Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mom Jeans

I'm thinking of a new book idea along the lines of "You Might Be a Redneck." Mine would be You Might Be a Mom and would have sections like, "You Know You're an At-Home Mom When..." "You Know You're a Work-at-Home Mom When..." and "You Know You're a Mom of Multiples When..."

Today's entry:

You know you're a stay-at-home mom when you save getting "dressed up" in blue jeans for special occasions like going out for coffee with girlfriends.

The leggings I wore all day today (before shimmying into sexy maternity jeans) are very comfortable and would have been just fine . . . if they weren't simultaneously too baggy everywhere and yet too short to meet up with my socks. Alas. None of those features (the fact that they're leggings and I no longer have "long" shirts, the fact that they're too big, the fact that they're too short) disqualifies them from being part of my regular pants rotation.

In fact, I put them right back on when I returned home from book club.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Since television has been on hiatus since before Thanksgiving, and since I'm dealing with a case of post-holiday malaise (or at least ennui) I've been watching movies.

In the first three nights of 2011 Paul and I watched:
  1. Spellbound (documentary about the National Spelling Bee)
  2. Outsourced (indie comedy about a guy sent to India to train his replacement)
  3. Twilight (yes, that Twilight).

Here's how I sold it to Paul. 

Look, there were some things about the book that weren't so great.  But I bet they don't plague the movie nearly as much.  Here's the premise: it's set on the Olympic peninsula (which we love) in and near towns we've visited.  There are lots of scenes hiking in the woods, up the mountains, and on the beach.  (I've already piqued his interest.) 

There's a "family" of vampires living there, and since they choose to hunt animals rather than people they can stick around in one place for longer without attracting uncomfortable notice.  The "father" is a doctor and the five "kids" are in high school.  When it becomes obvious that they're not aging normally, they'll move somewhere else where it's cloudy most of the year and start over as high school students again.

There's also an Indian reservation nearby and according to tribal legend they're descended from wolves and are ancient enemies with the vampires so there's some territorialism going on in addition to the rest of the vampires trying to pass as humans stuff.  (It turns out that it wasn't the details here that caught Paul's attention, but rather the simple fact that there is any back story at all, something other than a flaky teen love story about romanticized vampires.)

Three big criticisms of the book are: vampires, teens, and bad writing/flat characters.  The first two aren't really problems for us.  (Hello, Buffy!) and the third was probably addressed by the screenwriter.  Simply by virtue of having faces, the characters will be more real than in the book.  We'll know what Edward looks like, not just that he's "perfect."  Bella will most likely have some personality and actually interact with the world around her.  And, best of all, there will be far less repetition than in the novel.

(He was actually interested in watching the movie at this point and voluntarily sat down on the couch without his laptop.)

Paul's comments: it wasn't bad.  There was a lot of teen angst, not very much happened, and it needed a lot more editing.  Some of the scenes really dragged and I didn't like the decision to have a narrator.  But the premise was pretty good and interesting. If it hadn't been All About Bella, it could have been a good fantasy series.

My thoughts: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.  Also, the movie was structured better than the book.  Almost from the very beginning we're aware of a foreign threat in town, killing people.  In the novel, we meet the main antagonists, what, 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through?  They fixed that plotting problem for the movie.  The book was much more stream of consciousness/flow of the school year/life experienced along with the main character.  The movie had a narrative arc and seemed, well, plotted.

As a writer it was fun to look at the differences between the book (to which I listened on iPod during a road trip) and the movie, to try to pick out what worked, what didn't, and why.

I can't say that I'm now a Twilight fan.  For a good teen love story, show me Juno any time!  But I did add New Moon and Eclipse to my Netflix queue.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog

My parents have been married for over 40 years and they're still very happy together.  But my mother once confessed to me that she fears she married my father under false pretenses.  It started like this.  When she was a sophomore in college my mother took a train to visit her older brother at seminary in Chicago.  Her brother didn't have a car, so he asked his buddy to take him to go pick up his sister at Union Station.

From there my parents' relationship progressed mainly through letters.  My father, a graduate student in his mid-twenties, enjoyed chess and philosophical debates.  My mother, still at that time a teenager, wanted to impress him.  So she worked hard on her letters and studied up on her philosophy.  But considering the nature of things - Do universals exist, or only singular things? - is not a true interest of my mother's.

Fast forward, then, to last year when a woman in my book club began reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  She enjoyed the novel very much and felt inspired to tackle several classics she'd missed along the way, including Anna Karenina.  This caught my interest, because I was - and still am - reading Jack Murnighan's Beowulf at the Beach: What to love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.  I too have been inspired to go back and pick up a few classics for fun.

But I needed a bit more motivation before launching into Tolstoy, to I eagerly borrowed The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  (Some of the characters in the novel are big fans of 19th century Russian literature.)  Unfortunately, I got to Murnighan's chapter on Flaubert's Madame Bovary at the same time I was beginning Hedgehog.  I've read Madame Bovary at least twice, and I detest it.  I'd rather shove toothpicks under my fingernails than read it again; the sensation is much the same.  And this is how Murnighan starts his chapter on Flaubert:

"If you were to read them in quick succession, paying attention mostly to the plot (and nodding off now and then mid-sentence), you might not be able to tell Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina apart."

Enthusiasm for tackling Tolstoy: dashed.

But the premise of The Elegance of the Hedgehog grabbed me from the beginning so I persisted.  A middle-aged French concierge pretends to be much less intelligent and cultured than she is to avoid notice from the tenants in her building.  One of those tenants, an extremely bright and precocious 12-year-old girl, has decided that she doesn't ever want to be like the stupid grown-ups around her and is considering suicide.  The story progresses through their journal entries.  And I can't tell you how it ends, because I still have 50 pages left to read.  (No spoilers, please!) 

This is a very good novel, and an enjoyable read.  Especially if you enjoy philosophy.  I'm hesitant to talk too much about the language and writing, because I'm reading an English translation (the original is in French).  And, frankly, I'm more like my mother in this way than I am like my father: lengthy philosophical debates are not my thing.  I realize I've been sort of skimming for a few paragraphs, waiting for the plot to pick up again.  Then I force myself to go back, reread slowly, and pay attention.

"Oh, you're reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog," my mother observed.  "I did not enjoy that book. Too much philosophical pondering for me." 

"I enjoyed it," my father replied mildly.  "For pretty much the exact reasons your mother did not." 

Barbery does not talk down to children, and she really gets that kids can understand a lot more than we give them credit for.  I found 12-year-old Paloma pretty believable.  In Beowulf at the Beach, on the other hand, Murnighan repeatedly insists that we ruin literature for people by forcing it onto high school kids who can't possibly understand it. Au contraire. In high school I read a lot of philosophy (and classical novels, too: Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, and so forth) and I loved it all, even when I hated it.  I did understand Kant and Machiavelli and Marx and Descartes and Plato.  In fact, I read and understood and pondered and cared so much more then than I do now, when my mind is full of more pressing concerns like remembering to change the ceiling fans from their summer to winter settings.  I'm no longer willing to work so hard to pull meaning from the text.

So.  Can't talk about the ending, can't talk about the writing, can't talk about the philosophy, and yet I've written a terribly long review anyway.  I'll conclude with this:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel about people who like discussing literature and philosophy.  But even if you haven't read Tolstoy and don't enjoy pondering the existence of universality, it's still a good story.  And it's a book about smart people hiding their intelligence to avoid notice but eventually recognizing each other and making connections despite the barriers imposed by class, station, age, and race.  And that is the story I loved to read.

This review is part of the January meeting of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.  More reviews here:

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