Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Unfinished Book

I recently came across a book (which will remain nameless) that I'm having a really hard time getting into. I think it's ultimately a question of it being fairly dense and a lot of the "story" is given as "information." (It's a novel.)

And all I can think about is all the other books on my shelves and on lists that I've made to bring to a local Minneapolis/ STP book store and how much I'd rather be reading them. It's a bit like being a teenager at a family dinner when all your friends are out at a party.

But I'm compelled to carry on. I keep telling myself that I just need to give it a little more time -- the story and characters will sink inside and I won't be able to put it down.

I hate putting a book down. It feels like an unfinished conversation and, as the mother of a toddler who is in the throes of learning how to not interrupt, I have enough of those these days.

I've added a poll to my blog (look! over there! on the right!) to both experiment with polls on blogs and to find out: is it OK for me to put this one down or do I give it another chance.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Team Fingal

This weekend, the New York Times Book Review ran this piece by editor Jennifer B. McDonald about John D'Agata and Jim Fingal's The Lifespan of a Fact. It is a deft dissection of the book, which follows the correspondence between a writer (of nonfiction) and the fact-checker at The Believer assigned to fact-check his essay.

I was left with one over-riding thought: D'Agata makes my skin crawl. He "fixes" reality to suit his literary needs. Amongst the changes he made to his article about a boy killed himself by jumping off of the observation deck of a hotel in Las Vegas: that the only other suicide in LV that day was by hanging (it was also by jumping, but D'Agata wanted the suicide he was writing about to be unique), the number of strip clubs in Sin City (he changed 31 to 34 because the rhythm of the latter sounded better), and the color of dog grooming vans (from pink to purple -- also for language reasons). His justification for most of his changes are that he is not a journalist, he is an essayist, not in the service of facts, but in the service of Truth -- and art. Oh, yes, now I see it: the dog grooming vans really should have been purple all along.

In the course of their correspondence, D'Agata not only calls Fingal "stupid" but alienates his audience. He laments that the essay has been "terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public." In other words, "You just don't get me."

There are times when a nonfiction writer relies on the messy pile of neuronal puzzle pieces called "memory." There are times when nonfiction writers get it wrong -- they remember it wrong or they took the wrong notes or they don't double check their notes. There are times when nonfiction writers perhaps unintentionally stretch the truth or accuracy or intention of their memories, when they, for example, insert a thought or idea that maybe didn't occur to them in the moment but want to maintain narrative continuity. Some might change names. But most (the good ones) admit to these tweaks up front or use their belt of tools to downplay time shifts so that the text reads more smoothly. You work with what you have to make it art. That is the challenge for nonfiction writers.

But D'Agata does something else. He consciously and willfully changed the facts. Fingal puts it best when he responds, "Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Why not suck it up to get it right?" Exactly. If "pink" doesn't sound right in that sentence, then fix the sentence, don't change the color.

I wouldn't normally write about a book that I haven't read based solely on one review, but I'm a little reluctant to buy the book. As much as I'm intrigued by this battle between Truth and Art (ultimately I think they're both on the same side), I can't help but cheaply think about my pennies that will go into D'Agata's hand if I buy his book. (I also can't help but think that maybe he's being a jerk just to sell books.)

Book or no book. I'm Team Fingal all the way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Admiral Ackbar Saves the Day

"What is a weekend?" -- Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham
"It's a trap!" -- Admiral Ackbar

I've been starting to ask the same question that the formidable Violet Crawley asked in episode two of series one of Downton Abbey. I love that show. It's so indulgent and the intrigue and costumes are so delicious. I know I'm a little late to the party on this one. But I'm always late to the party.

Still, it struck a chord when Maggie Smith's character asked "What is a weekend?" I wish that I'd had the same thought because I lived the Dowager's life of flower shows and dressing for dinner and bustles and purple hats. I wish that I similarly didn't concern myself with work and therefore had no need for weekends.

But for me, and maybe for other stay at home moms, weekdays blend into weekends because my work -- my child -- are almost always by my side. I can't not bring work home because work is home.

"What is a weekend" indeed.

But things have slowly been shifting in the past few months. As Little A turned two, I started to realize that I really did need a weekend and, fortunately, my husband did too. We've started a sort of unspoken arrangement whereby I get at least a few hours "off" to do what I want each Saturday and Sunday (and -- not to worry -- many weekday evenings as well). And it has had surprising results.

First, Little A and her dad have started to do projects together. Like this one:

Yes, that is Admiral Akbar from Star Wars. The Old Man went dressed as him for Halloween many years ago and all he said all evening was "It's a trap!"

(For the record, that's the actual clip from the movie -- not my husband on Halloween. Although, that would have been an incredibly impressive costume. And party.)

The project came from The Star Wars Craft Book. Although, my husband found the directions somewhere on-line.

That's right. Husband and daughter went to the fabric store together to buy the materials. They sat at the dining room table with scissors. They -- well, just my husband -- have the hot glue gun burn to show for it. And I have a few words written and a run at the Y to show for it.

And, well, the proof that it's paying off is that my two-year-old is less of a pill this week. Or, OK, maybe it's me who's a little less of a pill.

What is a weekend, Dowager Countess?

It's the two afternoons each week when stay at home moms get a break from their kids.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Read this Book! (Island of Wings)

If I weren't so charmed by Karin Altenberg's vivid descriptions of the island-setting of her book, I'd probably hate her. Island of Wings is her first book and it's in English, her second language after her native Swedish. But she makes too much good use of the language and her observations are too sharp to hate her. In fact, I kind of want her to be my friend, which is ironic because at it's heart, her novel is about isolation and how difficult, how nearly impossible, it can be to bridge the vast empty spaces between people. (It is no coincidence that the story takes place on an island, which becomes a main character in and of itself.)

Island of Wings is a fictionalized account of the lives of Neil MacKenzie, the missionary assigned to St Kilda, the most remote island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, and his wife, Lizzie. While Neil is occupied by trying to convert the savage, superstitious natives with a fervor (stemming from the guilt he feels from a childhood accident) that we have perhaps seen in other missionary fiction such as Things Fall Apart and The Poisonwood Bible, Lizzie must face the solitude of a missionary's wife who doesn't speak the language and doesn't know the culture. Lizzie's story, in fact, becomes the focus of the book. According to an interview in the Scotsman, Altenberg found very little information about her female protagonist. "One comment was that Mrs MacKenzie made an agreeable cup of tea; another was that her children were kept clean. 'Her story is so interesting, because she's another of those invisible women in history who apparently doesn't exist.'"

Altenberg also brings to light another footnote from St. Kilda in the 1830s. People living on the island faced, according to some sources, a 50% infant mortality rate from the "eight-day sickness" or neonatal tetanus. Lizzie, who loses three babies, does not escape this fate and it is perhaps this shared loss that brings her closest to the other women on the island. It is also what pulls her further away from her husband who -- even years later -- blames her for the death of their first son, who died when Lizzie when into premature labor. This wrenching apart of a marriage is the center of this narrative. On the one hand is a man who seems so blinded by his faith (and guilt) that he is unable to see the wife family right in front of him. On the other is a woman whose ability to communicate with those around her has made her utterly practical, focused almost entirely on the present. In the end, she calls him a coward for being unable to love his wife and children. I agreed.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cruel, Cruel Hope

My husband has terrible dreams about all of the bees in our hive dying over the winter. It must be nice for him because my nightmares involve our child being taken away from us by Child Protective Services because we have failed to keep our pool clean enough. We don't even have a pool. Although, the bees would love it if we did because then, constant, easy water source!

Fortunately for my husband, we've had a run of really warm January/ early February days (in Minnesota speak, this means above freezing) which means that our bees have made something of a showing on a few days. When the sun hits their boxes from late morning through the afternoon, they've ventured out -- probably to dispose of dead bee bodies and defecate on our lawn. Hey, I never said beekeeping was all honey and romance.

The warmth has brought us out too. Little A and I have made more mid-day trips to playgrounds in the last few weeks than we probably did all last summer (when she was too young to do much more than stare enviously at the steadier, more mobile kids). The nice thing is that even on days when we don't make it to the playground, when we talk about what we did before she goes to bed, 9 times out of 10 she'll smile and shout, "playground!"

"Yeah, kid, we went to the playground," I'll tell her. Because memory is a funny thing and why shouldn't I take advantage of it's current state of total malleability to paint a picture of a childhood filled with trips to playgrounds for her?

So, the bees are alive and it's been, all in all, a lovely winter. There have been days that have damp and warm and melty in just the way that reminds us that winter will eventually be over and then we'll get spring and, even better, summer. These are the types of days are not necessarily the best by themselves, but are the best in that they that signify hope and renewal.

But here's the thing: they usually follow a long, hard winter full of shoveling and ice and snow and discussions of wind chill and comparisons to "the Halloween storm" (whatever the hell that is -- long before my time in MN) and foolish, outdoor, sub-arctic sporting (like ice fishing and snowshoeing and Loppets and dog sledding and pond hockey) and other events that are now getting either cancelled because there isn't enough snow or ruined because there's not enough coldness to make Minnesotans feel tough. In other words, Mother Nature, this winter makes us all look like a bunch of pansies.

And here's the other thing: it can't last. It won't last. We still have the rest of February and all of March and, as my husband feels the need to remind me frequently, March is usually the snowiest month in Minnesota.

So, not only do we not have a hash enough winter to feel, come summer, that we've done something to earn the good weather, but Mother Nature continues to toy with us. Spring is right around the corner. No it's not. Yes, it is. Ha! Ha! Gotcha. Our hope builds, only to be squashed by a sub-freezing (but not sub-zero!) day. It has been, perhaps, the cruelest winter of false hope and the "pansy-fication" of an otherwise proud people.

But the bees are alive. At least we have that.