Monday, November 19, 2012

In One Person, by John Irving

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This blog is my forum, the place where I voice the ideas that pop in my head while reading a book. Sometimes my thoughts come out sounding like a book review; other times, I'm sure I sound like I took the branch line to Randomtown and jumped the tracks partway there.

I even get political sometimes, though I try to refrain from the more overt diatribes.

Some people will think this post is political, but I think it's just human.

John Irving's In One Person (his strongest and most moving book in years, in my opinion) might have caused quite the entertaining stir ten years ago, and an outright kerfluffle twenty years ago. When it was released this past spring, I heard... nothing. Nothing but "Hey, John Irving's got a new book coming out."

More than any political and electoral strides in the direction of sexual equality, that radio silence tells me how far we've come in American society. We are moving ever closer to a time when gender identity is no more peculiar an identifier than height or hair color. (Humans are just a prejudicial species; true equality will never exist. Just look at blonde jokes. But the level of prejudice on hair color is about as low in the United States as it ever will be.)

Political gains for (in a blanket term) gays and (in a blanket acronym) LGBTQ individuals are certainly too great to dismiss. I am so proud of my home country that Don't Ask Don't Tell has been repealed, and even prouder of my compatriots that have now voted to permit gay marriage. They are all steps toward general and broad acceptance.

(A friend of mine once had a long diatribe about her distaste for the "tolerance" word; why should we merely tolerate one another? she wanted to know. Annoying children are sometimes tolerated. A neighbor's loud music is tolerated. Nothing positive is ever tolerated. If we can't love each other, can't we at least accept each other instead of just tolerating? I've accepted her intolerance of tolerance as my own philosophy.)

Irving's latest is not ten or twenty years too late; on the contrary, he finds the most unaccepted kind of person and tells a story about him. As we question our societal and individual levels of acceptance, we need this sort of litmus paper. Billy is bisexual; straight people don't entirely trust him because he's kind of gay, and gay people don't entirely accept him because he's kind of straight. How do we respond to him?

In reading about Billy and his overwhelming humanity, we face our own discomforts (fess up, we all have some) and embrace what we have in common with him -- which, despite all his effed-up Irving-esque qualities, is far greater than any of our differences. We unfold our empathy for Billy, and I think in so doing, we roll out our empathy for anyone like him.

That is to say, we learn a little bit about loving one another. And that feeling stays with you long after you close the book.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Psychedelic Pill, by Neil Young with Crazy Horse

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I may not be a musician, but as an artist of a different medium, I have the utmost respect for Neil Young. (If you're not new to the blog, or to me, you know that already.) 2012 is turning out to be a banner year of sorts; although I had to miss his August tour opener in my hometown, I now have two new albums with Crazy Horse (the first since 2003) and a book in less than six months. I'm feeling pretty pleased.

While I find much to admire in Mr. Young's artistic principles and much to enjoy and inspire me in his music, where he earns my greatest respect is in his ability to stay relevant. Fortunately for his commercial success, that relevance correlates with a shared relevance for thousands of fans. What I mean by his relevance, however, is his relevance to himself.

How many rock-and-rollers can you think of who haven't performed a new song in ten years? Twenty? Thirty? And how many musicians of even twenty years' vintage can you think of who still tour to support new albums, not as an excuse to play the hits from the past, but simply because that new music is where their souls are happiest and their muses are engaged?

Mr. Young, as far as I can tell, doesn't put out new material because his fans want it. And he doesn't base his concert setlists on what the average radio listener expects to hear. (I've been to shows on at least three Neil Young tours where people walked out because the music didn't match their expectations.) Commercially viable or artistically shaky, the music he plays is the music that means something to him at that moment in his world.

That commitment to his own artistic morals is how he can release an album like Psychedelic Pill. It reminisces, but without nostalgia. It mourns, but with hope. It looks over its shoulder, but always while stepping forward.

This is where Neil Young is right now, folks. Of all the writers and musicians and craftsmen and painters whose work I have experienced, he's the artist with the least artifice. Love his stuff or despise it, you can't fault his honesty for being straightforward. I aspire to be that true to myself, to my writing... hell, to my life.

(Also: I appreciate this album more every time I listen to it. If you have even the slightest inclination to like Neil with the Horse, you must. get. this. album.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

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We all set goals; it's part of what makes us human. Granted, some of our goals aren't terribly ambitious -- I once had a goal to drink so much water that I could spend my entire eight-hour shift walking to the bathroom, urinating, and returning to my desk. But the point of the matter is that I set a goal, I did what I could to accomplish it, and we all have similar experiences every day.

Sometimes those goals get a little more courageous. Bill Bryson's did. He decided to set out one summer and hike the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. (And he wrote a very informative and funny book about the adventure, too.)

And now I'm wildly curious about humans and our setting (and sometimes accomplishing) of goals. Yes, we all participate in the ritual; but how does it work? How are our brains wired so that we constantly set goals -- whether it's climbing Kilimanjaro or getting home in time for Seinfeld reruns -- and seemingly even more constantly fail to reach them?

These questions are not rhetorical. I'm throwing this out there to my readers. If you have thoughts on how the brain's capacity for goal-setting (including both success and failure) functions,  I want to hear them. And if you know any sources that discuss these phenomenons (books, websites, actual human beings, whatever), please, please pass their info my way. I would love you and appreciate your assistance forever.

(Comments are good. So are emails, if you don't want to share publicly. I'm at znhively at gmail.)

One thing that A Walk in the Woods really got me thinking about: I find that many folks (myself included) measure the success of a goal on whether the outcome matches the original objectives. What if we treated goals more like science fair projects? You know, instead of saying "I will lose twenty pounds this year," what if we said "I'm going to find out if I can lose twenty pounds this year." Then the outcome isn't so dependent on a success/failure balance. Instead, you discover an answer. "Whaddya know, I can lose twenty pounds in a year!" or "Well, I gave it my best, and it turns out I'm capable of losing fifteen pounds in a year."

And, like a science fair project, the experiment leaves itself open for further discovery -- those wonderful moments of insight that get pushed aside when our goals are so focused on a single result. "I only lost five pounds, but I discovered that I really enjoy hiking!" or "I actually gained five pounds, but I discovered that I'm an amazing pastry chef!" For Bill Bryson (no direct spoilers here, unless you really try to read into it), the goal ends up being secondary to the opening of his worldview.

Isn't that what we expect in a good story, whether nonfiction or novel? We care less about whether or not the Jamaican bobsled team wins a medal than we do about how everyone changes from the experience. We care less about whether or not Bryson completes the hike than we do about how the hike changes him.

If our own personal goals were set up the same way, don't you think we all might have a little more self-discovery and a lot less disappointment?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ostrich, by Michael A. Thomas

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Once again I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month, the lemming-like annual event where thousands of people decide that writing a 50,000-word first draft in 30 days sounds more sane than ever because thousands of other people are attempting it, too.

Only this year, I'm prepared. I went from having no clue (2008) to a bare-bones outline (2011) to a structured series of notecards with scenes, backstory, research, questions to be answered, and motivations for minor characters. I have a writing desk that is, for the first time, not also my designated dining space. I have even left the four walls of my home in order to talk to real people in preparation for this novel. Gads!

About seven times per hour of writing, I also have that debilitating sense that I am a hack, that I have no business charting stories, and that this story will in no way succeed the way I have planned it.

The first two doubts require simply practice. (Or so the proverbs about perfection say.) And the last one -- oh, what a beautiful doubt that last one is. Because what a shame it would be if the novel kept the precise form I have planned for it! What a dirty stinking shame it would be if the process of writing didn't surprise me, reveal truths to me, teach me about myself!

My lovely little lady recommended this book to me, based solely on the tantalizing tidbits of the story I've spoiled for her. (Somehow, a slacking entrepreneur deciding to convert his father's sheep ranch to an ostrich farm sounded right up this NaNo novel's alley. And the recommendation wasn't wrong. What glorious mishaps must await the story I charted?) Yet Ostrich provided a different sort of inspiration, as recommended books often do.

The best laid plans... often bear unexpected fruit. Everything might go wrong with this suicidal first draft. But as long as I keep bullheadedly pursuing it, pushing its possibilities and discovering whether it's crazy enough that it just might work, I might get the end result I want (a rip-roaring comedic masterpiece) even if it's not the one I set out to write.

The plan works for VJ Eckleberry and all his bird-related master goals. So why not for writing a novel? It's even crazier than raising persnickety ostriches for cowboy boots. It just might work...