Hey, have you seen the award-winning documentary "Uh Huh ... Her?" Well, there's a brief clip of me freaking out at the Austin airport -- half epileptic fit, half unbridled enthusiasm -- and the clip's placement suggests that I'm spazzing out to see my number one band Uh Huh Her live in concert. That's what we at Automatic Universal Studios call "movie magic," like Jaws except with fake glee instead of sharks (and less blood, though a little blood never hurt anyone). I mean, I was happy to see them, but that's not why I'm exploding. Like the Uh Huh Her song "Explode" ... right ...
The truth is: After exiting the plane, I turned on my Blackberry and what did I find there but an email from my number-one feeling Sam Anderson, the New York Magazine book critic I raved about in last month's installment of "Stuff I've Been Reading," thanking me wittily for my kind words. I know OMG! This my friends is the magic of the internet. As you may notice in the screenshot (left), I'm cradling the phone like it's Tinkerbell. Also, including Sam (we're probs on first name basis now), that means at least 18 people for sure read "Stuff I've Been Reading: February," the monthly account of one [wo]man's struggle with the monthly tide of the books she's bought and the books she's been meaning to read, inspired by Nick Hornby's Believer column by the same name. (See January, it explains). 18 may not be a lot, but it's not nothing. It's the age of consent, somewhere. Where was I.
Last week's New York Magazine explores "The New York Cannon 1968-2008," with lists of New Yorkish movies, architecture, art, theater, etc. compiled by its critics, including Sam Anderson's 26 favorite New Yorky books (here). His list includes only a few I've read -- Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Grace Paley), Bad Behavior (Mary Gaitskill), Bright Lights Big City (Jay McInerney), The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier & Clay (Michael Chabon)-- but now I know about a whole bunch more books that I WANT to read. I've got some lists of my own at the end of this post. See that? What I did there? Does that count as bringing it back around?
The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys, various
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
Drunk by Noon [poems], Jennifer L. Knox
The Book of Other People, Zadie Smith
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters
This month I read only books given to me by other people (last month), including a book called The Book of Other People, which contained 23 stories about fictional other people even more incorrigible than my non-fictional friends.
I mentioned last week that I'd left Written on the Body on the plane back from L.A. -- I re-bought it, so maybe it technically is a gift I got myself? Anyhow I finished en route to Austin, and then, feeling accomplished, dove right in to Drunk by Noon, which I finished in about 30 minutes, 'cause it's a poetry book. "Look! I've finished two books already!" I said. Though I don't remember specifically, I'm guessing from experience that my companions' responses were as follows:
Crystal: "What's that?" [that's Australian for "what did you say?"]
B.: "Good job, weirdo."
Usually it takes me a while to get into a novel and then my interest increases exponentially. Written on the Body sort of did the opposite -- at first, I was addicted to it. The voice was enthralling, sensual, brilliant, evocative, compelling.
Also, I confess I spent the first hundred or so pages awaiting the lesbian reveal. Then I read the back of the book -- "the narrator has not neither name nor gender," consequentially dug up the requisite gender studies academia on WOTB, realized the narrator remains gender-less, decided it was clearly a lady anyhow, and soldiered on. It's not that I'm a heterophobic reader, just that the lesbian reveal is always a good plot device, and I've read a bazillion hetero love scenes already in my life.
Howevs after re-purchasing the book, I never got back into it with my initial enthusiasm. Maybe it was the lack of underlines ... and I feel like it's blasphemy to speak ill of Winterson, but it gradually stumbled past plot into the vast meadows of endless emo. Like if the narrator was my friend, I'd be like, "shut up already and get a new girlfriend for crying out loud." Near the end the language got especially heavy-handed, like a personal blog about a breakup or me during Secrets Week. I started groaning a little and rolling my eyes and reading particularly annoying passages out loud. Maybe this's a side effect of reading too many bad personal blogs about bad breakups. For example, This Girl Called Automatic Win. Anyhow, it was good, one of the best books ever, etc.
Drunk by Noon was, as I expected from reading Knox's brill interview on bookslut (which made her my interview hero, I want to interview like her) was delightful & irreverant: "A chainsaw's God's way of evening out the playing field between you and everything, even the invisible stuff." How can you not like that? Or this: "Meat when it's alive's not meat, FYI. / Some meat's alive, and it lives in Wisconsin." I imagine hanging out with her would make me feel stupid in comparison, but smart by association, like she'd always be saying witty things and eating special foods I'd never heard of and emailing Denis Johnson while making poignant accurate observations about pop culture. [Read her here.]
While in Austin, I read nothing, 'cause I had to devote myself to Uh Huh Her/learning Final Cut.
So, I started The Book of Other People on the return flight. Zadie Smith, who I haven't read despite her obvious position in the hipster cannon, edited what's intended to be a series of character studies. Jaime said this about it, which I agree with: "several writers took the opportunity ["to make someone up"] to draw utterly empty, worthless, depressing people, in stories whose sole point seemed to be to show me how worthless, empty, and depressing these lives were. There was a string of that in the first half of the book."
I felt initially that TBOOP was taking advantage of my "read everything in the anthology from start to finish" policy, like a boy who thinks he can use my bisexuality to talk me into a threesome. This policy is intended to forcibly expose myself to things I wouldn't ordinarily read and to expand my brainspace, but can often feel like masochism.
A disadvantage of reading on planes is that you can't scream or jump out the window without alarming everyone, but you can force your seatmate to read your least favorite passages, to which she'll implore, "Why don't you just skip that story, weirdo?"
"BECAUSE I CAN'T! THAT'S NOT WHAT I DO!"
In particular I felt like A.L Kennedy's story, "Frank," was really testing my faithfulness to self-imposed policy. Note to ALK, who's already more successful than I'll ever be: A sentence fragment in and of itself does not dramatic effect make. Furthermore, "not making sense" and "being excessively elusive about important things like 'wtf is happening' while recording every goddamn irrelevant detail possible" isn't a literary technique, it's just annoying.
Highlights included a Miranda July story I'd actually already read in a June '07 New Yorker but enjoyed again, and stories by Vendela Vida, A.M. Homes, George Saunders, and a graphic (that means it is all pictures/cartoons) story by Chris Ware. Like Jaime, I really dug "Lèlè" by Edwidge Danticat. I'd reccomend it mostly, if only 'cause it's big like most British paperbacks and therefore easy to read at the gym, where I finally laid this beast to rest. Also Nick Hornby's in it, which might make this meta. I dunno. I feel if it'd been arranged differently, I'd be giving a 100% rave review. I tend to be more tolerant of bad stuff at the end. Like a relationship: first you must earn my trust, then you can do whatevs you want.
Haviland gave me Tipping the Velvet for my birthday (see her inscription, right, which I'll be selling on ebay when she gets famous) in September. It looked very long, and falls easily into the "pre-electricity lit" category (I prefer "post") so clearly I've avoided it 'til now, although I should've known better 'cause Hav NEVER finishes novels, so if she read this whole entire book, it must've been really good. BUT OMG -- it might be on my Top Five Novels of All Time list. And I'm not just saying that 'cause the novel includes female cross-dressing, dildos, fisting, prostitutes, theater, England, seafood and is named for an oral sex euphamism.
Why read it now? 'Cause in Cait's car, A;ex announced: "Guess what I'm reading? Tipping the Velvet." I think my line was, "OMG, best book EVER!" but of course, I hadn't read it, which would be like if I said to Alex, "Guess what my new favorite font is? Verdana!" and she'd never typed anything in Verdana. I couldn't have this.
"Oooo! I'm gonna read it now too! I'll race you," I said. "It'll be like book club."
Alex: "Okay! You'll win."
Me: "But I haven't started it yet."
Alex: "You'll still probably win though. I'm on page five."
Me: "I'm secretly a very slow reader."
Alex: "Nice shoulder!"
[I made up that last line, but it's something she'd say.]
A;ex took an early lead, but I bounded ahead when she went to Dinah Shore and I didn't go to China (realizing that this is now April's territory, but let's be real, clearly this's "Stuff I've Been Reading: From the last time I wrote this segment through last week.") -- reading the last 300 pages in one day.
Despite its homosexuality, Dinah Shore is apparently not conducive to reading, which's probs why Shane is dumb as rocks. Here's Alex's account of what it's like to try to read a book while surrounded by 50 gazillion drunk lesbians in Gammorah:
(Notice the Victorian inflection in that last line? Yeah you did.)
I literally couldn't put it down, I don't mean that as a figure of speech. Its language is exact. The pacing is perfect. Waters is both a master storyteller and a master sentence-constructor. I read Tipping the Velvet while walking. At the gym, on the train, in my room, in the kitchen, while walking from my room to the kitchen, while walking down stairs, while waiting in line, while eating & drinking & lying in bed. I read it at the laundromat while a bunch of angry black people yelled about my favorite topic, the shitty U.S educational system, which I know a lot about and kinda wanted to chime in, but figured that my opinion would be unwelcome in this context.
Another confession of my secret low-cultureness; I kinda like pictures ... I like seeing what the movie-of-the-book looks like (as in -- not WATCHING it -- but knowing about it) or some revelatory cover art. I've not seen the BBC miniseries all the way through, but I've seen clips of it here and there 'cause it's ALWAYS on Logo (or at least it was back when I used to watch TV) so I already had an image in my head of what Nan & Kitty looked like, which I think helped my overall visualization and consequential rapture.
Waters says that lesbiainism is incidental to her books -- and though Tipping the Velvet's 19th century story is fully driven by the implicit societally unacceptable behavior of "toms," I think she's right on. All peoples can read & enjoy this book: brown, yellow, red, straight, or Max.
But, as one of maybe ten well-written stories about lesbos in the 19th century, I clearly enjoyed that element. I learned that lesbian groupthink hasn't much changed since the 19th century: then & now, ladies love to gossip about each other, covet photographs of semi-famous homos, rush into serious relationships, have a lot of feelings, and develop complicated social cliques of hopelessly intertwined lesbos who, when all in the same room, can easily entertain themselves all night long just by judging each other. Other people do arts & crafts, we judge.
It'd seem a primary lesbian literary archetype is that of "crushed-upon girl awakens latent homosexuality in narrator, leaves narrator for a man, narrator continues to pursue lesbian lifestyle while first love wastes her heart away in terrible hetero marriage," though I can't think of that many examples, I feel like I've read/watched it many-a-time. I guess it happens in real life (yes, right now, in some Illinois bedroom, a teenage girl is crying desperately with all the weight of her so far insignificant life crashing down around her like a rainstorm of glowly sticky ceiling stars and her best friend, less kind than she could be, is pulling away from her needy embraces, saying she has to go, he's waiting, and besides, she's not like that) and maybe has been me, too, on both sides.
One day, I'm actually going to return Heroes : Disc One to Netflix (which i've had now for like five months) and I'll watch Tipping the Velvet for real. Also, next time Hav suggests "Nan & Kitty" as costume of the day, I won't need to google it. I only wanna see the movie 'cause I want to re-experience the book over and over again. Even if you think you only like books with electric lights, you will like this book, and it will enrapture you when real life is less than perfect.
Oh, P.S., obviously I won the Reading Race I started. How, you may be wondering, did Alex lose after such a promising start? Here's how:
Someone asked me in the reader survey for my Top 20 book Recommendations. I found this almost impossible, so instead I've compiled a series of lists across genres. I'm certain this is incomplete.
Also, the [self-imposed] rule is that I couldn't include the same author twice on the same list and I tried mostly to include books that I've read recreationaly, 'cause like, it'd be lame to just tell you to read Of Mice and Men or something, I'm sure you read that in 9th grade English anyhow. So these are not school books, mostly. RIGHT?! Most of them are also in my a-store.
My 20 Most Favorite Novels - In alphabetical order
20 Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid's Tale
19 Burgess, Anthony: A Clockwork Orange
18 Cunningham, Michael: A Home at the End of the World
17 Curran, Colleen: Whores on the Hill
16 Eugenides, Jeffery: The Virgin Suicides
15 Franzen, Jonathan: The Corrections
14 Gaitskill, Mary: Veronica
13 Hornby, Nick: High Fidelity
12 Kerouac, Jack: On the Road
11 Kundera, Milan: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
10 McInerney, Jay: Bright Lights Big City
9 McEwan, Ian: Saturday
8 Meeker, Marijane: Shockproof Sydney Skate
7 Moody, Rick: The Ice Storm
6 Nabakov, Vladimir: Lolita
5 Salinger, J.D. : A Catcher in the Rye
4 Sebold, Alice: The Lovely Bones
3 Sittenfeld, Curtis: Prep
2 Safran-Foer, Jonathan: Everything is Illuminated
1 Waters, Sarah: Tipping the Velvet
My 20 Most Favorite Short Story Books
20 Bloom, Amy: Come to Me
19 Bradbury, Ray: Martian Chronicles
18 Calvino, Italo: Invisible Cities
17 Carver, Raymond: Where I'm Calling From
16 Coupland, Douglass: Life After God
15 Driscoll, Jack: Wanting Only to Be Heard
14 Estep, Maggie: Soft Maniacs
13 Gaitskill, Mary: Bad Behavior
12 Homes, AM : The Safety of Objects
11 Houston, Pam: Cowboys are my Weakness
10 July, Miranda: Nobody Belongs Here More Than You
9 Miller, Rebecca: Personal Velocity
8 Moore, Lorrie: Birds of America
7 Nissen, Thisbe: Out of the Girl's Room and Into the Night
6 Orringer, Julie: How to Breathe Underwater
5 Paley, Grace: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
4 Prose, Francine: Peaceable Kingdom
3 Roth, Phillip: Goodbye, Columbus
2 Salinger, J.D. : Nine Stories
1 Yoshimoto, Banana: NP
My 20 Most Favorite Memoirs
20 Allison, Dorothy: Bastard out of Carolina (I realize this isn't techinically a memoir, but c'mon, it is)
19 Bechdel, Alison: Fun Home
18 Carroll, Jim: The Basketball Diaries
17 Daum, Meghan: My Misspent Youth
16 Didion, Joan: The Year of Magical Thinking
15 Erlbaum, Janice: Girlbomb
14 Eggers, Dave: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
13 Hornbacher, Marya: Wasted
12 Karr, Mary : The Liar's Club
11 Kaysen, Susana: Girl, Interrupted
10 Kilmer-Purcell, Josh: I Am Not Myself These Days
9 Knapp, Caroline: Appetites
8 Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz
7 O'Brien, Tim: If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
6 Salzman, Mark: Lost in Place
5 Sedaris, David: Naked
4 Smith, Alison: Name All The Animals
3 Walls, Jeanette: The Glass Castle
2 Wurtzel, Elizabeth: More, Now, Again
1 Wolff, Tobias: This Boy's Life
[I know that "Wo" is alphabetically before "Wu," but I'm a little embarrassed about Elizabeth Wurtzel, so I couldn't put her in the number one spot even if it is alphabetical. But now I've drawn attention to it anyhow, which is something that Elizabeth would probably do.]