Since I’ve been here in Tucson, my work ethic has flown out the window. I had grand ideas of doing tons of revisions on my novel, finishing my line-edits on a friend’s novel, and possibly writing the first draft of a short nonfiction essay.
Instead I’ve given myself over to what I do best in the lazy atmosphere of vacation life here at my parents’ house: an orgy of reading and watching movies. Here’s what I’ve gotten through so far.
- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
This turned out, surprisingly, to capture and keep my attention pretty handily, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought it would be one of those plodding, depressing dirge novels, but no. Instead it starts out a bit like chick-lit, with the heroine doing an internship at a Vogue.
One thing I didn’t like was that the heroine comes across as kind of a cold, self-absorbed, unsympathetic person, so the book suffered on the character-likeability measure. Also, the part where she goes full-on crazy seems to come out of the blue and is never really made comprehensible. One minute, the character seems sane, and the next minute she’s clearly got something very, very wrong with her. It seems some sort of development or transition is missing. Maybe that reflects the real experience of this type of mental illness, but from a literary standpoint, it felt like a flaw in the narrative.
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
This was really good. Beautifully written, with lots of philosophy and thoughtfulness, which I loved. On the negative side, I thought there were some plotting and timing problems. There are three major characters, and the third (Ozu) comes in very late in the book; I’d have liked to see him make his entrance earlier. Also, the first two characters (the concierge and the little girl) don’t become acquainted with each other until the book is two-thirds of the way through or more; I wanted more interaction between them, and sooner.
Other issues for me: the ending seemed a bit contrived and, I’ll admit, too sad. I’m not against sad endings per se, but if they come across as having been contrived especially to elicit sadness, that’s bad. It felt a bit manipulative to me. And lastly, I don’t think the assessment of phenomenology was very fair. In the book it’s characterized as “a fraud.” Sadly, I can’t say I understand phenomenology myself, but my impression from reading bits of it here and there is that it has to do with much more than just losing interest in the real reality behind appearances. It strikes me more as a method of almost zen-like attentivenss to phenomena, a kind of worshipfulness even. Which could actually have tied in well with other themes in the book, so it was sort of a missed opportunity in my view.
- Up in the Air, by Walter Kirn
I haven’t seen the movie, but wanted to read the book ever since I found out Kirn was an ex-Mormon, which I learned when the people over at Main Street Plaza gave him an X-Mormon of the year award. So, the book. I didn’t like it all that much. Again, there was the character-likeability problem. The guy was so self-absorbed, shallow, and materialistic, that it took a fair bit of effort to care what happened to him. And then the ending was very vague and literary (in the pejorative sense) so that it left me all confused as to what actually happened.
- Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy
After that, I was ready for something lighter. I’d been wanting to check out Maeve Binchy’s writing for a while already. First off, she’s Irish, and I like Ireland (my ex-husband and I spent two weeks in Connemara and Kerry on our honeymoon, and I still have fond mem0ries of that trip). Also, any author whose books take up a whole shelf in the library and bookstore must be doing something right, you’d think. The sheer volume of her writing was intriguing. And third, I’d seen this movie Circle of Friends a while back and wondered if the book was better than the movie (the movie was somewhat eh, but the plot seemed to have a lot of potential).
Anyway, the book was a lot of fun. As expected, it was light and full o’ Irishness. Beyond that, it was funny and hard to put down. (I feel like books generally ought to be hard to put down, regardless of how literary they’re intended to be. It’s a lot to ask of someone, to read a long book you’ve written, so writing a page-turner seems the least an author can do.) The characters were likeable, too. The only negatives that bear mentioning are that in spots the prose is a bit “telly” rather than “showy” (writers of fiction are constantly, constantly being told to “show, don’t tell”), and that the last quarter of the book does drag a bit.
The funniness was a happy surprise. I’d been promised Roddy Doyle would be hilarious, and in my opinion the books I read by him (The Commitmentsand The Snapper) did not live up to that hype, so it was all the nicer to approach this book with no particular hype in mind and yet find myself giggling and laughing through whole pages.
- Bright Star(on DVD) – This is the Jane Campion pic about the Romantic poet John Keats and his all-engulfing love for obscure seamstress Fanny Brawne. I had high hopes for it, as I’d read some very positive reviews. Sadly, I found it kind of boring. My favorite parts were Fanny’s clothes, and the way she compares fashion design to writing poetry in the beginning.
- Where the Wild Things Are(on DVD) – I had no high hopes for this, having read some negative reviews, but I did want to give it a shot. I liked maybe the first third of it, and then it started to seem a lot like this spoof I’d seen where the monster are equated to a bunch of bored, unconventionaler-than-thou hipsters. But I did think the beginning part did a good job of capturing how hard it can be to be a kid, the fact that it’s not all sunshine and light and goofing around.
- Crazy Heart – I loved this. Loved the music, loved the characters, loved the dialogue, loved the emotional complexity, the refusal to oversimplify, really just loved it top to bottom. The ending could have been cheesy and cliche, and maybe was a bit cliche (we come back years later and find that everyone is doing much better), but not enough to spoil the overall wonderfulness of it. I guess it helps that I’ve had a soft spot for country music ever since I had a college roommate who was into it. We always used to belt out Garth Brooks‘ “I Got Friends in Low Places” together and another song about this farmer who comes home to find his wife with “nothing but her apron on” … ah, those were the days.