Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless

Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence)

Memoirs seem to be a modern convention, a diversion from staid autobiographies of the past. Unlike autobiography, which usually covers a life from start to finish, the time range of a memoir can be much shorter. Memoirs are concerned primarily with character development, the “character” being the author, of course, and “development” usually referring to a period of her life which taught her something, or changed something, or started something else.

The new memoir by Wendy Lawless, Chanel Bonfire, deals with the author’s atypical childhood and her phoenix-like emergence from it. Born to theater folk, Wendy’s and her sister Robin’s early lives were unconventional from the start. Her father was a regional actor and her mother had aspirations along these lines. These early backstage experiences actually were a comfort to Wendy. She felt an early pull towards acting and the close-knit, family feel of a production. After the seven years of her parents’ marriage, her actual family life would never be secure again.

From New York to London to Boston, with various world travels in between, Wendy and her sister were subjected to the whims of their mother, who had become very wealthy and connected through her second marriage. But her behavior was unpredictable and irrational. She drank excessively and threatened suicide. The girls might return from school to find an apartment that had been packed up for an overseas move; they might find their mother locked in her room or missing altogether. There was verbal abuse, some physical altercations and much neglect. They lost contact with their father when they moved to London (their mother said he didn’t want them anymore). From this point forward, the girls relied primarily on each other and in many ways, raised themselves.

In The New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn claims that memoir was once “the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)--spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends--motivated, it would seem, by an overpowereing need to be the center of attention." (Full article here). 

And yet, a desire for attention would seem to play a distant second fiddle to the cathartic gains from examining a difficult childhood. I appreciated that in Chanel Bonfire, Ms. Lawless speaks with what seems to be much clarity and self-analysis. She doesn’t sugarcoat any of her own actions and reactions, and she presents what may be considered by some as a privileged lifestyle matter-of-factly. They may have had money but it’s what they didn’t have - a mother’s constant love and guidance - that is the tragedy.

Wendy was able to escape to college, to acting and other pursuits, to a marriage and life of her own. She made a break from her mother and never looked back, until now. She was reunited with her father and established a relationship with him. I finished the book and found myself wishing I knew a little more about her mother. In the way that a novel dissects and presents its characters, I wished I had a bit more insight about what made the mother tick, what she thought about, if she’d had regrets. But then I remembered this wasn’t a novel but rather the memories of her oldest daughter who sadly, may have never known her mother much at all. Chanel Bonfire is an engaging look at another time, another life, and a testament to the human spirit, which often can flourish with little sustenance. Read more about the book and Wendy Lawless here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

In which I feel badly for not loving The Graveyard Book

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
--Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book this week. A while back, my book club read Stardust and most everyone loved it. I liked it, pretty much. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it now, only that it brought to mind A Midsummer Night’s Dream—weren’t there fairies and such? Oh, and a wall. I remember that.

It’s something to do with my attention span, I think. I start to zone out if someone is telling me about their information technology job, or the many steps required to make perfect spaghetti sauce, or really anything, I guess, that doesn’t interest me. As I writer, I can certainly appreciate the imagination and planning it takes to create an entire world; other worlds just don’t call to me. I’m completely obsessed and preoccupied with this one.

So it’s my shortcoming, I fully acknowledge this. I have an easier time with fantasy in films (special effects help a lot), but it’s not as though I’ve NEVER appreciated a novel with other-worldly elements. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I like time-traveling in books (The Time-Traveler’s Wife—an all-time favorite), and I recently read Observatory Mansions, which is set in a “normal” world but everyone is crazy so it felt like another world. It’s just, most of the time, I don’t read fantasy. I never seem to care about what’s happening; it doesn’t hold my attention.

Why did I bother, then? Well, my oldest son is reading The Graveyard Book for school and I thought it would be nice to read along with him. Besides, everyone’s read this book and everyone LOVES it. Eyes glaze over when you mention it; people press hands to hearts. Certainly, I believed, this would be one I’d like.

Fast forward, day one.

Son: “How far along are you in the book? I’m on page 30.”
Me (reading on Kindle): “I’m at 25%.”
Son: “I have no idea what’s going on.”
Me: “Me either, but let’s stick with it.”

Next day…

Me: “How’s the book coming along?”
Son: “I’m on page 40.”
Me: “Ten pages?”
Son: “I just don’t get it. What’s the point? They’re in a cave or something.”
Me: “There are just people who are dead, ghosts.”
Son: “I know but what are they doing?”
Me: “It doesn't matter. Have you gotten to the part with the girl?”
Son: “No.”
Me: “Don’t they go to the cave together?”
Son: “Mom! Don’t spoil it.”

Apparently, this son inherited my imagination deficiency. But, I finished the book and I will say, I warmed to it. That is to say, I was able to pay attention for longer periods. Mr. Gaiman doesn’t need my support; the world knows he’s a fabulous writer. There was a broad cast of almost Dickensian characters and moments of cheeky humor. I appreciated that. And I did find myself wanting to find out why what had happened had happened. But I never did feel like these were real people and I suppose, in general, that’s the element that makes fiction linger, at least with me. And I trust Mr. Gaiman and his millions of fans couldn’t care less about what I think.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Getting the Story(ies) Straight

I remember reading something author Jennifer Egan said once, in an interview during all the hoopla for her A Visit From the Goon Squad. She talked about our media/technology-driven times, and how we're accustomed to ingesting a myriad of information at once, in bite-size chunks. She talked about the structure of her novel, thirteen chapters all with different main characters and styles. A novel in parts rather than “one central story.” And she liked the idea of the chapters as a deck of cards that could, in theory, be placed in any order and still lead to the same effect. I won’t link to anything here because a simple Google search will put you in touch with many, many people talking about Goon Squad and Egan herself talking about it quite a bit too.

It affected me, this notion of a novel in parts, and playing around with chronological time. Allowing the reader to fill in bits between scenes, to construct the line of progress in their own minds, to make the story. Which is probably a big reason why I loved Building Stories so much, because in a very overt way, it did all of this. Read my previous thoughts on Chris Ware’s wonderful graphic novel here.

You ever notice when you’re thinking about something, the universe tends to align and help you out? My family has been watching the television series Once Upon a Time over the past couple of months. We’ve completed the first season and are now into the second, all of us completely hooked. The structure, if you haven’t seen it, is much like Lost or for those who remember the initiator of the type, Twin Peaks. There is a back story, a developing narrative shared by all characters, but episode to episode, you are also introduced to a number of side stories. Small players come and go, interweaving with the main characters; mood and style and approach sometimes vary week to week.

When my book club discussed Egan’s novel (which many of us did not really like), we tried to articulate what exactly the problem was. For me, it lacked something. Something driving the reader forward between stories, some point or conclusion. I wasn’t bothered by the shifts back and forth in time or between characters, although the differing styles sometimes felt labored. It just didn’t feel like it had anything holding it together. A central story. The book club hypothesized that maybe younger readers wouldn’t be as put off by this, because it’s the young, Twitter and texting generation that is absorbing stimulus, audio, visual, et. al. at astonishing rates.

But in watching Once Upon a Time with my children—aged 12, 10, 10 and 10—I found this was not the case. They were not happy to lie back passively while unrelated images and side stories floated by. On the contrary, they were always bringing up strands of the central story to stay mentally organized. Remember when she promised this or that, Mom? Or…It was the glass! Remember that episode when she dropped the glass from the coffin? The activity of putting together the pieces of the narrative were just as important to them as it would be to anyone of, ahem, more advanced age.

Just some random thoughts as I tackle my current work-in-progress, a collection of interlocking short stories that will, hopefully, in the end be joined in some rewarding way. I hope.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka