Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Naughty teacups

Book: Smut

Author: Alan Bennett

Published: 2010, 2011 (Forelake Ltd.)

Pages: 152


That’s what I thought after I read this whole book in one sitting last Saturday when I was bored and depressed and anxious to go SOMEwhere without getting out of my bed. …Sort of my default setting to start a new book. If the book is good, I can breathe again. If the book is bad, I go to sleep at like 7pm to escape it all.

This one was made up of two stories about sex, each at the wee bare minimum of being a novella, both blunter than I thought they would be. Never trust a book jacket, kids. But they were good stories, especially the one about the old lady who earn money through pretending to be sick for medical students and then later taking on renters who suggested she watch them have sex in lieu of them paying rent. It wasn’t her idea to begin with but she ended up liking it, and her transition was about as unadorned as the first clause of this sentence. It was funny and odd and with a nice little setup but none of the faux-innocent sheen I was expecting that would’ve pushed it to unapologetically hilarious. It couldn’t decide whether it wanted me to feel uncomfortable or not.

That definitely colored the story about the young man whose worst kept secret was that he was gay. Everyone knew, even as he married a lady, but nobody told anyone else. Again, the transitions between his lives weren’t handled with any of the sort of delicacy that I imagine would be really important in the actual situations.

Neither of these stories is pure smut meant only for physical gratification, or completely high-minded lit fic that uses sad, desperate sex to teach Lessons About Life and Love. This book got me past my Saturday blues but it kept me unsettled.

…As do the teacups on the cover. I think they’re supposed to be fucking.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Me read more David Sedaris today.

Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Author: David Sedaris

Published: 2000 (Back Bay Books)

Pages: 272

My thoughts on David Sedaris will be explained through two recent, unrelated quotes.

“We have his books at the library,” said my boyfriend during a return trip to Barnes and Nobel. (Hello, my name is Melanie, and I’m addicted to ALL OF THE BOOKS.)

But if I buy them, I can keep his words close enough to reach for and curl up in like my college comforter whenever I need them. They are mine to soothe on demand for however long it takes me to wear out the spines, and then again however long it takes the duct tape that repaired the spines to wear out. And then I’ll just have to be extra careful when I get that special kind of depressed that well-written flippant humor can make better.

“Don’t worry so much, okay?” said a friend after we spent a lunch talking about life after college.

It’s good advice. I do anyway, and so does David Sedaris, and he’s so good at making light of it that it makes me laugh at the absurdity of all this worrying while recognizing and appreciating the solemn undertow that’ll drown us all if we think about it too much.
That is why I bought this book and have already devoured it and don’t regret it at all.

Chess press credentials

Book: Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

Author: Frank Brady

Published: 2011 (Crown Publishers)

Pages: 328 (of biography)

All I learned from this book is that Bobby Fischer was kind of a snotty kid who grew up into a definitely obnoxious and for-absolutely-sure paranoid adult who was good at chess but bad with everything else in life. Like literally every other thing that makes a human being function in this world, he was terrible at.

And was he really that great at chess? Before I started reading, my answer would be duh, based on the fact that he’s the only chess player I have ever been able to name. But this record of his professional life whips his wins back and forth in a monotonous list of matches that makes his skills sound like they fluctuated on their own whims. I guess his losses were signs of growth, incredible leaps forward, and then signaled a not-so-slow-and-steady decline as he got older. I’m guessing, though, based on match recaps.

Brady claims he was a very close friend of Fischer’s through both of their lives, but the only time that comes through is when he relates a meeting in a restaurant about something so minor I’ve already forgotten what it was. I appreciate his objectivity in theory, but the worst time to practice discretion this much is when talking about a famous guy with whom you had an inside scoop. These are really bloodless anecdotes for someone claiming to be so close to the subject. I’m not talking about doing a smear job, just something with personal touch and the emotional authority that the chess press didn’t have access to.

Oh yeah, and there’s such a thing as the chess press. I had no idea. But they loved Bobby until he started crying conspiracy really loudly at the USSR and Jewish people. Understandable.

I wanted to meet Bobby Fischer the person and instead I met the chess player who doesn’t understand the concept of “dude, you get paid at least $1 million just for showing up.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Feminism 101

Book: Reading Women: How the Greatest Books of Feminism Changed My Life

Author: Stephanie Staal

Published: 2011 (PublicAffairs)

Pages: 264

I finished this book about revisited feminism right before I unwrapped a new dress and pulled it on over tights to go over to my boyfriend's house. 

I spent the whole clothes time wondering who, exactly, was I wearing this for? Me? My boyfriend? Because I wanted him to think I looked cute? Because I wanted to look cute for myself? But what if looking cute for myself is subliminal code for looking cute in a way that he and society think look cute, so there's not actually any of me in this decision at all? ...How the hell am I ever supposed to know what's me and what's for him and what's Western societal pressure on the female bits of me?

Reading about feminism always makes me wonder that without giving me any answers. 

This book charts the experiences of a lady who revisits her Fem Text class at Bernard when her professional and family lives are doing that thing where they don't work together. Classic feminist dilemma that--say it with me now--she never thought would happen to her. 

And I loved reading about it. She writes in the perfect deft balance of understated confessional personal narrative and academic research. Her readings make her think about her real life and where she's at now in her real life makes her understand the readings in depths she couldn't get close to when she was a 20-year-old undergraduate immersed in an all-girl's college. And y'all, she's incredibly insightful about the vague, impractical, and hypocritical points of feminism while still being firmly in favor of the movement because, come on. Women are people too. 

She doesn't come to any more solid a conclusion than I ever do, though. She's glad she took the class during a whole new generation of thought, and she's glad it's made her appreciate how hard her life balance is and that it really might be worth it in the end, but she's not changing anything radical in her life because she read Vindication for the Rights of Woman again. I was sort of hoping there'd be an Awesome Gentlelady Who Doesn't Give a Fuck About Gender Roles No Seriously magic formula somewhere in there, but alas. 

Welp. I don't want to end on "alas" because I really liked this book, so I will tell you that after a good boyfriend visit I decided that I do dress for myself first but angle for outside appreciation. At least when I'm going out in public. 

Take it back.

Book: If Jack’s In Love

Author: Stephen Wetta

Published: 2011 (Amy Einhorn Books)

Pages: 354

The only reason any of these characters exist is to talk about each other in a judgey way. That includes the 12-year-old “genius” protagonist, quotes used because his smartypants qualifications are that he’s on the school honor roll. That’s IT, and it’s mentioned like twice as offhand remarks. Nowhere else is he mentioned doing or even caring about anything intellectual.

His brother may or may not have murdered a rival high schooler, by the way. BY THE WAY. Wetta gets the show/tell dynamic all wrong; he skims over the interesting scenes with bloodless narration only to zoom in on the most repetitive information drop conversations ever. His characters also slam in and out of southern dialect like the many-doored set of a stage farce. Also, there’s a Jewish jeweler who has magic rings, maybe, and is definitely way too interested in the protagonist’s physical progress with his grade-school girlfriend. The protagonist’s dad is thinking about robbing the jeweler’s store.

None of these plot threads come close to touching each other. It sort of reminds me of  the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode when Mac and Charlie go to a masked sex party only to find it full of disgusting people and they lost interest before everything comes together.  

In other words: I want my $12.50 back, Barnes and Noble. You. Me. Receipt. Monday. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The writing life

Book: Fiction Ruined My Family

Author: Jeanne Darst

Published: 2011 (Riverhead Books)

Pages: 303

Friday night my boyfriend and I rode over to a shopping center with a movie theater, fully intending to see Young Adult in big plushy seats that were not at either of our residences. But there was a Barnes and Noble store, too. And when he went, “Oh we have time to browse…” we missed our movie and read together instead. This is, happily, a regular occurrence.

And my whole point is to tell you that I fell off the book-buying abstinence wagon again. Damn those discount shelves. I plowed through Darst’s memoir because she’s so good at writing about destructive behavior as if it were as normal as her family treated it. She talks about her slowly dawning realization that she was decades behind everyone else in getting her shit together, and about how her dad’s failed author ambitions started the hairline cracks that grew into gaping fissures in their lives, and in honest detail about how she survived in New York while drunk on a waitress’s salary (it involved lots of mooching and bodily creativity when her shared hallway bathroom was occupied and endless peanut butter sandwiches).

And it was funny. I was laughing about horrible things, about her mother losing her skirt in a drunken stupor only to find it shoved up under her sweater, about her sneaking into her neighbor’s apartment to steal the disco record he always played, about her and one of her sisters making garbage bag diapers to make sure they didn’t spread any more pubic lice after they doused themselves in treatment, about how she always lied to her dad about what she was reading so she’d appear well-read and how that would just make him give her five thousand new suggestions and how that meant they never really talked about anything having to do with real life.

I buy, or check out, more books because they’re bricks in my wall that blocks out the void. They’re my solid proof that yes, something DOES matter in this world, and when I find writings about someone who’s discovered the same thing, it’s something I don’t want to put down until I fully understand how they found out.

Best of 2009?

Book: The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009

Authors: various

Published: 2009 (Vintage Anchor Publishing)

Pages: 380 of stories

“Conventional” is a word that could go either way: good if it’s talking about anti-murder social norms, for instance, or bad when planning what to wear for a Parliament Funkadelic concert. For short stories, it falls in that maddening grey area of It Depends. Here, it goes mostly flat.

These are good stories. But are they as electrifying and eclectic as 2009 wants to be remembered? Hell, no. 2009 must’ve been a boring-ass year for short stories (oh God I’m so ashamed that I don’t know how false that is) OR the PEN/O. Henry Prize people treat experimental fiction like I do; with polite smiles and forced attention if they run into each other at a cocktail party.

But they’re the hosts of this weird soirée. They’re the host who knows hidden little things about everybody and how they would secretly fit together with other people’s hidden little things and so it’s their literary duty to nudge these into place so all of a sudden everyone has these epiphanies and goes home saying, “Wow, I had no IDEA we’d get along so well!” to their new best friends. They don’t do that in here.

Even the most lively piece, a chapter from Junot Diaz’s A Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (I just get more and more proof that book is worth obsessing over), I knew already. It’s still awesome, of course, and all the other stories were good and I enjoyed them, but I didn’t get jolted by anything new, and that’s the whole reason I buy anthologies like this.

Well. That’s one reason.

The second reason is completely selfish and always makes these sorts of collection worth it even if the stories are lackluster. Listed in the back are all the magazines and literary journals that submitted stories to the prize committed for that year. And not just the names, but the websites and the editor contacts and the physical mailing addresses. So I make a habit of going down these lists for places to submit my own work. (You know, when I’m getting low on rejection notices or contributor copies.) It gives me that sickening rush of ambition that’s a good motivation to get my submitting ass in gear to shape up and send out whatever I’ve got new from the past whenever of writing.

Two or six or nine months from now, this book will finish proving its worth to me. Until then, it will sit on my shelf in deceptive calm, much like me half an hour before a deadline.     

Friday, January 6, 2012

A very Batman Christmas

Book: Batman Noël

Author and artist: Lee Bermejo

Published: 2011 (DC Comics)

Pages: I don’t know. This was really thin, a single edition one-off rather than a giant omnibus.

Batman as Scrooge? After spending twenty minutes to absorb this whole book, I’m still not convinced about that parallel. I understand Bruce Wayne is rich, and I totally understand that Batman gets crusty and cynical around Christmas (me too, big guy. Me, too.)—but at heart he’s a good guy. He wants to keep his employee working during Christmas because there are some badass clowns still on the fucking loose out here, no time for beer-can ornaments and moppets with giant wet eyes, they’ll understand when they’re still alive on December 26, come on let’s GO!

And how exactly was Bob working for Batman so Batman had enough authority over him to try to keep him working on ANY day? I thought Batman worked alone.

Anyway, get past the first few pages and you’ll shiver your way into a grim, snow-covered Gotham City that shows Batman how he has to change and start seeing all sides to people’s criminal behavior because sometimes it’s not actual criminal behavior and all that such. …But isn’t Batman also the original “morality is grey and that’s why I wear black” superhero? Doesn’t he know all this shit already? I think I’m writing myself out of any conviction I originally had in this storyline.

Well, it looks super cool, anyway. Grim realism was made for Batman and his scowl and trail of shadows and Catwoman’s absolutely liquid catsuit. And of all the eleventy billion and seven adaptations of A Christmas Carol, this is for sure my second favorite (first favorite obviously being A Muppet Christmas Carol).    

Written vs. spoken humor

Book: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Author: Minday Kaling

Published: 2011 (Crown Archetype)

Pages: 222

This is a very gently funny book compared to what I thought it would be. I mean, it’s not like I watch The Office, but I hear things and most of it is snarky. Which I love, and which Kaling is not, at least not on the page.

She tries to be, in a way that instead underscores her earnestness and makes her look like she’s grasping for quirk in a fairly well-adjusted life. Some of her stuff is interesting and some of her stuff is funny, but it’s rarely both. The section on her first struggling years in New York City glossed over the exact things I wanted to know the most: how did she survive while not making money from comedy? I don’t know. She doesn’t say. Day job, yeah sure, but what? Office drone? Lap dancer? Kosher butcher? From what it sounds like, she and her girlfriend roommates just generated enough awesome to power through their rent until their one-act about being Ben Affleck and Matt Damon got into circulation.

I did enjoy reading about her childhood and her first job interviews in the TV industry. There was enough natural weirdness in those anecdotes that she didn’t have to dress them up, merely present them. Her observational humor was the exact opposite, a lot of form without substance.

I get the feeling that Kaling, the, you know, TV and stage writer and actor, is so used to the rhythms and extra padding (inflection, facial expressions, body gestures) of spoken humor that she forgot or didn’t realize that written humor needs a whole new set of scaffolding to make it work. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Book: Revolutionary Road

Author: Richard Yates

Published: 1961 (Random House)

Pages: 355

In April and Frank Wheeler, Richard Yates has managed to keep a cliché fresh for fifty years without doing anything except being a good writer: the unhappy suburban couple who think they’re special and gradually, painfully, angstily figure out they’re just like everyone else. And then they break down, all without ever knowing the exact reasons why.

But Yates knows. He knows exactly what’s going on in their heads. He knows better than they do why Frank took a steady job at his dad’s firm as almost a joke that would let him keep his intelligence free to roam where it wanted. Which was nowhere. Yates knows exactly how April feels about motherhood—she really wants to like it, but it snuck up on both of them too soon and at heart she’s too practical to keep herself from doing the most straightforward thing to do this how she wants it, and that’s what leads to her ultimate tragedy. He knows how stifling the suburbs are but also how the kind of people who feel stifled there will find some way to be stifled anywhere they live.

He splays all of this onto the page with intricate , precise explanations that leave the emotional heavy lifting to the characters as they work themselves deeper and deeper into knots.

Why is this so comforting to read?

Because I recognize myself in this. I’m like these people. But I haven’t killed myself over it, and maybe if I read about them enough I’ll internalize their warning signs and go the other way. Maybe I can carry on the American dream they fumbled.

Because good writing, no matter how depressing the end or subject, is like a giant prolonged hug from my very best friend.

Because I’m avoiding Sidhartha and the enlightenment that’s supposed to come with it.   

Opposite of what you think Oprah means

Book: I Know This Much Is True

Author: Wally Lamb

Published: 1998 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 891

I reread this book (for the third or fourth time) over Christmas because it’s thick tale of a guy hopelessly entwined to his schizophrenic twin brother’s well-being by a mess of secrets and promises told through the educated but gruff voice of a man who slowly realizes how badly he’s dealing with his guilt and anger about, well, everything.

I love how Lamb brings the reader into the story’s psyche at the same slow-burning pace of the main guy. That’s not just a trick of using first person, either; it’s a finely honed sense of timing that gets me into this guy’s mind in an empathetic way that makes me so happy when the last chapter ties everything up in several neat little bows. Narratively, it’s an annoying, coincidental happily ever after. But personally, the dude’s been through so much that I’m glad he gets relief.

It’s a combination of intense character development and complicated plot that play off each other so well they both draw me in completely. Please ignore the combination of title, picture of infants and Oprah Book Club sticker on the cover. It’s pretty much the opposite of the sentiment those imply.