Friday, March 25, 2011

It's a boy!

Our fourth grandbaby, due September 9, is a boy. His parents saw his anatomically correct picture yesterday, and his father posted it on the refrigerator. His grandfather and I have taken to calling him Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), which goes very well with his last name.

Naturally, I’m thinking about gender.

We’ve been keeping track of Cholmondeley for three months, ever since he was the size of an almond. As he grew, we called him the Kiwi, the Peach, and the Hamster. But now that we know his gender, he’s a person.

I know, I know. Depending on your philosophy, he’s been a person since the moment he was conceived, or possibly from all eternity. Or, on the other hand, he won’t be a person until he’s born, or possibly later, but is in the process of becoming one. Gender has nothing to do with it.

But I’m not speaking scientifically or theologically or philosophically or politically. I’m just saying how I feel, as his grandmother. I can imagine him now, this second grandson of mine. I can think about how he’ll look in those little-boy outfits at Carson’s that line the aisle between women’s lingerie and the women’s lounge (their marketers know that grandmothers are likely to walk that way). I can wonder if his tastes will run to stuffed bunnies or board books or finger paints or drums.

Some years ago, when I was working for a religion publishing company, several authors and I got into lengthy discussions about gender pronouns. Our editorial policy insisted upon gender neutrality in referring to people, but we were fuzzier about how to refer to God.

One author upbraided me every time she noticed a book of ours using masculine pronouns for God. God is neither male nor female, she rightly observed, and using he, him, and his when writing about God perpetuates misleading stereotypes.

Another author rightly observed that we simply can’t speak of an individual person without gender references. To refuse to use personal pronouns for God, this author insisted, was to rob God of God’s personal characteristics and to turn God into some kind of impersonal force – besides, of course, butchering the English language.

I agree with both authors, and I suggest that for the next four millennia – equal to about the amount of time we monotheists have been calling God he – we call God she. Feminine pronouns are as inaccurate as masculine pronouns, they do an equally good job of emphasizing God’s personal nature, and for many people they make God seem warmer and more accessible, sort of like the Blessed Virgin.

Myself, I like to think of God as a large, comfortable, but no-nonsense woman who hugs me when I need to be hugged and chews me out when I need to behave. I call her LaHoveh. She’s certainly a mother and, given how long she’s been in business, she’s clearly a grandmother too. I imagine she’s already looking out for Cholmondeley.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

THE LINCOLN LAWYER, the movie

A short note for my fellow Michael Connelly fans - The Lincoln Lawyer is worth watching. Opening last weekend, it ranked in fourth place. Ninety-five percent of its viewers were over 25, which means the theaters were relatively quiet and unsticky (check here for other stats). Rotten Tomatoes currently rates it in the 80% range, which isn't shabby.

But you don't care about the figures, most likely. You've read the book, and you want to know how the movie measures up. You won't love it as much as you loved the original, of course. No bibliophile ever does. Still, it's an entertaining story.

Matthew McConaughey is a good Mickey Haller, shameless but likeable. William H. Macy is a fine investigator. Don't listen to critics who complain that Ryan Phillippe is just too sweet to be Louis Roulet - isn't that the point? On the other hand, Marisa Tomei smiles too much. She is not a credible Maggie McFierce.

The action follows the book's plot as closely as a 2-hour film can follow a 432-page book - which is to say, perhaps too closely. A lot of quick comments and short scenes set up the plot and move it along. Some take the place of adequate plot development. Some events seem to happen too quickly or out of the blue, especially if you, say, sneezed just as the explanatory sentence was uttered.

The central problem with this movie, though, is that it follows the wrong thread.
The beauty of Michael Connelly's books is that they're not all about plot. His major characters, and many of his minor ones, are well developed. Big questions are never far from the surface. Mickey Haller is dealing with a legal conflict, to be sure, but his larger conflict is in his soul. After years of being the best public defender in L.A., can he tell the difference between innocence and guilt? Has he lost his own innocence? When terrible events start to unroll, is he in any way culpable?

The movie Haller recapitulates the actions of the book Haller, but he shows no character development whatsoever. Yes, he asks one or two of the big questions in some of those speedy scenes, but he is not possessed by them. By the end, he has solved his legal problem and is still alive (which is not always a certain outcome), but he is still who he was at the beginning.

The director could have made The Lincoln Lawyer a psychological thriller. The movie could have been dark and deep and terrifying. Instead, it is witty, fast-paced, scary in places, but far from profound. It's good entertainment, but - even though Connelly was one of the screenwriters - it doesn't begin to do what his books do.

And that's just another reason why we still need books. Connelly's next, The Fifth Witness, is due April 5.

Monday, March 14, 2011

THE SOCIAL ANIMAL by David Brooks

Last December a couple of magazine editors asked me to read a galley of David Brooks's then-forthcoming book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement, and consider reviewing it. After reading the galley, I declined.

I didn't hate the book as much as P.Z. Myers does in his hilarious Salon review, "David Brooks' Dream World for the Trust Fund Set," though you might want to read Myers before tackling Brooks. Equally dismissive but more analytical is Will Wilkinson's "Scornful Review" on his Forbes blog. And while philosopher Thomas Nagel, who analyzes "David Brooks's Theory of Human Nature" in the New York Times, is not dismissive, he too seems less than impressed by Brooks's argument and presentation.

I sent one of the editors a lengthy e-mail explaining why I didn't want to review the book, which was published last week. Here's what I told him:
... I’m less enthusiastic about it than I hoped I’d be. Brooks is writing about the primacy of the unconscious over the conscious mind, and secondarily (I think) the primacy of interpersonal relationships over rational constructs. Basically he’s synthesizing a lot of books he’s read, and he’s presenting the findings in more-or-less story form as he follows the lives of two imaginary characters, Harold and Erica. Weirdly, he has his characters living in the eternal present, as he warns us up front—at every stage of their life, they seem to be living in about 2010.

This framework allows Brooks to pontificate on lots of things that are dear to his heart, especially in the chapter “The Soft Side” in which Harold joins a think tank and ruminates on everything that Brooks thinks about (“He spent those years writing his essays, peppering the world with his policy proposals. Not many people seemed to agree with him. There was a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own, and a few others. Still, he plugged away, feeling that he was mostly right about things and that someday others would reach the conclusions he had reached.”)

The book also includes a great deal of typical Brooks humor. Unlike some reviewers of his previous books, I generally enjoyed the humor, though it sometimes seemed discordant with his sociological musings.

Summary: the book put a lot of interesting research together, but it did not break any new ground. Harold and Erica kept my attention, but I didn’t identify with either of them – and I’m not sure that many other readers would either. Erica is a driven over-achiever from an underprivileged background who ends up in the halls of power, partly thanks to Harold’s support and occasional wisdom. Harold doesn’t really seem to be anybody, though he has good people skills. They have quite a lot of money and no kids. When they retire, they lead overseas tours three times a year until they can’t do that anymore, and then they buy a second home in Aspen. Who are these people, and could they exist anywhere but inside the Beltway?

Anyway, I do plan to comment on the book on The Neff Review, though I won’t publish my comments until March, when the book is published. But I’ve lost my enthusiasm for writing a review for [your magazine]. This is by no means to say that it shouldn’t be reviewed. Brooks says some fine things about relationships and the unconscious and why we need to get past mechanistic Enlightenment reasoning, or at least move from the French to the English Enlightenment. Another of your authors may be perfectly suited to review it.
I loved Brooks's first book, Bobos in Paradise. I liked his second, On Paradise Drive. I managed to finish reading his third, The Social Animal. I appreciate the irenic tone of his op-ed pieces, and I wish him well. I hope he takes a refreshing sabbatical before starting another book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What civil discourse sounds like

Like you, I have friends who lean left and friends who lean right. Sometimes we all get along just fine, sometimes we annoy one another, and sometimes we de-friend each other on Facebook. I've been thinking about what makes the difference, and I decided to try to write something that we all might confirm - unless, of course, we would really rather rant than communicate. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could combine conviction with passionate intensity - and still talk peaceably with one another!

Choose your column ...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Food bullies

Back in the 70s, a little truck-stop restaurant in the wilds of Eastern Washington became locally famous because its French patronne did not mind insulting her clients. Order wrongly, and she would refuse to grant your request. Salt before tasting, and she would angrily remove the salt shaker from your table.

When Mr Neff and I finally worked up enough courage to go to her restaurant, which was reputed to have excellent food despite the neon Pepsi sign in its front window, I decided to hedge my bets by talking to the dragon lady en fran├žais, which I spoke rather well at the time. Predictably, she was thrilled - finally someone who might understand her cooking!

When it was time for dessert, we ordered the small cup of ice cream that came with our prix fixe meal. La patronne vehemently disagreed. "You must have the tarte aux framboises," she told us.

"Oh, but Madame," we protested, "the meal was so satisfying that we couldn't possibly. All we want is a small dessert."

"No," she insisted. "You must have the raspberry tart. The people in the booth behind you wanted it, and I told them they couldn't have it. There are only two pieces left, and they are yours."

We had no choice. She brought the tart.

I have never, before or since, eaten anything like it. Each slice was a perfect triangle of raspberries arranged like a dry-stone wall with no visible mortar. Each raspberry was small and bursting with flavor (I suspect the raspberries came out of her garden). The crust was light and sweet and perfect. The first bite was exquisite, and every subsequent mouthful was even better, pleasure layering on pleasure.

So I am somewhat sympathetic to the chefs I read about in Diane Cardwell's article, "Have It Your Way? Purist Chefs Won't Have It," in yesterday's New York Times:
New York has spawned a breed of hard-line restaurants and cafes that are saying no. No to pouring takeout espressos, or grinding more than a pound of coffee at a time. No to taming the intensity of a magma-spicy dish. And most of all, no to the 21st-century conviction that everything can be accessorized to the customer’s taste.
If you want excellent food, why mess with the recommendations of experts?

On the other hand, if you know what you like, why let experts bully you into eating or drinking what you don't want?

OK, there are several good reasons: (1) to learn to like something new (isn't this what we tell our children when we offer them, say, their first bite of avocado?), (2) to learn why we like what we like so we're more sure of getting it next time, (3) to discover that food we don't think we like, prepared brilliantly, is actually quite good ... well, all the reasons seem to come back to learning.

And learning is why I checked out Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's Drink This: Wine Made Simple when I saw it on the new-books shelves at the public library - and why, after reading a couple of chapters, I actually bought my own copy. Grumdahl is hilarious. She knows wine. She explains things well. She has devised a clever system to help wine novices have fun while learning much more than they're likely to learn from more exhaustive books.

And yet, bless her, she doesn't suffer bullies gladly. From her "Wine Drinker's Bill of Rights":
Your whole life has been one cumulative process adding up to your own taste. No person, critic, wine shop clerk, or anyone else has a right to disparage or discount it. If you want to drink Bordeaux with your oysters, Port with your burger, or Chardonnay with your fried chicken, it is no one's business but your own. No one lives with your taste buds but you, so no one really knows what you are experiencing except you. It's your taste!
Right on, Ms. Grumdahl. Life is too short to drink wine you don't like because it's popular or snobby or expensive, or even because the server raised one eyebrow when you started to order a different wine. In fact, despite wine's popularity, why drink it at all if you don't like it? As Grumdahl advises,
If wine can't provide happiness, it should get out of the way and let something else do it, like chocolate.
Or like that heavenly raspberry tart - even though I allowed a stubborn restauratrice to bully me into eating it.