Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Outnumbered but unconvinced

As I expected most, if not all, of my book circle agreed with the reviews and praised Anne Tyler. I listened and asked questions, put my viewpoint out there to get shot down, hoping to find what I was missing.

I concede that aspects I considered inauthentic in the characters were probably purposeful on Tyler's part and therefore not necessarily flaws but an attempt at a certain effect which they appreciated and I did not. They got a message from the author in what I found missing in the book...the lack of love, the lack of forgiveness, the lack of introspection and growth in the main protagonists. Somehow these shallow, selfish characters Tyler created, spoke to them - although what the message was still is not really clear to me- perhaps there but for the grace of G_ go I or, or I'm not alone , or thank heavens that's not me, or I am doing better than that? Good; they got something out of these made up lives . I just found it sad. How many ways can lives be messed up? Oh, here's another one. It was like reading the newspapers or watching reality T.V. -The Osbourne Family maybe.

But there is something else. I can't put my finger on it. I thought of A Fine Balance, also a book about lives filled with tragedy and obstacles but my what a difference. Now why did I love that book and not The Amateur Marriage? Blink!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Our Miss Brooks

We attended a memorial service a few days ago for a friend of ours who died recently. She was a lovely person and a wonderful teacher. It was odd how my husband and I learned that Sheila was a mutual acquaintance. Shortly after we met we were talking about the impact of good teachers on our lives and I mentioned Sheila's name. He exclaimed that she had been his lab partner in High School-he often copied her lab notes as she was so much better at them than he was. Sheila was extremely bright and competent, but also a kind and approachable teacher with that just right combination of authority and warmth. She taught English and had a love of the subject which was infectious . I can't say she inspired a love of reading in me- I already had that in spades- but she taught me to be more rigourous in my thought, more demanding of myself, more critical, in the broad sense, of the material. She taught me to be independent of mind and to trust my own instincts. So thank you Sheila, thank you.

I found this poem, typewritten on notepaper, left in a book I bought second hand. I don't know the author ( in spite of a google search) but it seems an appropriate tribute. I have changed the him in the second line to her.

Fitting Close
For such a life! Her twelve long sunny hours
Bright to the edge of darkness; then the calm
Repose of twilight and a crown of stars.

terminus ad quem: 1859

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Amateur Marriage

Okay, I guess there is something wrong with me. I did not like The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. I had read The Patchwork Planet a few years ago and everyone said what a good writer she was but I wasn't impressed so I probably wouldn't have bought this book if it hadn't been chosen by our book group as the next book for discussion. The reviews have been good. One said it was her best to date. Well, forgive me but I didn't like it. It was one of the most depressing books I have read lately and if I am going to read a depressing book then I want to come away enlightened in some way. I kept asking myself "What is the author trying to say?" That life is messy? Duh! Of course. That the glow goes off marriage? Right - I mean something I don't know Anne. There was no resolution in this book anywhere. And one minute I am in Pauline's head and the next page, years later, she is dead. Just like that, dead. I was in so many heads at different times and that was okay in a way but then you would wonder, when in Michael's head, so what is Pauline thinking about this and you didn't know. And she never puts you in Lindy's head so we can figure out what the heck was going on with her. And some of the character's reactions didn't ring true. Shouldn't either Pauline or Michael have done more to find Lindy? It just seemed to me that it was a whole character cop out. We got bits of everyone but never really got to understand any of them. Am I wrong? Is that the point? It wasn't the writing itself. Although if the characters don't seem authentic then that is a writing flaw. But perhaps I am just not interested in what Anne Tyler has to say to me -whatever that is.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Time travel

I finished The Time Traveller's Wife last night. I read the last half in one sitting it was so good. A love story, a fantasy, a mystery in a way and an adventure. For a first novel, amazing. Dorothea said you must read what inspires you to write-well-I will have to stop reading such good stuff; it is too daunting, intimidating, discouraging. I say to myself "I can never write like that". Now when I read junk ( also published) I say- I can do that, better than that.

I am also reading A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, a wonderful instructive treasure on the pastime. The conjunction of Niffenegger's book and this one have made me think of the book as time machine. Reading Austen, or Shakespeare or Homer is a kind of time travel . Stephen King said writing/reading was an exercise in ESP. ESP and time travel. No wonder it has an air of magic.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Dear Russell Smith-reprise

You had quite a response to your critique of literary readings. Enough to write another piece.( Globe and Mail, Russell Smith, Virtual Culture: “Why am I so grumpy about readings Thursday, March 3, 2005 – Page R1) I debated whether I should wade in again (see Virtual Claptrap entry below) but here I am a second time to defend the practice of reading aloud to an audience.

You talked about the support for your position first, the readers who shared your “bafflement over why anyone would go to public readings”. My only bafflement is why you would go if you don’t like them? You don’t like tea? Don’t drink it. Why complain about all the tea drinkers who do and tea drinking in general?

There was the painter who supported you and compared “responding to art” to making love - the presence of a third party is not required. I think the analogy is not very apt. Making love takes two and it is helpful I think if the partner is in the same room. I had to think I would not like to be this artist’s partner- passive, inactive, for the “responders” pleasure only, like the art piece (or book) he is responding to.

I can agree with those who, like you, say that jazzing up reading with visuals is distracting. I go to a Readings for the reading not anything else. But you didn’t complain that Readings should be real Readings, you complained about the practice in general.

Finally you get to those who responded to your piece who found value in Readings. You say that on the RARE occasion when the author is “dramatic and entertaining, they can bring new levels of understanding and appreciation to their work.” I have to agree except that I don’t think it all that rare for good authors.”You say “Authors will inevitably disappoint” and you say we, including yourself. I have heard Robertson Davies and Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood and Jane Urquhart and Peter Gzowski and quite a few others, including some lesser knowns. Rarely was I disappointed. It wasn’t until I heard Dylan Thomas read A Child’s Christmas in Wales (on tape) that I really LOVED it. What about Garrison Kieller, or Stuart McLean? Their work sings in their voices. And I have heard good writing read by others, not the author. Have you heard a good reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Perhaps it is the quality of the writing you have been going to hear that disappoints? What authors have you been hearing?

You say the heart of your discomfort with Readings is “the promotion of author as performer”. You believe that the thing should stand on its own and the author's intention is only a distraction to what is in the work. Again a Reading is a reading, not a Q and A session although that might come after, and might offer some interpretation which the “listener” can take or leave but the listener is still free to interpret the work in a singular way. Each listener will take something different from the reading depending on his/her experience. It is usually only an excerpt too, not the whole work.

I detect in your piece an attitude that this is a chore expected of authors. Some authors don’t like book signings either. What a bore. Yes. But like hockey players and celebs who give autographs it is a gift to fans who care for such things. Have you perhaps ordered one of Margaret Atwood’s autograph signing machines, Russell? A Reading is a gift to members of the public who buy books and authors can also get much from them. When I read my pieces in public sometimes the audience laughs or sheds a tear and this is helpful. I know I have reached my readers with my writing.

So I liked the response of the lady artist who told you that “one of the most exciting things about performance is the chance and vulnerability that surrounds the act itself and one of the joys of presenting your work in a public space is an exchange that can happen with your audience.” And you end with “Perhaps this exciting thing is exactly what we are afraid of?” Have you changed your mind? It isn’t quite clear. Have you reached your reader?
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)