Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why do books change?

In my long (long LONG long) stint as a book reviewer, I reviewed well over 300 titles for the likes of the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Stampede and Victoria's Secret. When I got to the end of it, I was so tired I wanted to die.

"Don't you miss reviewing?" a former cohort (I've forgotten his name now) asked me. "Miss who?" I said.

A lot of people don't "get" reviewing. They ask if I just send in reviews of things I like (even if they came out ten years ago). Others, quite a few in fact, do not even know what I mean by a "review" and ask me to explain it, as if I had just told them I am a geophysicist.

But when you write for a publication, you don't get to read things you like. I was either handed a book, with a deadline, or presented with three or four books and allowed to choose one or two (a great concession, my editors believed). If these were not read, reviewed and published within two weeks, they'd be "killed" because they were already too stale and irrelevant. The kill fee amounted to ten per cent of the normal, paltry amount. Take it or leave it.

It became a mill. It really did. I've re-read some of them (just now, in fact) and I was surprised to find my reviews are generally quite well-written and cover the material to a depth I didn't expect. But I didn't get into this to write badly, did I? (When a writer says anything remotely positive about her own work, she is immediately branded a "narcissist"). 

And I remember how I sweated over these, and how they nearly ruined my unbridled joy in reading.

But a funny thing happened on the way to retirement.

The books changed.

Some of them changed so much that when I revisited some of my favourites, I couldn't get through them. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one of my top-forever titles, fizzled out on page 36. I'm sorry, Junot Diaz, it just did. I had raved about it to "whoever", the Edmonton Journal I think. I don't know what happened to it, but something did.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt similarly fell like a failed souffle. Have I become a lot more critical in my literary dotage, or what?

And then there's food critic Ruth Reichl's memoir Comfort Me with Apples. I almost raved about it way-back-when, but now I find the story of her rise from waitress to editor of Gourmet Magazine almost tedious, not to mention full of purple prose. She doesn't just taste food; it "explodes" in her mouth. She tastes a cayenne-laced soup: "My head flew off." She goes to Paris, and "I felt as if I had all of France in my mouth".

First time around, that was OK. This time it's beyond lavender: it's deep purple, and as we all know, purple isn't good writing. It's writing that calls attention to itself.

When did these books change?

Movies, too. Few of my early favorites hold up. Midnight Cowboy makes me want to commit suicide. Easy Rider? Blecccchh. Even some of my beloved old black-and-white faves have gotten a bit tattered around the edges. Though I keep watching Now, Voyager whenever it comes on Turner ClassicsI wonder honestly if I "like" it any more, particularly now that I fully realize what a total bastard Jerry is, keeping Charlotte on the hook like that in perpetual spinsterhood while he has a girl in every port. Too "noble" to divorce his wife? Not bloody likely!

Some classics do hold up, but does that say something about me, or the movies? Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is still a guilty pleasure: watching Bette Davis savagely kick Joan Crawford's head in or serve her a rat for lunch still sends shivers of delight down my sadistic spine. When it comes on TCM about once a month, I always get lassooed by Gone with the Wind, whether I want to or not, and basically it's pretty sound in its storytelling, though except for that incredible "I'll never be hungry again" scene (which never fails to make me weep), the acting is mostly workmanlike. Everyone looks so good, even in the throes of antebellum famine, that they all manage to get by (and Hattie McDaniel is the glue holding the whole glorious mess together).

I've seen Taxi Driver innumerable times, and its queasy-making portrait of a sociopath's evolution from antisocial jerk to lionized murderer is gripping: but I mainly watch it for that incredible Bernard Hermann score. The first time I heard it, I kept getting goosebumps on my arms. It was just so unexpected. Those harp-glisses were like having acid thrown in your face. I still come back to it, step into the trap, knowing I am in for a disturbing time and not wanting to get away from it.

I've tried to figure it out. No doubt some movies just become dated. I've really tried, I mean it, to like Charlie Chaplin, and I don't, I just don't. I still adore Harold Lloyd, but with his nerdy Everyman persona (which he nails like no one else, making comics like Woody Allen possible) he somehow stays contemporary, even fresh. Chaplin is a dustbin character, shambling around with a cane, his eyes too made-up to be convincing. In fact, his Little Tramp persona is more creepy than loveable. 

It took three or four tries for me to watch The Great Dictator all the way through (though I think I did make it through Modern Times, enjoying the automatic eating machine). I only broke through after seeing a superb documentary by Kevin Brownlow (and Kevin Brownlow was THE ONLY person who was nice to me through the whole wretched, soul-destroying process of trying to get The Glass Character noticed). It was called The Tramp and the Dictator, and I am sure it far surpasses the original movie which had the usual overblown quality of the Chaplin talkies.

But then I gave it one more chance, and at some point - maybe where Jack Oakie as Mussolini began to rant and rave in faux Italian - I began to laugh. Had the movie changed? I didn't exactly cry by the end, but I was moved. Maybe you've heard the speech at the end, a plea for mercy and sanity in the midst of a global meltdown. The speech is sentimental and antiquated to the point of being almost laughable - but not quite.

Now that I sit here, however, I realize something both surprising and not-surprising: Charlie Chaplin was the first silent film star I ever saw. There was a half-hour Charlie Chaplin TV show on Friday nights when I was ten. Just enough time for a couple of his early two-reelers. The kids at school actually talked about this show, though it was on the same night as The Addams Family. That must have meant something.

When books change, when movies change, they often seem to change for the worse - unless, rarely, like The Great Dictator, they redeem themselves. And actors. It happens to them, too. Robert Redford was just a pretty face (granted, pretty gorgeous) until I recently saw him in something called The Candidate. The way he conveyed cynicism hiding behind an ingratiating mask, the way that cynicism retreated and the mask ultimately became who he was - it was, if not masterful, then extremely subtle and worth watching. He gave himself to the character and then disappeared.

Is it possible some of these movies get better on television? The big screen maybe pumps up some actors to the point of explosion. If they're too histrionic to begin with - Chaplin? But Lloyd works either way, and so does Keaton with his more mechanistic, emotionally shut-down style. (Keaton, by the way, was the second silent film star I really spent time with. Once again, it was Kevin Brownlow who opened the door for me with his superb documentary, A Tough Act to Follow. Would it be an exaggeration to say Kevin IS silent film history, living and breathing and walking around? No, I don't think so.)

I'm getting to it, I'm getting to it! Or I hope I am: what all this says about me. Me, yes, the person sitting here eating Greek yogurt with apricot preserves, crushed walnuts, and fresh blueberries, which explode in my mouth. The secret is not to chop the nuts but to crush them in your fingers: it somehow presses out the oil and makes them tastier. But I digress.

The cliched way of looking at it is, "Well, now you've grown up and matured and your taste in books/films is different." Is this why my precious all-time favourite novel, Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, now seems almost trite, or (much worse) gimmicky? I first read it in 1973, when I was 19 years old and just getting married. (Yes.) But it isn't just that. Maybe I've gone sour on some stuff. Maybe I AM more critical. I shone the spotlight on too many titles, and it got too bright, glaring. Did I lose the ability to truly enjoy a book?

I wonder, I wonder.

I just re-read Keith Maillard's The Clarinet Polka, another book I reviewed years ago, and kept thinking, "How does he do that?" The character was an alcoholic who treated women shabbily, and there was no way he could be called likeable. Yet we liked him. It's just that he wanted something better. He had this shining, idealistic crush on a girl so young he had to wait three years even to make a move on her - then he married her! Shouldn't we have groaned? Well, I did, but I still liked him, and her, and (needless to say) the novel.

But the point of fiction isn't to make us "like" characters, or even (necessarily) identify when them. We must see something real in them, something that rings true and human. A novel could be about Hitler, and I'd want to read it and give it a good review IF the author provided a convincing portrait. Chaplin leaves me cold (or cold-ish: when I finally got through The Great Dictator on about the fifth try, I said to myself, "I'm glad I watched it all at last"), but that's because he isn't real. Surrealism is great, but it has to hit closer to home. The sight of Mr. Everyman struggling to hold on to the hands of a clock 30 stories up still feels real to us. His terror feels real. So does his desire to please, which embarrasses us a little bit, because that's like us, too.

Doris Lessing once said (and I bailed on re-reading my former favorite Love, Again when it, too, went and changed on me) "a real book reads you". What we choose to step into, spend our time with, is certainly revealing. As the clock ticks away in my own life, I realize a lot of people my age are dying because they are considered "elderly". If I spend time reading a book, I am giving my time to it. Which means I am NOT giving my time to other things, like eating, sleeping, dancing, or playing on a swing. It's an introverted thing, isn't it? Movies aren't much better. Though I have no qualms about singing along with "Springtime for Hitler" for the twenty-seventh time, I wonder why, sometimes, I try to force myself to give up two hours of my life, one hundred and twenty minutes I can never have back, for something that isn't likely to make me happy. 

And sometimes, I admit, it is a kind of selling out. Come on, Margaret. Everyone raves about this movie! Like it, won't you? Or at least watch it. Then I watch it, feel dull and drained afterwards, and realize - or maybe I'm realizing just this minute - that the time I spent on it is gone and behind me and is two hours crossed off the total hours of my life. Whatever that total might be.

POST-POST. In looking around for images to illustrate this post, I wanted to try to convey the idea that memories change as our minds slip and slide and try to come to terms with "what was". 

When I tried to google terms that might bring up something interesting, I got one thing, and one thing only (though with many sappy backgrounds):




I honestly thought there would be some acknowledgement that "memory" is a slippery concept at best, a malleable thing, and that how we remember things changes with maturity and experience and shifting perception and even the time-altered, gradual slowing down of the brain.

But no.

Nowhere could I find any of that. Just sappy memes telling us (and who is "us" exactly?) to "never regret the past, because you can't change it! You can only change the future."

But you can't do that either. Can you?

Why don't people get it, or am I the crazy one (as I have often been told)? For no doubt, most of these people are far more successful in the eyes of the world than I. I guess total lack of imagination is a big help. Their imagination was sucked out of them by the school system, after which they breathed a great sigh of relief and got on with the business of exploiting as many people as possible.

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