Category Archives: Books

To see a world in a purse or heaven in a handbag

Click for source. Xaviera Hollander's website is worth a visit.

Click for source. Xaviera Hollander’s website is worth a visit.

So last week, I was reading a magazine which contained an interview with designer Giambattista Valli. Quoth he, on the subject of handbags: “An architectural bag provides structure. One click and you open a woman’s private universe.”

I hardly know what to say. I mean, my handbag is no more my “private universe” than my desk chair. The idea that the contents of a woman’s bag – keys, a phone, ID, credit cards and/or cash, some lipstick or gloss – the archeological remains of being a functioning modern person – could constitute her universe is just so offensive. Not to mention that it lacks imagination about the way a woman constructs meaning in her life. It’s misogyny. A part of me says, eh, it’s cultural, but the rest of me says, that doesn’t make it right. Screw you, Valli.

The other thing his little observation brought to mind for me was The Happy Hooker, a 70s era tell-all about, you know, a hooker, Xaviera Hollander, who was happy about it. I picked up a copy in a thrift store when I was a teenager. There are two things that I remember about it. One, a scene with a dog that I think was supposed to shock? And two, the pivotal scene of the author/narrator’s job interview with the madam. The madam took her purse and examined it. Its sparse contents signaled to the madam that this was a girl of quality, worthy of admittance into the life of a high-class hooker. Valli gets this, no?

I don’t. I mean, I do. It’s a vestige of earlier generations’ social signals of class, a coded mechanism for detecting who is and who is not your economic equal. I say earlier generations, but this type of social marking obviously continues. The same magazine had an article about skin bleaching in Jamaica; one interview subject likened it to tanning in the U.S. I’m way late to the discussion about the weird spectacle that is Miley Cyrus, but her appropriation of the whole ratchet thing is another spin on this topic, which is way too big for me to do justice to here.

Anyhoo. This poor neglected blog. I want to give it some love, but it’s just one of those things that’s easy to let go of when other parts of life threaten to overwhelm. I spent all of July and part of August sick with vertigo. Work has been crazy-busy since May. I’ve gotten great traction on my novel revision. And of course, there is my sweet Otto, now almost fully mobile and no longer content to sit idly by when he could be running down the dogs with a push toy or attempting to scale furniture in his room. I’ll make room for this place when I can.

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Better late…

Thank you, Finland, for this vision of the elf.

Thank you, Finland, for this vision of the elf.

So this is ridiculously untimely (I am untimely, these days), but Seth found a weird holiday movie this year, Rare Exports, in which Santa is an ancient and imprisoned evil and his henchmen the elves are an emaciated band of naked and violent old men.

This got us thinking about what holiday movies we will share with Otto, and it’s sad to think that this one will have to wait a long, long time. It’s just not kid-friendly, in the sense that it basically undermines the American mythology of Christmas. But it is kid-friendly in the sense of treating its child characters with generosity and intelligence. I know I’ve read interviews with Maurice Sendak before in which he talks about how necessary the scary is for children, and how they shouldn’t be coddled with falsely sweet stories.

Sweet stories, ugh. We got some really lovely children’s books as gifts at my baby shower, but I was surprised later to realize how many of these lovely books are really written for the parent and not the child. As I sappily shed a couple tears during the Nicholas Sparks-worthy saccharine fest that is Love You Forever, I vowed never to subject Otto to it again. There are far too many good kid’s books out there. Here’s a list from George Saunders.

Scattered thoughts

Click for source.

I picked up a book today, for the first time in eleven days, and it was with much relief. I will still have time to read, damn it! My life is not over. Even though we’ve had houseguests for almost two weeks, I still feel somewhat isolated, which is pretty strange, but evidently part and parcel with caring for an infant.

A book is not exactly the outside world, but it is a step ahead of a magazine (though I still have some catching up to do on the September issues. Soon, soon! I will be able to wear normal clothing.). I still haven’t caught up on my internet browsing though: most of my contact with the outside world is happening via NPR, with a second sliver occurring via ongoing contact with work, and the biggest piece through Seth.

The book I began today is, as it happens, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, selected after reading this New Yorker piece by Maria Bustillos, referenced on The Hairpin.

Ah, John Waters. I just love John Waters, though I do not love all of his films. It’s possible that I saw Pink Flamingoes too early, but there were just things in there that I just couldn’t laugh at (don’t put that chicken there, please!). I guess it’s so absurd that it has to be funny, but oy. (An additional aside, which I’m apparently full of today: a couple weeks ago someone was telling me something about Baltimore, and I realized that everything I know about Baltimore I know through John Waters and The Wire. It must be the strangest place.)

Anyhoo, the thing I did want to evangelize about vis a vis Two Serious Ladies is the dusty writing exhortation to show, not tell. Well-told telling is a total pleasure, and just a few pages into Two Serious Ladies, I was already amused.

As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.

Miscellany.

Love this origami by Kumi Yamashita…click for more. Via SwissMiss.

I’m in one of those places where I can’t seem to create a cogent string of thoughts around a single topic, which leads me to then babble in brief on a variety of topics. To wit:

Beasts of the Southern Wild. We saw this Sunday, with the full knowledge that it could be the last movie we will ever watch in the theater without having to sort out childcare plans. I thought, based on what I’d seen, that this film might actually fulfill the promise established by the Spike Jonze Where the Wild Things Are trailer (that movie being a huge letdown for me personally). And you know, it kind of did. But I’d tried so hard to avoid reading reviews that it came as a complete shock to me that the film is incredibly sad. I spent its latter half quelling my own sobs, and the credits wiping my eyes with the clean edges of an otherwise buttery napkin. WTF. I think sometimes loose narratives leave more room for emotion to seep in and take over.

The Mists of Avalon. I was so thrilled last week to see this written up as classic trash on The Awl. I read The Mists of Avalon no fewer than three times when I was a teenager, and I distinctly recall my copy more or less disintegrating, which is why it is no longer on my bookshelves. Retrospectively (and especially after reading the comments), I tie this book’s influence to my hippie phase, which now only manifests in rare instances (views on childbirth, for instance). This is probably also why it was such a big damn deal to me to make a pilgrimage to assorted Arthurian spots on a daytrip from London, including Glastonbury Tor and the Chalice Well Gardens (I drank the water). The Mists of Avalon. Oh my god, what glorious garbage. This is right up there with Clan of the Cave Bears. Marion Zimmer Bradley + Jean Auel = sex ed for a generation of young bookish ladies.

The Gaslight Anthem. I can’t seem to get past the first three songs on the new album (funny to link to its Amazon page…I can’t recall the last time I bought an actual CD. We are still on eMusic, though we bitch about it all the time). That ’59 Sound is so good. I never got into American Slang. And I had such high hopes for Handwritten…perhaps I will get there yet.

A fortuitous find

Click for source.

One of those internet wormholes one ends up going through led me to this fabulous source of information about creativity, from which I have swiped the following quote attributed to Nick Cave:

Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I’m in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.

Did you know that Nick Cave wrote a jesusy sort of novel? Actually, looks like he’s written more than one novel. But the first one is the one that I read. My 17-year-old self was not terribly impressed, and I tend, in this case, to trust my youthful judgment. The book was leant to me by a guy who was at the time not dealing particularly well with his mental illness. He also gave me, in a towering pile, his entire collection of Birthday Party/Bad Seeds CDs to enjoy, digest, and ultimately, discuss. In an instant, I regretted sharing my casual interest in Nick Cave with him. After a decent interval, I returned his collection and sidestepped further conversation by retreating into the guise of a ninny, which, who knows, maybe isn’t that much of a stretch (see: confessing an interest in Nick Cave to one of his mentally ill fans).

Anyhoo. Explore: totally worthy of its name. This article on a book about the anatomy of inspiration! I feel like I occasionally blather on about the ladies of the 1930s and their compelling take on writing. The book discussed at the link is from 1942, and sounds like it’s of a piece with Dorothea Brande et al. Of course it is out of print, but maybe I will stumble on it someday.

There’s nothing on

Smiles of a Summer Night

I didn’t have cable growing up, because, as my mother rightfully pointed out, I would have watched it all the time. So I think that “there’s nothing on,” a common whine of the period, was pretty justified. I mean, we had something like five channels in total.

Now I sometimes feel that way about the internet, when all my regular haunts either haven’t been updated recently or don’t contain anything of interest. This is clearly irrational. There is always something “on” the internet. It’s akin to that parental gem about only boring people being bored.

In this spirit, I try to break out of my internet rut from time to time. At other times, there is no rut (the feast v. famine phenomenon). For instance, over the last couple days, I’ve seen great material everywhere, such as this article on reality and authenticity and marketing from The Awl, and this essay it links to on David Foster Wallace. Or this discussion on Slate’s Double X blog about The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by French feminist Elisabeth Badinter. I guess the latter book has been bandied about in many places online for what one of the Slate discussants says is “18 months,” but damned if I’ve caught any of the conversation. Perhaps it is only because the topic is recently relevant to me that I am just now noticing.

Anyhoo. There is always something on, especially online. But also on TV, now, and then: when I was a teenager, I turned on the TV out of extreme boredom one night at one or two a.m. I ended up watching Smiles of a Summer Night on PBS. I found it very strange at the time. Years later, I saw A Little Night Music and realized it was based on that same Bergman film. And just like that, my teenage boredom was transmogrified into smug cultural self-satisfaction, a feeling so potent that I’ve apparently carried it around with me for years, waiting for a moment to impress no one about it.

Now that the moment has come, I hope to present it with as much self-deprecation as I can muster, in deference to David Foster Wallace, the trap of solipsism, and the impossibility of a truly authentic response. Read that link above! Good stuff, even if I don’t agree with all of it. I was convinced, for example, that its author is not a writer of fiction, though I found that’s not the case.

You are what you _________

Lil Edie, from the Yale Collection of American Literature. Click for my source.

Someone I know once made the rather self-satisfied observation that s/he had no “guilty pleasures” in terms of reading material. Everything that this person read warranted a seal of literary merit, bestowed no doubt, by the echo chamber of a small number of American literati publishing their work and their criticism in select journals.

It’s hard to know where to start with this information. Some thoughts: I don’t have any guilty pleasures either; I am not ashamed of the books I enjoy reading. That said, what we absorb through pop culture does influence our own work, however indirectly, and a steady diet of garbage isn’t likely to nourish new ideas or inspire any self-exploration.

This line of thought is coming to me because it’s been a while since I read something that really opened up new lines of thinking for me and challenged me to reconsider my work or the world in some fundamental way. It’s not like I’m reading crap, but transcendent novels or essays aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. And of course the ones that do are completely subjective: witness my own fascination with Reality Hunger, for which so many people had so little patience (mind you, the book could have been shorter by half).

As always, I have a ginormous stack of things to read, including the oral history Edie, which I have gratefully borrowed from a friend; the Siskel and Ebert oral history; Edith Wharton’s book on the writing of fiction; Blonde (3/4 of the way through); a biography of Margaret Mead; and endless others.

Part of what’s making me think along these lines is my increasing annoyance with and disappointment in Nurture Shock, the Po Bronson book about counter-intuitive knowledge in child development, which I’m about halfway through. It’s just not as revelatory and interesting as I’d like, and he and his coauthor have the maddening habit of applying showy dialogue tags that make their sources sound like morons. It is interesting content, but it just doesn’t rise above standard reporting mixed with the occasional subjective piece of primary observation. (Also, working in academia has made me question academic sources—they are not all equal, and it’s far from a given that the methodologies and conclusions of any given professor has credibility within her discipline.)

Anyhoo, blah blah blibbity blah. I’m looking for inspiration and revelation in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Recommendations?