Sunday, March 23, 2008

The One I Had To Read At Home

The delightful folks at work have already caught me smiling one too many times, so there was no way I was going to bring Jen Lancaster's Bright Lights, Big Ass to work with me. I enjoyed this one before bed, after a hard day, and in the morning with my coffee. I finished it last night.

I really enjoyed Bitter is the New Black, the tale of her fall from grace as a highly paid vice president to nearly getting evicted from a ghetto apartment. This one doesn't follow a neat story arc in the same manner. It's billed as a tale of life in the city, but it's really more about Jen's life. This isn't to say that it's not funny or well-written, just that future historians may be disappointed when this one is uncovered.

The book picks up where Bitter is the New Black left off. Jen has sold her first book, and her husband Fletch is still working at the job that saved them from eviction at the last moment. Beyond that, it's really just a slice of life. Jen temping to help pay the bills, since it turns out that being a writer isn't really a high-paying occupation. Jen wrangling with the dogs. Jen and Fletch shopping at Trader Joe's and entertaining friends.

I like her books a lot. I like her conversational style. I like the way her forceful, contradictory personality comes through. I love her sense of humor (I practically peed my pants during the part where she wrote "asshole" on Fletch's arm in self-tanner and he shaved off one of her eyebrows). I visit her blog a lot and comment sometimes so it almost feels weird to say anything negative about her here, not like she'd ever come here and read it. I don't really have anything negative to say -- I do like her books. But they're very dependent on liking her. If you read Bitter is the New Black and thought she was annoying, stay away from this one. If you read it and thought she was hilarious, check out Bright Lights, Big Ass. Just maybe not in the lunch room at work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A unique tribute to Anthony Minghella

I'm sure that by now, I'm not delivering the news of director Anthony Minghella's death to anyone. Like everyone else, I was pretty surprised to hear he'd passed, him being relatively young and not associated with any particular health problems or addictions. However, none of the tributes to him that I've read so far mention my favorite work of his: the writing on Jim Henson's "The Storyteller" series.

I haven't met many people who remember this show from their childhood. If I didn't own both a DVD of the entire show (it only lasted 1 season) and the book by Anthony Minghella (a great library booksale find!) I would've doubted its existence. For some reason, this series didn't catch on. But it was absolutely beautiful. It starred John Hurt in the title role, as The Storyteller who would bring you a different folk tale each week. The Jim Henson Studio could create a dog puppet that was more realistic than an actual dog, so they may have been showing off a bit when they gave John Hurt his sarcastic sidekick dog.

I recommend the DVD of it to anyone, for any purpose. Whether you're a parent with young children, or you yourself just like some good escapist fantasy. Each episode has some humor, virtually no realistic violence, and beautiful puppetry. (The thought-lion from "The True Bride" appeared in several of Henson's publicity photos). But although the puppetry was the star, the writing hovered, perfectly unseen, in the background. Minghella was able to hit just the right note: understandable to children, yet not patronizing at all. The companion book was an excellent way to appeal to families who wanted to start their own storytelling tradition. How sad, to watch this DVD now and realize that both of the driving forces behind it are gone from us forever.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Reading a book in a few short hours can mean any number of things. It can mean that the book was so damn good, you moved heaven and earth to read it, you stayed up all night, called off sick to work, took a longer lunch than you should have or read it at stoplights on the way home. Or, it can mean that there simply wasn't very much to it. In the case of Charity Girl, by Michael Lowenthal, the latter was true.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my case of paralysis in the face of a $50 gift card, and how this book was the only one that seemed worthy of ownership. I'm contemplating taking the damn thing back, after starting it when I woke up this morning and finishing it before early afternoon.

Charity Girl is a bit of slang that crops up several times in the book without being fully, clearly explained. It's the only real mystery the book has to offer, but from what I could tell, a "charity girl" was a young woman of the early
20th century, usually independent but poor, who hangs around dance halls trying to meet men who will pay her way in. Frieda, the heroine of the novel, is one of these. She has run away from home and an arranged marriage to Boston, where she has a job at Jordan Marsh. She lives on little but hope, renting a single room, eating once a day and living for nights at the dance hall with her best friend. But never going all the way with any of her patrons, until she meets the "special" soldier who gives her VD.

From there, her life spirals out of control. She gets a visit from some sort of official woman at work, loses her job, then starts to get really sick. She tries to find her soldier to ask him for help, but instead gets arrested and detained in a special house for girls who've been infecting the soldiers with their VD and loose morals.

Historical fiction is hard to get just right. It's easy to overlook the fact that history is lived by people like you and me, who often don't pay a whole lot of attention to it. Would the average uneducated young girl of the times, caught up in such a scenario, be able to identify the larger societal forces that contributed to her misfortune? Would she rail against a system that is sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, stupidly patriotic and classist? Or would she just be more likely to express her situation as being "bullshit"?

In the end, Charity Girl doesn't yield any more in execution than it did in concept. You can learn everything the book has to share by reading its jacket. The characters are flat and archetypal, the plot line is predictable, and the whole thing feels like a simple attempt to fictionalize history, not any sort of organic story. Lowenthal also makes the same grave mistake found at the end of Kevin Baker's Dreamland where he feels the necessity to give you the rest of the character's life at a gallop (except, unlike Baker, he doesn't hedge his bets with too many maybes: "Maybe she died in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist plant, or maybe she reunited with Sam and moved upstate just in time...") He would've done much better to give you a little hint that Frieda, post-release, wound up being just fine and leading a happy life.

This one was a real disappointment. I was at Barnes and Noble again this weekend, and picked up two new books, so hopefully these will be better.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Booking Through Friday Night

Before the panel this week:

Hero March 6, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:33 am

You should have seen this one coming … Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?
Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

(And apologies for this going up late . . . my post-dated post didn’t publish when it was supposed to this morning! It’s just a few hours late, but still–sorry about that! )

The first thing I thought of when I first read this was "Lucky Hank" from Richard Russo's Straight Man. Then I remembered Sully from my other favorite Richard Russo book, Nobody's Fool. So, fuck it, I'm writing a compare-and-contrast of the two of them.

In real life, Sully and Hank would not know each other well. Hank is a college professor, married to a high school teacher. He has two grown daughters, and is a property owner and published author. Sully, on the other hand, is divorced and rents a room from his junior high English teacher. He's been carrying on with a married woman for over twenty years, has a son he rarely sees (the first time we meet this son, he has found Sully hitchhiking on the side of the road and picked him up, and it takes Sully an absurdly long time to realize who he's riding with). Sully works odd jobs, all under the table, all manual labor. Sully, in short, is the essence of instability, whereas Hank has (at least on the surface) a pretty normal middle-class life. If Sully's path ever crossed with Hank's, it would probably be because Hank's deck needed remodeling.

But they share the same irreverant spirit. Both men land in very deep shit throughout the course of their novels. Hank gets gigged through the nose by a colleague (long story), nearly drummed out of his position as department chair, jailed for DWI (in one of the many hilarious moments in this book, he uses his one phone call to call his drinking buddy, who isn't home. He's dismayed to find the man in the next cell, who explains that he'd tried to call Hank with his one call) and at the center of a university-wide intrigue over staffing and budget. His daughter's marriage nearly falls apart, his estranged father returns to town, and his father-in-law is also thrown in jail. Sully's luck isn't much better. His landlady nearly dies, his best friend reveals that he's dying, the woman who may be his daughter gets shot at and beaten up by her abusive husband in front of his house and he, too, goes to jail for punching a cop.

Neither of them let it get the best of them, though. They both have an excellent sense of humor, even when nothing's funny.Nobody's Fool will move me to tears if I read it in the wrong mood, but it's also very funny, as is Straight Man, which I didn't even want to read at first. (The rest of Russo's books were really good, and Straight Man sounded to me like he'd essentially written about himself.) Both men revel in disrupting the status quo, messing with people, and generally being a pain in the ass. A good day to either of them would be if they'd managed to anger everyone with whom they came in contact, and come to think of it, they both had days like that. Neither one is afraid to go to extremes: Sully slips sleeping pills to his boss's Doberman in order to steal back a snowblower; Hank threatens to kill a goose a day until he gets his budget.

Yet, neither of them are malicious people. They're both their own worst enemy, and both of them often don't understand their own behavior. Russo lets you get to know both of them intimately, and when you understand their past, you understand why Sully's marriage didn't last and why he likes renting a room from his former English teacher; and why Hank struggles so hard with his fate as an academic. Both of them are great characters. Check them out.