Posts Tagged ‘middle age’

I just finished Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy and was feeling bad about how much I enjoyed it. Which made me wonder, why on earth should certain books, films, etc. be considered “guilty pleasures?”

Fielding writes brilliant comedy. This is a smart book, full of trenchant and hilarious send-ups of contemporary life, which is really what Jane Austen did, or Jonathan Swift, or other writers of novels of manners or social satire. So why should I feel like my friends with fancy degrees or my fellow librarians or anyone really will snigger at my full-bodied praise for the glorious @JoneseyBJ?

Because she is glorious — Bridget Jones is now in her 50’s, widowed for several years (Mark Darcy, human rights lawyer extraordinaire and father of their two children died in Sudan), living quite comfortably (alas no longer in Holland Park, but in a house in London, with a part time nanny and a cleaner to help out), and trying to put her personal and professional lives back together while a) juggling the ridiculous number of activities her children have b) dealing with her food issues, i.e. desire to eat whole bags of shredded cheese when feeling down c) not feeling old d) losing her born-again virginity e) feeling like a crap mother, writer, and woman.

She deals with texting, tweeting, learning to date again, trying not to be late or seem crazy while on the school run, and trying to keep her children nit free, well nourished, organized, and well cared for, albeit fatherless. Her wonderful band of friends still “help” with all of this, and a few new ones appear on the scene as well. Bridget is still the awkward mess with a heart of gold that she was in the earlier books.

I think the thing Fielding captures best — cultural critiques and pointed commentary on the objectification of women aside, brilliant as they are — is that all too common awkwardness.  Haven’t we all felt it?

Who hasn’t been in a social situation and realized she tried to say something intelligent but garbled it a bit? Who hasn’t misread someone? Or compared another woman’s life to her own and felt terribly wanting, and also — whether we admit it or not — as if the right outfit might solve something, even if we know deep down that is utter rubbish? Who doesn’t vow regularly to embark on a plan of self-improvement that will actually solve everything, while ordering said outfit as plan B? Who, no matter how smart and feminist, doesn’t wish to recapture some of her younger self’s best features? Or feel like crap for some or all of the above?

Who doesn’t simultaneously love their friends and family and feel a little exasperated at filling a certain role in those familiar circles? Who doesn’t cherish that familiarity when push comes to shove? And who doesn’t know, really, it’s not so bad, as long as we have each other?

So forgo guilt and take pleasure in this funny, fun-to-read, and witty book. And then give yourself a break.



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I didn’t read Teen the Elder’s summer required reading, The Shallows. The Computer Scientist read a bit aloud to me about libraries’ computer & internet service and that was enough (I blogged about that at Nocturnal Librarian). But when Teen the Elder was home for mid-term break he mentioned how much he’s enjoying his first-year seminar, and suggested I might enjoy one of the books for that class, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants by Jaed Coffin.

He was right. Coffin’s mother is Thai, and he decided to go to her village in Thailand before his senior year in college to become a Buddhist monk. He’s very honest about not being sure of his own motives, of being a little confused about what he got out of the experience, and of being unsure how to apply what he did learn. Towards the end of the book he lets readers in on his re-entry into American life, his final year of college and what came next. But his memoir doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, which is nice. He leaves us wondering about some of the things he experienced and how they might impact his life, just as he wondered.

I like Coffin’s unvarnished voice — he doesn’t shy away from critical self-reflection. He has a good eye for small details that made the book vibrant and interesting. I wondered about some of the dialogue, given the distance he had when he wrote the book, but I know there is a theory that memoirs are meant to be representative of remembered experience, not journalist renderings of absolute detail. And maybe he had good notes, or just a better (younger) memory than I have.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is a young man’s story, a story about a person on the edge of adulthood, undergoing a rite of passage (in Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend time in a monastery), and trying to understand his role in life. Coffin captures the essence of that feeling beautifully. When he and one of his fellow monks, Narong, travel into the forest to visit another temple, Coffin tries to convince him that the Buddha is everywhere, in everything around them. They travel up the river seeking Buddha and meeting villagers, and when they return to the forest temple, the Luang Pa (sort of like the abbot of a western monastery) speaks with them.

He asks what they’ve been doing. Here’s a lovely passage that captures their exchange:

“I looked for an answer in the spaces between the trees and in the distant valley. It began to rain in heavy, cumbersome drops that looked like snow. A light wind came up too, pushing at the trunks of several bamboo trees and making a hollow clicking sound.  ‘The Buddha is everywhere,’ I told the Luang Pa.”

The Luang Pa tells him he is wrong:

“‘The Buddha is in the heart. He is in your mind. He is in the heart that is always mai nae jai.’ The Luang Pa’s face softened and became more gentle and sympathetic. I held the phrase in my mind until it made sense. Mai nae jai: not sure heart.”

That’s what this book is about. A boy, nearly a man, with a not sure heart. He goes to Thailand looking for half his life, half his being, he reacquaints himself with his mother’s family and the world she grew up in, and then he takes his mai nae jai heart back to America, which he realizes is more his home (in no small part because it’s become his mother’s home as well). And fortunately for the rest of us, he decides that the way to live with a not sure heart is to write.

I didn’t come to know my own not sure heart until later in life, and reading and writing, rather than a physical retreat, have taken me on a seeker’s journey that may never be complete. I’m grateful to people like Coffin for sharing their stories. I look forward to talking more about the book with Teen the Elder and comparing our responses to it. I’m also grateful that in a time when the most opinionated, self-assured voices seem to take up most of the public oxygen, my son’s college assigns books about the not sure.

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