Monday, July 27, 2015

Idol Worship?

Warning: This post is a pet peeve rant.

Is this idol worship? Or is it how “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” plays out in our society? Or are theater reviews written only by extroverted high-influencer personality types? I don’t know, but star power over substance, fame over news-you-can-use sure bugs me. Here are some examples of this pet peeve:

  • ·         The musical Pippin has been reimagined and is opening soon in Chicago. I’m interested in reading a summary of the story in the review to see if I’d like to see it. Not once did the newspaper reviewer mention anything but who was in the production and what they all were best known for. And yes, I’ve heard of some of those actors. But I wouldn’t shell out $46 to see any of them—or any actor, for that matter, even my favorites. I might spend the money for a poignant story and beautiful music. But apparently, stars trump story.
  • ·         Sometimes when I ask someone, “How about seeing this movie?” the response is, “Who’s in it?” I read the actors’ names and then ask the person if s/he’d like to know what the movie is about. “No.” Again, stars trump story
  • ·         I hear a radio announcer invite people to a marriage conference given by famous psychologist Dr. Mucketeemuck. No indication of what the conference focus would be. Conflict resolution? Date night 101? Talking about money? Rebuilding after an affair? No information helpful for deciding whether to invest a day at this conference. Just ooh, come hear Dr. Mucketeemuck. Star over substance.
  • ·         I’m excited to see the agenda for an upcoming writers workshop facilitated by award-winning writer Professor Clucketeecluck. If I signed up, would I learn about writing effective essays? Fiction dialogue? Fiction story arc? Fiction fact research? Devotionals? How-to books? Effective structure of critique groups? No clue. The invitation and agenda just say to come hear Professor Clucketeecluck. Star over substance.
Sometimes if I’m on the fence about a play, movie, or conference, knowing the players’ reputations helps me decide. But only after I know the story or substance interests me.

My pet peeve may be related to my marketing communications training: To sell the sizzle, tell benefits first, then features. If you first tell me this new sooper-dooper-doodad has 25 phalangees (thank you for that great word, Phoebe Buffay), I’ve dozed off by the time you get to the benefit of saving me time. If you first tell me sooper-dooper-doodad will save me time, I’m awake and impressed by the number of phalangees. First I want to know what I’ll learn at a conference or how much I might enjoy a play or movie’s story. That’s the benefit for me. The actors are secondary.

My gut sense is that society’s frequently placing higher priority on the Who’s Who than the What’s What runs deeper than backward marketing strategy. Maybe even to our desire to feel important by connecting with famous people in tiny, tenuous ways. We’re often blind to splendor in the ordinary, discontent with God’s and loved ones’ love, and worried we won’t make a difference unless we’re connected to someone we perceive is important.

Getting back to the question: Is this idol worship? In some cases, probably. Only God knows the motives of our hearts. Ironically, televised talent contests like American Idol get story and substance right. Regardless of contestants’ idol-worship or non-idol-worship reasons for seeking fame, through the show’s process, their stories are enriched by the substance of strategic, constructive criticism and serious hard work.

In the meantime … Please, advertisers and reviewers, just give me the story and the substance. If I want to know who’s going to be there, I’ll ask.

Oh, BTW, I name-dropped Phoebe Buffay for you readers who crave reading famous names and don't recognize Dr. Mucketeemuck or Professor Clucketeecluck. LOL

Saturday, July 25, 2015

My book review of The Lover: A Novel by Marguerite Duras

The Lover: A Novel, considered to be autobiographical, was presented to me as a memoir. I read it as a memoir of Marguerite Duras. Since the story jumps around in time, I ended up pretty confused. In my opinion, the story is not cohesive enough to be a novel either. The book cover says it was an international bestseller, and the slim volume begins with three pages of glowing testimonials by literary critics. I must have missed the sparkle the critics saw.

I found The Lover’s trajectory impossible to follow and its characters impossible to know. The narrator, Duras, I presume, is told at some unnamed point in her life that she has a ravaged face, then she’s eighteen, then she’s fifteen and a half, then she’s fifteen, then she thinks her face changed between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. That’s in the first eight pages. One day her mother is a responsible mother, the next day she’s negligent; one day her mother seems normal, other days she seems mad. In spots Duras calls her younger brother her son. Is he her son or truly her younger brother? Did the younger brother die in the war or did fear of the older brother kill the younger? If Duras hated the older brother so, why did she bail him out? From her disjointed vignettes, I never figured out any of these things. I thought about rereading the book to see if a second reading would illuminate any answers, but found I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to do so.

I tried appreciating The Lover as a prose poem. The language is often lyrical. And I really wanted to like this book. Again, however, the author’s fragmentation got in the way. “The blue was more distant than the sky … The sound [of the night] was that of … the country dogs baying at mystery.” Descriptive images, but how do they contribute to her point in that paragraph, which was that she doesn’t remember the days? 

Beautiful language or no beautiful language, a story needs to communicate. Suppose I wanted to tell you: Once upon a time I had two brothers, a mother, and a lover who was twelve years older than I. To communicate this, I gave you a poem with all the words mixed up and some missing:

Time once brother
Two upon mother
Old twelve lover

Did I write poetically? Yes. Did I clearly convey my meaning? No. Though this example is a slight exaggeration, that’s how confusing this book was for me. Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees is lyrical prose that makes sense, creates characters I care about, and communicates profound truths. Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is not.

The one area in which The Lover unequivocally shines is the relationship between Duras and her lover. She is a young teen; he is twelve years older. The tenderness of their sexual encounters is achingly beautiful. Although most readers will not identify with Duras’ exact situation in this love affair, I think most readers would be drawn back to the innocent discoveries of young love.

The evocative love scenes save this book. In The Lover, the author has chosen scenes from her life that show sadness, anger, jealousy, injustice, prejudice, fear, and other emotions. As I read, however, I felt these emotions only minimally, if it all. I connected with Duras best when she described the fragility of first love.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Perfect Gift

Strategic gift-giving is not the specialty of a child. Even children who are not preoccupied with gift-getting are not particularly tuned in to gift-giving. Kids are not like well-trained husbands and perceptive girlfriends who know that your best colors are aqua and black, that you prefer silver accessories, and that your favorite store is Dress Barn. Kids can bring you to tears with a well-timed bunch of dandelions or a strand of red yarn strung with Cheerios given for no special reason. But kids are not likely to hand you a beribboned box containing candlesticks and placemats that match each other and the exact shade of peach in your dining room wallpaper.

My young nieces and nephews had an advantage choosing gifts for me though. They knew that any gift relating to the beach would elicit squeals of glee from Aunt Jane. My apartment reflected my love of the ocean. When they visited, the kids loved to paw through starfish, sand dollars, and snails displayed in a large dish. They fingered the smooth gray back of a carved wooden shorebird. They gingerly touched scratchy edges of a white coral centerpiece. They peered at a stunning array of beach detritus inside the base of my table lamp.

“Aunt Jane, how did all those shells get inside that lamp?”

“I turned the hollow glass upside down and placed every shell in there myself. And everything in there, I picked up in North Carolina. There might be thousands of shells in there.”

I added the exaggerated number for my nephew Jonathan, who even as a tiny tot had a fascination for very large numbers. He liked any numbers, as evidenced by the Christmas he toddled around begging all the adults to let him balance their checkbooks. But he adored humongous, unimaginable numbers, as in, “How many is a zillion?” And, “Did you know there’s no such number as a gazillion?” And, “I can multiply a jillion by a jillion! Wanna know how many zeroes it has?”

To reduce the odds of his challenging my exaggeration, I continued, “See, I included other things I picked up on the beach too. Here’s a 6-inch pine needle. Here’s a crab shell. And a pine cone. A fisherman’s cork bobber. Look at all the barnacles on the back of this clam. See how the waves wore these pink stones smooth.”

In the midst of pointing out razor clams and scallops in the lamp base, I must have filled the kids’ impressionable ears with fun-on-the-beach stories. Splashed into the ocean stories were my awed responses to God’s creative genius and power. The science of the tides, the intricacies of the ocean-creature food chain, the pinks and purples of a thousand (this time I’m not exaggerating) pulsing Portuguese man-of-wars stranded at the high-tide line, the sideways skittering of ghost crabs at dusk, the slinking suction of starfish. All these beach wonders thunder in unison with the foaming breakers: We have an awe-inspiring God whose ocean offers but a glimpse of infinity. Who can count the gazillion grains of sand slipping between our toes? Who knows the distance to the watery horizon … or the depth of God’s love in sacrificing His son? Who can count the jillions of crystal droplets in the sea spray? Except to God, zillions are unimaginable.

It was my birthday, 1987. Jonathan was five. His parents walked into my apartment, careful to step over the lighthouse welcome mat they knew would emit foghorn sounds if they stepped on it. His mom handed me a navy box with a wide white satin ribbon and bow. Opening it, I held up my new mug to admire it. It was pearly gray with ten blue-gray squares wrapped from one side of the ear to the other. Embossed in each square were gray, brown, and white whelks, chambered nautiluses, scallops, sand dollars, and oyster drills. Predictably, I loved the mug. Jonathan’s parents gushed about how the kids had picked it out when they were vacationing in the Pacific Northwest.

“Oh, and Jonathan wanted to give you this too,” they added.

I bent down to connect with my cherub’s chubby little outstretched hand. Tears welled in my eyes. His gift, not much bigger than a postage stamp, was a plastic stand-up frame enclosing the famous artist’s rendering of Jesus standing at the door of our hearts and knocking.

Unimaginable. A little child had captured infinity, not to mention his aunt’s heart, in the palm of his hand.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My review of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is by far the best war-is-hell book I’ve read. The bulk of the novel alternates between pre-war and wartime (1934 to 1944) experiences of two young European “enemies,” German Werner and French Marie-Laure and their families. [The author follows characters who survive the war to 2014, but only as brief wrap-up.]

Although definitely a war story, All the Light We Cannot See is also a multilevel love story. As Hitler’s forces destroy and rip apart, ordinary Germans and French find ways to stay connected. These connections are the beauty of the book.

Image result for all the light we cannot seeBoth Werner and Marie-Laure are exceptional young people. He is a child prodigy in radio rigging and other math, science, and engineering challenges. She also is highly intelligent and resourceful in using her senses of smell, touch, and hearing to compensate for blindness. I won’t reveal here whether they ever meet or not. Werner is part of the German forces occupying Marie-Laure’s country, after all. For Werner, the war, as disturbing as it is, is a way to avoid a lifetime in coal mines, his sure destiny if Hitler’s henchmen hadn’t discovered his talent for fixing radios no one else could fix. For Marie-Laure in Paris and then Saint-Malo, German occupation is a severe survival challenge. To a point, she completely depends on sighted people to protect her; then she is on her own.

Doerr includes the dimension of a hidden priceless jewel with a legendary curse. For me, this jewel mystery is minimal, only a literary device to increase the danger for Marie-Laure. What propels this story into a “best war-is-hell book” category is the youth of Werner and Marie-Laure. Unlike the main characters of Birdsong (by Sebastian Faulks, about World War I) or A Farewell to Arms (by Ernest Hemingway, about World War II), for example, Werner and Marie-Laure are children. They grow up with this war brewing; they hear rumors and sense foreboding in adults around them. They learn whom to trust, which reassurances to rest in. They figure out nuances. They are eager to learn and have the world open to them. Although the world that opens to them as young teens is evil, they find light in the darkness.

The plot of All the Light We Cannot See holds some disappointments for me, and Doerr’s jumping around in time confuses me, but I like his braiding of Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s story lines, though Nazi brutality is hard to read about. Doerr describes everyday hardships for both soldiers and occupied citizens—cold, smoke, hunger, fear, horror, injury, bravery—many on both sides risk their lives for others. I find Doerr’s rich details fascinating and educational. I like his writing style, too.

In this sample description, Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, overcomes his agoraphobia: “Now Etienne hyperventilates. At thirty-four minutes by his wristwatch, he puts on his shoes and a hat that belonged to his father. Stands in the foyer summoning all his resolve. When he last went out, almost twenty-four years ago, he tried to make eye contact, to present what might be considered a normal appearance. But the attacks were sly, unpredictable, devastating; they sneaked up on him like bandits. First a terrible ominousness would fill the air. Then any light, even through closed eyelids, became excruciatingly bright. He could not walk for the thundering of his own feet. Little eyeballs blinked at him from the cobblestones. Corpses stirred in the shadows. When Madame Manec would help him home, he’d crawl into the darkest corner of his bed and belt pillows around his ears. All his energy would go into ignoring the pounding of his own pulse.

His heart beats icily in a faraway cage. Headache coming, he thinks. Terrible, terrible, terrible headache.

Twenty heartbeats. Thirty-five minutes. He twists the latch, opens the gate. Steps outside.”

[pages 417, 418 in my hardbound copy]

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française also details daily hardships for the occupied French people, but her style is more journalistic. Indeed, her novel is fashioned from notes she took as she fled Paris in 1940. On the other hand, Doerr’s storytelling style engages the reader emotionally in the intrigue and also displays natural and relational beauty that can be enjoyed against oppressive odds.