Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 2: “They’re making new kinds of girls in America.” YEAH they are.


This week’s reading brought us additional disheartening information about life in the Morrigan house, but also FEMINISM.

Johanna told us about her parents’ issues, but now we’re beginning to see the bare facts for ourselves, without the benefit of a green Instagram filter (joke stolen from Rayna).

Mrs. Morrigan isn’t too deeply ensconced in her postpartum stupor to interject a remark or three on Johanna’s weight, comparing her, in her all-black wardrobe, to a big fat crow and quipping that she doesn’t need drugs because she has a whole plate of sausage rolls. In front of company she says these things. To a 14-year-old girl with body-image issues.

Got the whole negative self-talk thing covered, thanks.

And those of us who delighted in Johanna’s dad last week had a particularly hard go of it this week. He is, in fact, deserving of the benefits he receives. It doesn’t even seem like he’s gaming the system now that we can see how severe his injuries were. And the fall that broke his body changed his personality as well. It made him bitter over unachieved goals and mean on the days when the pain is the worst. And while I can pity him for the unexpected turn his life took, I mostly pity his kids, who have to navigate around the landmine plunked down in front of their TV.

But Dadda is there. And although his advice has been harsh, it’s gotten Johanna off her arse and into action at two critical moments in her life already. This last time, the message came loud and clear from a place of anger and frustration (probably because he was thinking of himself and his unobtained dreams…and worrying that she’d repeat his mistakes), but he’s right. If you want to be a writer, then stop talking and start writing. If you want to reinvent yourself, then get to it already.

Fake it till yow make it, kidder.

Now that Johanna is entering the boys’ club of music journalism, she’s becoming more aware of gender dynamics in the outside world. Despite growing up with Krissi (“He is on the bed knitting himself a bobble hat whilst listening to an Agatha Christie audiotape from the library. A big, pale boy hunched over a tiny pair of needles. Krissi becomes very angry when you tell him that knitting is for girls.”), she knows there are certain places where women don’t feel welcome (also some places where a bold chapeau isn’t appreciated, but that’s not till later). Her first visit to the record store confirms that notion.

No worries, though. Mouthy American lady-rockers to the rescue.
All my life, I’ve thought that if I couldn’t say anything boys found interesting, I might as well shut up. But now I realize there was that whole other, invisible half of the world—girls—that I could speak to instead. A whole other half equally silent and frustrated, just waiting to be given the smallest starting signal—the tiniest starter culture—and they would explode into words, and song, and action, and relieved, euphoric cries of “Me too! I feel this too!”
ME TOO. I FEEL THIS TOO.

And it may be due to this revelation—courtesy of Courtney Love and Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl—that Johanna is able to hold her own during her first meeting with the men of Disc & Music Echo in their office that is “essentially built out of trousers, confidence, and testicles.”

Things are leaving off fairly well for Dolly Wilde this week. Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? Of course you are. Preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

We Learn Nothing: “I’ve demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons.”


My first introduction to Tim Kreider was on a book podcast where he was the guest author. Right away he told a story about a performance art exhibit he attended at the MOMA. The piece featured a live, nude woman, and the art made eye contact with passers-by, probably to send a message about the power of gaze. Well Tim was no match for it, and he fled the exhibit. But on his second visit, he decided he would not quail and planted himself in front of the art, making eye contact with the model for 20 minutes. This connection was broken only when she stepped down to be replaced by a different model. In this interview, Tim said he felt as though he knew the woman intimately after that experience, better than he would if they had gone on a date, which led to a conversation about the inherently empty nature of first-date conversations.

A noble pursuit.

I paused the podcast and put his book on hold at the library. I could tell that Tim was, as the protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! might put it, “a noticing kind of person.” And I wanted to see what else he had noticed.

We Learn Nothing is a collection of essays intermixed with occasional cartoons (Tim’s also a satirical cartoonist). There’s no theme per se, but each essay begins on the premise of a personal anecdote and then almost imperceptibly pans out to reveal a larger, shared human experience.

One of my favorites, “When They’re Not Assholes,” starts out as Tim’s fairly predictable jaunt crashing a Tea Party rally (“At first glance, the crowd at the Tax Day rally unhelpfully confirmed all my snottiest liberal stereotypes about conservatives.”) but ends up as an insightful analysis of the enmity between two political extremes.
Red and Blue bash each other with the hysterical homophobia of the closeted because we recognize in each other our most loathed secret selves. We’re the Red States’ feckless, ineffectual, faggy compassionate side that they like to think they’ve successfully quashed, just as they . . . are our more credulous and aggressive selves, whom we’re too inhibited to own up to. . . . We are one another’s political Shadows. We may hate each other, but let’s at least quit pretending we hate hating each other; we love hating each other.
LET'S YELL SOME MORE UNTIL WE FIGURE IT OUT.

Taking on a completely different subject, “An Insult to the Brain” provides a literary analysis of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, interweaves that with a mother/son story, and concludes it all with a boy-and-his-dog moment that made the backs of my eyeballs prickly.

And the other essays diverge just as widely as these two in their subject matter.

This book found me right in the middle of a season where interacting with those I don’t agree with is so distressing that I flinch at exchanges that could make me a more informed and compassionate person. Either my emotions get in the way of my reasoning skills or I have one too many drinks and make a spectacular argument that no one hears because bars are NOISY and drunk people don’t usually care about birth control in more than just the immediate sense that it might come in handy in a few hours. (What? No . . . that didn’t just happen to me. I like to be specific with my examples, is all.)

I didn't always agree with Tim Kreider, but I could always relate with him. AND I was able to discuss portions of his Tea Party essay with my politically conservative mother without either of us yelling or crying.

Right. Good. Baby steps.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Build a Girl, Week 1: I will NEVER outgrow Gilbert Blythe, I tell you


Well we’re off and running with How to Build a Girl, and Caitlin Moran is here to serve as our tour guide through the teenage retrospective. First on the agenda: wanking.

While I have some reservations about discussing my own sexual hinterland on the Internet, I would hazard a guess that there is no woman (or man) who can’t relate to Johanna’s personal . . . habits. You don’t soon forget what it feels like to be in the throes of puberty.
My hormones are rioting like a zoo on fire. There’s a mandrill with its head ablaze unlocking other animal’s cages and screaming, “OH MY GOD—FREAK OUT!”
Yep, that's pretty much how I remember it.

I still feel a little jolt when I watch certain movies from my youth. And I think that’s why we list those movies among our favorites no matter how old we get (it certainly can’t be based on individual merit, because for every 10 Things I Hate About You, there’s a Ladybugs). We want to remember how it felt to be young and constantly fighting that unbidden blaze in our underpants. For SOME reason.


Me, the first time I saw Newsies.

But there are other aspects of teenage-girlhood that Moran wants us to remember, too, such as the way we took on burdens far beyond our ability to bear, and how we believed we were so much more mature than everyone else thought, if only they would let us prove it for once.

Johanna actually does have to contend with some serious Life Stuff. She is one of five children. Her father is an alcoholic with delusions of musical grandeur whose disability benefits keep the family afloat. Her mother has severe postpartum depression after giving birth to twins (“Currently we don’t have a mother. Just a space where one once was”). Johanna has never been kissed and is not optimistic that she ever will be, because she is missing one crucial requirement, she thinks.
I want to be beautiful so much—because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.
Her parents aren’t exactly well-adjusted human beings or the most effective parents, but their love for each other and their family is evident. They aren’t villains. And their interactions have been one of my favorite aspects of the book so far.
“Angie!” he yelled. “Where are my trousers?” 
My mother shouted back from the bedroom, “You haven’t got any!” 
“I must have!” my father shouted back. 
My mother stayed silent. He was going to have to work this one out for himself.
Caitlin captures that feeling of invisibility so common to teenage girls. It’s a feeling that drives Johanna to carry on a running joke in which she pretends to have died quite suddenly, once posing as if she had fallen down the stairs and broken her neck just so her parents would come over and have a look at her, because knowing they were looking made her feel safe and loved. It sounds pathological, but there are few things more natural.

I, myself, often packed a bag and then hid in the backyard until my mom noticed I was gone and set out in search of me (she always found me immediately because I badly wanted to be found). It was a thoughtless cruelty to my parents, but it seemed logical when every cell in my body was crying out for confirmation that I was loved. That's a fun side effect of puberty: You feel everything 100 times more acutely than regular people, which leads to off-the-charts bouts of melodrama and serious hate-feelings toward the very people you count on to love you unconditionally.


Normal.

When I wasn’t "hiding" under a bush, hugging my Barbie duffel bag and hoping it didn't rain before my mom found me (or that it did rain because then I could feel truly forlorn and cast-off), I channeled my Feelings into what I believed was truly brilliant poetry. This one is a little more self-satisfied than Johanna’s poem about her dog, but I think we were basically on the same wavelength.
“The Real Me," by Megan Speer (1999, age 14)
I am plain, I am simple, I am no beauty,
And even for those with much heart, it is plain for the judging eye to see.
No one ever sees deep enough to see the REAL me.
The real me lies hidden, deep within my being. 
The real me is shy and compassionate, but not without fault. 
It is loving and caring, but not without sin. 
It hurts when you hurt, it is glad when you’re glad, 
But even the real me overlooks the beauty within. 
The beauty in you. The beauty in those who love, trust, care, and feel. 
The reality in anyone is difficult to see. 
The reality in you, the reality in me. 
But if you look hard and carefully, you see, you believe, you trust.
You finally see the REAL me.
Angsty girl-poets UNITE.

This post is part of a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies and Reads and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? If yes, preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. If not, tune in next week. I've only just begun to convince you.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

San Francisco: Because I missed my Hufflepuff scarf

Do I talk about traveling on this blog? Not really. BUT LOOK AT THE BOOKS I BOUGHT.

These turned out to be eerily prescient re: the ensuing events of our trip,
complete with a fight between two men in a grassy field.

This was my third visit to San Francisco, and it came just in time for us to escape the heat wave currently enveloping Los Angeles in its smoggy embrace. Of course, I quickly forgot how much I dislike being hot when I was reminded how much I dislike being cold.

We drove up to one of the highest points in the city, called Twin Peaks (because of two hill-type protrusions, not because of David Lynch), where you can sometimes get a good view of the surrounding area. I say sometimes because when you go in a direction that is up in San Francisco, you will usually find yourself in the middle of a cloud.

The melancholy, dream-sequence kind

But if you don't mind being physically assaulted by the wind, the fog might dissipate just long enough to give you a view that makes you feel like a Care Bear.

Caring is what counts.

We also did a liiiittle bit of drinking. Our favorite bar in the Mission is one block over from my favorite bookstore in the Mission, both with cat in their names. At one I can get brand-new paperbacks for under $8 or used books for way cheap, and at the other I can get a PBR (shut it) and a Bulleit bourbon for $7 total. So far, I have succeeded in not getting the two places mixed up.

I'll have the new David Mitchell, please,
with a Joan Didion. No ice.

We went to another bar, Dogpatch Saloon in a neighborhood called Dogpatch. There's no graffiti on the tables there and the bathroom has a mirror and hand soap, which is FINE, if you like highfalutin' accommodations with your alcohol. The real perk is that people bring their dogs into the bar. So I spent most of the night thinking of excuses to leave our table and make meaningful eye contact with a dog until it abandoned its owner and allowed me to hug it with my whole body.

Fourth of July itself was a bit of a dud. We didn't plan ahead well enough to complete our obsessively ritualistic, three-day viewing of Independence Day, so we tried to watch the whole thing that morning. As if cramming arrival, attack, and fighting back into one day wasn't bad enough, we only had time to get through July 3, which does not end on a victorious note for humanity. That set a bad tone for the rest of the day.

I'm SAYIN'

We went to a friend's backyard BBQ in the afternoon and then dove headfirst into the maelstrom to see the professional fireworks over the bay. I've heard good things about this particular display, but I can't tell you from experience that any of them are true. Thanks to a heavy fog, what we saw was basically a very expensive thunderstorm with occasional twinkles.

I had to wait until Monday to see Tika because she had acute bronchitis all weekend. (The NERVE of that woman's bronchial tubes. I mean, really.) While we were waiting to meet up with her, we strolled around AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

GO DODGERS.
But then Tika and I locked eyes across a busy intersection, and I hummed "Chariots of Fire" quietly to myself as she ran across the street in heels, narrowly avoiding death by Smart Car.

We drove her home and topped off the trip with Pho and kitties and peering coyly over books.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Build a Girl: Na-na-na-na-boo-boo


I'm resting my elbow on a gorgeous advance copy of Caitlin Moran's novel, and I get to read it with a kick-ass group of bloggers and discuss it here every Monday, in more detail than is perhaps fair to those of you who have to wait until it comes out on September 23.


You can direct your sullen looks and preorder dollars toward Odyssey Bookshop HERE and its lovely proprietress (and brave leader of this Moran-along), Emily Crowe, HERE. This is all her fault. I never should have been given this much power.

So Caitlin Moran, huh? I don't know if you can spend any time in the good sections of the Internet without stumbling across this lady's work or some reference to it. I have to confess that I've not read her nonfiction book, How to Be a Woman, or her book of essays, Moranthology, but I follow her on Twitter. So.

I'm not as familiar with her writing voice as others of you may be, but when I think of Ms. Moran, I think of girl power and irreverent British humor and hair given permission to be wild as it cares to be, within reason. I predict that this general feminist spirit will be a big part of How to Build a Girl, confirmed so far by the jacket summary: "Imagine The Bell Jar—written by Rizzo from Grease."

Expect a lot of this, friends.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Ablutions: A choose-your-own-adventure story for horrible people


Since reading The Sisters Brothers and having a small portion of it permanently stamped on one of my appendages, I’ve been keeping Patrick deWitt’s first (and only other) book, Ablutions, in my peripheral vision. I knew I should read it, but I was worried deWitt would retroactively let me down . . . or something equally irrational and reeking of reader's entitlement.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little disappointed by this book, but my love for deWitt’s words and the way he arranges them in impactful, no-frills sentences remains unchanged. If anything, he’s proven that he is, unequivocally, one of my favorite writers. Otherwise, I could never forgive him for writing an entire novel in SECOND-PERSON PRESENT TENSE.


The protagonist is you, and you are an aging, directionless man who works as a barback in a Hollywood dive. You drink a lot of free whiskey on the job and eat aspirins like candy. Your liver is in dire straits, and you drive home drunk almost nightly. You think you’re hiding all this self-destructive behavior from your wife because you’re a trained silent vomiter, but all you're really doing is deluding yourself while she steadily loses faith in you. In the mundane activities of your daily life, you provide a crushingly accurate narrative of addiction—highs and lows that quickly become mostly lows; inconsequential, ludicrous observations punctuated by occasional nuggets of transcendental truth.
Looking up at the sky you decide you will ride your bicycle to and from work every night. In a month's time you will be in excellent physical shape and your eyes will glow golden with all they have seen.
But a short while and several drinks later, your ambitions have changed somewhat.
There is a mantle of dust covering everything in your room and a group of holes pockmark the wall above the headboard of the bed; seven holes, each punched with a small blunt tool from the inside out. You fill these with tissue paper, worrying as you work that you will find an evil eye hovering in the darkness. Standing back to look at your handiwork you say to the wall, “Wall, I have made you ridiculous.”
The kernels of what deWitt would achieve with his second book are present and accounted for here, but they’re harder to swallow in this form. Basically, if The Sisters Brothers was deWitt doing Cormac McCarthy or Charles Portis, Ablutions is deWitt doing Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson. And that means spending a lot of time with an unlikable protagonist who makes terrible choices.

Well, mostly terrible choices.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mind of Winter: It makes Siberia seem just as unpleasant as Siberia always seems


Some books we read because they’re gorgeously written, and some books we read because there’s a reveal at the end and we are SUCKERS for a reveal.

I don't care as long as it's used effectively.
(Also, some books we read because books i done read reviewed them hilariously.)

Holly and her husband, Eric, accidentally sleep in on Christmas Day. Eric has to rush right out the door because he’s late to fetch his parents from the airport, and Holly lingers in bed to mull the heck out of some foreboding thoughts before shuffling to the kitchen to start Christmas dinner for the family and friends due to arrive in a few hours.

But then the snow starts falling, and it keeps falling and falling some more until it’s basically a blizzard and there’s no chance of anyone venturing onto the roads . . . which leaves Holly home alone with their adopted teenage daughter, Tatiana. Why is this creepy? This shouldn’t be creepy. Just a nice lady and her sweet teenage daughter from a secluded orphanage in Siberia.

But it’s totally creepy. Because Holly wakes up that morning thinking that something followed them home from Russia. And she thinks that many times.

But important, probably?

So Holly is home on this perfectly benign, snowy Christmas Day with her Russian angel of a daughter who we are told is the prettiest and the best daughter who ever daughtered. But then Tatiana starts acting eerily out of character, according to the version of her character Holly's been giving us all along (a little heavy-handedly, Holly, don’t you think?), and the eeriness escalates into suspense, and you keep looking at the book cover and wishing it wouldn’t look back at you like that, and the next thing you know it's finished and you’re feeling really unsettled on a sunny afternoon.

So it accomplishes what it sets out to do, I think, but it’s no masterpiece of the written word. I got hung up on page 7 for a while because I was trying to think of any possible way this sentence wasn’t just the worst sentence:
Write down the way some shadow face is finally peering around a corner on this Christmas morning (they’d slept so late) and shown itself.

But once the story got rolling, I was along for the slightly bumpy ride.

After I read the last page, I spent some time flipping back to reread choice parts and see how they supported the conclusion. This, for me, is the most satisfying aspect of a book with a big reveal, because you’ve been collecting all these puzzle pieces along the way and now you get to step back and see how they fit together. But I came up with some extra pieces this time. The culprit could be sloppy writing, or it could be the same part of my brain that gets confused by a James Bond movie. That mystery remains unsolved . . . for now.