PPRL: Independence Day, by Richard Ford (winner, 1996)

I'm about a third of the way through the Pulitzer novels (most of which I've written about here, though a few I'd read several years ago). And far and away my favorite remains Rabbit is Rich, followed closely by Rabbit At Rest. I've just not encountered anything as darkly funny, as rich in character, or as artistically taut as Updike.

Richard Ford, however, comes close. Very close. I got the buzzy, butterfly feeling I get when I read really, really good writing early on Independence Day. The novel is considered part of the "dirty realism" genre, which I explained to a friend--at least in this instance--as "difficult people in difficult relationships, sometimes doing shitty things to one another. Usually in the suburbs." In other words, very Updike-esque. (It's also hard to not suspect that certain elements of Independence Day aren't a nod to Updike--specifically basketball and the parade at the end--though here's Ford responding to that charge in a New Yorker interview.)

Ford has an unbelievably keen eye for what makes people memorable, for the details that bring an environment to life. It's the kind of book I think would-be writers should read, slowly, taking lots of notes. Some passages and snippets I marked:

A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you'll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are, you worry like hell about them, you make provisions, take precautions, fashion adjustments; you tell yourself you have to change your way of doing things. Only you don't. You can't. Somehow it's already too late. And maybe it's even worse than that: maybe the thing you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath. And what you've feared will happen has already taken place. This is similar in spirit to the realization that all new great advances of medical science will have no benefit for us at all, though we cheer them on, hope a vaccine might be ready in time, think things could get better. Only it's too late there too. And in that very way our life gets over before we know it. We miss it. And like the poet said: "The way we miss our lives are life.

The pistol was big and black, looked well oiled and completely bursting with bullets

For some reason she puts her palm flat on top of her bobbed red hair and blinks, as though she were holding something down inside her skull.

Every age of life has its own little pennant to fly.

Karl gives the Times a good snapping as though to get the words lined up straighter.

---

What makes (to me, anyway) Independence Day Pulitzer-caliber is how Ford takes the simple theme of independence (emotional, romantic, financial...) and makes a kind of vehicle out of it, in which the protagonist travels over the course of his holiday weekend. Each encounter he has, each experience he moves through brings him closer to understanding himself--and precisely how independent he really is (often to his surprise or disappointment). At moments Frank's self-absorption becomes tiresome, but one can never fault him for not seeking self-awareness.

Again this time around I neglected to jot down specific discussion questions/paper topics, but here are two quotes I think would make great jumping-off points:

Today, after all, is not only the fourth, but the Fourth. And as with the stolid, unpromising, unlikable Markhams, real independence must sometimes be shoved down your throat.

Independence Day, at least for the daylight hours, confers upon us the opportunity to act as independently as we know how.

ghost guy

Ghost guy doesn't want to be seen. Not really. He lurks in the hallway, rattling chains, muttering the occasional, non-commital moan, hoping to be glimpsed in your periphery. But by the time you turn to face him straight on, he's vanished.

Ghost guy wants to haunt your life but not actually be in it. He'd rather be a secret than a centerpiece. He fancies himself mysterious and elusive, but if you could hold him still long enough to lift the sheet you'd see there's not much underneath.

Ghost guy will tell you he's "complicated." He likes the subtly self-effacing sound of that, likes the way it unhooks him from the responsibility of trying harder--of being better.

Don't be scared of ghost guy. He isn't real. Turn on some lights and he'll float away.

the enveloping warmth of self-delusion (a how-to)

Step 1: Construct your narrative. Think carefully about the role you want to cast yourself in. Victim, hero, iconoclast, and martyr are all popular choices, but don't feel limited to these. Get creative!

Some questions to consider: How am I being wronged? In what ways am I innovating or inspiring, that others fail to appreciate? What personality flaws and intellectual shortcomings are preventing them from recognizing my greatness?

Step 2: Ignore any answer that does not lend itself to your established narrative.

Think of your self-deception like a cozy fur coat, shielding you from the harsh winter wind of reality. You wouldn't let it get wet and dirty, would you? That's what challenging outside opinions are: dirt. Brush them off and keep going.

Step 3: Surround yourself with enablers. It's important to experience routine reinforcement of your worldview. This is best achieved by maintaining strict filters in life. Listen only to viewpoints that ratify your position, particularly where it pertains to your character.

Remember, you don't owe the world an open mind! It's your brain: block, delete, and dismiss any thought that makes you uncomfortable.

Step 4: Have the bubble in which you live insured. It's the only thing keeping you safe from the twin abhorrences of self-awareness and growth.

the midden-morphosis

A little while ago, this popped up on my phone:



I find this wonderful for three reasons.

1. Midden is one of my recent vocab words. Yes, I study vocab words. No, I'm not preparing for the GRE. Yes, I am just a huge dork.

2. When the notification came, I was eating animal crackers. The bag appears to contain rhinos, though few horns seem to have survived the trip from the Stauffer Biscuit Company factory in York, Pennsylvania.

3. It's "Blue Monday," alleged to be the most depressing day of the year. What better way to celebrate it than by watching insects crawl through shit? Kafka, eat your heart out.

PPRL: The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty (winner, 1973)

The Optimist's Daughter is about, among other things, the ghosts that rise up when someone dies. (Hint: there's more than one.) It's about the reverence we hold for the dead, especially when we share their blood, and to what degree that reverence is justified. And it's about what loss can teach us about our ourselves.

Laurel, the novel's protagonist, has lost both of her parents and a husband, and has come to rely on her friends--and herself--for validation and emotional support. (I'm just having a really hard time finding books that speak to me these days...) And while she's certainly admirable for being the very picture of forbearance, at times I couldn't help finding her frustratingly spineless.

The plot I think is better suited to a short story than a novel (which, at 140 pages, it essentially is), and the final chapters feel like a sudden storm of nostalgia and melancholy disrupting an otherwise placid day. There was just something incongruent to me about it. All the same, the writing is of course fantastic and Welty's talent for character development is remarkable. Some loathsome personalities in this one for sure.

A resonant passage:

A flood of feeling descended on Laurel. She let the papers slide from her hand and the books from her knees, and put her head down on the open lid of the desk and wept in grief for love and for the dead. She lay there with all that was adamant in her yielding to this night, yielding at last. Now all she had found had found her. The deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself, and it began to flow again.

Were I to do any long form writing on The Optimist's Daughter it would be on the theme of grief as crucible. Groundbreaking, I know.

interesting

"You seem interesting."

"What sort interesting do you think I am?"

"There's more than one kind?"

"There's interesting due to experience, and interesting due to struggle. Some people are intriguing because they've had wealth to lubricate their way through life. Money makes it easy to become an interesting person. Travel, education, culture, adventure. But while those people have collected lots of experiences, they've gotten very few scratches along the way. And scratches are interesting. Everyone wants to know the story behind a really ugly scar."

"And you? Do you have scars?"

"None that came cheap."

hey all you foxy young things, this is what's coming down the pipe

Apparently, forty is the age at which men start describing you as "vibrant."

Vibrant. Dear god.

I try to take it as a compliment, but I can't help feeling that's it's a kind way of saying, "You clearly used to be hot. And still are, sort of, in a way. Just not, you know, young-hot."

I remind myself of all the lovely things that are regularly described as vibrant. Sunsets. Flowers. Casino hotel carpeting. And I'm sure I'll get used to it. Hell, in five or ten years I'll probably be ecstatic if someone calls me vibrant. But right now? Ugh.

Forty is also the age when you can justifiably start filling in the sentence, "The central problem of my life is ____." Not that you should. That's probably a sentence better left unfinished, unless it's being co-authored by a good therapist. But it doesn't sound so ridiculous anymore, is the point.

I'm really selling this forty thing, I know.

puddle

A girl broke down crying in front of me tonight, in a discount department store on Broadway. A teenager. I don't know how old. Sixteen, if I had to guess?

Terence was with me. I was shopping for, well, props for the business. I had my hands full and was a million miles away, thinking of everything I needed to do. "Excuse me," I heard a halting voice say. "Can you take me to the nearest Starbucks? I'm lost."

Take, she'd said. Lost, she'd said. This phrasing, along with the fact that she was with another girl--and they both carried smart phones--made me suspect I was the target of some sort of scam. Because what teenaged kid these days can't navigate her way to a Starbucks?

"Well I can't take you," I answered with friendly, reassuring briskness (in case she really was lost), "but I can tell you where one is? It's super close." I pointed towards the store's front doors and began to give directions (one street up, one street over), and that's when she started crying. She just sort of dropped her head into her hands and lost it.

"Hey! Hey, it's okay!" I snapped out of my distracted state and turned to her and her companion. "Are you lost?" She nodded, looking pitiful. "You're okay, you're totally safe, okay? You're safe." More nodding. Friend didn't say anything. Friend had a lot of eyeliner and the last three inches of her hair were dyed lilac. I got the sense that being lost wasn't the real problem so I said, "Listen, whatever it is, it's temporary. You're safe and it's gonna be okay." I gently rubbed the top of her arm, petting her like a distressed Chaucer (who probably would have been a great help in this situation).

"I don't want to go home," the girl suddenly announced, jolting the mood from after school special to CSI: DTLA. Or maybe it just did for me, because I felt my spine go rigid. I looked at Terence, who was watching quietly from a few feet away. "Hey--will you give us a sec?" He nodded and moved off.

"Listen, it's okay," I repeated to the girl. Then with the best calm-but-concerned-outsider vibe I could channel I asked, "What's going on at home? Is everything okay?" It occurred to me that for whatever reason, I was playing Trusted Adult in this scene. I introduced myself. "I'm Ellie. What's your name?" She told me, but I forgot within minutes. Let's call her Emily. "Listen Emily," I said. "I know I'm a stranger and I don't want to intrude in your life, but are you safe at home? Is anyone hurting you at home?"

Let it never be said that I'm not direct.

Emily shook her head and I looked at friend, who didn't give me any kind of furtive, She's lying glance. "It's fine," said Emily. "I just can't deal with them right now." Deal with them right now sounded good to me. Like typical, sixteen-year-old hating-her-parents type stuff.

"Where do you live?"

"Atwater Village."

"How did you guys get here? Did you take the bus or something?"

"Lyft." (Duh. It's a new era, Ellie.) "But my mom canceled the credit card." Ah. A picture emerges.

"Okay, well...do you have bus fare to get home or whatever?"

Nodding. "I just want to go to Starbucks and chill for a little while."

So I reissued my directions, because I judged (based on my vast experience with angsty adolescents) that she was probably fine. Or would be in a couple of hours, anyway. At the very most in a couple of years.

Poor kid. Not much worse when you're that age, than thinking every puddle is an endless ocean.

great libraries of the future

I don't like to leave a lot of somedays laying around. They make me nervous. They tap their feet and glare at me expectantly. Once I caught one of the bolder ones making hash marks on the wall. My poor somedays didn't exactly end up with an overachiever for custodian.

But one someday I don't mind is this: Someday I'm going to buy copies of every novel I've ever read, starting with the Pulitzer winners and going backwards through to high school. Hard cover, paperback, I don't care. Whatever's cheapest. And the more used, the more lovingly dogeared, the better. I want books that have been pored over by as many eyes as possible. I want a million sighs of appreciation to echo from their pages. I want to wonder if those that came before me marveled at the same moments, cheered for the same underdogs. I'm going to buy them all at once, too. Or as quickly as I can, anyway. I'm going to fucking swim in them. Papery, pulp-scented piles of them.

I had to ditch (donate) my books when I divorced. My new apartment was just too tiny. Something like eight boxes' worth. It broke my heart. Really - I sobbed. I still regret it terribly. I should have made room. I should have lined the walls with them, in wobbly stacks if necessary. I should have made it work. Rooms without books are soulless, they say. You should run, they say, if you meet someone with no books in their home. (Well, you should probably run from my place regardless, because I'm a terrible hostess who never has liquor on hand.) Both true, to some degree.

The iPad is fantastic for taking notes, certainly. I love the highlight and define features, and being able to keep multiple bookmarks easily. But it's not the same. And everyone who clucked their tongues and said as much was right. I should have listened.

Someday.

squad goals

PPRL: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder (winner, 1928)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a blazingly smart and utterly absorbing little book; I only put it down once. Reading it is like descending an ornate spiral staircase, alongside which runs a wall filled with alcoves containing tiny, curious treasures. These artifacts call to you, so you pick them up and turn them over in your hands for a moment - but the lure of what lays at the bottom of the stairs is too great, so you keep going down, down, down. And when you reach the cellar you find yourself in a place that's at once totally strange but somehow comforting. You don't want to leave. You know you could learn a lot here.

It's just delightful. Wise, colorful, simple in scope but grand in effect, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a goldmine for existentialist inquiry but never mind that - it's also just a really fun ride. No discussion questions this time, just a handful of annotated quotes:

"...authors always live in the noble weather of their own minds and those productions which seem remarkable to us are little better than a day's routine to them." (Oh to be such, to live and write as such.)

"She saw that the people of this world moved about in an armor of egotism, drunk with self-gazing, athirst for compliments, hearing little of what was said to them, unmoved by the accidents that befell their closest friends, in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires." (This was written in 1927. Nineteen twenty-seven. Prescient much, Thornton? #socialmedia)

"The glazed eyes moved to the girl's face. Pepita shook her gently. With great effort Dona Maria tried to fix her mind on what was being said to her. Twice she lay back, refusing to seize the meaning, but at last, like a general calling together in a rain and by night the dispersed division of his army she assembled memory and attention and a few other faculties and painfully pressing her hand to her forehead she asked for a bowl of snow." (Best description of a hangover ever.)

"Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but may never be two that love one another equally well." (Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Wilder, New Era romance columnist)

"He possessed the six attributes of the adventurer--a memory for names and faces, with the aptitude for altering his own; the gift of tongues; inexhaustible invention; secrecy; the talent for falling into conversation with strangers; and that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon."

"He respected the slight nervous shadow that crossed her face when he came too near her. But there arose out of this denial itself the perfume of a tenderness, that ghost of passion which, in the most unexpected relationship, can make even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream." (Nuanced, true, relatable, perfect.)

"He regarded love as a sort of cruel malady through which the elect are required to pass in their late youth and from which they emerge, pale and wrung, but ready for the business of living."

"Like all solitary persons he had invested friendship with a divine glamour; he imagined that the people he passed on the street, laughing together and embracing when they parted, the people who dined together with so many smiles--you will scarcely believe me, but he imagined that they were extracting from all that congeniality great store of satisfaction."

"She had accepted the fact that it was of no importance whether her work went on or not; it was enough to work. She was the nurse who tends the sick who never recover; she was the priest who perpetually renews the office before an altar to which no worshippers come." (She was the blogger who continued to publish even in the face of an ever more dismal Alexa-ranking...)

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." (I told you - wise and delightful, and you won't want to leave.)

cone of valor

Somebody got a boo boo.




Somebody nicked the tip of his tail against a metal door frame, wagging really hard when we came home Saturday night. Blood everywhere, and a midnight trip to the emergency vet. They said it didn't look broken and to just have our regular vet check it out this week. So that's what we're doing Thursday. Hopefully we're not headed towards the dreaded "Happy Tail" syndrome.

I feel terrible dragging him back to the vet so soon; the poor guy is still recovering from a mysterious wrist injury a few weeks ago, as well as a skin infection. He's already on painkillers and antibiotics.

In the meantime, he gets to wear the badass Cone of Valor. I'm kind of jealous. That thing is way cooler than my hoodie.

PPRL: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (winner, 1999)

The Hours is a novel about women who spend too much time thinking about themselves, and are arguably the worse for it. I couldn't relate to it at all.

*cough*

But they are also women who closely consider the lives of others: their needs, fears, probable desires... As such, The Hours hums with emotion - relentless, sometimes thrilling, but often exhausting emotion. Cunningham weaves elements through all three narratives (writer, socialite, wife) in a way that builds momentum while it unravels the mystery of who these women really are. Physical objects, motifs, thoughts, impressions, behaviors - all are used as common reference points over and again in The Hours, until the reader begins to understand that the most complicated relationship each of the women has is, in fact, with herself.

I was awed by the entire, masterful novel, but here are a few passages I found particularly striking:

There she is, thinks Willie Bass, who passes her some mornings just about here. The old beauty, the old hippie, hair still long and defiantly gray, out on her morning rounds in jeans and a man's cotton shirt, some sort of ethnic slippers (India? Central America?) on her feet. She still has a certain sexiness; a certain bohemian, good-witch sort of charm; and yet this morning she makes a tragic sight, standing so straight in her big shirt and exotic shoes, resisting the pull of gravity, a female mammoth already up to its knees in the tar, taking a rest between efforts, standing bulky and proud, almost nonchalant, pretending to contemplate the tender grasses waiting on the far bank when it is beginning to know for certain that it will remain here, trapped and alone, after dark, when the jackals come out. 

You respect Mary Krull, she really gives you no choice, living as she does on the verge of poverty, going to jail for her various causes, lecturing passionately at NYU about the sorry masquerade known as gender. You want to like her, you struggle to, but she is finally too despotic in her intellectual and moral intensity, her endless demonstration of cutting-edge, leather-jacketed righteousness. You know she mocks, you, privately, for your comforts and your quaint (she must consider them quaint) notions about lesbian identity. You grow weary of being treated as the enemy simply because you are not young anymore; because you dress unexceptionally. You want to scream at Mary Krull that it doesn't make that much difference; you want her to come inside your head for a few days and feel the worries and sorrows, the nameless fear. 

...brilliant and indefatigable Leonard, who refuses to distinguish between setback and catastrophe; who worships accomplishment above all else and makes himself unbearable to others because he genuinely believes he can root out and reform every incidence of human fecklessness and mediocrity. 

Study / discussion points:

  • Discuss the overlap of character experiences or behaviors (such as avoidance of mirrors, hearing of voices, etc), and how it compels the action forward.  
  • How does illness break down the boundaries between characters? (Consider Laura and Kitty, Richard and Clarissa, Virginia and Vanessa...) How does it loosen underlying issues and allow them to surface? How does their mortality permit characters to more clearly see the whole of their lives, their place in the world?
  • Laura's cake (and cake-making) as a metaphor for her life itself. Discuss.
  • Explore the idea of "crossing over" in The Hours (consider literal moments such as the multiple street-crossing scenes, and figurative ones such as suicidal ideation or even the anticipation of a natural death).
  • Suicide is a recurring theme in the novel, both as an abstract thought and as an actual plan of action. Compare and contrast two character's perceptions/experiences of it. 
  • Consider how a brush with death (or even the thought of it) affects character motivation and relationships. (Is it invigorating? Relieving? Terrifying? Clarifying? All of the above?)

pseudo whorl

needles in elevators
green, dry, sweet-smelling
detritus of Christmas past

the Heights of Estimation

The Heights of Estimation (where my heroes live) are treacherous and difficult to reach. Steep, craggy cliffs buffeted by icy, howling wind. A thorny, overgrown path that discourages visitors. I call on them only when I absolutely must - my heroes. Which is how I suspect they prefer it, anyway. Wizards behinds curtains keep the curtains drawn for good reason.

Still, I am a faithful supplicant. Bundled against the unbearable cold, I make regular treks to pay homage. I set my most lavish praise on their doorsteps and retreat quietly. I await response. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn't. Either way they keep the homes I've built for them, high, high up in the clouds. The Heights of Estimation are rent stabilized.

Once in a while my mind plays tricks on me, and I think I see one of my heroes down here, in the sublunary world. But I know that can't be possible. Why would they consort among mere humans - flawed, pathetic, needful? What use is this place to them? They have everything they need in the lofty aeries I so lovingly furnished with my fulsome admiration, my undying devotion.

No - my heroes are quite comfortable where they are, I think. Safe. Elusive. Unassailable.

Unknowable, ultimately.

MMXV!

I dread the first of January. It always feels like the first day of a class I'm not sure I should be in. Didn't exactly ace the prerequisites. Don't know that I'm qualified to move ahead. So while everyone else is fresh-faced and eager, I'm chewing my pencil, avoiding eye contact. Sooner or later I'll be found out: I have no idea what I'm doing.

I've learned to keep my New Year's resolutions to myself. Once I share them, they start ticking like a countdown - how long until I fail? If I keep them quietly, the self-admonishments when I stumble can be quieter, too. It's okay. No one knows you dropped the ball. Just pick it back up. We'll keep this between us. 

If you're charging into the new year with guns blazing, right on. Pass me some of that confidence in a high five, will you? But if you've got to bluff it for a while until you get your bearings, come sit with me in the back. I've got extra pencils.

The last bits of my MMXV:
Some things never change. (Talking about my claw hand, of course.)
Supermoon viewing. I didn't blog these pictures before because this was the night I knew Terence and I were Donesville. They make me a little sad because of that, but seeing downtown all tiny off in the distance reminds me how insignificant my problems are.

Urban scrawl: so much prettier at night.
Clifton's has become my new favorite spot downtown. Cavernous, quirky, cozy, and chill. Plus they serve the best White Russian you've ever had. 
We agreed that either we both get facelifts or neither of us does.
An optimistic moment.
My thinking place. Three blocks up, one block over. I can sit beside the water and gaze at the city and just be blurry for a little while.
Terrible picture but a great moment, molesting balloons last night with Krista.

He said he's never veld this way before. Safari's just talk, though.
He always get a little pouty after he guts a toy and realizes he now has one less toy.
"You know I'm color blind, right? You can stop buying them in fancy colors."
Last night at The Belasco downtown. For the first time in my life I wore flat shoes on New Year's Eve, so I could actually dance. I'll never go back. 
Truly fantastic music, with multiple rooms to choose from. A+, would return next year for sure.
Big dogs need big trees.
Selfie queens to the end.