Monday, January 28, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Happy 200th Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!

Oh, Miss Austen, your baby has reached a seminal birthday - Pride and Prejudice is 200 years old today and doesn't look a day over 180.

Sometimes I wonder why women still connect with these books so strongly after 200 years. I mean, we can vote, own our own property, have jobs, and (GASP) not marry without serious social and economic repercussions. I think a lot of it has to do with her amazing characterizations of character types we still can recognize today... (I'm looking at you, Mr. Collins)

She is also amazing at setting up situations that, while tied to their historic milieu, still emotionally resonate with readers today...

But more than anything, I think it is Austen's combination of the grim economic realities for women of her time period with an eternal optimism that they can be overcome to the satisfaction of her heroines that keep us coming back for more. Don't we all want to believe that we'll find a man to keep us out of the poor house who we actually really like? I know I do.

Happy birthday, P&P! Keep us believing in the dream!

Why do you like Jane Austen? If you don't, why do you think others do?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Books Like Whoa: 3 Memoirs on Grief and Reading

Last year (I love saying that about books I read 2 months ago), I happened to read three books that fall into a very niche sub-genre: memoirs about the author dealing with grief and loss through reading and writing. I wasn't aware that this was a thing, but there you go. I had a variety of responses to them, so I thought it would be worthwhile to do a direct comparison between them.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
by Nina Sankovitch

This was the first of the reading memoirs I read in 2012 and it was definitely my least favorite. The incident of grief that incites the author's year of reading a book every day is certainly tragic - the author loses her beloved sister to cancer at an early age. However, it was in this book that I began to see both the key strength and key weakness of this genre. The strength is that grief creates both a mood of introspection and a desire to escape for the mourner, which are two conditions that are ideally suited to the act of reading. The weakness is that the type of person who is most likely to take on this kind of reading or writing project is conspicuously wealthy and oblivious to that fact. Sankovitch's reflections too often seem to verge into whining about "rich people problems" and renders her genuine mourning for her sister as less moving. Her grief is lost in a sea of beach houses and play dates, and she fails to paint a clear enough portrait of the object of her mourning for the reader to connect to her grief. This probably wouldn't put off every reader, but it was ultimately too much for me to get over.

Rating: 3 - Not my cup of tea, but I get why people dig it

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

This was my first experience with that juggernaut of essay writing, Joan Didion. In terms of her reputation, The Year of Magical Thinking absolutely delivered in terms of her exquisite prose and I was able to see her hallmarks as a stylist. The year of her life that she is documented is likewise staggering - her husband of nearly 40 years dies of a heart attack before her eyes while her daughter lies in ICU from a terrible sickness (that eventually did kill her, after the book was published). The book documents the foggy year that follows as Didion attempts to make sense of how and why her husband died, all while trying to care for her daughter, whose health improves and crashes at regular intervals. Again, this book displays a certain tone deafness to the incredible "1%" lifestyle that Didion so casually inhabits. However, because of Didion's own skill and the sheer freakishness of her loss, this book avoids verging into the realm of whining or snobbery. In fact, by the end, I walked away thinking that perhaps her inclusion of those details of wealth were a strategy to say, "I have all this money and all these influential friends, but I still can do nothing to bring back my husband or heal my daughter."
Rating: 4 - I enjoyed it... a solid offering

The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

Schwalbe's book was, for me, the most successful of these three memoirs. I think this is in large part because the one being mourned, his dying mother, has such a strong voice throughout the narrative to drive the dialogue on what it is to grieve and what it is to die. Schwalbe documents the informal book club that he and his mother create as he takes her to her chemo appointments during the last two years of her life. Though, again, this book is written by a family living a rather charmed life of privilege, Schwalbe handles this reality in an appropriately self-aware but unapologetic fashion that was satisfying for me. This is also tempered by the fact that his mother was such an incredible philanthropist, activist, and volunteer. This woman used her influence to advocate for the poorest of the poor, abused women, and voiceless refugees, spending a huge amount of time abroad serving those people. She also possesses a beautiful spirit of kindness and acceptance for every person that she encounters. I hope I am able to face death with a fraction as much grace and humility as this woman does. I found Schwalbe's memoir the most moving of the three, as well as the most deft at incorporating the reading element into his process of grief.
Rating: 5 - It's really good: well written and pleasurable

Ultimately, I think the reason some of these books rubbed me a little bit wrong was that I don't want to think that the only people who can benefit from reading at times of loss are rich people. Surely books are not only for the elite? The magic of books is that they reach across time, politics, and money to touch the lives of so many different readers. I want a book that documents the impact of reading on a regular joe. 

What is the place of reading in our lives at times of grief or distress?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The September Issue: A Documentary or An Alternate Universe?

I have had a cinematic experience that I just have to talk to someone about, and that someone, dear reader, is going to be you. The September Issue, a documentary by R.J. Cutler, follows Anna Wintour and her staff as they prepare the yearly spectacle that is the September issue of Vogue.

Like every other woman over the age of 15, I have seen The Devil Wears Prada, which is based on the book of the same title, which is based on the author's experience with Vogue/Anna Wintour. If you, however, do not fall into that category, The Devil Wears Prada follows the trials and tribulations of a bright young girl who becomes the assistant to the tyrannical editor of "Runway" magazine. The eponymous devil is played to perfection by Meryl Streep and while the movie is a delightful confection, I never took seriously the idea that the book could in any way be true to life.

Dear reader, I stand corrected. TDWP, it turns out, is to real life Vogue as the reenactments on "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" are to real life rednecks - prettier people, better dialogue, but the basic thrust of the story rings true.

Now, let's be clear - Anna Wintour does not come across as the petulant monster that is portrayed in the movie. She seems to be a very reserved and demanding person, which comes across as quite cold, but not evil.

The self-seriousness of Vogue, however, was no exaggeration at all. This has a variety of effects on me, but first, let's address some of the amazing quotes that crop up in the film:

"I don't find her to be hidden - I just don't find her to be accessible to those who she doesn't need to be accessible to. She's just busy and she's not warm and friendly."

"It's a famine of beauty, honey - my eyes are starving for beauty!"

"The jacket is the new coat."

"The look is sexy, the look is granny - you need to know."

"People are frightened of fashion and because it scares them or makes them feel insecure, they put it down... They feel excluded or not a part of the cool group so they mock it."

So, yes, there are certainly moments when the good folks of Vogue seem to be a little myopic in their view of what is important in the world. It's also important to note the timeframe of the movie - though it was released in 2009, it was filmed in 2007, which was before the crash of 2008. Thus, some of the more tone deaf elements surely trace to the fact that we were living in a more opulent time.

But what has struck me about the film is how it forces the viewer to consider the current landscape of high art that is accessible to the common person walking around. Where are our great works of public art that are actually beautiful, at least for those of us in North America? I know we have a plethora of odd modern pieces that are plastic-y abstractions of a flower, or something, that pass as public sculpture. But I, at least, don't find these very moving. For most of us, the most beautiful pieces of art that we can consume in our day to day life are the fashion billboards we see on our commutes or the window of department stores as we do our Christmas shopping.

I kind of love that this movie highlights and celebrates this realm of applied art. The ethics of the industry are complex, so for the sake of this discussion, I'm not going to touch the rich trophy wives who sustain the high end of fashion or the disenfranchised third world children who are all too often the grunt work behind what we in the West wear. These problems are what I typically ponder when I think about fashion. But what I forget is that the work itself, as photographed or arranged by the industry, is beautiful. Truly beautiful. And that creating beautiful things for people to enjoy in their every day life, at whichever end of the income spectrum they fall, is kind of an amazing and great thing.

In this kind of art, it quickly becomes clear that Grace Coddington (the real-life equivalent of Stanley Tucci in TDWP) is one of the most important artists we have today. Watching her work and seeing the way she creates a story around the opulent clothes was staggering. Her blunt wit certainly doesn't hurt, but what is fascinating is how romantic her point of view is. She creates entire worlds that you want to immerse yourself in. At one point, she says, "You have to have that fashion story - polka dots or stripes or full skirts or straight skirts or whatever. But I try to make that secondary. I try to make it about the girl and what she's doing, what she's thinking, who she is." This philosophy shines through every frame that she directs. In that way, her work reminds me of medieval portrait painters. The richness of the world and the invitation to consider the inner life of the subject pulls you into both of them.

I really enjoyed the thought that this film provoked in me about what is art, what art means to us in our daily life, how art can form a common experience, and at what cost we can seek to bring beauty to the world.

Plus, watching Grace provoke Anna is pretty hilarious.

What is the acceptable balance between the frivolous and the sublime in fashion?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Years! Looking Ahead Into 2013...

Happy New Years, everyone! I hope you had a fun, safe night ringing in the New Years. I was lucky enough to be in Nashville to celebrate with my best friend:

Fancy dinner, fancy wine, fancy ladies - what's not to love?

2013 is officially here and I have a hard time thinking of it with anything but unabashed glee. My first semester at Regent was filled with so much fun, growth, and delicious challenge that I can't help but have rose colored glasses on when I look at the year ahead.

I was looking at my year end wrap up post from 2011 and reflecting on what a hard place I was at when I was writing those words. I am just happy to be happy as 2012 concludes. I predicted that while 2011 was a year of waiting and holding on, 2012 was going to be year of changing and doing. I was right on that score.

Looking ahead, I want 2013 to be a year of discovery and enjoying. I want to enjoy the place that I'm at right now and continue to discover more about myself and path that lies before me. I want to enjoy being happy and continue to discover what it will look like for me to be content and faithful in the years ahead.

With that in mind, I only have three resolutions for this year [and one is the same as last year ;)]:

1) To read at least 50 books in 2013 and to have at least 10 of them be pleasure books, not just for school

2) To write every day - whether 50 words or 500

3) To challenge myself to find creative ways to connect my heart and my head in my day to day actions

I wish everyone a blessed new year - whether 2012 was the best year of your life or the worst, the new year is a reminder that our lives aren't set in stone. It's not too late to make a change or to appreciate what you have. Let's all make the most out of 2013 that we can

What are your resolutions for 2013?