We continue today with More Things I Would Have Said if I Was Actually in a Book Club (and If The Club Chose Books That Were Exactly the Books I Want to Read) … By now I’d be a little drunk on the very excellent wine we serve at my book club. It appears I’m going to drink the whole bottle. In a one-man book club, there’s always plenty to eat and drink.
Yesterday I turned in my book reports on Sweet Thunder and Gutshot Straight, which I read in the darkest days of January, under blankets. Let’s time warp a bit, back to middle-late November, when I headed out on the Tinsel tour and needed some books to read that were:
a.) not about Christmas and
I’m a bit of a David Thomson fanatic. Got there late, “discovering” him in 2005, when The Whole Equation came out; then I marvelled at the no-net trapeze act he did in 2006 with Nicole Kidman. Now he’s one of my favorite film writers. His new one (and he just bangs them out, apparently, both fat and thin) is The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder. It’s a succinct gem of Thomsonian filmthinking, and exactly what the title promises. He starts by artfully capturing American character and social thought in 1960 and then walks us through the film. I don’t get to the museums enough, but I was really glad, some years back, to catch an exhibit where an artist had slowed Psycho down frame by frame so that the movie took 24 hours to play. When I was at the exhibit, the movie was sloooowly clicking through the scene was where the detective is questioning Norman Bates. (But Hank! The shower scene! Yes, I know, but it was hard to catch it just right. I would have had to build my day around it.)
Fellow Thomson fan Dan Zak didn’t like this book as much as I did (and it does drag a bit in the wind-up), but it was just what I needed as I went from one Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn and Hyatt Place to the next, where I showered every time, happy as could be.
The frigid Saturday night I read at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., (yes, the night seven people showed up and didn’t buy a single copy of my book) I bought myself a book I’d read about in The Stranger: Rebecca Brown‘s collected essays, American Romances. This book was published by City Lights, the venerable San Francisco bookstore, and clearly by someone who thinks Rebecca Brown writes the real good shit. Her essays are about herself and popular culture and literature (and history), but they basically work as almost hallucinogenic collage. The first essay connects Brian Wilson and Nathaniel Hawthorne across American history, and every word is perfect.
That’s not to say these are all easy to read dispatches. Later she gets into Gertrude Stein (Brown is a total child of Stein) and here things get wobbly and clouded. Her writing about her parents is painful (good painful) and I get the stuff about John Wayne, but there are some boulders on this trail, too. Brown writes uninhibited (but precise) essays, full of something quintessentially Western, that I once longed to do, if I’d been … hmmm. If I’d been crazy. Or crazy enough to not, like, need to be employed by newspapers so that I could have things like paychecks and health plans.
There was a phase, when I was working in a somewhat more free and unhinged way at the Austin American-Statesman, where I approached some similar neurotic-confidence that Brown seems to have; a trust in joining together oddly connected themes in madcap ways. (At the Post I did it in a much more linear fashion; crazy but not nutty — plastic chairs, or Sheetz v. Wawa.) Everyone spends so much perfecting their writing so that it is clear, spare, direct, show-don’t-tell, etc. It feels like Brown completely trusts herself to be beautifully odd in her sentence structure and thinking. I encourage people who would like to write weirder than they currently do to give this book a whirl. I’d bet 60 percent of the people who try to read it will just go “hunh”? (I’d bet that 98 percent of the people who read my blah-blah-blah about it here — all three of you — will also go “hunh”?)
• • •
When Michael and I went to California for Christmas and New Year’s, I took along these three (slightly heavier) books:
Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose. I was drawn to it by an intriguing review in the NYT, but also by the cover: There, with the usual schoolgirl picture of Anne Frank that we’ve come to know on millions of book covers, are outtakes from the same photo session. More Anne. It’s always spooky to know there’s more.
I read the diary itself in seventh grade, like everyone else, and haven’t looked back. Of course, there’s usually a pretty constant shitstorm occurring just off the coast of Anne Frank — from school boards that still ban the diary to Holocaust deniers claiming the whole thing was cooked. Frank scholars (Frankies? Frankenfolks?) have done heaps of work comparing the original to the revision and then comparing that to the version Otto Frank edited and sold to publishers. The movie and play are a travesty of happifying impulses to tidy up the Holocaust for American audiences in the 1950s.
All of this is really fascinating to me, and Francine Prose is exactly the kind of tough but reasoned writer I want to read on the enduring allure of Anne Frank and the puzzling ways people have appropriated the diary to their own thinking. Here’s what I didn’t know: Anne revised and polished two years of her original, way-too-girly diary with the hope that it would win a contest and get published. All this time I (and maybe you) thought the diary was purely a found document, a naive work of genius. Rather, as Prose walks us through it, we can finally see it as the intentional work of an emerging writer who is in a way much more aware of her audience and market.
And a week or so after I read it? Miep Gies died. I felt so up-to-date on it all.
And just yesterday, I got a screener in the mail of a NEW dramatic film adaptation of the diary, which will air on PBS in April. I’m looking forward to watching it.
Madly shifting gears, as Michael and I relocated from Palm Springs to LA, I started reading Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby. Ten years later, here’s the novel we all wanted after High Fidelity. It’s about a woman named Annie, a museum curator who lives in a dreary coastal England town with her irritatingly selfish boyfriend, Duncan, who has an unhealthy obsession for a once-successful American rock singer named Tucker Crowe.
Crowe disappeared in the late ’80s, walked away from fame and his career, leaving his fans to obsess forever and ever about why he quit and where he now lives. They are particularly obsessed with his last and best album, Juliet. If you’ve ever known anyone who thought there was something to gain by discussing music in online forums and chat rooms, and who supplements that with tedious collecting of bootlegs, memorabilia and other ephemera, AND (this is key) you don’t think the music in question is really all that great to begin with, then you have to read this book.
Some reviews said the plot was too thin or predictable, but I was right there with it, merrily reading along and laughing a lot. Some books are excellent vacation enhancers — smart and light all at once — and this is one. I love the hard work Hornby put in to the language of liner notes, Wiki entries, obsessive fan chatter, and strange e-mails. I’d also happily pony up to see whatever movie version is (inevitably) made from Juliet, Naked. I was trying to cast it in my head.
Finally, on the long flight back to cold and gloom of a D.C. winter, I read The Kids Are All Right: A Memoir, by the siblings Welch: Liz, Diana, Amanda and Dan.
Strange thing: While I was on book tour, the Welches were too, and it seems like I was always a few days ahead of them or a few days behind them — at bookstore events, or on public radio shows, etc. The more I heard (or read) about this book, the more I wanted to read it.
Basically, they were growing up fine and classy on the East Coast in the 1970s and early ’80s — handsome Dad was a businessman (in a somewhat suspicious and ultimately debt-deep sense of the word) and lovely Mom was a soap-opera actress. Then Dad died in a car crash. A couple of stressful and crazy years later, Mom died of cancer. The kids — ages grade-school tyke to high school — went to live with a variety of family friends or acquaintances/guardians, with widely different results, slight traumas, and an overall sense of abandonment until years later, when they reunited and formed a more cohesive sibling bond. The first couple of pages really sing, right from the first sentence:
Our mother died three times. We have the first death on tape, recorded the day it aired in 1976: Morgan Fairchild, wearing a trench coat and pale pink lip gloss, shot her in the back. Over the past thirty years, we’ve each watched the tape several times, pulling it from the dusty cardboard moving boxes and crossing our fingers it doesn’t get eaten by the VCR. It’s our only copy.
… There is a loud bang. A tiny circle of dark red appears on the back of her pink satin robe. The next shot is a close-up. Our mother’s face fills the screen in a death snarl revealing upper teeth.
I was so with them from the introduction, but the book quickly strays from that lyric quality. That’s not to say I don’t recommend it; I did follow along right to the end, as tedious as it got. Most of it is written by Liz (the second oldest) and Diana (the youngest), in alternating chapters told in first-person singular, as opposed to Our mother died three times. …
The oldest, Amanda, chimes in every so often with very short chapters, mostly to call B.S. on Diana’s and Liz’s recollections or add her own perspective; the brother, Dan, drifts in and out to demonstrate how detached he was through their adolescences spent apart. Some of the online reviews have really pounced on the book, calling it whiny and spoiled. Yes and no; their “struggles” are a tad oversold. When the Welches lost their parents, the upper-middle class inhabitants of their world stepped in to keep them afloat in a certain status. The untethered emotions they describe aren’t quite the sob story that the book’s marketing material describes. I think other readers might have gone in expecting a really incredible story (read: unbelievable, a la Running with Scissors) and got bored.
In a strange way, the things that work about this book are the same things that drag it down. Liz is and always was the star of this family, and she seems to have the most detailed memories — especially about her own achievements in school and do-good travels abroad. Reading her is like being trapped at a dinner party with a guest who won’t shut up about herself and yet also wants you to hire for some job you didn’t know you’d posted, and when you learn more (from interviews) about how the book came about, it’s clear that this is Liz’s book proposal, brought to fruition by the innovative idea to get her siblings to chime in.
Diana had a much more painful life after the parents died; she was taken in by a family that seemed to resent her presence. She turned out very earthy, laid-back. Her prose is more slack, especially compared to Liz’s, which feels overly self-centered. I actually liked the bluntness of Amanda’s and Dan’s contributions better — which seem to have come about in response to reading Diana’s and Liz’s early drafts? Messy as it may have been, I kind of wish they’d worked harder to create one draft written in a plural voice. We. Our. She. He; Our mother died three times, with _occasional_ forays into first-person by each of them.
This is what’s alluring about The Kids Are All Right — it’s a study in the pitfalls of memory (especially among siblings) and writing a memoir. If you asked my three sisters and me to write a book about, say, our parents’ marriage and divorce, you would get back four different accounts that would bear a passing resemblance to one another, with big and little details in constant dispute. That’s why I admired the experiment here, if not necessarily the result. I guess I’m like other readers who plowed through this book, got to the end because I wanted to see what happened, and thought eh, big deal. That’s it?