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!!