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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On nonfiction and palate-cleansers

There are two free instagram followers categories of book I read that I never write about here. When I started this of I have every once in a while that it would be fun to be a chef. Last summer I read The Lost City of Z by David Grann and literally could not put it down; if you are looking for a book with an entire chapter of graphic descriptions of what insects will do to your skin in the rainforest -- and who isn't, really? -- look no further.

I also read a lot of biographies; the recent Edith Wharton one is amazing, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners.

Finally, The Canon by Natalie Angier will equip you with a lot of interesting facts with which to win drunken philosophical arguments; I refer to it in conversation basically constantly.

Palate-cleansers

Michael Crichton, Stephen King and Dave Barry from the seventies and eighties, when they were all still good; just don't read It or Needful Things, you'll live to regret it. Both Bridget Jones books (seriously, they're really funny) and The Nanny Diaries, which stands out from the rest of the chick-lit canon by virtue of its bitterness. Anything by Jay McInerney except Brightness Falls, which is actually worth a close read; I highly recommend Story of My Life, which, fun fact, is allegedly about Rielle Hunter. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a perfect palate-cleanser for when you want the palate-cleansing to go on all week. And sometimes you just give up and watch the first season of Dexter. Nobody's perfect.

Now that I've laid bare my soul, what are your favorites?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pick your literary tipple like a pro

A big thank you to loyal Luterary Lish friend and reader Windi for this link, especially since she won't be raising a glass again for at least six months while she continues growing a person. Windi, you are always thinking of others.

How to Drink Like Your Favorite Authors

How delighted am I to hear that Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath used to drink martinis together? Not that I am entirely surprised. Also, every time I see a photo of Anne Sexton I can't help but think about what a fox she was.

I know being a lady with literary tendencies in those days was no treat -- perhaps as most obviously evidenced by the fact that Plath and Sexton both killed themselves -- but I still kind of wish I had been alive back then. I think I would have been great at wearing men's collared shirts while looking pensive in chairs.

Here is my favorite Anne Sexton poem. Perhaps you will read it tonight while having a martini of your own.

The Truth the Dead Know

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stuff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one's alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in the stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Evening of Long Goodbyes and white wine

The book: An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
The beverage: Chardonnay

After being so enraptured with Paul Murray's second novel, Skippy Dies, I knew sooner or later I'd find myself tucking into his debut, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which came out back in 2004. It was a fitting book to read right before a jaunt to Central Coast wine country, where I had ample time to contemplate the notion of sprezzatura while aerating samples of pinot noir on vineyard terraces in a manner more appropriate to someone classy and refined, someone who, for instance, did not recently spill bottom-shelf apple juice masquerading as wine all over her computer.

Sprezzatura
, as explained by Charles Hythloday, the fabulously dissolute narrator of Long Goodbyes, is an Italian notion of nobility that excuses gentlemen from having jobs on the grounds that their real occupation should be living artfully. (The OED defines it as "studied carelessness," which is a mantra in the making if I've ever heard one.) Charles' embrace of sprezzatura is a reaction to the fact that he is often being told to get a job, mostly by his sister, Bel, with whom he shares the run of the family estate, Amaurot. Of course, Bel's only occupation is trying half-assedly to be an actress, and Charles' idea of "living artfully" is raiding the Amaurot wine cellar in between viewings of old Gene Tierney movies. They represent slightly different species of the kind of insufferable artistic personality you're always meeting at parties in LA, an aspiring writer/actor/director/what-have-you who works four hours a week at a bookstore and lives in a three-bedroom condo his or her parents bought "because it was a good investment."

Charles is a delightful, charming, disastrously unreliable narrator, a well read wastrel and master of rationalization, the type of person you love on Friday night and hate on Saturday morning. He sees his wealth as a responsibility, a legacy to fulfill, while Bel sees it as sheltering her from some kind of proletariat truth that only the poor can understand; as a result, Charles rarely leaves the house, while Bel regularly ventures out to pick up blue-collar boyfriends. In their inarticulate rantings about dog races, bar fights and foam parties in Ibiza, she sees a chance to become a better actress, while all Charles sees is the noble Ireland of his imagination turning into a giant strip mall.

Initially, the book is content to wander Amaurot as Charles haughtily downs gimlets and judges people simply by overhearing their words. (At one point, a disappointing former crush of his opines that "The thing about Titanic is there's something in it for everyone.") But when it turns out Amaurot is about to be repossessed by the bank because the bills haven't been paid since Charles' and Bel's father died, a book that was funny, smart and sharply satirical rapidly devolves into an incoherent farce, complete with faked deaths, Bosnian refugees, digressions about Gene Tierney's career, nervous breakdowns, sudden flashbacks and a long dream sequence in which Charles takes up residence with Yeats in South America. It's the same insane potpourri of subjects that made Skippy Dies so wonderful, but without the propulsion of an actual story; once Charles gives up his quest to save Amaurot, the book just wanders. After a while, his lack of reliability goes from hilarious to frustrating as it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out which end is up. That statement especially applies to the ending: I actually had to Google plot summaries of the book to see what other people thought had happened, because I had no idea.

All that being said, I enjoyed the book, mostly because Paul Murray is that rarest of treasures, a serious novelist who is incredibly funny -- not I'm-better-than-you funny (cough cough FRANZEN), but wonderfully, lovingly, amazingly funny. The difference between Franzen-funny and Murray-funny is the same as that between laughing at some douchebag at a party who keeps misusing a big word and laughing at one of your friends for the exact same offense; you laugh at the douchebag because he's stupid, but you laugh at your friend because she's smart. Murray actually likes all of his characters, and his belief in them shines through on every page, which is why, although it doesn't add up to much in the end, Long Goodbyes is a blast to read.

Succeeding on a scene-by-scene rather than an overall basis strikes me as an extremely subversive way to fail in today's literary climate. Novels these days are assessed by critics more on the basis of tone than story, but story always wins: people have been into Shakespeare for like half a millennium, and it's not because of his mastery of tone. I hereby commit to writing my prediction that Murray (who is only 36) will become one of our most important novelists in the years to come. And if that means the pursuit of sprezzatura must fall to the rest of us, well, I am willing to make that sacrifice.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Catching Fire, Mockingjay and white wine

The book(s): Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
The beverage: Chardonnay

We're going to interrupt your regularly scheduled drunken book talk right now for a personal anecdote -- one which, I swear, will eventually relate back to The Hunger Games trilogy, although in kind of a circuitous way.

Once upon a time, I went on a business trip. While at the conference that was the purpose of the trip, I smiled at a stranger -- because that is what nice Midwestern girls do, we smile at total strangers even though we should really know better -- and said stranger approached me and said, "Have we met before?" Because he was wearing a badge that meant he was a fellow conference attendee, I feared I had made an enormous social gaffe in forgetting who he was. "I think so!" I said, lying through my teeth. "Well," the stranger continued, "should we have a drink later?" "Sure!" I said, still thinking this all had something to do with business in a way that I wasn't quite remembering.

Unfortunately but predictably, I turned out to be wrong. I first realized this around the time he and I met at the hotel bar and, upon noting there were no available tables, he said to me, "Well, we could just go make out." Ah, yes: business! Incidentally, this is probably the all-time most annoying move in the Creepy Guy Armamentarium. If he'd actually tried to make out with me, I could've slapped him and walked away indignant and justified. But by merely making a reference, he gave himself an out: if I reacted as if he'd said anything other than a typical business pleasantry, I'd suddenly be the inappropriate one for taking him seriously. Creepy guys of the world: GROW SOME BALLS, SO I CAN KICK YOU IN THEM.

So now I had to act natural while drinking alcohol with a person who obviously thought the evening would end with us getting naked in his hotel room. As I gracefully (and by "gracefully" I mean "without falling down") carried my glass of wine to a recently vacated table in the gleaming marble of the lobby bar, I contemplated the fact that I have probably missed the window on business flings. I had a mental image of some different, single version of myself -- a version who knows her way around a curling iron, maybe -- wearing lip gloss and sky-high Louboutins, meeting a tall dark stranger for a post-work cocktail that could lead just about anywhere. "I've always had a thing for brunettes who are absurdly particular about grammar," he might say. "Ha ha ha," I'd laugh elegantly in response. "Let's put more Chateau Margaux on our expense accounts."

This was not that scenario. For one thing, I was wearing a pair of four-year-old Steve Maddens that had been recently chewed on by my cat. Also, my drinking partner was a good deal older than me, and neither tall nor dark. He was not drinking a smooth premier cru but rather an Absolut Mandarin and soda, which seemed utterly inappropriate for someone his age, like something a sorority girl on a crash diet would order. He earned one point in a vacuum of mediocrity by asking what I was reading, although to be fair, I was reading when he walked up. And when I told him I was reading the third book of The Hunger Games, do you know what this dude said to me?

"Well, at least it's not Twilight." And then he had the nerve to FLINCH.

Oh, buddy. First of all, as a matter of general principle, if someone is so involved in a book that they're reading it in a hotel bar, DON'T INSULT THE BOOK. Second, no one who works in sales has ever successfully stepped to someone else's reading selections. Third, you have NO IDEA how much I am currently wishing I was consuming my beverage alone so I could be looking at my book instead of you.

I am telling you this anecdote instead of recapping Catching Fire and Mockingjay because they are so plot-driven that to tell you almost anything would be to deprive you of the pleasure of reading them yourself. Again, the writing is nothing to write home about, and Mockingjay in particular feels incredibly rushed: there's so much story crammed in there that to zone out for even a page or two will leave you confused and disoriented, so that you will find yourself reading in a methodical manner more appropriate to Proust or James Joyce. The word on the street is that the publisher, eager to make the inevitable killing on the last installment, told Suzanne Collins to hand in the manuscript before she was ready; Hollywood, being more confident about its ability to make a fuck-ton of cash, is planning to squeeze four films out of the trilogy, so they can split the final book into two more sensibly paced parts.

But my point is this: I was so caught up in both of the books, in spite of their flaws, that I literally could not be torn away from them for one second. I love to read, but The Hunger Games books reminded me that I REALLY love to read: that I still have the capacity to so totally lose myself in a story, even a poorly written one, that all other activities seem dull and meaningless. There's the kind of reading where you appreciate the author's intelligence and wit, his or her turns of phrase, and the depth of his or her characterizations; and then there's the kind where you don't give a fuck about any of that because OH MY GOD WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT. Those are the books that absorbed us as kids, and maybe we don't read as much as adults because grown-up novels so often fail to captivate us. (Recent exceptions I've found: A Gate at the Stairs, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, The Secret History, American Pastoral.)

There are those who would argue that serious readers wouldn't bother with the OH MY GOD WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT category. (Here's lookin' at you, Harold Bloom, you delightful old square.) Certainly TV and movies have trained us to expect the kind of easy morals and frequent cliffhangers, both in ready supply in The Hunger Games, that aren't exactly hallmarks of great literature. Bloom and those of his ilk get their panties all in a twist because they worry that at the rate things are going, soon all the serious literature will get Darwined out of existence, and all we'll be left with is shit.

But as BR Myers put it (much more intelligently) in his most excellent essay A Reader's Manifesto, what's so great about most of our contemporary literature, anyway?
The "literary" writer need not be an intellectual one. Jeering at status-conscious consumers, bandying about words like "ontological" and "nominalism," chanting Red River hokum as if it were from a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for profundity in novels these days . . . What is not tolerated is a strong element of action—unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum.
Right? Are we really to believe that Bloom is all worked up because Don DeLillo got overlooked by the NBF? (We all read White Noise in college and thought it was great, which, if you think about it, is an indictment in and of itself. Try reading it again some time, I dare you. DeLillo is so satisfied with himself it'll make you sick.)

Myers' point is an excellent one, made not nearly often enough: stories are supposed to be stories. They're supposed to be engaging, exciting, maybe just a little bit smutty -- Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jane Eyre, A Room with a View, The House of Mirth. "Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read--Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie," he writes. WORD. The way we consume all media is evolving, and evolutions are messy, untidy things. Who knows what we'll be calling literature a hundred years from now. But if you really, truly love to read, you won't be standing back lamenting the changes from some academic ivory tower of intellectual superiority. You'll be reading.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's happening

I'm off to DC for a business trip. While I'm there . . .

Like I wasn't going to finish the trilogy just because the books are YA. So excited to find out what happens to Katniss.

See you on the flipside!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The dangers of literary lushing, or, So You Spilled Wine All Over Your MacBook Pro

The entire inspiration for this blog is the question, "How come people don't combine alcohol and literary pursuits anymore?" This week, I discovered the answer. Are you ready?

Alcohol + technology = no bueno.

As faithful readers of this blog must by now have deduced, I often enjoy a beverage while working on the computer. I write things, read things, read things about things I've read, and write things about things I've read. And quite often I do so in the evening with a glass of something next to me. Delightful? Absolutely. Relaxing? To the MAX. Dangerous? Just ask my six-month-old MacBook Pro! OH WAIT: thanks to one spilled glass of [shudder] Bay Bridge Chardonnay, YOU CAN'T.

It's been a fun couple of days since I let a glass of tragically cheap white wine slip from my fingertips while my computer was resting on my lap, depositing the majority of said wine inside the keyboard tray as efficiently as if I had poured it there on purpose. Mostly it has been characterized by the kind of hysterical theatrics and anxiety-ridden attempts at sleep that do little for one's complexion. For all my fellow technologically enabled literary lushes (or just plain lushes) out there, I'd like to share some of the more unexpected information I've come across since destroying my computer with wine -- or, as I like to call it, The Time I Set Fire to Two-Thousand Dollars.

1. In terms of damage to your computer, all alcohol is not created equal.

According to the kindly technician who acted as my personal therapist from 8:54 a.m. yesterday, when she arrived to find me waiting outside her locked place of work, until 3 p.m. yesterday, when she called to deliver the news that my computer and its hard drive were not going to make it, white wine is actually not the worst thing you can get inside a computer. Clear alcohols are the best, as they evaporate quickly, while red wine, with all its sugars and tannins, is the worst.

2. It's better to be a lush than a coffee drinker.

Coffee is the all-time most destructive beverage you can spill in a computer. Especially if it has sugar in it.

3. Hey, you know that old saw about how if you get liquid in your laptop you can put it in a bag of rice/take it apart and let it dry, and 24 hours later you'll be okay?

Yeah, none of that is actually true for unibody Macs. Nice design in an office, shitty design in a crisis.

4. So what can you do?

First, TURN IT OFF AS FAST AS YOU CAN. If you leave it on, the liquid will get circulated through every component of your computer in a few minutes' time, and as it turns out, although the computer itself costs $2,000, each of these components somehow also costs $2,000. Don't think you have time to just quickly back up something important. You don't.

Next, turn it upside down, but -- this is extremely critical -- turn the KEYBOARD upside down. Do not do what I did and try to turn both the keyboard and screen upside down, forming a low tent. You want the keyboard piece to be parallel to the floor. Otherwise you'll wind up with pools. POOLS. POOLS OF ALCOHOL IN YOUR LAPTOP. Oh, and should you take the low-tent approach, would you like to know where those pools will form? OVER YOUR LOGIC BOARD AND HARD DRIVE.

See how you can benefit from my experience?

5. Then what?

When you're sure all the liquid has drained, take your computer to a Genius Bar or less expensive option (I had an extremely affordable experience with Los Feliz Hi-Tech, if you are an Angeleno) and have them run diagnostics to determine whether the computer can be saved. DO NOT TURN IT ON. This, I learned, is the fatal mistake of many people who do not wind up with pools over their logic board and hard drive: everything would have been cool, but they turned it on and caused a short.

6. Give me a percentage, doctor. What are my odds?

As an owner of a unibody MacBook pro, they are not good. This is definitely an ounce-of-prevention-worth-pound-of-cure scenario. Actually, you could buy a hundred silicone keyboard protectors for the amount of money I just dropped on a brand-new computer, so it's more like ounce-of-prevention-worth-six-pounds-of-cure.

In other words . . . sigh.

Your regularly scheduled Luterary Lish-ing will resume when I have fully recovered from this crisis. Until then, consider yourself warned of these dangers, and protect your technology lest you one day find yourself desperately gulping the dregs of a two-thousand-dollar glass of bottom-shelf wine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Last Night and gin

The book: Last Night by James Salter
The beverage: Hendrick's and tonic (had to get out the good stuff for this one)

A couple of weeks ago, a friend who is also into short fiction e-mailed me with a link to James Salter's story "Last Night." I liked it so much I asked if I could borrow the book, which he shamelessly hyped by saying it reminded him of Raymond Carver's work. Oh, Raymond Carver: how often has your name been taken thusly in vain? Good thing you're already dead, because I feel certain the comparison would have insulted you into your grave.

A word on books of short stories: I don't tend to read them start to finish as I would a novel, because I don't think it does the author any favors. Every writer has themes he or she can't seem to get over, and slicing and dicing those themes fourteen different ways before placing them all back to back in a single volume unfairly exposes that. It's impossible not to start feeling like "Dang, John Cheever. Maybe write about something other than alcoholic WASPs" or "We get it, Doris Lessing. Life's a bitch and then you die."

So it's not James Salter's fault, really, that every story in Last Night turned out to be a lot like "Last Night," and it's not his fault that I felt I had to read the book in a hurry so I could return it to its rightful owner. You know what is his fault? That every single story suffers from a belief in the authority of the male gaze so terrifically all-encompassing that it practically gave me an eating disorder. Witness, please, what every man in James Salter's universe is secretly lusting after:
From "Comet": "She was still young enough to be good-looking . . . in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her . . . her legs, her wet swimmer's hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried."

From "My Lord You": "How beautiful a lone woman is, in a white summer shirt and bare legs." [This one was especially weird, since the story was written from the woman in question's perspective. So she was just sitting around thinking about how beautiful her bare legs were? Really?]

From "Such Fun": "Kathryn had long hair combed back dark from a handsome brow and a brilliant smile . . . There was not much more to her than met the eye, but that had always been enough."

From "Palm Court": "That summer he saw her in a bathing suit, a bikini. She was stunning, with a kind of glow to her skin. She had a young girl's unself-conscious belly and ran into the waves."

From "Arlington": "When she dressed up she was simply beautiful . . . To put your hand on the small of her naked back was to have all you ever hoped to possess."
There's nothing inherently wrong with these descriptions, but there's something missing from the rest of every story. Like, for instance, any physical descriptions of the male characters, or any non-physical descriptions of their female counterparts. In Salter's world, women are either young, nubile and driving someone into a Priapic frenzy or old, fat and driving their husbands to fuck younger women; who they are is measured in terms of their sexual impact. "Last Night" begins with a description of Walter's job and interests, then turns its eye on his wife, Marit, solely for the purpose of observing that she doesn't look so hot these days. Picture their world before the story began: there was Walter, translating with a green fountain pen and memorizing Rilke, while in another room, behind a closed door, his wife spent two decades aging and accumulating a collection of rings.

I'm not going to argue with the observation that older men want to fuck younger women. Obviously older men want to fuck younger women: that's the crux of the problem. James Salter is critically acclaimed for unearthing the devastating truth that young women are hot, then creating ten variations on this theme. Young women are hot, and when they get older it's disappointing. Young women are hot, and your lust for them can ruin your life. Older women are unattractive, but they can be rich. Young women are hot, but they can be mean. What? SHOCKING. How DOES he do it?

You're thinking, "But young women being hot is a real problem men have. Maybe you don't 100% relate to it because you're not a man, but that doesn't make it not worth writing about." To which I can only respond: Absolutely. I don't have a problem with white heterosexual dudes yakkin' about their issues. I LIVE to read books where white heterosexual dudes yak about their issues: Philip Roth loves to beat off, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has problems with his asshole, Ernest Hemingway can't get it up, and I am RIGHT THERE WITH THEM. And the white heterosexual dudes out there are exactly the same, right? If I wrote a book about the universal female truth that menopause is a beeyatch, and came up with ten different stories in which I really dissected that shit from every single angle, complete with gritty descriptions of hot flashes and vaginal dryness, my only problem would be trying to fit all my hundred-dollar bills into my suitcase for my first-class flights between New York, where I'd be the toast of the literary scene, and LA, where thoughtful interpretations of my work were being made into blockbuster movies starring Jon Hamm.

Like it or not, the male gaze is a problem wherever it pops up. It's a problem because it's not the point or purpose of the art in which it appears; it's like this piece of fucking dust that got into the lens of my DSLR, so that every picture I take has an ugly shadow in the left-hand corner. The shadow is not there because I was making a point; it's there because I failed to prevent it from appearing.

This is not a problem all writers have. Some of the previous century's finest writers wrote in such a manner that, irrespective of the subject matter being discussed, you'd never be able to guess whether the author was male or female without checking the title page -- Richard Yates, Ray-Carv, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates. (John Updike tried valiantly but overshot the mark, as any woman who's ever read The Witches of Eastwick can attest: if I spent that much time thinking about my period, I'd never get anything done.) I propose that authorial gender neutrality be accepted as a new standard. It'll be a Bechdel Test for the bookish: we'll get rid of Bret Easton Ellis and Lauren Weisberger in one fell swoop, and the only winner will be EVERYONE.