Sunday, October 28, 2018

Great American Read Books #4 and #7

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer have proven very difficult to obtain! I don't like doing things out of order, but that's just how it has to be sometimes. The same idea applies to many other things I don't like doing such as paying student loans or working every day/night of the week, but whatever. I think being slightly irritated most of the time makes me a better writer. Or a better drinker.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

There were two books I refused to read in high school----Great Expectations and this. I didn't read Great Expectations because someone I hated in 10th grade English always monopolized the conversations we'd have in class about it (and obviously anything she liked was poison) and I found it difficult and boring, which is fair, even now, for Dickens. A Separate Peace was apparently assigned sometime along the way, but I do not remember anything about it, whose class it was for, or even opening the book, ever. In high school I loved reading and often enjoyed the classics they gave us, but there had to be something creepy going on in order for me to actually read it and think about it (i.e., teenage love + suicide in R&J, ghosts and betrayal ala Hamlet, clever murder as in The Landlady or The Lottery, or all that sub-textual male whoring around going on in The Grapes of Wrath). I'm quite well-read now of course, but never forget that I went from Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume directly to V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. Apologies to all of you who are now backing away slowly, but it's the truth.

To return to the point, I would not have had the attention span in high school to read about two 1940s-era teenagers, athletic vs. nerd drama, and the threat of World War II--at that time there just wasn't anything for me, an insufferable brat, in a story like that. But for an adult (or a more mature teenager than I was), there is actually quite a bit worth reading about and I think the book is an important one. There are wonderful moments of nostalgia that happen when main character Gene revisits his old prep school, beautiful language used to describe items such as the school's gym (and its smells), alpha male Finny's ideas and enthusiasm for life, and the natural world that surrounds the boys throughout the various landscapes (the lakes, the tree, the grounds) which pose a different kind of danger than the ever-present war. It's about jealousy, worry, and regret---all very common, very human reactions during the coming-of-age years. I'm glad this was on the list and very much enjoyed reading it although the experience had a very lamenting feel and wasn't at all happy.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This was what I wanted from Rhonda Byrne's The Secret so many years ago----less on the money obsession and more on experience! It's a very easily-read, very simple narrative of a young shepherd who has been inspired to seek adventure and follow his dreams. The story suggests that every aspect of the journey of life, even the struggles and the negatives, contribute to the overall path of finding the PERSONAL LEGEND. Everyone's personal legend is different, so as the story goes, results will depend on what you want to achieve (although let's face it, few of us would say no to any sort of monetary gift in these troubling times). To unpack a little further: If we, as readers, apply this to ourselves it means that everything that has happened to us was designed to 1., teach us something about our own personal legends, and 2., bring about action or change that further inspires us to follow and achieve our personal legends. To disregard the personal legend or to ignore the signs that God or The Universe gives us may lead us down a path more challenging, but the idea is that the personal legend wants very badly to be realized in each of us, and God or The Universe does everything possible to keep showing us how to achieve it and corralling us back to the proper path----we just have to be paying attention. Implicit in this philosophy is the idea that we are responsible for our own fates but also that beauty and opportunity can be found in unexpected places and among the random people we meet (in other words, my very favorite idea: everything matters).

I realize that allegory might not necessarily be everyone's cup of tea, but the message is a positive one and the story is interesting and well-written so I believe that regardless of belief systems or religious affiliation, it can still be widely enjoyed. It was featured in the young adult section at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, and it made me wonder if that particular population is actually open to this kind of story. My kids seem to get the most out of books they are assigned in school or the ones I insist on reading to them out loud. In both these instances, they are required to provide some sort of proof that they've absorbed the story and can comprehend what's happening (school = tests and homework, me = asking them each in turn nerdy questions about the content); it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on this story, although I already took it back to Augsburg. I enjoyed this book very much, but more than that I enjoyed the idea of it and hope that we, as both readers and people, can all still appreciate this kind of innocence and hope. It seems in very short supply these days.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Star is Born (semi-quickly)

Sentimentalists, this is for you.

A Star is Born 
(2018). Directed by Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Eliot

Yes, it's a third-time remake. Yes, Bradley Cooper, a non-musician, sings as well as directs (he did both smashingly). Yes, he's country, Gaga is pop. But I swear, it works, it was great, and I honestly can't remember the number of times I cried but it was a lot. I think people initially thought this was going to be a really bad, really cheesy film (and by "people" I mean mostly me) but it wasn't either of these things at all. I am still kind of crying about it now, actually.

So music is a beautiful thing, but it can also be . . . difficult. Being a musician, a writer, or an artist and staying true to yourself and what you want to say can be difficult. Life, past and present, can be difficult. These difficulties are what make the film emotional--- it's not a particularly glamorous look at stardom but one that embraces the realities of the human experience within the lives of two musicians. Jack and Ally (Cooper and Gaga) aren't totally like us, but they are a little or just enough in that they have relatable flaws, they mess up, and bad things happen to them. Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an accomplished songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist but drinks a lot. Some of his demons get explained, some don't, but his self-destruction is evident from the very beginning and we sympathize because he seems a nice, honest fellow with a back-throat Good Ol' Boy manner of country speaking. Ally (Gaga) is strong and reactionary in a had-it-with-the-world kind of way but full enough of insecurities for the audience to get swept away by everything right along with her. We root for her through our concern---everything is an ascending whirlwind and whirlwinds are exciting! Songs get written in the moment, substance abuse is constant, and yet things go on more or less okay for a while, causing us to hope against all odds for happiness or barring that, the energy and passion of the film's early scenes (illustrated perfectly by the song, "Always Remember Us This Way").

It's impossible, of course. No spoilers, although there are big hints throughout the film (and if you've seen the previous productions, of course you already know). We all have our issues; sometimes music or being loved by someone can save us. Sometimes it can't.

A few more nice details:

1. It's very inspiring to watch two people in the music, enjoying themselves. Lady Gaga is a gifted vocalist, songwriter, and pianist---most everyone probably knew this already---but some of the greatest scenes are when she and Cooper perform side by side; they make quite lovely harmony together. The bluesy/rock instrumental jam, "Out of Time," is a great accompaniment for some of these happy moments (and I can't stop playing it on my Spotify).

2. Vulnerability is portrayed very well by both actors and addressed often and in many ways, but Cooper especially puts himself into this quite skillfully toward the end of the film when everything unravels. He's done some emotionally impressive work with this role, which couldn't have been an easy thing to explore.

3. Sam Eliot is great in everything. There's a guarded closeness between his character, Bobby, a much older brother, and Cooper's Jack that really resonates, and many of the emotional scenes (some done with violent outbursts others with begrudging care) focus on this relationship as a sort of guidepost for many of Jack's problems. Their last interaction, the words Jackson speaks to his brother, and the reaction they bring are part of what's keeping me emotional about this film----"It wasn't Dad I idolized."

Well done, Coop.