I wanted to like this book. I thought I did like it for the first few essays, but in the end I found Slouching Towards Bethlehem to be a big disappointment and waste of time. Joan Didion is one of those authors I'd always vaguely heard of, but never read, and then became much more aware of after the fashion brand Céline used her in an advertising campaign, much promoted on Instagram. Who is this chic old woman? I asked myself. Ah, Joan Didion. I kind of know her.
Except, I didn't, and there's nothing I hate worse than an intellectual phony. So I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem to remedy that.
The book is a collection of essays and magazine articles written during the 1960's. And when Didion acts like a journalist, reporting narratively driven facts in what we'd call longform writing today, I think she succeeds. She's a good writer, I'm not going to argue that.
But Didion gets bored with facts and stories and quickly the essays devolve into the tyranny of feelings. Practically, every other line has the intellectual depth of "How it felt to me" (134), or "because I'm talking about myself" (226). Maybe we should call her Mother Blogger. Or maybe just St. Joan, patron saint of millennials. It's hard enough being a part of that generation. I don't need to read her particular brand of it, fifty years ahead of its time.
And then there are the California references. She must mention that she is from California about two dozen times in this book, as if that's some kind of personal achievement, like winning the French medal in high school. "It's hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles..." (220) - oh spare me your West Coast snobbery. My least favorite essay in the collection was about her experience growing up in Sacramento, though I recommend everyone should read it just to learn for themselves why it's not very interesting to write about your home county, no matter how unique a place you think it was. Trust me, it won't translate.
And I'm not alone in thinking this book is overrated. The Amazon reviews seem to fall into two categories: I think I was too old for this, and I think I was too young for this. That's quite a trick to alienate every age group, but it also says something about the book's self-indulgence. These essays were written by Joan, for Joan, and I think she got away with it at the time because she was an attractive woman; the intellectual's California party girl. Today, her work fits neatly into personal journalism, Instagram quotes, Lena Dunham, and every other Web 2.0 application (like blogging!), having of course spawned all of it. I'd have a lot more respect for St. Joan if I believed she meant to do that on purpose.
I love Batman. Loved him ever since I saw Batman (1989) when I was probably 3 or 4 years old. When Batman Returns came out, my mom took my brother and I to see it in theaters, even though I was only in kindergarten and my brother must have been in pre-school. I remember the theater being almost completely empty, so no doubt we went to the first matinee, which was typical for my family.
In retrospect, I'm a little shocked that my mom did that, though I'm also so thankful she did. I loved that movie, especially Michelle Pfieffer's rendition of Catwoman and Tim Burton's costume/set designs. But let's be honest, it's a dark movie. There's a ton of violence and gore. There's one scene where Catwoman scratches some woman's face, leaving bloody claw marks across her skin, and I distinctly remember my Mom leaning over and whispering, "It's just ketchup."
And you know what? I was like, yeah, that's just ketchup. It's not real. I wasn't remotely freaked out.
So how did my Mom know that I, a kindergartner, could handle that? Because I think her judgement was spot on, and I gained by getting to see one of my all-time favorite movies.
I don't have kids, and I'm not planning on having kids anytime soon, but with all the fun sci-fi and action movies coming out this summer, it's been making me think about how you know when your kids should get to watch what look to be some awesome, but admittedly violent movies. I'm psyched for Suicide Squad. But would I take a kid to see it? Would they enjoy it?
Maybe it has something to do with the cartooniness of the violence, as in the case of Batman Returns. But what about Batman v. Superman? Captain America? And how about a hundred other borderline movies? I'm a big believer that kids can handle scarier stuff than we give them credit, but I don't know where you draw the line. You want them to have fun and see a good story, but you also don't want to be that psychotic parent that lets their kids watch Saw III.
Any parents out there have a violent movies litmus test they'd like to share?
I'm turning 30 this weekend! Crazy. But as I keep telling myself, being in your twenties isn't a personal accomplishment, so there's no shame in leaving them behind.
In fact, I'm kind of looking forward to this next decade. My twenties were all about doing what I thought I was supposed to do. Now my goals are to stop holding back and reach for the things I really want. Should be interesting.
To celebrate, my husband and I are spending the weekend in D.C. to catch up on some arts and culture, eat some good food, and deal with the bad weather as best we can. I'm excited! I love living in the country, but I also love a good visit to the city.
What did you do to celebrate your 30th birthday?
Yes, it's true. I feel luke-warm for Harry Potter and his wizarding world at best. Which isn't to say it's a bad book series. It's fine. Please, feel free to enjoy them. But they never gave me the magic escapism that I think they provided for a lot of people.
Maybe it was because I was slightly too old when the books were first published. I read The Sorcerer's Stone in the 8th grade, and quickly read the next two, which were already out. But then I had to wait a long time for the 4th book, and by the 5th I was already getting a little old for stories about teenage wizards (and pretty sick of Harry's self-absorption). When the 6th and 7th books were published, I could tell I was only reading them to hear the end of the story, not because I was that interested in any of the characters or conflict. The long gaps between books also made it hard for me to keep track of characters. I wonder if I had started reading the series after it had been completed whether I would have been able to hold onto the thread of the story better than I did.
I think another issue was I never found a character to fully inhabit and experience the story. You'd think Hermione would be my girl, but her type-A, grade-driven personality is way too similar to mine. I see in Hermione the things I dislike about myself, so she's the last figure I want to escape into.
Harry was boring and rude. Ron was fine, if a bit goofy. And the rest of the cast were supporting players who get very little face-time, certainly not enough to develop them into characters that really interested me. Even poor Hagrid got the brush-off after the first three books as Rowling focused more on the Death Eaters conspiracy. Snape is the one exception. I'd much prefer to read the series from his POV, but it was hard to get too into his character when he was always being framed as Harry's nemesis.
I think Rowling's real genius was the world-building. The idea of a parallel wizard universe is a great concept and I can see why it appeals to so many people. But a good world with only basic character sketches works better for fanfiction or theme parks than it does as an story that stands on its own.
Just my opinion of course. Feel free to disagree.
Course, I also dislike Tolkien, so maybe my disinterest in Harry Potter has more to do with my issues with the fantasy genre in general.
For obvious reasons, I've been trying to spend less and save more money lately.
This means drastically cutting down on "want" type purchases. I've stopped buying books and started borrowing everything from the library (especially graphic novels). I've also stopped buying or renting movies now that I've discovered the library's collection, which is actually pretty good.
But to really save money, I've been seeing how far back I can trim "needs" as well.
For example, tofu is a cheap and healthy alternative to meat that both my husband and I enjoy. I've also learned that Dove soap is a perfectly good makeup remover and is significantly cheaper too. In a pinch, corn starch works just as well, if not better than dry shampoos (plus, there's no weird ammonia smell).
But there are some needs I just can't ignore. The other day, I was putting on my shoes and discovered two quarter sized holes in the back of each heel. Granted, I've been wearing these shoes for almost seven years now, but I didn't realize I'd worn them out quite so badly.
So I need to buy a new pair of shoes, but it's never that easy.
I'm really, really bad at shopping. I consistently make stupid choices and end up wasting money. I don't know how I do it. I will spend over an hour trying on different pairs of shoes. I'm very careful to test them for comfort and how well they'll work with my outfits. Eventually, I'll make a decision and buy them.
But once I've worn the shoes a few times, I almost always decide I hate them. I'll think they make me look stumpy. Or they'll hurt my feet if I walk in them for longer than five minutes. Something like that. And by that point they're too scuffed and worn to return. This happens almost every time and then I'll have to go out and buy another pair. And maybe another. It might take me three or four purchases before I've finally found the shoes I like.
Isn't that wasteful? And expensive? I just can't afford to shop like that anymore.
It's gotten so bad that for the last year or two, I haven't bought any new shoes and have made a point to get as much wear out of my few favorite pairs as much as I can. My old Rockports and Coach shoes have worked pretty well, but obviously they can't, and aren't, lasting forever.
I'm the same way with clothing. I'll need a dress for a specific kind of function (say a casual sun dress for the summer), but it will take me two or three tries before I find one that I love enough to wear.
Last winter, I found a cute plaid shirt for less than $25. I loved it so much in the store, that I decided it would be smart to buy two, knowing how picky I am about my clothing.
Well, I got home and discovered that these shirts had the strangest cut that had somehow escaped my attention in the dressing room. They were really short on the sides, so they covered the entire top-half of my body...except for my love handles, which were completely exposed.
How did I not see that in the dressing room?!!! Now I have two fugly shirts that are useless to me. $50 down the drain.
Solution: Don't go shopping. Clearly, I suck at it.
But then this morning, I put on one of the few remaining t-shirts I own and found there were holes beneath each armpit. Not cute little holes. You could stick your fist through these. Mortifying, but I wore it anyway (with a sweater) because it was literally the best option I had. I need to do some laundry, but I also really some new clothes.
It seems like everything that's being sold is low-quality. It looks good in the store, but it falls apart almost right away, or there's some hidden flaw that doesn't appear until later.
Do you have problems finding good clothes? I feel like it's been a repeated swing and a miss for me lately. I think it makes sense to spend more money on higher quality items that last a long time, but even the expensive stuff is often just a pricey label on a piece of sweat-shop junk. It's hard to know the difference sometimes.
I have just about 40 days left in my post-doc. Here are a few things I both am and am not looking forward to once I finally leave academia to expand my editing business.
-I can write more. So much more writing.
-I won't have to commute in my car for 2.5 hours a day.
-I won't have to work on a frustrating project that I don't believe will ever be of much value to the scientific community.
-I won't have to grin and bear the continuous snarky comments from some of my lab-mates, who are more interested in getting a laugh than being nice.
-I won't have to deal with comments that are borderline, or often straight sexual harassment. (To name just once instance, on my second week of work, some coworkers asked me to name my favorite sex shop...)
-I won't have to wear closed toe shoes and long jeans every single work day (I work in a lab. It's a safety thing.)
-I can wear a skirt or a dress on a Monday for the heck of it!
-I can do more art!
-I'll be my own boss. I can make my own decisions about time off and what jobs to take.
-I can choose my own projects and decide how important they should be.
-I won't have to pack a lunch every day. If I want an egg sandwich for lunch, I can cook myself an egg sandwich. (I don't know why this one excites me so much. Maybe I'm just really sick of eating cold food or reheated leftovers every day.)
-I can work wherever I can bring my computer: outside on my back patio; in a different city, etc.
-I can try different things to make money, like pitch and write science news stories, sell some paintings, work at an organic farm, however I feel like filling my time in between editing jobs.
-I won't have a steady paycheck, regardless of how productive I was or was not that month.
-I won't have a nice group of work friends to socialize with each day.
-I won't have paid vacation or sick days. A day I don't work is a day I don't get paid.
-I may make a lot less money. That remains to be seen.
-I may lose some professional respect. (I care about this one less and less every day)
-My parents aren't 100% supportive and I'm getting tired of defending my decision. (More on this another time.)
Even the cons make me happy right now, because they're the consequence of choosing my own life and not just accepting what's handed to me. We'll see how I feel when I'm actually experiencing them.
As predicted, the end of the semester has brought a slow-down in my editing work, and at the moment that's a good thing. It gives me the energy to focus more on marketing my editing business, and it gives me the time to edit my own work.
I mentioned before that I recently completed the first draft of my practice novel, a fun little romance that was simple enough for a novice like me to write. Now each morning, instead of writing, I spend my time re-reading what I've written and wrangling the prose into something a little more polished. But I'm running into a problem.
I'm editing my practice novel at a snail's pace.
Yes, I seem to struggle with editing speed in general, but I don't know if that's just my natural pace, or if I'm a little burnt out from so much professional editing, or if frankly my story just bores me. I worry that it's the latter.
I don't think my novel is inherently boring. Stuff happens. My problem is that while this book was a breeze to write, it's not the book I'd ever choose to read myself. I mean, if I saw this novel at the library, based on its probable cover, title, and summary, I'd never pick it up. It's sexy, and that's fun...but it's also trash. I don't like to waste my time reading trashy books, but as I'm editing this novel, I have to do exactly that.
Meanwhile, of course, I have a bright, shiny new idea (well, not that new, I've been kicking it around for a few years), and I would love to start writing that story, but I'm stickler for finishing projects. Nothing bothers me more than a piece of art or writing half-finished.
So I'm pushing through. It's just interesting to me that you could enjoy writing a novel, while not necessarily enjoy reading it.
Or maybe it's the exhaustion talking, I don't know.
Just 41 work days left until I leave my job...
I haven't done a book review in a while, and seeing as I just power-read my way through the last 150 pages of Atonement on Saturday, I figured now is as good a time as any to get back into it.
Atonement is one of those novels that has been on my to read list for ages. I've been an unwitting fan of Ian McEwan since I was in the fifth grade when I read his excellent kids book, The Daydreamer. Several years after that my mother recommended Atonement to me just after it was published, in 2003. However, I thought the synopsis sounded a little dark, so I never picked it up. Many years later, I did read McEwan's more recent book, Sweet Tooth, which I moderately enjoyed. The writing was excellent, but there was something a little off with the plotting, all of which made me even more resistant to reading McEwan's acknowledged masterpiece.
For whatever reason, I finally got over my hesitation and dove into Atonement this month, 13 years after it first entered my literary radar, and now I wish I had picked it up much sooner.
Let's get a few things out of the way. Yes, it is dark. Downright grim. In 1930's England, a little girl, Briony, incorrectly accuses a young man, Robbie, of raping her cousin, utterly ruining his promising life. To double the injury, Briony also manages to ruin everything for her sister, Cecilia, who'd only just realized she and Robbie were in love. None of that matters to the law of course, and Robbie is sent to prison and Cecilia left to wait for him.
Briony doesn't realize her mistake until several years later. Meanwhile, Robbie gets out of prison only by volunteering to join the army just as World War II is about to begin. What follows is a terrifying description of what it may have been like to retreat from France and evacuate at Dunkirk. McEwan also treats us to some pretty graphic storytelling about Briony's experience working as a nurse during the same wartime period.
As a work of historical fiction, I think Atonement is one of the best books I've ever read, probably because I have a morbid fascination with fictional descriptions of retreat. I live such a comfortable and predictable life, yet periodically through history (or even today in parts of the world) there have been events so horrible that the only recourse people have is to grab whatever they can carry and run for their lives. This is about as terrifying and disorienting an experience I can imagine. McEwan approaches these scenes with the novelist's sense for allowing discrete details to tell the story: limbs in trees; German airplanes attacking columns of fleeing civilians; the thirst when even water is a luxury.
Where I think Atonement fails is in its main character, Briony, whom we learn is also the narrator of the book (as in Sweet Tooth, McEwan has a soft spot for meta stories). Briony grows up, becomes a writer, and promises to confess her error in her last work of fiction. Meanwhile, she's celebrated and loved as a successful novelist, and because of some legal trip up, her final confessional will be published posthumously. No one will ever have to know her crime while she's still alive. That's convenient.
I found Briony's character unlikable and self-obsessed from the very beginning of the novel, and she never really improves. For all her claims of atonement, she never made any real attempt at it. If she'd really cared, she'd have consigned herself to the same fate of Robbie and Cecilia and thrown herself off a bridge. At the very least, she could have limited her life to penance, helping others as she had when she was a war nurse. Instead she gets to do exactly what she'd always wanted. Sometimes, I struggle with the idea that to be a writer is a selfish aim. The character of Briony certainly exemplifies that.
Anyway, to have an unlikable character is not a bad thing at all, but when you title a book "Atonement" and then do nothing of the sort, there's a stink of irony that doesn't sit right. On the other hand, maybe Atonement is a great book because clearly that bothers me enough to care.