Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lincoln. Enough said.

A single word on a Facebook post.
As if to say: Wow.
Or: What more can I say?
So much has been said about this wonderful film and Daniel Day Lewis’ extraordinary presence as Lincoln, a gently humorous, thoughtful and kind strategist. A presence so palpable, it hardly seems a performance at all.  But as performance commenters including those under that post suggest, it’s Oscar worthy. 
I concur.
What more can I say?
(A tiny bit more, obviously.)
 I went to the film because of the buzz, but confess I didn’t know what to expect, or even what the film was about. Not the Civil War. Not the Gettysburg Address, Not the assassination. Sitting in the theater I found that it focused on the passage of the 13th amendment that states: 
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 
Not only is this amendment fundamentally American and a triumph of the human spirit, but it also foreshadows subsequent liberations – the Suffrage movement, Civil rights, The Women’s movement, Gay rights.
If I’d prepared a little more and read about the film, I would have known that it was based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. (For those who like knowing a lot or want to recap after seeing the film, Wikipedia has a pretty thorough entry on the film.)
But sometimes, lack of prior knowledge leads to greater awe.
I think that’s true for me with Lincoln.
What amazed me most – next to Day-LewisLincoln’s presence – was Spielberg’s vision.  The young director, who became famous with a film about sharks circling in the waters off Cape Cod, has in his maturity shaped a film wherein the drama is in negotiation, compromise, back-room deals and argument. Where the climax is a vote in the House of Representatives.
 Where politics is (almost) a noble activity!
 Imagine that.
(How might one film today’s Congress?  Horror film?  Rigid Walking Dead zombies, unable to compromise, driving a survivalist Middle Class over The Fiscal Cliff?)
 Anyway, before I took that swipe at today's obstructionists, I was thinking about Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the ardent Abolitionist, and the sharks that try to encircle him, to ensnare him, to lure him overboard with his own emotional rhetoric, his own uncompromising beliefs.
New York Congressman Fernando Wood, master manipulator, almost succeeds, but Stevens turns the gotcha moment against tormenter Wood and his colleagues.  As he does so, I cheer.  
For me, the moment is the high point in rhetoric even as it jabs with name-calling and insult. (When all is passed, we savor sweet pleasure from a scene that gives a personal reason for Stevens’  fervor.)
Yet as I cheer when Stevens wins the verbal sparring, I am aware that he foils Lincoln who prefers making points by the subtler and folksier method of telling stories and direct appeal to others. No tirade. No put downs. I root for Stevens, but I prefer and admire Lincoln for his reserved, magnanimous methods and choices.  Lincoln is the better man.
Stevens is a good man too. He may take swipes of his own (who, but Lincoln,  can resist being clever?) and give adversaries a tongue lashing, but at least he’s just fighting with words.
When men can no longer settle differences in words, they may opt for violence; when that’s groups of men (and now women), that may mean war.
Such a war, the cost of anger and rigidity,  frames the movie as it did Lincoln’s negotiations in the final months of his life. Lincoln opens with scenes of the gruesome Civil War and near its close revisits a battle-weary world full the dead, the wounded and their severed limbs.
Lincoln, however, is not about the war, or violence.
Perhaps that’s why Spielberg shields his audience from the event we all know is coming -- Lincoln’s assassination.  We don’t need to see it -- so we don't. Like Lincoln, Spielberg, the story teller, practices reserve so as not to overpower us with grief for the man we lost, but rather to help us admire Lincoln and what the world gained in four short months nearly 150 years ago.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lists: todos versus wannados

How can one be overwhelmed with a full day ahead and nothing scheduled?
I am.
My part-time seasonal job ended last week. I have only a few days of sporadic scheduled temp work coming up. I am entering a period of (somewhat) uninterrupted time.
I don’t want to squander it.
Nothing is urgent, so everything is optional.
In the days of my working life I longed for days like this.  Snow days were gifts, windfalls of time that dropped unexpectedly  from the heavens.
 But they often turned to catch-up-on-duties day.
A friend who is on the cusp on retiring says: “I’m so done with duty. “ Me too!
So today—and tomorrow are NO DUTY DAYS.
What to do?
Toss Todo list. Write Wannado list.
Write that story – I have two plots – possibly a third – in mind.
Set up a writing schedule. Discipline. SELF discipline
Flex writing muscles – by writing whatever – blog, journal entry. Stretch writing.  Cardio writing. Anything to get writing/moving.
How like writing is to exercise – my other great on/off discipline.
Go to the gym today and indulge my body – swim, light yoga class.
Make something with lentils for supper.
Dog park; Riley.
Checking in on Christmas list: Order. For A. For C.
Wrap presents.
Write holiday letter.
Clean living room.
Compost leaves.
 Where on the spectrum of Should, Ought, Want, Need do these tasks lie (and what order should those words be in)??
 Even now when no task is  truly tedious or undesirable, lists start cluttering my daily path. How quickly the todos overtake the wannados.  Somehow both seem to have to do with duty and discipline. But one is duty to self, to do what one needs at the deepest core and the others --  more peripheral on the spiral of spirit I call myself. Yet all are still parts of that spirit.
But I have promised myself foremost I will write, I will read, I will swim and exercise.
So I’m planting my stake in the ground, or at least my fingers on the keyboard.
Here are those fingers, that keyboard.
(P.S. to self: Add manicure to list.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slinking on back to blogging

Abandoned blog,
     I’m slinking on back to you.  
     I can’t say I’ve missed you.  I’ve been too  busy and then, too guilty thinking I should have been telling you about my life, my reading.  I’ve visited and celebrated family events – a wedding, a birthday, Thanksgiving, and not made mention  of a single marvelous moment.
     I’ve been to New York City, suburban Boston and Portland, Maine.
     Here’s a picture of me in New York.
      I’ve helped clean out a basement, had tea and lunch with friends, returned to part-time work, and caught a cough.
     An awful cough.
     For days, I couldn’t talk without coughing – a sign perhaps telling me to keep my mouth shut and get my fingers busy. A sign I ignored. One night I woke coughing so deeply my lungs ached.
     No other symptoms.
     Just the worst cough I can remember.  The last one so long ago that I didn’t think about cough medicine or going to the doctor until everyone – husband, relatives, friends kept saying the word pneumonia – as in you can die from pneumonia.
     The medicine broke slowly broke up whatever was clogging up my  lungs, and I am on the mend.
      With the cough nearly gone, gone too are  (most of) my excuses for not blogging, not writing.
      I’ve read quite a few books – and said little or nothing about them, wherein lies the guilt. It began with Cloud Atlas, whose six stories in one kind of overwhelmed me. I so wanted to write about it, but it seemed such a big project.  I still long to get back to it.
      Then Jo Nesbo’s Phantom arrived in the mail – preordered long ago at Amazon --- and I chose reading over writing. With it, Gillian’s Flynn’s Gone Girl, perfect choice while travelling (given consistent attention disruptions). Finished Gone Girl while away. Then sister-in-law Audrey handed me Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which I read half of before returning home.  Once back, took it out of the library and read the other half. While at the library, picked up The Right Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman and am making slow progress through it. On a reading roll.

      I write because it is unlikely I will go back and give each a thorough thinking through, but I need to get blogging again.
Dear Blog, as well as anyone who happens to read my ramblings,

I’m back. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Barbara the book grouch (The Middlesteins) followed by falling in book love again (Cloud Atlas)

 End of September Sunday Salon (Sunday Salon is a Facebook group for book bloggers)

I am Barbara, the book grouch.  The parade rainer. I have just read another book I know others will like, maybe even love, and I don’t. I would have tossed it except it is an advance copy kindly lent to me by a librarian friend.
The Middlesteins is a middle-brow sitcom about middle class Jews in middle America (suburban Chicago).  Both the book and the family revolve around Edie and Edie revolves around food and fat. 
            So much so Edie’s family fears that she’s eating herself to death. Edie learned this behavior as a spoiled, pudgy toddler – who always wanted to be carried. Now an obese grandmother, she spends her time cruising the fast food chains where she doesn’t even have to leave her car to eat. To underscore all this her life events-- and the chapter headings – are often marked/ labeled in pounds.
Those within her universe include her not-so-devoted husband, Richard. He’s had enough of Edie and leaves her sending the rest of the family spinning into panic as they pick up responsibility while he begins dating again.
No one’s very good at dealing with Edie and they all have lives and issues of their own. Daughter Robin is also dating and drinks too much and son Benny smokes pot every night and has a wife who directs his life. That’s  Rachelle, part princess, part perfectionist,  she tries to solve Edie’s problem with a plan.  She becomes the food police patrolling Edie’s habits and enforcing good food on her two twins, Emily and Josh, who are busy preparing for their b’nai mitzvah.
            To complete the characters in this universe add a bunch of relatively indistinct friends, so indistinct they even narrate a chapter in first person plural (how cloyingly clever.)  And finally mid way through the book we get  some Chinese food to spice it up – as well as the waitress and her father, the owner and chef at Edie’s new favorite place to eat.
            I fought the book until nearly the last page tackling page after page with groans and thoughts such as: some will call this timely; I call it a tedious. I get that it’s about the decaying middle class and an American landscape overtaken by strip malls and fast food, but even that could be interesting. Description: bland; insights shallow i.e.:  a character understands why Edie eats: “Because food is a wonderful place to hide.”
The writing is about as tired and unappetizing as a day-old Happy meal.
Some will find this funny.  I find it flat. At one point a character “tries to muster up a joke about Jews and food. Jews and funerals, Jew and Jews, but nothing was funny.” That about sums up the book for me.

 I don’t like being a book grouch. Sometimes I think I’m just in a bad mood.  Particularly when I read the glowing cover blurbs:"A truly original American novel, at once topical and universally timeless. 
Or: "This Smorgasbord of a book about food, family, love, sex, and loss is like the Jewish The Corrections, yet menchier and with a heart -- and it's hilarious. "I admire and read Jonathan Franzen's works even if I don't necessarily "like" them.
  Even  Franzen praised this book. He’s quoted on the advanced copy’s cover: “The Middlesteins” had me from its very first pages, but it wasn’t until it’s final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling. (Barbara the book grouch also admits to finally softening towards the end and particularly on the final page, just not enough that she shifted her overall displeasure with what she considered the book’s artlessness.) The last book I read that annoyed me as much was also positively blurbed by Franzen. Guess I should learn:  Avoid books Franzen promotes.
            We have different tastes.

And then …..
I am walking on air. My head’s in the clouds.  I feel my heart beat. I have fallen in book love again.
With Cloud Atlas. With David Mitchell. With rich language. With layered interconnected stories.  With genius. I will blog about this book in the coming weeks.
        Where was I when this book came out? 2004. A year when I did not have the time to give this book the attention it needs. It’s not an easy read, but for me, it's full of rewards.  A long slow read, with lots of rereading.
Well, I may be late to the book party, but I’m just in time for the movie. Coming to Imax in late October. Tom Hanks. Halle Berry. Can’t wait.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Little Stranger: Final Thoughts -- Readalong at EstellaSociety

 The Little Stranger: Final thoughts for Readalong at

           Creep. When it’s a verb it moves slowly and often overtakes one by surprise. When it’s a noun, he -- she or it -- gives you the willies.
The Little Stranger is a creep who/that creeps up on the reader.
         In my reading of Sarah Waters’ book, the Little Stranger is Faraday – although for much of the read I could be convinced otherwise. I thought that perhaps it was a figment of each character’s greatest desire. Now I know it’s both. The figments detach and take on a life of their own but, someone, as Caroline said, is at the root of it. She suspects her brother Rod at the time.
 It's Farady.
What’s marvelous about this revelation is that Waters keeps it from both reader and characters alike so long, and so artfully. Faraday, himself, never seems to get it as evidenced by the last sentence (which finally also reveals the identity of the ghost to the reader).
But back to the beginning.
As a 10-year old Faraday is  a little stranger who visits the Hundreds on Empire Day with his mother. He is so taken with the house and takes a piece of it – a small acorn from the molding. “It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspect a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. It was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamored of.”
As a 40-year old he returns to treat a young servant, Betty, who is faking illness because she is afraid of the large, creaky house. At this point, I would agree with Caroline Ayers that the house is nothing to be afraid of  ---- yet.
      Faraday slowly insinuates himself into the household, first by attaching electrodes to Rod’s leg--- how creepy is that and how reminiscent of old-fashioned doctors, who were also called leeches (as in Hawthorne’ Scarlet Letter chapter “The Leech and His Patient”). This is the beginning of the similarity to Chillingworth for me (with a shade of Dr. Frankenstein tossed in).
While early Gothic novels featured perverted priests; the modern-day equivalent is the doctor.  
How nice Faraday is. How safe he seems. How concerned he is.  How understanding. As a doctor, he’s in the position to listen to all the patient’s concerns—the most intimate of one’s emotional, physical, spiritual and even supernatural complaints and to cater to them, dismiss them and exploit them. He knows the weaknesses of each member of the family.
      Faraday is not so enamored of the family as he is of the house; the house, which is as another reader has said, is a character in the book. It’s the house Faraday wants to possess – and so the house becomes “possessed” by him.
The explanation of how such possession comes late in the book in two parts. First Caroline tells Faraday of two books of her father’s she has found. Interestingly she first thought they were “medical textbooks.” But Phantasms of the Living and The Night Side of Nature don’t describe physical but rather supernatural disturbances. These disturbances closely parallel what has been happening in the house.  (P 372).
The books describe poltergeists. “They are not ghosts. They are parts of a person… Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own.  The book says that when they’re unhappy or troubled, or they want something badly – Sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening. Something … breaks away from them.  … Suppose it’s Roddie…. “Well if this book is right, then someone’s at the root of it.”
Faraday is the catalyst. He sets off each member of the household. First, the poltergeist gets rid of the dog – when he bites a “little stranger,” the wrong little stranger, but nevertheless an uninvited small guest.
            Rod is afraid of fire – having been burned in the war and he is frustrated with balancing the books and running the manor. His undoing is a response to that.
Next up Mrs. Ayres—who loved her first child Sarah, and lost her at a young age.  The piece of her that haunts her is the child calling her to join her in death.
Finally, the plain spinster Caroline, who is humiliated once when the gathering at which she is presented to a potential suitor, Mrs. Baker-Hyde’s brother, Mr. Morley, turns into disaster. (Curiously, this nearly doesn’t happen. The delay of the Baker-Hydes’ departure only happens because Faraday asks a question.) Her desire for marriage – and escape from The Hundreds takes up the final third of the book as Faraday courts her. And oh what a creepy suitor he turns out to be.
When does no mean no? He repeatedly convinces himself that Caroline’s no’s are only said because she is tired or not in her right mind. Increasingly we see him try to change her mind and that it's the house he wants, not her.
Faraday’s colleague Seely completes the explanation of how poltergeists work. He uses a family example:  “But suppose the stress of my uncle’s injury, combined with the bond between him and my father—suppose all of that somehow released some sort of … psychic force. The force simple took the shape that would best get my father’s attention.’ He goes on to apply it to the Ayerses.
“Is it so surprising with things for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop --- to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self perhaps: A Caliban a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hunger the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice and frustration…. Caroline suspects her brother….”
Faraday considers this theory for a bit – but looks to Caroline as the catalyst, before dismissing the irrational with the rational explanations he so often prefers.
As it turns out the character most full of nasty impulses like envy, malice and frustration is Faraday.
As his courtship of Caroline  -- and the motivation behind it – to takeover the Hundreds -- becomes increasingly frustrated, those impulses become clearer to the reader, and he becomes increasingly unhinged.
When Caroline leaps –or is pushed – from the stair landing, he is asleep in his car dreaming – and who knows where is unconscious is – he describes an out of body dream: “And in the slumber I seemed to leaved the car, and to press on to Hundreds; I saw myself doing it with all the hectic, unnatural clarity with which I’d been recalling the dash to the hospital a little while before. I saw myself cross the silvered landscape and pass like smoke through the Hundreds gate.”(p484)
During Betty’s testimony in court, Betty hearing Miss Caroline call out the word ‘You” “as if she had seen someone she knew, but as if she was afraid or them and then describes seeing Miss Caroline fall. During this testimony, Faraday grows so ashen; a colleague asks if he is all right.  Betty goes on to describe her ghost theory saying, “The ghost hadn’t wanted her in the house, but it hadn’t wanted her to go either. I was a spiteful ghost and and wanted the house all for its own.”(P494-5) 
Betty has described Faraday perfectly.
And then of course there’s the book’s final sentence.  Faraday tells us if Hundreds Hall is haunted, he doesn’t see the ghost. When he looks in the window pane, the only face he sees is his own. He does not recognize the possibility that he may be the poltergeist; this reader however, begs to differ with his vision.

Final  final thoughts:  All I have touched on here is an answer to who is the stranger and how the poltergeist works. I was fascinated to read in the acknowledgments that Waters lists works of nonfiction she is indebted to and includes Phantasms of the Living (1886) and The Night Side of London (1848), among other books about poltergeists. I like it that these are real books.
 The other aspect of this book that I admire is the larger theme of one age overtaking another and the diminishment of grander times, grand families, grand estates.