Monday, December 28, 2009

Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls by Lucy Corin

That's no catcher, and this is not rye.

That's no catcher, and this is not rye.

Everyday Psycho Killers: A History for Girls

Lucy Corin's first novel, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, published by FC2, begins as a wild, unapologetic mess. The story of a young girl in southern Florida, Psychokillers reminded me initially of Lynda Barry's Cruddy, Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School, or a number of other ragged, jagged narratives yanked out of confused teenaged women. It's messy in that way, in that essentially female way, and its zigs and zags are almost familiar to me, this unpredictable, non-linear tempo.

It's the kind of book that leads reviewers and jacket copy writers to create lists of disparate elements: a Ted Bundy reject, the God Osiris, a Caribbean slave turned pirate, a circus performer living in a box, broken horses, a Seminole chief in a swamp, and a murderous babysitter. And the book is good in this way; it's inventive, fresh, out of control. You spend most of the first half asking yourself, "Where is she going with this?"

But ultimately what's interesting about the book is not the way it's fragmented. The story is told in mad, intense chunks, increasingly so disconnected from the central narrative of the young girl. We go from a fairly chronological account of a home life, a school life, of this main character, into digressions that start as anecdotes or asides from the character herself and evolve into separate stories -- stories of death and killers, murders, fear. That aspect of it is great, and Corin pulls together a very bold collage.

The interesting thing, though, is how it isn't fragmented, how the book spirals back on itself, revisiting ideas, images, and even sentence structures, so that while in some ways time, characters, and realities are fractured, the idea of the book spirals inward to a point, and comes together where the book blows apart. There are six or seven absolutely tight and monstrous pages toward the end that clearly express the book's central theme. I realized, reading them, the path I had to take to get there, to be told I am a killer, and that I am being killed, and that both are me. That realization is at the center of the spiral.

Looking at it from the top, a spiral moving outward looks the same as a spiral moving inward. It's not immediately obvious how Corin's book functions in this way, but the destination is worth the journey, and the investment in the book, you will find, sneaks up on you. Along the way, you'll find chapters that work as short stories, you'll see a dazzling slideshow of images you definitely have not seen before, and you'll find yourself falling into suspense over this character. Yes, in the middle of a novel built of formal experimentation, you'll be worried about this girl, and the question central to her psycho psyche -- will she kill or be killed?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Elegy for a Fabulous World by Alta Ifland

Elegy for a Fabulous World by Alta Ifland

Elegy for a Fabulous World by Alta Ifland

Publisher: Ninebark Press

For its second offering to the hungry world of literary fiction, Ninebark Press brings us Alta Ifland's short story collection, Elegy for a Fabulous World. From the very first story, Ifland had me in her grasp with merciless, darkly funny tales from her childhood in communist Ukraine. In bleak, unapologetic images, she shows us the gypsies that camped outside her town, the gravedigger the children all harrassed, the way the trash collectors failed, and the magic of one coveted bottle of Coca Cola. You can read the titular story online at AGNI Magazine. Not my favorite example, but the strange picture of what constitutes a seaside vacation for Soviets will give you an idea of what the rest of the book has to offer.

Ifland's gift is control. She shrugs at absurdity with the measured pace of a female Nabokov. Yet just as you're sinking into a mild rhythm of predictable slice-of-life revelations, she jerks the image just a bit, skews it enough to remind you: this is foreign. So, the mute adopted sister you're accustomed to seeing, with her iconic silence and her mild beauty, may not stop as a symbol of some unknowable aspect of childhood. She may suddenly go jetting off into space as the story takes a sudden flinch outside the deftly drawn limitations of the village, the family, the characters, the way of life. Ifland injects just enough of these blank surprises to elevate her work from competent memoir into the realm of contemporary craft.

The second half of the book delivers more typical contemporary short stories. Well crafted, interesting, satisfying, but lacking the depth and impact of the first section.

A few stories into the collection, when I was so enchanted with the voice, the landscape, the complex dark shadows of it, it occurred to me how impossible, how thin it would all seem if these same stories were set in modern times, in the loud, plastic American world. Is it possible for her, I wondered, to create this same kind of elegant starkness without the exterior starkness of village life, without cell phones or televisions or that brisk cacophony a more contemporary set of characters would be wading through. There's a timelessness to the childhood that Ifland renders that would be, maybe, fractured by the introduction of technology, information, something faster and less private. The second half of the book answered, to some extent, my question, as the stories that took place in office buildings and other less austere locations didn't have the same effect on me as those in the sort of anti-fairytale settings of the earlier pieces. So the mute sister could only fly away into space out of the house without wires attached to it, and the man crying in the graveyard could only be as profound if his life existed in rumor and legend, instead of a newspaper story.

The best thing about the book is the way the identities shift and change, particularly the mother and the main character herself. One can find these common characters in the earlier stories but not necessarily pin down a "she" throughout, or even an "I." A great example of this is a story where the main character takes her husband back to the old country to meet her parents, whose desire to feed him and nurture him and impress him with food nearly kills him. Her return to her homeland, accompanied by the uninitiated American, made me think of my experience reading the book, how hopeless it was for the husband to understand her family, or for her to show him to them properly. Ultimately, there is only the reality of what they are, and what he is, physically, to show for it. And this was what impressed me about Elegy for a Fabulous World. Ultimately, it is in surreal images and what facts and memories can be clearly delivered that this other, fabulous world exists. And if this old, communist life can only be understood in fragmentary, shifting narratives, looped through with the myths of the old country and the realities of the new, then Ifland's atttempt is a success.

For more information: Purchase Elegy for a Fabulous World, visit Alta Ifland's web site, read more about Ninebark Press.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What's on your Inspiration Shelf?

If life is finite, your book stash must be too.

I think that hoarding books is a stand against mortality. If we've read them already, we might want to read them again. If we haven't read them yet, we might want to. Looking around at my shelves and boxes, I want to believe I will have time before I die to read them all, maybe again and again. Even if my current rate of reading means I'd need to live three lifetimes. To admit that I can't read all these would be to admit that at some point I'll stop reading. Difficult to imagine.

I recently some changes to my personal book hoard, and culled three boxes of books from the stacks. I decided to get rid of all the books I've read that I do not want to read again. That helped. But it also hurt to say goodbye to these objects. I'm tech-positive in so many ways, but like so many writers and readers, I am in love with the physical presence of books, and I have a hard time getting rid of them. A hard time embracing Kindle, and hard drives.

To make myself feel better, as I was sorting through the books I would let go, I decided to make another stack of books that I would never let go, that I would fetishize in the extreme. I made my inspiration shelf of books I've read that motivate me to write, a little shrine to their actual selves, a space for them to take up unapologetically in the world. If I must be mortal and my reading experience must be finite, then let's make it exquisitely finite, limit my great books to one shelf only. These are the books that are important to my life, at least, right now.

Here's my list, in no particular order. For some, it's the scope of the book. For some, it's the daring. The personal connection. The theme. The innovation. For a few it's just the time it was in my life, and how much it affected me. This is not a list of great books, or a list of personal favorites, but these are the books I can look at and feel something in me reaching. So, it varies:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The very copy I first read in high school. I have read it maybe 20 times, and in this copy I can see all my teenage notes.

House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Penrod by Booth Tarkington. A book I read again and again when I was a child, before I understood the irony, before I understood racism at all.

My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine

You're a Bad Man Aren't You by Susannah Breslin\

Between Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

The Most of P.G. Wodehouse

We the Living by Ayn Rand

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Dubliners by James Joyce

Candide by Voltaire

So, I've broken it down to these 20 volumes. If I add another, I think I should subtract one -- that's how the brain works best. My own two books are not on the shelf, but I hope my next one will be. It's what I aspire to: to write something that belongs in my brain with these.

Challenge: What's on your inspiration shelf? What one book would definitely have to be there? If you take a picture, I'd like to see.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

How Twilight Killed "The Wasteland"

Lev Grossman, book reviewer for Time Magazine, has bravely prophesied an end to modernism. In his Wall Street Journal article, Grossman posits that the modernist stranglehold on novel-writing is finally over. A new day has come! Nuts to you, Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, and Kafka. You guys are history! No longer will readers suffer through beautiful language to get to an epiphany. Today's readers want plot, plot, and more plot. "Lyricism is on the wane," gloats Grossman, citing high sales of the Twilight series as proof that plot trumps beauty for these kids today.

Grossman, possibly unaware that Joyce and Eliot have been dead for fifty years, believes that these "modernists" have tricked us into thinking that a decent plot is indicative of a weak book. So, we're secretly reading mysteries and scifi, wishing literary writers would just take heed. "Should we still be writing difficult novels?" he asks, "Isn't it time we made our peace with plot?"

Grossman has graciously forgiven the moderns for blowing up the conventions of the Victorian novel. But he now feels that the time has come to embrace plot again. His evidence? The popularity of young adult novels, which never aspired to disregard plot in the first place. For Grossman, there have been no intervening literary movements. No novels of consequence that delivered any measure of plot with their lyricism, or any lyricism with their genre. The article has the intellectual weight of a strawberry tart, and yet the internet is upside down with panic over it. Is literary fiction over? Do we all have to start writing vampire novels?

Relax. Grossman's thinking is reductive, cowardly, but mostly just silly.

Consider these three major flaws:

1. It's weak on literary history. Did modernists shatter plot? Maybe. But look at the novels Grossman cites: Wharton, Hemingway, Lawrence, Fitzgerald. Really? These writers may be moderns, but in theme and ethos, not in formal experimentation. Pound, yes. Kafka, yeah. Joyce, okay. But Grossman's list of defiant modernist novels is full of plot. Sorry.

2. He uses the word "Pavlovianly."

3. His prognostications don't make sense. In proving his point that plot is back in style, Grossman uses Chabon, Lethem, Niffenegger, Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke as examples. These are the literary champions that are boldly bringing back the storylines we have all been silently, hopelessly craving for 80 years. However, these writers are all contemporaries of the Twilight juggernaut. The figures that Grossman so gloomily references (adult trade sales down 2.3% while Twilight author Stephanie Meyer sells 8 million books) would seem to reflect that while Chabon and Niffenegger may have been slinging Grossman-approved level of plot, the book-buying public wanted to buy Twilight books anyway.

I hope that writers of difficult books will not pause to listen to Grossman's confused ramblings about how literary movements from one hundred years ago are stultifying contemporary fiction. I hope writers will disregard all petulant whines about how "we the people" really want to read inglorious garbage like Twilight. I hope writers of difficult books will not take plot advice from a guy who lifted his own plot from Harry Potter. Yes, Twilight is selling. Yes, cheap fiction does move. It always has. But greatness is not easy, in reading or writing, and you weren't really writing for guys like Grossman anyway. Write for the smart people, the people that filled a football stadium to hear T.S. Eliot, the people who still celebrate Bloomsday. Write for me. I will still work for an epiphany.

Monday, August 17, 2009

To Hell with Publishing: Neither Irreverent nor Inventive

The name promises much. The name inspires obstreperous agreement. Yeah, to hell with publishing, anyway! This is 2009. We're all about downloads, and Kindle, and Twittered novels, and free information, and Google books, and plots we can download via wires straight into our arteries, and plugging into authors via Friendfeed, and instant updates, and modules! To hell with publishing, to hell with journals, to hell with prizes, to hell with first novels. Yeah! Fist-pump!

From a group of projects so provocatively named, I now expect mind-blowing innovation. I expect earthshaking progress. I expect, at the very least, heaps of scorn for the old way of doing things, and arms flung wide open to the new, digital world. Please, make sense of fiction on Twitter for me. Please, package blogged novels. Please, help me to understand new media. I beg you! Unfortunately, what I'm finding here is same old, same old. Instead of revolution, "To Hell with Publishing" is pushing cardstock, ink, and contracts. Readings at a library under a dropped ceiling. Submission guidelines -- click here! And please include a cover letter.

"To Hell with Publishing" is just another small press. Like every other small press in the history of earth, they desire to "return vital writing, and in particularly, the best in contemporary fiction, to the main literary stage." Well bra-thumping-vo. They publish... books. Books made of paper and glue. And they publish journals. They have a prize for... unpublished manuscripts, but unagented manuscripts are not considered. Please submit paper copies in triplicate, because at "To Hell with Publishing" they are all about the snail mail.

That name followed by that business model is like the sound of a trumpet fanfare followed by the sound of a drunk falling downstairs. Where's the innovation? Where's the middle finger raised to the literary establishment? Listen: Here are the two ways that "To Hell with Publishing" bites its thumb at the mainstream presses.

1. They will only publish first novels. No second novels! Oh my god! Their plan is that other publishers will swoop in and take over their authors' careers after novel #1. Because yeah, mainstream publishers are so interested in picking up seconds after the author has been deflowered of his first novel. Do I really have to pursue that analogy?

2. Their journal (To Hell with Journals) will only have 26 issues. They have decided this... in advance. Only 26 and no more, even if thousands of screaming fans are lined up outside the bookshop, demanding just one more issue, tearing up their organs in despair that only 26 issues can possibly be produced. They will stand innovatively firm on this principle: THEY WILL FOLD AFTER TWO YEARS.

These two policies manage to be simultaneously defeatist and overly ambitious. Yeah, we MEANT that journal to go under, and we MEANT that author to never produce another book, because that's all part of the rakish, devil-may-care plan we have here at "To Hell with Publishing." Look, there are already small presses out there doing exactly what THWP desires to do, but without these weird stipulations that seem to undercut any kind of longevity or long term relationship between press, author, and reader. Obviously a few more domain names are needed:,, and "To Hell with Publishing" is a profound disappointment, leaving this reader still looking for the next great thing. When it comes along, I have a feeling that "To Hell with Publishing" would be a really cool name for it. Unfortunately, that domain name is already taken.

For more info: I found out about To Hell With Publishing from the Book Ninja.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Significant Objects Project

How to create a significant object:

1. Find some tchotchke. Any tchotchke will do. The weirder the better.

2. Pretend in your brain that it is significant.

3. Write a story telling everyone about how significant it is.

4. Sell the object, and the story, on Ebay.

In other words, (from the web site of the Significant Objects project): A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!

In order for the significance to be created, the object must begin with no significance at all, before the story is written. The items in the project were collected at thrift stores and garage sales, obtained for very little coin. If an object of no actual value gets valuable via its place in a piece of fiction, then these garage sale finds (the web site categorizes them as talismans, totems, evidence, and fossils) should be commanding a higher price on Ebay than they did at the garage sale. According to the evidence, this is actually happening. Take for example Susannah Breslin's story about the button in the photo, the All American Official Necking Team button. The button is for sale on Ebay, along with the story, and the bidding is now over $35. It was listed at $0.50, which was the price it commanded at the thrift store. There are five days left -- who knows how high this piece could sell for?

The idea of making "real" the objects that appear in fictional work is not new. Here's one example: When author Joshilyn Jackson toured with her book The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, she took along a quilt that represented the quilt created by her artist main character. The actual quilt was made by collage artist Pamela Allen, and brought the quilt in the book to life in the smallest detail. Another example: last month a gallery in the UK showed a collection of books that exist only as titles in other books. The idea of an object from a piece of writing coming to life as a physical object you can hold in your hand is kind of magical, it creates the kind of fetish object that deserves the title "totem" or "talisman."

However, when I think of these pieces from, I am less interested in the value created in the object via the fiction, and more interested in the value created in the fiction, via the object. How difficult would it be for an author to sell a short story on Ebay, without the object attached? Especially a story given in full, which a potential buyer could immediately read online or print out for him/herself? Pretty difficult. Yet here is a story, connected to an old button found at a thrift store, that's selling for the price of three paperbacks. Remember, we are in a time when even books are seen as archaic, where people download cheap digital versions of novels, and fiction is readily available all over the internet in a bazillion online magazines.

Maybe what this buyer is actually purchasing is a feeling of ownership that escapes the average reader of a Kindle download or a mass market paperback. This reader will possess the button, and therefore possess the story, in a way that no one else will or can. Like an illustrated text, before the printing press was invented, there is a real sense of exclusivity to this type of writing -- it can only truly be owned by one person.

For more info: For more significant objects to bid on, follow @significobs on Twitter.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Alice Hoffman Freaks Out, and Plus Her Book is Bad

Yesterday, angry author Alice Hoffman used Twitter to publish a reviewer's phone number and (misspelled) email address. She encouraged her followers to "tell [the reviewer] off," after reviewer Roberta Silman published a lukewarm review of Hoffman's most recent book, The Story Sisters, in the Boston Globe. Instructing followers to "Tell her what u think of snarky critics," Hoffman caused eyebrows around the twitterverse to raise a few languid millimeters, as the book world vaguely pondered whether reviewers should really be punished for saying what they think.

Their conclusion: No, they should not. After receiving some flack for her tweet, Hoffman tried to turn this tantrum into a principled stance, saying, "Girls are taught to be gracious and keep their mouths shut. We don't have to. And we writers don't have to say nothing when someone tries to destroy us." Uh, yeah.

In an incredibly synchronous coincidence, I just yesterday finished reading Alice Hoffman's novel Here on Earth. Do I dare tell you exactly how I feel about this book? Will my phone number be posted on Twitter tomorrow, beside an impassioned call to action?

I did not like Here on Earth. I only picked it up because my brain somehow crossed wires and I thought I was picking up an Angela Carter book. Carter wrote The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman. She is not, as I now know, related in any way to Alice Hoffman. I had never read Alice Hoffman before.

Here on Earth is a romance novel dressed up as literary chick-lit. Its central character is an unlikeable woman whose choices are dense and reprehensible, and whose family and friends are only slightly less loathsome. Switching through point-of-view characters with irritating frequency and loping along in an uncomfortable present tense, the book spirals outward away from an increasingly irrational and self-destructive heroine as if the plot is mirroring the reader's desire to get out of her unsavory story. Several times in the book, young characters are told that they just don't know anything about love. Maybe my failure to connect with this novel is a result of a similar misunderstanding.

Or maybe it's because of lines like this: "He can spend hours watching a wounded cedar beetle and weep over its rare beauty, as well as its agony." Or this: "He knows what can happen to any man who won't let go of his pain." These lines were written without sarcasm about two different male characters, and they're not even the ones we're *supposed* to hate! Maybe it's because of the close attention paid to sweaters and cookies. Ultimately, though, I didn't buy the violence, the pain, the delusions, or even the love.

The Boston Globe said about Here on Earth: "A sound addition to an impressive body of work." I wonder if that reviewer would have been called out on Twitter, had it been around back in 1997 when Here on Earth was published? Because all that reviewer really said was, "Alice Hoffman has written another of many books." And sometimes, if you're trying to be nice, that's all you can really say.

UPDATE: Alice Hoffman's twitter account is no longer. However, Gawker has screen caps.

Here's a list of the people I referenced in the article if you want to follow them on Twitter:

Alice Hoffman @alicehof (deleted? suspended? torn down in a fit of rage?)

Ron Charles, Washington Post Writer: @roncharles

Islinda, outraged fan: @darkonfire

Thanks to Maud Newton who retweeted it: @maudnewton

Thanks to Susannah Breslin who sent it to me: @reversecowpie

And this is me: @lostcheerio

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading Wickett's Remedy in the Time of Swine Flu

You think you've got it bad?

Myla Goldberg's novel, Wickett's Remedy, begins pleasantly enough, as a quaint period piece about a young girl in the early 20th century, escaping South Boston to experience big city life as a shop girl selling men's shirts. Lydia Kilkenny finds love, gets married to a medical student, and sets up house. The narrative is augmented by marginal notes in the point of view of ancillary characters, and newspaper articles and editorial letters from the time, and other snatches of dialogue.

Then the Spanish Influenza happens. The book stops being cute, derails itself from a nice little plot about a ghetto girl who conquers the world, and heads into dark and dangerous territory. Now the marginal notes, the newspaper articles, and disembodied dialogues and unexplained bits of correspondence become sinister, threatening, and the main character, who had seemed a little too sweet, too plucky, too dear, is now our only hope. The book was extremely moving, after things got dire. Once I got to the awful part, I could hardly put it down. The multiplicity of voices becomes part of the story itself, as if the only way the unfairness, the starkness, the confusion of the times could be portrayed is through this fragmentation of the narrative.

Goldberg illuminates a world of which I had absolutely no knowledge, no experience. One third of the world's population was infected with this flu. The mortality rate was 10%. That meant that more than 3% of the world's population died of this disease. Seventeen million in India. Six hundred thousand in the US. The most gruesome fact of the pandemic was that the disease killed strong young adults more effectively than the old or young, because the stronger your immune system the more violently the disease came on. Truly horrific. And the things that happened on the Navy ships. Goldberg hints at horrors, via snatches of dialogue and reports, that defy belief.

I highly recommend Wickett's Remedy to anyone who has been loudly panicking about the swine flu, has felt themselves put upon and afflicted by this outbreak, or has been walking around in a face mask. The things Goldberg will show you will make your life in 2009 seem like a paradise of health and vigor.

Friday, June 26, 2009

How to Compete for a Woman with Twilight's Edward Cullen

The coat is key.

As we all know, Edward Cullen, dark and dangerous (but not too dangerous!) star of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, has ruined women on regular guys for the next ten years. (Read this: Ten ways Twilight has ruined a generation of high school girlfriends.) Merciful creature that I am, I have some tips for the victims of this literary vampire, who has sucked away your chances for getting a prom date and left you feeling fleshy and inadequate.

1. Purchase a pea coat. After that, if you feel okay, get some pants that actually fit. Wear them together at the same time. If you have anything in your wardrobe in any shade of red, green, or yellow, push it to the back and don't touch it again.

2. Tell a girl you're bad, very very bad. Then never do anything even remotely bad.

3. Get your hair off your face. Purchase mud, shellac, cream, pomade, or wax but *not* hairspray. Squeeze your product into your hands, and then grab at your head as if it's causing you agonizing pain. Continue to clutch your skull until all your hair is pointing away from your forehead. For style reference, check out Brandon and Dylan from Beverly Hills, 90210 circa 1992. No more Disney Channel shag.

4. If you can't think of anything to say to a girl, just glare at her. Never explain anything. Say almost nothing at all. If she asks you what you're thinking, put your arm around her and look away.

5. Imagine the expression you'd have on your face if someone stabbed you with a pencil in the gallbladder, spleen, pancreas or pyloric valve (any other dark, secret, unlocatable place in your abdomen will do). This should now become your default expression.

6. Your excuse for not doing anything should be that you want to too much. As in, you couldn't call because you wanted to *too much.* You couldn't wait for her because you wanted to *too much.*

7. Refuse to do anything physical with your girl, and only relent when pressed to extremes. At each base, you must stop yourself and her from going farther at least three times (claiming, of course, to want her too much).

8. Don't hum, laugh, punch other guys, or behave in any way that could be perceived as happy, relaxed, or lively. Instead, hold a book in your hand and stare off into the distance, maybe about half a football field away.

9. Never think of or mention football again, except if you're using it as a reference point for your distracted, tortured staring. Do not participate in sports, no, not even baseball unless you are an actual vampire.

10. Lead with your forehead. You should always be able to see a little bit of your eyebrow hair as you are peering out from under your brow. This is particularly true if you're attempting a smile. And your smile should always say, "I'm full, but I could eat more" and never "I'm happy" or "That's funny" or "Do you like me?"

Now, there are some lengths to which you should not go to bag a Twilighter. DO NOT:

1. Attempt to run up a tree.

2. Take off your shirt.

3. Wear lipstick.

4. Pretend you can type blood by sight.

5. Jump off a building.

6. Engage in warfare with a rogue vampire.

7. Take her to meet your family.

8. Attempt to stop a speeding car with your body.

9. Drive like you're immortal.

10. Eat a raw deer.

Good luck! Happy hunting, regular guys!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ten Ways Twilight Has Ruined a Generation of High School Girlfriends

Your girlfriend is mine.

It used to be hard to get a date in high school. Now, thanks to Twilight, it's got to be damn near impossible. What Mr. Darcy did for husbands, Edward Cullen is doing for boyfriends, and another generation of women is losing interest in the happy jocks while musing over the dark-haired, troubled guy with all that anguish in his eyes.

Edward Cullen is the fictional teen vampire / Byronic anti-hero in Twilight that seduces awkward, brainy heroine Bella Swan. The characters in the book bump around school and rainy Washington, being moody and misunderstanding each other, as Bella and Edward fall in love. Then there are mean vampires, and then more love.

So what makes Edward the Vampire Fantasy Boyfriend such a PR problem for real life teens who just want to get a date to take to dinner and hang out with at the prom? What do the girls see in those black gold eyes?

10. The reason Edward rejects you initially is because he loves you *too much*.

9. Edward has super powers like running superfast and walking up trees, which he can perform while carrying you, making you feel very small and thin.

8. He's strong as an ox but physically effeminate and beautiful, looks great in a full face of makeup.

7. He can save you from speeding SUVs and vampires and thugs without sweating. If a real boy saved you from a thug he'd probably rehash the whole event in front of his friends forty times, but Edward just wanders off.

6. When he's being cryptic, and you push him to explain himself, it just makes him like you *even more.* Real boys tend to have to get off the phone when this happens.

5. When he's moody, it's because he wants to eat people, not because he's about to break up with you.

4. He can read everyone else's mind, but yours is a total mystery.

3. At the beach, his skin turns into diamonds. Real boys turn red and blotchy.

2. He's immortal. Real boys can be killed by almost anything.

And the number one reason that Edward Cullen has ruined things for average teenage boys:

1. He is overcome with deep, torturous lust for you, but he can never, never act on it, or you will die.

Edward Cullen is the safe boyfriend. He will never make you actually take your pants off, but he will constantly reassure you that he only wants to ravage you.

What does this mean? Teenage girls don't actually want to be ravaged. They want to be desired but not deflowered, that they want to be constantly, urgently threatened with intercourse, but never have to experience it. Edward will never, ever satisfy himself with Bella, because doing so would kill her. Let me make you a metaphor map: Loss of virginity = death. Edward = impotent. Therefore the perfect teen boyfriend.

So what's a regular guy to do, in the face of this kind of competition? Now that the movie's out, even the illiterate girls have Edward as a measuring stick for male perfection.

Next time, I'll give you ten ways that regular, average boys can compete with Edward Cullen, using sneaky tactics and clever ploys instead of actual vampirism.

From Susannah's "A Photo a Day," June 22, 2009

Shut up, Barbie.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ten Words to Make You Sound Smart in a Book Discussion

Try to impress Jacques Derrida.

Here are ten words to stock your conversational arsenal that will make you sound like you spent six years in a PhD program reading Derrida and Joyce and drinking absinthe. Warning: With the wrong audience, you might end up punched in the face or wearing your underwear outside your pants involuntarily. Use at your discretion.

1. Hegemony: This word describes a stronger group inflicting its self-serving ideas on a weaker group, while making the weaker group believe these ideas are awesome. Hegemony is pretty much a cuss word, for book nuts. Example: "This is a total hegemony, man!"

2. Proust: Proust is a fiction writer, and gay, and French, and dead. Those are the facts you need. His most famous work was over 3000 pages long. It's about the nature of memory and art, and no one except his mother has ever read it all. You can say it contains whatever character or plot twist you wish, and never be contradicted.

3. Deconstructionism: Contrary to popular use, "deconstruct" does not mean the opposite of construct. It actually means to reduce a written work to its most basic assumptions and then show how those assumptions are paradoxical and therefore meaningless. Instead of good vs. evil, it's neither. This is not a synonym for "analyze." Sorry, Sean Hannity.

Marcel Proust is scintillated by your discourse.

4. Hermeneutics: This word means the study of ways to find meaning in a text. There are a million ways to go about finding meaning, all predicated on the idea that it can be found. Believe it or not, there are people who believe that hermeneutics and meaning are stupid and boring. For serious rockstar points, publically discard hermaneutics and everything it implies.

5. Post-colonialism: At some point in the 20th century, the world decided that making colonies was bad, and that reading any native literature from a colonized country as "cute" and saying "It's neat how they keep writing things down!" was also bad. So we had to develop a new term for our new enlightened way of interacting with this type of discourse. Post-colonialism means "after the colonizers decided the colonized might actually have something to say."

6. Foucault: Foucault is a philosopher, and gay, and French, and dead. He wrote in a very smartypants manner about a bunch of stuff, including how there is no truth or meaning, no way to interpret discourse. He was super-against hermeneutics. In fact, if you want to disagree with something that ends in -ic or -ism, you can probably cite Foucault.

7. French Feminism: French feminists invented the idea of a female kind of writing, "ecriture feminine" which is super-sexy and completely different from phallocentric male discourse. French feminists believed women should write about women, and their bodies. If you use the phrase "writing the body" you will get knowing nods from male friends and phone numbers from the girls.

You fail to convince Heidegger.

8. Joycean: James Joyce's catalog is varied and deep, which means that "Joycean" can go in front of any noun you want, including "Joycean monologue" and "Joycean symbolism" and "Joycean analogy" and even "Joycean discourse."

9. Heterogeneous: Heterogeneity is good because diversity is good. Therefore the word "homogeneous" is bad, just like hegemony is bad. Note: None of these words can be properly applied to milk. Just political movements, world populations, ideas, and granola.

10. Discourse: Use this word in place of any synonym for language. Any chunk of words, spoken or written, can be discourse. Do not ever, under any circumstances, call words "words" or sentences "sentences." Try "heterogenous discursive units." For bonus points, find three places I've used the word "discourse" in this very article, just trying to sound smart!

So, have we learned anything today? Did you know all of this already? What's your favorite word to use in a book group?

For more info: There is a lot more info. But do you really want it?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogging is Dead. Long Live Blogging.

Is it just me or does blogging these days seem tragically onerous? It's a little bit like living in a cabin in the woods, all by yourself. Your cabin may have been built with your own hands, and may be a cabin you're really very proud of, but ultimately it's a cabin that no one ever sees. It's just so far out in the woods, you know? No one sees the brick path you laid, the planters you filled with geraniums, the really neat pot hangers. No one sees your blog either.

It's lonely in the cabin. A person starts to feel like the only person in the woods. So we all come out to the lodge or the campfire, and we start chatting with the other mountain dwellers. Of course, when you're sitting around the campfire, you can't pontificate for hours on the state of your geranium planters. You have to keep it brief, keep it entertaining. That's Twitter. That's Facebook. That's Tumblr. Meet me at the campfire. I'll listen to what you have to say for thirty seconds at a time.

Here's the reality: I'm no longer visiting your blog. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm no longer visiting your blog just to visit. I will read your blog posts if one of these three conditions is met:

1. You tweet or Facebook a link to it that attracts my attention.
2. It appears in my reader, in which case I read it there, in my reader.
3. It turns up in a google search for something specific I want to know.

I don't care about your awesome page layout.
I don't care about your 18 inch blogroll.
I don't even care about your tag cloud.

No, not at all.

I do care, deeply, about your ability to write 140 words at a time in Twitter. I care about your ability to post funny or interesting Facebook updates. I care about your blog posts too, insofar as they fit into my reader, uniformly formatted with all the other posts by bloggers with which I've categorized you. I care about the words you write, but I no longer care about the context in which you write them. And really, I want to say to you, and to myself -- enough blogging. If you can say it in 140 words, you should. No more "What we did today." No more "Here's a funny anecdote." No more "Have you ever wondered about this question?" None of those things merit a blog post any more, and I'm not traipsing all the way out to your cabin to read that! Say it in 140 characters, right here at the campfire, or don't say it. Sorry!

It sounds extreme, and obviously, I'm not entirely done with blogging myself. So what kinds of things can I *not* say in 140 words? What topics do I actually feel justified blogging about, and what blog posts will I still trudge out to your blog to read?

1. Something that's long and funny.
2. Something that's long and useful.
3. Something that's long and contentious.

I might also blog something that's full of pictures, but it must also be either funny, useful, or contentious. Otherwise I can just Tweet or Facebook a link to the Flickr set.

That's really it.

Does this mean that we no longer have the attention span for blogs? Am I now supposed to say something wan and dire about the decay of this or that, or the disintegration of blah blah blah?

No. Because the writing isn't gone. The text isn't even really shorter. It's just that the internet has become more modular. Instead of the context of your layout, your blogroll, your About Me, your profile, your color scheme and the rest of it, you now exist in a larger context. You are now in the context of whatever feed that brings you to my screen. You are adjacent to everyone else. You are without context.

This isn't the decay of anything. It is a literary evolution. Now more than ever, content is king. The blog posts that people do write and pay attention to are less like journals, less like casual diaries, and more like articles -- meaty and complex. The blogs that survive Twitter and Tumblr and will be the ones with actual content that's accummulated into a body of work with merit. For the rest of the blogging population, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr, and Friendfeed will more than suffice. This is a good thing, people. While "Blogging" may be alive and well, "blogging" is dead. Face(book) it: It's just not worth posting the small stuff anymore.

Tweeting this post? Here's a short URL:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Conservatives Against Conservation Association takes on Earth Hour!

1. Earth Hour is a global demonstration where people turn off their lights and appliances for an hour to raise awareness about global warming and plant the idea of energy conservation in people's heads.

2. Conservatives come back with Human Achievement Hour, in which people turn all their lights and appliances ON, to show how stupid liberals are.

3. Twitter channel #tcot becomes flooded with gleeful reports of "My block is lighted up like a Christmas tree!" and "I even have my car and motorcycle running in my driveway!"

4. I become aware of this, and start tweeting sassy tweets like "#earthhour #tcot Liberals are saving money tonight. Conservatives are spending money. Who's dumb?" and "Join us in bright lights! We're the Conservatives Against Conservation Association! #caca #earthhour #tcot"

5. Somebody RETWEETS my thing about Conservatives Against Conservation, as if it was a serious post.

6. People start actually using the hashtag #caca which was created by me to be funny and stupid.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Would You Friend Your Kids on Facebook?

Some of us parents lead a double life. Not the exciting kind where you end up in Ankara with no recollection of how you got there or why you're wearing only one stiletto, but a double life of the mind. We make our mom faces, wear our mom clothes, and use our mom vocabulary. Even those of us who are "cool moms" create a mom persona -- it doesn't have to be all braided hair and cookie dough. My mom persona is constructed out of different parts: part is my own personality, part is what I think mothers should look and sound like, part is how my mother was, and another part is a new creation -- something that came out of me after my kids came along, that wasn't there before. I like being a mom.

However, I do have a separate piece of my brain that's entirely personal. This piece is a survivor from a time before my children; maybe part single girl, part newlywed, maybe even part teenager. I try to let it change and grow apart from my "mom" self, so that I don't just become the mom and abandon the real me. So that I don't look around when my kids leave for college and realize I have nothing to do but wait for grandchildren. Writing novels is part of that separate piece, and blogging is part of the separate piece (peace?) and recently Facebook, for me and a lot of moms I know, has become part of it.

Yes, we've always had our email lists and phone calls, but there's something about posting OMFG, I need them to be asleep. Must. have. quiet. as one of my friends did recently, that provides instant gratification. You wouldn't write an email to say "Why is it that my children think they need to physically help me open a pack of gum?" But if you Facebook it or Twitter it, you'll have five or six amusing answers within a few minutes, and nowadays really that's all you want. Email has become the new snail mail -- it feels cumbersome, antiquated, and formal, like you need a really good reason to do it, especially to a whole group. Facebook and Twitter is where you go for instant luv now. To shout out to your mom homies, and hear a "hellz yeah" back. Of course, you can't shout out to your mom homies with the children in the room.

But it's not just about complaining about your kids. As more people find and use Facebook, your friend list becomes a synthesis of your entire life. You have high school friends, college friends, ex-boyfriends, professional acquaintances, people who only knew you when you played in a rock band, people who only knew you when you were a cool writer chick, etc. Putting all these people in one place is perplexing enough, without introducing them en masse to your children, who may not know that Mommy wrote a kind of edgy experimental book back in the 90s, who may not see Mom as a rocker, who have no concept of any previous life that Mom may have led, or really anything that existed before they, the children, came into the world.

Which is why you get posts like this, from another friend: I need to post something funny but don't want any speshul snowflaks to see. To which I responded: Whisper it in groanupps langwadj. And another mom added: We must find a way around this... Well, don't we still have email? Don't we still have the telephone? Yeah, we do. But since we've tasted the sweet, sweet nectar of Facebook and Twitter, we can't go back to the old way of doing things. Anyone want to run out and register

To recap, there are three reasons to NOT friend your kids on Facebook:

1. No more bitching about the kids or reporting the funny things they do/say.
2. Kids get to meet Ralph the pierced stoner and experience all his video posts, then ask me how I know this Ralph guy and what those people are doing with that garden hose.
3. Now I have to edit everything I say to make sure it's safe for the dinner table.

But some of us have kids old enough to have their own Facebook accounts. High schoolers, even. So, are there any reasons TO friend your kids?

1. Know what your kids are up to. This was actually the reason I joined Facebook in the first place, and my first two friends were my two teenaged stepchildren. See -- it works both ways. Maybe someplace on LiveJournal there's a post called "Would You Friend Your Mom on Facebook?"
2. If they ask you to friend them, and you don't friend them, then that feels mean. And it is mean. There's just no way around it. You don't want to say "I won't be your friend" to your child, even if you explain it in the kindest possible way.
3. Maybe, just maybe, it's a good thing for the kids to see their moms in this context.

For example: Yes, Mom has friends. Yes, Mom makes snarky comments about politics to people I've never met. No, I don't get all the inside jokes on her Flair corkboard. No, I didn't know she went to college in three different places. Seeing mom in the context of other adults, in the context of the great big world, and witnessing some interactions that have nothing to do with children, nothing to do with them, might just be good for our kids, especially the older ones. I have no solution to the privacy problem or our need for an "Adults Only" zone that's just as fun and immediate as Facebook, but until we figure it out, I am pretty sure that friending your kid is the only thing you can do.

What do you think?

Delicious Related post: Twitter, Tumblr, and Tags: You Are Still All Alone

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Surviving The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

Yesterday, watching CNN, I saw a feature piece about a man who has been feeding the homeless daily out of the back of his truck in a Queens neighborhood for ten years. I found myself astonished that such a man could exist, that such selfless charity could be going on. Surely he must have some hidden motive, some personal failing out of which this commitment has arisen. He can't be just a NICE GUY doing a NICE THING for people in NEED. Of course, he can. He does. Nice people do nice things all the time with no hope of personal gain, no secret, devious agenda. I just had a hard time believing it.

I blame Charles Palliser, and his novel, The Quincunx, which I have been reading for about a month. This 800 page behemoth of a Victorian novel (neo-Victorian? 1989) drags its readers and main character through every milieu of horror, every site of human want and degradation, through the most wretched poverty, the most abject misery the 19th century had to offer. And of course, the 19th century offers plenty. Feel like you've been there, done that? After all, you've read Dickens, right? Seriously, this is Dickens on crystal meth. Imagine the nightmares of Dickens, but without the comfortable distance of Dickens' hyperformal language. And imagine that everyone, everywhere, is purely selfish, purely wicked, and does nothing for any reason but blunt personal gain. The protagonist of this novel, who starts out a boy and ends up a much thinner, much more suspicious boy, lives through every possible awfulness of the time, from agricultural slavery to being a knife-and-boot boy, to various murder attempts, and many, many, many betrayals. Everyone who appears to be trustworthy is false. Everyone who offers love is immediately killed or destroyed.

It is BAD. It is bad in early 19th century England. Very very bad.

However, I am glad I read it for two reasons.

First, if I'm ever tempted to be one of these people who says, "How dare the government take my money to give it to poor people? Leave that to the churches and to my personal charity!" I have only to recall what the churches and individuals of the time were able to do for the working class when the industrial revolution was just beginning, when common lands were being fenced and sold, when there were no legal protections for children, no laws governing labor, no laws governing housing standards, etc. Individuals and churches I'm sure did a lot for a lot of people, but it wasn't enough, given the grinding, irresistable motivation of people to get more money, more power, more property. You could read this book and come away saying, "Wow, the poor in this country really have it made." And I say that's a good thing. I don't want to have to step over dying people and starving orphans. Paying taxes will be just fine, thanks. The thing is, and this is what became clearer to me while reading this book, that without public education, school lunch programs, health care, and other entitlements, there truly is a caste system from which there is no escape. Without money, you can't get money, and you are just trapped. Palliser is a scholar, and he researched the book for 14 years. He's truly captured the period, and seeing it played out before you in such lurid and exacting detail is so much more compelling than reading about it in facts and figures.

The other reason I'm glad I read it is that it was a great read! I was completely fascinated by the time I was ten pages in, and the story just grabbed me by the collar and railroaded me right through to the end. It was almost un-put-downable and I spent many sleepy mornings having stayed up way too late the night before. It is *not* a morality book, although I've spent time talking about that aspect of it. I haven't talked about the plot at all, but much has been made of the mystery in the extremely elaborate, very intelligently wrought story that drives the book. Go here if you've read it and want to ponder all its intricacies. It involves an inheritance, a murder, and a whole lot of family tree.

If you do decide to read The Quincunx, make sure you have some time set aside to cope with obsessive reading. And it might be good to take this one on in the summer months, when you can go outside periodically and remember that life is good, that people can love, and that redemption is possible.

Jack Pendarvis is One of Those Guys

I just can't hang. I don't know what happened to me. I want to say that when I was 23 I could tolerate or even enjoy these books organized on the principle of "what the hell." These novels that challenge what it means to be a novel, characters who defy the idea of a character, whose authors seem to make decisions because they're the ones holding the pen, and tee-hee who's going to stop them?

I know I dated guys who wrote books like this when I was in my 20s. But I also remember putting down The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a child, and only part of the reason was because I thought the sacrilege would send me to hell. I have a feeling that if the narrative truly compelled me, I would have dared to face the consequences.

The first book I read by Jack Pendarvis was Your Body is Changing, a collection of short stories. At first, I was really digging it. Yes, it tended a little toward the type of story collection that holds up one character after another saying, "Look at this idiot! Okay, now look at this idiot! Isn't he a tool? Now check out this guy -- what a tool!" But it was really imaginative and interesting. I particularly liked the story "Outsiders" about a woman who announces constantly that she's really someone who will "call you on your shit." Then I got to the title story, about an adolescent zealot who comes into age and cynicism in various har-har ways. And I started to wonder, is Jack Pendarvis one of those guys? One of those guys who produces desultory idylls revolving around randomness, irony, and a wry, intellectual detachment? One of those McSweeney's type guys? When the main character set off on a cross country journey in a goat cart, I had to face the truth: Jack Pendarvis is one of those guys.

Then I read his novel, Awesome, which is about a giant and his robot friend. Pendarvis' giant (named "Awesome") is as inaccessible as the prose itself, and unfortunately he tells his own story mixing low and high discourse like it's 1999. I couldn't finish Your Body is Changing, but I will admit I read to the end of Awesome, to see if penises are really like guns. You know the old plotting rule: If you show a gun in Act I, it has to go off in Act III, right? So, if you cut off your penis on a whim in Act I, does it have to return to you when you least expect it, in Act III? Answer: yes. Penises are just like guns in this respect.

Right after I had finished reading Awesome, a friend loaned me The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear. It was through realizing the proximity of the latter to The Hitchhiker's Guide that I realized the proximity of Awesome to this iconic work, and so I have to admit: There may be people out there who will find this book to be gorgeous, revelatory, and profound. I am not one of them. However, I salute MacAdam Cage for publishing it, I salute Pendarvis for writing it, and I'm glad it's out there on the bookshelves, in all its weirdness, in all its belligerent quirkiness, because the world doesn't need another mild romance, and Jack Pendarvis ain't no Nicholas Sparks.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Twitter, Tumblr, Tags: You Are Still All Alone

In spite of the flurry of social media that surrounds me, I am still all alone in the space between my ears. In the moment of any creative act, there is nothing outside my own brain that can help me, no synergy, no immediacy of connection can save me. All the networking in the world is a noise and a dissipation when it comes to my book and the words that I have to put together, to get the book done.

I was standing in my kitchen when it hit me. It was one o'clock in the morning, and I had been writing my novel. Frustration drove me away from the keyboard and into the other room. I stood there with one hand on the phone, but at 1am, I couldn't call anyone here in Virginia. My family was asleep. Even west coast friends would need a reason to pick up the phone this late. There was no noise in the house. I was truly completely alone with my book and a couple of really tough scenes. If I were going to phrase the problem as a Tweet... if I were going to tell my writing group about it... if I were telling someone in an email... but it didn't matter how I could phrase it or present it or package the problem. I was only having it, not reporting it at all.

Of course, there were lots of people I could have "called" online. With a Twitter search, I could find people writing novels just like me and talking about it at that very moment. I could find blogs, message boards, email lists. I could shoot out a Facebook status update and within minutes have people tell me how it would get better, how they had been there, how I could fix it. But I realized, standing there in my physical form in the middle of the night -- tired, cold, close to a breakthrough -- that it wouldn't help.

I couldn't get what I needed from the vast amorphous "them" out there, the support, the network, the like minds. I stood there gripping the counter, facing the idea that I might just have to give up on writing this difficult book, doing this difficult thing. And I realized, it's not that I don't have the right support, the right help and connections. It's that support cannot help. Connections cannot write this miserable book. I have to write it. Word by word, wrenched straight out of my own brain, going straight down into my book -- not offered for critique on a message board, or discussed in Twitter, or announced in a blog.

This is me. Just this physical form and the electricity in my head, all online appendages amputated, all connections severed. This is you, alone, thinking. Making something up in your brain. Directing it onto the page. This is the only thing that ultimately matters.

Connections are addictive. I live online. My Twitter feeds my Facebook. My YouTube feeds my Tumblr. There's a camera in my laptop lid, a camera in my phone, and then there's my actual camera and my Flickr. On web sites and blogs, with hashtags and Digg, I find people who are watching the same show I'm watching, eating the same food I'm eating, shopping for the same kitchen appliance, etc. etc. In the interest of full disclosure, I am linking out to all my social media, but this isn't all. There are forums, games, elists, and more. If I have a question, or need to say something, I can push it out to hundreds of people who are the same as I am in some way: writers, readers, homeschoolers, people from the neighborhood here, people from my hometown. I can find people who think the same, look the same, live the same, and I can access them immediately. I have their ears.

Maybe you can push your message out to thousands who are just like you in some way. But are they just like you in that one crucial way? I cannot find anyone who is writing the same book. No one can talk to me about that. And if they did? Sound and dissipation.

It's me. It's 1 AM. There's a book not getting written. For this I have to be all alone. And when it comes down to getting alone, I can see that in this way, for this purpose, I have been alone all the while, with bees buzzing around my head, and a radio playing in the background, and a train passing by outside, and a fan blowing, rasping away. And yes, I get the irony: I am telling you this in a blog. I have found the way in which we are exactly alike. But for this purpose, in this one instance, let's not talk about it at all.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hamlet 2: Sometimes Even Catherine Keener Cannot Save You

Okay, I didn't like "Dogma" either. It's not that I'm prudish or can't appreciate a good satire, but "Hamlet 2" bored me, literally to sleep. That's the same way I felt about "Dogma," I realize. Bored. Steve Coogan (he was the little tiny Roman guy in "Night at the Museum") plays a failed actor who is now a drama teacher. But, OH NO! The drama program is in trouble. It's going to be eliminated from the school! Just when a bunch more kids have signed up for drama class, as shop and computer classes have also been eliminated!

So what do we do in a movie, if the drama program is in trouble? That's right. We put on a show to save it! Do we all have to pull together, and overcome our differences, and in the process do we all learn a little bit about ourselves?

I don't know, because right at that point I turned to Dan and said, "I didn't know this was going to be a movie about saving the community center." And then I fell asleep. I also didn't know the movie was going to be about children, or rather 26-year-olds pretending to be children. I also didn't know that Catherine Keener was going to be given such slim material to work on, not that she can't work with less, but still. A little brutal.

Good points in the movie: Elizabeth Shue plays herself, having given up Hollywood to become a nurse. Catherine Keener counts as a good point. She is always hilarious and perfect. Steve Coogan manages to be likeable in spite of the overwrought situation.

To me, it played like a Monty Python skit writ American and writ about a hundred times too long. Coogan definitely seemed to be channeling Terry Gilliam at times, but the character couldn't bear the weight of the entire movie. But then, I didn't watch the whole thing. Maybe I'm letting my bias against movies in which the community center must be saved hold me back from watching a great comedy. What do you think. Should I watch the rest of it?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wait by Frank Turner Hollon

This is not a review. It's a reaction. There are spoilers. If you want a review, here it is: Wait is a worthwhile novel from an interesting mind, that will make you think about your soul, and the state of it, and the reasons why your soul may be in that state. It will make you look around your life with a new, healthy suspicion, and try to imagine your spouse with a gun in his hand, standing there blankly, ready to pull the trigger. So there's your review. Go get the book, and read it, and come back here and talk to me about it.

Frank Turner Hollon has written the life story of Early Winwood, a guy you might pass on the street without noticing, a character you might not think was worthy of having a novel written about him. A regular guy. The difference between Early and most regular guys is that right in the middle of the book, after living through a few dozen unremarkable years, Early does something very remarkable: he kills a man. Then, later, he kills another one.

This book is telling me one of two things. No, there are no other interpretations:

1. The narrator is unreliable. The book is psychological study that takes us deep under cover in the mind of a murderer, to show us how he, twisted and inhuman as he is, sees himself as normal, fitting snugly into the fabric of society. I have two bits of evidence for this interpretation. First, the ambiguity of his relationship to Kate Shepherd, and the fact that this drug user turned model citizen at one point tells the court he is a kidnapper and a stalker. The second is the way the murders really fail to haunt the guy, at least fail to haunt him to the extent that a murder would haunt me. Or maybe a murder wouldn't really haunt me that much, which brings me to possibility #2.

2. Early is a murderer, and Early is an average guy. Both. One does not preclude the other. Murder is closer to you than you think it is, reader, and only a thin hair of opportunity and impetus stands between you and the act itself. Looking back on the book, this explanation seems more elegant. It is as if the whole plot of this man's life was constructed to be a doughy, bland container for that one act of violence, so that the blandness leaks into the violence, and makes it ordinary, all part of the whole.

I don't know which one is the correct reading but I hope it's two. It's not that I agree with him, in fact I don't like the idea that we're all base, we're all murderers, we're all that low, as vile as the least of us is vile. I don't agree. But I think that makes the more perfect novel, and I've never read a book constructed like this, with so much fire-retardant wadding packed around a fuel cell on fire.

The book fails me in a couple of ways -- the second "murder" doesn't seem to fit either of my explanations, and it blurs the lines of what's a reasonable excuse to commit the crime. I was disappointed also a little bit in the lesser characters, in Early's fake son and fake daughter. I never knew what lens I was seeing them through, and Early's take on it seemed more suspect when he was describing these relationships than it did when he was talking about Kate.

Ultimately, a very interesting book and a book that worked my brain. I will have to try another by this author.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

There are two fine lines that Abbott had to navigate when writing Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the fanciest and most infamous brothel in Chicago at the turn of the century.

The first line is between two moral positions.

Abbott has two heroines here: Minna and Ada Everleigh, the jewel-encrusted madams who elevated their little corner of the vice district beyond the dirty dance hall and onto a level of elegance and sophistication that attracted millionaire visitors and international attention. Minna and Ada are characters that the author clearly loves. As we follow their story from a mysterious lowly past to their glorious position as quiet, powerful queens of vice in a vicious city, we are invited to fall in love with them as well. There are pimps and madams that we can scorn, lesser characters who live down the street from the Everleighs, who run shitty dives and beat their girls, drug their customers and stick to their own floors. But the Everleighs are a different breed: smart, ethical, pure.

If the Everleighs are the heroes, then the villains must be the reformers, the demonstrators and politicians who were trying to eliminate the vice district and "save" the girls who had "fallen" there as prostitutes. Among the characters on this team are pastors and evangelists, pious ladies, and also city officials trying to look good and crack down on crime. The problem with villainizing this side of the fight is that they actually did have a point. The danger with making a madam your hero is that there actually was a lot of horrifying stuff going on in these houses, stuff you don't want to cheer for, and can't fall in love with.

So, as a writer, do you position yourself with the madams, and giggle and titter your way through the book, pretending it's all so naughty and wry, and those stuffy old reformers are just party poopers? Or do you position yourself with the reformers, and spend the book pushing out that really new and interesting concept that prostitution is bad? Maybe there's a third solution, to just report what happened, be historically accurate, and educate us all so we can make... oh, wait, I just fell asleep while suggesting that as an option. So, none of those are books that I would want to read.

Fortunately, Abbott is smart. Very smart. And her smart book can present all these possibilities simultaneously. This is not an expose of the horrors of segregated vice in turn of the century Chicago. Nor is this a blushing homage to all those fabulous madams and the sexual excesses of the times. No one is exempt from criticism here. Abbott tells the stories of those vainglorious preachers and the hypocritical politicians, but also shines an unforgiving fluorescent light into the depths of vice: the strip-and-whip fights where girls lashed each other bloody for an audience, the girl's palm rotting from syphilis while still performing its handjob, the lies, the greed, the corruption, and all of it.

No one is exempt, that is, except the Everleighs themselves. In understanding this, I began to understand where the moral compass of the book truly points. I believe that Abbott would say that the sins of the vice district were black enough -- the sins of the white slavers and the opium dealers and the lower madams operating their 50 cent dives. The Everleighs, however, weren't doing anything very wrong, and in shutting down their clean, sophisticated, elegant club, where the men were treated fairly and the girls lined up to get a job, where the health and well being of the harlots was a priority and the customers were treated like customers, not sinners, the authorities threw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, I think, the way the book gets out of its predicament.

This moral subtlety allows the book to transcend that "choice" between the whores and the reformers, and allows the story of the characters to flourish without the weight of a judgment or the tension of the absence of judgment.

The second line that Abbott dances down is a literary one. She is, of course, telling the true story of actual people, and the research that went into this book is amazing. One look at the bibliography and your jaw will drop. However, there are things that cannot be known from research. The biographer's job is to tell the story in an engaging way that will live on the page, without embellishing the facts too much, to navigate between too strict a focus on reality and too fanciful an elaboration. Abbott accomplishes this brilliantly. Everything in quotation marks, in the book, was actually said by the real Everleighs, or other characters, and recorded in court documents, journals, or letters. But Abbott's story goes beyond the bare facts and delivers a prose that reads like fiction. None of the "we can't possibly know" or "it's unclear" but loads of vibrant descriptions, delightful details, and a narrative sense that really brings the landscape of the levee to life.

Sin in the Second City exploded my expectations. You know I loves me some violated dichotomies, yo. By defying the obvious choices, and creating her own rules, Abbott pays the Everleigh sisters great honor by putting them in the context they deserve.