Saturday, March 14, 2009

Seven Quick Takes Saturday

Jennifer's post is here.

1) A few months ago Jen asked for book recommendations on her blog. A commenter recommended The Red Tent, which is a retelling of the story of Jacob's family. I read it a few years ago, not knowing it was a New York Times bestseller, and thought it amateurish. It began with a section of description of each main character's appearance, personality and background, and then almost none of that information was put to use or even mentioned in the subsequent story. It reminded me of my own teenage writing, how I'd always have a lingering description of my heroine's good looks on the first page, and then I'd just write all plot (often stolen plot, too) without really engaging my heroine's character, or anyone else's. I was surprised that the book had managed to get published. Its setup-- one man, four wives, twelve sons, one daughter (the narrator), the idols of a fertility cult, and the one true God intervening one wild and windy night-- seemed so darn interesting that I read most of it, thinking it would surely get good in spite of its author. But it never did, and once Dinah left her Big Love family and the Genesis plot to go seek her fortune as a liberated woman, I lost interest entirely.

So I felt like responding and disagreeing with the recommendation, but decided not to be negative in someone else's combox. But then a second person chimed in and said she loved The Red Tent. And then a third. It was too much; I posted to say briefly why I thought it was a bad story badly written. One of the book's fans replied back to me. And what do you suppose she said?

Thank you, Rachel Gray----I read it several years ago, but based on your comments, I'm going to check it out again, and see what it looks like to me now....

I always appreciate critical thinking about books I like...

What a gracious response! Sometimes I'm really happily surprised by people.

2) Here's the other thing I'm taking from Jen's blog: a quote she posted about writing, from the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don't worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.

It's true that this kind of writing is interesting. Nevertheless I stay well away from the soul-baring myself. I'm fascinated by people who are so different from me that they want to share their innermost thoughts and desires with everyone. How can they live like that?

Lamott's advice to "risk being unliked" is no mere rhetoric. That is a real risk. The writers who write "straight into the emotional center of things" hold my attention, but eventually some of them also repel me when they publish rants I don't happen to agree with, spewed without qualification or apology. I even got mad at C.S. Lewis once, when he was venting about God in A Grief Observed (which was the private diary he kept after his wife's death and never intended for publication.)

It took me a while to understand that others write for a completely different purpose than I. I'm normally most interested in information and ideas, and I read asking, "Is this true? Is it just?" No wonder I get irritated when I apply that standard to someone who's just trying to express his feelings. I do enjoy such writing-- when, as I've said, I agree with it. It's like mental junk food, reinforcing my beliefs, giving me an emotional high. But in my own blogging I tend to envision someone who disagrees reading over my shoulder, and that makes me careful to write nothing I can't defend. I don't try to envision this worthy opponent; it's automatic. I even think that way, which is annoying on occasion-- like when I feel like having a good cry and my brain tells me "You've got no right to be upset with anyone; now stop being petulant!"

3) My mom just came back from a week in France, loaded with French pottery. It's all decorated with silly animals, which is very much the sort of thing my mom likes, and I like because it reminds me of her. She told me to pick out a bowl and mug for myself. I went straight for the cows. The little calf is just like me at a young age (or any age), her eyes fixed on the food in happy anticipation. And the mother cow generously providing a yummy meal-- now that's always been my mom.

I try not to be offended that my friends accept an invitation to dinner at my parents' house with greater alacrity than they accept any other invitations from me... :)

4) Oh my goodness, oh my goodness! A bunch of G.K. Chesterton audio books to download for free, right here! Yet more free goodness here!

I commute an hour each way to work, so I am loving this. I've heard the first two parts of Chesterton's Ballad of the White Horse so far and it's making me cry.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

5) Ever seen pictures of the abandoned town around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor? It's been quietly decaying for twenty years, untouched. Except for tourists. On guided tours. And crazy European artists who paint huge people on the sides of the buildings. And looters, lots of looters. It's a shame about the looters, because I'd like to see what rooms look like twenty years after sudden abandonment in the middle of everyday life, but I'm not so interested in what rooms look like after being violently looted. Still, some of the pictures are most interesting. Here's a set. And here.

6) My car had three problems. a) The back bumper was in bad shape after I was rear-ended a few weeks ago. b) The front bumper was scraped and bent in one corner from a fender-bender some time ago. c) The paint was oxidizing and peeling in several places.

My dad accompanied me to the busiest auto body shop around to get a fast estimate for all three problems. The back bumper I didn't worry about; it was covered by insurance. But they wanted to replace the front bumper for $800 and repaint the whole car for $2200.

Dad and I then went to a smaller operation, owned by the man who's fixed our cars for years, and told him insurance would reimburse $1500 for the back bumper. He agreed to reattach and repaint the front bumper, and repaint just the panels on the car that needed it, and replace the back bumper, all for $1900. This he did, and my car looks all shiny and nice now for the first time in years. And it cost $400 out of pocket, not $3000. Yay. :) I'm sort of glad I was rear-ended; it finally led me to get those other problems fixed.

7) This is a detail from the cover of Memling's Last Judgment triptych, painted in the 1400's. You can click for a closer view. Guess why I like it?

Oh, I'm too impatient to wait for guesses. It's because the woman is wearing a veil somewhat similar to the ones some Catholic women wear in church almost 600 years later. I'm totally embracing my cultural heritage! It's all about roots, baby! :)

Others go even further-- I just stumbled upon some pictures of a woman who made herself a replica of the red dress.

8) We have a number eight because I believe that if you stumble upon a New York Times article that begins with the sentence, "There is scarcely anything thought of at present but evening toilets", you need to share it.

9) You know what, those first two takes weren't quick at all. I don't do much planning before blogging, so that's what happens.


JimAroo said...

Item #7 Guess:
The lady has red hair - obviously one of you non Italian ancestors.

Pam H. said...

Re other writers:
Louisa May Alcott may be one of the type you describe as different from yourself. Judging from one of her later books (Jo's Boys? or later; I forget the name of it), she kept to herself outside of her books, and that was how she lived. Suspect many others do the same. The books seem to be a part of the writer, but not a door of welcome into the writer's daily life.

Some of the more emotional writers (the best ones) are also interested in the question "Is it true?" but I believe their definition of "true" may perhaps not be so concrete as your own. The truths about human nature, full of paradoxes, are hard to pin down.

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Pam! Good points. There are truths about human nature that can't be explored in such a concrete way, and some of the more emotional writers would be good at addressing those.