Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances


Saturday, January 17, 2004

Department of Extreme Irony (Or, I Laughed My Butt Off):

Olivia Goldsmith, a novelist whose debut book, “The First Wives Club,” became a bestselling fantasy for ex-wives tossed aside in favor of younger women, died Thursday in New York of complications from plastic surgery. She was 54.

Goldsmith had been in a coma since suffering a heart attack Jan. 7 as she went under anestheisa for an operation to remove skin from her chin. (Insert mugshot photo of grinning Goldsmith with double chin).

“The First Wives Club,” which came out in 1992, tells of three women who band together to seek revenge after their prosperous husbands desert them for younger lovers. The book sold millions of copies and became a big box-office film in 1996 starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler. Hawn’s character is a plastic surgery fan who pleads with her doctor for yet another operation.

Goldsmith, who said in interviews that she was divorced, worked as a management consultant before taking up writing.

--from the Portland Oregonian newspaper, Jan. 17, 2004

Let’s see now . . . aging divorcee who became rich and famous by writing a book making fun of dumped ex-wives who indulge in plastic surgery to look younger dies on a plastic surgeon’s operating table while having her double chin fixed. My wife doesn’t think that’s funny, but I do.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Took my three sons to hear Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, speak and read his poems in Portland last night. Afterwards, the 15-year-old said Collins “never seemed to deal with anything very meaningful.” The 23-year-old said “I passed out of my Collins phase a while back, so my mind kind of wandered -- I had trouble staying with him from line to line.” The 20-year-old said the tall lady with the big hair who sat in front of him messed up the whole experience.


I guess it’s a generation gap thing. All three of my boys have written and published poetry, but each was dismissive of Collins (I guess focusing on big hair instead of the poems amounts to being dismissive). Yet when I encountered two friends, a married couple about my age, in the lobby after the event, we gushed to each other about how “great” Collins had been.

I am reminded of the student poetry contest I helped judge last spring. Ten poems written by middle-schoolers (grades 6 through 8) were prize finalists. Seventy percent of them dealt with death, misery, social injustice and similar grimness. What does a seventh-grader know about death? Even in the unlikely event he’s been exposed to it up close, he’s too young to know what it means. Writing a poem about it, he’s just blowing smoke, copping an unearned attitude, probably emulating something he read in People magazine or heard in a song on the radio. I voted for the kid who wrote about crappy school lunches.

Collins’ problem apparently is that he more than occasionally writes amusingly. His poems often start out with a recounting of some mundane occurrence, on which he places a surreal spin as he muses on its significance (or lack thereof). When that spin first kicks in, the reader’s response tends to be a chuckle at the oddity of the transition. In the end, though, Collins leaves you realizing he has taken you on a ride from the mundane to the strange, where you marvel at the validity of his slightly off-kilter final stop.

That the reader sometimes is amused during his journey with a Collins poem damns the author to faint praise in many circles. A writer can’t be funny and important at the same time, in the judgment of some. It’s the curse of E.B. White. The long-time New Yorker magazine writer was one of the finest prose stylists of the Twentieth Century -- he even co-authored The Book on writing style, which we all studied in high school and college, “The Elements of Style” -- but he went to his grave convinced of his own insignificance because the bulk of his work had long been dismissed by critics as mere “funny stuff” generated for a slick magazine. He could write all he wanted about the United Nations or philosophical spiders, but he remained typecast as a guy who cranked out “casuals” for Harold Ross and company.

Maybe my boys have been co-opted by the critical establishment that denigrates Collins because he can be amusing. Maybe they have been exposed to too many lyrics by rock songwriters like Kurt Cobain, the nihilistic druggie who led the band Nirvana until his suicide at age 27. Committed political southpaws that they are, perhaps my sons see Collins as too apolitical. (Hey, he may write about three blind mice, but getting appointed poet laureate must require SOME political savvy!) Maybe my guys are Serious Poets who find Collins’ accessible poems insufficiently challenging. (Everybody can’t write gibberish like Jorie Graham, dudes. And even T.S. Eliot had a sense of humor; see “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and even parts of “The Wasteland” -- Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, had a bad cold . . .)

Well, whatever. As we left the theater last night, my middle son informed me that he and his big brother bought tickets to see Camper Van Beethoven in a couple of weeks. I should accompany them, he suggested. It could be another family cultural event. Perhaps I’ll go. Whoever or whatever Camper Van Beethoven is, though, I’ll bet he or it is not amusing. Probably not accessible, either, to an old codger like me.

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