Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, last word

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh features many examples of that classic coming-of-age novel character: the wild, unpredictable friend. I have always enjoyed this sort of person, at least for a period of time, and also enjoy a related character (in life and in fiction), the life-of-the-party charismatic friend. People who do things I wouldn't make life exciting.

Michael Chabon was interviewed on Fresh Air today. He was not talking about Mysteries of Pittsburgh when he said this, but it applies to the central relationships in both it and Wonder Boys:

"I guess I'm a more orderly person -- and, therefore, chaos has its appeal."

Me too, Mr. Chabon. Me too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sometime this past summer, I stopped trying to make myself read the books that are lying around my house, and allowed myself to just read whatever I felt like. I also now have permission to put things down if I don't like them. And so I read about 1/4 of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, raced through Running With Scissors in less than a week despite the Cornell West tome and last 1/3 of The Shock Doctrine lying around my house, and caught up on just about everything Laurie Notaro has ever written. Reading is entertainment. Reading is an alternative to Netflix. And there is more than one kind of good book.

After The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I zipped through Wonder Boys as well -- it goes quickly, probably because most of the book takes place over the span of a couple of days. I'm going to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay next -- it's twice as long and probably more complicated, so I wanted to save it until the weather went bad. Before I know it, darkness will fall before cocktail hour and it will be time for 700-page books.

I also want to read Dreams From My Father, and, I think, Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

I love everything about this book.

When I started reading it, I didn't know that a movie version had recently come out. In it, they remove a gay character who is central to pretty much everything about the story and, apparently, make the main character's girlfriend some sort of misogynist cartoon. Can't speak to the second bit, as I haven't seen it. A straight male character is made bisexual, I guess to make up for getting rid of the gay guy? If so, that's a mess.

I may have to see it, just to see for myself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas

Not so long ago, my significant other started reading a New York Times collection called Class Matters with the thought of assigning it to future students. Bored during one sporting event or another, I picked it up and started reading. It turned out that I had already read 50% of the book's content, if not more. Articles I remembered included one about an attorney who grew up dirt poor in Appalachia, got out, and ended up returning to help family members in need; one about a marriage between a wealthy woman and a working-class man; and one about a family who moves from faceless exurb to faceless exurb every few years for the father's job.

A few days ago, while the Yankees were on TV, I demanded something to read and picked Chuck Klosterman's IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas off the shelf. Here, too, a few pieces rang oddly familiar. In my mind, I haven't read SPIN (where many of these articles first appeared) since the late 90s, but I guess I pick up a copy from time to time. I know I already read the article about Bats Day (when goths take over Disneyland) and the one about Morrisey's LA-area Latino fans.

Beginning a piece about a classic rock cruise (members of Styx, REO Speedwagon and Journey were on board), I thought, "another one of these"? I had recently read a Laurie Notaro collection in which the final story details an Alaskan cruise, as well as, as chronicled below, David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Oh well, what to do about it? Turn my attention to Major League Baseball? I pressed on. About four pages in, Klosterman writes,

"There are three main hurdles involved with the writing and reporting of this story. The first is that the definitive cruise story has already been written by David Foster Wallace, who published the essay 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again' in 1995; this is evidently the most popular essay ever produced, as roughly six thousand people have mentioned it to me during the fourty-eight hours prior to this trip."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

IV, Split

I have something to say about Chuck Klosterman, as soon as I can get his book that I'm reading from my significant other. In the meantime, I wandered into the library after work today and walked out with, among other things, Split by Suzanne Finnamore.

This memoir of the author's divorce is nothing I would seek out. But, the branch library up the street from my work is so small that I was able to browse the Biography section in a few minutes, and this was the most interesting-looking thing in it. So I'm reading it. For the first 100 pages, it was a pretty easy though not uncommon read. The author's life is mildly interesting, but her prose is really good -- I always appreciate someone who can say a lot with a few words. She is self aware about her status and privilege, yet not overly, constantly self effacing.

A hundred pages in, a childhood friend shows up to keep her company. Then, so does his Airstream trailer named Bambi. And its driver, a sometime transvestite called The Betty Lady. Now things are getting good. The Betty Lady has determined they will ransack the soon-to-be ex's office.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Backlash, epilogue

"For what has been largely forgotten in the backlash era -- where women are encouraged to please men by their demeanor or appearance rather than persuade them by the force of their argument -- is that men don't hold all the emotional cards. Men need women as much as women need men. The bonds between the sexes can chafe, and they can be, and have been, used to constrain women. But they can also promote mutually beneficial growth and change."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Backlash, by Susan Faludi

At first, this book gave me a bit of a headache. It's a barrage of facts and proper names, each segueing quickly into a conclusion, some undeniable based on whatever the fact is, some quite debatable. But now, nearly 200 pages in, I just started giggling, then really laughing out loud, as Faludi's take on the women's underwear industry.

It appears that in the late 80s (I was around then, but not casting such an exacting eye on politics and trends, being more into Anne of Green Gables at the time.) there was a big marketing blitz about 'the new femininity,' trying to get women to spend money on a lot of poofy dresses and whatnot instead of economizing on pantsuits and jeans. This crossed over into lingerie -- it was around the same time that Victoria's Secret went national, and women were told that teddies and garter belts were back. But, perhaps the Victoria's Secret trend more than met the eye.

From the book:
>>> On a late afternoon in the summer of 1988, row after row of silk teddies hang, untouched, at the original Victoria's Secret shop in Palo Alto's Stanford Shopping Center. The shelves are stuffed with floral-scented teddy bears in tiny wedding gowns. At $18 to $34 each, these cuddly brides aren't exactly big sellers; dust has collected on their veils. But over at the bargains table, where basic cotton underwear is on sale, "four for $16," it looks like a cyclone has touched down.

"Oh God, the panty table is a mess," groans head "proprietress" Becky Johnson. As she straightens up for what she says must be the tenth time that day, two women walk in the door and charge the bargain panty table. "The prices on these panties are wonderful," Bonnie Pearlman says, holding up a basic brief to her friend. "But will they shrink?" she wonders, pulling the elastic back and forth. Asked if the are here for the Victorian lingerie, they both shake their heads. Pearlman says, "I look for what fits well." Suzanne Ellis, another customer, surveys the racks of gossamer teddies and rolls her eyes. "I've had a few of these things given to me," she says. "It was like, 'Uh, gee, thanks.' I mean, I really don't need to sit on snaps all day."<<<

Faludi finds out that while men account for 30-40 percent of Victoria's Secret shoppers, they also account for about half the chain's revenues, no doubt with good intentions of buying a romantic gift. If anyone's been brainwashed into thinking that women "want" to be more feminine, it may not be women. I love the image of all that pink crap and lace and perfume everywhere and women huddled around the panty table snapping elastic grunting, "D'ya think this one'll hold up?"

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

I started with the title essay on this one, then skipped back to the beginning and am reading the rest of the way through. The second piece, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," made me feel kind of smart at first, because it's extremely dense and reference laden and yet I almost understand it. Then I noticed the thing was written in 1990 when the author was maybe ... 28? Possibly I'm not such a genius after all.

On page 31 (of the hardcover edition I checked out of the library), Wallace discusses an episode of an old TV show called St. Elsewhere in which a mental patient thinks he's Mary Tyler Moore. A woman who had been in the Mary Tyler Moore show is in this episode and when the patient sees her he calls her by her former character's name. In 1988, this was the height of post-modernism in television, apparantly. I wonder what Wallace thought of 30 Rock.

I read Infinite Jest, Wallace's master work that numbers over 1,000 pages, when I was barely 18. It was a Christmas present in 1997, when I was home over break from my freshman year at St. Bonaventure University. I had nothing to do but work maybe 6 hours per week, and, thus, plenty of time to read a 1,000-page book.

Or was it Christmas of 1998, during my sophomore year? Because I have a distinct memory of bringing the book with me when I went to work one of those overnight lock-in things at the local YMCA, and I think I only worked at those my sophomore year. Specifically, the kids were sleeping, or supposed to be sleeping, in the gym upstairs, so all the lifeguards scurried downstairs to abuse our free reign of the place. Everyone else decided it was time to go skinny dipping in the Y's pool, but I put the ixnay on that (ew, after all) and, instead, sat in the parent waiting area reading a really, really thick book.

It's possible that my memories of a youth filled with hedonism and debauchery are not exactly accurate.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Next up

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein

Speaking of a conscientious adulthood, I briefly considered going to a bar tonight, but opted to stay home and get started on this book instead.

Several years ago I read and loved No Logo, Klein's best-known work. I spent a lot more time reading Adbusters and listening to Democracy Now whenever that was, and I put The Shock Doctrine on my Christmas list in the interest of fending off complacency. So far, Shock Doctrine is a little ... ham handed? just unsubtle maybe? ... but extremely informative, bursting with carefully referenced facts and plenty of reasons to maintain a good head of outrage.

Finished whilst on vacation

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, by Rob Walker

Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, by Ann Powers

Toward the end, these mostly different books came to feel like they were saying the same things. There's more than one way to create an identity, an unconventional identity, an adulthood. If you're a grown up, "selling out" is difficult to define. If you want to live a conscientious life, you have to chart the course yourself, and it's best not to let your guard down more than a little. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Powers' book was written about ten years before Walker's, and that is most evident in the different discussions of success and selling out in alternative youth culture. Walker gives us the impression that many young aspiring artists and musicians of today would be just plain puzzled by, say, R.E.M.'s refusal to have its music used in commercials. However, my significant other's dispatches from the college course he teaches in music subcultures would suggest otherwise. Teenage punks, at least, still get worked up over old-fashioned concepts like "authenticity."

I also got a kick out of the way Powers divided her chapters: friends, roommates/crazy living situations, sex, drugs, thrifts stores/dumpster diving/curb finds, poorly paid jobs, youth itself. Indeed, all are staples of a certain kind of lifestyle, one I never fully lived but have been within sight of since high school.

In related news, I will be 30 this year.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Well-behaved women seldom make history

Some holiday season reading and viewing:

1.) The Portable Dorothy Parker
A Christmas gift from a friend harkens back to the first year in which I knew another. When Heather introduced me to Dorothy Parker, Tori Amos and Sylvia Plath, a bottle of gin never led anywhere bad. Things have changed, but Parker still resonates.

2.) The Wonder Spot, by Melissa Bank
A Christmas gift to myself, thanks to Half Price Books, which has outlets all over the Houston area. The main character has a tendency to never say or do the right thing. I can relate. This novel was so engrossing that I was able to sit next to my boyfriend on the couch for a series of professional sporting events (his parents were watching them and I thought it would be rude to leave the room, yet somehow in my mind it was okay to read silently for three hours), and never get bored or distracted.

3.) Sex and the Single Girl, by Helen Gurley Brown
A friend's castoff -- she got her hands on a first edition. This now-classic is an absolute riot for the boundary-pushing single woman of today (who decidedly does not read Cosmo). Some transgressive insights, courtesy of 1962:
"Now we're going to turn off men for a while and talk about your job. (Don't worry, we'll get back to them!) What you do from nine to five has everything to do with men anyhow. A job is one way of getting to them. It also provides the money with which to dress for them and dress up your apartment for them. (More on these later.) Most importantly, a job gives a single woman something to be."
Married women, we learn, already have something to be -- doctor's wife, banker's wife, ganster's wife. On the other hand, "A single woman is known by what she does rather than by whom she belongs to."
I was laughing but, well, I guess the author is right.
We also learn the pros and cons of accepting expensive gifts from married men, how to outfit an apartment so as to be worthy of your friends donning their best furs to visit and that cottage cheese + peaches = dinner if you want to maintain your figure.

4.) Persepolis, film version, directed by Marjane Satrapi
A friend described it as 'heartbreaking' and I can see why -- it's about bougie liberal types whose joie de vive, not to mention family, is nearly destroyed by Iran's Islamic revolution. But to me, the person who thought Hotel Rwanda was uplifting, this film is deeply inspirational. We see one freedom after another being taken from a young woman, who is forced to cover her hair and drop her eyes to pass through streets she charged through, laughing and carrying on, in pants and sneakers as a child. And we see her buy casette tapes on the black market, creep home, and rock out to Iron Maiden in her bedroom, playing air guitar on a badminton racket.
What truely makes the story inspirational, of course, is that we know this young woman grew up to be an internationally acclaimed writer, artist and director -- because of her uncommon family and because she refused to give in to repression.