Fops, orphans, and a mannish lady lawyer, Part I Monday, Sep 29 2008 


I checked this book out from the library because the back of the book promised a “mannish lady lawyer” named Sally Brass.  Awesome, right? I feel like Dickens exercised a lot of self-restraint in not naming her “Sally Brass Balls” or something.  And since she is kind of a literary mentor for me, obviously, it’s good to know that a lady’s practice of law leads to messy hair (check), spinsterdom and all manner of unfeminine behavior.  Good to know.  

The back of the book also refers, somewhat apologetically, to the “sentimentality” and “pathos” in its portrayal of the usual angelic orphans, which is semi-ludicrous…I think sentimentality and pathos, along with angelic orphans, mannish lady lawyers, gambling addicts, etc etc, are really what you want from a Dickens novel. What did the back of the book expect, Hemingway? 

This book is also notable for the character of Quilp, a malevolent, wife-beating (or just verbal abuser? it’s unclear), evil mastermind of a moneylender who also happens to be a dwarf (stay klassy, Dickens!) and likes to perch on the backs of chairs, rubbing his hands together and laughing evilly over other peoples’ financial ruin.

So, yeah, I like this book so far, but am only halfway through.  To be continued.


Mysterious strangers and flesh-eating evangelicals Sunday, Sep 7 2008 

There is a new(ish) Tales of the City book, & I’m trying to get caught up before I read it.  I got a few pages into this one and realized that I’d already read it but no matter; it’s always a pleasure to spend a few bus rides with Mr. Armistead Maupin.  

Now, all of the Tales books are a little on the soap opera-ish side and I do treasure that about them, but this was even a little more campy than most, what with Michael developing some kind of paralysis that reminded me of the unpronouncable fake illness that plagued Pamela on Dallas, amnesia, mysteriously appearing and disappearing relatives, and so on.  


Actually, now that I think of it, that is all par for the course with these books (I just remembered the one where Jim Jones turns out to be alive and living in Golden Gate Park, and then gets murdered and buried in someone’s backyard), and I love it.  

Another thing this book has going for it: the appearance of punk rock kids! Including some sort of punk rock hired assassin 14-year-old named Douchebag, who likes to stick bubble gum up her nose.  Ah, the gritty realism.

These books rule. Now, in the spirit of maudlin twists of fate and paeans to a city from long ago, I am reading some Dickens.

Absurdistan is so hot right now. Sunday, Mar 9 2008 

I loved his earlier work, A Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and one of the best jokes in this book is the irritating rival, Gary Schteynfarb, and his much ballyhooed debut novel, A Russian Arriviste’s Handjob.

Handbook was so hilarious because of his incredibly accurate rendering of every detail of pampered academic life and pampered hipster in New York life,etc. There is definitely a little of this in Absurdistan (notably when he gets hilariously nostalgic for trendy food), but what was a little hard for me to take at first was that he applies this same precise recall to all the Russian literary greats.

I don’t know why this bothered me so much initally, but at first it seemed really pretentious, like he was waving his hand in the air and yelling “Hey, teacher, I know this one! It’s a reference Gogol/Turgenev/Doestoevsky/Chekhov/Tolstoy” etc etc. But then I mellowed out and decided it was a loving homage and, anyway, those guys are really an underutilized goldmine of crazy melodrama and reversals of fortune, the likes of Aaron Spelling. (I myself have had many daydreams of soap opera adaptations of Russian literature, although it would be hard to top that Brothers Karamazov movie starring Yul Brynner as Dmitri — awesome!)

In the end, I really enjoyed Absurdistan, and enjoyed the little Cliff’s Notes refresher of books I enjoyed when I was a deeper, more contemplative, more literary person. My only complaint is: everyone knows that any self-respecting Russian drunken spree, of which there are many in Absurdistan, involves gypsies. You are supposed to cash your entire paycheck, buy some huge amount of booze, and then decamp to a nearby gypsy camp to party until you run out of adult beverages. Where were the gypsies in Absurdistan?

This lapse brings its grade from an A down to a B+.

Postwar Bohemians and the Women Who Love Them Sunday, Feb 24 2008 

One time I was watching an episode of Gilmore Girls and Lane said “Rory, what are you reading?” and Rory said “Dawn Powell — I heard Dorothy Parker stole all her material from her” and Lane said “Blasphemy!”

I am with Lane on this one. Powell is very much a poor man’s Dorothy Parker. She is similarly acerbic and has a similarly tooth-and-claw attitude towards dating. But, and this is the downfall of many satirical books, every single character in “The Locusts Have No King” is so much of a caricature that it is impossible to care what happens to them. (For all my trash talking about short stories, I think Parker — whom I adore — dodges this bullet by keeping her stories very short. You can only keep up the meanness for so long before it gets boring.)

This book is, however, an interesting slice of life in New York City immediately after World War II. The soldiers come home to a huge housing shortage and to a workforce that’s been filled with women while they were gone. (The attitude towards working women is fascinating, and a little creepy.) And it is definitely a different, and more caustic, view of the 1950s than usual.

In sum, I give this book a C+. Fine if you are on an airplane or something. Not below average, but not really above average, aside from a few above-average witticisms. This book is kind of the Debutante Divorcee of its time.

Heartbreak of the Superrich, Part I Sunday, Feb 24 2008 

This book is by one of those Vogue writers who update us every month on the latest bikini waxing trends and which $15,000.00 Hermes bag we should get on the waiting list to buy, all in this breathless, faux fish-out-of-water tone that gets a little grating when you realize you read one of these articles every month.

I love the title of this book: The Debutante Divorcee. It is a chick lit book about divorce among very rich housewives in New York; its premise is basically that being divorced from a very rich man is even more fun than being married to one. I like reading about rich people. I think everyone does. It’s soothing.

I was sort of disappointed that this book was not trashy enough. Our ingenue of a heroine never even gets divorced! And the main debutante divorcee in the book — who seemed sort of exciting and Dynasty-esque in the begininning — turns out to have a heart of gold as well. I thought that romance novels were supposed to be cheesy and melodramatic! I am no expert, I guess. But I would have enjoyed a little more Aaron Spelling-style (“No man takes me to bed and the cleaners in the same day!”) dialogue.

Rereading “After the Quake” Monday, Nov 26 2007 

I just reread this collection of short stories after seeing the Berkeley Rep production of the same name, which is actually a combination of two short stories in this book. I adore Murakami, of course, but short stories are not my favorite genre; I am like the editor in one of the stories who tells the protagonist that short stories are very outdated and he should start writing novels before he completely depletes the resources in his short story universe.

There are a couple of short stories in this collection that I actively dislike: the one about the man with the missing earlobe, for example, I have hated since reading it in Harper’s a million years ago. I think the Mr. Frog Saves Tokyo story is pretty much the best one; that is the main subject of the Berkeley Rep production, so they made a good choice.

There is this one point in the story where a character talks about the denial a person has to sustain to live in an area that could be devastated by an earthquake at any moment, and you could identify all of the newcomers or non-Californians in the audience by a collective shiver. I did not even flinch. I still think earthquakes are better than tornados or hurricanes or living somewhere without good restaurants.

Absinthe, election stealing, and newspaper barons Sunday, Nov 18 2007 

I am still totally obsessed with the razzle dazzle,** as discussed in my last post, but am trying to move beyond cocktails to discuss other literary aspects of “1876.”

I adore the Empire series so far, as I am sure I have mentioned before. This is the third in the series. First, there was “Burr,” which is awesome. The chief’s review of this book is forthcoming.

Second, “Lincoln,” which is good in a different way but is much drier and less dishy than “Burr.” Also, I got bored with all the military strategy, but I understand that Gore Vidal, not to mention every other member of the less fair sex, likes that sort of thing.

“1876” is fun because it takes place in an era I don’t know much about. Also, it reintroduces Charlie Schuyler, the (fictional) narrator of Burr, only now he is kind of a debauched old man. There is a ton of political scheming, and we meet the Sanfords (also fictional), who will turn out to be important in “Washington D.C.” K., if you are getting bored of “Lincoln,” I recommend just skipping ahead to this book. And then we can have an early-American cocktail party — I mean, book club meeting –to discuss.

**I hear that absinthe is accessible over the Internet, even if its legality and historical accuracy are questionable. If anyone wants to explore early American cocktail history with me, we can do further research on the subject.

A Genteel Lady’s magazine roundup: Hats, phones, and the latest fat-melting technology for fall Monday, Oct 29 2007 

1. November Allure. The funniest bit was a photo montage on “inky nails,” where the model was self-consciously holding an iPhone. So two months ago. I like the navy blue manicure, though. My usual favorite column, Scalpel News, was actually so disgusting I couldn’t even read it. Also disgusting: a big article on new fat melting technology. Also, speaking of fat melting, I think we are at that point in the year where the 2007 makeover girls are getting to be skinnier than I am. That is always sobering.

2. November Vogue.

We are all supposed to wear hats this winter, which seems fun. An annoying article about “budget fashion” where the editors shop at stores that are expensive to us on Planet Earth, but must be cheaper than couture. An essay where a woman complains that her husband spends too much time cooking his way through the Chez Panisse cookbook; my heart bleeds for her. Pretty clothes. What the hell is this new Paris Hilton perfume? I have never seen Can-Canning look so unattractive.

3. November Elle.

Scarlett in an awesome dress on the cover. Yet another photo montage of faux paparazzi shots. Yet another story where we learn Angelina is the new Sophia Loren, Gwyneth is the new Grace Kelly (*#&@! I am the new Grace Kelly!), etc. I always like these articles because they involve lots of leopard print clothes and prim little handbags. Still it’s too bad that every single article in this issue is a rehash of some other article from last month. Is Elle going to be the next Mademoiselle-like casualty? If so, we need to make sure its awesome advice columnist gets another public forum.

OK, now I am going back to reading an actual book, Gore Vidal’s “1876.” I am very excited about a popular drink among media tycoons in 1876: the Razzle Dazzle, equal parts brandy, absinthe, and gin and apparently consumed by tycoons in hotel bars starting at nine in the morning. When do I get to be a media tycoon?

Photo is from fat-melting article in Allure.

Mandy Moore, misshapen jackets, and socks with sandals: October Lucky Sunday, Oct 14 2007 

I have often proclaimed that I treasure Lucky magazine for its bizarrely unique world view. Let other magazines tell us about the virtues of little black dresses and flattering makeup; I go to Lucky to see sweatpants paired with high heels, sweater/bathrobe hybrids, and serious articles about how to make velveteen knickers look sharp and professional for work. (What do they think we do for a living, anyway? I don’t know, but it’s fun to envision showing up for work in their suggested ensembles.)

Recently, though, there has been a disturbing trend towards normalcy. This month, for example, their “10 ways to wear it” feature focused on a boring cotton dress, not the fur shorts and bizarrely gilded tunic that are customary.

The beauty seemed kind of useful and Allure-like (honestly, I should probably buy every single one of the products that supposedly make you look more awake). OK, false eyelashes are a little weird, but the focus was on making them look “natural,” not, as one would expect from Lucky, how best to glue green rhinestone encrusted lashes onto your own.

Aside from a few misshapen and creatively droopy jackets, the clothes could be from any ladies’ magazine. I was in the depths of dispair. But then, on the last page, salvation — “I’m currently in love with the idea of wooly socks worn with high-heeled earthy sandals as an alternative to boots,” says evil genius Andrea Linnett. You go, Ms. Linnett! That’s why I still subscribe. Now make sure that next month, you show me 10 ways to wear a furry bikini, including one way to make it work for a plucky investment banker’s wardrobe.

One City, One Book: Your mom’s book club edition Sunday, Oct 14 2007 

This whole book club phenomenon is interesting. On the one hand, I feel like Oprah’s Book Club has greatly improved the quality of books you can find at the airport or a bad book store and has gotten me out of many a tight spot, like receptionist jobs where I would finish my book by lunchtime and be faced with an entire afternoon of playing solitaire.

Also, I love the lists of questions they have started putting at the end of these books, such as: “Elisabeth called all her descendents to her bedside when she knew she was dying. What were the long-term repercussions of this act for her family?” This brings back fond memories for me of the Great Books program in my elementary school, whose point I never really understood but was a great way to get out of class and spend the afternoon windbagging about some silly Ray Bradbury story.

On the other hand, I think maybe it leads to books that are better understood as  conversation starters for your afternoon scrapbooking session than as, I don’t know, books. Take Cane River. Written by “a former vice president of Sun Microsystems to immerse herself in family history” via a UC Berkeley Extension writing class (rad!), this book traces the author’s family origins from slavery in Creole Louisiana to relative prosperity in 1930s Louisiana.

You can tell it is meticulously researched, and she found great records, from a written family history to tons of court records to a series of newspaper articles about the murder of someone in the family. I would be much more interested in reading about that process from a first-person perspective than in the awkward narrative she constructs from it. I think that this might, however, have been a marketing decision, based on the many, many book clubs (including Oprah and One City One Book) that probably prefer the novel format.

Personally, I think that slapping a treacly narrative on top of Tadeny’s meticulous research robs this story of its inherently good qualities. And as one alumnus of the UC Berkeley Extension to another, I have a tiny word of advice for you: Sentences like “The day was cold and foggy, like his spirits” should be avoided, if possible. For more information, I recommend the the Extension’s copy editing certification series of classes.

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