Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's my birthday & I'll blog if I want to

I just read a very good novel: In the Kitchen by Monica Ali. The story is grounded in reality yet transcends plot to reach a higher plane of truth telling. In other words, Ali's book succeeds where last year's deeply disappointing, mendacious and therefore award-winning The Road Home by Rose Tremain failed. Like Tremain's, Ali's book is populated mostly by immigrant workers and set in London, in the hotel/restaurant world where so many of them work. In other loci of exploitation and the traffic in human labor, too, like the sex trade and the agricultural fields. Ali doesn't sugarcoat what's happening to immigrant workers in England. There's no fake happy ending via small-business-ownership here. Not even for the main character, a white English chef of working-class origin who at the start of the story has hopes of opening his own restaurant. It's interesting that she chose him as the protagonist. This was a risky approach, I think, and one that pays off. Through his perspective as he deals with a crisis point in his life, the reader discovers, bit by bit, some of what is happening to immigrant workers and to the working class as a whole. Most reviews, of course, criticized Ali for writing too political a novel, praising her writing but carping at her going on and on about all this icky stuff about the horrors of the workers' lives. From my viewpoint, her take on the issue is quite mild; nevertheless, the fact that she takes it on at all, and honestly, is refreshing. This is one I do recommend.

Speaking of kitchens, last weekend I saw the movie Julie and Julia. It was entertaining, in a forgettable way. The scenes with Julia Child and her husband Paul in postwar Paris put a nice liberal gloss on the fact that during World War II they served with William Donovan's OSS, precursor to the CIA, and that Paul then moved on to a career in the Foreign Service which is a euphemism for CIA. Which means that his cultural-attaché postings in various European cities in the 40s and 50s would have seen him at the front line of the anti-Soviet propaganda war. In the movie there's a moment when he's brought in for questioning by the McCarthyite purgers at the State Department; we're meant to breathe a sigh of relief when he sails through but given how many were indeed purged at that time this scene left me supposing that he either cooperated with them or was so clearly on their side that the witchhunters approved. Who knows. I guess I should focus on the boeuf bourguignon.

No, better not. I've developed some digestive issues and am having to be very careful about what I eat, especially avoiding rich, fatty foods. Ah, the wonders of aging. Today is my 55th birthday, about which I'm not at all happy. Maybe I should give a skim to Julie and Julia writer/director Nora Ephron's book I Feel Bad About My Neck for a laugh or two about women and aging. But nah, I doubt that she, with her middle-class straight take on the subject, has much to say to me. Shallow though my kicking-and-screaming-at-being-dragged-down-toward-ack!-60 concerns may be, looks are the least of my worries. It's partly about health, given minor yet aggregating complaints, but even this is not a big deal since I'm basically okay, even improving, having just lost 30 pounds and expecting to hit 50 by year's end. No, the corner this birthday finds me feeling backed into is about options closing off. All my life I've daydreamed about doing this and that, taking off in new directions, working at a different kind of job, living somewhere entirely different, studying, turning, recommencing. Anything and everything has always set me off on reveries about what if this, what if that: a "help wanted" sign, a glimpse through the picture window of a house on a country road, a book about a voyage, a city, an adventure. Now, this crazy high number looms like a Stop sign in my consciousness (and my subconscious--I had a dream about this very issue last night), telling me, no, that's not an option, no, that door is closed, no, sorry, it's getting to be too late, you didn't do any of that when you had the chance so just settle in because where you are is where you're going to stay.

A bunch of self-pitying crap, I know. Snap out of it, I shall. Over the last week I have gotten myself back into writing mode, blogging less, reading less, trying to concentrate more on the work that I want to do from here on out, which is writing fiction that contributes at least a little to the class struggle. I let myself blog here today as a birthday present, and I'll come back once again later this week to post some links, but mostly I'm trying to do my best to do the work. On which Julie and Julia's Julie Powell, of all irrelevant people, actually has some decent advice today. Which reminds me of one other point about the movie. All the critics said the Julia Child scenes were great and you just sat through the Julie Powell scenes waiting to get back to Julia--but I didn't feel that way. The reason, I think, is because I identified with her to some extent. An office worker during the day, blogger on her own time, at heart a writer but with no connections and little hope of publication ... Of course, she had a shtick. A blog about cooking a year's worth of Julia Child recipes! And it was on Salon, and she developed a following, et voila, she's featured in the New York Times and her answering machine fills with calls from agents and editors and she's on her way! My shtick? Blogging about literature from a communist perspective. Not quite the same. Not likely to land me in the big bucks, or my books--the one I've written, the ones I've yet to write--on the bestseller list.

But that's not what it's about. Not my life, not my writing, my reading, my real dreams, the ones that really matter. What it's all about is hope. The idea that we can build a better world. The effort to find the words to help us get there. I'll keep trying. For many more years, if I'm lucky.