Saturday, February 21, 2009

TRH Movie - The Oscar Edition

There's still time, right? Can I squeeze one more movie in before tonight's show? Last week I handed over my Oscar ballot (still humming on my victory from last year) for my work pool convinced that my toonie might as well be lost for good. For some reason, I'm not as excited as I normally am about the Academy Awards. And while I'm enamoured as the rest of the world with the sweetness that is Slumdog Millionaire, the rest of the performances (from what I've seen) are kind of meh.

Actresses everywhere must be clamouring to work with Stephen Daldry. He led Nicole Kidman to her underwhelming The Hours performance that won her statuette and now the same kind of ultra-serious, aided by makeup and dowdiness, performance will enable Kate Winselt to win (if I'm predicting correctly). She should have won for Little Children, she was excellent in that film, but when set against the powerhouse that was Coutillard and La Vie en Rose, you can see why she didn't. This year, the Academy's making it right, even perhaps if it shouldn't -- I mean neither film, The Reader nor Revolutionary Road, is really up to scratch in terms of the best in film for 2008, regardless of what a powerhouse Winset was in either role.

The Wrestler vs Milk. It's a hard one. And one that'll probably bring down my ballot. I adored Milk and even though the story telling was conventional, truly feel it's one of the film's that should be celebrated. The supporting performances are excellent, both James Franco and Josh Brolin deserve nominations, even wins, and neither will get it (Franco wasn't even nominated even though he's now won the Spirit Award) because the steam-rolling, ham-boning (I know, do not speak ill of the dead, I know) Joker will reign supreme. It's not that I didn't enjoy Ledger's performance in the Batman film, it's more the defeat around the reasons why everyone's still talking about it, more about his life and how it ended than his acting. It's one of the same reasons why Mickey Rourke will win, or at least I'm betting that he'll win, not necessarily because Ram was the role of a lifetime, but because it was the role that came around in this point in his career. If I were the Academy, I'd be handing the Oscar over to Richard Jenkins or Sean Penn, but I don't think that'll happen tonight.

I'm babbling, I know. But after watching a pile of movies over the last little while, it's really discouraging to feel that so many are mediocre. I enjoyed The Wrestler (more than my RRHB) and I enjoyed The Reader, but they're kind of like excellent community theatre when placed next to the Maria Callas-calibre showing of some of the pictures from last year, like the aforementioned La Vie en Rose. In fact, the movie I've liked the most over the past few weeks is Ghost Town with Ricky Gervais, sweet, funny, smart, engaging -- all the qualities I look for in a picture. Don't even get me started on Revolutionary Road and how the much the picture ruins the book. That's a different post. But, I will end by saying that I'm going to cheer on Slumdog Millionaire, because the heart in that film, regardless of the fairly typical love story, and its somewhat original, magical storytelling, kept me thinking for days afterward.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Words That Fill Up A Day

I've been banging on about the great content in Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop newsletters for a while now, and another good one arrived yesterday. And the idea of being "spent" got me thinking about how much information passes me by in a single day of working, reading and generally being on this earth. So I've decided to keep a rough track today of all the things I've done. It's a running commentary that's sort of inspired by Twitter, only with more context:

1. Start the day off by reading Book2Book, a UK trade newsletter, on the blackberry. Am drawn to this article that then sends me off to the Colin Robinson diary that I read yesterday afternoon. Ponder this for a second again over breakfast:
This privileging of the writer at the expense of the reader is borne out by statistics showing the annual output of new titles in the US soaring towards half a million. At the same time a recent survey revealed that one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year. Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?
Read a little bit of Gabor Mate's When the Body Says No and start The Master and the Margarita on the way in to work.

2. Read a bit of the Quill and Quire as computer boots up. Glance at Daily Candy, Sweetspot.ca and Shelf Awareness newsletters on the handheld. Simply delete Haro. Shelf Awareness links me to an article on Variety about Pride and Predator. Consistently stunned about this news no matter where it's reported.

3. Work email. Actual work. Check web stats. Check MSN.

4. Learn about the upcoming Updike bio from Mediabistro. (Briefly considered started Rabbit, Run last night in honour of Updike's passing but realized how much I hated it when I tried to read it three years ago.)

5. Read an article as it's posted up on MSN. Put in a missing period.

6. More work email. Meeting about data. More work email. Reading data reports. More work email. Login to both my Twitter accounts. Read the Amazon top 100.

7. Read the daily review over at the new Globe Books section. Am reminding of the best math teacher in the world from high school who actually got me to understand and excel at the subject. And then promptly almost failed in Grade 12 when I got a different teacher who was terrible. Have decided I have severe "arithmophobia." Browse Media in Canada.

8. This is a question I often ask myself.

9. Reading @stephenfry. It's work, honest, we have a book coming out by him this summer.

10. Willa Cather's 100 Year Old Minimalism takes me to Fifty-Two Stories. Am kind of enamoured by the idea of leaving deliberate blank spaces.

11. PW on Fifty-Two Stories.

12. Everywomansvoice via newsletter. Work email. More work email. More more work email.

And that's only until lunch.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

#15 - The House of Spirits

Having never read any Isabel Allende before, and knowing how beloved (and lovable the author is; she came into the office about a year ago and wowed everyone) her novels are worldwide, I had earmarked The House of Spirits as a book I assumed I would devour. Yet, I found my attention drifting almost from the beginning and had to work really hard to finish all 433 pages of the book. The epic story of a South American family (Chilean, I'm assuming) who cope with decades of excess followed by the political turmoil that threatens to completely destroy them, it's no wonder the novel is included in the 1001 Books list. It absolutely deserves to be, it's a book full of the wonder and magic that often accompanies Latin-American fiction (dare I say magic realism, dare I? I know, it's painful to do so, I do hate those generic descriptions) and chock full of the kind of strong, independent female characters that are ever-so lacking in the list as a whole.

But as I'm coming to find in my old age, I like cynical, swift prose. Maybe cynical is the wrong word, maybe detached would be better. Regardless, I can see the irony in my even writing this because (as the fellows in my writer's group can attest) I write long, complex and fruity sentences. The longer the better. Annywaaay, Allende's talent for creating gorgeous and alive worlds, from weaving political and social messages into her prose, and for writing love in ways that rival García Márquez cement her place as one of the greats working today. A story of three generations, the novel begins simply, with the arrival of a very special pet (a dog) under very special circumstances. "Barrabás came to us by sea," writes Clara, the spiritual child who eventually marries and whose children end up leading incredible lives.

The story spreads out then as complex as the family tree that serves as its roots. But Clara remains its heart, even as she ceases to grace the pages in her human state. And just as every heart needs a body, the big house in the city that she called home centres the novel in a particular place (that's not to say that a good part of the action doesn't happen in the Trueba's country home; it does). Clara's husband, the formidable and furious Esteban, balances out his wife's more esoteric characteristics and together they live a long (and for the most part happy in a way) life raising their children, and then their grandchild, Alba.

Time winds its way through the pages at first on the edges as the way of life for the family changes little until the country forces change upon them. Communism rises and then falls. Then a dictatorship comes along and destroys what good might be left (as the narrative makes clear), forcing people to flee and the old ways to be lost forever. Through it all, through the rise and the fall of the Truebas, Allende's passionate writing never feels forced, but to me, I wonder if it's all necessary. All of those words, those many, many words. However, I'm going to temper my writing about the book by the fact that my head is foggy, my concentration bogged down by medication and a distinct lack of focus. None of this remains the book's fault. And not once would my sluggish reaction to the book convince me not to pick up another of Allende's novels.

READING CHALLENGES: Two birds with one stone time: The House of Spirits is on the 1001 Books list and its author Chilean, so I'll count it towards Around the World in 52 Books too.

#14 - The Sad Truth About Happiness

First, a confession: I read Anne Giardini's book because I love the title so much that even before I started, I had already made up my mind that I would enjoy the novel. As Maggie, the narrator, tells us from the beginning, she's the sober, well-adjusted middle child caught between two stormy sisters, who has never made a misstep in her entire life. For most of her thirty-two years, she's done the right thing: got good grades, found a stable job (as a mammogram technician), had a few misguided love affairs, and lived her life responsibly. Her older sister Janet and her younger sister Lucy are the drama queens in the family and no one expects Maggie to get up to anything remotely considered wayward. That is until her sister Lucy's ex-lover comes over from Italy to try and take her newly born nephew back with him (I'm not giving anything away; this fact is in the back cover copy!). Maggie's actions are rash and the consequences everlasting.

The Sad Truth About Happiness is by no means a perfect novel. Deeply flawed in many ways, the story feels a little far fetched, too movie-of-the-week, especially when it gets into the meaty middle section. Giardini's writing is often messy at times, she repeats bits and pieces that have no real relevance to the story, and there's a lot of "telling" in this book.

But, by the end I didn't care. I didn't care because life is messy. I didn't care because there's so much heart in this book that it's impossible not to get caught up in Maggie's life, in her insomnia, in the way that she looks at the ideals of happiness that seem to drive our modern society. I didn't care because I was hooked from the very first paragraph. I simply couldn't (and didn't want) to put the book down. Particularly poignant parts of the book are found within Maggie's relationship to and description of her aged parents, their eccentricities and obvious love for one another; of her deep understanding and explanation of how she came to her profession, the clarity and emotion from which she writes of disease, especially cancer; and of the tipping point when Maggie is spurned into action and how she copes with the aftermath.

In the P.S. section of the book, Giardini describes her sister Catherine reading some of her work and exclaiming, "put a fire into it," and you can see the spirited way that the author has interpreted this idea throughout the book. The prose has fire to it and, to add in my own overused cliche, it certainly burns from beginning to end. In the end, I picked up the novel as I said because the title is just so striking and I am so very glad that I did. This is the perfect book for book clubs, for women to hand over to one another over lunch, for best friends to talk about late into the night.

READING CHALLENGES: Anne Giardini is Canadian (and the daughter of Carol Shields) and obviously a woman so I'm counting The Sad Truth About Happiness as the 11th book in my Canadian Book Challenge. And for those of you still looking for titles for your own challenge, it's good to note that Giardini lives (and writes about) Vancouver. The setting is a very real and very solid backdrop for this book in particular. So, two more to go!

TRH Updates - The Pause

This might be the longest I've gone without blogging. Over the past two weeks, I've been tumbled upon by side effects and started to slowly weaning myself down in terms of the prednisone dosage. Hopefully, the world will open up now that I'm not taking as much medicine but the sadness persists regardless. For the most part, I'm finding it hard just to leave my house in the morning. This week was particularly difficult. I've done a lot of crying in my cubicle. It's not normal -- I realize that -- it's all the meds, but it doesn't make the day-to-day any easier. So I've been keeping quiet. I suppose no one wants to hear over and over again how miserable I am in my head. To the outside world, things are grand: work is fine, house is coming along swimmingly, RRHB is well, and the disease isn't killing me at the moment. To the inside world, it's a different story: there's panic welled up inside at the thought of leaving the house, all of television is making me bored, and the billows of depression seem to well up like a Greek tragedy threatening to overtake me entirely. Thankfully, the waves haven't swept me away just yet.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Quiet -- Just Can't Do It

These days I'm trying to fill up the hours before I turn on myself without the will power of Ed Norton's Incredible Hulk and destroy all the good work of the last few years. The last time I dealt with the predisone crazies, truly dealt with them, it took me a long time to battle back and I think I'm more afraid of the crippling blues than I am of the disease actually killing me.

What's more, I haven't had much to say other than disease-related, general unhappiness, boring blah-de-blahs lately. It's tiring for me; I can't even imagine what it might be like for someone else to read or talk about it. I don't want to leave my house but at the same time I feel trapped. I don't want to talk but at the same time I feel so lonely. I don't want to hang out with my friends but I also don't want to sit around talking to myself all day. I don't want to sit around watching TV but I honestly don't have the energy to do anything else. So before I go absolutely bonkers, here's a list.

1. I learned that my new Classic Starts manuscript needs more work. I actually kind of expected this because it (the book) was hell to abridge and I knew it wasn't quite right when I sent it back. I'm still waiting for the substantive notes from the editor but hopefully they'll come sooner rather than later so I can get back to it.

2. Writing involves confidence that I don't seem to have at the moment. We watched the Joe Strummer documentary and it was excellent -- there was a scene when he was in the studio and said something about how great it feels the first time to do something, the first time you get it down, then you listen to it back and it all falls to shit.

3. My nephew was so tired when we were babysitting this week that he fell asleep watching Wall-E. It was cute.

4. Our kitchen floor has tile. It looks really great. As does all the trim downstairs. We are weeks, not months, away from having a main floor (not a whole kitchen just yet but soon). Today we were looking at carpets and couches. You can imagine my glee.

5. The weather last Sunday was so gorgeous that we walked all the way to Kensington and back, bought some groceries, and the fresh air was constitutionally exceptional.

6. For a girl who hates gardening, I sure am looking forward to growing vegetables. Today I said to my RRHB, "I'm going to need to figure out what seedlings to start soon." Can you believe it?

7. I don't think I've cried this much in a long time. I keep bursting into tears at work. Good thing we have shower doors to close and no one seems to notice how puffy I am.

8. Perhaps Gordon Ramsay does swear just a bit too much. I may need to break up with Hell's Kitchen. The stress of watching the show is unbelievable.

9. Bringing my lunch into work has reminded me how much I do enjoy a sandwich.

10. [This is a rhetorical question]. How does one stop the crazies after they've already begun? I know how to do it but my head is such a mess these days that if one more person asks me for something I honestly might crack in half in front of them. Now that would be a sight, wouldn't it?

#13 - Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates's novel, Revolutionary Road, has been sitting beside my bed for over a week. I'm finished reading it but I didn't want to put the book away. In a way, I sort of felt as though I wasn't quite done with the novel. It's honestly one of the best books I've read in a long time, a definite modern classic, a story with the cold, almost clipped air of Capote with a desperate current of sadness running throughout. I have yet to see the movie and, in a way, even though it's the only reason I've read the book, I don't want to now. I'm too afraid it'll ruin it. Even still, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were running through my head as the two main characters: Frank and April Wheeler. I guess that's not to be helped.

As two young people, Frank's just about to turn 30, and April's a few years younger, playing hard at adulthood during the early 1960s, the Wheelers have everything. Two kids, a lovely home on Revolutionary Road, and should, for all intents and purposes, be happy. Yet, they're not, they fight, sometimes for days at a time, and both cling to a sense of unease that bubbles up and surfaces in their actions not only toward one another but to other people in the world. The clinical nature of Yates's prose, his exacting way with words, cuts them down piece by piece, pulling out the human bits within the detrious of their suburban lives. The novel is Mad Men only Frank's not as interesting as Don Draper, which makes it even more tragic, I think. People smell bad in Revolutionary Road; they appear in ways that betray their perfect stone paths and upkept lawns. Life is never what it seems on the surface, not for a single character, and no one survives unscathed.

So, one day, when April hatches a plan, to escape to Paris and start over so that Frank can really find himself, there's a spark of interest and ingenuity to both of their lives. Suddenly, they're better than their neighbours, different, not the same sheep on the commuter train. Only change is hard to make, it doesn't come easily and it never turns out the way you'd expect, especially in this novel. I haven't even seen the picture and I'm going to recommend reading the book first. I simply don't see how it could possibly be any better.