Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

I recently saw the movie STRANGER THAN FICTION, which stars Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was well-worth seeing, especially for writers/booklovers. Not great, but entertaining, and thought-provoking in a Hollywood way. It poses two questions: (1) If you discovered that your life exactly parallels the life of a character in a book, and the book has a tragic ending, what would you do? (2) If you were a novelist and discovered that everything you write comes true, what would you do?

Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is a famous novelist who's having problems completing her eighth book. The main character of her book is Harold Crick, an uptight, repressed IRS auditor who lives a carefully structured, precise existence in which he does the same things every day in the same order, in the same way. Emma's book deadline has long expired and she's agonizing over how to finish the book.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an uptight, repressed IRS auditor who lives a carefully structured, precise which he does the same things every day in the same order, in the same way. One day Harold hears a voice narrating everything he's doing--while he's doing it. The narration continues, day after day. He starts talking back to The Voice--actually, shouting back to it. His boss is concerned, so Harold ends up seeing a psychiatrist--in fact, two psychiatrists. Neither can help him. The first one suggests that he needs a vacation and a hug. The second one tells him that the word for his condition is schizophrenia and he needs medication. When he refuses meds, the second shrink tells him that if the voice narrating his life is telling a story, then maybe he needs to see a literature professor.

So Harold finds a literature professor, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who doesn't laugh at his claims, but tells him he needs to figure out whether he's in a comedy or a tragedy: "If it's a comedy, you get married. If it's a tragedy, you die." Hilbert is indifferent to Harold's plight until one day when Harold bursts into his office and tells him he heard The Voice narrating, "Little did he know his death was imminent." Hilbert becomes hugely excited, telling Harold, "Little did he know! Little did he know! I wrote a book on 'little did he know'! I've done papers and seminars, I've taught courses on 'little did he know'!" From that point on Hilbert actively assists Harold as Harold searches frantically for The Voice.

A simultaneous plot thread follows Harold's budding romance with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a rebellious young woman whom he's assigned to audit for the IRS--an opposites-attract pairing, because he's stilted and inhibited and doesn't know himself at all, while she's wild and crazy and believes in following her muse wherever she leads.

The third thread follows blocked author Eiffel's despairing progress as she tries to squeeze out the final section of her novel--and her horror when she eventually discovers that her character Harold Crick is a real person.

Will Ferrell plays against type as the extremely repressed Harold, but does it well, showing his acting chops go well beyond the zany comedy for which he's known. Emma Thompson does a good job as the Tortured Author (Thompson wouldn't give a mediocre or bad performance in any role). Maggie Gyllenhaal is delightful as the kooky, rebellious free spirit Ana. But Dustin Hoffman steals the scene from all of them as the literature professor: the "little did he know" scene is priceless (especially to this former English major).

I rate it 3 stars on a scale of 5.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Gamut of Life

My week started with a wedding and ended with a funeral...from the ceremony that signals a new start in life to the final ceremony for each of us. Both events were out of town.

The wedding was in Lafayette, Louisiana--known for its Cajun hospitality, wonderful food, and friendly people--in a reconstructed Cajun village called Vermilionville (within the city of Lafayette itself), which is charming, warm and welcoming. The ceremony was in a little wooden church lit by candlelight (battery-operated--real candles a fire hazard) and the reception in an authentic "fais-do-do" hall. I am sentimental about weddings and found this one especially meaningful. The couple, both in their late 30s and both getting married for the first time, met via an online dating service, at a point when each had nearly given up on ever finding the right person. They had promised themselves to take one last chance, but to quit if it didn't work out. Amazingly, each knew from when they first met face-to-face that This Was It. Romantic. It was a terrific wedding, too.

Then two days after I returned home, a lifelong friend called with news that her father had died. The funeral was the day after Thanksgiving, in Baton Rouge. His death was neither a surprise nor a shock--he was ninety years old and had been ailing for a while--but we all grieve at the loss of a dearly loved person.

There were a few customs at this funeral different from the funerals I have known in the New Orleans area: (1) As the vehicle procession drove from the funeral home to the cemetery, a distance of several miles--lights and emergency flashers on, escorted by two motorcycle cops--all the oncoming traffic pulled to the side of the road and waited for the procession to pass. In the New Orleans area, drivers stop when halted by a motorcycle escort to let a procession pass through traffic lights, but none in driving lanes not directly affected by the procession stops or pulls over to wait. (2) At the cemetery, the family members went to the graveside upon arrival, but the non-family mourners waited until the pallbearers had carried the casket to the grave before following the family members. (3) At the end of the graveside service, all the pallbearers pulled out their boutonnieres and placed them on the casket, presumably to be interred with it.

I always finds funerary customs fascinating. (Naturally, since my ancestor, the Great Sphinx, was once a tomb.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Whatta a Buncha Skanks!

Click on the title of this post to check out Bella Stander's blog, Reading Under the Covers, for her pithy comments on the publication of O.J. Simpson's book, O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened.

I will be out of town for a few days for a wedding, so probably won't have time to post again until mid-week. Y'all have a nice weekend.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Band of Comrades

For the past five years I have belonged to a writers' group that meets weekly. It evolved from a group that met once a week to study The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. After four months of working through The Artist's Way chapter by chapter, we grew to know and trust one another. When the course ended, several of us wanted to continue our weekly meetings, and so we did--same day, same time, same location.

We started with a core of six people from The Artist's Way group. Over the years three new members joined, two original members dropped out, and a third original member went on extended hiatus. Now we have a nucleus of six who meet every Monday evening at a local bookstore, except for the night before Mardi Gras (Lundi Gras) and for when the meeting night falls on a major holiday.

We're not a critique group; we're a creative inspiration group. Two-thirds of us have published books, either fiction or nonfiction; two of us are full-time novelists; all of us write as a part of our jobs.

Over time, our meetings have taken on a pattern. One of us volunteers to be the meeting moderator. We start with a round-robin, each reporting in turn on what we've done during the past week that's writing-related and what books we've read. We also mention other activities we think will interest the others--anything is grist for the mill. After the round-table reports, we spend the rest of the meeting discussing one or more topics. Sometimes we plan ahead what topics we'll cover; sometimes we go with the flow and talk about whatever comes up. Our discussions are always interesting and usually productive.

Our topics have included such things as tapping into readers' fantasies; why some books become bestsellers despite so-so writing and humdrum plots; what makes a book boring; what makes a book exciting; plot twists; secrets of story composition; brainstorming concepts for novels; whether familiarity breeds success.

We not only help each other with specific artistic and creative issues, but also have become friends. We don't want the group to become psychotherapy, so we focus on writing and avoid talking too much about our personal lives and personal problems. Inevitably, however, we have learned about one another's lives, families and jobs. Each of us sympathizes with the others' successes and failures, and each gives moral support when another is going through a tough time.

In our discussion about the fantasies that drive the stories that readers like most, we agreed that one of the most common is the "band of brothers"--a major part of the stories in Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, The Dirty Dozen and every "buddy" movie, including women-oriented stories such as Sex in the City--which led us to change the name of that particular fantasy from "band of brothers" to "band of comrades" in the interest of gender neutrality.

After that discussion, the light bulb went off over my head. I realized that our weekly meetings had formed us into a Band of Comrades. To Candice, Charles, Emily, Laura and Steve: Comrades, I salute you!

I have listed the blogs and/or websites of three members of the group in the "Links" section to the right--Razored Zen (Charles), C.S. Harris (Candice), and Laura Joh Rowland. (Steve and Emily don't have blogs or websites...yet.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sport as metaphor

Today I watched the New Orleans Saints football game, as I have done several times this fall. This is unusual, even extraordinary, because I am not a sports fan. I know enough about football to follow the game in a general way. (I'm glad there are commentators to clue me in on what I miss). In the past I never watched football games except for special occasions--such as going to a game with a date (long time ago), or being at someone's home for, say, a Superbowl party (pretty rare, since few of my friends are sports fans).

This year, however, the Saints have become a symbol of New Orleans' comeback from disaster. A serendipitous fate has combined a new, exceptionally shrewd and capable head coach (Sean Payton) with a new, talented, and highly intelligent quarterback (Drew Brees), as well as a field of talented players, from the running backs to the offensive tackles and defensive ends, etc. The combination, together with a real determination by the team to do well on behalf of the city, has resulted in the Saints having the best year they've ever had. Even when they lose a game, as they did today (to the Philadelphia Steelers), they play very well and put up a good battle. Not the Saints of yore, indeed.

And why have I started watching? Well, the notion that their progress is linked to the city's progress hooks me in. It's amazing that for the first time in their history, the Saints have sold out all the season tickets. It proves their importance to the populace. Whether their fans know it or not, they root harder for the Saints now because they need to see striving. They need to see achievement. They need to see success. They need to see victory. And, more than anything, they need to feel that the nation is behind New Orleans, just as New Orleans is behind the Saints.

Does my watching the games make a bit of difference to anyone else? No, but it makes a difference to me. I feel vicariously triumphant when the Saints succeed. And, like everyone else down here, I need that feeling.

Go, Saints...Bless You, Boys!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Info Junkie

I am an information junkie. It started many years ago, back in grade school. I love reading my text books--except for math--and learning all kinds of oddball facts that were never on the tests. I developed into "the scholar" in my family, and praise for my academic achievements spurred me on.

I was a voracious reader from an early age, and read everything I could find. Both of my parents were readers, my father especially, and there was plenty of material lying around the house, from encyclopedias to novels to magazines and newspapers. I remember reading novels by Frank Yerby and Frank G. Slaughter (my father's books) when I was no more than 10. The covers were racy--pulp fiction indeed--and very titillating to a 1950s-era child. I don't know how much of the content I truly understood--I caught few of the sexual implications in the scenes--but I did learn about the geographical settings of the books and other such background information. My mother subscribed to Reader's Digest Condensed Books and I read them all. It introduced me to a variety of mid-20th century fiction, and some nonfiction. Nowadays, as a writer I deplore abridgements of books and would never read such any more, but at the time it was a good way to be introduced to all kinds of fiction, and writers, I never otherwise would have encountered.

As I got older I started reading Time magazine--again, via a parental subscription. (I probably skipped most of the political stuff, since I didn't develop an interest in politics until my late teens.) What a great education a newsmagazine is, because it covers a broad spectrum of topics, albeit in a very limited way. I was a faithful reader of Time all the way through college and beyond.

I also started reading the daily newspaper when I was in high school and I have been a newspaper addict ever since. That's really the greatest way to pick up information and trivia. The best parts of the newspaper are not the hard news pages, but the other sections--so many factoids, treasures to an info junkie.

When I got to law school, however, I was forced to forego much of my pleasure-reading. I was working full-time while going to law school and, given how heavy the reading load is for law students, there simply wasn't time to read much except textbooks. Still, we info-junkies can't help reading wherever we are--from cereal boxes at the breakfast table, to advertisements and posters while walking down the street, to the free weekly newspapers in coffee shops, to anything we find when we're idle somewhere. Most of us carry paperback books around with us to read in otherwise idle moments during the day. Whether fiction or nonfiction, we're always learning something when we read.

The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web has been a bonanza for info junkies. What a wonderful thing, to be able to get information about so many things, so quickly, and whenever we want it. Those factors, however, also make people like me become Internet addicts, because clicking on one hyperlink leads to another, and another, and another...Bet you can't click just one!

I still love the newspaper best, however, and try to read as much of it as I can every day. It is an info junkie's feast.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Nine Parts of Desire

Recently I read NINE PARTS OF DESIRE: THE HIDDEN LIVES OF ISLAMIC WOMEN by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks, a journalist who spent years covering the Middle East, relates anecdotes about real women whom she met while in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordon, Iran and Iraq. I found the book fascinating, not only because Brooks is a fine writer, but also because it gives a human face to the figures beneath the enveloping veils we see on the news. Brooks shows all types of women, from very conservative and traditional Muslims to those who are very Westernized and Muslim in name only. She even includes several American or British women who married Middle Eastern men and chose to live in societies where they, too, are restricted and must wear the veil. Brooks brings the reader inside the homes of these women--indeed, for some of them, one would never meet them without being brought to their homes--and shows them in their own milieu. It's also chilling, however, because so few of the women she met had any significant freedom, and so many live under such constricting rules. I recommend the book, but I don't envy the women who were its much wasted talent, energy and potential that the world will never see.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Importance of Being Earnest

Today's subject is The Importance of Being Earnest.

No, not Oscar Wilde's play--one of the great comedies in the English language, by the way--but the importance of being earnest in presenting yourself to the world. Sincerity. That old cornball hype of the hippie era, Honesty.

Can you tell when a writer isn't earnest? When the writer doesn't believe the story she is trying to sell you? When he is snickering into his sleeve cuff because you're such a sucker? You bought it! You really bought it! But when you finished reading the article, or the book, you felt hollow. It made no impression, or simply made you feel stupid for paying your precious bucks for empty entertainment.

But perhaps Earnestness becomes most controversial when you read something that moves you, that makes you feel the emotions the writer wanted to evoke...and then, later--perhaps years later--you read something about or by the writer (an interview, or a piece the writer himself/herself wrote) that makes you realize the writer didn't mean it, didn't care about the subject of the writing, was just doing it because it was a job, a way to be paid.

Does that change the value of the writing in your memory? Do you feel cheated? Does the article/story/novel mean less to you then? Do you see it only as a monument to fakery? Or does it still have a life of its own, a value as art or literature or philosophy or journalism, independent of whether the writer cared about what he/she was writing?

If it moved you or made you think or care or feel, does it matter what its creator thought or cared about or felt?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Memento Mori: All Saints Day

I have lived most of my life in the New Orleans area. One of our local customs is the celebration of All Saints Day, November 1, on which the living remember the dead.

It's a tradition arising from the Catholic faith. For Catholics, All Saints Day is a holy day of obligation: Catholics are required to attend Mass on the day. In addition, traditionally they refurbished their family tombs -- pulling weeds, whitewashing or cleaning the headstone or tomb, decorating the grave with flowers, praying for the departed. When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, schools, government offices, and local businesses were closed to allow families to pursue this devout tradition.

Over the last few decades, however, lifestyles and funeral customs have changed. Many people no longer observe All Saints Day. Schools, even Catholic schools, no longer take a holiday for it. Most government offices remain open (although most state courts still close). Businesses ignore the day. Cremation has become more common, so fewer people are interred after death. If cremated, their ashes may be scattered, or their family may keep the urn with the ashes at home. Others purchase a niche in a mausoleum in which to keep the "cremains." Even those who still have family tombs or cemetery plots no longer take care of them. Instead, they purchase perpetual care contracts and let the cemetery maintain the graves.

For New Orleans cemeteries, however, it is still the biggest day of their year. Crowds of people flow through the gates. For many this is likely their only visit to the family plot except for specific funerals.

I like All Saints Day. I like the idea of remembrance. I like to visit my family's plot in Metairie Cemetery and think about those who are buried there. Their names carved on the headstone are a visible link with them, a reminder of their lives. I like the peace of the cemetery and I like to wander around it, looking at the many fantastic or extravagant tombs, and meditating on those who had them built.

What I treasure about All Saints Day is our culture, which does not ignore death, but recognizes it as inevitable -- not to be escaped, but to be accommodated. In some other parts of the country, people are appalled by open-casket wakes, which are common here; or they are disgusted by funerals, preferring to ignore death and brush by it with little ceremony. To me, they are deep in denial. Our way is healthier. We remind ourselves that no one escapes death. By ritual and ceremony, we comfort ourselves on the loss of those we love. We contemplate and prepare for our own eventual entries into that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."

Memento mori...