26 July 2009

Summer-of-Jane. And tomatoes.

I'm happily ensconced in Austenland for a few weeks, preparing my little lecture on Northanger Abbey and Mysteries of Udolpho, and Ann Radcliffe, gothic romance, and the female novelistic tradition in general for the final meeting of Watermark's Jane Austen Challenge on August 12. As per usual, I expect to require diversions. I shall also most likely subject you to the whole text of whatever I come up with. You'll read it and like it.

And I bought another cookbook: The Too Many Tomatoes Cookbook, by Brian Yarvin. O the delights contained therein: sauces from Greece and Romania, Basque country and Serbia, Albanian marinated green tomatoes, an African chicken dish with a tomato-and-peanut-butter sauce, a Turkish eggplant-stuffed-with-tomatoes called Imam Bayildi ("The Imam fainted"). I'm going to have as much fun as I've been having with our bumper zucchini crop (is it ever not a bumper crop, with zucchini): I've made pasta and pancakes, brownies (vegan!) and pie. All as local as can be.

Info dumpish.

I am allowing my MySpace to go fallow for most intents and purposes (hell, I just this moment cancelled my Friendster. It was pretty heartbreaking, actually: the cancellation form asked you to specify which other social network you switched to), but I can't bear to delete it altogether, as the blog entries stretch back to 2005, and I have a really hard time getting rid of anything I've written (I have boxes of juvenilia in the basement). A couple entries from last summer, though, are explicitly book-related, so I'm reposting them here.

July 20
Current mood: indignant

So for all y'all who don't have your finger on the pulse of the young-adult literary zeitgeist like I do: pretty much every girl in America between the ages of 10 and 17--and their mothers--has read Stephenie Meyer's three Twilight novels, about a girl named Bella and her hot vampire boyfriend, and is anxiously awaiting the release of the fourth and final installment on August 1st. The bookstore where I work is having a Harry-Potter-style release party with themed food, a reading, the works, and a lead-up reading group called the Twilight Circle, which I, the resident young, hip female with goth tendencies, am leading, aided by some rabid devotees from our Young Readers' Group. As a die-hard Buffy fan, I've been excited about these books since I found out they existed, and after I read Meyer's new adult novel, The Host, and found it to be a ripping good sci-fi yarn, my geeked-out bliss just hit new levels. Since the Twilight Circle (my bril name, btw--note how it's almost "coven" but without scaring off the Godfolk) meets for the first time next Friday, I spent the last three nights up way too late reading the eponymous first novel.

I hated it.

At first I was just annoyed by the protagonist's hopeless adolescence and the way she can't go two paragraphs without mentioning once again how beautiful Edward is and how she just can't believe a guy like him would be interested in her OMG (though she puts it in more awkward, romance novel-y terms--at least lolspeak has its own breathless charm. Srsly, I read a whole blog novel a few months back and just loved it). Then, Meyer's habit of exposition-through-dialogue-and-no-action started to grate. But really, all of that could be forgiven for some of her good bits--like how the vampires aren't harmed by the sunlight, but avoid it in human eyeshot because their skin literally sparkles, or Bella's endearing clumsiness.

Here's where she lost me: you see, Edward's a good vampire in true Louis/Angel fashion, living on animals rather than humans. However, he still has to be careful when he's close to Bella. And whenever he kisses her, she has to remain perfectly still and not breathe fast or grab his hair or anything or he might just lose control and hurt her.

In other words! Any sexual response on the part of a female is dangerous and should be avoided. Are you fucking kidding me? This is what we're teaching our teenage girls? Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME?

Stephenie, I'm very, very disappointed in you.

[Ms. magazine did a great piece on this topic this spring, and when the fourth book came out (in which 19-year-old Bella gets married and has a half-vampire baby right away, and then abandons her mortal family for immortality with Edward, AND learns to LET HIM INTO HER THOUGHTS WHICH WAS THE ONLY THING SHE HAD LEFT THAT WASN'T COMPLETELY SUBSUMED BY HIM OH MY GOD THIS IS SUCH BULLSHIT), even those friends of mine who were into the first three ended up turned off. The teenage girls of America (and their mothers, which is even more terrifying) sure don't agree with me, though.]

July 23:
Current mood: miffed

It's cheap but true that you don't need an MFA to write well, though I would never in a thousand years discount the work put in by talented friends to get their degrees. I think they'd agree, howevs, that it's also true that you can get through grad school without learning a damn thing about writing if you so choose.

Like one Stephanie Kuehnert, whose debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, I just stopped reading at page 129 because I simply couldn't take her ham-fisted expository dialogue anymore. It is one thing, in a first-person narrative, to move away from the natural rhythms of speech, to give voice to metaphor and description in a way that people don't in conversation. It's necessary, in fact. But when one character is directly speaking to another, telling a story about her past, and continues to speak in the narrative voice (although it's a different character), she needs to sound like she's talking, for heaven's sake. No one, anywhere, not even the most pretentiously poetic among us (and by this I mean me, who says things like "I felt like I was watching my own death" about superhero movies, for fucking out loud), utters lines like "He put his amp down and ran his fingers through his inky black hair," or, heaven forfend, "I didn't let rock 'n' roll save me. I became the ultimate rock cliche!"

Didn't anyone at Columbia College, where Ms. Kuehnert got her degree, ever point out the stiffness and clunk of writing like this? That people JUST DON'T TALK LIKE THAT? What did she read that she thought this was acceptable?

Working at the bookstore, I consume a lot of galleys, with an eye towards figuring out what I like and yeah, what I can sell. I give them 100 pages--a mere hour and a half of my life--to do something for me. Some don't make it past the first paragraph. Some take a few chapters, a little characterization, a settling into a style, to hook me, even if I don't adore it. I'll always give an interesting story a chance; I'm a sucker for good writing, deft handling of adjectives and punctuation. Awkward phrasing, easily predicted story arcs, or, on the other side of the spectrum, self-conscious literariness (another casualty of MFA programs, especially the Iowa Writers' Workshop . . . it's writing so concerned with craft, with shaking up the linearity of time and space, with pithy phrasing, that it forgets to make you care about any of it) will get a novel tossed back onto the pile.

Next up on the stack is Iodine, by Haven Kimmel; I read her The Solace of Leaving Early a few years ago and remember liking it, though I can't recall exactly what it was about. I'm pretty sure I'll finish it.

[Iodine was amazing, in fact, one of the best novels I read last year.]

19 July 2009

Cemeteries and changelings.

Took a YA break this week, which was a literal headache: finally read Neil Gaiman's Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book, which calls out to the bloody-minded little girl I was and still am underneath the Responsible Adult costume. And somehow a new Francesca Lia Block, The Waters and the Wild, slipped into the bookstore without my immediate knowledge: I just found it back in Teen whilst merrily compiling a haul for the local juvenile detention center to buy with an annual grant from the also-local bar auxiliary (does that just mean lawyers' wives, still?). I sent 'em much of a muchness, including The Iliad. I'm an FLB fan from way back: along with Juliana Hatfield and boots with skirts, she's the legacy of the late lamented Sassy magazine. Like JH, she's still plugging along making art for the weird girls--while her last title, How to (Un)Cage a Girl, wasn't any great shakes, Waters is glorious, and makes me want to cook with fresh produce and go dancing.

13 July 2009

K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist by Peter Carlson

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
So here’s a wacky premise: the by-turns jovial and irascible leader of the United States’ sworn enemy, in the shadow of mutually assured destruction, tours the nation at the personal if accidental invitation of the President, with family and a rabid media circus in tow. Hilarity, with a frisson of doomsday, ensues. Even better? It’s all true.

In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev embarked on a historic, bicoastal jaunt across the U.S. While the trip culminated in a (not particularly fruitful) meeting with Eisenhower at Camp David, for most of the ten days “K” (as the space-starved headlines dubbed him) and his wife and children were tourists—albeit tourists with State Department escorts, tight security, and a phalanx of reporters and photographers recording their every move. Honestly, there are so many stranger-than-fiction anecdotes contained in this marvelous tome that I must quell my urge to just pour out all of them, or otherwise you wouldn’t read the book—so here are three indelible images to pique your interest: The American Dental Association patriotically refusing to relocate their convention from the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom for a government-sponsored luncheon in Khrushchev’s honor (one telegram of support read KEEP ON EXTRACTING THE POISONOUS FANGS OF COMMUNISM). Mrs. Khrushchev, as grey and serviceable as a block of Moscow flats, seated between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra at a dinner at the Warner Brothers studio commissary (she showed them pictures of her grandchildren). The dictator’s red-faced public tantrum over being told that, because of security concerns, he would not be allowed to go to Disneyland—a chilling reminder that, as much fun as the whole thing seemed on the surface, the nuclear annihilation of most of the world turned on the temper of a short-tempered man.

It would be difficult to write a dull book with such killer material; Peter Carlson’s writing, though, goes past engaging into delightful. He brackets the “surreal extravaganza” of the 1959 trip with the stories of two other important visits: then-Vice President Nixon’s to Moscow the previous year, which resulted in the infamous “kitchen debate” on the set of a corporate-sponsored American Exhibition; and Khrushchev’s return as part of a U.N. delegation in 1960, bizarrely punctuated by his taking off his shoe and pounding it on his desk while making a point, an enduring image of the Cold War, “probably,” wrote K’s granddaughter Nina L. Khrushcheva in 2000, “the only war in which fear and humor peacefully coexisted.” K Blows Top walks that line with gusto.

12 July 2009

Another vacation, another vacation wrap-up.

I spent the weekend of the Fourth in Illinois at my little brother's frat house (O smart, sarcastic, Settlers-playing college boys, you are my favorites). As usual, I thought I was packing too many books, and as usual, I packed too few.

  • The Big Rewind, Nathan Rabin: A pop-culture-aided memoir by the Onion AV Club's head writer, the profane, giddy genius behind My Year of Flops. For my money, Rabin and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics are the two funniest living writers in North America.
  • K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist, Peter Carlson: And there is no doing justice in brief to this marvelous, stranger-than-fiction account of the Soviet Premier's 1959 tour of the U.S.--I plan to write a full-scale review later this week, so here I'll just put forth the indelible image of Mrs. Khrushchev, as square and serviceable as a block of Moscow flats, seated at dinner in the Warner Brothers studio commissary between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
  • House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski: I asked my brother for a book I could casually flip through without committing, and his frat brother Sean brought me this sprawling experimental tome. Rather the opposite of what I was looking for, but I couldn't put it down. The gut-level-terrifying story of a family who discovers their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, it's wrapped in layers of narrative (ostensibly, it's a manuscript about a documentary the father made, with notes and asides from a dissolute young man who found the analysis in the apartment of its mysteriously dead author) and a dizzying array of footnotes that make David Foster Wallace look like a piker. Text goes upside down, sideways, diagonally, several directions at once. I don't think it's a great book. But wow, it was interesting.
  • I Drink for a Reason, David Cross: I wavered on this one. I only know Cross from the glories of Mr. Show and Arrested Development--I guess his stand-up is much more bitter and confrontational, and I actually stopped reading in a huff at one point because I was tired (and a little bored) of his denigration of religion. But I picked it up again. And in the end, he annoys me far, far less often than he makes me cackle myself into a coughing fit.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky: Meh, from beginning to end.
  • John the Revelator, Peter Murphy: Read this after I got home. It's a first novel by an Irish music journalist with a countenance of doom; while the prose is often arresting, the plot is thin, needlessly episodic, and disconnected from any sort of emotional center.

Currently I'm engaged in a couple of kinds of research. NYC: An Owner's Manual (Caitlin Leffel & Jacob Lehman) is full of information to make my next year's move to Brooklyn seem both prudent and attainable; Bipolar II (Ronald R. Fieve) offers the tempting thesis that the hypercompetency and euphoria of my good days are something I should embrace, as I learn to avoid the sloughs of despond. Here's hopin'.
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