of it, including one with Oprah.  It's also infinitely interesting to read about how different generations of women have dealt with sexism in their careers.  Some older women tend to credit their success with their ability to ignore unfavorable environments, to stand up for themselves, without fail, or to put their heads down and work.  I'm sure there is much truth in these insights, but it also, at times, can read as slightly shaming for women who don't have unshakeable confidence, who aren't or weren't able to live so boldly. 

Friends, that's all I've got.  These are strange times, globally, and also for me, personally.  Ellis has some minor health problems that have been tethering me close to home, even before all the semi-quarantining, and it can be overwhelming.  Like most of us, I'm ready for some sunshine and some easier air to breathe. 

P.S. My sister-in-law sent me a link to this series that children's author and illustrator Mo Willems is doing right now.  We watched it yesterday, and it was a true lift.  There's also something endearing about how Willems's face, beard, and glasses seem to be taking on the spirit of Theodor Geisel.  

Speaking of Dr. Seuss, here is a picture of him in his office.  Would you ever in your life get a thing done if that was where you worked? 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Less (the novel), Bikram (the predator), and Marrige Story (the movie)

I finally read Less (there's a confusing sentence!), Andrew Sean Greer's sixth book and winner of the 2018 Pulitzer prize for fiction.  It's so perfectly toned, in my opinion - hilarious and musical, elegant and bouyant - at one point, I asked Tim to look up how many other books Greer had written.  I knew I was in great hands when the main character, the eponymous Arthur Less, interviews a science fiction writer named H. H. H. Mandern.  That extra H. had me in stitches.  The rest of the book is chock full of jokes and lines I wish I had written.  When Tim reported that Greer had published five books before writing Less, I was like, "Good. He can have this perfection, then."  We also marveled at how simple the plot is, in the end, and what a delightful read it was, in spite of that.  In Tim's words: you can win a Pulitzer for that?  But it's so good and was the sort of book I almost started rereading the second I hit the last page.

Last week, a friend of ours visited and asked, of the filing cabinet in the foyer, "Is this new?" as if a used, battered, file chest belongs in everyone's front hall.  In truth, we had some electrical rewiring done in December and I shoved it there so the electricians could drill into our walls and ceilings and find all manner of foils to our best laid plans (they took care of the important things, though, like some seriously "vintage" wiring). Did Ellis run smack into the filing cabinet earlier this week and fall onto the floor, first going up in the air like a cartoon football player before landing, getting up, and stating, "I fell down"? 

He did.  Is the cabinet still in the foyer? 

It is.  What can I say?  He's a champ.

I just finished She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, about how they broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harrassment story for the New York Times.  It wasn't as dense as All the President's Men - which I wrote about reading here - but reminds me of that book at times, if only for my continued disbelief that I can drink in all those pesky reporting details, something I couldn't have spent ten minutes on twenty years ago.  Like watching The Great British Baking Show, I believe part of the thrill is watching other people work hard.

By chance, I listened to Ronan Farrow's interview on the Armchair Expert podcast in the middle of reading She Said, which was trippy in that the authors's investigative reporting overlaps with his quite a bit. 

Even trippier, Tim and I watched the documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, about the Bikram Yoga founder's history of sexually assaulting young women who attend his teacher trainings, and the similarities between Bikram and Weinstein are alarming.  Especially alarming is the way each tries to break initial boundaries by requesting - and in the case of Bikram, always getting - massages.  And yes, Bikram is still holding worldwide teacher trainings, and no, hasn't been criminally prosecuted.

And now, please appreciate my seamless transition into Noah Baumbach's directorial work!  At my friend Amelia's insistence (er, request), I watched Marriage Story, which I had already been eager to see after my other friend Corinne - whose new book is on this ace list on Lit Hub - posted hilarious things on the internet about yelling at the screen when Adam Driver was singing and, maybe, I can't remember, turning the whole thing off.  

Even before that, though, I was prepared not to like Marriage Story.  On the day we watched it, I complained to Tim that Noah Baumbach gets credit for being good when really, he's just moody

I still say so, but I did cry sometimes while watching Marriage Story and was very moved by much of it.  The idea of figuring out custody in a divorce causes me such mourning, I'm surprised I didn't shake all the way through it.  Laura Dern was great - she plays hot, shouting, lady lawyers real good these days, don't she? - and while I sort of want to throw a rock at the screen whenever I see Scarlett Johansson, I loved her high-waist pants and indignation, and the idea of taking my child to live in a big double bed at my mother's sunny Californian house (my mother doesn't live in California) fills me with instant calm. 

One thing Marriage Story makes clear, though: there isn't a thing to be done about Adam Driver's hair.

After watching the movie over a two-night spread, I told Tim that Marriage Story is good at times but really just made me glad I'm not getting a divorce.  Tim responded that it made him glad he's not Noah Baumbach.  Ha!

Speaking of men with healthy egos, at the gym the this week a man of retirement age pointed at the numbers on my treadmill and said I had forty minutes to go to catch up with the numbers on his.  Then he leaned over and added, "I was on the elliptical for an hour before that, so double it."  I laughed because a) I hoped he was kidding b) wouldn't it be nice to have so many hours every day?

At the suggestion of my grad school professor who teased me for wearing a huge down coat in class, I'm reading Sarah Ruhl's 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, a title I can really get behind.  In the very first essay, Ruhl, a mother of three children (and playwright of ten plays), says Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own needs "a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing."  I agree.  She then writes:

"There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict.  When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over.  There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me . . . and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow."

I love that line so much.  All right, then, annihilate me.

Ruhl continues: "I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.  And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion.  At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.  And life, by definition, is not an intrusion."

And here I'd like to include something I read in Jodi Kantor's section of the acknowledgements at the back of She Said.  Speaking to the youngest of her two daughters, Kantor writes: "Violet, you were only a year and a half old when we started, and your innocence made you my refuge.  Parents are supposed to console their children, but I frequently found solace in your curls, songs, made-up words, discoveries, and above all, in the fierceness of your embrace." 

This is something I have often felt.  Not that my children console me, although they do.  I can't count the number of times Samantha brought me seltzers during my pregnancy with Ellis and in the weeks after I had him, when I was too ensconced in nursing to get one myself.  But the presence of their little bodies in a set of pajamas, their breath curling against me in a dark room, soothes me in unquantifiable ways.  And while the mere suggestion of one of them whining causes the hairs on my head to stand up, and my temperature raises four degrees whenever I hear a child cry now, these two pull me toward a beastly comfort that is too delicious, and too abundant, to deny. 

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