Sunday, July 17, 2011

Less: overcoming the tyranny of more

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the concept of less. I live in clutter as does everyone else I know. Our society encourages more and I fall into that trap. Right now I want more watermelon twizzlers, more water, a glass of wine (more since I’ve had none), more time outside in the beautiful and sunny weather, more time reading, longer hair and more time socializing. More.

We even use the phrase that “less is more” which surely must be insulting “less”. Shouldn’t the point be that less is less (hence better than more)?

Regardless of how spare may be the homes of my friends (or not), we all encounter cluttered roads, stores, offices and schools. Ads bombard us with the message of more and better (the latter being a different form of more). I have cardigans and shoes in most colors. Many in black. My books cascade and clothes are stuffed. Make-up tumbles. My refrigerator is crowded. Still, I troll the Internet for other options.

All major religions recognize the importance of renouncing worldly goods, wants and desires. A few of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, wrath, envy, sloth, greed and pride) deal with want, which is directly related to more. The more we want, the more we’ll try to get and then we’ll have more. In Buddhism, Siddhartha renounced his wealth, leaving everything behind to find enlightment. One of his four noble truths addresses the misery brought about by craving, and hence attachment. Hindu and Buddhist monks wander the streets with little but a bowl and their robes. Jesus gave away everything he had. Two of the five pillars in Islam are fasting and alms, both of which are a renouncement of something (your food and money). Less is holy; most of us aren’t even aiming to achieve that level of renouncement (too monastic!).

So why do we all seem to have more? I don’t think it’s a distinctly American phenomenon and we can see the ease with which our consumerism has conquered much of the world. I’m contemplating a personal pilgrimage through the history of renouncement, especially in a holy or literary context, and the ideas of less versus more. An interesting topic to continue writing about or a distraction from finishing the next novel/thriller? Thoughts? Reading recommendations? The more the better.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer reading list inspired by Nicolas Kristof’s similar list

Nick Kristof recently published a list of recommended summer reading books. He focused on novels, and all were at least fifty years old. Interestingly, he chose those with a social justice theme to them. I love the idea of focusing on great books or at least those that made a big impact on me to compile my own list.

So, in the same spirit as Kristof’s (and using him as my inspiration) I’m going to compile a like list. And, I will have some overlap in authors but am only picking one book in common (the first one). These are some of my favorite books that have also had a lasting emotional impact on me. I can’t pretend that they address social justice issues.

1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte: This is the classic love story of a woman choosing between her soul mate, who is poor, and the more appropriate man. Beautiful and haunting. The mistakes we make in life…

2. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene: I love this book. A priest, in a country where religion has been banned, must decide whether to save himself or the souls of those in pain. A whisky priest to boot, with an illegitimate child, it raises complex questions about how society defines a “good” person.

3. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: This book inspires me with the sheer persistence of Quixote. It’s magical and always the answer I give when asked my favorite book. What’s life without faith in something?

4. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell: Sappy and not great literature? I beg to differ. This epic is breathtaking in scope and humanity. Scarlett is inspiring in her unwillingness to break, regardless of what goes on around her. Yet she’s so flawed.

5. The Idiot: Fyodor Dostoevsky: Oh, I read this book over and over years ago. An innocent surrounded by those less good? This book taught me about people.

6. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: James Joyce. I recently read this book and loved the growing awareness of the young man in the title. Transitions and dealing with the life we’re given.

7. Lady Chatterly’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence: I recently re-read this book and was stunned at how lovely the language and descriptions are. I felt for the characters. And, yes, it is everything you remember.

8. Anna Kerenina – Leo Tolstoy: Beautiful and epic: Complex as only Tolstoy can do. I prefer it to War & Peace.

9. Lady Bovary – Gustave Flaubert: A perfect study of the self-obsessed. Better than any psychology book. And it’s beautiful in detail.

10. Pnin – Vladamir Nabokov: I haven’t read a better book on an ordinary, almost invisible, man. Nabokov was for years my favorite writer because of how he can so subtly use language.

And a few I’m committing to over the summer

1. Mauprat - George Sand: I’d read about it in another book and it’s supposed to be brilliant. I’ve never read Sand before so I’m excited.

2. Lawrence Durrell’s quartet about Alexandra, Egypt: Since I’m currently writing a story partially based in Egypt I’m trying to see the country through other fiction writers’ eyes. This series is set in the early 20th century in Alexandra not Cairo (my story) but I like reading various time frames; the landscape doesn’t change as much as the cityscape and while customs may fade they permeate the present. More recent Egyptian literature – that I’ve read thus far – has been more nihilistic, which is only part of the story.

3. The Cairo Trilogy- Naguib Mahfouz: Mahfouz is the most famous Egyptian writer and, again, this trilogy doesn’t take place in the present. It follows a family and neighborhood and I read it a long time ago. Mahfouz describes things so beautifully. I just read that when he decided to become a full time novelist he undertook a project to read all of the best novels to study the form. Perhaps it’s that story which made Kristof’s reading list catch my eye.

4. Under the Dome - Stephen King: I’m not a King reader but can’t argue that he’s one of the most successful current American writers. And I’ve repeatedly read that his actual prose is under-rated. The topic of this book, a dome falling over a city, seems more my speed than some of his other work.

5. The Diary of a Superfluous Man – Ivan Sergeevich Turgenov: Writing about an alienated man by one of the masterful Russians. My characters tend to be alienated so I’m curious to see how he frames that mentality across the pages.

6. Moby Dick – Herman Melville; I’ve never read this American classic!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Casey Anthony Verdict: Comedy or Tragedy?

I heard about the Casey Anthony trial a week ago (yes, really). Someone mentioned this horrible mom who killed her toddler and was on trial in Florida. I looked the case up online and got hooked in about a minute. Such a great story line; which is the absolute temptation for a writer.

The CA diary entry a few days after Caylee disappeared/was killed:

I have no regrets, just a bit worried. I just want for everything to work out okay.
I completely trust my own judgement & know that I made the right decision. I just hope that the end justifies the means.
I just want to know what the future will hold for me. I guess I will soon see -- This is the happiest that I have been in a very long time.

Not reporting her daughter missing and partying instead. The lies and complete lack of concern. The accusations against her parents and how they seemed to be lying on her behalf. The death penalty threat, media circus and crowds lining up outside the courtroom.

It seemed like a slam dunk case and I was going to write a blog about why it caught public attention. In short, a lovely child and the dark side of motherhood. We’re all captivated by what we don’t want to acknowledge might be in ourselves.

But Casey got off, to much public outcry. Casey Anthony got away with murder? I don’t know but it appears that she did. Is any child safe?

So I wrote a blog on privacy instead. But then I saw another blog posting addressing the verdict and how the Anthony family confused the jury with their lies. He said ( they would all have to face the larger world’s judgment going forward. I felt like a coward for not commenting.

So, I’ll invoke Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s sleepless struggle with the blood on her hands. Great story telling isn’t dependent on the outcome; it’s the narrative that move us. Shakespeare wrote comedies and tragedies. Casey Anthony liked to party and her life could have been a fun and carefree one. A comedy? But she made some bad choices and even if she does get away with murder her story is now inevitably a tragedy. Only she knows the sleepless nights she faces going forward. She had wanted to give Caylee up for adoption but her mother forced the issue. When a good motivation turns into horror…. Please, someone other than the Anthony family, write a book. This theme is one of the most basic ones and touches people deeply.

And the jury didn’t even consider it child abuse that Casey “lost” her child to a murderer and couldn't be bothered to report it. No, no picture.

Privacy in what I write

Much of what writers scribe is auto-biographical. All fiction written is. Writer’s have to build upon their experiences, beliefs and personalities, even if only to explore contradictions and alternate viewpoints. Sometimes we write about those we know…in varying levels of clarity.

Indeed, those gradations are a tool. Do we want people from our lives to be recognized in what we write or not? Are we comfortable blatantly discussing events and relationships, especially in today’s world where so many people seemingly are.

Getting feedback from my daughter on a children’s story I’m writing I was forbidden to include a detail she considered too personal. That’s the stuff she sees: what about the stuff she doesn’t? Am I betraying a trust?

Can I write about my childhood (hence my parents), marriage (my ex-husband) or dating? Since I’m not comfortable being totally open and honest about my personal life (go figure, right?) am I actually kidding myself that the people who know me won’t see through the facades I try to construct around details?

Over the weekend I started sketching out how I’ve changed and grown over the past ten years and what factors shaped me during that time. The few pages I have already are so personal and touch most of the important people in my life. If I write it can I actually make it public?

We have gotten so open with tell-alls, confessionals, addiction and abuse stories and, of course, reality television. While relying on “social norms” is generally not a good move for a writer (Lawrence, Cervantes, Nabokav, etc) they shouldn’t be ignored altogether. Your audience can only be pushed so far out of their comfort zone before they disengage. Then there is Salman Rushdie and the fatwa declared after he wrote about the Koran and Mohammed.

I’d planned on posting part of the transformation book today on this blog but chose to write on privacy instead.