At this rate, the One-Man Book Club will soon be meeting at St. Elizabeths. (And no, Mr. Hinckley, we’re not going to read any books about Jodie Foster.) I actually had a fantasy during all the deadlines for fall TV reviews: If I could get just sick enough — something that required convalescence but not, you know, pain — I could read more. Books have been my only mental refuge from television lately (as opposed to what, exercise??), but you’ll notice the One-Man Book Club choices have been rather lite. Television eats your brain.
I’m about to dive into some weightier tomes, so lets get these summer fuckers out of the way, and I mean fast this time. There will be no refreshments at One-Man Book Club tonight. We are all business. Some of these I read as far back as July and I’m sick of looking at the stack.
Dear Money, by Martha McPhee: Pretty good novel about a (wait for it) New York novelist with her head pretty far up her arse, constantly measuring herself, her marriage, and her financial worth against others, who always appear to have more. Finally she takes up an offer from a hedge-fund wunderkind to come join a big Wall Street trading firm and learn how to get rich. What I liked about this novel was how skillfully the author made sure we would never, ever, ever like the main character, even if we tried to sympathize with her. She just won’t let you. What I didn’t like was how much the author uses “indeed” as a transition. Indeed, sometimes it happens twice on page. Indeed! (Indeed is to erudite New Yorkers as dude is to skateboarding Californians or snow is to the Inuit. The word has multiple meanings, depending on inflection, even in type!)
Imperial Bedrooms, by Bret Easton Ellis: He got the first 20 or so pages exactly, totally perfect — starting with Clay telling us about how they made a movie about him and Julian and Blair (the dreaded Less Than Zero screen adaptation) but that the original novel had actually been written by some other kid that nobody liked. (Whoa!) But the magic of being back in that sense of Less Than Zero nihilism wears off as Imperial Bedrooms becomes a mystery — like an actual shadows-and-darkened-car-windows mystery, a stalker story with unknown bad guys. Yet, Imperial Bedrooms is truly a sequel to Less Than Zero in this way: Its middle third is just as boring as the first book’s, and its ending is just as unsatisfying. And, oh Lordy, if you liked American Psycho you should stick around for the really dark twist near the end.
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, by Sam Wasson: Breezily non-academic examination of all things Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Capote and his work habits, the invention of an ideal, the ways books used to get made into movies (which doesn’t seem to have changed all that much); the nefarious Hollywood code that turned Holly Golightly into Something Altogether Else; Adurey Hepburn, dragged kicking and pleading into the role that sealed her deal with American culture; Edith Head’s private tantrums … Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is the sort of film book I usually love. It’s like a hybrid of the playfulness and riffing of David Thomson and the primary-research rigor of Mark Harris, but Sam Wasson has some weaknesses too that pop up here and there, mostly in tone. Also, I’m not sure he ever comes close to delivering on the final promise of the subtitle (“the Dawn of the Modern Woman”). Nevertheless, I found it a fascinating and cinchy go-along. I gather the only people who don’t like this book already know too much about the subject or don’t like the imaginative way it’s assembled.
Slake, No. 1: This is the long-awaited journal of life in Los Angeles by the former editors of L.A. Weekly. It’s supposed to be the real, unfiltered deal, packed with surprises by some known and unknown LA writers and artists, proving once and for all to the world (New Yorkers, mainly) that the West Coast is where it’s really at. It’s also supposed to be a celebration of the power of print, with no Twittering or Facebooking come-ons. Slake is indeed fer-shur pretty to look through, but there’s too much material here, by about half. I was surprised, given the pedigree, at how amateur and art-schooly most of it comes across. Now that it’s been two months since I read it, I can’t remember one single piece in it, except for one guy’s story about how his arm made a cameo in a San Fernando Valley-made porno film.
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach: Mary Roach is a very smart lady science writer, but I’m not convinced she’s smart in the way everyone thinks she is. What she is smart at is marketing and making gross things seem fascinating and funny. She is smart at survey-subject journalism, dipping in and pulling out of broad subjects in specific ways, and then summing it all up in the style of no-style. She’s like one of those rare people who makes people laugh when she farts. (In fact, people will pay a lot to go to TED conferences and laugh at her brilliantly scintillated farts about science.) I read her book about dead bodies, which was delightful enough, but skipped her books about ghost-hunting and sex. I wanted to read this one because I’m that kid who used to subscribe to Discover magazine, watch Doctor Who and file lovely Time-Life illustrated book reports on the Voyager missions for science class. Packing for Mars, which is about the science of space travel and the many physical limitations therein (thereout?), merely advances the Mary Roach brand. I found this book admiringly cynical; it’s about how to get to people to Mars, but it’s mostly about how to get Mary Roach to the bestseller list again. (Bitter!)
THESE LAST THREE KINDA GO TOGETHER, so the One-Man Book Club is going to pretend that it held a thematic meeting with fancy eats, and discussed all three in erudite ways…
Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work, by Tim Gunn: Total, page-turning delight for people who, like all of the members of the One-Man Book Club, are just astonished every single day by the lack of good manners around us. Once you get used to Gunn’s tangential tendencies (the whole book seems to be organized around a “that reminds me of this one time” series of fleeting segues), this is a fun and revealing read. Sure, he disses a few celebrities for their bad manners and/or outrageous senses of entitlement, but I double-dog-dare any of them to complain publicly about it, because TIM GUNN DOES NOT LIE. More interesting, I thought, is the relentless positivism at the core of this strangely solitary man who’s become so gregariously famous. He’s been celibate for decades! Never goes on a date, not since he got his heart broken by his first love, 30 years ago. And he makes staying resolutely single sound like the healthiest choice in the world, and maybe he’s right. It’s sort of like having a One-Man Book Club…
True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World, by Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd: Speaking of middle school science projects … I just had to read this, because I’m one of those people who — even way out in the middle of Oklahoma in 1981– fell hard for The Official Preppy Handbook, mistook it as a guide to living and dressing, and have been trying to recover ever since. Looking back, what I owe most to the OPH was the way it reconciled my “new wave” tendencies (B-52s, Devo, Go-Go’s) with my purple Polo shirt and plaid shorts. From then on, Everything Made Sense. (Everything, that is, except my homosexuality, which OPH was weirdly silent on and True Prep mostly is too.) True Prep, of course, can never be the revelation that the original was. But it’s a handsome sequel, thanks to Chip Kidd, who seems to have been similarly afflicted by the original. That said, True Prep is also borrrrring. Consider yourselves warned.
What you really want, and what the One-Man Book Club more heartily recommends, is Take Ivy, by Teruyoshi Hayashida, et al: This is a legendary book, originally published in 1965 in Japan as a marketing field study of menswear fashion trends at American Ivy League campuses back then. Starting with its Engrish-y title and text, this photo book is the ur-source of all male preppydom, as viewed by alien visitors from a faraway land. For years Take Ivy was mostly a rumor, something that was Xeroxed and passed around among hardcore preppy designers and enthusiasts. It was re-released this summer and it is utterly dreamy and fascinating — and sure, disturbing in a master-race sort of way. In fact, when paging through Take Ivy I can’t help but do the math: Here it was, a mere 19 or 20 years after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japanese marketers were transfixed by the insouciant style and confidence of young men America’s most elite institutions. Somewhere in the background faces here, you’d have been as likely to glimpse college boys such as George W. Bush or Al Gore or Bill Clinton. Hayashida and his team were fetishizing the sons of the very power structure that their own fathers vowed to destroy.
But anyhoo, back to the madras! Here’s a peek, courtesy of the NYT:
That’s it from the One-Man Book Club, which makes no promises about the date and time of our next meeting. All I know is there are HEAPS of books sitting here, waiting to be read. Send your recommendations, thoughts, etc…