Sunday, October 25, 2009

I may be wrong...

I think I'm wrong.  I said two posts ago that it shouldn't matter what an author's personal beliefs or actions are if they are writing fiction and the tale itself is enjoyable.  Yet the more I think about Hamsun, from what I learned in the paper today, I can't help but feel cheated. 

The subject is just too complicated to give a decisive answer to....

I know as a kid not being allowed to read Sylvia Plath because she had committed suicide.  But then when I did read her as an adult, my mind kept going back to what she had done and colored it all differently. 

I don't know what I think!

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

This book came out ages ago and I've finally got around to reading it.  I really loved Middlesex by the same author, so I had pretty high expectations.

The story didn't disappoint, but it was a quicker, shallower read than I had expected.  The premise is the suicides of five sisters in the span of a year.  That's not a spoiler, it's pretty much on the blurbs and explained in the first chapter.  What it deals with is the relics of their life and what significance they carried and attempts to find a connection between their external lives with their disturbed (obviously?) interiors.  Learning the personalities of each girl is interesting, and more fascinating is the pull these sisters exerted on every young man around.  

Two things bugged me about the book, and I'm thinking maybe that's what Eugenides had in mind.  First, he doesn't explain much about why the parents behaved the way they did, and how that could have influenced the girls.   Maybe by not delving into that he's challenging the thought of 'nurture' being to blame when children are dysfunctional?  It seemed the most obvious direction to head in examining why it all happened, but he doesn't go there directly.  By not mentioning their influence, and then not offering any other explanation, is he trying to place all the blame on the indirectly?

The other unexplained (I'm sure on purpose!) aspect was who made up the "we" that serves as the narrator of the story.  It's clearly a pack of boys who are fascinated by the whole tragedy, but who was their voice or was it a compilation of all of them?

Los Angeles Times article on Knut Hamsun

Today's Times:,0,5345383.story

Fascinating and a bit disconcerting....I wonder how much of what you enjoy about an author is affected by what you know of his personality off the pages?  Does knowing that a favorite author was a Nazi sympathizer change things?  It has to, to some extent.  That Hamsun sent his Nobel Prize for Literature to Goebbels in tribute?  Ick.

"Here, one imagines, {Zcaron}agar is pointing not to Kolloen, who doesn't shy away from Hamsun's most dangerous impulses, but to the type of critic who has sought to pry the accomplishments of "Hunger" from the moral failings of its creator. The same impulse can be found in recent writings on Ezra Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Celine: a separation undertaken not necessarily in the name of postmodernism -- the "reclaiming" of the text -- but simply because it makes it easier on the reader. Such a strategy belies the challenges of any of these writers: to see them whole, their lives and work as part of the same continuum, which makes for an uncomfortably complicated moral and aesthetic response.

In this way, "The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance" and "Dreamer and Dissenter" are daring, frightening books. What if instead of attempting to separate Hamsun's politics and his art, Kolloen and {Zcaron}agar seem to be hinting, we took it for granted that the two were inextricably intertwined -- that one would never have been possible without the other? Where would we be then?"

I'd never really thought of this before. I really don't think I would have enjoyed Hunger as much if I had known this information before.  Much less Growth of the Soil, a favorite of mine, in view of what I know now.  It definitely changes things.  But do I have to dismiss them completely?

An author's personal life obviously affects what they write, but is it necessary to be examined in concert with their work?  If someone wants to read Hemingway, should they have to review a biography first?  Of course not, because their personal feelings might bias them against accepting the work as is.  Does an author need to even divulge their personal views?  Do they have to be that open or are they allowed a degree of privacy?  Obviously Hamsun was public in his viewpoints, so considering what he said and did is open to discussion, but is it vital to understanding the actual writing?  I don't think so...if it's fiction.  If it was his personal bio I'd be unlikely to pick it up, but as long as it's a 'story' I don't have a problem with reading his words.

If I read of an author who liked to stomp kittens or shoot at birds, yes, I'd avoid them for sure.  But could they still tell a story?  Their writing has to be separate from their lives, because who knows what people really are?  Should have an author have to manipulate their personal information to avoid exposure for what might be deemed unappealing by whatever demographic they appeal to? It reminds me of the James Frey disaster on Oprah...his story appealed to so many until it was discovered to be fictional rather than autobiographical.   He would likely have found success with a fictional offering.  The fact he was a confessed liar changed it all, but should it have?  It was an interesting read regardless.

It seems timely that today's paper addressed the Hamsun issue as well as more of the Roman Polanski drama.  Is he less of a visionary director because of his personal life and all the nasty allegations?  To me it's easy to separate the two aspects of his personal and professional life.  Do I like him?  No.  Should he be punished? Absolutely.  Does that make his work trash?  I don't think so.  I'll never pay for a biography but I may just rent The Pianist

X is currently reading a collection of Oscar Wilde, a compilation of most of his work and a biography and interviews all in one.  He's learned that Wilde was in many ways a jerk:  selfish and arrogant among other things.  But in spite of all that, the short stories are amazingly funny and spot-on in reality.  His personal life explains much of it, but is not necessary to enjoy the stories themselves.  X keeps trying to juxtapose the differences, but why?  Why not accept it as is?

What about an author whose personal life is public before they write?  Would anyone take a Paris Hilton novel seriously?  Not a chance.  But does that mean an unknown author who just appeared out of nowhere is somehow more legitimate or more morally acceptable (until proven otherwise)?

I think I'll use a pseudonym if I ever get published.  I'll make up a really pretty name (Rainn?) and photoshop my picture for the blurb to look intelligent and approachable (and thin and pretty!), and maybe even make up a really happy biography ("lives with her thirteen cats"). 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Blueback and Minimum of Two, a Tim Winton double play!

I had two Tim Winton books to enjoy this week, I felt rich!  Better yet, I now have an Australian source who is going to look for the remaining Winton books to complete my collection at hopefully a cheaper price!

First off, Blueback.  It is described as an adult fable.  It deals with a single mom and her son on the Western Australia coastline.  It was a short read and it disappointed.  I loved the setup, but it dissolved into a rather preachy ecological lecture on global warming and the overharvesting of the ocean.  I can't disagree, but felt it a bit pushy from one of my favorite authors.  I couldn't figure out who he was trying to reach:  is whaling still a problem in Australia?  Or was he going for the women-who-poach-abalone demographic?  Just sort of disappointing. 

Minimum of Two was an ordinary paperback that I spent an ungodly amount of money on, as it is out of print.  I feel like it needs its own safety deposit box.  However, once I began I was not disappointed, it was flawless.  It is similar to his collection of short stories, The Turning.  But this selection is a bit different.  All but two of the shorts deal with the same family, and as always he shows differing viewpoints of different events and times.  It starts with a young boy dealing with his parents divorce, then the other stories are from the standpoint of the father at different points in his life:  dating, newlywed, out of work, dealing with his father's illness, etc.  They aren't in any chronological order, so it takes reading them all to see the complete story of the family.  I like that there are gaps left unexplained so you can ponder what actually happened. 

It's never a happily ever after story with Winton, and this too has it's sadness and poignancy.  What I liked though was how, as I already know how fast life can change, as an individual I can only look back and forward in my own life.  In this set of stories, I could see his life, backwards and forwards, and see what the main character couldn't see:  all his options and choices and how they turned out.  Great book!!!!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Object of My Affection

About a year ago I was on vacation, trying to escape some dark times here at home. I felt strong and powerful for what I had been surviving, but at the same time I felt like much of it was surreal, like a bad TV movie. As I browsed shops and boutiques, I had this sense of needing a ‘souvenir’ to remind me of surviving such difficulties and remaining (somewhat) sane.

It was in one trendy little boutique just off State Street that I found a heavy stone with the word “Believe” intricately carved into it. It seemed to fit: I needed to believe in myself and believe in the idea of justice and moving on. I bought it and gave it a place of honor on my dresser. I remembered all of this yesterday as I was dusting the dresser: moving the lamp, my one perfume bottle, the assorted photographs, and the candy dish from my mom. As I picked up the rock, I realized with a start, that it was just a rock.

Not that I had attributed any powers to it other than a memory point; it certainly wasn’t my personal talisman. The word “Believe” seemed so insignificant and trivial for all that I had imagined it would mean to me. For one thing, I needed no souvenir, it’s not like I could ever forget. I knew I was strong without needing the rock to tell me so. And “believe”? Of course I believed in the future, isn’t that why I keep getting out of bed every day and moving forward?

It was there, next to the vacuum and with the dusting rag still in my hand that I realized, for all my intentions, I had been mistaken. That object, the silly gray rock with the blue granite veins swirling through, was something that pushed me backward. It pushed me back into remembering things I had hoped to leave behind in the effort of moving forward. It was just a rock.  It now sits in a box on a closet shelf.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


full disclosure:  not always a good thing

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Every time I drive the main drag in our little town, I get terribly annoyed by a sign for a small business: The Smoker’s Hut. Granted, most people have important things on their minds and probably don’t notice, and I do get annoyed at weird things. I have actually found myself irritated by a font in a sign, which is just wretched. Anyway, when I first saw the sign all I could think of was “Wow, a lot of thought went into that business name!” I mean, was The Smoker’s Shop or The Smoker’s Store already taken? What do they mean by Hut? Were they going military like a Quonset hut or more of a Caribbean tiki hut thing? I can picture them sitting around the office, throwing names around, and coming up with Smoker’s Hut! Brilliant! Someone should get a bonus!

I realize it’s trivial, but I can’t be the only one who notices names and what is clever or definitely not. As in, Ye Olde Medicine Shoppe, which is a local pharmacy chain. What were they thinking? Are they trying to tempt the customer with expired meds, or was it more of trying to reach the ‘where do we buy leeches’ demographic? And the old fashioned writing? Don’t evene gete me startede.

It’s not always annoyance: I really love it when there are cool business names: the Frog and Peach Pub in San Luis Obispo is an example. I love that name. I have no idea why. The combining of two unexpected elements? Maybe. The herb shop that is called Out of Thyme? Love it. The scrapbooking seller Rock Paper Scissors, or the paper supplier Papyrus? Great. The coffee shops Daily Grind and Higher Grounds? Again, much better than The Coffee Hut.

Along the same lines are commercials that are either painful or silly or both. Just for Men is selling a men’s hair coloring treatment that allows a man to look neither too old nor too young, by taking away just some of the gray…leaving a nice salt and pepper look. I ignored the commercial when it was on simply because I can’t imagine anyone who would give a damn, until the parting line had all of us laughing out loud. The spokesman gave a knowing wink and said “Now I look like I know what I’m doing, and I still can!” BWA HA HA!

Verizon also did a little touché commercial as a take on Apple’s “We have an app for that” logo by showing their phones and the catch phrase “we have a map for that” showing their superior coverage. Cool!

I usually agree that simple is better and less is more but in this case, clever always wins!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The House, by Richard Wilbur

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In a sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow's walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, whereve there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

Richard Wilbur, 31 August 09 New Yorker magazine

Friday, October 9, 2009

Yes, please!

Getting Away...

I just returned from a few days out of town.  Something about a quiet and anonymous hotel room is bliss to me.  Santa Barbara is at its finest this time of year.  The weather was perfect and I shopped for a few treasures.  Mostly I walked.  The beachfront has paths all the way from the zoo up and over Cliff Drive and you can walk forever.  The best walk was through the harbor and out onto the breakwater...looking back at the city and the boat reflections on the water was beautiful.

Hearing my baby gasp at seeing the elephants at the Zoo, about 15 feet away, was a huge joy.  His complete shock and awe. Then when he saw the giraffes, he audibly sighed.  A different recognition since he was there last.   It was also heartening to see all the graduate kids from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (it was our reunion) doing so well...I've never seen so many multiples before!

My only moment of discontent was discovering on that first afternoon of quiet, with the baby sleeping soundly, that the Book I had brought to enjoy was one I had read before.  Damn it!  I tried re-reading it, and wondering how I took such care to select a book for the trip and messed up this bad!  I ended up reading all the crap that they leave in the hotel drawers just for something to read...I wasn't about to watch TV and mess up the quiet.  So, I am well acquainted with area restaurants and their menus, I know just when the polo club will be practicing, and I was confident to know all exit strategies in case of fire, earthquake or tsunami.

One thing that was sort of weird/cool was running into an old acquaintance that I hadn't seen since 2002.  We were both happy to see each other, and tried to find the best way to summarize the last few years in the few minutes we were out on State Street.  Too much has happened, so we just generalized:  I mentioned
my husband's illness and the new baby.  She had two children as well in that time.  Thing was, we had so much to say but nothing really stood out.  We were sort of mute at that point (beyond all the 'we have to keep in touch' blather) when she said something interesting in her best Oprah voice:  "well then, what have you learned about life in the last few years?"  I sort of laughed and said "Trust no one."  Her response was similar.

The rest of the trip I kept thinking of her words, considering just how much has happened in that time and what, if anything, I've learned from it.  It's going to sound cynical to say this, but I came up with a few things.

My little rules:
1)  don't overshare your life to people, because then you will feel like you owe them an explanation for what choices you make, and you really don't need to worry about what people think***. 

2) take care of yourself even when you feel like you are living in the shadow of your errors and faults...value yourself enough to not let people hurt you or challenge who you are.  That means dump the toxic friends, put on the sunscreen and moisturizer and eat your veggies, only watch Citizen Kane if you really want to and not because you are supposed to (same with Gone with the Wind and Casablanca), don't keep reading a book you aren't enjoying just because you feel obligated, give away things you don't need that just take up space and use Caller ID. 

3) Be nice.  Don't be a doormat or a robot, and don't pretend to be something else.  Be a nice person, make someone smile (they say it makes people nervous!), and just keep moving forward past all the crap that lingers around.  Be friendly to the cashier, the teller, the taxi driver. 

4) Don't set up huge expectations for what you think other people should do or say or be.  Let yourself off the hook too.  So many things are disappointing, instead just find a simple way to look ahead and be pleasantly surprised rather than let down. 

5) Do your best, even if others think it's not enough.  Or if they say it's too much.  Ignore those other voices and just do what is in your heart.

6)  Take at least two books on every trip.

Off my soapbox...
***It may sound strange to say "don't overshare" in a blog where I actually do overshare, semi-anonymously, but the people who know me get it.  I hope.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The new hive!

I just found this hive in the oak tree behind my garage.  This is all real, even though the honeycomb cells look like plastic.  It's stunning.  Check out how the hive attaches to the branch.  Wow.  Some badass bee engineers!  More amazing is that this wasn't here last week, or at least not large enough to notice.  This stood out distinctly because of it's yellow/cream color.  I thought it was a paperbag stuck in the tree.