Sunday, March 30, 2014

Open-ended closure

Guys, I did it. After ten months, I went back to the branch of our library system where my ex used to work, where I used to meet him on Wednesday nights for anime club teenager herding and watch him in his element from between the stacks.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, especially since he transferred to Main last July and I’ve been running into him at work randomly and no-so on a far more frequent basis since then. And that branch’s turnover has been enough over the past year that chances were good I wouldn’t see anybody who knew me as anything other than “Did that girl maybe help me sign up for payroll that one time…?”

But I wanted to see how it felt.

So I got in my car and turned up Help! and eased back into the incredibly easy route (seriously, straight-shot driving) and I didn’t cry until “I Need You” came on just as I was merging onto the last leg of highway. That turned into sobs when the building came into view, especially the faint traces of the old bolted-on letters across the side that they took off to put up our new brand sign, but I pulled into the parking lot and wiped my eyes and listened to Ringo sing “Act Naturally” (one of my friends on Ringo: “He’s got a five-note range but they’re the most beautiful five notes!”) and got my GRE primer from my trunk and went inside and everything turned out okay.

I’d forgotten its smell – not something I can describe but it immediately plugged into my brain and calmed me down.

None of the teenagers recognized me or were recognizable, which thank fuck for that because if I had gotten a 3/4 – sized hug from someone asking me where I had been, I would’ve broken down completely.

I got through the GRE review bits I had assigned myself for that day (Dad says I shouldn’t worry about it, that I’ll breeze right through, and the only explanation I can think of is that he must have selective amnesia that forgets how involved he was in helping me pass ninth grade geometry. Which is on the test, by the way) and promptly checked out – ah. Six books. Three of which are on my to-read list, and three that were graphic novels and two of those being the last two in a series I started a while ago, though, so.

In its utter normality, the visit felt like a big victory for emotional maturity and relief. Next week I’m continuing my impromptu self-directed tour of the rest of our system by heading to the branch where I wrote the final edit for my third published short story in the first few weeks of last June. After that are two balls-to-the-wall crazy weekends in a row, so it’ll be May before I get to the branches I’ve actually never been to yet. I like having a plan.

People come and go but books will always be there, and there will always be writing to get done.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tell me more, more more

Book: 1963, The Year of the Revolution: How Youth Changed the World with Music, Art, and Fashion
Authors: Robin Morgan and Ariel Leve
Published: 2013 (itBooks)

Oral histories have an inherent problem in their structure since they rely solely on the revolutionaries themselves to tell the tales, who may or may not still be 100% coherent (*coughcough*Keith Richards, whom I love even more now that I know he wrote a children’s book with his daughter*coughcough*) or shed new light on things.
This is frustrating and totally awesome at the same time, as the authors can juxtapose opposite views, supreme historical ironies, and show just how much nobody knew what they were actually building in whatever order shines the brightest light on the process. Like how the Beatles were received and how the Stones were trying to make it, all thinking this wouldn’t last, they’d just ride the wave while they could, and the fashion designers who just made what they wanted to wear so they wouldn’t have to choose versions of their mothers’ clothes, and – Vidal Sasoon didn’t actually expound much on why he started cutting hair like that and his thoughts on why it caused such a fuss, instead focusing on who all came to his salon before they were famous and how they interacted with each other.
And this book is about 90% focused on music and about 80% focused on England. Which I’m totally not complaining about, because you have the pop and blues rock and soul revolutions coming from then and there. But I feel like for it to earn its title I wanted to hear more about visual artists, dancers, filmmakers, writers, and just maybe more regular teenagers from that era to get a fuller picture of how life for young’uns totally changed and why.
The authors do add some good connective tissue but only at the beginning of chapters. I like my history, even the revolutions (especially them) in thoroughly dissected context. Which, again, not a real problem, since this book is what inspired me to do that in first place.
So, back to the library.

How the painted bird sings

Book: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Published: 2013 (Little, Brown)
Pages: 771

Apparently this is by the lady who wrote The Secret History, about a bunch of rich Harvard kids and their scandalous rich Harvard kid secrets and how they deal with them (terribly and with bodily harm to someone) which has been the subject of several trash-you-should-read lists I always look at because part of being a writer is reading the stuff that DOESN’T work and also, hello, we need badly written melodrama sometimes too.
But this wasn’t that much at all. Okay fine, Russian gangsters and lots of drugs and at least one skeezy dude was involved, but it all made fairly nuanced sense in context.
This kid Theo {} up at school so his mom has to take him to a conference and on the way they stop at the MoMA to look at the Dutch Masters exhibit and, in the only truly leap of plot in over 500 pages, a terrorist bomb explodes, setting Theo along a life of directionless sorrow without his mother, obsession with a young girl he sees flitting between the paintings, an eventual profession from her dying grandpa, and guilt at not-really-on-accident stealing a painting of a goldfinch.

He keeps the painting hidden but close throughout his move between friends and relatives as he grows up, acquiring a best friend and drug habit with Boris in Los Vegas when his dad shows up to claim him. Both of those things stick to him as he escapes back to New York and the kindly antiques dealer who was friends with the dead grandpa sets up Theo in business and home.
Eventually, he discovers a double-cross that was made in love but that he has to go fix as discreetly as possible, and that’s when the Russian mob comes in, but once that’s done, he just…moves on with life.
I really liked everything except the ending here. The characters all had intensely human motivations that sometimes screwed over the very people they were trying to protect (which was sometimes themselves), and the plot was paced well and made sense if you took its word that the stolen art world is so cutthroat. I have no idea about it in real life, so sure.
But it’s the most tapering-off ending I’ve read in a long time, and it uses that totally unnecessary framing device of the first-person narrator talking about writing this all down for no reason. Like it’s literally, “I have no idea why I’m writing this.” So don’t! You can be a first-person narrator without writing anything, not in letters or a diary or especially an unspecified document that goes nowhere. I promise.
This goes back to the library – I started out as something ridiculous like number 125 out of 125 on the holds list back in friggin’ December, so I will get in back in time to heed the there-are-way-too-many-people-who-still-want-to-read-this-to-be-able-to-renew-it rule. And I would promise to get The Secret History and read it because I’ve seen copies floating around the bookstore, but the trunk of my car is literally so full of those sorts of books that last weekend I started growing a pile on the front passenger seat.
So no more promises until I read the books that are already in my apartment. Believe it or not, if I squint superhard I can sort of maybe make out the light at the end of that tunnel. And after that? Ohboy freeforallthevolunteercredits!     

The humor leap

Book: Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)
Author: Jenny Lawson
Published: 2012 (Penguin)

I am still trying to figure out exactly how the leap from blog to book deal happens; it’s like when someone explains to me how a stereo works and they’re all, “And then the speaker translates the code into sound and amplifies it so that’s how you can listen to ‘Hey Ya’ forty billion times and not ever get sick of it” and I feel like I’m still missing something (although “Hey Ya” is thoroughly explained by {}-shaking magic, so I’m good on that part).
Having a childhood full of horrifying-in-retrospect-and-a-lot-of-times-in-the-moment taxidermological episodes apparently help, because these are some of the most genuinely effortlessly funny essays I’ve read in a memoir that’s marked humorous. That’s not to say that the author(ess) doesn’t employ the fairly well-worn tropes of “hey I’m so weird but pretending this is completely normal” and “I may or may not be lying” asides (sometimes footnotes) and that those actually work better than usual here, but her baseline wackiness is blessedly low and no-nonsense.

Also, I gained new appreciation for the classiness level of my co-workers when I read her essay on working in HR for fifteen years. Whenever I get discouraged at my desk, I will now be able to think, “At least I don’t have to [have not had to yet] deal with confronting people about their *insert inappropriate body part here* photos” and carry on the good library work with due diligence.
Also also, I sort of want the taxidermied mouse dressed as Hamlet holding Horatio’s skull on the cover for my own apartment so I can look at him and giggle when my beautiful lemon meringue pie cracks and melts because the recipe didn’t mention oh hey, don’t put that in the fridge.  (Seriously, what MELTS when you put it in the refrigerator? But, as the generous wedge of emptiness attests to, it still tasted AMAZING.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to misuse fiction

Book: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Published: 2013 (St. Martin's Press)

My thought process the entire time I was reading this: Oh my god, this women is such a twit. And it’s not even the real lady’s fault.

Her portrayal is so surface-level and so much like declarations that begin with “I’m the kind of person who…” (which are always said in unearned self-righteousness, or drunk) that you could get more information by reading Zelda’s Wikipedia entry.

And for actual insight into her and F. Scott’s relationship, read his work. I’m not a huge fan, seeing as most of it is the grandpappy of the Pretty/Rich People With Problems genre, but I have a crush on the last sentence of The Great Gatsby, and at least he manages to realize which characters are twits and cast a vaguely tragic note to their vapidity so you know that he knows how dumb they are and what a waste that is.  

But this book, even told through first-person, is a voiceover, not a novel. It summarizes everything in the worst case of “telling” instead of “showing” that I’ve read in a really long time, and when it does zoom in to focus on specific scenes or details, it’s for the most mundane parts possible. The few things I knew about Zelda before reading this, like that she started as a pro ballerina at an usually late age (“late” for ballet being after the age of 21; that is a brutal art) and that she went into a sanitarium for what might’ve been a true mental illness but might also have been the early-19th century way of saying she was getting too uppity – I gained like negative insight, emotional or factual, about.

And for all that she makes Zelda expound on becoming her own woman with her own desires and ambitions and efforts as A Serious Artist and tries to make this seem logical after a childhood of stubborn system-bucking in that way period-piece novels have of getting us on the side of the plucky heroine by having her push for what is taken for granted today (oh my stars and garters, you mean women can actually WEAR PANTS and WORK OUTSIDE THE HOME in their VERY OWN JOBS? *monocle explodes*), she manages to make Zelda appear as just the idle type of arts-dabbler that Zelda claims to not be. She has fights with F. Scott about it, and while no way am I going to side with his “women are only there to support their men” part… he’s kind of right about her own efforts. As portrayed here – I want to emphasize this. In no way am I taking any of this as any sort of real commentary on them and their life or Zelda’s, because while I realize that they were probably actually twits in real life, this didn’t connect any of the reasons between that and how they managed to impact the world.
Another couple of annoying things: the forced Southern accent that is solely represented by occasionally and randomly dropping the g from Zelda’s gerunds and the name dropping of famous 19th century modern artists for no supported reason.
Ugh. I had to take my beloved Tarus to the Ford dealership this weekend and wait for like three hours so she could get a valve cleaned and unstuck, and all I had to do in the new-leather-and-plastic-and-metal waiting room was read this, watch cowboys on the waiting room’s TV turned to AMC, or obsessively check my phone for emails from a manuscript contest that I know I won’t hear about for another three weeks. It was not fun.
Back to the library with this one. I’ve got a nonfiction book about these two on my to-checkout list called Beautiful Fools, and I’m hoping that will be a lot more illuminating. The novel rattling around in my head is loosely based on The Great Gatsby, and I want a decent look at this relationship before I apply it to my physicist who’s obsessed with music and the punk ballerina performance artist he’s setting a bed on fire for.   

Easy to avoid, way harder to quit

Book: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hook Us
Author: Michael Moss
Published: 2013 (Random House)
Pages: 347

Food manufacturers – not the people who, you know, grow things, mind you, but those who put together food with chemistry and whatever else is cheapest while still tasting good – use massive amounts of these three titular ingredients to addict us to what they sell at the expense of our collective health. If I say “duh” right here, it would undermine the craft of this book, which was well-done.

Each of the three major ingredients got its own section, with a general overview and then details and history about a specific product that best illustrates how either sugar, salt, or fat makes people compulsively buy and overeat that food and why that’s a terrible habit that’s hard to break. Kids have a higher tolerance for sugar, so sugar is added to food for kids so they’ll want more of it, and growing up eating that not only contributes alarmingly to childhood obesity and diabetes onset but also sets them up to expect elevated sugar levels in food as the norm. Salt is of course a great and supercheap (I had no idea it was only ten cents a pound) preserver, which is like #1 “we need this” for manufactured food’s great asset of keeping forever without going bad, and also the easiest way to mask the taste of the other chemical ingredients. Fat is not so much for taste but for texture, “mouthfeel,” the almost-indescribable way something hits the tongue and slides down the throat.

It’s entirely possible to make a lot of the mentioned foods in lower-salt/sugar/fat versions – but with taste, texture, and preservation compromises that manufacturers make up by silently adding more of the non-targeted ingredients because, again, people are so used to the current levels that messing with them usually drives down sales to unacceptable (to the companies) levels.  

None of this information is surprising, except for maybe the extent and frankness of what food company workers know but go ahead with it anyway. Because, yeah, they totally all know this, and some are more uncomfortable with it than others, but all of them are ultimately driven by profits and scared of dropping behind the others in sales because apparently grocery store shelves are the Thunderdome.

Although the fact that the sections went Sugar – Fat – Salt and not in title order bothered me a little and there were notable bits of repetition (especially about the “Bliss Point” concept, which is nifty, the exact proportion combination of ingredients  point where the eater gets maximum enjoyment, but which was explained anew at least once a section), this was a good read about the “why” of all this. And unlike The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I enjoyed better only because it was more personal), I didn’t close this book wondering, “So then…what IS cool to eat?”

And it reminded me that I haven’t had Doritos in a while or Oreos in a much longer time just as I started making next week’s grocery list. Which – look, I know, but that is why I run and eat carrots for lunch.

Back to the library, along with the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (two kinds of sugar [brown AND white], at least one kind of fat [I am finally almost out of butter, and those mini-chips probably have a proportionately disgusting amount but are, incidentally, the key to perfect chocolate distribution in this recipe], and a pinch of salt) that I baked for a friend in exchange for their gently-used record player (which also has CD and radio capabilities so I’m not being 100% impractical here. I promise).

Also, if you want a FREE PDF of the FIRST EDITION of the Columbia-based ‘zine Grievances, we totally want you to take it and print it and staple it together and give to all the cool people you know. Let me know on Facebook or in the comments and I’ll send it along for all the revolutionaries in your locale.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"I've made a huge mistake."

Book: Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
Author: Glen Berger
Published: 2013 (Simon and Schuster)
Pages: 352
So this isn’t on any sort of to-read list I’ve made. It was a pure, Friday-afternoon oo-this-looks-interesting on-the-way-out choice.
Interesting because I vaguely followed the public part of this saga during late 2010/early 2011 as a journalism student with free access to weekday editions of the New York Times, and reminded of this lately when one of the hosts from the podcast I listen to while running talked about going to see it (it was an old episode – on Internet radio, time is all sorts of wibbly-wobbly).
The obvious question being “did it live up to its hype,” with “it” being the backstage saga, the answer is “as much as I could tell, yes.” The parts about story-wrangling is what I thought were most interesting, discussing as they did the humanity of characters and how ancient Greek mythos can be incorporated into modern geek culture in a cohesive way. The rest, about how to bring these conclusions to a reality that won’t cost eleventy-billion dollars and half a dozen lives, eventually became a rather endless list of technical delays, professional backbiting, where is it humanly possible to get all this money panics, and exhausted people having fits of existential crises as they realized it wa all for a play.
But Berger’s got a good sense of his own depreciation, and he was right in the middle of everything, and he was probably the most eloquent member of the team who most thoroughly went from star-struck collaboration with Bono and a famous director to broke and broken member of this breaking crew. You don’t have to care much about Broadway or Spider-Man to enjoy this, but it helps to understand why so many people put so much on the line for all this.
I sort of wish I could’ve seen the unfixed show in one of its record-breaking string of preview performances. It sounded cool in a hot-mess kind of way, but now the “fixed” version is playing, maybe still? I don’t keep up with those things. But this book made me want to check.
It was deposited into the staff entrance book return this morning, so go nuts, Richland Library card holders.  

Or, how to make your snark sparkle

Book: The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING, or Why I'm Never Getting All That Glitter Off of the Dog
Author: Jen Lancaster
Published: 2013 (New American Library)
Pages: 332
I’ve covered Jen Lancaster territory here before more than once, and I keep going back to her because sometimes I get the same urge for a part-of-life overhaul but don’t actually want to go through it and plus she’s funny. Bam. That’s her magic formula.
Here, after a horrible year that left her feeling helpless and depressed, she’s decided that maybe the key to finding her happiness is to find the serenity in the perfection of Martha Steward’s domestic methods. Jen isn’t disillusioned that making the perfect apple pie is going to solve world peace, and she’s not looking to become a Stepford wife – she just wants to find calmness in Martha’s details, and she sets about doing that by incorporating recipes, hosting methods, crafting, and her own twist on MS’s suggestions.
The actual execution is somewhat unremarkable in the cooking and hosting areas since those are things she’s been doing her own way for a while – not that there isn’t some culture clash, but there’s at least a baseline commonality. The crafting bits were more interesting because she captured that exact impatience with fiddly stuff that makes every crafter question at least once why any of this matters, really, while zeroing in on what of that fiddly stuff she actually enjoyed enough to use to enhance stuff.
My favorite part was when she chose to use her husband’s disaster preparedness compulsion as her self-made Martha-fiying. They will not only be fully ready for any sort of storm that comes through but also look downright cute while they’re at it.
Two scary life events happen along the way of all this and of course they derail things, but Jen manages to apply what she’s learned about finding calm in processes and gets though it with the help of nervous knitting and home-baked macaroni.  
Another vaguely trailing ending, but guys, circulation’s hold system is just getting back on track from when it burped like a week ago and ohboy am I in for some awesome-sounding stuff coming up. Back to the library!
Also, my own contribution to domesticity for the week: homemade calzones, y'all.

Brother and sister united through conventional weirdness

Book: Fin & Lady
Author: Cathleen Schine
Published: 2013 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Pages: 217
Think if Breakfast at Tiffany’s Audrey Hepburn had taken in her adopted brother to go live with her in the ‘60s Village, and you have this book.
That’s underselling it a little, maybe, since its expansion beyond the starting flashpoint and honeymoon period of wackiness draws out the details of family relations into a complex diagram that rewrites and reinforces society norms as the changing bond between a bohemian whose only conventional feeling is that she wants to get married and have a family by her late twenties (her personal deadline keeps changing) and her younger brother who faces a steep learning curve from being thrust into his sister’s life when their parents die.
The biggest outward sign of how close they grow is how he’s charged with finding her a suitor to marry and how protective this makes him of his sister’s feelings – only one guy is ever worthy of her, and he ends up being an also-ran who stays in their life as a close friend as the sister travels to Italy, falls in love, gets pregnant, and finds out her lover is married all in one summer.
It’s a coming-of-age story (yay!) with interesting details but not drowning in angst or underlining peculiarities – it was the sixties, man, everybody was weird, especially in the Village. Throughout, there are nicely sparse flashes of a narrative device that is revealed late enough to not rush any of the story but early enough to explain a little deeper. Not much, though – I’ll go ahead and tell you that it turns out the narrator is the sister’s daughter, telling stories of her mom she’s heard from her cousin who is now raising her, because they don’t use that device for anything except that small reveal.
It was good, also a nice portrait of the times without beating the reader over the head with ironic time-period winks. Also back to the library it goes.

The author was too polite to call it Dead Whores: The Mystery

Book: Fallen Women
Author: Sandra Dallas
Published: 2013 (St. Martins Press)
Pages: 338
Prostitution murder in the growing West! An estranged sister overcoming guilt of how she could’ve been a better protector! Purple prose of the grisly details spread by reporters and gossiping society ladies in tacky houses making things worse!
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? And it is, sort of, and the author manages to keep under soap-opera levels the twists that drive this tale of family dysfunction and a wild girl’s escape to the brothels where she would ultimately die in just a different side of the same disgrace for which she got kicked out. 

But I suspect that’s because the story is filtered through the main character’s flatness. The emotional repression runs so thoroughly through this New York lady of wealth and philanthropy that I don’t believe for a second that she 1. is sad about her sister dying 2. at one time got mad enough at her sister to throw her sister out when said sister was caught doin’ it with the lady’s (now ex, duh-hoi) husband and 3. falls in love with the detective she stubbornly teams up with in Denver to solve her sister’s murder.
 I was told all this but I still don’t believe it, and I’m not entirely sure why because the story was told clearly enough for me to guess the true murder circumstances a couple steps ahead of the protagonist but not so far ahead so it was agony waiting for her to catch up. I guess the key word here is “told,” maybe, which describes this story a lot better than “shown” or “felt.” And the end does that disappointing thing where there’s a wimpy little epilogue that does nothing but confirm that the characters do in fact eventually get to their most obvious points conclusion of what happened over the past 300 pages.
The historical bits in the back about how prostitution grew in Denver as it became a city in its own right were truly interesting. If this lady has written a non-fiction book about that, I would totally read it. But this is going back to the library anyways.
It was on my 200 Books to Check Out Before, You Know, Whenever list and actually makes a really good example of those because it’s something that looked interesting because of the subject and title and cover but not something I’d heard anything about before I read it. Your Local Library is excellent for those May Or May Not Be Goods (and about a million other things too of course).