Sunday, October 30, 2005

Quixotic quests

Itunes offered a handful of inexpensive audiobooks on sale recently. I picked up _Julie and Julia_, abridged. The author reads it herself. One day, depressed, 29, and feeling like a failure, Julie Powell decided to cook every recipe in _Mastering the Art of French Cooking_. She went into hysterics when meeting difficulties. Eventually, as she blogged about the experience, gained an audience, conquered more recipes, and started getting some perspective on the world, she became happier. She finished her quest and turned it into a book. The end.

I didn't like the book very much. It's nice that she gets better. Still, she spends the first third in a disgusting abyss of self-pity. At one point, she even describes herself as the hysteric woman in _Airplane_ and her husband as all the other passengers, slapping her out of it. Ouch, I hope that was metaphorical.

It's good to set goals and accomplish them. Good food is good for your spirits. And I suppose starting at a low point makes better drama. Still, it was a low point of her own creation. No one has to go into a trance of self loathing because they are a secretary, because they married their high school sweetheart, because they are 29. Not even because their biological clock is ticking.

Ah, well. There's some value to watching her build a better philosophy. And the cooking is interesting. I'll even grant that others might find the things I let myself get blue over to be equally trivial, now and then. And I enjoyed thinking about the value of good food. So the book has something to offer, if you slog through the dreariness.

I was recently reading _No Plot? No Problem!_ by Chris Baty. It's a guide to the glorious quest that is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is an online community for writing 50,000 words in the month of November. I'm entering again this year.

_No Plot? No Problem!_ is cheery, daring, celebratory of imperfection. It's practically the antipodes of _Julie and Julia_. It's a handbook for setting aside your mental editor and pumping out gales of fiction. Because, surprisingly, just getting something written often produces delightfully adequate stories. Or in any case, beats putting off writing to meet a higher standard another day that never comes.

In one exercise, Chris Baty has us write lists of what we love in novels and what we hate in novels. It was the first time in a long time I'd given myself permission to follow my own tastes. And you know, I don't really like a lot of the fiction heralded as important literature. I don't like depressed characters barely managing to come to grips with the disappointments of their mediocre lives. I'm not impressed by gritty reality. I want color, adventure, grand plans, and gonzo worlds. I want optimism and humanity and humor. Sure, I want a leavening of truthful observation and problems thorny and substantial. I want continuity, and magic and science that have a price and don't change their rules midstream. I want competent characters, wit and good prose.

I also noticed that I'm a bit more accepting of lit fic in movies than in novels. I didn't mind _Lost in Translation_ so much, and I was fond of _Sideways_. Still -- really -- _Star Trek: First Contact_ really hit the target. Come to think of it, so did _Spiderman_ one and two. (And no, none of Star Wars 1-3 did.)

So now you know. I'm a fan, and we actually have critical targets.

And if my taste sounds like something you would share, check out the reviews button on the left for more.