Monday, August 25, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I've only had the book a few months, but already it looks like somebody put it through a garbage disposal.  That should show you how well-loved it is already.

So it won the Pulitzer, and so that should be enough.  But really, and as much as this word is a complete cop-out, it’s utterly amazing.

Tartt first came on the literary scene with The Secret History in 1992, and followed up with The Little Friend in 2002.  The Goldfinch came out last year (2013).  Are you noticing a pattern?  The woman takes ten years to write a book, a thing that’s quite unique in this era of “publish or perish.”  (Actually, some of the first sketches of the book date back as far as 1993!)  Tartt virtually refuses to be a slave to the publishing machine, giving few interviews or readings, and generally bowing out of the promotions side of book sales.  She’s not even on Twitter and largely lets the work speak for itself.  What?

Anyway, the story itself is great and her characters positively transcendent.  In terms of plot:  It is laden with bad decisions and terrible situations and hard drugs and art and esoteric shit about furniture restoration (which, really, were some of my favorite bits, because I’m like, ALL IN when it comes to esoteric shit nobody knows anything about.  I mean, all that restoration stuff could’ve been one hundred percent made up and I’d be like, “Great.  Love it anyway.”  Moving on.)  The centerpoint of the novel is an actual painting entitled “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, who Tartt describes as “the missing link between Rembrandt and Vermeer.”  Not to give too much away:  The painting survives an explosion in New York City (shades of 9/11) and then moves through the novel as a talisman to Theo, the main character.  And if you want more than that, you’ll have to read it. 

But here’s the BEAUTY.

Boris is the best-drawn character I’ve EVER READ.  Ever.  Ever. 

He’s compared to Dickens’ artful dodger, and he is so real he throbs.  He moves; he tears up the pages and walks into your living room.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever had as much of an experience of character-LOSS as I had at the end of this novel – HE WAS THAT REAL. 

And if that isn’t enough, Tartt herself has been compared both to Tolstoy and Dickens themselves.  The woman is only fifty and has only three books to her name, but you can’t read a review of her work without seeing yet another comparison to those behemoths.  (Tartt admits to being raised on a steady diet of Dickens and recognizes that she’s internalized his style.  Also, she loves the comparison.  “Who wouldn’t?” she asks.)

A couple of asides.  During my mourning of the book’s end, I scoured the internet and found a couple of amazing things about this novel that are just so cool I had to share. 

One:  The actual painting “The Goldfinch” really did survive an explosion back in 1654, in Delft, yet Tartt didn’t even realize this until after she wrote her own explosion scenes in the novel.  Read more here.

Two:  The original publication of the novel coincided to the day with an art show opening at Manhattan’s Frick Collection.  (This was not intentionally orchestrated.)  And guess which painting was included in the exhibition?  Yep.  More here.

Basically, STOP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND READ THIS RIGHT NOW.  It’s in my top ten all-time list.  (OMG, that’s a total blog post.  Sarah’s Top Ten.  What’s in yours?)

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm Baaa-aaaack

So, hi.

I know I know I know.  It’s been almost a year.

I also know that most of you know me in real life, so it’s weird to apologize or whatever for just LEAVING the blog, but I feel like I need to make mention of the absence and explain it for the other four or so awesome people who only know me here.

I got a job.

That’s the short story.  Obviously there’s a longer more involved one – an agonizing job search of almost a year, and then all of a sudden an interview, then another and another.  And then one minute I was at a Mumford and Sons concert, and the next I was getting the call that I got the job, and the next Mike was out of town on business for three weeks to Holland and I was juggling three kids and then Eloise got a part in a play and I’m WORKING FOR THE FIRST TIME IN EIGHT YEARS and everything is mayhem and chaos.

The job was originally a part-time internship, but me and the job?  Got along like a house afire and a few months later they asked me to stay on permanently, so it’s basically the perfect situation for me to still get to take the kids to school, be there when they get home, and balance it all, sort of.  Plus, I love it.  I love my job.  I work for a nonprofit called Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, and I get to do their social media and write their newsletters and blogs and reorganize their website and take photos at cool events and learn about all these different faith traditions and meet amazing people and spend my time there hashing out ideas and brainstorming with some seriously brilliant people.  I get to spend the day playing on Facebook and they pay me to do it, you guys.  Click over here and take a look at our mission and programs, seriously, it’s the shit.  I love love love it. 

But all the things they are BUSY, man.  My husband’s job is demanding, and my kids are in approximately one million after school activities plus there are friendships and the dog and homework and cooking decent dinners and the commute and the price of dry cleaning and stepping on Legos at one AM and Where is your lunchkit and Get in the car and Find your other shoe! and you know.  I know you know because you are all out there doing it too.

The “cooking decent dinners” part is debatable.  Lately it’s another day, another shameful, shameful meal.

Anyway, I’m back.  I’ve read some seriously good stuff lately, and I miss it here.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Short and Sweet

Two books I read lately that I need to make mention of.  First is Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.

I read The Forgotten Garden a few years ago, and upon reading this offering, I realized why I waited so long to read her again.  She’s a talented writer, but DAMN if it doesn’t take her 200 pages to get warmed up!  The last half of the book was excellent, though.  So if you don’t mind a plodding buildup, I would say it’s worth your time.

Also read recently is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. 

Set in London, it is a story told from the point-of-view of an autistic teenager, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone affected by autism, or anyone interested in reading a great book, really.  I found it on this list (one of the best book lists I’ve ever read), and it is simply beautiful.  Haddon is a genius at illustrating the way the boy’s mind works from the inside, and provides a completely original perspective on this affliction.  Fascinating.

I don’t have much time, so I wanted to leave you with this piece of perfection from Curious Incident:

And outside the window was like a map, except that it was in 3 dimensions and it was life-size because it was the thing it was a map of.

Brilliant, yes?

Monday, September 9, 2013

When Body Image Hits Home – Here I Go, Getting All Political and Stuff

Last week I read this and then this and of course this happened and then my eight-year-old daughter told me how she “couldn’t wait to have breasts because it was so pretty.”

This isn’t the first time she’s mentioned this, but in the wake of all that BUSINESS last week and what with my feminist ire being ON HIGH ALERT I decided it was time for a talk.

Eloise has never had Bratz dolls, nor do we have cable.  We limit her screen time, she’s not allowed internet access on her iPod, and she doesn’t listen to much popular music.  I honestly don’t think she’s seen a full episode of I, Carly or Hannah Montana.  (Sometimes I truly feel that I’m doing my kids a disservice – will they be able to relate to other kids their age, in middle school, for example?  Do I even want them to?  My friend Emily always says, “Your kids are screwed until college.”  Maybe I should homeschool.  HAHAHAHAHA NOT.

However, none of these restrictions come from a place of fear – I’d say they come more from a place of disdain (much of TV is stupid, and those Bratz dolls are butt-ugly) and laziness (do I really want to pre-screen hundreds of teeny-bopper pop songs and videos for appropriateness?  NO.  KILL ME).  Yet I don’t feel like she’s particularly sheltered, honestly – we read constantly, we watch movies as a family, we have tons of friends, we travel, we talk about everything.  Her best friend knows all about popular music and Justin Bieber, and so Eloise isn’t totally clueless.

I asked Eloise why she felt like this – why was she so interested in boobs, and why right now?

So she begins to talk about the Sailor Moon books (her current obsession), and explains how all the girls are so pretty.  She describes how their bodies look, and explains that she hopes to look similarly, someday.  And sooner rather than later, to be clear. 

Are you familiar with the series?  I’ve been a little conflicted about her reading them, but as we talk a lot about what she reads I figured it was ok.  (Prior to this conversation I was more concerned about Sailor Moon’s boyfriend, but apparently "they don’t go on dates or kiss or anything, they just see each other from far away sometimes.”  Huh.)  Plus I’m philosophically opposed to censoring her reading of something that she loves so much.  (Also, again with the laziness – I really do NOT want to spend my priceless free time reading manga.)  But I do realize that anime presents visuals of hyper-sexualized women, so it’s given me pause.  Simultaneously, I have respect for art and see this style of art as a fascinating and ground-breaking sub-genre.  Whether or not I exactly LIKE it isn’t the point – “liking” something is never the point, with art.  Art is supposed to make you uncomfortable.  I get it.  I respect it.

I asked her to bring me the books.  Here are examples of some of the graphics, for those of you not familiar.

Immediately I was reminded of this truth:  You can’t hide culture from the kids who grow up in it.  Whether you want to or not.  Eloise doesn’t notice Kim Kardashian flaunting a bikini on the cover of US Weekly in the checkout at the grocery store.  But she found that Sailor Moon series in the library and ATE THAT STUFF UP.  Culture is going to find your kid wherever she/he is, like it or not.  And furthermore, guess what?  Our kids are human.  Which means that they are sexual beings.  And for me to fight this and cover it and shrink it and trap it is a fight against the way we were made.  I’d rather use my energies toward teaching my kids how to look at their culture objectively and intelligently, and how to use the moral compass I’ve taught them to navigate their way responsibly.

My revelation was this:  I can do one of two things.  I can take the books away from her and not allow her to check them out, ever again, a la Mrs. Hall

Or, I can work with her, in an open and honest way, to teach her critical thinking.  I can look at the world with her, bravely, and help her to make sense of it by eliminating shame and embarrassment, and I can try to teach her to question what she sees. 

So I asked her why she thought the artist drew the women in this way.  Did she know anyone who looked like this, in real life?  (Present company excluded, obvs.  HAHAHA.)  But really, do I look like this?  Do her aunts or my friends or her grandmother or our neighbors look like this?  Does anyone who is a human look like this?

Note proportion of leg to body.

Is it right, morally, for an illustrator, or editor, or anyone to present such a skewed version of the female form to readers – male or female?  Why do you think the illustrator made this choice?  Do you think the illustrator is telling us women should look like this?

Then we talked about the eyes. 

I explained to her the idea of the disturbing “Caucasian Beauty Ideal” and told her that in Asia, statistics show that the most popular cosmetic surgery is blepharoplasty, or eyelid lifting, which is used to make Asian eyes look more Westernized. 

Knowing this, I then asked Eloise to consider the artist’s depiction of Sailor Moon’s eyes. 

I asked her why she thought the illustrator made this choice?  And how do you think the Japanese manga audience feels about this depiction?

Furthermore, should we look to TV, magazines, or media in any form as a guide to how women should look?  What messages are being sent to women through these vehicles?  (A quick aside:  As much as we hope to combat this stuff with Dr. Barbie or the Lego scientist minifigure (and as much as I applaud these efforts), it’s a drop in the ocean.  It's nowhere near enough.  Those efforts pale in comparison to the plethora of images assaulting our girls from every direction.)

Eloise couldn’t answer a lot of these.  She’s only an eight-year-old girl whose reading level outweighs her maturity level.  (This is both a blessing and a problem.  I’m going to have to work really hard to stay a step ahead of her.  She’s reading The Help now.  This morning we had to talk about a gory miscarriage, attempted rape, and alcoholism.  And that was before 8 AM.  God help me.) 

And look, I don’t have the answers, either.  I'm just trying to figure it out, like everybody else.  But I do know that we need to teach our daughters to ask the questions. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Alexander McCall Smith for a long time, but since I haven’t been able to hear my own thoughts for the last three months, it was kind of out of the question.  However, all three (the baby too!) children started school yesterday, and it is actually quiet here.  I feel strangely adrift, still getting my bearings.  I haven’t been alone for almost nine years.

Yesterday I was a little down, a little emotional – I’m not really a crier about things like this, but it’s quite something to leave your last baby at kindergarten and wave goodbye.  So yesterday I was a bit out of sorts.

Today, however.  Today I went to not one, but two yoga classes – one on a whim!  SPONTANEITY!  Then made an (unplanned) trip to the grocery store to get fixings for a lunch just for me.  Just because I felt like it.  And now I’m shopping for fabric online and all of a sudden, I’m like, WHAT THE HELL WAS WRONG WITH ME YESTERDAY? 

This is amazing, people. 

The house is quiet, and I’m calm, which is a sensation to which I was previously unaccustomed.  I am actually, at this moment, living in a day free of chaos. 

(That is, for one more blessed hour, until my darlings come home.)

(Did I just totally jinx my afternoon?  Probably.)

Anyway, in the meantime, no profound words of wisdom today, only a recommendation to read McCall Smith.  I just finished The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, which is the ninth novel in his Isabel Dalhousie series, so I wouldn’t start there.  Start at the beginning of any one of his series and let yourself wind your way through them.  They are such a treat.

Although McCall Smith is probably best-known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books (which are also wonderful), my personal favorites are the Isabel novels.  Set in drizzly Edinburgh, they are easy reads, and honestly, not a lot actually happens.  These aren’t gripping page turners.  Characters drink a lot of tea, and answer letters, and play the piano.  They have coffee at the delicatessen.  But Isabel and Jamie (and company) are so loveable, and the author treats them with such tenderness…it’s just a joy to read a good book about good people doing honest, admirable things, sometimes.  (Although I do love Breaking Bad, don’t get me wrong.) 

The Isabel novels are the literary equivalent of a cozy quilt, a rainy day, and a mug of hot cocoa by the fire.  They are relaxed and funny and gentle.  They are happy-making.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

If You're Missing Girls, Read This

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close. 

It’s hilarious – again, rom-com done right, and with a pulse and a grittiness that is hard to find in this genre.  I think I laughed out loud on just about every page.  Close “gets” girlfriends:  How we interact, how we talk to each other, how we love each other.  Plus, she’s a genius with dialog.

The story centers on a group of twenty-something female friends in Manhattan.  Like Dunham’s Girls, the women live in vermin-infested walkups, desperately trying both to make bills and “find themselves,” but the novel’s scope continues through this period and into their middle adulthood (careers, marriages, babies, divorces). 

To me, the best part of the book is Close’s understanding of female friendship.  True girlfriends, the best kind, know exactly what to say when we’re at our worst.  They are masters of self-deprecation with the timing of a comedian, or an Olympic hurdler. 

One of my favorite parts from the book happens at Mary’s wedding.  (Background:  Mary’s mother-in-law is named Button.  She’s insufferable, as the name would require.)  During the reception, Button finds Mary and says, “You know that Ken can’t eat shrimp, right?  He breaks out in hives.”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “I know.”

“Oh, okay.”  Button seemed relieved.  “I just wanted to make sure.  I just didn’t know why you would ever serve shrimp at your wedding if you knew your husband could break out in hives.”

Mary went to the bathroom and locked herself in the handicapped stall.  She stood in her dress and breathed deep breaths until she heard Isabella walk in.

“Mary?”  Isabella called.  “Are you in here?’’

Mary unlocked the stall and stood there.  “Button,” she said.

Isabella nodded.  “Harrison’s mother told me last weekend that she thought polka dots were out of style.” 

“So?”  Mary asked.

“I was wearing my pink-and-white polka dot dress,” Isabella said.

“Okay,” Mary said.  “Okay.”

This is what we do, right?  This is how we communicate our support of and love for one another – no matter how bad your situation seems, it’s actually normal, and at least we’re all in this crazy fucking boat together.  Girls in White Dresses is a love letter to girlfriends. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Daughters, and Shopping

Last August, I took my then-seven-year-old daughter, Eloise, and her best friend, Lola, shopping for the perfect first-day-of-school outfit. 

Eloise is a great kid – but of course I think this, she’s mine.  She’s smart and beautiful and wacky and creative.  She’s also strong-willed and stubborn and emotionally high-strung and sometimes extremely flaky.

To illustrate:  At breakfast I’ll suggest an outing – the zoo, for example.  The kids and I (Eloise included, of course) will discuss when we’re leaving, the things we’ll see, what we’ll pack for lunch.  Maybe Eloise will help make sandwiches or gather water bottles.  We’ll load the car.  And 30 minutes into the drive there, Eloise will look up from her book, dazed, and say, “Wait.  Where are we going, again?”

I cannot tell you how many times this EXACT SCENARIO has happened.

But she’s one-of-a-kind, that’s for sure – and this is probably my favorite thing about her.  This morning, for instance, she said, “May I please have some peanut butter and crackers to cease my appetite?”  Not to be funny.  That’s just how she talks.

Lola, Eloise’s best friend, is also a great kid, in a completely different way.  She’s outgoing and friendly, the life of the party.  She draws people out and makes friends easily.  She and Eloise complement and balance each other – where Eloise is shy and reserved, Lola is talkative and open.  Where Lola is physical and energetic, Eloise is calm and peaceful.  It’s a fun friendship to watch, precisely because of their opposites. 

So, on this particular day, the day of the back-to-school shopping, we ended up at a popular clothing store.  You know this place – lots of jersey knits, t-shirts, leggings, jeans.  Lola and I start picking items to take to the dressing room.

(I must note here:  Lola is truly fun to shop with.  She tries everything on, asks your opinion.  “Do you think this top looks better with the skirt or the jeans?  Which color sweater is cuter?  Do I need a bigger size in these?”  It’s kind of like shopping with a teenager, when you were a teenager.  The main point of Lola’s shopping is the dressing up, and the socializing, not the buying, necessarily.)

Eloise, meanwhile, wanders around the store, blurry and unfocused.  Or, at least that’s what it seems like.  She floats, not really engaging with anything, not exactly participating in any part of the trip.  And this is the point at which I get a bit frustrated with her, honestly.  This is supposed to be fun!  Who doesn’t like a new outfit?  We’re even here with her best girlfriend, and still – she’s just not that into it, really.

So I hold up one of my selections.  “Honey.  What do you like?  What do you think of this outfit, with the leggings?  You could choose any color.  What about the purple?”

And she says, “Nah.  Not really, Mom.  I don’t really like any of this.  I’ll just wear something I already have.”

(Again, time out.  I must interject here:  This is TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO ME.  Wear something one already has?  Whatever FOR?!?)  For the love.

I say, “Why?  This is what kids wear!  There are lots of cute outfits here – what’s not to like?  I want you to pick something.  It’s fun to wear a new outfit on the first day of school.”

Eloise looks at me appraisingly.  Considers.  Sighs.  “Okay, Mom.  Fine.  Where are the yellow satin blouses, then?”

And that’s when I got it.  This girl, my dreamy sleepwalking-but-awake child, the one who is never really HERE, always ELSEWHERE – she lives in her head, and in her (rather volatile) emotions.  She spends most of her time thinking about things that don’t exist.  Fairies, for example.  Magic.  Fiction.  Tall tales and supernatural creatures.  Cotton balls and Q-tips that signify animals, and pieces of paper cut into a million intricate shapes that make sense only to her.  Art detritus left in her wake, made-up melodies hummed under her breath.  So nothing at a store, ANY store, is going to be as wonderful as something she dreams up in her marvelous imagination.  Nothing could possibly compare.  This is who she is.  This is why I love her to pieces.  This is why she makes me ABSOLUTELY crazy.

So this summer, I’m doing a little preemptive surprise sewing.  I hope she’ll be pleased.