Movie Love: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

An official movie poster for what’s a fairly astounding film.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am a big Richard Linklater fan. I still think Dazed and Confused is Matthew McConnaghey’s best work. I came of age with Céline and Jess in what’s now called the “Before” trilogy. So I went into Boyhood with a predisposition to be pleased with it.

Pleased doesn’t quite cover it, though. Without giving anything away, it’s fair to state the obvious—the movie covers the life of one family, in particular as one boy experiences it—over the course of twelve years. And just as the aforementioned trilogy captures single, seminal days and nights in the lives of Céline and Jess separated by years of living in between, this one captures a series of moments over a large swatch of time, year by year. Some of these are life-changing, some of them aren’t necessarily so. But they all become seminal because they are the small moments that make up a life. Not a life that’s being lived in some overtly extraordinary way—one that’s extraordinary simply because it’s a life.

If you were a passerby observing the characters from Boyhood you would think their existences were totally ordinary. Sad sometimes, sure. But mostly pretty average. Peel back the surface and it’s anything but, though. Filmed over the course of twelve actual years, Boyhood does the seemingly impossible (and in my opinion rare and beautiful): it gives the viewer the gift of sight into someone else’s world. That it’s a fictional world doesn’t matter in the least.

Some of the best storytellers and some of their best stories—from George Elliot’s Middlemarch to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and many in between—do on the page what Richard Linklater tries to do on the screen. They peel back that surface and expose the epic struggles, the tragedies, the joys, the hard work, and the play that is day-to-day life of a single human being (or in the case of Middlemarch, of many). Because every life has these stories, and if you look deeply enough—closely enough—you can catch a glimpse of the wonder and struggle that exists just underneath the veneer that most of the world sees. It’s a gift to read such a story, and it’s a gift to see one on the screen.

Boyhood is likely not for everyone. It’s nearly three hours long, and if you’re looking for something plot or action-driven, then you are very much barking up the wrong tree. It’s also utterly lacking in cynicism. But it’s intriguing and it’s ambitious and it’s beautiful—and for me, personally, it’s yet another reason to love Richard Linklater and wonder at his ability to show moviegoers an inside look at what George Elliot described as the many who “live faithfully their hidden lives.” And for that reason alone, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Literary Lists…or, How Do You Know What Will Make Me a Better Person?

A fresh page upon which to create today’s list! I’ve been with this planner longer than I’ve been with my husband.

It is an undeniable fact: I am a list-maker. From what to buy at the supermarket, to what to pack for a trip, to what I need to do each and every day, there is a list. Indeed, I’ve had the same Franklin Planner since approximately 1997, for which I dutifully buy new, blank pages upon which to list-make at the start of every year.

For me, this is a sanity preservation device: I know my own tendency to become wildly stressed out if I don’t feel like I’m on top of things, so I try to keep on top of things. I am not a procrastinator—doing stuff at the last minute tends to eat away at my mental well-being. So, each day, I make a list of the things I need to accomplish. On paper, in pencil, with a system to mark off what I’ve done, what’s only partially done, and what’s going to have to wait a day or two. If this sounds like madness to you, fair enough. But it works for me and they’re not created for the benefit of anybody but me.

The long and the short of it is, I understand the urge to list things off and make sense of them.

What I guess I don’t understand is making lists of books based on things like Flavorwire’s “50 Novels Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person.”  Okay, so there are some good books on there, and there are worse ways to spend your day than putting together a list of good books. And, okay, so there’s research out in the ether that says that reading novels is good for you—can even make you more empathetic. As a life-long reader, I didn’t really need any scientific research to tell me this, of course. I know it from experience. I also know from experience that one woman’s life-changing read is another terrible bore. Because what changes you is as individual and subjective as being you is. I often joke, but truly believe, that while some people turn to religious texts in their times of need, I turn to Middlemarch. For me, that’s what’s life affirming and life changing. So to create a list of books that will help someone else be a better person seems like an exercise in futility.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like a good book list. I like Goodreads for that very reason—readers putting together lists of books that they’ve enjoyed, usually by some sort of categorization. But creating such a list—one that says, hey these were great books that I liked!—and saying hey, these books will make you a better person, are two very different things. By all means, share what you love with me. Maybe I’ll love it, too. But don’t presume to dictate what might do something as enormous as improve a person on a fundamental level. Because my George Elliot might be your Jonathan Franzen. Maybe Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books opened up a world of possibilities for you as a kid. Who knows?

On my desk at all times is a little bookmark that contains a snippet of text from Little Women in a glass tube. I keep this on whatever desk I use as an editor—and it’s traveled with me from one location to another for many years—as a physical reminder as I read submissions and edit stories that everyone has their own special, life-changing books. Little Women turned me into a serious reader. Any other book might do that for any other reader.

So, at the risk of sounding cranky—and oh, I fear that I do sound cranky!—telling people that this book or that one will make them better or change their lives (and why it will) is kind of hooey. Tell me what you love, but then let me sit back and discover what I can in a book—and let it change me or not as it will!

The Recipe for the Perfect Romantic Hero

Every good baker knows that a recipe is really just a jumping off point. You might like nutmeg, while I prefer cinnamon. You’re all about cocoa powder, while I favor melted dark chocolate in my brownie. It’s all a matter of taste.

The same holds true for literary romantic heroes. You might like them dark and brooding, I’m all about funny and charming. But as I write and rewrite not one but two different YA stories, I’m thinking about what ingredients make up my idea of a romantic hero—and how best to create a fella that appeals not just to me, but to (hopefully) a larger audience at some point.

So what makes a good romantic hero in my book? It takes equal parts of the ingredients below

Humor

When it comes to creating a hero with humor, Jane Austen might have fashioned something akin to perfection in Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney. He’s got a great sense of humor—so much so that occasionally it’s hard to get him to be serious. But when the going gets tough, Mr. Tilney rises to the occasion. Even if he might joke around as he’s doing it. Never was there a more delightful literary clergyman, or one with whom the reader can more readily share the heroine’s completely obvious affection.

 

Passion

And not just of the romantic variety (though clearly that’s a must as well). The ideal in this category for me is George Elliot’s Will Ladislaw, the young man who ultimately captures the heart of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Even when Will is idling his time away on his cousin’s dime, he’s passionate about art, beauty—and his cousin’s wife Dorothea. Ah, youthful enthusiasm. But even Will settles down to a real pursuit and career at last, and he’s got politics and reform on his mind. His zest for the downtrodden and ignored—as well as for the best heroine in all of literature (yep, I said it and I meant it)—make him pure romantic hero gold.

Intelligence

On a certain level, rare book seller George Friedman in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector seems completely wrong for Jessamine Bach. He’s too old, too set in his ways, too cultured, and too much of a carnivore for the twenty-something tree-hugger. But theirs is a love affair born of books. And any man who goes about wooing with a perfectly ripe peach and a T.S. Elliot reference is a man worth keeping. Never has eating a piece of fruit been laden with so much sexual and intellectual tension.

 

The Ability to Change and Grow

When Brigan meets the titular character in Kristin Cashore’s Fire, he’s not able to like or even remotely trust her. And when you have ugly family history of epic proportions between his father and hers, who can blame him? Unlike some folks, though, he’s open to seeing who she is as a person (or in this case, a human-monster hybrid) and eventually to trust her. That he falls so deeply in love with the one person he most despised speaks not to some weird “opposites attract” plot device, but rather to depth of his character. Which makes Brigan something of a dream come true, romantic hero-wise, and Kristin Cashore downright brilliant for creating him.

So does identifying all of this make it so much easier to write a wonderful romantic hero (or two, as is the case right now)? Alas, no. But it does give me some key ingredients off of which to base my recipe. And take it from George Friedman: it’s fun to experiment in the kitchen.