Tuesday, October 23, 2018

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Have you ever found yourself faced with a writing project and no idea how to start? Have you ever experienced the uncomfortable realization that everything you write is going to be a reflection on your personal life in some way and that people won’t believe you’re writing a character, even if that character doesn’t resemble you in any way? Have you ever written something for a creative writing class that started along the lines of “the author put pen to paper, but words wouldn’t come.  She bounced a tennis ball against the floor ten times, trying to come up with a different character name on each bounce.  She slept with her pen under her pillow and showered with her tablet in a plastic bag.  One glorious autumn day she awoke to the sounds of geese calling overhead on the migration route, and their brazen honking acted like a tissue might on a stuffed up nose.  She ran to her computer and without preamble, started to write....”
My god, we’ve all done it. We are all GUILTY of that bilge. We’ve all been that self-inserted character, writing pure garbage with the hope that at some point, something of value would emerge.  We’ve all discovered that the best way to write something good, or memorable, or even therapeutic, is just to sit down and do it.  Just write.
This is the whole point of NaNoWriMo.  Stop telling everyone how much you’d love to write a novel one day and just sit down and write one.  No deleting, no editing.  30 days, a beginning, middle, and end, at least 50,000 words.  It won’t be good, but it will be written. 
I’ve tried to convince a number of people to participate in this madness with me every year since I started.  Most people say the same thing - that they don’t have time, or that every time they’ve tried their work has turned out nonsensical.  Listen.  I managed to complete NaNoWriMo one year while working full time and going to night school, and I did it in the stolen moments.  In the times you’d take a cigarette or snack break, a full lunch at work, watch TV before bed, spend scrolling Twitter, sitting on the toilet, all of those minutes add up.  Those stolen little minutes can create a whole life within your life.  I wrote my novel using Google Docs, although I’m sure any cloud-based writing program would work.  You can do it on your phone or tablet while standing in line at the store, or waiting in the doctor’s waiting room.  It helps, of course, to have a good outline beforehand so there’s no wasted time. You just glance at your outline for the next scene or plot direction and write for five minutes.  
I wrote a lot of terrible things that year.  Because the goal is to write 50k words, sometimes my characters would do things like debate what they were going to eat for lunch. I could easily write a couple hundred words debating which was the best menu option at Taco Bell (the beef nacho cheese chalupa if you’re not counting calories, duh).  It didn’t matter exactly what I was vamping about, somehow that chalupa would turn up in later chapters and become central to the character or the plot.  Just the act of writing something down turned into ideas for future scenes, and somehow I got to 50k in about 1667 words a day.  Some days more, some days less.  It’s just like eating a pie.  Most of us don’t sit down and eat a whole pie at once, but I sure can finish a pie if I’m telling myself I’m just having a nibble with each meal.  
This brings me to Scarlett Thomas. Scarlett Thomas writes books that you will either love or hate, depending on your mindset and where you are in life.  They tend to lean heavily on philosophy and have elements of fantasy or mystery in them.  There are also personal insertions that pop up from book to book and seem to run parallel to what she’s told us about herself in various interviews.  I remember reading PopCo and rolling my eyes pretty hard at the strong push to veganism - it was so heavy handed I wanted to hurl the book across the room at the time - but there was also a really interesting spy element, and overall I loved the book.  Interestingly my least favorite of her books is a dystopian/utopian YA style novel where a bunch of people end up stranded on an island.  I remember thinking that a new utopia isn’t really all that great if they don’t strand a good surgical dentist on the island with everyone else. Nothing can make you miserable quite like persistent worsening tooth pain. I found this lack of dental care to be completely unrealistic, and yet I wasn’t bothered at all by the completely realistic book with the talking mouse and mental video game simulations.  I may be critical, but at least I’m inconsistent!
Our Tragic Universe is a book I really hated the first time I read it.  It’s about a writer struggling to write - looks like someone took a MFA writing class, har! - and who completely deletes and re-writes her novel based on whatever is happening in her current life at the time.   It’s about “storyless stories,” a phrase that I still loathe, even though I’ve come to love the book.
I’ve never claimed to be the fastest racehorse, but my perception of the book changed completely when I re-read it and realized that the book about the self-inserting author, which is written by a self-inserting author in real life, is a metaphor for how we live our lives.  That every time we change our circumstance or pick up a skill or learn something new, we can rewrite our story from the new perspective we’re in.  
There are large chunks of dialogue between the main character, Meg, and her intellectual friends where they talk about plot devices and storytelling in general, and each of these conversations makes it back into the book in some way.  They discuss Chekov and the gun - if you introduce the gun in the first act the the gun has to go off in the third.  Within the book, there is an obstacle that is brought up in the beginning and is revealed at the end of the book.  There are plotlines that seem to go nowhere.  Is that sloppy writing, or is the author telling us one of those “storyless stories” they all keep banging on about?
It’s easy to hate Meg, to say she’s unmotivated, whining, and capable of making all the changes she needs to in her life.  It’s easy to hate the deus ex machina resolutions to some of the plot lines.  You can hate her all you want,  but she’s very real.  A person who is living with people who are immersed in depression can pick up the traits themselves.  It might  not be chemical, but unhappiness is contagious and can really sap anyone of basic decision making skills.  If you hate Meg, please take a look at some of your own non-choices.  And as for the deus ex machina element, I think that’s extremely realistic.  So many big things in our lives happen randomly.  It’s the difference between taking the plane that doesn’t crash, or interviewing for the job that turns into your career.  
There’s also an element of moral ambiguity to the characters, which I always like.  What’s the point of saying you’re going to write a novel and then spending the whole time trying to push everyone into a modern morality play, with everyone acting in ways that are always mature and healthy and good for everyone? That would be one boring ass book.  
The last time I reread this it reminded me so much of participating in NaNoWriMo that I had to tie them together.  Meg is dealing with deadlines, a personal life she feels trapped in, and she feels creatively bankrupt.  But she keeps trying.  
As much as I enjoy this book, there is one MAJOR NO NO.  Meg deletes.  She writes, deletes, and restarts over and over, year after year.  This is the number one cardinal sin of NaNoWriMo.  Never delete your word count, Meg.  January is for editing.  For now, just shut up and write.  

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Emma - Jane Austen

Is there anything in the world more deliciously fun than rubbernecking other people's personal drama from the outside?  I'm sure that there are a few pearl-clutchers amongst my readers who may be saying sanctimoniously to themselves "Well, I never gossip or judge other people.  You just don't know their circumstances."  I'm here to tell you, pearl-clutcher, that you are a hypocrite.  Just because you're not saying it out loud doesn't mean you're not thinking "If I had a fight like that with MY sister in law, I certainly wouldn't put it on Facebook!" And that may be true - you might not put it on Facebook.  But you're sure as hell reading Facebook and rubbernecking the drama, just as the rest of us do.  Sometimes I like to go in and stir up drama, then sit back on my heels and watch it all play out, just for kicks.  "I see that you don't want to talk about it, but you sure love posting it on Facebook" I might type on a young cousin's status, then I sit back and watch the angst.  I'm so glad that I got old before social media became a THING.

In Jane Austen's day, there was no Facebook.  Their gossip was spread through an in-personal social network.  An analog Facebook, if you will.  It wasn't instantanous, but because people lived in small communities where they saw each other every day, gossip and speculation could still spread pretty quickly.  Your whole life could be confined to this very social circle and because people had to take care of each other, your business was automatically everyone else's business.  

I know that readers generally either love or hate Emma.  I think that it's her most modern story, and that it holds up to the test of time better than many of her other books.  This is especially apparant when you watch the movie Clueless, which is a cinematic masterpiece disguised as a silly high school love story.  Watch it, I'm serious.  

Emma is the story of a young woman who was basically the OG of young women in her small community of Highbury.  When I say small, I mean that there were only a handful of families in her social class within a reasonable distance from her home.  Emma has never left this home, where she lives with her doddering father and until recently, her governess.  

Emma's dad, Mr. Woodhouse, is written as a charmingly eccentric, gentle soul.  He's prone to health anxiety.  If Mr. Woodhouse was here today, he'd be that middle aged dude who says things like "back in MY day we put butter on burns, and I see no reason to stop it now!"  He's also the type of person who thinks that if he doesn't like something, that no one else could possible like it or should do it either.  Mr. Woodhouse thinks that he's perfect and everyone should be just like him - stay at home, wrapped in quilts, and never have any excitement or fun.  He's profoundly against marriage because he's widowed, and since he can't imagine remarrying, he doesn't see why anyone else should marry either.  

To Jane Austen's credit, her characters know that he's a kook.  They like him because he's genuinely concerned for everybody and wants everyone to be happy, but because he can't imagine any happiness other than what works for him, they make allowances for his piss-poor behavior.  Mr. Woodhouse in 2018 might benefit from some medication.

Emma has sworn she'll never marry, party because she really hasn't met anyone eligible.  Of course, it would also upset her dad, and she's a total daddy's girl.  Despite this, she's considered very eligible and thinks quite highly of her station in life.  She's the richest, most accomplished ingenue in town, although Austen as narrator admits that this is largely because town is so small.

The drama starts when Emma's governess decides to get married, as you do.  This upsets Mr. Woodhouse a great deal, and as Emma has spent most of her time with her governess, she becomes lonely and bored.  A bored, arrogant young woman is a dangerous person.  She soon turns her attentions to a woman of lower social rank, a Miss Harriet Smith. 

Harriet is described as a total babe, but she's of dubious parentage and basically lives at a boarding house.  She's not very smart, but she's incrediby sweet and kind.  As she is also young, she's in the habit of falling in love with every man who bats his eyes at her.

This is another odd Austen quirk.  Because of the short window of marriagable age and the small communities, people pretty much made up their minds to marry people within a six week period.  I won't get into the social class structure of the time, because it's complicated and very boring.  I won't criticize it  either, because there were good reasons for it back in the day.  The point is that you might meet a half a dozen people who were considered "eligible" to marry, and if you didn't want to or couldn't live with your family forever, you'd end up with whomever sucked the least.  This is not really all that different from modern day dating.  

Anyway, Emma gets her claws into Harriet and decides to improve her.  She drags Harriet from the boarding house at every opportunity and invites her to social mixers.  She teaches her an appreciation for a finer life, and gets Harriet to set her eyes on the eligible bachelor of the moment, a Mr. Elton.

Mr. Elton is a ridiculous man.  He's over the top in his gentlemanly manners.  We all know the type, don't we? The guy who thinks he's a ladies man - his manners are so obvious that we know they're for show, and we know that he thinks he's making panties drop across the room whenever he slides out a chair for a woman.  Men - just be normal, please.  Well, in Austen's day, panties didn't quite drop, but there was quite a bit of flirting through conversation and games.  Unfortunately, because most of this happened in the presence of other people, this could be ambiguous.  To flirt outright would be too forward and rude AF, but if you were too effusive in your manners to everyone, people might get confused as to who you are flirting with.  

Emma's longtime family friend, Mr. George Knightly, warns Emma about this outright.  "I know you think you're pushing Harriet in his way, but we don't know who her parents are, and you're setting her up to fail" he might say.  Or "are you sure Mr. Elton isn't really in love with you?"  I'm paraphrasing, of course.  Emma rejects this and tells G-Knight to stop criticizing her.  

One of the most perplexing things about this book to me is that G-Knight constantly tells Emma she's too big for her britches, too sure of herself, too arrogant, while being exactly the same himself.  He's 17 years older than she is, and has seen more of the world, so it makes sense that he's often right about things.  But when he criticizes her personality, it's hard not to snort.  Yeah, dude, Emma's the only egotist in this book.  Hah!

Because this is a pretty universal trope, of course Mr. Elton IS in love with Emma.  Emma, who finds him ridiculous, rejects him in what I thought was a very appropriate and modest fashion.  Mr. Elton, who thinks very highly of himself, does something I have personally witnessed from modern day men a number of times:  he throws an angry tantrum.  Moments after declaring how wonderful she is, he turns abruptly and starts screaming about how she's beneath him, anyway.  It's the olden times version of a man calling a woman hot, and then screaming that she's an ugly c-word the minute she says she's not interested. 

Harriet, who has been pushed into this drama by Emma herself, and who has actually rejected someone she was really interested in but who Emma deemed lowly and crude, is crushed.  Emma realizes that her meddling is terrible and it has to stop.  Immediately!  She will turn over a new leaf.

Hah, amiright?  Mr. Elton storms off and returns several weeks later, with a new bride.  The brand new Mrs. Elton is the best character ever.  She's from another small town, smaller even than Highbury.  Her brother in law is the wealthiest household in their town, and so she constantly compares everyting at her new home to her old home.  This is mostly funny because she's so obvious and horrible about it, but also because the people at Highbury (Emma) who are offended that she'd DARE compare Maple Grove to Highbury (Emma) are themselves being snobs for assuming that Maple Grove ISN'T just as nice.  Mrs. Elton is horrible for other reasons - she knows the Emma/Harriet love triangle story and goes out of her way to shun and embarrass them socially, and so does Mr. Elton.  Harriet really dodged a bullet.  My favorite bit of snobbery by Mrs. E is the way she constantly name drops her brother-in-law's model of carraige.  The baroche landau.  This is like the way my former smarmy boss used to hand me the keys to his very, very used car and say "don't dent my Mercedes!" as loudly as possible, so that the guy who managed whatever gas station we were at could hear and be impressed with his third-hand finery.

Fortunately for Emma and Harriet, there are other new people in town upon which to fixate.  Mr. Frank Churchill, the son of the man Emma's governess has married, and Jane Fairfax, Emma's imagined rival. 

For family status and snobbery reasons, blah blah blah, Frank Churchill has been raised away from his dad and has developed an outrageous personality quite independent of his dad. Frank has been riased by rich relatives, so while his own birth is rather modest, he's been moonlighting with an upper class aunt and uncle, so his social status is a bit ambiguous.  When he comes to town from London-adjacent, he's a breath of fresh air to Emma, who is instantly charmed.  They flirt openly and brashly, and for a time, Emma is infatuated with him.  Mr. George Knighly, G-Knight, dislikes the foppish Frank instantly.

Jane Fairfax, our other newcomer, isn't really new.  She's from Highbury originally, but has been living out near Frank and claims to know him slighly from parties out yonder.  Jane is everything Emma isn't, which means that Emma is insanely jealous of her except for one fact - Jane is poor, and will be resigned to having to work for a living, after being raised amongst finery and the upper classes.  This is sort of simliar to Harriet, who was raised amongst the working class but who is now being introduced to higher society.  The difference between them is that Harriet is quite simple and happy amongst the lower classes, and Jane is brilliant, reserved, and very musically talented, and so she doesn't fit in with the lower classes to which she'll be resigned.

One of the overwhelming themes of this book is that status jumping can be very, very difficult, except for the opportunity of extrordinary circumstance.  It's easy to want to say this was the snobbery of old England, except that it's still pretty true.  Every time I attend a professional function and overhear people talking about how they worked their way up in the world because they had to pay for their own law school becaue their parents were ONLY paying for undergrad, I know that I am out of my depth.  This was even something I discussed with a therapist, the additional difficulties heaped on relationships when there are different backgrounds shaping your values and expectations.  This shit was REAL, and Jane Austen was a pretty good judge of human nature.  It's no wonder she never got married. 

Anyway, as immature as Emma is, she's incredibly self aware.  She knows she doesn't like Jane because she's jealous, and she knows that she should pity Jane for her social position, but she doesn't care because she's young and petty and used to getting her way.  I really identify with Emma. 

Frank and Emma even mock Jane from time to time, although through the course of the book Emma realizes that she's really more friends with Frank than in love with him.  They both love to gossip, and they both speculate wildly about why Jane has left the bosom of the wealthy family who was educating her and why she's back at home now.  They both predict that it was SCANDAL! 
Interestingly, as Emma cools a little towards Frank, his behavior becomes more brazen towards her.  It's not consistent, though.

G-Knight, our old friend, asks Emma if she thinks this is weird.  "Do you think he's making fun of Jane because maybe he's concealing something?"  G-Knight asks.  Emma declares that G-Knight is an old bossy pants and tells him to mind his business. 

Mrs. Elton, too, senses that Jane and Emma aren't the best of friends, and has taken Jane under her wing.  Mrs. Elton goes out of her way to make sure everyone knows how charitably she feels towards pooooooor Jane, and also goes out of her way to try to get Jane a job.  This might be nice, except for the fact that Jane tells her no REPEATEDLY, and although she's too polite to throw Mrs. Elton out of her house, she's pretty direct in saying no. Mrs. Elton disregards this and SIGNS HER UP FOR A JOB ANYWAY.  God, Mrs. E., no means no!

G-Knight and Harriet, meanwhile, have struck up a bit of a friendship.  He feels awful about the way the Eltons are treating her and also feels that Emma has My-Fair-Lady-ed her into a position where Harriet will not be fit for any spouse, being raised above her rightful station.  Harriet, so damaged by the Eltons' public abuse, falls in love with G-Knight. 

When Harriet tells Emma this, she loses her shit, inwardly.  She's forced to confront the fact that she loves G-Knight, as he's been the only person in the world not to spoil her or tell her how fabulous she is when she's really only average.  As I've said, Emma is pretty self-aware. 

Frank ends up confessing that he's been engaged to Jane the entire time and was hiding it by acting like an ass.  Harriet ends up with the first man she was in love with, the one Emma thought was unworthy of Harriet even though they both loved each other and were of simliar stations.  And Emma ends up marrying G-Knight, and they decide to live at Highbury with her dad while he is still alive, to avoid rocking the boat. 

Mrs. Elton is HIGHLY critical of their weddings, not being nearly so fancy as her own.

I love this book and I've loved every adaptation I've see of it.  There's a 70s BBC version that's way too slow paced, but has the best Mrs. Elton I've ever seen.  She shows up at every event bedazzled out the wazoo, like a drunk gold-digger on a cruise.  At the end of the story, Emma, Frank, Jane, and G-Knight laugh at the parts they played in the drama, but forgive each other, because they know that human speculation is part of life and is inevitable.  They do promise to be less outwardly deceptive, but they don't really apologize for the gossip.  They all know that they're going to continue to gossip forever, because there's nothing else to do.

I vote that from now on we re-brand gossip as "human interest," and try to villify it less.  Who's with me? 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Hello again! - The Year We Turned 40, by Liz Fenton

So you know how when you have a blog online, it has to be “hosted” somewhere?  Well.  This was news to me.  A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Jasen pointed out that my website was no longer working.  “Huh” I replied.  “That’s weird.”  I then forgot about it for several days.  Eventually I made a few half-assed attempts to login, and by that point, even WordPress couldn’t locate any of my stuff.
Jasen asked me if I wanted help.  He approached me in a wary fashion, the  same way I approach wild geese.  I’m sure he was afraid I was going to accuse him of mansplaining, which to be fair, I’ve done about half a dozen times.  Jasen is a very patient man.
 “Who’s hosting your website?”  he  asked. “I have no idea” I replied, assuming that he’d look at my registry information and figure it out in half a second.  But alas, it appears that no one was hosting grownassbookreports.com anymore.  Apparently if you use one of the types of WordPress, someone ELSE has to do the hosting, and, I don’t know, honestly my brain makes a loud BRRRDDDDDDDTTTTT whenever someone starts getting into details about coding, or hosting, or anything tech related.  
“Did anyone else have access to your site details?”  He asked, determined to make me be helpful.  “My ex-husband?  He set it up.”  I said, completely unsure if that was even true or not.  Had I changed my password?  Had I needed to?  It wasn’t like it was my bank account or anything.  Jasen gave me a LOOK, which I totally deserved, given that the week before I’d confessed to accidentally mailing my own house keys to someone.  It’s a long story.  Anyway, I assume that at some point the person who set up my site and who does websites professionally switched hosting services, transferred all his own domains, and mine got lost in the shuffle.  This was an extremely long opening story to try to explain why the site was down.  I apologize.  
I came here to review The Year We Turned 40, by Liz Fenton.  I’m not entirely sure why I checked this out.  The blurb said it’s a book about what you’d do differently if you could repeat a year of your life.  It sounds heartwarming and life affirming and not at all like something that would interest me.  Sappy as maple syrup, would have been my initial assessment.  However, the fact that right after I checked out the book I ended up sobbing to the Practical Magic soundtrack while binge eating salty almonds tells me that my hormones were in control, and the hormones, they make me do things that seem out of character.  Sometimes it’s fun to just let it ride.  
This book opens with three characters who are turning 50 and who are filled with regret over the last decade of their lives.  Gabriella wishes she’d been able to convince her husband to have a baby, Jessi is still hung up on the ex-husband she cheated on, and Claire is struggling with her adult daughter and the death of her own mother.  All three characters feel that the year they turned 40 was the year that their lives started to spiral.  On the evening of their birthday, they meet a magician and are given the opportunity to go back one decade and try to work out some of the mistakes they’d made that year.  Then, at the end of the year, they could choose to stay in their 40s or they can go back to the present.  The women are hesitant, but see this as an opportunity to bring some of their wisdom back with them.  This struck me as hilarious, because I worked with a woman who was in her late 50s who always told me she wished she could go back to when she was younger so she’d have her hot young body but she’d have her wise, awesome middle-aged lady brain.  I wanted to say “going back with your current knowledge only works if you’re not still an idiot at 55, KAREN,” but I did not, because I’m not a complete and total dingbat.  
It would be easy - and bad - storytelling to have the women go back in time far enough that they could avoid their entanglements entirely.  Gabriella could tell her husband she wants children before he’s already adapted to life without them, Jessi could skip her one night stand, and Claire could be more strict with her daughter and get her mom to the doctor for regular tests before the cancer sets in. This book doesn't do that.  The characters go back in time to the day after their combined 40th birthday party, and at this point, the mistakes have already been made.  
The characters talk a lot about the differences between 2005 and 2015, no iPhones being a major adjustment.  I hear that.  I use my google map to navigate everywhere.  I know some Gen X-ers are rolling their eyes and saying that people today can’t think without their phones and that if we were less reliant on them we’d be better with things such as navigation but the truth is that in 2005, even when I didn’t have a google map, I would mostly just drive vaguely in the direction I was supposed to go, hoping I’d hit a major landmark at some point.  I spent a lot of time driving around, insisting that I wasn’t LOST, I was headed NORTH.  I fooled nobody.
One of the best aspects of this book is that the characters aren’t magically any smarter or better because their minds are older.  They still make some dumb mistakes.  They still try to cover their own butts.  They’re just better at confronting the issues earlier because they’ve already lived the life where they did nothing and watched things fall apart.  Because of this, things still go to shit, but they go to shit sooner, and in different ways.  
Obviously things work out, because this is feel good fiction.  They don’t necessarily work out the way the characters think they will, but at least no one is stuck with a decade of regrets.  At the end of the book they decide to stay in their 40s, having learned some things about conflict resolution.  All in all, this was less syrupy than I expected and surprisingly realistic about some of the bad stuff about life.  Some things just won’t change, and you’re going to have to deal with it.  
I have one major complaint about the book, and that’s the windup to Gabriella’s baby storyline.  Gabriella is an author who was very open with her husband and family that she didn’t want kids, until Jessi has a baby.  Gabriella sees the baby and -  boom!  She wants a baby!  Is this a thing that happens?  Women turn 40, see a baby, and decide right there that they need one too, like it’s a fancy purse or something?  I get where the author was going, and she writes a really good storyline where Gabriella, former wonder woman, goes banana-pants and pushes her husband into trying to conceive.  Because after a decade of her husband trying to manipulate her into having kids, of course he’s changed his mind.  They are both dysfunctional people who should probably not be making babies.  I enjoyed the downward spiral here, but the spontaneous baby fever that started it made me roll my eyes so hard I saw stars.  
All in all, a good audiobook, if you’re not a stickler for the authenticity of English accents.
I’ll try not to lose all my work again, but no promises!  I’ll be reposting some older reviews that I had backed up, once I figure out how to do that.  If I could go back in time, I’d be better about password security, knowing how websites work, and organizing all my saved backup work files.  Lesson learned, Liz Fenton, lesson learned.