Friday, September 11, 2009

What I Did This Summer

Not much.

I moved into my new office at work and puttered around happily in there, working on this or that project. And we spent a beautiful week with our dear Theologiggle friends at Lake Michigan. And we drove the children around. And around and around.

We did do a lot of cleaning. We cleaned the house over and over for the various anonymous people who came through to look at it. Alas, still no buyer, though we’ve come close a couple times. And that’s about it. No elaborate vacations, no trips across the country (thank goodness), no major family events. This all seemed restful at the time, but now I look back and wonder what on earth I accomplished, besides a very clean kitchen sink.

Therefore, in an attempt to feel as if three months of my life has not floated by uselessly, I present:

Bite-Size Reviews.

It turns out that between car trips and scrubbing, I did wind up reading quite a bit and watching a few movies.

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
Jill Bolte Taylor

A brain scientist has a stroke at age 37 (caused by a blood clot) and records the whole experience in scientific detail. Her left brain seriously damaged, she entered a kind of pure right-brain experience, which resembles nirvana or similar religious ecstasies. Six years later, she had at last regained full function, but also become a more peaceful person by learning to “turn off” her left-brain at will (sort of). Her story is fascinating in its portrayal of brain function, but annoying in its exhortations to the reader. Her bottom line: you can enter bliss whenever you wish by training your brain.

On the other hand…

The Female Brain
Louann Brizendine

This book uses neuroscience and hormone research to explain hormonal influence on various stages of female experience. Very intriguing, but depressing. Her bottom line: Sure, you have free will and all, but frankly your female hormones powerfully influence everything you think and do, and they are pretty likely to drive you to madness at various semi-predictable intervals.

After reading both these books, I can’t decide whether I am helpless against my hormonal surges or hopeless in my inability to enter bliss by sheer will.

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives
Wayne Muller

My pastor friend Dawn was right when she recommended this as a wise, balanced treatment of Sabbath. I found it inspiring. The one problem with Sabbath-keeping that Muller does not much address, though, is dealing with the other people in your household. One cannot rest very well unilaterally. And persuading the others in your household to alter their Sabbath practices—just the thought of it exhausts me. Yes, Rienstras, I’m talking about you.

The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd

I read this because we wanted to invite the author to Festival. Turns out she can’t make it, but I don’t regret reading the novel—a page-turner and an understandable bestseller. The portrayal of a nurturing, feminine community could have been an eye-roller, but the bee-keeping motif saves it. I’m not a big expert on Southern writers, but what is up with all these adolescent female protagonists with a tragic mother and a mean daddy? Is that some sort of genre convention or something?

Gods in Alabama
Joshilyn Jackson

Wooooo-doggie, is this a tale! I flew through this book, which is part murder mystery, part romance novel, part comedy of manners. Jackson is a Southern writer with a cracklin sense of humor. The novel is wonderfully constructed to reveal outrageous past events piece by piece, throwing repeated surprises that will cause the reader to emit audible gasps (at least this reader). Lots of frank sexual content here, so not recommended for young, innocent readers. Jackson will be coming to the Festival next spring.

The Pine Island Paradox
Kathleen Dean Moore

A philosopher with hiking boots and a backpack. Moore is a philosophy professor at Oregon State, as well as a nature writer. She was recommended to me by some nature-writer friends, and it looks like she’ll be at Festival, too. I appreciate her clear, elegant writing and her interesting digressions into philosophical musings. Nature writing traditionally involves a kind of lonely, rugged, individual human voice, but Moore self-consciously connects her love for the wild with her love for family. Her concern for humans in community with each other and the natural world makes her work fresh and relevant.

L. S. Klatt

A volume of poems by my colleague at Calvin, whom we know as Lew. I loved reading this because it felt to me that I was exercising different parts of my brain. I’m used to reading poetry that requires a lot of intellectual puzzle-solving, but Lew’s poems make sense through sound and image-play. I found this, as well as the overarching metaphor of poet as interloper, quite delightful.

And now, some movies…

Star Trek (the new movie)
Loved it. Love the young Kirk and Spock, in fact I like them far better than the originals. Great character work from all the actors, reflecting careful research into canonical ST. Not impressed with the villain, though. So you turned to evil in response to the murder of your young wife and baby, and now your plan is revenge. That old routine? Really? And I was thoroughly disappointed by the ridiculous reliance on “red matter” to propel the plot. Visually striking, but it reminded me of those huge red balls outside Target, and I kept expecting to see product placement. Also, am I getting old, or were some of those frames so full of exploding debris as to be indecipherable by the human brain? Good thing I didn’t see it in IMAX. Despite my complaints, a fun movie ride.

I came out of the theater with this thought: that was the most unpredictable story I have ever seen on screen. I found the first thirty minutes poignant and moving, of course, but felt less and less emotionally connected as the story rumbled along. Still, “Let go of that old dream, for heaven’s sake, and move on to something new and real” is hardly a stock message these days. So points for that.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Yeah, I can see what all the fuss was about. The whole ships-passing-in-the-time-space-continuum premise pleased my sci-fi-loving side, but I mostly enjoyed the historical backdrops and even the sets. That New Orleans old folks home itself may have been my favorite character. And yes, the acting was wonderful yada yada yada.

Charlie Bartlett
One of those artsy films, but don’t let that put you off. The premise is that a high school kid, stuck in yet another new school, tries to gain popularity by blackmarketing psychopharmaceuticals out of the boys’ bathroom, and ends up serving as the unofficial psychologist for a lot of messed up teens. The story could have taken a lurid dive, but it focuses on character and stays sweet and quirky and very witty. The kid’s mother all by herself is worth a spot in the Netflix queue.

Into the Wild
This one was recommended to me by many male students after discussing literary tragedy a few semesters ago. I’m not sure it connects to classical tragedy, but I can see why my students love the film: it is saturated with young adult male restlessness. A bright, sensitive fellow runs away after college, determined to live deliberately a la Thoreau. He travels the country meeting other free spirits until he achieves the solitude he craves in the Alaskan wild. And then… well, I won’t give away the ending. This beautiful film was directed by—what??!—Sean Penn, and I thought it was well put together with subtle character work and gorgeous cinematography. I wished I were watching it on a big screen instead of my little pre-HD, pre-flat-screen contraption.

Emma Thompson is a goddess. Every project she takes on, from Beatrice (Much Ado about Nothing) to Margaret Wilcox (Howard’s End) to Professor Trelawney (various Harry Potter movies) to Vivian Bearing (Wit), she accomplishes with breathtaking excellence. For this beautiful film version of the off-Broadway play about an English professor dying of cancer, Thompson helped write the screenplay and played the starring role—to perfection. She is my paradigm for the woman with the most admirably flawless career record (closely followed by Cokie Roberts).

So now the summer’s over, and it’s back to Beowulf and sonnets. At least I have the new season of Lost and some more Merlin to look forward to when I've had enough of the heavy-duty stuff.

1 comment:

Sanna said...

You like Merlin?!!? ME TOO!