Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Green Jacket

“What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?” This is the beginning of the book Love Story by Erich Segal, which I read for a class in college, and it’s probably the only thing about the book that I actually remember. Except that of course it tells you how the story’s going to end right at the beginning. Which is sometimes a good way to tell a story. Like say in the case of Slaughterhouse-Five where Kurt Vonnegut tells you a number of times that the scene of a guy getting shot for stealing a teapot after the bombing of Dresden is going to be the climax of the book and then of course when it finally happens it is completely anticlimactic. And that’s the point. The thing is, the story I’m trying to tell here is one I’ve been trying to tell for many years, but I never really knew the ending of it until just today, as a matter of fact, and its unexpected disappointment is maybe the best way to begin.

Sometime around seven this evening, my husband came into our living room to find me squinting at a frozen scene of a movie on our laptop. Hey, how’s it going? he said. Oh, fine, I answered, my face just inches away from the screen. And really I’d been staring at the screen for a long time. But the problem was, it wasn’t fine. There were lots of things to see in that particular scene, but not at all what I was looking for.

Now, if you know me, you probably know about my green leather jacket, which, as I like to tell it, was once an extra in a Woody Allen film. The story is that my friend Rachel (actress, trapeze artist, vaudeville performer) was an extra in the film “Celebrity” and she borrowed my jacket because she needed to look cool or maybe even artsy, since the scene she was going to be in was taking place in a screening room. It was a scene of people watching a movie and she was going to be in the audience. And so was my jacket.

The movie “Celebrity” came out in 1998, but the filming took place, I don’t know, sometime before that. Though I have had this jacket since 1994. I bought it on a sunny spring day from some bin at the Antique Boutique on Broadway. I had just broken up with my boyfriend (again) and I felt that this jacket represented my freedom somehow. Keep in mind that I was 24 years old. So this jacket has been with me forever, it feels like, and once it was even mailed back to me when I left it at my friend’s father’s house in Bronxville. It has seen the world. And presumably Woody Allen.

But for all these years, I never actually saw the movie. Why? Well, you can guess why. What if my jacket was in that screening room scene, but you couldn’t really see it? Rachel told me that she was either wearing the jacket or holding it folded on her lap. She wasn’t sure which moment actually made it into the movie. I’m not even sure Rachel saw the movie. And to be honest, we never really talked about it much. Now Rachel and her Australian husband and daughter are in (of all places) Australia and for some reason, all these years later, I decided that maybe it was just time to see the movie already. If I was going to keep on talking about my famous jacket, well, I should at least see how well it performed. You’d think.

So I should say right off that the film “Celebrity” is pretty much awful. I’m not sure why Kenneth Branagh was playing the Woody Allen role, but if you ever wanted to see someone else precisely impersonate Woody Allen, here’s your movie. But you know what? No one wants to see that. Except I guess Woody Allen. And when the Charlize Theron character refers to herself as polymorphously perverse, I realized depressingly that Woody Allen either no longer remembers his older movies or just loved that line from “Annie Hall” so much he figured he’d use it again. You know how whenever Woody Allen writes anything for The New Yorker it is so so not funny? This is the same guy.

Anyway. I watched about 35 minutes of the movie, cringing the entire time. “Do you want to go to a screening with me tonight?” says Joe Mantegna’s character to Judy Davis's character, finally. “Finally!” I thought.

And then there was the screening.

Now in my experience with actual movie screenings, the screening rooms are kind of small, and they’re never filled entirely. Which is what I expected. But in the scene of the screening in the movie, it was a packed room, full of all kinds of people, none of whom looked like Rachel. The problem with the film too is that it was in black and white and a green jacket was not going to jump out at you. But I took comfort in the fact that Rachel has very distinctive curly hair, which I was sure would jump out at me. But it didn’t. In fact, as I got to know very well the faces of the other extras, I realized that Rachel must have been so far in the back that her face (and hair) (and jacket) couldn’t possibly be seen, no matter how much I magnified the screen. (Note: I didn’t actually magnify the screen.)

And so I stopped watching the movie because really it was just so awful. Though for one fleeting moment, I wondered if there could be another screening later in the movie, prominently featuring my green jacket. But I then instantly realized that though it would have suited my purposes dramatically it wouldn’t have suited the movie’s purposes dramatically, and was highly unlikely. And yet. I seem to be leaving open the possibility here because I’m not quite ready for this story to end. I know that my jacket was in that room with Kenneth Branagh and Rachel and all the rest of them. That's how I have always begun this story. And that's how it's going to end too.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Funny Books You Should Be Reading

All right. So now for my grown-up book recommendations, which, you know, are just so obvious that I pretty much walk around with a list of them in my head. No, the exact opposite is true. Ask me on any specific day to recommend some books and I’ll probably think of ones I just read that were good or books from many years ago that I never forgot or something else. I thought it would be a good idea to write some down here, but it turns out that again the exact opposite is true. I don’t know where to begin. The following authors and books are all pretty much funny. That’s where I’m starting.

1. David Sedaris. You know how certain books and almost all music can become heartbreaking if you’re in the wrong state of mind? Well, if you’ve come to that, it’s time for some David Sedaris. He is the cure for what ails you. I wrote a letter to him once many years ago (It was so long ago that I actually looked up his address in a Manhattan phone book and mailed him an actual letter. And he wrote one back to me from France!). Anyway, the letter started out, Could you be the funniest person alive? And I still kind of feel that way. In case you’re not familiar with David Sedaris (is this possible?) he writes essays about his family and incidents from his life and pretty much whatever happens to occur to him. Any book is fine, really. But be careful not to read him on the subway unless you don't mind laughing uncontrollably in front of strangers.

2. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. Have you ever worked in an office? Then you will like, or rather love, this book. And even though the book is written in that potentially problematic first person plural (“we”) it works perfectly. See for yourself: “While waiting for Lynn to arrive, we killed time listening to Chris Yop tell us the story of Tom Mota's chair. We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy. We refilled our coffee mugs on floors we didn't belong on.” And did I mention that this book will make you truly laugh out loud? It’s one of those books that I think I need to read again, that is, whenever we unpack our 60 plus boxes of books.

3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. This book is about dead bodies and it’s hilarious. If I compare Mary Roach to David Sedaris, it’ll do you no good, but I’m afraid I’ll have to do just that. To be honest, this is the exact sort of book I think David Sedaris wished he wrote, what with his fascination with bizarre medical equipment and human oddities and such. Basically Mary Roach went around checking out what exactly happens to bodies after they are dead, whether they are simply fancied up at a funeral home or used for medical research. And her observations are really pretty great. For example: “The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had the occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan.” I mean, there is just so much here to love.

4. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. All right, fine. If you think I got this book mostly because of the title, you’d be correct. But can I describe this book without referring again to David Sedaris? Um. Let me just say that this is a collection of very very funny essays about Crosley's life as a twenty-something living in New York. Oh my god, that sounds totally awful, doesn’t it? Except it’s not! She is genuinely funny and her topics are mostly unexpected or at least unexpectedly good. And here’s what made me like her even more: she turned three of the essays in the book into little plexiglass dioramas that she posted on her website. I mean, jeez, what’s not to like?

And now for my next post, I plan to write about the saddest books ever!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Particular List in No Particular Order

During the summers when I was home from college I used to work at that big B. Dalton bookstore on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, which is now a Barnes & Noble, for what that’s worth. Every now and then (far less frequently than you’d imagine) some customer would come up to me and say, You probably hate this, but could you recommend a book to me? And I’d look at them like they were insane, like they really believed that I much preferred to spend my time taking books out of boxes over and over again, putting them on shelves which I’d have to rearrange anyway because someone was always messing with the alphabetical order. (What’s with those Mc authors? We all had differing thoughts on this. Do they get filed before the M’s or just alphabetically after Mb and before Md, if such combinations existed, but you get the point? And then there was always my snooty coworker who insisted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez be filed under “G” because technically his last name was really Garcia and too bad if the customers didn’t know that!) Anyway. My answer always was, Oh, no, I don’t mind at all! And then I’d give them way way way too many choices, too much information, and kind of overwhelm them with lots and lots of book ideas. I think I actually helped people only sometimes.

But now I’m thinking, what with it being the holiday season and all, I might just give some book recommendations right here. You know, for the best books ever!! You don’t think I’ve narrowed it down? Oh, I’ve narrowed it down all right. Just you wait.

However. Since this is such a daunting task, I’m going to start with children’s books, which are a little easier to narrow down. And I guess I’m really talking about chapter books since if I included picture books, well, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop writing. And so. These are chapter books that have been read aloud in our house and then read by one or both of my daughters by themselves. I dare not approach the YA books just yet.

1. The Neddiad: How Neddie took the train, went to Hollywood, and saved civilization by Daniel Pinkwater. Do you know who Daniel Pinkwater is? Because really. He’s only written about a million books! According to Neil Gaiman, he is the “best secret writer in the world.” True. Pinkwater has a particularly absurd sense of humor that I love (“La Brea” in Spanish means “the tar,” so “the La Brea Tar Pits” means "the the tar tar pits.”) and his books are always crazy and science fictiony and often involve chickens and New Jersey. You will not be sorry.

2. Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. Now, don’t get me wrong. Every single book written by Eleanor Estes is pretty much perfect. But this one might have to be my favorite. It’s set in the 1910s or so, around the time of her Moffat books, which are also wonderful. The story itself is great, how Jerry Pye buys his dog Ginger for a dollar and how this “intellectual dog” becomes famous around town and is then stolen and eventually found nearly a year later after a series of clues lead Jerry and his sister Rachel to him. But really, for me, it’s just the way Eleanor Estes writes. Just the details she includes that actually make you stop reading and think, man, that is terrific. You just can’t go wrong here.

3. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. First of all, a book set in New York City in the 1970s and also involving time travel?? What, did someone steal my list of perfect book ideas? As a kid I was always so thrilled to find a book set in New York City (see: Paul Zindel) because I could actually relate to at least some of it. But honestly you can read this book and not get any of the New York references and still love it. However, it might be a little challenging for some, only because the time travel part of it is tricky, but see, this is why adults need to read it too (twice maybe) to help with the explaining and because it’s just so excellent.

4. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Holy cow, this book is great. Callie Vee is an almost twelve-year-old girl living in Texas in the hot hot summer of 1899 when the book begins. She’s got six brothers, but more importantly a grandfather that introduces her to the study of nature and science and things that girls her age are not supposed to have any interest in. The language in this book, a little fanciful at times, is nevertheless so right on, that it is a pleasure to read.

5. I don’t need to mention Harry Potter, right? I mean, you already know those are fantastic books. Or all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? Yeah, I figured.

6. The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. Really, the title says it all. The four sisters in question spend the summer in the Berkshires with their (widowed) father and have wonderful adventures with a very interesting boy. Here, just check it out: “When our story begins, Batty is still only four years old. Rosalind is twelve, Skye eleven, and Jane ten. They’re in their car with Mr. Penderwick and Hound. The family is on the way to Arundel and, unfortunately, they’re lost.”

7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. What’s surprising about this book is how funny it really is. I’ll admit that I cannot resist anything remotely comic-book-like, but when I picked it up I had only planned to skim through it instead of reading the entire book in one sitting (or lying) on the couch, actually laughing out loud. I think there are now four books in this series. All of them funny.

8. Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers. This book, published in 1972, is also set in New York City, which thrilled me as a kid, and maybe you know about the movie that starred Jodie Foster a long time ago, but really, it’s the book you want. The character of 13-year-old Annabel Andrews is so totally wise and snotty in just the right way. One morning she wakes up in her mother’s body and spends the day having what you might call adventures, which are really pretty hilarious. And actually the sequel, A Billion for Boris, is probably even better since it covers more than a single day, involves a TV set that foretells the future, and includes one scene in which Annabel and her friend go to a vintage clothing store in the Village. How I loved that book!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

I Never Read That Movie

This is not going to be a major revelation here, but if you read a book and then see the movie made about that book you will not like it. It’s just not possible. Doesn’t this make total sense? Forget about the fact that you can only picture the characters exactly as you envisioned them and likely Julia Roberts was not one of them. The main thing is you already know the entire story. You know how it ends. There are no surprises here.

I’m trying to think of the last movie I saw that was from a book I read and I just can’t because I just can’t do it. There were fantastic movies that were made from books that I never read, including, off the top of my head, “Fight Club,” “Clockers,” and “L.A. Confidential.” But what if I’d read the books? Would anyone really want to see “Fight Club” knowing how it would end? I won’t reveal the ending here, but trust me, you wouldn’t. Except there are those people, well, you know, everyone really, who rush out to read the book precisely so that they can then see the movie. But why? These are the very same people who will tell you that they liked the book better. Exactly.

The exception to this, as everyone knows, is A Clockwork Orange, which is just as perfect a book as it is a movie and I read and saw both about a million times each. But hang on, could I be talking about the exception that proves the rule? Let me digress for a moment. Okay, so you have the rule: movies made from books are never as good as the books. Then you have the exception: A Clockwork Orange. Now, how does this prove the rule? It proves that the rule is not a rule because there is an exception. It is the exception that disproves the rule. Is what I think! Except that if you google this expression, you’ll find a reasonable explanation that points out the origin of this legal saying that came from the Latin Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis. So fine. What’s it going be then, eh?

There was me, writing about books and movies. So. What happens if you see the movie first and then read the book? This tends to work out pretty well and I’m not sure why. But to be clear I am not, repeat not, talking about those books made from Star Wars screenplays or movie tie-in books. I just mean the regular old book, though sometimes reading one of those can make you feel sheepish because the new edition of the book has a scene from the movie on the cover instead of the normal cover and it looks to everyone like you just bought the book because everyone was talking about the movie, which you did, but whatever. I’d probably read Fight Club is what I’m getting at.

This is all on my mind because a certain person in my household has taken it upon himself to methodically watch all the movies he missed since January 2001, which coincidentally was just after our older daughter was born. I believe he is now up to February 2001. When I mention us watching movies that came out, oh, I don’t know, last year, his response is, “Oh, we’ll get to it…eventually.” But luckily he tends to agree with me about movies made out of books. Which means that this new, er, long-term project will go just ever so slightly faster. Meanwhile, I’m just going to keep on reading what I’ve got here and pretend not to notice that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” is playing just down the block.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reading Without Actually Reading

Whenever we visit my father and stepmother I always think I’m going to get some reading done. And so I will bring a book and at least one or two New Yorkers that I am, as always, in the middle of reading. But this is just false optimism on my part. What inevitably happens is that I will gather up a huge stack of my stepmother’s past issues of Martha Stewart’s Living magazine and then I will spend the entire weekend flipping through them, but not exactly reading them.

Those magazines are bewitching. They are as bewitching as Seventeen magazine was for me when I was a young girl. It’s kind of like, here are people about my age but they are nothing like me at all. Not even remotely. And they all look so fancy! And there’s always the feature article where it’s like some family just happens to be hosting this fantastic dinner party either out on their fabulous back porch with gorgeously placed lighting or inside their regular old dining room with a stunning hand-planed oak farm table and they just happened to invite the camera crew from Living magazine along. Or maybe I’m not actually getting something about this. Maybe this is exactly what happens? Either way, I find myself flipping through those pages again and again.

Which is also what happens whenever the new Cook’s Illustrated arrives in the mail. Ever since we made our very first recipe from the magazine, salmon cakes I believe it was sometime in 1998, we have been subscribers. And if you’ve ever had dinner at our house, well, at least some of it came from some issue of Cook’s. You know that triple mousse cake? Exactly. But anyhow, whenever we get it in the mail, I usually flip through it over and over again, while giving a running narrative of pretty much everything to my husband, who is almost always otherwise engaged. Something like: Ooh, look, I can make this chocolate raspberry torte! But wait, they actually call it a showpiece. Why are they calling it a showpiece? It has to look that pretty? I guess I can't make it. Oh, but wait, here is another recipe for sugar cookies, even though they already have a perfectly good sugar cookie recipe. But this time they are adding cream cheese. They are running out of ideas, I think. And look, look at these mashed potatoes. Let's make these tonight! Etc.

And that I don't think counts as reading as just more of that frenetic flipping through pages thing, which I seem to have perfected over the years. And is also what I do with any set of complicated directions, like for a digital camera, say. I think if you flip through something long enough the information will somehow make it into your brain through a kind of osmosis, thereby sparing you the necessity of actually reading the overwhelmingly detailed and wordy words on the page.

Thus allowing you time for things you really want to be reading, which might actually be The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and whatever's in the latest New Yorker.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Color Special

When I was in first grade, there was a book in the library that I wanted to take out for weeks and weeks, but someone was always beating me to it. I remember the cover of that book so vividly I could probably draw it now from memory. The book I wanted so desperately was called, I believe, The Big Red Rock Eater Joke Book, which included the joke, “What’s big and red and eats rocks? A big, red rock eater.” This book also had the joke about firemen wearing red suspenders and what happened when you threw a white hat into the Red Sea. I mean, we are talking the absolute introduction to jokes of any kind. It is even possible to conclude that before I got this book I had never heard about the chicken crossing the road. It’s hard to believe that there really was a first time that we ever heard those jokes, and yet there must have been. But the part I also remember is that when I finally got to take the book out of the library and read those simple jokes over and over there was this vague disappointment that I couldn’t quite figure out. Was the book just not what it was cracked up to be? Was I already becoming jaded by the world’s oldest jokes?

Somehow that brings me to comic books. I suppose it’s because comic books are so rarely comic, much like jokes. But that doesn’t make them wrong. It was just my luck that the father of one of my best friends growing up owned a candy store in our neighborhood. This was back when you could get pretty much anything in a New York City candy store, including egg creams, but most especially comic books. And my friend got pretty much every comic her dad had in the store, and as a result, had boxes and boxes of them in her room. There were comics in those boxes that we read over and over again and comics we probably never got to. Now it’s quite possible that she had superhero comics, but we never got to those. It was the Archie comics that we spent hours poring over (and the occasional Richie Rich). I hardly remember any of the storylines, but every girl I knew liked Betty better than Veronica. The stories were all so outdated and so completely removed from our lives. And yet they appealed.

Which brings me to my own daughters’ fanatical love of Little Lulu comics, which we have lots of and in book form. The other night when we were eating spaghetti, my younger daughter said, You know, once Tubby ate an entire plate of spaghetti in one bite! And I found myself laughing not exactly because of what Tubby did, but simply because we all know who Tubby is.

It turns out that the very first Little Lulu comic strip appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1935. They went on for years and years and then stopped. And then in 2004, Dark Horse Comics began reprinting Little Lulu comics in book form. And a couple years after that, one of my dearest friends happened to give us a book of Little Lulu comics and that was how it all started.

You don’t need to know too much about Little Lulu to see why the books appeal so much. Lulu is pretty damn clever and she and Tubby are always solving mysteries in the neighborhood. Or when Tubby’s being a jerk with all the other neighborhood fellers in their clubhouse, Lulu enlists Annie to help get back at them. Do my girls laugh at these comics? Hardly ever. But have they read them so often that there are loose pages floating all over our house? Absolutely. And all of this was not just to say that I'm thrilled that my kids are reading. The thing is, I'm thrilled that they're reading comics.

A few minutes later...
My younger daughter: Did you know that Lulu and Tubby could get ice cream every single day? It only cost a dime!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where Are All These Books Going, Where Have They Been?

We have moved. And as my older daughter said, Wow, it feels like we're living in a hotel! Well, sure, if it's the kind of hotel that has exposed lathing in the walls, plaster dust on the floor, and no doors on any of the rooms! I did not say. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I wouldn't want to stay in a hotel like that. It's just that I've never seen one like that.

Really, the thing is that we still have a lot of things in boxes. And at this point in time, the majority of boxes still unpacked contain all of our books.

Now a bunch of years ago, a guy named Bill Gates (famous only around here due to a distant cousin who murdered his entire family) made some very nice built-in bookshelves for our office. Then we moved and Bill Gates built us more bookshelves. And Bill Gates, if you’re reading this, sometime soon we’re going to need some new bookshelves at our new, um, hotel.

But back when we had those beautiful shelves, we put all our books on them and then spent lots of time admiring them. The books were arranged mostly alphabetically by author, which surprised many visitors to our office. I can’t believe you actually alphabetize your books! people would say, as though we did something completely unheard of. Sometimes my husband would explain that he had really wanted to arrange them by their Library of Congress numbers (true), but sometimes he would not.

And yet the way they were mostly alphabetical is that we had a whole bunch of books that we had no idea how to arrange and so they took up their own shelves: books about beer, travel books, books about building bat houses and tapping maple syrup and raising chickens and making your own soap, etc. And then we had a bunch of shelves devoted to literary journals, which once we read during a brief window of our lives.

And now they’re all packed up in numbered boxes (naturally) and I have to say that I don’t exactly miss them. And I wonder why we have so many of them. I mean, it’s a nice thing to look at all the books you’ve read, books by a favorite author, say, or a book you might have completely forgotten about, until you happen to notice it on a shelf. But in another way, since I don’t tend to reread books all that often, those particular books aren’t really being used anymore. It’s not like our records (also boxed up in numbered boxes), which get used over and over again. The books are there, I suppose, for our kids to read someday, and for our friends to borrow. And to admire, as I do sometimes, since they really do look so pretty on those shelves. I suppose you can think of them like photographs (also boxed up, but who knows where) that capture a moment in time, the moment in your life that you were reading the book.

It took my older daughter some time to understand that books are printed in editions, so that a book we had that was first published in 1922 was not the actual book that was printed in 1922. And maybe it both is and isn’t important to have the exact copy of the book you read. But just seeing that span of books on the shelves, mostly alphabetical, and extremely patient, makes you remember your reading life. So that is probably a good enough reason to keep building bookshelves. And putting your books back up on them.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Just as you should never really judge a book by its cover (though of course we all do) you should also never judge a book by its title (though again: of course). I do know for a fact that there is a book out that discusses the original titles of books before they were changed into famous book titles, such as Trimalchio in West Egg being the original title for The Great Gatsby. How I know this is that the author of this book was a guest on that public radio show in New York City I once worked for. This was at a time when books like this really were able to be published with ease. And the book actually had a publicity team behind it.

Anyway. One of the absolute best titles of a book I can think of (which is also an excellent book) is Alice Mattison's book of intersecting stories called Men Giving Money, Women Yelling. I mean, jeez, you practically don't even have to read the book. You can buy it and just admire that title every single time you look at the cover. Some titles, like Infinite Jest, for example, sound cool and seem important. Or then there are titles like Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and even Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which are wordy and evocative. In that category there is, of course, Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet Please?, which is a title that is very pleasing to say.

I find that one-word book titles don't really say enough, even though for bands that seems to be a fine way to go. The following are all good books, but they sound so ordinary: Jazz, Away, Intuition, Middlesex. The exception to this is Mary Roach's Stiff, a hilarious book about human cadavers.

There may actually be books that I have not read simply due to their titles, but I can't come up with any now. Well, here's one: Thermodynamics and an Introduction to Thermostatistics.

Whenever I think about writing a book, I actually like to think about the title most of all. I mean, then you’d just have to write the book, right? I’ve come up with Someone Else’s Weekend (there's nothing wrong with using a song lyric as a title, right, Brett Easton Ellis?), but as of yet I have not written that particular book. Somehow the title is almost too good for what I've been planning to write. It's getting me way too distracted. As far as I’m concerned, that particular title is up for grabs.

* The original title of Catch-22

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Your One Wild and Precious Life

Last night my younger daughter asked me at dinner, Could you talk to us about something interesting? Like what? I asked. Time travel, she said.

Now this, like the macabre, is a topic of interest in our house, mostly fueled by my once mentioning the book Time and Again by Jack Finney, which I read I think in high school. I'm not sure it's a great book, but the premise of it has captured my interest for years and years. Basically a guy is involved in this secret government project that involves sending people back into the past. Due to a kind of unrelated mystery the guy asks to be sent back to New York City in 1882. In the present, the guy rents an apartment in the Dakota, an apartment that was apparently empty back in 1882. He will be traveling back in time, but staying in the same space. At this point, I need to point out two things. The Dakota was not completed until 1884, but apparently Jack Finney really wanted the Dakota to feature in his book. The other thing is the ease with which the guy was able to rent an apartment in the Dakota. The book was published in 1970, which, as many may recall, was not a fine time for New York City. Back then, you really could, as I know one couple that did, even buy an apartment in the Dakota for cheap. Anyway.

The part of the story that captured my imagination the most is the fact that every time this guy goes into the past and then returns to the present he is questioned for hours to see if any of his activities in the past changed anything in the present. The idea of this is fascinating. Just the smallest thing, simply asking a stranger for the time, say, could literally change history. Which ends up happening at the end of the book, if you'll forgive me for revealing it. And my girls and I have spent lots of time talking about small, seemingly minor incidents that happened in our lives that if changed would have had enormous consequences. Which has always been my way of telling them to pay attention to things. As Mary Oliver says in her perfect poem "The Summer Day": "I don't know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention."

And so, our time travel discussion.

I think I'd want to go back into the past, I said. Maybe like Max's Kansas City in the early 1970s, I suggested, to which my husband nodded appreciatively. Then seeing the look on my girls' faces I said, Or how about visiting Laura Ingalls as a little girl? But not in the winter, of course, I added hastily. (To find out why, all you need to do is read her book The Long Winter. Note: it's all in the title.) The summer would be much better! Oh, I wouldn't want to be there in the summer, said my older daughter. Because they had to wear all those petticoats and it would be so hot! We agreed that the fall or spring would probably be the best time to go. But not the spring where they're still having blizzards, you know, I pointed out. Maybe like June.

But thinking about it now, I don't think we'd even be able to talk to Laura if we saw her because what if something we said caused her never to write those books we are all crazy about? It seems to me that even time travel would have to be about simply paying attention, kind of the way I am doing now on this summer day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

For Hilary, With Love and Squalor

Last night, driving home from our friends' house, it became obvious to me again that my daughters (ages 6 and 9) seem to share my fascination with the macabre. (Actually the last thing our friend told us as we left his house was a story about a guy he knew whose nail gun accidentally shot a nail directly into his stomach. It was the kind of story that I love hearing and then kind of wish I hadn't.)

Anyway, at one point during the car ride my older daughter asked if you could ever lose the ability to speak, and I explained about brain injuries that might make this possible. And then my younger daughter said, in this very serious way she has, Or like that story you told us. About that guy who got totally different after something went through his head. And I immediately remembered having one night at dinner brought up the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker, who, as a result of an explosion in 1848, ended up having an iron pole shoot straight through his brain and how, afterward, his entire personality changed. This story is interesting for two reasons because first, doctors studied him to learn how different parts of the brain correspond to different parts of human behavior, and second, a couple of years ago a man in a very old photograph was identified as Phineas Gage, ridiculously handsome, even with only one eye, holding the pole that had shot through his brain. But what kind of impressed me most was how vividly my girls remembered this story and how much time we have spent talking about it.

Which reminds me of these books my friend Hilary and I read obsessively the summer between seventh and eighth grade, on long bus rides to and from our Teen Travel day camp. I think the books were called Strange Unsolved Mysteries and More Strange Unsolved Mysteries, but I could be wrong about that. No doubt they are long out of print. These weren't so much mysteries as completely off-the-wall stories disguised as real mysteries. There were stories about small mysterious creatures that lived in people's walls and talked to them ("It Called Itself 'Gef'") or about dead people who came to life for a brief time in order to get things done. (I can't recall the title of this one, but basically a very pale boy goes to work on this woman's farm to earn money for his family, and each time he shows up for work he seems sicker and thinner until the woman finally feeds him a big meal, which causes him never to return. Soon after the woman is visited by the boy's mother who tells her that the boy died last year, but she called him back to earn some money for the family. The farm woman had fed him a salty meal, which as we all know causes you to remember where you came from, which in his case was a grave. We always buy unsalted butter as a result of this knowledge.)

So Hilary and I read these books over and over, passing them back and forth, exactly the same way my girls currently read Little Lulu comic books (more on this another time). The thing about these books is that they were really really creepy. But you simply couldn't put them down. I know that most girls our age were reading books like Forever, which we read too, but these unsolved mystery books spoke more to our sensibilities at this age, I think. Because when you are between seventh and eighth grade, really, what books can you relate to more than those about people who don't exactly fit in, like the, er, undead.

And I am certain that somewhere in Hilary's mother's apartment in Riverdale those books are still there, waiting. Just simply waiting for our own daughters to be old enough to read them.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

It is August

So it's summertime, which usually means that people are reading a lot more now, and I understand why, but in my case it's just the reverse. When it's winter there is nothing more I want to do than sit (huddled, really) in front of my wood stove and read and read in the hours of darkness that are the upstate New York winter. When it's summer I lose all ability to focus on anything more than the stray New Yorker article, which ultimately never gets finished anyway. I'm always bringing things with me to read wherever I go, but summer is just so distracting that I just can't get any reading done. Recently I took my daughters to a lake and brought with me some printed pages of stories from my writing group, plus a David Sedaris book, which is one of the few things I can read any time of year. There was an older couple nearby who ended up moving a lot closer to me to get out of the sun and they seemed very interested in what I was reading. So interested that the man eventually asked me if I was a scientist since I seemed to be reading something so serious looking. The David Sedaris book had an X-ray of a skull on the cover, which I thought they were referring to, and so I proceeded to explain that he was, in fact, an essayist and a hilarious one at that. But no, the man said, those pages you were reading. Yes, said his (presumed) wife. It looks like you are reading very serious material. Oh, that's just stuff from my writing group, I told them, and explained how we meet twice a month and critique each other's stories. So, the man said, smiling, you want to be a writer! I am a writer, I snapped, probably unfairly. There was more to this conversation, but my point here is that had I been reading perhaps a Dan Brown book I probably would have been left alone.

But this brings me to another point, which is that I am fascinated by what other people are reading all the time. If I see someone anywhere with a book, I feel like it's my right to know what they are reading, and I will go out of my way just to see the cover. And then, sometimes, I will even try to talk to that person about the book they are reading, especially if I have read it myself. This does not always go well. But then, see, I rarely feel like talking about what I'm reading when questioned about it because usually I don't feel like talking and would just like to keep, um, reading, which is exactly what I never think of when I start talking to other people who are reading. Once, many years ago, I was reading Don DeLillo's White Noise on the subway and a woman across from me smiled and said, Now Don DeLillo. He's a real writer. I smiled back and said, Yes, he really is. But usually it's not like that at all. It's more like, Oh, I saw that book once. What's it about? which I never know how to answer because most books aren't really "about" something. Or at least something you can sum up in a sentence or two. What is White Noise about exactly? Well, there's this guy who's a professor, but then there's all these toxic chemicals released into the air, and then. I really am not very good at this.

So when I see someone reading a book, I will comment if I've read the book before, and I will usually say something like, Oh, isn't that book so great? And I find myself quite surprised when people don't automatically want to engage in a long, long discussion with me involving what made the book so great, and what they thought about that previous book the author wrote, and the fact that the author actually grew up in Baltimore but now lives in Brooklyn and etc. etc. Because the thing that never occurs to me, until maybe right this moment, is that the person in question almost always wants to just keep on, um, reading. Which is pretty much what I always want to keep doing. Unless it's a hot summer day, of course. And there's a lake nearby.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Problem with Gary Shteyngart

I don't think he's funny at all. At all.

ETA: Here I am being so self righteous. And so wrong!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nothing Lasts Forever

Sidney Sheldon, the world's most translatable author, died in 2007. I discovered him as a young adult, but my secret compulsion to read him did not quite end there. Once, in my 20s, while temping and snooping around, I discovered a Sidney Sheldon novel in my desk. That was all it took. I began to read it first at my desk, and then since I couldn't stop, under my desk, completely consumed. I could do nothing else but read that book. But that's pretty much what Sidney Sheldon's novels are like. It's not like you even have a choice really. Even his New York Times obituary had this to say: "Though most critics were united in their dismissal of Mr. Sheldon, a few conceded, grudgingly, that his work could be hard to put down." Well, yes, and as the man himself claimed in a 1982 interview: "I try to write my books so the reader can't put them down."

All right. So on this many agree. You can't put a Sidney Sheldon novel down. But why pick one up in the first place? Well, you certainly didn't read his books for their exquisitely crafted sentences. I mean, here's a nice example from Rage of Angels: "She sat ramrod straight, as though bracing herself against unseen ghosts of the past." Exactly. But at the same time who could resist the plot twists of his incredibly unrealistic but extremely satisfying stories of revenge. To generalize: his novels featured a young woman from a sad but hopeful background who struggled her way to the top. By the time she was an adult she was rich and beautiful and had an enviable life. Of course, you could read something like that anywhere. But no, that wasn't the whole story. You see, somewhere along the way, somehow in her life, this woman was wronged. Usually she was wronged by men who had taken advantage of her youth and innocence. It doesn't matter how or why this happened. Once this woman had made her way to the top, she spent the rest of her life tracking down and ruining the lives of anyone who had wronged her. And that was the satisfaction.

Sometimes it would take years for the revenge to take place. The woman would reacquaint herself with the person or people who had wronged her. Of course, now as a rich glamorous woman, she was completely unrecognizable from the poor waif she had once been. Amazingly, and in every novel, no one would ever remember having met this woman before. Which was perfect! She could just take her time, perhaps even allow some man to fall in love with her...and then strike! Revenge could take a number of forms: running a successful business into the ground, destroying a blissfully happy marriage, or sometimes it was just death. I still cannot forget the image of a woman casually tossing a blow dryer into a bathtub, where her unfortunate soon-to-be-electrocuted lover was bathing. This vivid scene taught me, at the age of 12, exactly how water and electricity do not mix.

I suppose what I learned from Sidney Sheldon is that life should not really be like a Sidney Sheldon novel. Spending your time obsessed with payback, though tempting, is probably not the best way to go about your days. And who really has the fortitude to build up a vast empire only to bring it down yourself in a glorious blaze of revenge? I confess that I probably couldn't manage this, no matter how ruthlessly I tried. And to be honest, it's not that I really liked Sidney Sheldon's books, so much as I am glad that I read them. Or rather couldn't help but read them. Or whatever it was that kept me turning the pages until I found that suddenly there were no more left to read.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reading The New Yorker

If you read The New Yorker, that is, if you subscribe to it, then you most likely have the same love/hate relationship with it that I do. I'm not talking about the actual content, though there is that too. I'm talking about the strategy you have to employ so that you actually manage to read each one, while also reading books, while also not letting too many pile up alarmingly in your house, thereby forcing you to throw out the whole stack and start again.

I once worked with a woman who let her New Yorkers pile up and pile up and she would get around to them eventually, but she never seemed to mind that she might have ten of them sitting around at one time. Strangely she was a producer for a WNYC radio show that involved talking to tons of writers who actually appeared in The New Yorker and you'd think she'd have wanted to be a bit more on top of things. (One of the best moments of that job was hearing her on the phone say, "Oh, Spalding, could you hold on a second?") But anyhow, when I asked her if she minded that she had six-month-old New Yorkers just sitting in a stack in her apartment, she would say cheerfully, "Not at all. I'll get to them eventually." Such optimism she had.

When I lived in New York City, The New Yorker was perfect for the subway. After a couple of days the type would be all blurred and the pages all crumpled, but who cared! You just threw it out, since the next one would be arriving any minute. But then, when I turned 30, two things happened to make my New Yorker reading something of a challenge. One, we moved out of the city to a place where transportation was no longer a passive activity, allowing for leisurely reading, but rather one in which you actually had to pay attention. Two, we had a child.

So the magazines would come, as relentlessly as always, and I found that, on the one hand, they were sort of the perfect thing to read since a novel involved too much commitment at such an intense point of my life, but on the other hand, not surprisingly, I didn't really have the same amount of time for reading any more. In a way, the story of my life (from, say, age 26 on) could be told by just counting the number of New Yorkers in my house. Before the age of 30, you would only find a single one in my house at any point in time. In fact, sometimes there might not be any at all, if I'd managed to finish one before the next one arrived! But by the time my first daughter was born you might suddenly notice the appearance of two in the house, if not more, all turned to somewhere in the middle of an article, with the best of intentions that they'd get finished and thrown out finally. (Note: When I say "thrown out" I really mean "recycled." I don't mean to worry anyone.)

I managed to find a way to make reading The New Yorker easier, however. When my daughter took naps, I pushed her in a stroller while simultaneously reading the magazine. I do tend to like doing two things at once, and believe it or not, it was not at all hard to do. I'm sure I was known around town as that woman who pushes a stroller while reading every day, but I hardly cared. I was really on to something. In fact, my love for the author Alice Mattison began the moment I read the first line of her book The Book Borrower: "Though she was pushing a baby carriage, Toby Ruben began to read a book." This practically sent chills up my spine. Someone who understood!

There was also the problem of not being able to read any books while trying to keep up with The New Yorkers. I'm a fast reader, but come on. I was always relieved when one of those double issues would arrive during the summer or around Christmas. "Now I can read some books!" I'd think excitedly.

But then maybe in the past year or so, though, I started doing something that I really found luxurious: I allowed myself to read only the articles that truly interested me. Always the fiction and then maybe one or two others. And then? I'd just recycle the magazine and move on. I am free!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

No Boats or Sailing or Fishing, with an Exception for William Steig

This is curious. For as long as I can remember I've had what you might call a complete lack of interest in reading about anything to do with boats, or sailing, or fishing, or the like. Maybe the term "lack of interest" isn't quite right. If I'm reading something and I discover that it happens to be set on a boat or that sailing or something is involved, I find that I am instantly not interested and have to stop reading. There's no longer even a question about finishing it. I just sigh and think, "Well, this might be a great story, but I'll never know." I'd like to think that maybe this has something to do with reading too much John McPhee, but really I don't have an explanation for it, and so I have simply accepted this admitted failing of mine. I can't say this exactly translates into real life. I love water and swimming and don't even mind boats. But recently my younger daughter was reading aloud to me from Stuart Little, one of the loveliest children's books of all time, and when she got to the sailboat race in Central Park, I became absolutely antsy for her to finish it. I was tempted to ask if she'd like to skip that chapter, but for some reason she found the description of the boat race "exciting" even with its constant repetition of the terms "fore" and "aft" and all the rest of that.

But then this brings me to one of the most perfect children's books ever written and nearly all of it is set, if not on a boat, at least mostly in the water. This would be Amos & Boris by William Steig.

Now in the years and years that I spent reading picture books to my girls, I often made my preferences pretty clear, which resulted in statements like, "Not Frances again, Mommy!" or "No, I'm sorry, I refuse to read from the Encyclopedia of Horses one more time." But we could all always agree on William Steig. First of all, if you've read anything by William Steig you pretty much have to love him. His books have lines like, "Spinky had to cover his ears to avoid listening to this malarky" and "You worm, you odoriferous wretch!" They are always hilarious like this, but also beautiful at the same time. His characters are never afraid to show their unadulterated love for each other.

So Amos & Boris. Amos, a mouse, builds a boat to explore the ocean. He sets off thrillingly and it is only because of his sheer joy at looking at the overwhelming beauty of the night sky that he accidentally rolls off his boat, which floats away forever. Now Amos is swimming desperately, thinking all sorts of awful questions about drowning, when Boris, a whale, appears and saves Amos's life. "Holy clam and cuttlefish!" exclaims Boris upon seeing Amos, which is exactly the sort of thing a whale would say. Boris is on his way to the Ivory Coast to attend a meeting of whales from all the seven seas (a detail that I have always loved for some reason) but agrees to bring Amos home. Amos and Boris become fast friends: "They told each other about their lives, their ambitions." Of course, parting is ultimately heartbreaking, and they promise to be friends forever. But then "many years after the incidents just described" a terrible hurricane flings Boris out of the ocean and onto shore right near Amos's home. Amos comes to the beach and sees Boris lying on the shore and "I don't have to tell you how these old friends felt at meeting again in this desperate situation." Quick-thinking Amos rushes off and gets two elephants to roll Boris back into the ocean. Boris is saved! Then in tears, the two friends look at each other: "They knew they might never meet again. They knew they would never forget each other." I mean, really, it doesn't get much better than this.

And so, because of the great William Steig, I have read through what you might call a "boating story" over and over again. However, I have a completely legitimate excuse never to read Moby Dick.

Quickly and Slowly, An Introduction

The title of this blog comes from the last line of Seymour, An Introduction and I figure that's a pretty good place to start. With Salinger, that is. Because right here is where I plan to write about reading, not even so much books, but really whatever I'm reading. I'm just going to be writing about reading, if you follow.

It all started like this. Just two days ago, I was walking down the street with an Encyclopedia Brown book in my hand, when it occurred to me that I had a whole lot of thoughts about every single book I have read or even glanced through. And being the compulsive writer that I am (and having very little actual paying writing work these days) I thought I might write freely (note use of the word freely) about things that I was reading. Or even walking around with. Like, for instance, Encyclopedia Brown. How I greedily read through those books as a kid! And here I watch as my daughters (ages 6 and 9) read them just as greedily. Observe as Encyclopedia Brown solves the mystery of the egg spinning contest in which one of the eggs (the winner) was actually hard-boiled and Encyclopedia figured this out by realizing that when the guy behind the counter said "Let me sweep up this mess" instead of "Let me mop up this mess" the egg in question was not raw! (This, by the way, is the one Encyclopedia Brown story I have carried with me into adulthood, even though as those stories go, there were plenty of, er, racier ones.) You can see the appeal though, right? A smart-ass kid, called "Encyclopedia" because he's so brainy, is actually respected for his intellect, even by adults! And weirdly, even glancing through the book as an adult, I find myself wondering, "How did Encyclopedia know?" (turn to page 54 to find out)

But back to this quickly and slowly business. That's pretty much how my life goes. My instincts are always to go quickly. For instance, I read in this kind of freakishly fast way that may actually be a kind of speed-reading I taught myself as a kid when reading at a normal rate was not fast enough. I walk quickly too. And I always try to do at least two things at once (walking and reading is one example). But I have been shown that slowly, when slowly means consciously or thoughtfully, is actually the better way. And yet still I try to do both at once, especially when I'm reading. Maybe this is okay. Like I will sometimes fly through a first chapter and then go back and read it again. Once, in the case of Susan Minot's Rapture, I read the book and then immediately read it again. It's a short little book. It's not her best book, but it's good. And then there are the books I must have read a dozen times, like all of Salinger's books, which brings us back to how I started this post. And this is how it ends: "Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly."