Tag Archives: fiction

Recent notes (what I’ve read & seen)

My most recent culture-vulturing:

Closer Than Ever” at New Rep. “Songs by Maltby & Shire” translates to “ballads for the middle-aged and middle-class,” but the sometimes dated numbers are given heartfelt and witty treatment by this excellent cast. A cast which includes … Science-Entertainment Quotient: Surprisingly high for a musical! Local actor Brian Richard Robinson, one of the two men in the four-person cast, “is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, and currently works at a Cambridge-based biotechnology company.” (I tried to talk to Dr. Robinson at the opening-night reception but he was busy being asked how he remembers all those lines, so I made myself scarce.) Also, one of the numbers–“The Bear, the Hamster, the Hamster, and the Mole,” about the advantages of reproduction without romance, was staged as a TED talk.

Photo by Andrew Brilliant

Ravenous.” Ain’t no party like a Donner party, ’cause a Donner party don’t stop. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle are cannibals in the old West–one unwilling, one gleefully triumphant. More satirical than graphic, although definitely very creepy. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Idiosyncratic. The Ig Nobel opera this year, “What’s Eating You?” is all about the food chain and, on some level, the idea that wisdom resides in accepting the fact that we must all eat and be eaten. I watched “Ravenous” after our rehearsal last weekend and found it relevant and inspiring … but clearly, this was me.

The Secret Place by Tana French. The hothouse atmosphere of an elite girls’ school and the 24-hour timeline (with flashbacks, of course), combine to make a claustrophobic psychological mystery. The portrayal of how young women police themselves and each other was especially compelling. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Nugatory, thanks to a credulous portrayal of teenage telekinesis which adds nothing to the plot or characterization.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I’d last been there when I was eight, and yes, it was just as impressive to me today. And surprisingly redemptive. Like a lot of us, I’ve been reading and watching and thinking too much, much too much, lately, about humanity at its worst. The Smithsonians remind you of humanity at its best: curious, questing, ingenious. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Off the charts! The Hall of Human Origins was my favorite. Look at these gorgeous reconstructed faces of early humans!

Does the top right one look like Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland” to anyone else?

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Real relationships with fictional people

Who is your favorite literary or pop-culture character?
Do you ever think about that person to get you through hard times?

This is another one of those bits of human nature that art and culture have long realized, and the psychological sciences are slowly catching up with. Of course thinking about inspiring people can give you the courage or patience to handle your own ordeals. That’s why people say “What Would Jesus Do?” When I was an undergrad, if I couldn’t muster up motivation for a study or library research session, I would pretend I was a student at Starfleet Academy. Starfleet cadets never lacked for motivation.

I reviewed a new study about this for the British Psychological Society’s research digest earlier this month:

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

The paper suggests that these parasocial relationships help us envision a bigger, better version of our selves, much as our real-life relationships can do. I credit Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln with giving me the political will to begin the process of getting my mother into assisted living. I just felt so decisive after seeing that movie!

I’ve written before about parasocial relationships (read the whole thing here):

So given how much even our relationships with real people can take place in the imagination, it’s no leap to have a strong relationship with a fictional character. Some people are more inclined to this than others–and, counter to the geeky fanboy/girl Comic Book Guy stereotypes, it’s the people who are overall highly social and relationship-oriented who are most likely to have strong parasocial relationships as well. I tend to be very prone to them, myself: I really was in tears, yesterday, of happiness that dogs I have never met are going to survive and be safe. Certain writers–Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton–have always felt like sisters to me. When I read Torah, I have extremely vivid images of the Four Matriarchs–if I could draw, I could draw you exactly what they look like to me.

Bringing up the Four Matriarchs, and Jesus, is no accident. Religion has always encouraged parasocial relationships with people you don’t know in the flesh, and uses stories and images to encourage adherents to identify and model themselves after various ancestors, saints, or demigods.

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Palette: Sinus, fiction

I haven’t done a palette for few days because my allergies have been kicking in but good, so I’ve been working from home, wearing whatever is cozy and comfy. I’ve been about as aesthetically inspiring as this:

I’ve been trying to dress a bit better on days when I work from home, which is a topic for another post. When allergies and sinus kick in, though, it’s all about comfort, and not being any more irritated than I already am.

Both Mr. Improbable and I have been having bad sinus headaches the past week or so, as have several of our friends. Any other Bostonian readers suffering along with us?

I’ve thought for a long time that the key to understanding the work of Sylvia Plath is to know that she had almost constant sinus infections. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

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Holmesian musings

I’ve got a contest up on the “Miss Conduct” blog to win tickets to “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Central Square Theater. If you’re a local reader, enter! It’s a great show.

I thought I’d open up a thread here for general musings from Sherlock Holmes fans. When did you first get introduced to the stories? Who is your favorite portrayer of Holmes? What do you think of revisionist efforts like the Laurie King mysteries or the various television/cinematic reboots?

I started reading the stories in ninth grade, and of course promptly fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. (While my peers lusted after Shaun Cassidy and Scott Baio, I dreamed of Sherlock, Cyrano, and Spock. Geeky, but my crushes aged better.) The first movie or TV version I ever saw was the great Jeremy Brett “Mystery” series — the Basil Rathbone movies that showed on Saturday afternoons never grabbed me. They seemed too normal, whereas the compelling power of the stories, for me, was in how deeply weird Sherlock Holmes was, and what a very strange position he occupied in his rigidly stratified culture. He fit in everywhere, and nowhere. John Watson could function wonderfully in polite society, among medical men, and in the military, but only Sherlock could move among palaces and opium dens alike.

Speaking of Watson, I’m neutral on the extent of the bromance. I’ve seen good interpretations across the Kinsey scale. (The Watson of CST’s “Hound,” in a novel and hilarious twist, simply has huge crushes on everyone. He’s a very enthusiastic fellow.) What I am adamant about, and my main gripe with Laurie King’s books, is that Watson is not stupid. He’s not as smart as Holmes, but almost no one is. Watson is a highly competent doctor, soldier, and writer — imagine if the New Yorker‘s Atul Gawande also had several years of distinguished service in Afghanistan on his resume. Watson isn’t a bumbling dolt, he’s someone the likes of you or I would be downright intimidated by at a cocktail party.

Unsurprisingly, given what I like about the stories, I’m a fan of the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law pairing. They have wonderful chemistry, which Holmes and Watson have to have whether there is a sexual element to it or not. Jude Law’s Watson is exactly what he should be — a man who is clearly action-hero material on his own, not one of nature’s born sidekicks. I like how Robert Downey Jr. suggested that Holmes’s primary pathology isn’t some kind of autism (the Jeremy Brett interpretation) but more a desperate, addictive hunger for stimulation, mental and physical. The world is not too much with Holmes; it is not enough with him, and he must grab it and dig in his hands and drag it into his web of understanding, into his very bloodstream.

What’s your take on Holmes, and Watson?

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Your secret avatar

Here’s today’s question, friends: Who is a fictional character with whom you identify, but whom no one else would ever think of as being like you?

I identify hugely with Eliza Doolittle, but anyone who knows my commitment to upward mobility and cute straw hats could call that one. Back when I was a professor, none of my students were particularly surprised when I showed up on Halloween as Minerva MacGonagall, either.

But you know who else? You know who Mr. Improbable and I totally, totally identify with?

April and Andy from “Parks & Recreation.”

Yes, folks, this couple:

… holding flowers and meat, is for all intents and purposes, this couple:

… except with the addition of positive IQs and demonstrable work ethics. My Harvard-educated husband would not be mistaken for a character who, when commissioned to write a song “five thousand times greater than ‘Candle in the Wind,'” wrote a song called “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind.” Nor am I, the Woman of a Thousand Jobs, all that much like April, whose most valuable skill as a receptionist is a complete inability to take a message, therefore sparing her boss the task of returning his calls.

But the relationship? Yeah, that’s actually dead on. His optimism and faith in me. His remarkable ability not to annoy me, when almost everyone else on earth does. Our leap-of-faith wedding. My hatred of the outdoors and love of goth music against his cheerful, softball-playing self. The fact that Mouse Rat — excuse me, Improbable Research — really needs me as a manager.

Who’s your secret avatar?

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Robin Abrahams and the Spectacles of Immersion

The last month of 2010 decided to gift me with two reminders that I am aging: my first white eyebrow hair, and the fact that I need reading glasses to — well, read. (Fortunately, I can see well enough to pluck my eyebrows unaided. Buh-bye, Whitey! Don’t come back, and don’t bring more of your friends!)

I’ve had corrective lenses since I can remember — glasses since third grade or so, and contacts since high school.* So the concept wasn’t exactly unfamiliar to me. And you all know how I love accessories, so I was quick to snap up several sharp pairs of specs: the red rhinestone ones and the leopard frames with pink metal earpieces are my favorites.

But as much as I might enjoy officiously putting on my specs and twirling a freshly sharpened pencil in the air as I begin an editing job, or dramatically divesting myself of them before ordering at a restaurant — and I do — it’s using them for plain old reading at home that I enjoy most. It’s made reading magical again.

I mean, there the book is in front of me, and I can’t make sense of it, and then I put these glasses on, and just like that I am transported! Into 19th-century England, modern-day Westport (v. good, that one), an academy of magic, outer space, ancient Greece, anywhere! Seriously, there is something about putting on the glasses that feels like a ritualistic preparation, making me able to enter the World of the Book. I think I’m reading in an even more immersed fashion than I usually do. Swimming up from the depths of a book feels a little harder now.

What a funny Christmas gift, for someone who has no need of them. A disability that turns life magical again.

*The ConductMom, apparently, had no idea how bad my vision is. She tried on my real glasses, not my readers, when she was here on Thanksgiving and nearly fell over backwards. “My poor baby!” she cried. I sympathized with her and pointed out that while learning of a child’s handicap can indeed be devastating, the fact that in this case the child is over 40, happily married, and successful in two jobs ought to be some consolation.

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Write a novel with me

When life gives you spam, make spamerade. That’s my motto, and it explains why no one ever drinks my signature cocktails at parties.

I’ve been collecting good names from my spam folder for a while now, and I think I’m ready to bring them out and let you play with them, too:

Confidence Namogo
Aisha Skimp
Bronson Faulk
Numbers McKenzie
Roscoe Cornelius
Fidelia Igabo
Hawk J. Zou
Emilio Swain

Here’s what I propose we do: write a little novel together, or at least the bones of one. Because how wonderful are these character names? I’ve figured out who some of them are:

Confidence Namogo is the protagonist, a cheerful and strong-willed young woman in her mid-twenties. Confidence has a generally good nature, but her ambition and eagerness to experience the world lead her to neglect the needs of others, and at times take reckless chances.

Aisha Skimp is Confidence’s maiden aunt, who raised the girl from a young age after the death of her parents. Aisha is cautious to a fault about men, manners, and money. Confidence continues to live with her aunt, although she pays rent in order to maintain her independence. Aisha worries deeply about Confidence’s outgoing ways, but this worry is mainly caused by the deep secret in Aisha’s past, a secret known only to …

Bronson Faulk, a seventy-year-old hobby farmer and heir to a utilities fortune. Having no need to work for a living, Bronson has devoted his life to the study of ancient languages, and practical botany. As a younger man, he once combined these interests by attempting to re-create from original sources the potions used in Dionysian rites. Although this was decades ago, uncanny rumors still cling to Bronson’s tweed-clad, reticent person.

Numbers McKenzie is Bronson’s farm manager, accountant, and general factotum. When she was a young girl, Bronson often found her in his goat pens, petting the animals and escaping from the chaos and verbal jousting of her large, Scots-Irish family. Realizing that the girl was extraordinarily gifted at working with animals, numbers, and power tools, Bronson paid for “Numbers” (born Evelyn Louise) to attend college, where she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Numbers is fiercely loyal to Bronson. She also does taxes for many other people in town, including Aisha Skimp, whose excessive social propriety Numbers finds relaxing because it means every conversation follows the exact same lines.

All right. That’s half of them. Now! You write up what the other characters should be like … and we’ll see where we go from there.

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Quote of the day

“Leonard Bilsiter was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an ‘unseen world’ of their own experience or imagination — or invention. Children do that sort of thing successfully, but children are content to convince themselves, and do not vulgarize their beliefs by trying to convince others.”

— “The She-Wolf,” Saki (H.H. Munro)

There are an unfortunate number of Leonard Bilsiters in the world, aren’t there, dear readers?

I don’t know why I’m in such short-story mode this week, but if you’ve never read Saki, or perhaps only read one or two of his stories in high school, you ought to go back and take another look. He’s a bit like Jane Austen crossed with Stephen King, only less wordy than either of them.

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Today’s question

I run a reader question every Monday on my boston.com blog, and I’ve got to say I’m a little bit in love with today’s question. Go read.

The writing style of it reminds me exactly of this fantastic short story by Dorothy Parker, “From the Diary of a New York Lady During Days of Horror, Despair, and World Change.” Go read that, too. It’s quite short, and could have been written yesterday.

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Best books of 2009, part II

… and my further top five from 2009 (I’m enjoying your recommendations too, folks!)

6. The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I reviewed this here.

7. Rebuilt by Michael Chorost. See, here we go with that description problem again … this is a memoir by a man who got a cochlear implant at age 30. Yaaaaaawn. But it is, in fact, a brilliant, funny, honest and compassionate look at what it means to be a social being, the difference between hearing and listening, and the nature of relationships.

8. Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn with Patsi Bale Cox. I’d planned to write about Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography — the one she wrote after her husband died, when she could really tell the truth — when I first read it, but shortly after that, the Roman Polanski scandal broke and I couldn’t, because I couldn’t wrap my head around Ms. Lynn’s marriage at age 13. Months after I’ve read the book, I still don’t know what to make of it. Ms. Lynn’s intelligence and ignorance are both on astonishing display as she recounts her improbable life.

9. Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond. Yes, finally, like the rest of the world, I read this classic of “Why Everything Is the Way It Is and Not Some Other Way Entirely, and by the Way It Has Nothing to Do with Race.” Good book, although a number of folks in one of my chats mentioned that it’s fairly repetitious, which indeed it was.

10. Under the Dome by Stephen King. I said I liked King on a wide canvas? Here, he gives himself an entire Maine town to characterize — and kill. It’s no spoiler to say that 300 pages in, I was already beginning to wonder if enough people would survive to finish the 1,000+-page novel. Whatever your politics, the first 400 pages or so after “the dome” of the title descends will make you angry — either by reminding you of the Bush administration, or by painting an unfair picture of it. Then the action kicks in. Don’t make any social plans after you hit page 600 or so.

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Your reading recommendations

…. and what were some of the best books you read in 2009 — fiction or non-?

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Best books of 2009, part I

Every year, I keep a running list of the books I’ve read, with an asterisk beside the ones I particularly like. In 2009, I had a pleasingly rounded list of 10 asterisked books, with an even more pleasing symmetry: both the first and the last books I read in 2009 were starred, and both were by Stephen King.

Here are my first five top books from 2009. I’ll post the second five later today or tomorrow.

Please only comment if you’ve read these and want to discuss them — I’ll put up a post where you can leave your own recommendations shortly, just to keep things convenient.

1. The Stand by Stephen King. I like Stephen King on a wide canvas, and he gave himself one here. Not everything rang true to me psychologically, but the story is riveting and mythic in its power to stick in memory.

2. Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Ms. Goodman got her start writing about the arcane and claustrophobic world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and she’s even better here, limning the intellectually spacious, yet physically and emotionally cramped, world of elite academic science. (My friend Amazing Genius Science Girl thought Goodman got it right, who am I to argue?)

3. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Unfortunately, there is no way to write about this without making it sound like a horrible gimmicky rom-com: alternating chapters of two different futures for the heroine, in one of which she stays faithful to her husband and one in which she begins an affair with a friend, a raffish but loving snooker star. Somehow, the book is far more compelling than any description of mine, thank heavens.

4. The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. This is significantly weaker than her earlier novels The Position or The Wife, but Ms. Wolitzer’s eye for detail is spot on. There’s a lot to object to — I’ll leave “mommy war” critiques out of it, but I was taken aback by the notably short shrift given the book’s Asian couple, and their stereotypical upbringings. Still, mediocre Wolitzer is better than good nearly anyone else.

5. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim. No, I did not star this out of atonement for the casual racism of Ten-Year Nap, it just worked out that way. Calligrapher’s Daughter, the story of a Korean family at the turn of the last century, was published by my own publisher a few months before MCMoM, and the publicist gave me a copy. The author was inspired by the life of her mother, but decided to write a novel rather than an historical book or biography. Her research shows, though; I learned a lot. This is a contemplative book — you can read a chapter or two a night before going to bed and not stay up all night finding out what’s going to happen next. But its images and conflicts hang on.

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