Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Am Love

Vulture released the I Am Love trailer a few months ago with the following tease:

"There's a new trailer for I Am Love, in which Tilda Swinton plays a woman living in Milan who — well, the trailer for the thriller foregoes the usual exposition and just shows us frame after frame of stuff happening to Swinton in Italy (sex, betrayal, secrets, food, possibly international politics) along with critic quotes like, "See it by any means possible," which, by the time it appeared on the screen, was a completely unnecessary command. We have no idea what's going on here — and we can't remember the last time we could say that in this age of trailers that explain the entire movie. With all the food and scenery, this looks like the smart man's (or woman's) Eat, Pray, Love. We're there."

SO THERE! (I actually wish that the title was always written in the all caps "I AM LOVE", like SWINTON, to match those gorgeous text blocks denoting the passing of time throughout the film. "MILANO"; "QUATTRO GIORNI DOPO"; "LA PROSSIMA PRIMAVERA!", per esempio. Something to match John Adam's score of crescendos.)

Then, to boot, John offered his own tease after seeing this film over a year ago at Cannes and has been screaming in my ear 'SARAH YOU HAVE TO SEE SWINTON'S NEW ITALIAN FILM YOU'LL LOVE IT ITS SO GORGEOUS AND ABOUT FOOD AND TRAVEL AND SEX AND ITS JUST SO GREAT!!!!' several times a day since, thus clearly I was curious. Clearly. Well, I finally made it to BAM last night, two whole weeks afters its release date due to an annoyingly full schedule that I won't bore you with at this time. And a treat it was. I Am Love is the most enjoyable film I've seen in quite some time, and-- I'm going to be bold here-- a new favorite of mine.

Tilda Swinton is phenomenal in this role, which surprises absolutely no one. She is amazing in everything, especially in Lanvin, and this role was really created around her talent and verve. But the filming itself-- something I don't even usually notice-- drew in our greedy interest. The silver, the carpeting, the fountains, the gilded frames, the food--oh! the food! We were transformed right out of Brooklyn and into Milano, which previously held state as my least favorite Italian city, but I'm now dying to revisit. It was dazzling, this film. All of it.

The story itself followed time with the sweeping photography and classical score. We met a family, fell quickly in love with them, and patiently waited for the story to come to us. It didn't rush into anything, even giving pause to little events like polishing silver and making Russian soup. That soup came back to haunt us, though, snapping the brilliant direction of this young filmmaker into a spotlight. He's good.

Swinton's character is one we haven't seen her in lately. She played the stoic but kind matriarch of a seemingly generous and functional family. They are wealthy, yes, but they treat their help with respect, and they love each other deeply. She remains poised yet natural (like the donkey, remember?) until absolutely necessary to come undone. I loved her relationship with her daughter, and with her housekeeper Ida, didn't you? Without it, we may have hated her structure and her control, but with it, we were generous with what turned into a disastrous decision. It was her acting that convinced us to offer her character grace.

This trick of attributing superhuman characteristics (beauty, poise, supreme control) to a protagonist and then making her vulnerable through love is a literary trick as old as the Greeks. F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved this little tale of exploding wealth, don't you think? Though perhaps he would have captured our goddess at the end instead of sending her shimmering into the masses. I did love this ending, though. Alas--love is the great equalizer, and it makes the viewer less resentful of a supremely gifted hero.

***If you're interested in reading a review much more well written and slightly less self involved than my own, bounce over to Anthony Lane's review 'Second Helpings' in the New Yorker. Never disappointing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mike Birbiglia at Union Hall

Annie beat me to Union Hall last night, an hour before the doors opened, greeting me with a smirk. "There are lots of girls here," she said before eyeing the room over the rim of her glasses.

It was true. The room was packed with eager looking Brooklyn females in the Brooklyn Girl Uniform of scarves and sandals and unfounded optimism. (Well, eager looking females and BILL HADER, who we ended up sitting next to and who I not-so-secretly glanced at all evening to see if he found Mike Birbiglia is as funny as I think do, and, guess what, he does.) Anyway. Birbiglia's act is kind of comedy-light. Nothing raunchy, nothing degrading, nothing base or offensive. It's comedy for girls. Well, and, we think he's cute.

The thing is... Mike Birbiglia is funny. But his stories often tend toward sad. He took the entire hour to tell the back story of how he met his wife, and asked her to marry him, very little of it actually 'funny'. The self deprecation is funny, the tone is funny, the telling hilarious-- but the story slightly cutting. She was dating someone else for most of their courtship; he didn't believe in marriage at all; neither did she. Typical New Yorkers, yessiry. But they did get married, and he gave us the happy ending we were waiting for-- we're girls, afterall.

I've seen other comedy at Union Hall, none of it even close to keeping my attention or gaining my respect. It's his humanizing nature that draws us in. We need to hear his stories in order to understand our own lives, and why not laugh while getting there. He's a storyteller above all else, but I've already given this argument, a few times, and I think we can come to a mutual agreement that this is true. If you still haven't heard him, part of this performance can be found on last week's episode of This American Life, and I know I'm a broken record by even mentioning NPR right now, my apologies.

I left the show a little bit sad, to be honest. Not because it wasn't brilliant and funny and wonderful and fresh. I guess I was more aware of his pain this time-- the stories behind the telling. Like Sloane Crosley, Birbiglia isn't unique, and he therefore hits close to home. But there is grace in the end, thank goodness. The grace lays in that doesn't have it all figured out either--- he just has a better time getting there :)

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Young Painters

Nicole Krauss's short story 'The Young Painters' finally appeared in last week's New Yorker. In her '20 Under 40 Fiction Q&A', Krauss explained the story's inception and inspiration-- a painting, a film, the concept of writers' guilt, a suicide, a murder, and a shared interest in Krzysztof Kieślowski and Albert Camus. GOOD, something dark. I need something dark.

Krauss writes 'The Young Painters' with a seemingly clear narrative but releases nothing to the reader in terms of understanding. She slips us words that aren't overreaching and that yield to cleverness, but then exits the story quickly and with gusto. Pure trickery. She's the girl at a party who can deliver a perfect joke with deadpan seriousness, then turn on her heels after a brief pause, and walk away with a wake of laughter and envy trailing behind her.

I've been seeking writing like this lately-- easy, smart, raw. Writing that rises to greet you and doesn't apologize for its simple state. You see, it cut can you that way without warning. Jump out at you without airs. And good news, New York. 'The Young Painters' is actually an excerpt from Krauss's new novel, 'Great House' that will be published in October. Finally.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Radiolab: Chuck Close

Chuck Close. Oh boy. Chuck Close is an artist in whom I've become completely disinterested in the past few years. I don't like what he's done, I don't like how he acts, and I don't think he has created anything of substance since the 70's and that painting up there-- his first important self portrait. (Don't worry, I'll retract these negative feelings shortly, keep reading.) He spits out paintings of the same quality, context, and idea but with new faces each year, sells them for thousands upon thousands of dollars, and none of it is new. He has become a factory of one. I don't think this is wrong, mind you, I just think it's uninteresting.

However. HOWEVER. I listened to an episode of Radiolab on the train tonight that completely changed my perspective on this artist. Did you know that Chuck Close has a diagnosed mental condition known as 'face blindness'?

Turns out, Chuck Close cannot recognize faces. (Neither can Oliver Sacks! But that's a horse of a different color, let's talk about Close.) He literally doesn't recognize his wife most of the time. Cannot tell his dentist from Brad Pitt. You can talk to him at a party, walk away, and ten minutes later he will have no idea who you are. In the context of his art THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. It changes everything! This gives his paintings MEANING!, PURPOSE!, and a CHILLING STATEMENT ABOUT THE HUMAN MIND! I apologize for screaming at you, but wowza. My world has shifted on its axis.

Radiolab interviewed Close recently at the World Science Festival in New York about his condition. You can listen to it here (do it!). In the interview, he reveals his reasons for painting faces, and I swear to you, I had goosebumps. While he doesn't recognize faces, he does recognize paintings, paintings of faces included. If he can flatten a face, by photographing it, and then painting it, it becomes recognizable. Therefore, he paints faces in order to connect to humans, something that we all apparently take for granted every second of every day. And he does it over and over and over again because he is chasing that feeling of connection.

Have you ever noticed that his left eyelid droops? You probably thought this was a side effect of his physical disabilities, (If you aren't aware, he's in a wheelchair, as he is paralyzed from the waist down and has very little use of his hands due to a spinal cord injury in the late 80s. Completely unrelated to the face blindness, mind you) but he revealed in the interview that it droops because he spends much of his life with one eye closed, trying to flatten faces. It doesn't really help, but he can't stop himself from trying anyway.

If you look at a Chuck Close portrait from a few feet away, it looks like an abstract painting of squares. But as you back away, the face suddenly pops out at you, and the squares turn in to Kate Moss, for example. This trick, in and of itself, is tired. But knowing Close's condition, it becomes fascinating. Through his art, Close is giving us a glimpse into his own mind and his disability. Crazy, right?

I have actually met Chuck Close multiple times. I know how that sounds, but if you've ever been to a major art event in New York City, you've probably met him too. He's everywhere. I have always faulted him for this, thinking he was a fame monger akin to, I don't know, Judy Garland and her addiction to applause. And after a while, you, like me, were probably a bit turned off by him. He seems aloof, doesn't he? And he's overly gracious to everyone he meets, and fakes acknowledgement. I've seen it! When he looks at you, its like he's looking through you, I swear. Well, that makes sense now, doesn't it? He has no idea if you are his best friend or if you're just a random redheaded gallery goer more interested in the free champagne than Kiki Smith's blurred nose.

AGAIN, turns out, he does this for a reason. He goes out in order to combat this condition. While lacking in one of the most basic senses, he CRAVES human interaction and therefore is as social and out-and-about as possible. (Oliver Sacks is the opposite, he combats the same condition by staying home and not meeting anyone ever.) By using what he refers to as 'charming techniques', Close can interact with crowds in a normal fashion. Of course this comes across as flighty much of the time, but Close doesn't seem to know that, and I absolutely love that about him.

The point is, dear reader, is that you should listen to Radiolab. Each and every episode hits you with this crazy insider scientific knowledge that you didn't even know that you wanted to know. Give it a try, and enjoy this hot summer weekend.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Please Give

David Edelstein of NPR and NY Mag fame recently recommended on CBS's Sunday Morning that we see three independent gems, all directed by women, in place of this summer's blockbusters. He chose Please Give, The Kids are All Right, and Winter's Bone-- films that might suggest there are 'ways of seeing the world that rarely make it to the multiplex'. Love that. This is the sort of recommendation that I crave, take immediately to heart. Thank you, David!

Winter's Bone holds a special appeal to me, as it is set in the OZARK MOUNTAINS(!) where I spent every summer up until, well, this year. While the movie might not be about the glory of southern Missouri, the area really is quite something to see and I'm glad its getting some credit. Just gorgeous, and no one really knows that it is there!

The Kids are All Right immediately reminds me that I probably misuse 'alright' and 'all right' most of the time. (Is 'alright' even a word? Bless you, readers, for following what is surely a grammatically embarrassing blog.) The concept sounds like a cheap sort of 'hey-has-anyone-made-a-movie-yet-about-a-lesbian-couple-and-their-sperm-donor-yet?!'- idea but lucky for us, the execution looks well played. Juliann Moore (swoon) and Sydney Ellen Wade herself (Annette Bening) play the moms, with Mark Ruffalo as the donor. All set somewhere with lots of outdoor dinners, snarky children, and gardening. Good enough for me!

But the film that Alison and I decided to see first, on the Summer Solstice of all evenings (don't worry, I walked home after to enjoy the light) was Please Give. Please Give is the story of two New York City families and the inevitable intersection of lives as neighbors. It's a story about sadness and guilt; of love and understanding. It's my very favorite type of film and this one is exquisite.

It would be quick and easy to label this film 'First World', as is so popular these days. The main source of conflict exists in a sort of privileged guilt, that feeling that we aren't doing enough to 'make the world a better place'-- the urge to give to the homeless, to volunteer, to humble ourselves beyond our little worlds. 'First World Problems' or whatever is going around the Twitters and the Facebooks by those of us who want to come across as clever. I find that sort of categorizing tired and will argue this film's honesty above it's preachiness. Honest emotion is relevant, no matter the circumstance. This is a film about The Human Condition and that, dear friends, is the reason why so many stories can be recycled without getting old.

Catherine Keener plays Kate, a mother and wife who owns a mid-century antiques store with her husband Alex, played by Oliver Platt. Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet play sisters who care for their elderly grandmother in the apartment next door. It's all very New York and very familiar, to begin with.

Nicole Holofcener, the brilliant director (also of Friends With Money, which I adore) tends to exaggerate her selling points by giving each character a sort of hangup-- a shtick, if you will. Kate lives with guilt in her industry and constantly chases a forum to charitably give; Alex doesn't read anymore and unironically admires Howard Stern; Marissa, their teenage daughter, dreams of premium denim and the prefect fitting pair of jeans; Rebecca wants to visit the leaves upstate; and Mary stalks her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend and her too-muscular back.

Each are dealing with the oncoming death of Mary and Rebecca's elderly grandmother, whose apartment has already been purchased by Kate and Alex. It works because the conflicts slowly overlap and entwine before resolving in a way that gives us closure. The film is, after all, a snapshot of five lives, not an epic of any standard.

Keener, Platt, and Hall are all pitch perfect in this film, but the actor whom most critics are slighting in praise is Amanda Peet. Peet plays the older sister (Mary) to Hall's character (Rebecca), once again exaggerated in Holofcener's theme of 'other'. Mary is tan, tan, tan, while Rebecca is pale as can be. Mary works in a spa giving facials to the Upper East Side's glitterati, while her younger sister spends her days as a mammogram technician (opposite ends of societal ideals on female beauty, get it?). Mary is pretty, Rebecca is not. Rebecca is kind, Mary is brutally honest.

The role of Mary could have easily been played flat. It was written that way, to be honest. She is the stereotypical 'pretty girl' who isn't very smart and isn't very nice. But Peet found something in Mary that absolutely humanized her. In addition to her out-of-nowhere comedic timing that kept us laughing out loud throughout the film (did you know that Peet is funny? AND talented?), she held onto an unapologetic vulnerability that stole the show. There is a scene at the end of the film that absolutely cut me-- Mary's hang-up in the new girlfriend ultimately results in a confrontation. It's subtle and raw and important.

There is much more to discuss here-- the unexplained affair; the digression of the elderly; the danger of raising children in Manhattan. I could talk about Mary's obsession with toxins and Rebecca's sweet romance, and why we are often too forgiving of mean old women. I didn't even mention the irony of Kate's chairitable giving up there, did I? And how she always falls flat and how that's an important part of the story? This is the type of film that I get excited to write about and why I write on this thing at all. But I'll leave that all to you so that you will go see the film, and we'll touch base again to talk about the Ozark Mountains and sperm donors, shall we?

Happy Wednesday, New York.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Solstice

It's officially summer. Today marks the summer solstice and the longest day of the year here in NY. If we were in Scandinavia right now, we would decorate our homes with birch leaves and dance in the sunlight at 3am. In New York, it just means that we sweat more.

Well, it also means rooftop dinners and street fairs and lazy days at the park and my boss surprising me with frozen yogurt most days of the week. It means concerts and outdoor movies and irresponsible Sunday afternoons. I spent the majority of this past weekend sweating and dancing like a crazy person-- first at a concert on Saturday night and then on a FILM SHOOT last night where I was asked to play a dancing extra for a friend of mine. (I giggled the entire time and most likely won't be asked back, but LORDY it was fun.) Hello, Summertime, I love you so.

There is a fantastic episode of the West Wing about the Summer Solstice and the myth that you can stand an egg on it's head at the exact moment of the Summer Solstice (wait, was it the summer equinox? Shoot.) and only at that moment. CJ is positive of this news and swears that she's seen it, while Toby (always the downer), Josh, and Sam mock her relentlessly for believing so. The entire episode is a metaphor for blind faith and it's really quite wonderful.

I tried to find a clip for you all, in honor of the Summer Solstice, but it doesn't seem to have made the Internets yet, so in its place I give you another worthy clip from an episode about maps. Well, its an episode about democracy in its rawest of forms, a day when Leo sends his staff to meet with fringe special interest groups who are not usually heard from at the White House. C.J. and Josh are assigned the Cartographers for Social Equality, and it's awesome. That's all. Enjoy the solstice :)

(If the video isn't showing up for you, like it isn't on my stupid Droid, here's a link:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How Did You Get This Number

Stop that eye rolling. Give me a chance to explain—to explain why on earth I have joined the troupe of every clichéd twenty-something New York girl this side of the East River to have picked up Sloane Crosley’s newest book. Sarah, dear, you’re better than that. You just picked up four pieces of what will surely prove to be literary genius at the Strand last weekend, so why pick up such narcissistic candy to further confirm your choices, your ego, and your self indulgent lifestyle? Come on.

I know.

I know, I know, I know. Here's the thing. I try to keep this bloggy snappy. I fill it with the things I like, and leave the things that I don’t like for the birds. But lately, New York, I’ve been more disappointed than not. There seems to be less-to-fall-in-love-with these days. Like the oil spill. And Bradley Whitford’s new mustache. And Sex and the City 2.

More immediately, there is my broken cell phone. And the fact that Best Buy doesn’t sell radios and that every salesperson pointed me toward the iPod docks instead of radios furthering my liberal-arts-induced-depression that things like radios don’t really exist anymore. And that Chase Bank ate my entire paycheck with their tricky check deposit machines and a vague promise of perhaps locating it ‘in the morning’. And that Greg, my darling hair stylist, moved my hair appointment from Union Square to Soho without my knowledge, as, oh, my cell phone was dead as a doornail and I missed his text. And that I had a looming five hour hair appointment ahead of me WITHOUT MY DROID for distraction.

So... my point. I eventually found my way back down in Soho, and as I waited for Greg to finish up a mohawk on the uncomfortable looking young patron before me, and without a Droid to turn to, I opened up the first mindless magazine found on the sticky coffee table to an interview with Sloane Crosley on the release of her new book and subsequent HBO series. Huh, I thought as I noted the June 15th release date. That could help.

So with a flick of my frizzy red mane, ‘Greg, I’ll be back in five minutes!’ I dashed to McNally Jackson to pick up a (hardcover!) copy (at full retail value!) of Crosley’s latest collection of self indulgent essays, ‘How Did You Get This Number?,’ smartly dressed in Jill Greenberg’s book cover photograph of a crying bear. I love Jill Greenberg! And even if my sisters and my friends and my twitter account were completely unreachable without a cell phone, I knew that Sloane Crosley would understand my first-world-woes.

Well, five hours, four iced coffees, a one overpriced, shiny, straight, frizz-free head of red hair later, I had not only proven that a book is a FANTASTIC way to avoid small talk at the barber's, but reading an other's problems does help dilute yours a bit. That, and that books can be friends. I mean it.

People, this book is good, I'll just admit that right out. It's an incredibly quick read-- it can be read start to finish in one Keratin Treatment, one subway ride, and two glasses of wine, to be exact. It's the type of contemporary prose that you can settle into like a good conversation. You drink it, more than read it-- a trickery that works wonders on the blogging generation who can actually get away with writing like they talk.

Sloane Crosley grew up in Westchester County, went to a small liberal arts school where she studied English, and moved to New York to work in publishing upon graduation. She struggles with spacial relations, is always a bridesmaid, and befriended a black market dealer to scratch a high-end-furniture itch. She mocks New York tourists yet traveled to Europe alone and is brave enough to admit that she was lonely and hated it. She isn't unique... at all. She is every bright-eyed-bushy-tailed good girl to enter Gotham City in hopes of becoming less so. (Then fails miserably-- and there, dear reader, is your story.)

What was it that Joan Didion once said about keeping terms with our past selves? Or else they will show up at 4am and scare us to death? (Found it: "we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."- Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem) Well, her past self seems to be Crosley's jumping point, and the confrontation her life raft. NOT THAT CROSLEY SHOULD BE COMPARED TO DIDION. But, I mean, she is a twenty-something New Yorker with a book of essays on the city itself. A comparision must be made.

Crosley takes her bittersweet time getting through these seven essays, Mike Birbiglia style. She is self deprecating in tone while retaining an optimistic and somewhat heartfelt outlook. It's smart and sardonic; witty and honest. She is the girl that you want to have at a dinner party because she knows how to tell a story, how to narrate her way into a gut laugh. Her first book, 'I Was Told There'd Be Cake' (great title.) was the result of an email she wrote on her account of getting locked out of the same apartment twice in one day. Lucky girl.

Its smart because of the telling, not the situation. Again, she is so incredibly normal. Yet that normalcy is her main source of contention. Its brilliant. And in a world dredged in oil, filled to the brim with saccarine champagne bubbles who will settle for Louboutins in place of smart emotion, Crosley is actually a nice departure. While her sarcasm is easily felt, it is matched note for note with real heartpouring as she watches a bear cub being shot in Alaska and deals with the aftermath of a boyfriend who ended up having a girlfriend all along. It hurts. Physically, it hurts. But we laugh with her and empathize with her and are able to then look at our own woes and sorrows with real perspective.

In the end, she isn't Joan Didion, but she isn't Carrie Bradshaw either and thank goodness for that. She is a sign of the New New York and, people, it could be worse. Now excuse me while I take my shiny hair down to Verizon Wireless to confront this city as I see fit.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fire Island, part II

The best is that woman in the flower photo who randomly jumped in with a smile. Love her.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fire Island

If you can get out of New York this summer... do it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Polly Apfelbaum

Did you all find Polly Apfelbaum's work on your Google background for about an hour this morning? (We went gaga for it here at AiA.) I saw an exhibition of her work this past February at Locks Gallery in Philadelphia. She is so obvious it's almost frustrating, yet the simpicity is also what makes her great. The girl knows how to edit, I'll give her that.
Thanks, Google!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Here We Aren't, So Quickly

It has arrived. The New Yorker's double fiction issue. And I know it's incredibly obvious for me to write about JSF's story, but you know what, he hasn't published any fiction in YEARS, and its very exciting after a memoir about vegetarianism and some random editing work. No, I haven't read Eating Animals, and yes, I know I should.

His latest short story, 'Here We Aren't, So Quickly,' opens with a nervous energy similar to that in Extremely Loud and Everything is Illuminated. So much so that I got anxious reading the online version after work on Monday in fear of hating it (would there be anything worse!?) and waited an entire day for my paper copy to arrive to finish the story.

LUCKILY for the sake of my own sanity, after 2-3 paragraphs you will understand his prose, fall head over heels with its tone, and have tears streaming down your face at the final paragraph for the sheer beauty of it all. (It doesn't take much.)

It's the story of a lifetime and a relationship not unlike Didion's pedestrian heartpouring in The Year of Magical Thinking-- a review of the everyday made extraordinary, and the regret that comes with missing it. It's told through a sentence structure that you'll want to underline like we did in college, in hopes of adding it's brilliance to our own DNA. A yellow highlighter in place of originality, I suppose. A taste:

"I was always watching movie trailers on my computer. You were always wiping surfaces. I was always hearing my father's laugh and never remembering his face. You broke every one's heart until you suddenly couldn't [...] At a certain point you became convinced that you were always reading yesterday's newspaper. At a certain point I stopped agonizing over being understood, and became over-reliant on my car's G.P.S You couldn't tolerate trace amounts of jelly in the peanut butter jar. I couldn't tolerate gratuitously boisterous laughter. At a certain point I could stare without pretext or apology. Isn't it funny that if God were to reveal and explain Himself, the majority of the world would necessarily be disappointed? At a certain point you stopped wearing sunscreen."

Jonathan, you ol' sap!

Also online you will find an absolute treat-- along with lovely little line drawing portraits, each of the '20 under 40' authors answered a brief questionnaire. FUN!

While JSF's answers were perfectly satisfying, it was his wife, Nicole Krauss, who said it best. When asked what makes a piece of fiction work, she answered, "It's the ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same time deliver a revelation." And let me tell you, no one does it better than Krauss.... Except maybe Foer.

NEXT UP, Krauss's short story in the June 28th issue. And if you still aren't convinced to read The NYer's fiction, MIGHT I REMIND YOU that in past issues, Krauss's short story The Last Words on Earth eventually turned into The History of Love, and Jon's The Very Ridged Search turned into Everything is Illuminated. They know what they're talking about, those editors over there at Big Bad Conde Nast. So we should probably do our part, and listen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion is a writer to whom I continually return, usually after finishing a really good novel that inspires useless proclamations from my idiot mouth like, 'there aren't any good books left out there, I've read them all!' It's nice to turn to an old friend who I know won't disappoint. I'm often chided doing this instead of starting something new, but I've talked about why before, and my simplest reasoning is that of comfort. (Like that old Nickel Creek song... Others have excuses, I have my reasons why.)

I realize that Joan Didion isn't an obvious form of comfort, what, with her exhaustive realism and that stone cold prose. She is a realist in every way imaginable and holds nothing to terms of nostalgia or sympathy. Her work is the opposite of ostentatious-- its flat and stark and holds a clear note of not caring. In fact, she scares me most of the time, she really does. Yet, if you pay attention, you will find that beneath her harsh sentence structure with its absence of adjectives exists an adventure story, a field of answers and understanding that cuts banality with that ruthless stiff upper lip. She's funny, too, if you put your ear to the wall.

That said, the work that I've returned to this time, isn't my darling 'Goodbye to All That' or even the raw 'White Album' or blazing California fields in 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem.' I picked up dreariest Didion of all, 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' as I've been doing some magical thinking of my own (and if not reading for narcissistic value, why read at all!?).

It needs to be made clear, before picking up this book, and before taking my words at face value, is that it isn't a downer. Had I understood that before reading it, I may have liked it the first time, instead of growing angrier and angrier at page after page of this:

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind."

I know, right? Yikes.

The first time I read it, I didn't completely digest the idea of 'magical thinking', which is the absolute point of the book. The story exists in the loss of her husband (fellow writer John Gregory Dunne) and the devastating grief that follows. Yet the book is about (listen closely!) a specific coping mechanism of the human spirit. And that, dear reader, is absolutely fascinating.

Didion describes 'magical thinking' as not giving away her late husband's favorite shoes because he might need them, or having to fly back to California in case he comes home. She KNOWS he is dead and gone yet continually tricks herself into acting otherwise. In short, grief makes us crazy. We (I!) do it too. All of the time.

Like many stories of loss, this one is beautiful because it was told too soon. Didion wrote it in the midst of her grief, not as a reflection years later. It is therefore not only raw, but a little crazy. It's the observation of the true observationist, a coin flipped on its head that thrills her readers. She isn't as flat in this telling, as it bounces from clear statements ("Grief is the most general of afflictions.") to wandering to the colloquial ("The singer of the song about walking on through the storm assumes that the storm could otherwise take her down.")

She focuses on shards of memory that haunted her in those first months, like an offhanded comment from John that she may have misinterpreted. Was he talking about Hawaii when he said I was right? Was he hinting at Quintana's illness? (Oh yeah, her daughter is also terminally ill during the entire text, so fun!) It is within these tangents that Didion loses a bit of her terseness and authority. She allows vulnerability in the moment, and does so unapologetically. I focus on the language because, in the end, language is her tell.

And even without the understanding of magical thinking, and cutting through the prose and verbage, 'The Year of Magical Thinking' remains readable because it's also a love story. A real love story-- one so ordinary in its inception that it seems drafted. We learn the story of a marriage as told through grief, and notes on a husband from the one who loved him most. It's the story of love after the infatuation has faded-- the untold happy monotony that New Yorkers label boring (yet examine in awe.)

Woven throughout this love story is also the 'writer' story that Didion slips in out of necessity. We learn her writing process, as she lets us into her day to day life, both before and after the death of her husband. We learn that she keeps cards in her pocket for sudden story ideas, and exchanged notes with John over dinner.

I've read these passages more than any other, and melt when John gives her his card about baseball. It's another shard that she gets stuck on, but I take it as a lesson on How To Be Good At Writing. Writing was breathing to Didion, something I think about often, while living in the city that she contemplated so deeply when wandering around as a 26-27-28 year old girl. Writing was part of her love story, which I can't help but admire in my own magical thinking.

'A Year of Magical Thinking' is so brave that it makes you ache, not the other way around. It yields strength and inspiration to its reader without lecturing us on how to handle loss. She leaves that for Emily Post, and even marvels her for it. But by attending ferociously to her actions throughout grief, Didion arrives at the difference between "the insistence on meaning" and the reconstruction of it. She notes that distinction and bravely embodies it: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Which is also, perhaps, why we return to them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The New Yorker's '20 Under 40'

Well well well, look who made The New Yorker's '20 under 40' list of top fiction writers--- my lover Jonathan Safran Foer and his wifey Nicole Krauss. So deserved!

The rest of the list actually makes me feel really stupid, as I've only heard of half of the writers, and read even less of them. MINOR PANIC ATTACK. Where did these people come from and why am I so stupid?!!?!?

However, I have read PAST winners who are now over 40, I guess, inlucing my old neighbor Jhumpa Lahiri, and the magnificent Junot Díaz, plus Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and David Foster Wallace. Stupid, but not THAT stupid, right? Ugh.

The official list:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
Chris Adrian
Daniel Alarcón
David Bezmozgis
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Joshua Ferris
Jonathan Safran Foer
Nell Freudenberger
Rivka Galchen
Nicole Krauss
Yiyun Li
Dinaw Mengestu
Philipp Meyer
C. E. Morgan
Téa Obreht
Z Z Packer
Karen Russell
Salvatore Scibona
Gary Shteyngart
Wells Tower