Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Because You Have To: A Writing Life by Joan Frank

I wish I’d read Because You Have To with a highlighter in hand.

Where most books on writing seem to be written by fairly well-known authors or teachers, Joan Frank’s new collection of essays on the writing life comes from a different place, the pen of a writer who has learned, in her own words, “there may not be any breakthrough.” This is a woman who has published five works of fiction, been reviewed in the New York Times, but has come to accept that she may never be a household name, never able to answer the question, which she addresses in an essay, “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?” in the affirmative.

And yet, she continues to write, and write well, because, well, because she has to. Reading her essays felt more relatable to me, a wannabe writer who has published one story and a couple poems, than, say, Stephen King’s On Writing--although it’s good too. There is a compulsion in everyone who calls themselves a writer to create, to put the words down on paper and make them real, and Frank expresses that feeling more eloquently than most. She understands, and communicates, that writing is not about fame, or money, or notoriety. It’s about desire, about an insatiable need to get what’s inside outside. Every writer, famous or not, can relate to that.

Because You Have To isn’t a book on craft, for the most part. It’s more similar to Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird or Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. It’s full of advice--or sometimes just empathy--about the mundane things in a writer’s life: rejection letters, finding--or making--a place to write, and feeling as though you must “steal” time from the real world in order to get it down on paper.

Ultimately, what a reader gets from this sort of collection probably depends on what they brought into it. If they don’t write, have no desire to write, they won’t come away with a real understanding of the madness; but anyone who’s felt like they would burst if they didn’t tell their story, well, this one’s for you.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

MISTRESS FORD: I shall think the worse of fat men as long as I have an eye to make difference of men's liking.  And yet he would not swear, praised women's modesty, and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words.  But they do no more than adhere and keep place together than the hundred and fifty psalms to the tune of 'Greensleeves.'  What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?  How shall I be revenged on him?  I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.

Merry Wives of Windsor occupies an uncomfortable place in Shakespeare's works.  It doesn't seem "Shakespearean," whatever that means, even though one of its principal characters is Falstaff.  It should be set in the time of Henry IV and Henry V, about 200 years before Shakespeare lived, but its atmosphere is decidedly Elizabethan, and instead of focusing on the lives of great men and women, it's about a pair of contemporary middle class families.

Bloom calls the Falstaff of Merry Wives an "impostor," and while I don't necessarily want to support that turn of phrase, I think he's right: Falstaff here is hardly the same guy as in Henry IV and Henry V.  His cleverness, his endless humor, are replaced with broad venality and gullibility.  Seeking money, he writes identical letters to the Mistresses Ford and Page declaring his love for them, but they discover his duplicity and punish him by leading him on only to engineer a series of mild humiliations.

Unfortunately, they're not very funny.  In the first, Mistress Ford convinces Falstaff to hide in a laundry basket from her husband, which she then has a servant dump in a laundry basket.  In the second, she convinces him to hide by dressing up as her aunt, whom her husband hates, so he gets the crap beaten out of him.  Finally they get a bunch of children to dress as fairies and pinch him in the forest.  I suspect that on stage each of those moments might play extremely well, but on the page they fell, for me, very flat.  Much of the other humor is derived from the humorous accents of some of the minor characters.  I did, however, enjoy the Latin lesson given by the Welsh parson and teacher Evans to his student William, which the ignorant Mistress Quickly keeps interrupting:

EVANS: What is your genitive case plural, William?

WILLIAM: Genitive case?


WILLIAM: Genitivo: 'horum, harum, horum.'

QUICKLY: Vengeance of Jenny's case!  Fie on her!  Never name her child, if she be a whore.

EVANS: For shame, 'oman!

But I suspect even that plays a lot better to an audience who has had a rigorous classical education.

I read this a few weeks back, for class.  I'm sure I would have had something better to say about had I blogged about it immediately, but clearly I found this one of Shakespeare's most forgettable plays.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Ovid was keeping track as the temperatures crept to freezing, miserably watching the downward march.  After decades of chasing monarchs and their beautiful mysteries, he would now be with them at the end, for reasons he had never in his whole life foreseen.  She wished he could explain this to the kids who'd been in her yard.  Some deep and terrible trouble had sent the monarchs to the wrong address, like the protesters themselves.  The butterflies had no choice but to trust in their world of signs, the sun's angle set against a turn of the seasons, and something inside all that had betrayed them.

One day Dellarobia Turnbow climbs the side of her mountain on her family's property in eastern Tennessee, intending on an illicit rendezvous with a man who is not her husband, but something stops her first: the mountain is on fire.  Or, at least, that's the way it seems.  Later she discovers that what she's seen is not fire but an enormous cluster of monarch butterflies who have settled on the mountain, diverted somehow from their traditional wintering home in Mexico.

The monarchs intrude upon Dellarobia's life: They contemplate her family's plan to cut down the mountain's trees for money.  Tourists come, and she becomes a minor celebrity.  Scientists come, living on the Turnbow property to study this unusual event.  Some changes are good and some are bad; most lie somewhere in between.  And even though Kingsolver is careful to keep her representatives of science cautious in their claims, her metaphors make it clear--such upheavals can only be the result of global warming.  What Dellarobia undergoes is, quite literally, a sea change.

Kingsolver seems to have two goals here: One, to illustrate the way climate change can affect an individual human life, to rescue it from abstraction.   Two, to bridge the gap between the academic and the regular Joe, and illustrate the possibility of common ground between them.  I'm not sure she succeeds in this second goal; while Kingsolver clearly writes out of great affection for the salt-of-the-earth types that make up Dellarobia's community, she doesn't wholly avoid the temptation to skewer them as rubes.  For instance, Dellarobia convinces her husband and father-in-law (Cub and Bear, respectively) to take one last look at the land before signing the logging contract, without telling them about the butterflies, which leads to an absurd plot point in which Cub announces at church that Dellarobia foresaw them in a vision.  This ensues:

Dellarobia felt the doubtful stares.  She'd been sitting it out every week in the cafe, drinking coffee and making her grocery list, in no way deserving of a miracle.  And yet a small shatter of applause broke out, like a handful of gravel on a tin shed.  Someone very close to them shouted: "Heaven be praised, Sister Turnbow has seen the wonders!"  It was the man who'd come in late, with the sporty sunglasses on his head.

The sunglasses, the out-of-place folksiness of "Sister Turnbow" and "seen the wonders," which are somehow incongruent with the casualness of the church and its cafe, and the sheer stupidity everyone in this scene seems to share--they add up to something that isn't the friendly ribbing that I think Kingsolver is aiming at.  Contrast the character of the scientist, Ovid Byron, who is described as "Tall, dark, and handsome, but extra tall, extra dark.  Okay, extra all three."

Is it a surprise when Dellarobia falls in love?  Kingsolver chooses to make Byron an immigrant from the US Virgin Islands, who Dellarobia thinks sounds like a "reggae singer."  In other words, she amplifies his otherness, emphasizing his status as an outsider--while fetishizing his exoticness, something which Kingsolver seems to share with Dellarobia.  There are good narrative reasons to do this, as there are good reasons to satirize casual fundamentalists in sporty sunglasses, but when you do them both the novel is thrown off balance.  In other words, I don't think Flight Behavior represents both sides as equally as it thinks it does.

But I do like the point that Dellarobia makes about the impossible divide between these two camps when she theorizes to Byron that the problem is essentially social, that the reason her community does not believe in global warming has less to do with stupidity or cowardice than the human tendency to divide itself in two.  "The environment," as she says, "got assigned to the other team."  She goes on:

"These positions get assigned to people," she said.  "If you've been called the bad girl all your life, you figure you're already paying the price, you should go on and use the tickets.  If I'm the redneck in the pickup, fine, let me just go burn up the some gas."

The enmity between the believers and the skeptics, that is, precedes even the belief itself.  Yet, is Kingsolver aware of the ways in which the novel unconsciously preserves that divide, instead of breaking it down?

Flight Behavior is strongest, I think, when it focuses on the first goal: creating a vivid depiction of an individual life who comes to see the upheaval of her life as part of a larger, global phenomenon.  The butterflies are a powerful metaphor that dominates the work.  Like Dellarobia, they are lost, confused, struggling to survive against impersonal forces that are much stronger.  We want the butterflies to make it because of their beauty and mystery, and because if they do perhaps that implies that Dellarobia too can make it, that she too can "[fly] out to a new earth."