Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Big Short

I rarely get out to the movie theater, but managed it this week. This particular theater was newly renovated to feature big clean aisles and large comfy recliners. Having grown up in the era when beautiful old theaters were getting chopped up into cold, sticky-floored multiplexes with a distinctly garage-like vibe, I have to say I like the new decor.

I did not like the previews. And there were tons of them. Preview after preview after preview. I used to love movie trailers, but every single preview we saw was exceedingly loud and exceedingly violent, with someone getting brutally attacked in every one. Sitting there began to feel like being assaulted. "This is why I don't go to the movies anymore," I thought. I don't know why we had such violent previews, since the movie we had come to see (The Big Short) was not violent. Maybe most movies are just like that now.

Anyway, once the beatings and shootings (and a bear attack) were over, we got to watch mayhem of a different sort: bloodless, cerebral, global. The Big Short follows the adventures of the money men who foresaw, and cashed in on, the 2008 housing-market debacle.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the line the filmmakers had to walk. Normally, in a movie like this where the main characters are taking huge risks in the face of a lot of naysaying, you root for the main characters. But in this case, rooting for the main characters meant rooting for the collapse of the housing market and the economy. It meant hoping for a disaster that caused much suffering in real life, suffering that many in the audience have endured. At least the movie acknowledges this: even the characters who profited were squeamish about it. What keeps us from hating them is that the people they were betting against were so much worse: creating and propping up a set of appalling deceptions, careless and heedless of where it was all leading, and smug in their belief that the glory days could last forever.

Another challenge the filmmakers had was creating suspense in a situation where we all know how it turned out; we all know what happened. In this case, the suspense was in not being entirely sure which of the characters would come out all right, or when, or how. It was in trying to understand how this fiasco could happen in the first place. And that leads to another difficulty: explaining complicated financial deals to a general audience.

Here, the movie uses an interesting device that could have backfired (it could've turned out condescending, or boring), but really seemed to work: having celebrities explain complicated financial concepts with simple, concrete analogies. Anthony Bourdain, for example, compared the repackaging of bad debts to a chef tossing leftover halibut into a fish stew: take your less-than-attractive product and put it in a pretty new vehicle. These explanations were also used very sparingly, just a few times, and exactly at the right places. So, IMHO, it mostly worked (although having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath while she explained her bit was a little too gratuitously cheesecakey for my tastes).

I have always been partial to anatomy-of-a-meltdown movies (quite literally, in the case of The China Syndrome), so maybe this was just my kind of movie. But with its dark humor and extreme relevance--economic bubbles seeming destined to recur--it may be many people's kind of movie. I hope so. Aside from the subject of the movie itself, I also liked watching it as a writer, and seeing how the filmmakers turned this unlikely subject and unlikely group of characters into something eminently watchable.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Taking time

Over at YA Outside the Lines, I posted about the time, and patience, it takes to get a novel right. A sample: "It takes a long time to write a novel, time during which my daily progress is barely measurable. Some days, all I do is delete. Some days, all I do is think."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The in-between days

"I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything .... I am still pursued by a neurosis about work .... A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever."
--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Spreading some cheer

Nathan Bransford is doing his annual fundraising blog challenge for Heifer International.

If you leave a comment at his blog, he'll donate $2. If you tweet about the donation challenge including the hashtag #NBHeifer and the link that's also $2.

If you're moved to donate (as I will be doing) or start a blog challenge yourself, so much the better! But even if you can't afford a donation, you can help just with a few clicks, as described above. Please spread the word, and happy holidays!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Memorable books

I said I couldn't do a "best books of 2015" post, but I thought I'd share a few of my memorable reads from this year. Note that these are books I read in 2015; most of them were not published in 2015. I'm lucky if I can get to a book within a decade of its publication.

The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum.
The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits.
Kensington Homestead, by Nic Esposito.

These three memoirs/essay collections cover a variety of topics. Daum and Julavits cast wide nets, discussing various aspects of their lives. Esposito focuses on the challenges and rewards of running a farm in the middle of a city. I particularly like the way Julavits handled time in her book: the pieces are not arranged chronologically (they jump back and forth in time), but they are meant to be read in the order in which they are presented.

Love: A Philadelphia Affair, by Beth Kephart.
Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell.
Devotion, by Dani Shapiro.

Kephart presents short pieces on Philadelphia; even if you don't know Philadelphia, you can appreciate these slices of urban life. Caldwell's account of her friendship with writer Caroline Knapp covers so much territory: friendship; solitude and introversion; rowing; the bonds people make with pets; alcoholism; loss. (Be warned: Caldwell's book was also one of the few books that has ever made me cry.) Shapiro pursues the spiritual while touching also on family ties, on what it means to be a parent and a daughter.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.
Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn, by Amanda Gefter.

Speaking of parents: they figure prominently in Chast's graphic (i.e., illustrated) memoir on dealing with her parents' end-of-life issues, and Gefter's search for, oh, nothing more than the key to the Universe (a search sparked by, and shared with, her father). Both books are funny while dealing with extremely serious issues. Gefter's book came closer than any other book ever has to explaining physics and cosmology at a level I could (mostly) grasp.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay.
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit.

These books deserve to be in the canon of feminist literature, and I suspect they are or soon will be. Gay's book covers a wider range of topics. Recommended for anyone who wonders why feminism, or why we needed a Third Wave, or for anyone who already knows but wants like-minded company and a view of what's next.

This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
Backlash, by Sarah Darer Littman.
Prisoner B-3087, by Alan Gratz, based on the story by Ruth and Jack Gruener.

Backlash is a YA novel, a fast and compelling read, about bullying in the online era. The inciting event--a miscommunication--was so realistic, as was the non-sugary but satisfying ending. Littman explores some very nasty goings-on from multiple points of view, making it easier to understand the characters' motives even when we find them appalling. The other two are more "tween" books, This One Summer a stunning graphic novel about family, loss, and growing up; Prisoner B-3087 based on the true story of a teen who survived ten concentration camps in World War II.

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink.
The Crazy Iris, ed. by Kenzaburo Oe.
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose.

Fink's account of a New Orleans hospital during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has stayed with me, as have the stories in The Crazy Iris (about the aftermath of nuclear bombings). Both are emotionally tough but rewarding and thought-provoking. And on the lighter side, Rose's account of reading through a shelf of library books is likely to delight any big reader or book lover.

Disclosure: Beth Kephart is a friend, and I've had friendly conversations with Sarah Darer Littman. Nic Esposito's press published one of my short stories. Nevertheless, my recommendations here are based purely on my views as a reader. All books listed here, I either bought or checked out of the library.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Some thoughts on memoir and the elephant in the room

I once read an essay that was ostensibly about grief, but as I read it I suspected that what the author had really done, via several kinds of self-destructive behavior, was to avoid grieving. For me, this essay--which came highly recommended--missed the mark, because ultimately I didn't think it was about what the author thought it was about. We didn't have that meeting of the minds that is usually such a satisfying part of reading, especially reading memoirs and personal essays. (And I want to be clear that my issue here is not how the author chose to respond to the grief-inducing incident: her life is her life, and I'm not particularly interested in approving or disapproving of her actions. My problem was that the writing didn't lead me to the insights that she meant to spark, but took me in a different direction, which was suggested by the evidence but unexplored on the page.)

Similarly, I'm almost finished reading a memoir in which alcohol hijacks the main thread of the story. The author is trying to tell me one story, to share one set of insights about his life, and yet I'm being distracted by the huge role that drunkenness plays in the events. And it's frustrating that, for all the soul-searching and life-interpreting the author does, he only grazes the surface of the alcohol topic. In this book, drinking is like a Chekhovian gun that is never fired: present throughout, but never examined.

I don't mean that, in this case, the author must run to an AA meeting and tell us all about it. I mean that since drinking plays such a huge part in his story, it should be dissected with the same care as the memoir's other main threads--no matter what he concludes about it, or even if he concludes he's not ready to conclude anything yet. That territory should be explored.

One of the difficulties of the memoir and the personal essay is that we don't always see ourselves the way others see us; we're not always ready to face or acknowledge the elephant in the room. I can empathize with these writers as people, but as a reader engaging with their work, I want more.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The authors, the legends

I was trying to remember if celebrity-authored picture books were A Thing yet when I was growing up. I don't think so; I can't recall any celebrity children's books back then.

I would've found it odd to link authorship with a recognizable celebrity, since I'm not sure I even thought of authors as contemporary people. Fairy tales and myths and Aesop's fables seemed to be stories repeated for generations, with no single recognizable author. They just sort of materialized. And I viewed most books for children similarly: Make Way for Ducklings and Charlotte's Web and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass also seemed to have always existed. I was aware that some books had authors' names on them, but those authors didn't seem like real people. "Dr. Seuss" sounded like a made-up character (and indeed, it was a pseudonym); I had never heard of such a name as "Roald" (Dahl) before (and neither had my classmates, which was why they persisted in calling him "Ronald"). E.B. White hid behind those mysterious initials. Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain (another pseudonym!) and L. M. Montgomery were more accessible--their works carried more than a whiff of autobiography--but still, they had lived a long time ago, way back in olden times. Once Upon a Time.

As I got older, I became aware that authors were real people, many of whom were even still alive. And yet, they didn't seem like people you could run into at the grocery store or the bus stop. If pressed to imagine where they lived, I might have guessed they all lived up on a special mountain somewhere, or in cabins out in the woods. Well, maybe not Judy Blume--the suburban setting of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was so familiar she might have been living in my own neighborhood. Except I was pretty sure she wasn't, because again, authors didn't live among boring people like me.

To me, authors were celebrities in their own right. They didn't usually appear on TV, but their names were IN PRINT. On shelves in public places such as LIBRARIES and BOOKSTORES. What more proof of fame could one need?

Of course, now that I am an author, all of this is hilarious to me. I am not remote or legendary, and I don't even get to spend most of my day writing.

With authors on social media and doing school visits nowadays, I doubt that children today think of authors as distant and mysterious, the way I once did. That's okay. But my old imaginings are good for a chuckle!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Room for surprises

In writing, some of us outline extensively and some of us wing it. In life, some of us plan and others are more spontaneous.

(I tend to plan most of my life in great detail, but write in a more free-form way. Go figure.)

But in either case, it's always good to allow room for surprises. For the unexpected twist, the unforeseen opportunity. Because you never know.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Cleaning house

For a long time now, I haven't made a big deal about the turn of the year. January 1 never brought many changes, and I didn't want to add resolutions to my overcrowded schedule. For several years, my only resolution was to try to do less, to slow down, in the new year.

2015 has been a year of changes--to be honest, most of them unwelcome. It's been a year of letting go of many things, including expectations.

But the upside of that is that there's now room for new things in my life. I'm thinking about 2016, about writing goals and personal goals. Not in a to-do list way, not in a way that will instantly fill my schedule back up. I'm thinking about what else I'll be letting go of, and what new things I'll be trying. I'm checking my priorities.

Mostly, I just want to face 2016 with a spirit of openness, willingness. I don't want to plan everything out now; I just want to be available for opportunities as they come. I want to continue to make room for what matters most.

What are you looking forward to in the new year?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A taste of autumn

This passage from May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude pretty well describes the landscape here right now:

"I look out at trees leafless now except for one maple, where high up against the blue there is still branch after branch of translucent warm gold. The leaves sift down one by one like notes in music."

Friday, December 4, 2015

Secret side projects

Once you start writing for publication, an expectation and a pressure can develop, to find a market for everything you write. (This is obviously and especially true if writing becomes your main source of income.) This expectation and pressure can be invigorating. I know that I found it inspiring when I got my first book contract. I was extra motivated by the increased certainty of an audience.

At other times, the expectations of an audience--whether a real or hypothetical audience--can interfere with the process, tilting a writer away from the story she's telling and toward approval seeking, second-guessing, belittling.

Lately, I've found it useful to pursue separate categories of projects: some intended for publication, others just for me. With the latter, I don't have to please anyone but myself. I don't have to be perfect, or even finish. I can try anything, explore anything. It's utter freedom, and reminds me why I write in the first place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Antaeus touches the earth

We all need sources of comfort, ways to refill the well. Creating is an act of affirmation; it takes energy, belief, a sort of optimism. Speaking up takes energy, especially when it takes so much for a single voice to be heard in this large world. That energy needs replenishment.

What is the wellspring you draw on? From where do you draw your strength?