Category Archives: criticism

Blue Nights, Joan Didion

There was a time, about 25 years ago when I thought Joan Didion was the best essayist around.   I thought she was a no-holds barred writer who was insightful and spot-on with her cultural commentary. At a certain point, in the mid-80’s, I had read each of her published books. I liked how her essays were often a composite, a layering of image upon image. Her sentences were lush, verdant, expansive in portraying a scene.

And then she would hit you.

With one sentence.

Or two.

All the reader was left to do was to wonder, perhaps murmur “Wow!” as you found yourself agreeing with her, seeing her point, knowing she was right, even if it was contrary to all that you thought you believed in.

But maybe that was just because I was 25.  Somewhere along the way, I stopped reading Didion. It wasn’t for any particular reason, or a dislike or shift in political persuasion. It wasn’t because I felt somewhat manipulated by Didion’s work, or found it dark, though both were true. She just fell off my reading radar for 20+ years. When she published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005 about mourning the death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, I thought that I might read it, adding it to the never-ending ‘TBR’ list. But, it never bubbled to the top of that list, still floating around back in 2006. The other day at the library, making my way to the checkout desk with a stack of books in my arms, I spotted Didion’s latest work Blue Nights on the “New in Paperback” shelf. I quickly added it to my tottering stack.

I didn’t know much about Blue Night other than it was a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, which occurred not long after her husband’s passing. I had read somewhere (I cannot find the post — if it’s yours, let me know so I can credit you!) on a blog about how Didion’s memoir was whining, like a young child’s rant, and she just needed to grow up and accept things as they are. I didn’t think about this criticism, though, until I started to read the book.

This was never supposed to happen. As soon as I read this sentence, I thought of that blog post.  It jarred me from the beautiful — and beautifully manipulative — prose of Didion’s work. This was never supposed to happen. Isn’t that what we all would think, at some point, when struck by numerous sharp blows to our families in a short period of time?

I both loved and hated this book. I loved how Didion takes the reader through multiple layers of time. You’re in the present, then you’re at Quintana’s wedding where a riff on stephanotis leads back to the house were Didion and her family lived when Quintana was in high school. Suddenly you’re in the story of Q’s birth and adoption or Didion and Dunne marveling at how beautiful a school-aged girl — their school-aged daughter — is as she walks down the hill to school. In this regard the book is lyrical. And then comes the Didion punch: the reader is back in the present with Didion in her grief, sympathizing with her that this was never supposed to happen.

In among the memories that haunt her, Didion ponders the aging process. She observes how others have had loved ones die — her niece, her dear friend Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter Natasha, a family friend — but these are always told from her point of view, how the death affected Didion, what Didion remembers, not how the death affected the immediate family. I find this odd. I find her discounting of what doctor’s tell her about her physical state and her rejection of the toll that age is taking on her (at age 77) to be equally alarming. And this is what I dislike about this book: its narcissism. This was never supposed to happen to me seems to be Didion’s theme.  This self-centered, privileged attitude pervades this work.

I’ve lost a parent; I’ve experienced chronic illnesses in loved ones; I’m caring for elderly family members, watching them fight to not go gently into that good night as they struggle to hold on to memories fragmented into beautiful but unrecognizable kaleidoscopic images by plaque in their brains. But, I’ve never lost a child. I cannot empathize, only sympathize. Perhaps one never does truly “get over” it; I don’t think that I would want one to. I would not want to. I can realize, not being on the grieving side of the equation — that unbalanced, no explanation possible side — that we all wish that such things were never suppose to happen.

But they do happen. To all of us. We get old. Our children become adults and make decisions without us. Our bones deteriorate and our skin sags and we can’t wear high heels any longer without risking serious injury. It is suppose to happen. The best we can hope for is that we don’t outlive our children and that our memories, as frail and fragmented and selective as they might be, are enough.

Perhaps Didion is right: grieving is the “blue night” — that prolonged twilight of late summer where the sky remains a deep, deep blue before the final light fades —  the warning of the darkening of the brightness in our lives.

This post is part of the Blogging A to Z Challenge. This is day 4, which is, of course, the letter D.   Thanks for stopping by and reading.  I’d love to know your thoughts on this book, or on grief in general.   To read others participating in the A to Z Challenge, click on the graphic.   You can find an index to my A to Z entries here.

A Crazy Wednesday Idea

Stephen MacInnes, at Painter’s Progress, has been doing weekly experiments involving art.  One of his experiments involved drawing the word “DRAW”, and then leaving it in an encyclopedia or dictionary.  I liked this idea and thought that I would play along. You can read Stephen’s minimalist directions here, and you will find links to other artists who have done this in the comments.

I have no formal art training but I’ve always been interested in art.  However, I’ve always felt that I couldn’t draw, that I had no talent to be nurtured in this area.  But, as I’ve taken up photography recently, I’ve learned to have more confidence in my creative abilities and perspectives.  Maybe I could draw, I thought.  So, once I found some paper and pencils, and a chunk of time, I thought I’d give it a try.

As I doodled on paper, trying to figure out how I wanted to draw “DRAW”, I could hear my sixth-grade art teacher telling me that I wasn’t a very good artist.   I remember as if it were yesterday, though nearly 40 years ago, having an assignment where we were suppose to “draw” what we heard while she played a piece of music.   Having already had my confidence shattered — and not really having a clue how to interpret a piece of music into a mood, much less an image — I drew what I felt that I could depict reasonably:  a sun setting over an ocean.  Her comment was succinct:  “A sunset?  That’s something pretty, but you were suppose to draw a storm.”   Why didn’t she just tell us that?

I vaguely recall another art assignment, perhaps with another teacher, that required us to draw a word, making it look like what the word represented while still being abstract.  I failed at that too.   I had been assigned the word “SAIL” and not knowing much about sailing, I drew anchors and, since this was the 70’s, I drew several Jonathan Livingston Seagulls.  Neither of these things, my teacher, informed me, had to do with SAIL.  Anchors were for the harbors, as were the birds.   And that pretty much made up my formal art training.  With that type of experience, why would I try?

I had to laugh, though, as I thought of these two art assignments from my childhood.  I could write extensively about how wrong these were, but I think that anyone who has ever had any exposure to any sort of education can see that point.  While I might have been convinced that I had no artistic talent, inept teachers never stopped me from enjoying art museums and galleries around the world.  I was determined, with this experiment, that I was going to get beyond the negative “you can’t draw” barrage of memories.

Perhaps because I wanted to do this “right”, I spent a lot of time on this, redoing it three times.  The first was easy to crumble into a ball of paper, but I realized my mistake and started again with a fresh piece of velum.  I completed the second one, but once done, I thought of ways that I could have done it better.  I simply put too much into the finished work and thought that the end result was rather cluttered, a little sloppy, and a bit pretentious in trying to drive home a “meaning”.   The third piece may still be a bit cluttered, but I feel that it is more subtle and yet still accomplish all that  I intended:  1) include the word, 2) include some sort of word play, 3) give homage to artists and the art world, 4) imply that all of us are part of that world, whether we are artists or not.

The design of the word “DRAW” was definitely influenced by some of the graffiti that I have photographed recently.  I wanted to make it look like the word was being drawn off the edge of the paper, so I slanted the “A” and “W”.  The dyslexic D was both a design consideration as well as to help underscore that “art” doesn’t have to be perfect.  Some of us get things backwards at times.

In thinking about how one “tags” graffiti,  I thought of incorporating names of artists, but I decided that there were too many to include to have different signatures or fonts.  So, I decided to write all names (mostly surnames, except where the first name needed to be included for clarity) in lower case.  In my first draft, I intentionally rotated the paper every time that I wrote another name so that the placement would be random.   As I started writing names, I looked through a book I have 501 Great Artists to help jog my memory.  I turned through many pages before I came upon the name of a woman.  Without much thought, I picked up a different color of pencil to write the female names. As I looked through the book, I decided that I would not use the name of any artist with whom I was not familiar.  But, I realized that I was mostly familiar with the men, so I included all of the women after reading their brief bios in the book.   Only 10% of the 501 artists in this book were women, with most of them predominantly being 20th/21st century artists. Because I wanted to include some photographers and a few other women artists whose work I know, I added a few that were not in this book.

Originally the artists’ names were in silver  (men) and gold (women), but I didn’t like the way that the colors looked on the paper.  They were hard to distinguish, difficult to read.   So, in my third iteration, I decided to go with the traditional blue for males, pink for females.  In retrospect, I wish I had broken with convention and used blue for females, pink for males.  But, the point was to make a visible difference and I think that this accomplishes that.  Since many of the women were associated with better known male artists, I decided in my third version to place the male names, slightly smaller, next to the women artists that they worked with or shared influence and inspiration.  (The influence, it seems was mutual, and not necessarily the better known artist mentoring or influencing the lesser known one.) Although these relationships were apparent when I added the women’s names, as I added the rest of the male artists, I used up most of the white space and the relationships are lost to the larger design.

For my word play, I played with the exhortation to DRAW SOME THING and a made up word combo of DRAW + AWESOME — “DRAWSOME”.   You can see this on each of the letters of DRAW.

Lastly, to emphasize that art is for all of us, I placed the following words prominently along the perimeter of the piece:  EVERYONE, US, YOU, ME, HIM, HER.  Although you can’t tell in the scan, EVERYONE and US are in a flourescent orange, the other words in a deep brown that contrasts well with the blues and pinks of the artists’ names.

I’ll make a trip to the library in the next few days.   I don’t think that many people use general  encyclopedias these days, so I am going to look for a work on artists to slip this in between pages.  Maybe it will even be a copy of 501 Great Artists.  I see from looking through the comments on Stephen’s blog, that Zorgor did exactly this, finding an art encyclopedia for his DRAW work.  Zorgor, I’ll be going to a different branch than you, but if the same person finds both of them, they may think that something radical is happening to our library system!

I hope that someone finds this and it makes them think.  I hope, too, that it makes them smile!  Here is a not so clear scanned image of my “DRAW” piece, which I have titled:  Drawsome:  62 women artists and some guys.

Drawsome: 62 women artists and some guys

Thanks, Stephen for this idea. I had so much fun doing this!

Its got a good beat & you can dance to it

Scene: Dick Clark, any day, the mid-60’s through the mid-70’s. You could have found me watching American Bandstand. I would sit in front of the TV, watching teens dance, observing their actions, studying their clothes, listening to the music, hoping to imbibe whatever it was that made one “cool”, something so unobtainable to me that I didn’t even know how to describe it. I suppose it is still that way: like jazz or pornography, you know it when you see it. But I can’t define it.

Rate-a-record was my favorite part of Bandstand. Two selected kids would listen to a record and then rate it. It was the part I was afraid to leave the room during commercial for fear that I would not return in time.

“Its got a good beat and you can dance to it”.

Yet, Rate-A-Record always disappointed on some level because I did not understand the opinions. In seeking “coolness”, I wanted to have the clues so that I too could rate records and know whether they were good or not, if they were worthy of some unknown-to-me, yet still subscribed to, teenage rating system. “It has a beat….”

I never learned to dance.

Sometimes, I think I feel the same way about performances that I attend. Last night, husband and I went to a chamber music concert. T knows far more about music than I would ever care to know. Yet, I enjoy going to hear music performed. After the first piece, he asked me whether I liked it. He went on to comment about how unusual a portion of the piece was for that type of music — let’s just say it was an adagio, or something like that, because it would have made as much sense if he used the word fettucini. My response could only be some equivalent of “It had a beat and …” I nodded my head and shrugged my shoulders.

At intermission, we stopped to talk to a professor I have known since I was 19. Frequently, we see him at this particular concert series, and we often exchange stories of what musical or theatrical events we have seen recently. Since this was the first concert of the season, it was the first time we had seen Bill since we went to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances in NYC last summer. “What did you think about the plays?” he asked. “I loved them” was my husband’s exuberant reply. But he quickly followed up with this: “But what do I know? I’m not a critic.”

In many ways, his response was much like mine was to him earlier regarding the violinist. But, whereas I simply said that I couldn’t discuss the music using his critical tools, it seemed to me, in retrospect, that he may have been apologizing for not having the equivalent theatrical and literary tools with which to assess. I could be wrong — we did not discuss it afterwards — but today I’m thinking about how often, as an audience member, it is easy to fall into a trap where we either only give the unsupported “I liked it” or we don’t comment at all because our experience seems less meaningful than that of a “real” critic.

How do you rate something if not on some internal continuum ranging from “Hate it” to “Love it”? I’m not talking about critical analysis but rather viewer — or listener — analysis. How do you talk about books, or theatre, or music, or art if it isn’t on how you respond to it?

I had intended to write about the plays I saw in New York last summer, but each time that I began to write, I felt that I couldn’t describe the experience in appropriate terms. I think what was stopping me was that I felt that I needed to do a critique of the performances. And I lacked the vocabulary and the expertise to do that. Besides, of the seven plays I saw, only two of them were not in their closing weeks. What was the point? It wasn’t as if I would be recommending these to someone who might choose to attend.

But maybe the point should be something else. It isn’t like the critics always review things in ways that are meaningful to me as an audience participant. Before we went to the RSC plays, we read several of the reviews. One that stands out was that King Lear was described as being a pretty good Lear for someone who hadn’t seen it before. What does that mean? Would I expect something different if I had seen Lear three or four times? Lear was the one play in the series I didn’t see. I knew when he returned from the theatre, because we had joked about the review, T would say that it was pretty good…for a beginner. The reality was that he still didn’t know what that reviewer had meant, but he did enjoy the performance. Likewise, I enjoyed the four RSC plays that I saw (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Ceasar), and although I can tell you which was my least favorite was Julius Ceasar and that Romeo was my favorite — even though as a play I like As You Like It better — I don’t know that I can tell you why in any sort of way that isn’t outside of my experience. Maybe I can tell you something more that “Its got a good beat…” but, like any theatrical performance, it would be up to each person who sees it to know whether she can dance to it.

>Is it about the medium?

>There is an interesting discussion on art blogs in the November issue of Art in America. “Report from the Blogosphere” is a roundtable discussion of five bloggers across the country who blog about art. (Sorry, no online link). While these are blogs of professional art dealers and critics, I found several parallels in the discussion of art blogs to the vociferous and ongoing debate about book blogs and traditional print review and criticism. Like in the world of book blogs, there is, apparently, some concern and controversy over the role, potential influence and quality of artblogs.

One interesting quote from art critics Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof: “As populists, we see our blog as art activism. Writing the blog is a political act — an end run around the print powers that be”.

This can apply to blogs on any subject, but especially when reviewing or critiquing something of cultural value or significance, whether it is visual art, movies, music or books. I think this quote is spot-on: it is the populist nature of blogs that sometimes causes concern and fosters dismissive attitudes among some in the established media. There is a lot of junk on the Internet but the fact that not all of it is poor quality is what can concern the traditional media. It isn’t that there are many bloggers out there spouting off about their own concerns, it that there are some bloggers — some well-written and frequently read — that may be putting forth ideas contrary to the mainstream or contrary to the economic interests of a publisher. Perhaps the headline should be Upstart Bloggers Cause Kneejerk Reactions, but the root cause of that reaction is a discomfort with a new populist means for disseminating information, for spreading ideas and commentary, for making recommendations and ultimately shaping opinion — even if only in a very minor way to a limited audience.

By its nature, blogging is more casual. It can also be more immediate. Since in most cases it is just the blogger and her comments, there isn’t someone to review or copy edit a piece and to prevent you from publishing something incredibly stupid. There aren’t standards to specify length, or reading level or to enforce restrictions on certain subjects. So, in some respects, it is about the medium: a short blog post should not be compared either to a diary or to a newspaper or magazine article as it is neither. But, it isn’t all about the medium. Sometimes it is the content that is the chief importance. To dismiss all book blogs because some do not provide critical reviews, is like saying that you won’t read any magazines because you don’t like the celebrity-focused, gossipy nature of People or the look of the glossy paper it is printed on. To think that because there is a multitude of readers willing to write about books means that they will cause the obsolescence of print reviewers is just as short-sighted.
What a discerning reader should easily differentiate is what the writer/blogger’s goals are. Is it meant to be a review? a recommendation? a chatty conversation with friends? a finished piece of criticism? Blogs can be any of those. Only when it is framed by what it is intended to be, can you judge its quality and value.

I am interested in book bloggers responses to questions similar to those in the Art in America roundtable. If you are interested in participating in a similar discussion regarding blogging in general, and blogging about books in particular, please leave a comment. I’ll compile a list of questions to email to those willing to respond, and then post the ’roundtable’ discussion here in a few weeks.

>On reading that Lessing has won the Nobel Prize

>Doris Lessing is one of those writers of whom I always feel that I should have read more. I’ve only read one of her short stories and it instantly comes to mind when I hear her name.

Our Friend Judith is commonly anthologized. My first reading of it was in the text used for an Intro to Lit class I taught as a grad student. I had never read anything by Lessing at the time but I was not unfamiliar, if perplexed, with her reputation. In my undergraduate classes, she was praised by professors in Women’s Studies classes, and merely mentioned by professors in Literature classes. “Oh yes, Lessing. Well, the feminists seem to like her a lot”.

My first reading of the short story was, therefore, influenced by these comments. In retrospect, I’m not sure that I ever had a professor mention Lessing that had actually read her work. The syllabus was mandated; Our Friend Judith was for the unit discussing character and an unreliable narrator. It is a good story to teach these concepts.

Naive readers will state that the story is about nothing much, except for an old spinster who gets upset about a cat. When I was teaching this story (in the mid-80’s), some students might state that the story is about a woman who is independent and her friends who are envious that she is. Some would have picked up on a ‘feminist’ twist to this story, perhaps because they had run to the library to read criticism in order to sound as if they knew what they were talking about. But few realized from the first reading that the story was more about the busybody narrator and her gossiping friend Betty than it was about Judith.

I reread this story the morning after reading that Lessing won the Nobel Prize. Twenty-odd years after reading it for the first time, I still like it and I am still admiring of the structure of this story. Maybe some day I’ll read more of Lessing’s work. Maybe it is similar to this brief story. Maybe then I’ll understand if there is a reason –other than the blatant sexism of my 70’s era Literature professors –for their comments.

>Batter a paradox

>A few weeks ago, I came across a quote from John Donne, and had to look up the source. In doing so, I took the time to read through The Holy Sonnets, a collection of 17 sonnets Donne wrote in his later life, after the death of his beloved wife. Of these 17, I had previously only been familiar with two of them: Sonnet X, Death, be not proud and Sonnet XIV, Batter my heart, three-person’d God.

Holy Sonnet XIV is a poem that vexes me. And, yet, it is a poem that I love. It is fitting to have these contrary reactions to Holy Sonnet 14, given that the poem’s beauty and truthfulness lies in understanding the paradoxes in Donne’s sonnet.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The images of violence in this poem are overwhelming. The speaker asks his loving God to set aside his gentle, healing ways (“for you/As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;) replacing them with force. The speaker compares himself to a town in battle that will lose to the enemy; the speaker traitorously abandoning his threshold despite reason. (Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,/But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.) Lastly, Donne compares the speaker to an unfaithful bride, loving God, but betrothed to his enemy. (Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,) To be released from this agony, the speaker asks God to batter him, imprison him as his only salvation. And this is where the poem gets really tricky, or perhaps even icky: the speaker asks to be ravished — the Elizabethan word meaning rape — in order to be purified, to be defiled in order to be made chaste.

To my modern sensibilities, this conceit is wrong. A God of love and mercy should not be compared with acts of violence, especially rape, a violent act of power and control. To suggest it seems not just inappropriate, but sacrilegious. It is so contrary to what I hold as true, that it is jarring, shocking, even revolting.

And yet…maybe that is exactly Donne’s point. By using such brutal and shocking metaphors he makes the point that the easier way is that of the world — the earthly, and the carnal. In our imperfections we choose things of this world, rather than those of a heavenly one in the guise of freedom. I believe that the spiritual path is one to be found here, not only in some dreamy, cloud like conceit of a heavenly afterlife, but it is only found by abandoning the trappings of this world that likewise enslave us. The speaker in Donne’s poem knows which master he should serve, but begs to be bullied into servitude to the more difficult path. As Bob Dylan once penned, (in what had to be one of his worst songwriting phases), “…It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

And so, I love Donne’s poem for the form, the meter, the lyrical way the words play in my head and on my ear, (go read the poem aloud, immersing yourself in its language) and even for its ultimate meaning, but the explicitly violent images distress me. My feelings a paradox, just like Donne’s poem.

I prefer the prayer/poem of Rabi’ah al-Adawiyya (an 8th century woman from Basra, Persia) which presents the same paradox. While her images are not of battery, rape and sexual torture, they are no less frightning:

Oh God, If I worship Thee for fear of Hell,
Burn me in Hell.
If I worship Thee for in hopes of Paradise,
Exclude me from it.
But, if I worship Thee for Thy own sake,
Do not keep Thy Everlasting Beauty from me.