November 1st, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

I reread Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the second in Helen Fielding’s series, to prepare for reading the third, which is just out. The first of these books is a classic, and when I reread it last Christmas it held up just fine. It’s a very Christmassy book, which is why I had it out, but beyond the holiday spirit, beyond the nostalgia for a time in my life when I saw my friends every second day and told them EVERY SINGLE THING, it’s simply a very funny, very charming book. Bridget’s a nitwit, of course, but a sweet one you can root for, and Fielding really makes a very simple girl-nabs-boy-after-lots-of-chaos story work in that first book.

In the second…eh, not so much. BJ #1 is a book that spawned a genre, and it really shouldn’t have–it’s a good book, but simply not deep or complex to support a host of imitators with much variation. The later chicklit was all. the. same. (I haven’t read everything, of course, and Marian Keynes is an exception, though a number of her novels are something other than the chicklit.) Some was a bit funnier than others, some a bit more realistic, some a bit less. But it was all manic and bouncy and reveling in the shallowness of fashion and self-help and dieting without Fielding’s dollop of self-aware irony. And, kinda, so is BJ #2–it’s later chick-lit, and it’s not as good.

Bridget’s still sweetly dopey, of course, but now sometimes she’s such a dope that it’s hard to believe she deserves to see everything work out. Her friends are bitchier and/or dumber in this book, depending on which friend, and sometimes you don’t really believe they’re doing her any favours with all their “support.” The biggest problem, surprisingly, is the absence of a villain. In the first BJ novel, we had Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s boss, crush, and eventually, terrible boyfriend. He was a jerk, but a hilarious sardonic jerk and I loved reading about him even as I hated him (and Hugh Grant’s performance as Daniel is the best part of the film version, in my opinion, especially when he falls out of the boat).

There is no such delightful jerk in this novel. Bridget’s boyfriend is actually the dreamboat Mark Darcy, who is always right and super-sweet and thus a fairly dull foil for Bridget. He does have some nice moments–not being able to find the fridge in his own kitchen is sweet–but mainly Mark is banished from the narrative. Either Bridget or Fielding isn’t able to cope with the idea of a functioning adult relationship, so entangles Mark a barely funny series of misunderstandings and then they break up.

I do not accept Tolstoy’s premise of happiness being dull, and I think if Fielding had tried harder we could’ve had some fun with a happy couple (my parents have been married 41 years, and they’re hilarious).

Instead, the novel just kind of rambles for a while. When I first started the reread, I wondered why the movie centred so much on the Thailand bit, since that didn’t start up in the book for 200 pages. But, when I got there, I realized that it was because it was the funny bit. Actually, the immediately preceding bit, where Pretentious Jerome is reading essentially gay erotica to the Lifeboat book club, and then Bridget’s dad and Admiral Darcy burst in and begin reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is one of the most sublime bits of comic writing I’ve read in a while. And the book gets better and better from there, ending at a point where you’re once again rooting for Bridget and Mark to hook it up, those crazy kids. But there’s the 200 pages before that that we’re just going to have to not count, because well…meh.

I am SO curious about the third book in the series. I’m also #600 on the library waiting list, so it’ll be a while. I’ll keep you posted.

August 19th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *Burning Ground* by Pearl Luke

Not only is Burning Ground by Pearl Luke my 13th book on my To Be Read *2012* list, I think someone actually gave it to me in 2002 and it got somehow lost in the shuffle…for 11 years. This is all to say that I’m basically an embarrassment to literature, but it’s not *Burning Ground*’s fault.

The book is the story of Percy, a young woman who had the roughest of rough childhoods, and now in her thirties is working in a fire tower in northern Alberta, which gives her income, space, and solitude to reflect on the twists and turns her life has taken.

I’m not a big one for the genre of Canadian novel of emotion recalled in tranquility and this book wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I can recognize it’s strengths nonetheless. Percy’s blazing strangeness, her *meanness* was fascinating and seemed to ring true though I’ve certainly never met anyone like that. At the end of the novel, she does something, or seems to do something or to be about to do something (it was a little fuzzy) so horrible I was shocked–but then I thought, “No, that is the logical outcome for her in this situation. Of course she would.”

Because the entire novel is in flashback, I wasn’t sure I got a totally accurate viewpoint on Percy’s life. Especially, I wasn’t sure who all the “friends” she reminisced about were, when none of them were ever really described in detail and she didn’t seem like the sort many would want to befriend. Was Percy an unreliable lens character (it’s third person narrative) or did Luke just not fill in the details appropriately? I always have this problem with this sort of tightly focussed, decontextualized writing.

There was lots of great detail about life in a fire tower, something I know nothing about. I particularly liked the descriptions of clouds, rain, and smoke. Less the technical details about how to triangular the distance a fire might be at. I can totally see an editor encouraging this level of instructiveness, but I found it a bit much.

The central emotional arc of the novel has to do with Percy’s friendship-sometime-affair with Marlea (I’d not seen that spelling before, but I like it!) That part was vibrant, sexy, weird, and felt honest. There were some things around the edges of that–about Percy’s parents and her childhood–that didn’t seem fully realized to me. There were some emotional bombs that left me reeling, but not in a good, feeling-with-the-character way. I felt like maybe there was a chapter missing.

The end of the novel is really cool in a natural science sort of way, but unfortunately I was really upset with the main character by that point and I did not care how things worked out for her. I’m not sure if that’s a problem with the novel or a success, as it certainly drew a strong emotional reaction from me. Definitely a novel worth reading, though equally certainly not my favourite.

May 27th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *On the Road* by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Kerouac is one of those novels I was somewhat embarrassed not to have read yet, but I was also somewhat ok with it. It seemed like I sort of already knew a lot about it–hippy road trip in search of meaning and freedom and friendships or whatever. So imagine my surprise to find that the novel is set between 1947 and 1950, before the term “hippy” existed. I had fast-forwarded my image of the novel 15 years into the future. So I had a lot to learn.

I’m linking to the Wikipedia page for this novel because, well, it’s better than Amazon, but really I think a lot of that page is bunk. On the Road struck me as an incredibly apolitical novel. Even the narrator’s, Sal Paradise, experience of fighting in WWII is boiled down to getting drunk and passing out in a bathroom. McCarthyism, who the president is, or even the conformity of the middle class that Sal and his friends are the opposite of, never makes it onto the page. Maybe we’re just supposed to sense it, or know from the history books, but to me this was well and truly a travelog, a true devotional tribute to the wonders of America.

Sal crosses the country from his home in New Jersey several times, usually bound for California more or less, usually in the company of his friend, Dean Moriarty. The title is true, this is a book about hitchhiking and overnight buses and ride-shares. Much of it is quotidian, but Kerouac’s joyful prose makes it shine. This book makes it pretty evident that the two things that guy like to do was write and move. Listen: “It was an ordinary bus trip with crying babies and hot, sun and countryfolk getting on at one Penn town after another, till we got on the plain of Ohio and really rolled, up by Ashtabula and straight across Indiana in the night…” Nothing fancy, but it makes me want to go, too, nonetheless.

The whole book is like that more or less: we went here, we went there, we got drunk, hijinx ensued, in the morning we sobered up and moved on. The “we” is usually himself and Dean, with occasional hangers on. Dean Moriarty is a twitching, hyper, occasionally charming nutjob, and one of the problems I had with the book is I never saw the charm in Dean that Sal does. Dean is a wonderful driver who loves to travel, and who attempts to help Sal out when it suits him. I can’t quite armchair diagnose Dean with a mental illness, but clearly he had one–always drenched in sweat and maniacally fidgeting, he can barely sustain a conversation and rarely sleeps. He is also frequently amoral, cheerful bouncing among assorted wives, abandoning them when the mood suits and taking all their money to travel. By the end of the book, he has fathered 4 kids, married 3 women, and is living with the second wife. Lucky lady.

I didn’t much love Sal, either, though he was easier to take. The best passage in the book is when he meets a Mexican girl named Terry and attempts to settled down with her and her son Johnny, supporting them by picking cotton. He abruptly leaves her and the child when he gets sick of working hard–he can always wire home for bus fare and return to living with his aunt in New Jersey, but with a woman and child he’d be pretty much stuck. That’s really Sal’s only shot at real grownup life and he ditches it post-haste.

I’ve read through the GoodReads reviews of this book, as I am wont to do, and the ones who don’t like it are generally incensed at how wildly politically incorrect it is. Surprise–it’s nearly 60 years old. The black characters aren’t really characters at all, merely ambassadors of jazz music (the concert passages are amazingly beautiful, while conveying almost no information about the actual music played). The women fare far worse, because until folks of other races, Dean and Sal are actually interested in women, at least for certain purposes. I had to keep my eyebrows under control, because Sal frequently mentions seeing an attractive woman walk by and wishes to be in her. I kid you not! Women are treated as on a par with booze and drugs in this novel, things you get and have and use up.

It makes for some repellant passages, but you’ll note Sal is honest–he never attempts to valorize himself or the truly horrible Dean. They are what they are; they do what they want.

I found the book honest and illuminating, especially the final trip, when they go as far as Mexico and Sal comes to realize that Dean is truly falling apart. He can’t abandon him until Dean does it first, though–his loyalty and especially the loyalty of Dean’s woman were the things I didn’t understand. The ending was grim and, I felt, accurate to who these characters were.

I hated them–Sal was a entitled suburban boy playing at being poor. At one point he steals bread from family stores as if he “needed” it instead of just having squandered his money drinking. He is always skirting the edge of poverty, and calling his aunt when he gets too close. When he encounters the genuinely destitute, he treats them as colourful gags for his amusement. He never helps anyone but himself and stupid Dean, and Dean never helps anyone at all, not even himself.

This is a great novel and a joyful read, but where people got the idea that Sal is someone to admire or emulate, I really don’t know.

I am still pathetically working my way through my 2012 To Be Read Challenge, and this book is number 11. More soon…ish…I hope.

March 25th, 2013

A couple nice discoveries

Did you know there’s websites that review literary journals? Me neither, but there are and it’s pretty cool. Like New Pages, which reviewed the issue of Freefall Magazine that I was in, and a bunch more great stuff too. Neat!

Did you know there’s university courses on arts journalism? Me, neither, but there are and they’re amazing–I would’ve taken Ryerson’s Writing in the Arts course in a heart had it been available when I was in school. It wasn’t, but I did a short interview with a student named Julia Brunke for one of her assignments in the course and it cheered me up…read it here if you’re interested.

February 15th, 2013

Various Nice Things

It’s a bit vain, but every now again I look myself up in various places–embarrassing, but I often discover information worth knowing, so I keep doing it.

Anyway, yesterday I was ordering some books from the library and I search my name in their database. I was happy to find a bunch of my books and even a few holds, but was extra-delighted to see 9 copies of *Road Trips*. That was my 2010 chapbook with Frog Hollow–something I was proud of but I think very few people saw. It was pricey and available only by mail-order. The price has gone down now, if you’re interested in ordering it, and anyway I think it was worth every penny of the original price, as Frog Hollow does some of the most gorgeous printing and binding I’ve seen. Nevertheless, I know it just wasn’t realistic for many budgets.

But 9 copies in TPL–that means your hold would come in pretty fast! So if you were curious about *Road Trips*, this could be your chance…

Other nice things I found out about recently include Deanna McFadden’s lovely blog review of *The Big Dream*, and my contributor’s copy of Freefall Magazine. And then there are my Valentine’s gifts, the traditional perfume, candies, and George Saunders collection. And it’s Public Lending Right in the mail day today.

So basically, in summation, yay!

January 30th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth is the 11th book of my overlong 2012 Reading Challenge. Closer every day!

I know, I know–what’s wrong with me? This book came out in 1992 and 20 years later, I’m just getting around to it? In fact, my mom even read it right when it came out, and mentioned that my newly teenaged self might benefit from reading about where the enforced self-consciousness of females in our culture actually comes from. But I wasn’t interested. I did for some reason read Misconceptions when it came out in 2003. It was a fascinating but to me entirely irrelevant accounting of the medicalization–some would say patholisation–of childbirth in our society. It was also astoundingly gory–childbirth is, I guess. At that time, I didn’t know what an episiotomy was, and was much dismayed to find out. It was an eye-opening read.

At this point in history and in my life, *The Beauty Myth* was much less eye-opening. The link above on Naomi Wolf’s website says this book changed how we think about beauty and it’s true–Naomi Wolf’s dense and well-researched, imaginative and forceful treatise has wormed its way into the public consciousness. No one reads advertising or, indeed, models the same way anymore, and I’ve seen countless less-incisive writers spouting her ideas if they were original. They feel original; they feel as if we never didn’t know.

It was very interesting to go back to the source and read about how she investigated this stuff at a time when it just was what it was. But it was also…so earnest! One thing Wolf lacks is irony–her Biblical exegesis is soooo grad school (uglyness as sin), which doesn’t make it less brilliant. But sometimes, her inability to see pneumatic breasts and $100 skin cream as a humourous gets a little tiresome. I guess, too, I have the luxury of vantage point–Wolf didn’t know the near future would turn out the way it did. She assumed a woman’s ideal breast size would just keep getting bigger until we couldn’t walk upright, when in fact the ideal is now smaller but firmer, a la Megan Fox. Who knew?

So the reasons I don’t entirely relate to the book are various–20 years of distance and irony, the fact that I’m not exposed to a tonne of media–but intriguingly, the chapter that really resonated with me was the last one, “Violence.” I don’t know what I was expecting–domestic violence, I guess, which doesn’t really suit the context at all. It turns out that that chapter is about plastic surgery, and as in Misconceptions Wolf spares no sensibility in her gory evocation of how it really goes down.

Some of her panic is justified–in the late 80s and early 90s, women were dying from complications from liposuctions, breast implants were having to removed because they’d “gone rigid”–early plastic surgery was not a good scene. But it’s also improved greatly since the book was written, as all medical technologies do–she must have known that would happen. And also, though there’s always going to be a market for this sort of thing, most people actually don’t get their faces and bodies reconstructed. They don’t even think about it.

I was thinking this and then I realized…I did! I don’t think of it that way, because I was told by doctors that my jaw misalignment would eventually destroy the joint and therefore I needed the operation…but the fact remains that it was the same surgery many women have to look better. I’m always way too eager to explain I didn’t do it for cosmetic reasons, but the fuller story is a bit more complex. When I first began preparing for the operation, nearly 2 years out, they didn’t tell me I’d look different, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that moving my jaw around would change my appearance. I found out when I was already well into the process and the surgeon, who was proud of his aesthetic successes, was disgusted that I didn’t want to be “improved.”

“Well, you don’t look normal now, you know,” he snapped. Now I think about what a weird statement that is–the ideal is not the median, and people with perfect faces are definitely not “normal.” Then I was just horrified. Anyway, he was extremely aggressive about persuading me that there was no non-stupid way to correct my medical problem without correcting my cosmetic “problem” to. I cried, but my jaw really hurt and I’d been preparing for the operation for a year. I didn’t research what I was told or try to dissect how much of the surgeon’s medical reasons were actually just a patholization of imperfection. I agreed to the operation, whatever it took.

I think that’s what Wolf was afraid of. Not that women walking down the street feeling good about ourselves will see a Botox poster and feel our self-esteem shatter, but that how self-perpetuating the beauty industry is, how proselytizing. It was strange for me, reading the book, not to get it and then to get it exactly.

*The Beauty Myth* is not a fun read, although unlike many academics Wolf writes with clarity, concision, and occasionally real beauty. It took me nearly 3 months to read it, and I stopped in the middle to read Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bossypants among other things, because it was just too sad for Christmastime. But it was instructive reading nonetheless and I feel good to have read it. Because far as we’ve all come in reading media for the commercial, coercive enterprise that it is, apparently we (or at least I) can still be stunned by an attack in the name of beauty. And it’s worth thinking about why.

For the record, I don’t look that different now, unless you’re one of the people who think I look very different. It depends on how you look at faces, I guess. I think I look fine and my new face is now entirely my face–I relate to it. However, although I know have a “perfect” ratio of space between my nose and upper lip, and lower lip and chin (seriously–I was told there’s a number), I still miss my old face, which was longer and seemed narrower. I believe Kathrine Mansfield would’ve called it “horsey” but it was mine and I always rather liked it.



November 21st, 2012

Rose-coloured Reviews *Mouthing the Words* by Camilla Gibb

Wowsers. I’ve never read a book like Camilla Gibb‘s first novel Mouthing the Words. It’s terrifying, horrifying, very funny, and brilliant. I really needed this, having read such a series of deeply flawed, baffling, or dull novels recently that I was starting to wonder if the problem was me–if I just didn’t *like* novels anymore.

So I’m really grateful to Gibb’s book for saving the novel for me. Strange, of course, that I hadn’t read *Mouthing* before now, since it came out in 1999 and is really well thought of, as are all Gibb’s books. I’ve also met the author a number of times and even collaborated with her on The Journey Prize Stories 21 and can report that she’s a lovely human. Sometimes it’s just this sort of constellation of glowing praise and lovely humanness that can intimidate me into not reading a book for 13 years.

I’d also heard that *Mouthing the Words* is a tale of child abuse not for the faint of heart, and I sometimes am fainthearted, so that was another dissuasion. And while it’s true that some of the abuse is very very distressing, the wonderful voice that carries the story made me want to keep reading. That is the voice of Thelma, the protagonist, the abused child and later mental patient, anorexic, law student, friend, girlfriend, mess, saviour, nutjob, and possibly genius.

She’s very very funny, confused and ironic and weird. The voice reminded me a lot of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, the baffled crazy person persona not quite stifling a sharply sarcastic wit. The best bit in Bell Jar is when Esther wanders around with a noose around her neck, trailing rope like a cat’s tail, because she can’t find anywhere to fasten it in her smooth-ceilinged house. The best bit in *Mouthing the Words* is “I am eighteen and I am still note adopted. How many people have I asked? It’s starting to get embarrassing.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like Plath.

The novel is interesting because Thelma is sometimes self-aware and sometimes not, sometimes writing from the distant peaks of adulthood, and sometimes right in the thick of it with her young character. Sometimes it was not 100% photorealistic–like Thelma retains her imaginary friends into her 20s and it is difficult to tell whether she acknowledges them as symbolic or actually thinks they are speaking to her. I’m fine with that ambiguity, but I don’t know how to describe it really.

But certainly the book was realistic in many ways, particularly in the fact that there is no cosmic justice coming down at the end and smiting the evil-doers.I sometimes think that sexual abuse and other abuses of children is so popular in contemporary fiction because it’s so morally easy–who *doesn’t* think it’s terrible to have sex with little children? Who *wouldn’t* despise someone who did? It’s such a comfortably righteous position and in many novels that’s all you get–you know what evil is? Gold star! No thinking! Gibb’s novel goes beyond that by staying with the violated character for two decades and leaving the violator in the dirt–we never find out what happened to him, and no one seems to care. That’s his punishment. But Thelma lives on in the world and continues to punish herself and sometimes those around her, but she also has a life and it’s pretty interesting. There’s still some moral simplicity but we all need a little of that–Thelma’s much more like a human than a virtue embodied. She’s also damn funny.

Mouthing the Words is the 10th/October (I’m behind) book in my To Be Read 2012 Challenge (and probably my favourite so far). More to come.

September 21st, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *The Bull Is Not Killed* by Sarah Dearing

I liked Sarah Dearing‘s short novel The Bull Is Not Killed far more than I expected to. The cover blurbage makes it seem exclusively like a caught-between-two-cultures love story of the sort we have all read a million times. But *The Bull…* is far richer and more complex than that. It takes place in a small fishing village in Portugal, and Dearing clearly has a good grip on that country’s history, its economy, its social rituals and most importantly its landscape: the descriptions of beaches, breezes, squares, and bars all ring with accuracy and intimacy.

I also really liked the characters. Yes, the young lovers–a 25-year-old Portuguese virgin named Luis and a 15-year-old Romany princess named Luisa–go through a lot of “I love you so much much much” nonsense, but in themselves they are both fully realized, complex characters. And though it sounds like a big squick, the age difference didn’t bother me much, probably because Luisa is so clearly wise beyond her years and Luis, wise behind them.

There are lots of other well drawn characters in the novel–Luisa’s abhorrent mother, the fascist police chief, various lawyers and self-seeking peasants, but the most interesting is Montiego, the kind-hearted cop. His right-heartedness and wry temper are a pleasure to read about–and when he is a key instigator at the start of the revolution, it is both thrilling and moral.

At least, I think it was moral–because the revolution wasn’t really ever clear to me, in reasoning nor execution. As I said before, I don’t doubt that Dearing has done the research and understands the social and economic conditions that set the revolutionary flames. It was just that I didn’t really get a sense of what these characters *in particular* were so angry about. Yes, the police chief is a big jerk, folks are unemployed, there’s an overseas war going on that I didn’t fully understand–and neither did the characters, it sometimes seemed to me. These are the reasons for the entire nation to take to the streets?

In many respects, my opinion of *The Bull* is suffering from my having read it very shortly after The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. That novel concerns a swirl of personal stories–like Dearing’s book, *Oscar* is told from various points of view–set against another oppressive and troubling polical regime, this time Rafael Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s and 50s, and the far-reaching effects of his rule on that country for many years afterwards.

As I say, that’s not a fair comparison–*The Bull…* is a short, tight, solid little novel–*Oscar* is a huge sprawling masterpiece. But I do think it’s fair that I was disappointed in the second half of *The Bull…*–most of the “minor” characters disappear, including Montiego, whom I didn’t think of as minor at all. Some who remain are reduced to jokes, like Margaret Brown, the admittedly rather stupid Englishwoman who had nevertheless been depicted with some sympathy–until she wasn’t anymore.

So we end up with the young lovers on the run, which is sort of cliche and sort of moving, but I don’t think really the point of the novel. There were a number of points in the book where characters sat down to tell a personal or historical anecdote, but wound up with something that sounded very much like a fable or myth. These were my favourite parts of the book, both for their simple beauty and for the comment they seemed to make on book-writing as a construct. At one point, challenged on the veracity of her “history,” Luisa insists that it must be true because it makes her happy, and is therefore what she prefers to believe.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how that ties into the larger story but I *feel* that it does, and that somehow made the book satisfying for me, though the ending was lacking. I should read this book again one of these days–and it’s short enough and good enough that I might actually do so!

This is my 9th/September book for the To Be Read challenge. I thought there should be three more to go (12 books on the list, 12 months in the year, 9 months achieved/read) but then I realized that way back in January when I made the list I included two #4s. So there’s an extra book on the list! I might well get around to reading them all, but if I don’t, which ones are the most urgent? Feel free to vote in the comments:
4. *The Story of English* by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil
7. *The Beauty Myth* by Naomi Wolf
10. *Mouthing the Words* by Camilla Gibb
12. *On the Road* by Jack Kerouac

August 28th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Ruby Sparks*

I wanted to see Ruby Sparks because it looked like a sweet comedy and I have low standards for films: if I can laugh along with strangers in a darkened auditorium, I’m basically always in. Even better, this sweet comedy was about fiction writing–it practically counted as professional development. Super-in.

Surprise, surprise–Ruby Sparks is way *better* than I expected. While I’ll watch almost anything, this film actually has genuine emotions, and is a genuine reflection of not only writers but the whole messed-up romantic comedy genre. RS isn’t a work of genius or anything, but it’s a pretty great movie for a Friday afternoon.

Less of a surprise is that this film has tonnes in common with Stranger than Fiction from 2006. Both movies are about characters who are helpless pawns of an author who writes them any which way s/he pleases, despite the characters having fully developed personalities and desires of their own. In both films, the author/character conflict stands in the way of romance. In StF, the story was told from the character’s point of view–a buttoned down, grimacing Will Ferrel in my favourite of his performances. In RS, the story belongs to the writer in both senses–Paul Dano stars as Calvin, the hotshot young novelist who can’t his personal life together. Sound familiar? He’s no Emma Thompson, who played the neurotic writer in StF, but he does the job pretty well. His sensible sidekick is his brother, played by Chris Messina, and I really enjoyed the realistically funny depcition of their relationship. However, Messina, one hardly needs to add, is no Queen Latifah, who played Thompson’s sidekick/assistant in StF.

That’s about where the comparisons end, though. The character Calvin creates is not just the protagnoist in a book but the girl of his dreams–Ruby Sparks, as played by Zoe Kazan. Kazan also wrote the screenplay, which caused me to meditate a little on the personality type that would write a film about a dreamgirl, then cast herself. It works, but I still wondered.

So Calvin writes about a girl he would love to have, and then she materializes in his kitchen. After a brief and funny freakout, he gets on with his now-perfect life of love and meatloaf with lovely Ruby Sparks. Except…

Before this all went down, his brother read the novel draft and pronounced Ruby Sparks a fantasy, not a girl–created to fill a need of the mind, not to be real and weird and difficult the way actual women actually are. And this is the problem with most romantic comedies–people don’t have real flaws, they have “quirks” that make them adorable, and which they aren’t really responsible for anyway. Because they are so darn quirky!

I get it–I love this sort of fakey-fake romantic comedy too. Who wants to see Reese Witherspoon actually behaving badly, and actually having to deal with it. I mean, maybe you would, but that’d be a whole other category of movie.

Or maybe not. *Ruby Sparks* somehow allows the viewer to slowly and gently probe the depths of Calvin’s fucked-up-ness. A visit to his parents, played by Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas (*very* funny) starts out as your typical “wacky parents” schtick, but gradually we see that they’re basically nice people with a little surface wackiness, and Calvin treats them rather badly. There’s also a nice scene late in the film where the dynamic with Calvin’s “awful” ex-girlfriend is revealed to be rather more complex than first expected.

This is not to say that Calvin is cast as the villian, or even an unlikeable guy. It’s just that he has some real-person flaws, unlike the usual rom-com fake-flaws-that-are-actually-other-people’s-faults, like fear of committment and trouble discussing feelings. Calvin is a control freak and unwilling to explore other people’s lives or personalities outside of the narrow confines in which he has placed them. These are flaws that many writers have to struggle against–written characters stay so beautifully still and passive in a way that humans just *won’t*. It’s frustrating.

That’s why Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby towards the end of the film is so gut-wrenching. While every rom-com has some kind of betrayal to drive the lovers briefly apart and create a crisis in the narrative, most of them involve crazy misunderstandings, things done while drunk or upset that don’t really mean anything, or any of a number of other constructs designed to keep viewers from liking the characters any less.

Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby is genuine, and genuinely horrible–even though the scene is based on silly magic, the emotion in it made me cringe like when I overhear couples arguing in restaurants. Calvin’s actions aren’t a mistake and he can’t take them back–they arise out deep and genuine flaws in his personality. I hated him in the moment, but I also totally got his motivations.

It’s not all as dark as this–there’s a hopeful ending that actually doesn’t make too much sense even by the magical laws that governed the rest of the film but, eh, I liked the spirit of it and the movie was over then anyway. This movie was far funner and sweeter than I thought it would be, and more of both than anything else in the category I’ve seen in ages. And it gives you some insight into the ways writers are screwed up, if that interests you. Highly recommended!!

July 24th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Moon Deluxe* by Frederick Barthelme

The first story in Moon Deluxe by Frederick Barthelme is called “Box Step” and it’s narrated by Henry, who seems to be the boss at a small company. I never quite figured out what he did or what the company did. He banters with Ann, who seems to be his assistant, and assorted other employees. At one point Ann says she’s “…planning a giant party tonight at Henry’s.” Though this has not previously been discussed, they go ahead with it, though few people show up and almost exclusively folks from the office. The next evening, Henry and Ann go out to dinner and a movie, without it having been pre-arranged or discussed, without us ever getting a sense of whether their relationship is physical or even romantic. Henry buys some toys from the daughter of an employee, and later at the restaurant they run into all of the employees again.

It’s a very odd story–Henry seems to have no volition except to acquire toys, and Ann steers him along like a child with a toy herself. There is no interior monologue, so we never know the reasons Henry has for doing, or not doing, anything. But the dialogue is quick and sharp, and the details closely observed. I was intrigued by the story, though I wouldn’t have quite said I liked it.

I had been expecting to like everything from the blurbs on the cover–one from Raymond Carver and one from Margaret Atwood (how often do you see that combo?) When the book came out in 1983, 13 of the 17 stories had been previously published in the New Yorker. After reading all that bumpf, I could hardly believe I’d let this book sit on the shelf for so long. I was very excited.

The enthusiasm waned as the stories went forward. Though they vary in quality, all 17 of these stories are about male protagonists with very little will or desire, who are lusted after by beautiful women who don’t get them, or not really. But that’s ok, because the women require little from them other than that they go to many restaurants and hang out by the sides of pools. I became so annoyed by these recurrent premises that I stopped enjoying truly funny dialogue and excellent observations about restaurants (so many restaurants in this book!) There are also many cars, and many apartment buildings set around an interior courtyard with a pool in it–near as I can figure, the setup is halfway between Melrose Place and a seniors’ village. I think most of the characters were meant to be low-income but since (a) after the first story none of the male characters has a job nor seemed worried about acquiring one and (b) everyone has a pool, they seemed rich and dissipated to me.

The stories were set in the American south, where apparently pool access, car ownership, and presence of Shoney’s is taken for granted. Which was actually pretty interesting–this book offers a slice of life in a time and place I’ve never seen (I’ve been to the South a few times, but very briefly–though I do know you should eat Shoney’s if ever you get the chance). Never had I read a book that seemed so dated, though–Danskin leotards, carphones with cords, and going to the spa to lose weight. I don’t exactly know why this book seemed so aggressively alien to me–probably because so much work was put into capturing the moment that was, it doesn’t translate across the years.

Towards the end of the book, when I was coming up with the alternate title, “Chronicles of Impotent Unemployed Males,” I looked up Barthelme at the above Wikipedia link and found out he was a celebrated minimalist. So was Raymond Carver, apparently, but I remember Carver’s characters having, you know, feelings and desires, even if it was only the vague desire to be happy. But maybe I didn’t know what minimalism means, at least not in prose.

So I decided I needed to do better and I looked it up outside of the Wiki circles. This definition seemed pretty good, and actually mentions Barthelme. I see his points, and I particularly like the term “interpretative polyvalency”–I like the idea of readers being able to bring their thoughts to bear in creating a story.

The author of the above article, one Phil Greaney, goes on to make some other good points about the demandingness of minimalism, which I do get and appreciate. But I can’t help but feel it doesn’t excuse the unrelenting sameness of these stories. Any one of them I would’ve enjoyed, but over and over…here are some sample opening lines from this collection:

“Ann is pretty, divorced, a product model who didn’t go far because of her skin, which is very fair and freckled.”

“You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent at the neck of her blouse opens slightly–she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, and greatly freckled…”

“Kathleen Sullivan is back on CNN, a guest on the call-in interview show. She’s supposed to be talking about the boom in news, but the callers, who are all men, only want to talk about her bangs, and the new drab-look clothes she wears on ABC.”

“Sally meets me in the driveway. “It’s great you’re back,” she says. She’s tall, willowy, tailored.”

So many women, very precisely and intriguingly described, but described a lot, and lasciviously you’re not going to believe me when I tell you there’s only one sexual encounter in this book, and it’s a fade-to-black. The rest of the women are just going to desperately and weirdly fawn over the narrators and never ever get laid, so all this lascivious description is for naught.

This is a long and fairly negative review, isn’t it? And I feel a bit that it’s unfair, but this was only Barthelme’s third book and he went on to write many more in the past 30 years. Possibly it’s not fair to judge him by this one. I mean, I did it with Mysteries of Pittsburgh but I had read the later, more excellent novels that Chabon wrote, so I was able to contextualize my dislike of the one at hand.

I couldn’t really do that here, having read nothing else of Barthelme’s, and while I wasn’t really tempted to, I was driven to be fair, so I read Driver in the Barcelona Review (it’s what I could find on line. This is from nearly 20 years after the stories in *Moon Deluxe*, and as I’d hoped it was much much better. Still not an ideal piece of fiction–I doubt Barthelme and I agree about what that would be–but an enjoyable developed fictional world with characters that seem to have real, human motivations, even if the reader can’t completely understand them. The female character is also recognizably human and surprising and intriguing. There’s also lots of interesting technical comments about cars–there’s actually stuff in the story other than vague desires and restaurants. And the end is a huge win–it changed my clinical nodding to a startled grin.

So what am I saying? Maybe I’m saying read Frederick Barthelme, just not this particular book.

This is my 8th/August (I’m ahead) book for the Off the Shelf Challenge. More to come!

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