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Where’d You Go, Bernadette

20 Jul

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a book I just read. Here are some thoughts about it.

I read the book after Julia Turner endorsed it on the previously-recommended Culture Gabfest podcast. It’s one of those light “beach read” kind of books. Ms. Turner assured me that it was neither a young adult novel nor chick lit. Imagine my horror, then, when I went to the library to check it out. It was located in the TEEN ZONE. This is the place that the library tries to make cool and hip, not realizing that the only kids who think the TEEN ZONE is cool and hip are the kids who would go to the library no matter how uncool or unhip it was. Try a better marketing strategy, libraries.

So I picked up the book. My trepidation was increased when I saw the cover, a stylized drawing of a woman with huge sunglasses. I always associate huge sunglasses with Joan Didion. Most people probably have a different association. Anyway, the book looked very young adult and very chick lit. Then I looked more closely. There was a blurb on the cover from none other than Jonathan Franzen. Now, I was going to check out and read the book regardless, but Mr. Franzen is a pretty good get as far as blurbs go. I was reassured.

I recommend Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It was a pretty breezy read. Highly engaging. A lot of reviews talked about how it was hilarious or uproarious or whatever. I didn’t find it to be that, really. Witty might be a better adjective. The author is Maria Semple, who has a background as a sitcom writer. Some forgettable 90’s stuff and Arrested Development. The third season, but still. That’s a pretty good job for a comedy writer to have on a résumé.

The most interesting thing to me was the book’s format. The whole thing is made up of a series of emails, letters, notes, etc. exchanged between different characters in the book with periodic narration by Bernadette’s daughter Bee. Eventually, there’s a plot point wherein it’s explained how Bee got her hands on all of this various communication. That was an interesting way to do it. Although I guess it was necessary, given that Bee would regularly break in and give commentary based on the other fragments. The variously-sourced epistolary structure would have worked on its own without explanation, almost like an omniscient narrator situation. But I thought having Bee’s perspective definitely was what held things together.

Another structure note. Since Ms. Semple was a TV writer, and this is a pretty good story, I thought some about a prospective film adaptation vis-à-vis the novel’s structure. Showing everyone sitting at a keyboard typing their emails as a way to advance the story wouldn’t really work in a movie. I think the best way to do it would be to abandon the epistolary conceit and just treat it as a straightforward narrative. It’s a lot easier to play around with structure and conventions and try odd things in a book than a movie. Just another of the joys of reading.

The first half of the book is basically a group of highly unlikeable women sniping behind each others’ backs. That was kind of off-putting for a while. Like, was I supposed to be taking sides? Everyone just seemed very unpleasant. Things eventually progressed past that in a generally satisfying way, but that remains my largest complaint. The book is set in the world of the white upper class, full of private school nonsense and pointless rivalries that build out of stupid petty bullshit. That makes it hard to connect with anyone or, especially, to feel sympathy or empathy for anyone. It’s a fun story that I enjoyed reading, but Ms. Semple would have to go quite a bit deeper to make me actually care about any of her characters.

The climax of the story takes place on a cruise to Antarctica. I thought it worked pretty well. With 50 or so pages left, I thought I knew where things were going and then there was a pretty significant change in direction. I was disappointed when I saw what was happening, but Ms. Semple mostly pulled it off. I won’t spoil it. It’s not like reviewing current movies–probably unfair to expect people to have read random books that I write about.

The book is set in Seattle. I get the feeling that if I were familiar with Seattle, I would have been able to pull a lot more out of it. Lots of local references/jokes. I could tell from the context what Ms. Semple was going for, but when she talked about different neighborhoods, for example, I didn’t get that kind of smug insidery feeling that’s so great when you’re familiar with the setting of a piece of media. There’s a fine line there for writers between writing in a way that feels authentically from/of the setting and writing that feels like it’s using local detail as a substitute for actual insight. I thought Ms. Semple did a pretty good job. There was also a lot of stuff about Microsoft. I’m sure some of that was fictionalized (even beyond the obviously fictional parts) and I’m fine with that.

I mentioned the Antarctic cruise. I think I would like this kind of cruise. Maybe that’s crazy. Whales, penguins, endless ice, sounds kind of cool. Ms. Semple describes the landscape as having three horizontal bars: sky, ice, water. I thought that was a really cool image.

A big plot point was the existence of a swath of blackberry brambles on a hillside and their removal. I have a fair amount of blackberries in my yard. The bushes do, in fact, take over everything. I can see why people would want to get rid of them. On the other hand, I had fresh blackberries on my oatmeal today. They’re delicious. But the bushes are so thick and full of thorns that its hard to get to all of them. I think most of the berries will end up unpicked. A shame, that.

Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons

18 Jul

Wolf Hall is a book. A Man for All Seasons is a movie. They both tell the same story, more or less. The story is Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. This is a very famous sequence of events. There was a lot of political intrigue involved. Two of the main people involved were Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. In A Man for All Seasons, More is the hero and Cromwell is the villain. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the hero and More, while not a villain necessarily, isn’t exactly presented in a flattering light. This blog post is about those two pieces of media, both of which I recently consumed, and how they can be so different, and, like, some other thoughts. Think of it as a New Yorker Critic at Large piece, except slapdash and poorly-informed instead of tight and focused.

A little background on WH and AMFAS. WH is a novel from 2009 by Hilary Mantel. It was very highly regarded. It won the Man Booker Prize and probably has other accolades. AMFAS is a movie from 1966. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Paul Scofield as Thomas More). WH is a fairly long book, so it’s obviously more expansive. There’s a lot more stuff in it, and a lot of the characters are more fully developed. I’m only going to talk about the things that happen in both. Following is a hopefully brief and hopefully accurate summary.

This is a complicated story. Bear with me. I think the common conception is that Henry just decided what he wanted to do and then did it unilaterally. It surprised me to learn just what lengths he went to to conform both to English law and canon law. This is what made behind-the-scenes operators like Cromwell and More relevant in the first place. Here’s the rundown. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, was the widow of Henry’s brother, Arthur. This required that Henry get a special dispensation from the Pope in order to marry her. He got the dispensation because Catherine said she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. (He died only weeks after the wedding; they were both 15.) So, many years later, Catherine had failed to give birth to any sons and Henry decided to divorce her. Rather than just casting her aside and telling the Pope to go fuck himself, he waged a long campaign to get the marriage annulled, on the logic that the original dispensation was invalid. The Pope never granted the annulment. Failing to get the Pope’s support, Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declare his marriage to Catherine void and Henry married Anne Boleyn. As part of this, Henry asserted that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the church in England. Henry and Cranmer were excommunicated and the Church of England was born.

While all of this was happening, More was the Lord Chancellor of England. He was opposed to the divorce, but accepted it and recognized Anne Boleyn as queen. What he could not tolerate was anyone but the Pope as head of the church. He resigned as Lord Chancellor and refused to swear an oath recognizing Henry, and not the Pope, as head of the church and Anne Boleyn’s eventual children as heirs. He was eventually executed for treason.

All of Henry’s various maneuvering was accompanied by a lot of politicking from divorce advocates, notably Cromwell. Parliament enacted a whole series of laws legitimizing Anne Boleyn, and Henry went abroad to get the approval of other monarchs. Cromwell played a key role in passing new laws giving Henry authority over church matters and generally used the whole affair to solidify himself as Henry’s closest adviser. He was also eventually executed for some shenanigans related to Anne of Cleves, but that was several years after this whole sordid mess and irrelevant to what I’m talking about.

OK. I think/hope I got all the important parts. I know I left out a lot of things, if you spend some time on Wikipedia I promise this whole saga is interesting.

In AMFAS, More is the hero. He stands up to the king and refuses to compromise his principles. The cunning and immoral Cromwell is the driving force behind his execution, employing some treachery to get false testimony that More has denied that the king is head of the church.

In WH, Cromwell is a self-made man, as opposed to everyone else, who is part of the landed gentry. He rises to the king’s right hand on his own merits. He helps end the Pope’s authority over politics. (There are sequences in the book where Cromwell thinks to himself, “Where in the Bible is the word ‘Pope’” or something to that effect.) Without his political skill, there might have been a revolt against Henry and the Reformation may never have happened.

There are a lot of easy and obvious points to make about the disparity. Everyone has biases, history is complicated, we as an audience should always be skeptical of a work’s point of view, etc. I don’t think those are points that need to be made.

When I think about these two works, it’s easy to see how there would be different perspectives. In the abstract, a case can be made that Cromwell is bad or good. A case can also be made that More is bad or good, and I don’t think they necessarily even have to be on opposite sides. That’s in the abstract. In reality, they both seem to be advocating opposite sides of a profoundly stupid argument that, even allowing for “oh it was a different time” etc., just doesn’t seem to allow for either man to look anything like heroic.

More was a man of principle. That’s highly valued by a lot of people. Especially in contemporary American politics, where “flip-flopper” is just about the worst thing you can call someone. But let’s think about what his principle was. He was so sure of the Pope’s supremacy that he was willing to die for it. Not God. The Pope. Clement VII was much more of a political figure than a religious one. He controlled extensive territories in Italy. He collected taxes on land in England. And of course all of the other nonsense happening in the Catholic Church at the time. I don’t think there are many Catholics out there today who would rather be beheaded than admit the right of protestant denominations to exist, but Thomas More is apparently a hero for doing so. Whatever. Plus he spent a lot of time arresting people for translating the Bible into English and, as Lord Chancellor, burned six people at the stake for heresy. Principles can sometimes make you do bad things too I guess. I think a better principle might have been to let everyone read the Bible in English and decide for themselves whether the Pope ought to be the boss. This is an area where the historical argument holds even less water for me. There were a lot of reformers all over Europe at the time. More was one of their strongest opponents. Maybe you have to be Catholic to get it. I don’t know.

Cromwell’s position is, to me, even less reasonable. Oh, Henry needs to have a son. I mean, a legitimate son. (He had at least one illegitimate son at the time. A son who he acknowledged as his own and made a Duke.) The monarchy is maybe the one institution of the time that was stupider than the papacy. The obsession with legitimacy and heirs and the purity of women (but never of men, keep in mind that Henry also had a long-running affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister) just seems like a big dumb waste of time. Especially in England. They had a parliament. The parliament passed laws that the king had to follow. It was well-established that a woman could be the monarch. Henry was basically a big petulant baby and Cromwell went above and beyond to enable him.

In conclusion. The Henry VIII saga is one of the most obsessed-over stories out there. For good reason. It just seems hard for me to look at it and identify anyone as a hero or an upstanding character or even a rational actor. AMFAS goes further down this road with its lionization of More, but every dramatization or narrative about it goes looking for a hero or maybe an anti-hero, which seems so popular these days. I don’t understand the motivation behind the people telling these stories. If I were to come up with a fictionalization of it, a lot of my thrust would be a kind of winking “hey, audience, let’s all agree everyone in this story is being ridiculous” tone about it.

This got kind of out of hand. Maybe there will be a major edit coming up soon.

Rabbit Angstrom

4 Nov

A couple weeks ago I finished reading John Updike’s series of books about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. That would be: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Rabbit Remembered (2001).* I highly recommend this series of books.

*Rabbit Remembered is more of a novella. Although it’s still almost 200 pages long. As you may have guessed, the main character is already dead when it takes place. It’s like an epilogue to the series.

I’m not going to write some kind of literary review or criticism. I don’t think I could do that very well. Suffice it to say that the books are all very good. (Two of them won the Pulitzer Prize.) I want to talk about the larger idea of the series. Rabbit is more or less the same age as John Updike. He ages in real time; each book checks up on him at ten-year intervals. Updike uses the books not just to tell us about the Angstroms, but to use his life as a backdrop to talk about society. The fact that Updike did this over fifty years in real time and not retrospectively makes it an interesting primary source. Rabbit goes from calling his khaki pants “suntans” and driving a ‘55 Ford in the first installment to ruminating about Deion Sanders in the last.

I wonder about Mr. Updike’s thought process throughout the series. Did he plan to write a whole series from the start, or did things just unfold that way? The first book stands on its own–and literary sequels aren’t exactly common. I have to think that at least by the time he sat down to write the second book, he had it in mind to keep doing a new book every ten years.

My only criticism is that starting with the second book, sometimes things felt a little too on the nose. Rabbit takes in a hippie teenager and a black revolutionary in 1969, and his son develops a coke problem in 1988, for example. A lot of smaller details also feel like they were put in to indicate “this is what 1980 is like” or something. Although maybe that’s something I only noticed with the sequels. A lot of books set in the present tense contain details like that, but maybe the purpose of the Rabbit series makes them jump out more. Was Updike trying extra hard to write more than just a story in these books? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Maybe the best thing about the series its uniqueness. Updike wrote the first book at age 28. He wrote the last at age 78. I can’t think of anything similar anywhere in the arts. A lot of other writers have a character or a fictional world they return to (Philip Roth with Nathan Zuckerman comes to mind), but none over such a long period of time, and none so methodical in purpose. The ego involved in undertaking this project must be quite large. The fact that the whole thing was so successful indicated how justified that large ego was. I can’t imagine there are many young writers around today who have the foresight and audacity to even start something like this.

I guess my point is that I wish there were more things like this. Every good writer should do it. Imagine if Faulkner or Hemingway had written series like this in their times and places like Updike did in his. Our literary world would be so much richer.

This wasn’t very good. Or long. I didn’t have as much to say as I thought. They can’t all be gems, dear reader.