Friday, July 23, 2010

Renoir Overload

I am an art lover, though no expert. In recent years, emboldened by creating my own art, finding the audacity to refer to my writing as art, and believe that it is, I've come to have bolder opinions about art. Like, for example, though I have no academic or artistic training in the visual arts, I can have an opinion. That was a radical concept to me. Because like writing, I think any piece of art means something different to everyone who views it. We bring ourselves to art and to writing.

So I'm just going to say it--I do not like Renoir. Considered one of the great master painters of the past few hundred years? Undoubtedly. To Julie Owsik Ackerman--don't like it. Renoir himself helped me realize this. I walked through the entire Late Renoir exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and though I really liked a few pieces--one of a young woman playing with a small boy, a tendril of hair covering one of her eyes, both enthralled with their game--had a sweetness, a natural quality, and love that shone through. That touched me. In others I admired the way a dress was painted. But in general, by the end of the exhibit, I was underwhelmed.

At the end is a painting by Matisse. Next to it is a story of how Matisse had shown Renoir that particular work, along with some other of his paintings and Renoir had said he didn't like them. He said that he would tell Matisse he wasn't a painter, except he admired the way he used black. But he didn't like Matisse's work.

That was my a-ha moment. Few would say that Matisse wasn't a great artist, but Renoir couldn't relate to his work. That's how I feel about Renoir. I'm not saying it's without merit, but it doesn't do much for me. I don't feel much, I don't respond much at all except to say, "Not another fat lady in soft light." Just doesn't do it for me. Why do I love Matisse's work and not Renoir? I like his bright colors. I like his juxtaposition of intricate patterns with simple human forms. I just like it. Something inside me perks up, takes notice, wants more when I see a Matisse painting. I want to stand in front of it, from different angles, spend time, notice how I react and why. Other artists I feel this way about--Van Gogh, Rothko, Degas, Rousseau, Kahlo, Dali, Rivera. Other masters I cannot relate to: Picasso. (and while I'm confessing things, Hemingway.)

Why do we respond to some art and not other? It's subjective. I love bright colors, so a muted pallate is not something that leaps out at me. These are all good reminders for me about my writing. Some people will relate to it and others won't. Just because some people don't like it doesn't mean it doesn't have value, it just means they're more Renoir than Matisse.

More Summer Reading

One more great book I wanted to pass along:

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Very highly recommended reading

This book is one of those rare treats, like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where I thought--I haven't read this voice before. It's so fresh and vivid and real. How a 30ish woman so accurately nailed the voice of a 50ish father of teenage daughters, I don't know, but kudos to you, Kaui Hemmings.

Set in Hawaii, which was a big selling point for me, the book opens with Matthew King in a hospital room with his wife who is in a coma. Doesn't sound like a funny premise, but the book is hilarious. First line: "The sun is shining, mynah birds are chattering, palm trees are swaying, so what." Hemmings' writing reminded me that honesty can make anything funny. Watching this snarky, detached man try to parent a 17-year-old and 10-year-old daughter is funny. Watching him mess it up is funny. Watching his attempts to make amends is funny. And touching. And ultimately, sweet.

It's a powerful story, hard to put down, originally told. Oh, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Apparently Alexander Payne (director of Sideways) just finished filming a movie based on this book. Pretty cool. And a little someone named George Clooney is the star. I wonder if Clooney could play a 20-year-old Mexican for the adaptation of my novel?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Summer Reading

What do I like in a book? I have to care about the protagonist, and prefer someone I like and can root for. Funny is good, though not necessary. A juicy problem helps, especially if I can relate to it. Bonus points for taking me to a time or place I’ve never been, or letting me return to a place I love. Good writing—do I need to say that? Oh, and I’m a sucker for a love story.

Here’s a short list of books I would recommend for summer reading.

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous. Highly recommended reading

This book jumped off the shelf at Borders at me, with its intriguing title and its sea green cover, showing a Japanese drawing of a woman. The back copy begins with “Hoping to outpace her grief in the wake of her father’s suicide, Marina has come to the small, rural Japanese town of Shika to teach English for a year.” My novel is about a girl trying to outrun grief by going to Mexico, so I had to read this one.

Watrous transported me to rural Japan, a place I knew nothing about previously, and made me feel like I was there. She took me on Marina’s journey as she adjusted to a foreign culture, tried to face her grief, and figure out her romantic relationships—one with a woman, one with a man. It’s funny and tender and unlike most books I read.

The Secret Year by Jennifer Hubbard. Highly recommended reading

This is a young adult novel, but don’t let that put you off—it’s mature, well-written, and compelling. It also deals with grief. (Are we sensing a theme to my reading list yet?) The story begins right after sixteen-year-old Colt finds out that the girl he was secretly seeing for a year has died in a car accident. It explores class issues in contemporary America—Colt was from the wrong side of the tracks—also self-esteem, love, and sex. All from a male teenage perspective. I enjoyed living in Colt’s brain for awhile, and finding out why he had put up with Julia’s conditions of secrecy. I was compelled to know how Colt would handle this grief that he wouldn’t even talk about. How would move on, make peace with the past?

I was a bit surprised by the amount of sex in the book, and how casually the teenage characters seemed to treat it. I could buy that from the boy's perspective, but I found it a little hard to believe that none of the teenage girls in the book seemed to place much emotional import on sleeping with someone. Despite that minor quibble, I really enjoyed reading this book and definitely recommend it.

After You by Julie Buxbaum. Very highly recommended reading

I really enjoyed Buxbaum's first novel, The Opposite of Love, and liked After You even more. This book also focuses on grief, ostensibly over the death of the protagonist’s best friend, but also hidden grief over another loss. The story took me to contemporary London, and introduced me to a lovable, precocious eight-year-old girl. It explored themes of friendship, secrecy, loyalty, and loss, all with Ms. Buxbaum’s irrepressible sense-of-humor. I cried at least once reading this book, and also laughed out loud. Pretty good for the same book.

Nice Girls Do by Sarah Duncan. Recommended reading

I’d never heard of this author or this book, but I saw it by the checkout at the library. It looked like a light read with some sex and romance, which it was.

The protagonist, Anna Carmichael, is a mousy academic type in contemporary England. When we meet her, she is recently divorced, in a bit of a rut, with no love interests in sight. Two interesting men appear rather quickly, and Anna goes though a journey of self-discovery that involves high living, cocaine, sex and a historic garden. This book isn’t a life-changer, but it was highly readable, with a character I cared enough about to hate sometimes, and root for all the time. Plus, it took me to a world of historic English gardens, and taught me some things I’d known nothing about previously.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Loved it loved it loved it!!!

Chances are, you know who Barbara Kingsolver is. I’ve been reading her books for years, though I must admit, I wasn’t a fan of The Poisonwood Bible, the one all the critics loved. The Lacuna, though, is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. Kingsolver has an enviable mastery of language and imagery. I annoyed whoever happened to be sitting near me by reading aloud particularly beautiful sentences—her writing is that good. Combine her talent with a Mexico City setting, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as major characters, and a novelist protagonist, and you can’t be much more up my alley. I loved this book!!!!

Open by Andre Agassi. Highly recommended reading

I include this so you know I do read non-fiction occasionally, and because I loved this book too. I am an ardent tennis fan and a lifelong Agassi fan, so I was predisposed to like this book. The story is compelling, but what surprised me most was that it is beautifully written and searingly honest. This book also made me cry. It’s a damn good story about a little orphan who finds love and redemption. It’s funny, inspiring and fascinating to see what life is like behind the curtain of fame, success and money. Though Andre and I may not have much in common on the surface, we both suffer from perfectionism, and I really enjoyed following his journey as he identified about his demons and eventually learned to get out of his own way.

Happy reading! And please pass along any book recommendations you have. I'm always looking for a great read.