Friday, April 9, 2010

A Short Blog in Praise of Patti Smith

So many new hardcover books out there are built to be approached with reverence. Heavy, silken paper. A delicate font. An overabundance of blank pages that sacrifice trees in order to create prestige. If non-fiction, artsy photographs strategically placed. Very few, however, provide the spiritual sustenance promised in such a package. Either the matter is better housed between the yielding comfort of a mass market paperback or the words are simply sham, spouted from the pen of a false preacher.

Patti Smith’s new book, Just Kids, is one of the few new works where the language does justice to its wrappings. A delight from the first sentence, Smith’s writing reaches the poetic heights one would expect from her, only rarely – very rarely – dipping a into sentimental realms.
I had the luxury of attending a Patti Smith concert in an intimate setting shortly after the release of her album, Gone Again. This show was also enlightening and powerful and I hope she embarks on a spoken word tour in support of this book.

Her writing is honest and non-judgmental, non-emotional, even when she questions or doubts. Smith captures the little details that make a life worth living and watching her live her own life is inspiring and comforting. She is always herself. She simply steps into the world and trusts that everything will work out. And it does.

Great read, on so many levels – auto-biography, biography, slice of NYC history, gorgeous writing, spiritual inspiration, the hatching of an artist’s path, and just plain old entertaining.


On the Bookshelf: Whatever is delivered next from my local library.


On the iPod: Bow Thayer’s Shooting Arrows at the Moon and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Beat the Devil’s Tattoo.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Freedom

For the past two days, I’ve had a nasty headache, the kind that produces nausea and an ability to move one’s head and as I am increasing (word choice is direct result of reading way too many Regency romances), there’s no remedy except the ever useless Tylenol and alternating heat and ice packs.

Last night was especially excruciating, and I went to bed at eight o'clock to rest somewhere between dream-filled sleep and pain. In one dream, Jon Stewart burst into my bedroom to announce in his bug-eyed stance, "The vampires were coming to fix your head!" and lo and behold, there in the doorway stood Edward Cullen. (This dream is clearly related to the fact that I had watched the charming Jon Stewart-Robert Pattinson interview earlier.). Unfortunately, my husband decided to come to bed at that moment, waking me up and chasing dear Edward away. Alas, I still have the headache.

Hopefully, the head pain will dissipate before the start of The Artist’s Way course I’m attending next week. This course is based on Julia Cameron’s book of the same name, which I’ve read before but could not find the willpower to complete the accompanying work. When I found a local course, I signed up to help better my writing.

Since registering, life has thrown me quite a few jock-powered dodgeballs and I realize that the writing, or the inability to write, is just a small symptom. The course, I think, is instead a tool to learn to live creatively, openly, without fear, without scar tissue. This seems to be a major theme in my life lately. Medical doctors, spiritual advisors of all faiths, non-fictional readings and strangely, all my fictional choices have thumped me over the head with the message to be open and aware. Perhaps E.M Forster says it best in A Room With a View: "On the other side of the eternal "Why?" there is a "Yes and a yes and a yes!" I'll let you know how it goes.

On the Bookshelf: various name your baby books; Diana Gabaldon’s An Echo in the Bone and Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

Eagerly Anticipating: Sunday’s Red Carpet extravaganza.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

On Rabid Fans

I welcomed the New Year by watching “The Howling” and making no resolutions whatsoever. Huge mistake on both counts. My dreams were filled with shape-shifting weirdness and not in a cool Sam Merlotte sort of way. When my son cried in the middle of the night, I was convinced it was because he was transforming into a were baby and I panicked because I did not know how to help him. The lack of resolutions has proven to be my downfall as well. I am the soul of sloth these days and a fog has settled around my brain.

I don’t feel particularly guilty about this. Currently, I am planted firmly on the sofa in eager anticipation for tonight’s dinner of homemade gnocchi and meatballs with absolutely no vegetables, while I watch, yet again, the Colin Firth version of "Pride and Prejudice."

Speaking of Sam Merlotte (told you – mind rambly today – please refer to paragraph one), I grow steadily angrier at a percolating issue in the writing world, enough so that I need to pause dear Mr. Darcy and rant on behalf of writers, readers, and Art. I speak of the rabid fans, small in number but like any extreme group, destructive.

There are few authors whose books cause me to salivate in anticipation of a new release. I get so lost in their worlds that I dream about the characters at night. Sometimes, I am so reluctant for a book to end that I have to email the author to assure her that she is the best in hopes that she'll write the next installment that much quicker. Such is my imagined power as a fan of Karen Marie Moning's Fever series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse mysteries.

Now these books will never grace the halls of Harvard. The tales aim to entertain and they never, ever fail. The characters in these novels may as well be real figures rather than denizens of the page.

As an avid reader, I, too sometimes forget that Scarlett never plowed the red earth of Tara, that Samantha and Michael Taggert don’t really live in a brownstone in NYC, that Lily Bart never overdosed in a seedy room in that same city. I cringe when Emma snaps at Miss Bates as if it were my own transgression and my morals are offended when Rowan Mayfair cheats on Michael with Lasher. Sometimes, the deaths of characters (sob! Kisten!) affect me more than the death of a great-aunt with whom I’ve been acquainted all my life. (I probably shouldn’t admit that in public.)


Yet I know, like most fans, that the characters are not real and I come down to earth eventually to commune with the real world, anxious for the next book, but basking in the glow of a well delivered piece of fiction as I get on with daily life. We are, ultimately, grateful that the author shares her gift with us and takes us away from it all in true Calgon fashion (yes, I am really dating myself here), no matter what befalls our characters.

Unfortunately, there are some fans, and I hesitate to call them such as psychotic freak jobs may be the better term, that never do come back from the clouds. Instead, these fans invest their entire happiness in fictional characters. If the outcome of a book is not to their liking, they will go out of their way to insult and terrorize the author as if said author owes them something.

I suppose one should feel pity for such pathetic people but I cannot. As a writer and a fan of writing, I just can’t condone such enemies of art. Such people do not deserve the pleasure of reading.

Both Ms. Harris and Ms. Moning have been compelled to defend themselves to such “fans” in their blogs. Ms. Moning addressed accusations that she condones rape because she allowed such a fate for Mac, and Charlaine Harris wrote a letter defending her latest Sookie novel, Dead and Gone, to readers who were offended by the “murders” of pregnant “women” (there was only one) and general bitterness that their beloved Sookie has become “foul-mouthed and mean,” not sugar sweet and compliant as she always has been.

Every one is entitled to an opinion. And it is a real downer when you spend nearly twenty dollars on a hardcover that disappoints. But the reader has a choice and only has oneself to blame for gambling on a purchase. However, the choice for these fans is not between purchasing and library or not reading at all. Nor are the arguments about the quality of writing. These fans miss the point of writing altogether. Who condones rape? Who condones murder? I certainly didn’t feel pleasure while reading Mac’s rape. I was horrified. But I didn’t slam the book down and exclaim, “Karen Marie Moning condones rape! I shall never read her again and I’ll write her a letter telling her so!”

These so-called fans are so wrapped up in a weird emotional state, believing that the author owes them, that these characters are “family” (really!), that they should probably be institutionalized with women who believe Mr. Darcy fathered their offspring. (Don't look at me like that!)

Their craziness is acceptable if they keep it to themselves. Instead, they lash out at the authors and therefore, at Art, which is a gift from the gods, or God, the Muse, the Universe, Light or whatever divine form in which you believe, and therefore must be defended at all costs. That the author has to waste time arguing against such ignorance infuriates me. So here I am, arguing on their behalf, albeit not well (brain fog, remember).

Because the authors also have a choice. The author can serve her ego or she can serve the story. Free will versus Fate. Serve the self or serve the muse. Play God or submit to God. Sometimes, the latter choice isn’t the popular one but it is the only choice that is true to Art. One might get a grand story by playing God with characters and there is absolutely nothing wrong about going that path, but when an author allows the Divine to intervene, ah! The characters grow and evolve and dare I say it? They become real.

Now let’s look at the accusations in question.

Artistically speaking, Moning’s rape was the only option for Mac. The girl had to be brought to the lowest point of human existence in order to evolve into a warrior for humanity. If the author had allowed Mac to slay her would-be rapists, Mac would have stayed somewhere between spoiled girl and arrogant woman. If she had killed her, then she'd have to bring her back to life and Joss Whedon's Buffy has already done that. Besides, as Whedon reveals, surviving death is easy. Surviving rape is not. If Moning had opted for the easy way out, then the story, as an artistic medium, would have failed. The story would be unremarkable.

Nor does Charlaine Harris condone the slaughter of pregnant women because one is murdered in her book. The character had to go. To keep her or her offspring alive would have dragged the series down. The murder set the plot in motion. Harris made the only choice to serve her story.

Further, Dead and Gone is the best installment of the series thus far because Sookie does decline in character. For nine books, Sookie has been used, abused and confused and she faces it all with good cheer and kindness. This time, she loses nearly everything, hatred surrounds her, and she has to contend with quite a few revelations. Her faith slips. She is angry. Her easy ability to forgive is hard to find. And it’s about bloody time. She must change to evolve and sometimes, going through hell is the only way to grow. How much better will this end tale be when Sookie finds redemption after the fire? Brava to Ms. Harris for serving her story well!


There is probably no getting through to the rabid fans who, dissatisfied with their own lives, take revenge on the creator of the only “real life” they have. In taking no responsibility for self, they attack, condemn and blame. Enough. Get a life. Find religion. Use your vitriol to fight for those less fortunate than yourselves, as do the heroines you say you worship. If you can’t open your hearts enough to do that, then just go away. These authors owe you nothing. They no doubt work harder than you do to serve something greater than themselves. We are lucky to be a part of the fallout, if we so choose. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. And if you think it could be better, then write your own book. Otherwise, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.

Now leave me alone. Mr. Darcy and I have a hot date.

On the Bookshelf: A whole bunch of Mary Balogh's romances. She makes me smile. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers.

On the iPod: The "New Moon" soundtrack. Over and over and over again.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Holidays and Books

Christmas possesses unparalleled magic and nothing rivals Halloween for mystical energy, but Thanksgiving is just plain old fun, a breather in the bullet train of a year, which is marked for me, these days, by the growth of my three-year old son and the realization that in no time he will have turned into a stinky, awkward monosyllabic teenage werewolf who will not want to spend any holiday with me.

I force myself to remember this future alienation when he chatters at me from 6:30am until 7:30pm and I have to bite my tongue from screaming at him to shut up for one blessed minute. As I write, he is desperate to know why the zippered cushions face the back of the couch instead of the front. “Because it looks better, “ I mumble. “Why?” he asks. My brain begins to throb.

I’m afraid I’m not a very attentive mother. I don’t take many pictures and there are no pencil markings on door trims to measure height increments. I have noticed, however, amongst the chatter, how very polite he is. This is due to my husband and mother. Like I said, I’m inattentive.

I asked him if he wanted a snack and his reply, “No, but thank you for offering, Mama. That was nice of you.” As my jaw dropped to the floor, he proceeded to ram his truck into the newly made train track while screaming, “Bash! Bam! Crash!” My little Shiva.

The Creator-Destroyer, while he tests my lack of patience, is the object of my thankfulness and the reminder of all that’s good and whole in this world, which prompts me to think of The Road, just dawning in theaters and a topic of discussion over our turkey and apple pie.

The novel, The Road, portrays the absolute worst side of humanity and deepest despair that a human can suffer. Ultimately, it is a child who redeems all of humanity, a child that “carries the fire”, a child who is “God’s word.” Humans can and do shine, and the small moments count more than the larger portrait of devastation.

Thanksgiving is a perfect example of this. Yes, in the larger picture the first feast marks the beginning of the end for native culture, yet in the bleak landscape of this chapter of American history, the day itself represents promise, peace and hope. Thanksgiving represents one tribe risking the unknown to help another, very different tribe over the course of a year and the meal they chose to share together at harvest end.

Their peaceable gathering is a small moment in human history, but there are many such small moments, and these should be celebrated as often as possible. So when I look across the table at my parents and son, sitting side by side, and all the rest of my family that luxuriates in too much food and hearty laughter, I am grateful for all those small moments in human history that led us to Thursday’s bounty.

My jeans, however, are not at all grateful. They groaned when I tried to fasten them this morning and the button popped completely after an afternoon of gluttony at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. Yummy food aside, the old inn is one of my favorite spots.

European castles and Greek ruins may be soul stirring, but the youthful at three hundred years old inn captures my heart. There’s nothing better than a well-kept, creaky rambling inn with fire in the hearth and a window overlooking rolling pastures and fieldstone walls. And after dining, I obeyed a long held desire to explore the other history of Longfellow’s “Hobgoblin Hall.”

I finally gave in and booked Room Nine for my birthday next year. The ghost of Jerusha Howe haunts this space, in search of her long-lost love. Since Jerusha prefers men, I’m dragging my husband with me as a lure. I’ll just hide in the corner all night. With a camera. And a pot of coffee.

On The Bookshelf: Just finished the Twilight Saga, reluctantly. I tried reading the first book a year ago and did not care for the writing. Bella’s character seemed shallow and the dialogue too stilted. My opinion was further bolstered after watching the movie, which kept my attention because the scenery was so pretty and I liked Kristen Stewart in the movie version of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

Then he soundtrack for New Moon came out. It rocks. Every song. So, I concluded that if the soundtrack is that spectacular, then the books must be pretty great, too. I read them. All four. They are not great, but I was addicted anyway. It’s been a couple of weeks since I closed Breaking Dawn and I’ve finally decided that perhaps I’ve been unfair in my judgment of the saga. They read more like myths and fables, akin to Arthurian legends or Norse tales. When read from that view, they really are engrossing. A new mythology.

Still, I am back to reading my favorite YA author, Sarah Dessen, who masters honest dialogue and striking characterization. Her latest, Along for the Ride is as wonderful as all her others, and the protagonist’s discovery of a self both alike and apart from her parents is particularly well written. I particularly like Dessen’s description of Auden’s sibling because it perfectly explains my own brother: “But then he was gone, just like that. Before I could ask him who exactly Ramona was, or what had happened in Amsterdam. That was my brother, the living, breathing To Be Continued.”

Also just finished Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a beautiful tale about the author’s new venture and the spiritual journey he happens upon along the way.

Starting Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Influenced by Kipling's The Jungle Book, this book, of course, is just as riveting and smooth as all of his other reads.

Just Netflixed: I was in the mood for an old black and white Thanksgiving night so I randomly chose Holiday, a 1938 film with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, expecting to be entertained. However, this wise, relevant film with its witty, rapid-fire and necessary dialogue, portrayal of human despair and desire, and depth of characters that could have easily been stereotypes happily surprised me. The film is about being trapped, physically or emotionally or both, something that every one of us experiences to some degree at some point during life. The stakes are high and that the viewer cannot see how the protagonists will ever escape entrapment and find happiness. The film decides that freedom is both a state of mind and a matter of conviction and as a result, the viewer feels even more pity for the one character that doesn’t realize this by the end of the film.

And speaking of entrapment, I am most of the way through Season One of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. What can I say? I’m a willful slave for romantic tension of the Sully variety.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Samhain

Time to visit crumbling graves, spark up Old Jack, pull the velvet drapes against the goblins, drink some sage tea while nibbling on pumpkin walnut bread, call up the dead, and slip in some "Arsenic and Old Lace" for the evening. The best time of year.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Twilights

The future's uncertain
and the end is always near.
The Doors

Last Sunday, rainy and cold, was one of those perfect days when it felt just right to be trapped inside with a turkey roasting in the oven, an apple pie cooling on the counter, and an old black and white movie on the television. At my father’s recommendation, I watched “Devotion,” a biography of the Brontës, although somehow, I doubt Charlotte Brontë was as gorgeous as Olivia de Havilland.

Although fictionalized, the movie did capture the individual personalities of the four siblings and what struck me the most is how practical Emily was compared to the somewhat passionate, tortured Charlotte. I had always assumed the opposite.

The film prompted me to investigate its accuracy and so I picked up Juliet Barker’s
The Brontës: A Life in Letters, which is a chronological compilation of the Brontës letters and journal entries. Fascinating. And shows, except for fabricating a romance for Emily, that “Devotion” wasn’t too far off in describing the personalities and events of this brilliant quartet whose lives were tragic only because they ended far too soon.

The whole book was a delight, but the parallel between Charlotte and Branwell caught my interest. Both struggled with the desire to write. Charlotte, at one point, laments that she is thirty and has done nothing with her life. Her imagination is crippling, and she sinks into a deep depression. Likewise, Branwell is depressed and knows that writing would save him but “the almost hopelessness of bursting through the barriers of literary circles, and getting a hearing among publishers, make me disheartened and indifferent: for I cannot write what be thrown, unread, into a library fire.”

And what writer hasn’t felt like that? I know I do. But I also know it’s an excuse to be lazy. So Branwell drinks and causes trouble for his family. Charlotte, on the other hand, spies Emily’s poetry and rallies to work to get her writing published, despite rejection after rejection, and Emily and Anne did the unthinkable in literary circles – they paid to get published.

The saddest part for me was that Emily never knew that her “strange” work, panned by most critics, finally appreciated for its sheer genius two years after her death, is now once again on the bestseller list, beloved by “Twilight” fans everywhere. And yet another version of the movie is being made, although I am sure this one, too, will fail to capture the novel. So far, the best one, in my opinion is the 1998 Orla Brady version, although I love the mood of the Laurence Olivier film and the cruelty of the recent Tom Brady movie, despite the actor’s resemblance to Marilyn Manson.

One of my college professors claimed that
Wuthering Heights is the most perfectly constructed book ever written. There are no mistakes. Stevie Davies Heretic corroborates this in that she shows the cyclical structure of the work: Wuthering Heights is the womb, Peniston Crag is the father – Heathcliff and Cathy are two halves of the being that is born to this union of man-made structure and nature. Free will separates them and as a result Heathcliff loses his center and Cathy loses her self.

Nature finally takes over at by the end and corrects free will by uniting Catherine Linton, Cathy’s daughter, and Hindley Earnshaw, Heathcliff’s foster son, establishing Catherine Earnshaw as she was meant to be. At least, that’s the essence of Davies’s criticism, if my memory is accurate, which is doubtful these days.

Whether or not my assessment of Davie’s theory is accurate, I maintain that
Wuthering Heights celebrates true love, although not the romantic love of Jane Eyre or other romances celebrating Byronic heroes. Despite the happy coupling at the end, which is the natural course of the theme, Wuthering Heights is far from a romance novel. (Nor is Heathcliff, for that matter, a Byronic hero. If you read Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth, you’ll see Heathcliff through modern eyes. He’s an asshole, pure and simple. )

The Emily Bronte that Charlotte describes, resolute and unflinching, was far beyond romantic love, or any human reflection of love, always transitory. Rather, Emily Bronte was on to the designs of the very universe, far above the surface concerns of humans. As Cathy herself puts it, her "love is as elemental as the rocks beneath the earth," or however that line reads. Humans are only subjects in her book, there because Nature put them there.
Wuthering Heights is about the kind of love that fuels the universe and perhaps even made it.

Love, The-Power-That-Is, the natural order of the world, always wins out despite Hindley’s cruel subjugation of Heathcliff, Cathy’s self betrayal, Heathcliff’s violent and twisted machinations, society’s preenings. Ultimately, heather will bloom, the sun will peek out over the moors, humans will perish, leaving no ghosts to mar the present, and gentleness sand respect will destroy hate in the end.

On the iPod: "Theme from Wuthering Heights" by Alfred Newman’s followed by Kate Bush's ethereal "Wuthering Heights."

On the Nightstand: No, not Wuthering Heights. Not Twilight either.

Crush of the Week: Surprise. Not Healthcliff, but certainly not Edgar Linton, either. My husband caught my fancy for a while, but I’m on to a creation of my own this week. He’s not fully formed yet: a slow smile, a hint of trouble, a dash of vengeance, a scarred heart, and a pinch of music by Kings of Leon. Let's hope he springs fully formed from my forehead.

On Charity: Along with Smile Train, this is a link to my chosen cause, Feeding America. Thank you, Pearl Jam.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Supermodel for a Day

Not a fan of reality TV. The entire genre repulses me in every way but mainly because these shows seem to cater to the depraved side of humanity with no promise of redemption and hope.

There is one show, however, that stops my remote in its tracks. America’s Top Model. No arguments here, please, about how the fashion industry perpetuates the evils of patriarchy, superficiality, etc. That is a debate for another day and not one that you’ll see here.

The drama and emotional upheavals are just as annoying here as in all the other reality shows, but as an author, I see many parallels between the work of a model and the creation of a fictional character. And Tyra Banks offers another perspective on the supermodel stereotype – professionalism and compassion rather than self-important, backstabbing anorexic she-cats who perpetuate the myth that the industry is yet another sigh of the degradation of women.

Aside from that, modeling is hard work.

And now, I have first hand experience of being a model. I work as an office manager by day (a sometimes writer by night), and one of our key vendors for my day job is launching a client-based campaign to promote their services. Yours truly was chosen as a spokesperson for this advertisement.

I’m the type that would choose reading over socializing and I’m the type that chooses reading over socializing and while this abject fear of people has lost me many opportunities, I often take the easy road and retreat behind my own four walls. The thought of posing in front of a camera? “Working it?” In front of all those people? No way. But before I could say no, a yes was out of my mouth, and for once I didn’t chicken out.

So the day of the shoot arrives and I am showering at 4am to meet the crew at the mosquito infested swamp-ridden stretch of land about twenty minutes from my house. The production manager, Janet, took me in hand, led me to a table laden with food and at first light, Deb led me to wardrobe (the back of her SUV), followed by a visit with Kathleen for my makeup. This was very fun and glamorous for me, but I noticed, as the photographers and art director, and various VIPs arrived, waiting, for their “model” to start the day, how utterly co-dependent this production team must be for a successful shoot. Each person is vital from Janet to the photographer to the model.

The latter must be professional and egoless, alert and malleable, both physically and mentally. The team said I did a great job, and I learned a lot and had a blast, but a model I am not. Too concerned with what other people think and unable to muster emotion on demand, there is no way I could do this career even if I had the looks for it, but I came away grateful to walk in Giselle’s shoes (thankfully not high heels!) and with a certain confidence that I did not have before, proof of which came when the Starbucks clerk told me I looked just like Julia Roberts. I may have channeled her laugh at that moment because I am not being modest when I say I look nothing like her. When I took that mask off, I was me again.

A couple of days later, I had lunch with a high school acquaintance. Way back then, she was coupled with My First Love, always unrequited, but instead of jealousy, I looked up to her, to them. They were the epitome of punk rock love, the Tim Burton prom king and queen, and she was this pixie-punk alternative to everything that was bland about the All American Kid, the Veronica amidst the Heathers, the Wednesday Addams of the halls. She taught me that I didn’t have to fit into the mainstream that made me so very uncomfortable and so we donned the clothes of the alternative subculture.

Now, we both present a different face to the world. Inside, I am still that goth-grunge-geek-goddess, but outside? Who cares? It doesn’t matter. Over lunch, we talked about identity and how it’s okay to morph into different masks, that one sometimes has to in order to survive. Being who you are is sometimes not being who you are. In her case, she wore the punk persona as a suit of armor; I wore it because I never did feel comfortable in anything but my Dad’s army pants and a pair of Doc’s. We were our own brand of supermodel back then. Now, we both feel lucky to understand that “each one of us is a brain... and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal.” (John Hughes, The Breakfast Club.)

Sometimes, this getting old thing isn’t so bad. But it sure would help to have a cook and wardrobe and makeup every morning.

On the Nightstand: In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent and a re-read of The Road because the latter is just that good.

In Queue: Karen Marie Moning’s long-awaited Dreamfever. Sookie, Sookie, and more Sookie. And maybe it’s the promise of autumn in the air, poking its head out of the humidity, but I have an inkling to visit Hogwarts again.

On the iPod: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. And Eddie Vedder.

Crush of the Week: Vampire Eric. And, um, well, yeah…Eddie Vedder.