Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life is a great book with a great story behind its title. I take some liberties in the following summary but I believe my recall is largely accurate. Anne apparently was in school and had to write a report about birds and maybe she procrastinated and maybe she didn’t but now the damn thing was due and she had a melt-down as only a grade-school child with an overwhelming school project can. Her dad set her straight by telling her the only way to write the report was bird by bird. I think of this advice, often, in my writing life.
Today, however, absolutely without Anne Lamott’s approval, I would like to offer you Bird by Bird by Bird: A Birding Story in Three Parts.
BIRD ONE: Wrapping up The Goldfinch
Two weeks ago I wrote here about The Goldfinch before I’d actually finished it. Now that I’ve read it to the end, my overall impression is pretty much unchanged: I really liked this book. In the second half, I was disappointed in Theo for a variety of behaviors, but I never found the book “juvenile,” or even remotely simplistic. And I guess I’m not even sure I agree with snarky reviews suggesting “Tartt’s consoling message, blared in the book’s final pages, is that what will survive of us is great art.” The “message,” or better-stated, question posed by the book that I find most intriguing is, instead, “What does it mean to be good?”
Many characters in the story have good hearts and make bad choices. Are these people good? Is Boris good because he befriends Theo or bad because he betrays him? Is Mrs. Barbour good for taking in Theo or bad because she so blithely lets him go? I love the reference Tartt makes to a painting of a radiant St. Peter, who, shortly after he solicitously and protectively ushers children away from an exhausted Jesus (children and Jesus also apparently in the painting, but I can’t find the reference now because the book’s kinda long?) betrays him.
Maybe what I’m interested in is less how people aren’t perfect and more how we manage under the circumstances of imperfection.
Regarding the ending, I have to admit I didn’t mind (OK, I actually enjoyed) paragraphs like this one:
And–maybe it’s ridiculous to go on in this vein…but does it make any sense at all to know it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end–and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?
The very smart women of my book club disagreed with me on this. Most were insulted by the way the book ended. They objected to the writer belaboring This is what the book’s about! when they felt they had already “gotten” most of what Tartt (or Theo) soliloquizes on at the end.
NOTE TO SELF: Do not insult the reader’s intelligence.
BIRD TWO: Birdman, the movie
It’s puzzling that a story about a struggling, older, white artist is so entirely unappealing to me. I love Raymond Carver! I think there are too many knock ’em, sock ’em superhero movies out there. Then why did I hate Birdman?
Roxane Gay asks, here: Where is the Birdman for an aging Asian actress? This is certainly part of the disappointment; even Riggan Thompson’s (the MC’s) daughter says he’s irrelevant, that no one cares about his problems. The cast for Riggan’s play is all white, the cast for the movie itself is practically all white (except for the drummer, who doesn’t say a word but provides the most entraining aspect of the film), the Broadway audiences are all white. And old. And rich. Geez, I’m white and I’m bored by these people and their self-indulgent angst (Riggan’s daughter, e.g., complains he was a terrible father because he was largely absent and when he was around, he had the gall to attempt to make her feel special).
Remember what I wrote above about loving people who are not always good? I drew the line, over and over in this movie. It’s not OK to drop a spotlight on someone’s head on purpose. It’s not OK to spit on a pedestrian’s head from five stories up.
It’s REALLY not OK to make every single female actor in the movie engage in some kind of sexualized nonsense.
I guess what I have is a problem with a movie that doesn’t even take itself seriously.
Is this what is supposed to make Birdman funny? If that’s the case, I missed the joke.
NOTE TO SELF: If the artist doesn’t take him or herself seriously, who will?
BIRD THREE: Confessions of a wannabe birder
A little over a year ago, in late September/early October, I visited Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in Grantsburg, WI, about an hour from where I live in Minneapolis. A woman who works with my husband had encouraged the trip for months, especially since she’d heard of my fondness for birds.
Crex is a 30,000 acre park, one of the largest state-owned wildlife areas in Wisconsin. In the Fall (but not, alas, in the Spring) it’s on the flyway for migrating Sandhill Cranes. The day we visited, we spent a few hours sitting on the back bumper of the car, watching what must have been a thousand cranes fly in to the meadows for the night.
They are beautiful to see and make a vocalization something like the sound of a woodblock. As in any migration I’ve had the chance to witness, it’s the sheer number of creatures that’s guaranteed to astonish. I understand you can catch the springtime Sandhill Crane migration on the North Platte River in Nebraska.
NOTE TO SELF: Next time mou-net says there’s a snowy owl within an hour’s drive, grab the binocs and go.