Friday, May 31, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: The Dinner

Note: I am double-posting this review here and at Words Incorporated

For the inaugural Cephalopod Coffeehouse, I have chosen to review a book that's making pretty big waves in Europe, but hasn't quite reached the same level of buzz here in the States: The Dinner, by Dutch author Herman Koch. I'm always interested in reading books written in languages other than English, but usually they have to become megabestsellers before someone will translate them. And so it is with The Dinner. Written while George W. Bush was still president (he is referenced several times in the narrative), the book wasn't translated into English until 2012, and it's only recently been reviewed by major newspapers here.

"A European Gone Girl." —The Wall Street Journal

"An internationally bestselling phenomenon: the darkly suspenseful,
highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the
hardest decision of their lives — all over the course of one meal."

The premise: two brothers and their wives sit down to a fancy dinner in Amsterdam in order to discuss a rather serious problem that has arisen with their respective sons. The nature of the problem is revealed fairly early on, but details are added as the novel progresses. And it's pretty grim. The novel's comparison to Gone Girl is not inaccurate: they are both compulsively-readable novels with unreliable narrators, a cast of appalling characters, and head-spinning plot twists.

In case you're wondering how a novel could take place just over the course of one dinner: it doesn't. While it's structured (rather cleverly) around the titular dinner, with each course representing a new development in the family saga, the action ranges far beyond the restaurant: we travel back in time with the narrator, Paul, who fills in the family history via recalled anecdotes. Of course, all these recollections are filtered through the black veil of his mind: you can trust what you're told only after you learn to interpret Paul's reality.

Paul Lohman. Humbert Humbert. Amy Elliot Dunne. It must be so much fun to write characters like these: twisted people who justify their unjustifiable actions to the reader. Characters who, as awful as they are, retain a certain charm. Who dare us to empathize with them, just a little bit. When you see the lengths these characters go to to exculpate themselves, you start to wonder about your own mind: do we all have a little Paul Lohman in us?

Paul starts off the novel as merely curmudgeonly, and invites the reader to sympathize with him as he mocks the pretentiousness of the restaurant and rails against his brother's slick political persona. Some reviewers who initially liked Paul found themselves unsettled when Paul goes from justifiably grumpy to pretty much unhinged. Maybe because I'd already been through that with Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl, I wasn't so troubled by Paul's ever-worsening character. What bothered me more was Koch's decision to [slight spoiler alert] make Paul's personality into a neurological condition: somehow, locating the problem in the brain makes the story less urgent.

But this twist does bring up the problem of evil, free will, and heritability. Is the bad son that way because he made bad decisions of his own free will? Or was he a blank slate his dad trained into evilness? Or was he always going to be evil, due to the Evil Gene his father apparently has? The involvement of two cousins — one related, one adopted — further touches on the what-makes-men-wicked question. It's not explored directly, but Koch lets it hang there, ready for book-club discussion.

As interesting as these Bad Boys are, the truly interesting character (for me) ended up being Paul's wife, Claire. We have strong indications about why Paul and his son are the way they are, but what makes Claire a willing participant in the unfolding insanity? Because the premise is only the start of it: the two families have to decide what to do about their sons, now that the misdeed has surfaced. The brothers are set up to have conflicting solutions, but it's the wives who surprise us.

Koch makes a number of references to Tolstoy's famous line about families: "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I wasn't really sure why he kept referencing this line at first, except to show how doggedly Paul was forcing his own family into that mold, in spite of all the awfulness that was being uncovered. But now I'm wondering if Koch wrote the book to overturn Tolstoy's maxim. Perhaps he wanted to show that happy families (and you could argue that the Lohmans are, in fact, a happy family) are not all alike. That happy families can have as many skeletons-in-closets and as much drama as the unhappy ones.

Visit the other Coffeehouses to read more reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.Cygnus
3.Scouring Monk4.My Creatively Random Life
5.Words Incorporated6.StrangePegs
7.Subliminal Coffee8.Ed&Reub
9.Back Porchervations10.WearingLemon
11.more...MILLVALLISON12.The Bird's Nest
13.Trisha @ WORD STUFF14.Writer's Block
15.Choice City Native16.Counterintuitivity
17.What's Up, MOCK?18.What It Is Like To Be A Frog (You Think?)
19.The Random Book Review

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Crazy Little Thing Called Nostalgia

After reading these posts by Sister Stephanie and my friend Suze last week, I started pondering about a couple of things:
  1. Does our perception of a novel or film change throughout the years? (and if so, what are the variables that cause this phenomenon?) 
  2. How much does sentimentality and nostalgia skew our vision of a piece?
My theory is that nostalgia plays an essential role in our perception of a book or movie. If you were hitting puberty or were a full-fledged teenager when you read or saw Love Story by Erich Segal, your experience would have been MUCH different than if you saw it as a thirty-something mom. The same goes for cult films such as Sixteen Candles or Before Sunrise, to name a few. My question for you today is this: if you loved a film in your formative years, do you love it now? Do you overlook its flaws based on your fondness for the particular period of your life the film evokes?

How old were you when you watched these two fall in love?
(Before Sunrise, 1995)
And what about the thorny subject of remakes? Do you hate every film that is not the original* version you saw as a child/teen/college kid? Can you see past those tears of anger and give an objective opinion about the latest version of The Planet of the Apes or do you think anyone who dare step on Charlton Heston’s toes should be assaulted with a downpour of ripe tomatoes?

Turns out objectivity in fiction (and any other artform, for that matter) is an impossibility. It’s almost like deciding, without the shadow of a doubt, that cake is better than ice-cream. Sure, most of the time there is a consensus of whether a film/novel is good or bad, but the quality standards can be as variable as the pieces themselves. Not only do we have to consider the personal taste of the critic (be it a reader/viewer or a professional in the field) but also the fact that our overall appreciation of a creative endeavor changes from one generation to another.

Take silent films, for example. For most people, they seem boring or silly, but can you imagine how innovative and cool they were for viewers in the early 20th century? Just think about how much acting technique has evolved. Back then, both theater and film actors emphasized the use of body language and facial expressions into what we would consider now a melodramatic performance. Likewise, literature has evolved. To use an omniscient narrator is now considered a sign of an amateur and head-hopping is among the top commandments any novice novelist must learn—or use at his own risk.

So what is the best measure of quality: the opinion of professionals/critics, sales numbers, ratings, the number of remakes a film has? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these elements in addition to taste. I would add the elements of personal experience and nostalgia. Only these subjective variables can explain why an obscure film or piece of literature can find a loyal cult following. Try as you may to throw those low-sale numbers and bad reviews to their faithful fans and you still won’t be able to convince them that their beloved flick is less than brilliant.

But what about the cases where your perception does change? How many of us have experienced disappointment after rereading a childhood book or found a once-overlooked-flaw in our favorite movie? (Usually when an objective and over-analytical party points it out!)

As I’ve aged, my opinion of some of my favorite films and books has changed, but most of them still hold a special place in my heart. The fact that I’m a writer hasn’t helped me. Becoming a writer is like having a veil removed from your eyes. As you learn all the techniques of storytelling, you’re never able to watch a movie or read a book with the same abandon you once did (unless the writer is so brilliant he makes you forget it’s fiction). I suppose it’s comparable to learning a magic trick. You can never be awed by an illusionist’s performance anymore after you understand the mechanics. Likewise, if a writer is not skilled enough and you can see the seams of a story, you may lose the emotion factor. Sadly, this has happened to me with beloved novels or films from the past. (The good news is non-writers may be more forgiving!) But that’s when nostalgia kicks in. I forgive the transgression because I love this film. It’s like forgiving a friend for not calling you or saying something that bugs you. You don’t have to forgive a stranger, but you have to forgive a loved one.

Another factor that affects your perception of a story is your overexposure to a particular theme or plot. Surely you remember the first love story you read or saw in film, or at the very least, the one that impacted you the most. Subsequent films of this type are most likely not going to have the same effect on you as they did back when you were a pre-teen wondering if a French kiss meant you had to travel to Europe to experience one.

Personal experience, then, plays an important role on how you are going to receive a story.

With all this subjectivity, it’s amazing books get published! It also means a couple of things for writers. First, be cautious about the critique you take. Are the comments exclusively taste-based or there is some sort of objectivity to them? Has more than one person said the same thing about your work? Second, subjectivity can work to your advantage. Just like “there’s someone for everybody,” the novel you’re now writing or trying to sell might find love somewhere. We glaze over those rejection letters that claim  “fiction is subjective and another agent may feel differently” but the fact is that this is true. What better proof that how variable your own taste is? If fiction was as objective as science, then only the novels which fit a specific and an invariable formula would get published. Fortunately, this is not the case. People are always on the look out for something new, something different, and you may be just the one to offer that.

* I use the term “original” loosely because very often films have had earlier versions that we may not even know about.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Good Old Dayism

I have tried, over the years, to entice my children into reading the books I loved as a child, and — to my disappointment — they just aren’t that interested. I can’t say I really blame them. When I've tried reading my favorite childhood books to my kids, I often find them boring, slow, clichéd, overwrought, contrived, and full of errors that would never get past an editor now.

The books my kids want to read — books written by modern authors — are so much better. This observation, I predict, is going to elicit howls of protest. The fact that things sometimes do get better is not a popular idea, and never has been. Doomsdayism and good-old-dayism go hand-in-hand: things used to be good, but now we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. How does this relate to writing and to fiction generally? Most ponderers of the literary world will tell you that we’re all getting dumbed down, that literature used to be much better, that we’re all having pabulum shoved down our throats. And certainly there is pabulum to be found. But I propose the radical idea that on the whole, the novel has vastly improved over the decades.

Behind the perception that things used to be better, I see two issues: 1. The Nostalgia Bump: Before I made myself actually sit down and reread The Dark Is Rising to my children, I was convinced this series was evidence that the good old days were better. I mean, I loved that series as a child. It opened up the doors of my imagination more than any other book I've read, and launched me toward Madeline L'Engle and Ursula K. LeGuin. I became a genuine bookworm because of Susan Cooper: I spent my after-school hours happily sitting on the floor of the local library, reading and reading and reading, till my mother finished work and came to fetch me. So decades later, when I saw the Cooper series at Borders (ah, Borders) I had to buy the whole thing and immediately turn my daughter into the same bookworm I was. I was so convinced this would work that it took nearly half the book before I realized I was, actually, as bored as daughter was. We'd both been ruined by Harry Potter: we had strong expectations about plot, character, pace, and humor, and this series was just too ponderous.

2. Apples to Oranges: we compare Charles Dickens to Dan Brown. When we browse the shelves at the local bookstore — oh wait, none of us does that anymore. When we click through the Kindle Daily Deals section at Amazon, or flick our eyes over any bestseller list, we are confronted with a sea of crapola. Or, at least that's what we perceive. Some wildly popular books really are well-written, but so many are not that we tend to see them all as tripe. Anything sitting next to Fifty Shades of Grey looks bad by comparison. And then we look back to The Golden Days of Yesteryear and all we see are Charles Dickens and Virginia Wolf. So the logical conclusion is, once we had men and women of letters! And now we have men and women of handcuffs. But of course, we're only reading Dickens today because he was really an amazing writer. There was fluff and nonsense back then, too; we don't remember it because fluff dies with its generation.

These are all generalities, of course, and generalities based on my own opinion. Some people may still love Susan Cooper's books, and may be reading them to their perfectly entranced children. But I'm using specifics to illustrate what I think is a general truth: books are actually getting better. We are figuring out what the brain wants from a story, and we are shaping our stories accordingly. Clearly, attention-span isn't the issue because plenty of books today are long — both my kids sat and read the entire Harry Potter series, even as the books grew into Bible-sized tomes. Attention span will wander only if we don't give the brain what it wants from a story, and we're much better at doing that now. Newer novels aren't necessarily dumbed-down, either: I indulge routinely in YA novels, especially dystopian, and while these books aren't literary, they are smart. The authors present all kinds of philosophically and politically tricky issues.

I hope this alleviates, at least a little bit, the pessimism you may be feeling this Monday morning as you look around you: the schlocky movies, the tawdry novels, and those damn kids on your lawn. I hope this allows you, Dear Reader, to recognize maybe ... just maybe ... it's not all going to heck: as human beings are getting smarter — so is our entertainment.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!

I just wanted to take this moment to share our newest accomplishment here at the Sisterhood. We recently placed first -- for the second year in a row -- in the New Mexico Press Women's Awards. This isn't an award we take lightly because we are so grateful that the Press Women of New Mexico actually enjoyed our entries and felt we deserved a first place standing. Unfortunately, we did not go onto the national awards (it tends to get pretty pricey to enter if you want to compete on the national level), but hey, supposedly we have one of the best blogs in New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Press Women.

I wanted to share the judges comments, which I happened to find wonderfully encouraging:
❝Is it any surprise that a blog written by writers would win a blog writing award? The posts were entertaining and thought-provoking. Well-written, well-thought out posts leave readers clamoring for more.❞
To whomever was our judge, we wholeheartedly thank you for your lovely comments!

If you're interested in reading any of the award-winning posts we submitted for this year's contest then feel free:


Since we're on the topic of writing contests, I also wanted to share a couple of other accomplishments with you, plus I want to get your thoughts -- check your pulse, in a sense -- when it comes to contests.

First, I wanted to share with our readers two other awards received by the sisters. Sister Lorena and I (Sister Mary Mary) both placed in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Awards earlier this year. I thought it was cool to be able to share a contest win with my fellow friend and writing companion! Back in March, I was also privileged and profoundly humbled to be asked back as a judge in a local youth fine arts literary contest. I judged all kinds of categories, from spoken word (which is a little like a poetry slam) to mini sagas and first chapters. I always enjoy reading other people's stories, especially young people, because it helps me see and understand what kind of work and ideas are influencing the young adult crowd.

When it comes to writing contests, I tend to be a bit biased since I would consider myself a bit of a contest addict. For a long time, contests felt more like something I was doing to pump up my own writing energy, but recently I've discovered that it pays to actually persevere and put yourself out there for these awards. Five years ago, if an agent or editor had asked me what my writing credentials were, including all contests, I would have stared blankly at him or her. Recently, I received that exact question. So, I sat down and methodically went through my list. I was incredibly shocked at what I'd accumulated over the years. Since my certificates tend to get filed away, I rarely look at the awards I've won, just creating a mental file of this one or that one when I feel the need to pull one out. But when I had to actually sift through my award's file, I kept coming across wins I hadn't thought about since I started this writing thing. And you know what? I discovered I had about a page and a half of writing credentials to list, some of those listed including the contests I've judged.

Moral to my story? It pays off to persist if you know what you're going after. Heck, you might even end up surprising yourself, much like I did!

Here's my question to you:  Are you actively pursuing a writing career through useful methods, such as contests? Or, are you being more passive than you probably should be, hoping the stars will align and everything will fall in your lap?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Film Review Sunday: A Late Quartet

If you’ve ever read the storybook Pumpkin Soup, the premise for A Late Quartet will be deliciously familiar to you.

Pumpkin Soup is the story of a duck, a cat and a squirrel who live in perfect harmony in a cabin deep in the woods. Their days are spent making the best pumpkin soup in the world and playing their instruments. Everything is happiness in the old white cabin until Duck announces he doesn’t want to add salt in the soup anymore—a chore he’s been performing with great success for as long as they’ve been together. Now he wants to stir the soup.

Except that stirring the soup is the Squirrel’s job.

The request results in a monumental quarrel between the animals followed by rupture and maybe (even) the loss of friendship. In a similar fashion, violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) upsets his string quartet’s dynamic when he decides he doesn’t want to be second violin anymore, but first. This daring idea comes after elder cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken) announces he’s in the earliest stages of Parkinson’s and must leave the quartet after 25 seasons together. Not only do the quartet members have to navigate the early retirement of their beloved mentor, but also the ego clashes between Robert and first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Add to the mix the questionable loyalty of Robert’s wife and viola player, Juliette, and their passionate daughter, Alexandra, and you have all the elements of a powerful drama.

The Fugue in its days of glory

Not too different from this trio's happy days

A Late Quartet is woven together with such precision that every bit of dialogue and every gesture contributes to the tension and development of the plot. In this film, there is no need for excessive violence or heinous screams to create conflict. Some of the harshest words are spoken in a whisper. (But not to fear, there are some intense scenes as well!). Perhaps the film’s biggest asset is how real the characters and their relationships feel. It’s almost as though the audience is given a chance to peek into the lives of musicians they would otherwise only see on a stage. In the end, we are presented with everyday people with ordinary feelings but extraordinary talents.

Aside from stellar performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot, I enjoyed the music (the film plays a tribute to Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-sharp minor) but even more the exploration of human nature and how resilient we are to change. In Spanish there is a saying that goes like this: “Mas vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer.”  I believe the English translation is “Better the Devil you know.” In A Late Quartet, Robert and Peter represent change, whereas Daniel and Juliette stand for the formula that has already worked for them. Even when Robert introduces the concept that if they don’t take risks, they’ll never know how great they can become, the threat of change is so frightening to some of them that the dissolution of the group seems a preferable and imminent option.

Mmm... what could this flamenco dancer have to do with a string quartet?
You'll have to watch the film to know!

A Late Quartet was released in the Fall of 2012 and was only in theaters for a short time, it seems, but don’t let that stop you from watching it! (And if you do, come back and tell me what you think!)

Did you watch this film? Why do you think we're so resistant to change?