Saturday, January 30, 2010

Poor Neglected BTT and Blog

Is there anyone left who still checks in? Sadly, I've not had much time to write this lately. I guess for one thing, working full-time at a writing job will do that to you. I spend all day at the computer, writing stories about high school musicals and town board meetings, and the thought of writing more at home is a little wearying.

Except I discovered the other day that I actually still enjoy it. It's different, writing on a topic that can be anything, that doesn't have to be super-timely and happen within my town and still be something no one else has written before. So I'm going to get back into it, probably not as much as I had been, but a little bit.

I picked out a BTT from a couple of weeks ago that I really liked:

Favorite Unknown January 21, 2010
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:39 am

Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of. You know, not JK Rowling, not Jane Austen, not Hemingway–everybody’s heard of them. The author that you think should be that famous and can’t understand why they’re not…

I think this is a GREAT question, personally. I enjoy seeking out the offbeat in all aspects of my life. I'm one of those people who will often deliberately avoid what everyone else is watching/wearing/reading/listening to.

I guess my main "unsung author" would have to be Tawni O'Dell. O'Dell only has three books, and they were all terrific. She writes about coal towns in Pennsylvania, about life in the lower-middle class, often on the edge of poverty. Her books are filled with humor, with brutality, and with wonderful, believeable characters. I thought Sister Mine might be a breakthrough for her, with the interesting surrogate mother angle. It seemed to be displayed prominently in several places that summer. I guess it doesn't help that she hasn't had anything out since, although her web site shows that she's got something coming out in March. So maybe you'll hear more from her. But remember: you heard about her here first!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sucks in the City

Last night, I just finished Candace Bushnell's One Fifth Avenue. I'd had such a hard time getting it at the library that I put it on my Christmas list. I sort of regret that now, as I'm stuck with it.

Candace Bushnell reminds me a great deal of Edith Wharton, and that resemblance was only cemented for me by this book. Both write about high society and women in New York City. And both are intellectual enough that one need never feel ashamed to bring their books to work, but trashy enough to be a good escape (although Bushnell's sex scenes are much more graphic than Wharton's).

The conceit of One Fifth Avenue is a simple, classic one. It's about neighbors. What better way to talk about a broad spectrum of society? They are all ensconced within the title building, a character in its own right. You have somewhat of a clash of the old and the new in this book. Gossip columnist Enid Merle lives there. She's about 80. Her nephew, screenwriter Phillip Oakland, also has an apartment in the building, as does his old flame, actress Schiffer Diamond, who has recently changed coasts back to New York. At the beginning of the book, society grande dame Louise Houghton lives there, too, but dies almost immediately.

That's the old guard. The upstarts consist of hedge-fund manager Paul Rice and his wife Annalise, who buy Louise Houghton's fabulous penthouse apartment; Lola Fabrikant, who is Phillip Oakland's 22-year-old girlfriend; and the Gooches, Mindy and James.

The new guard is the most interesting, and depressing. Face it, don't you guys know already how Schiffer and Phillip turn out? But Mindy, it's hard to know where her character will lead. Mindy is probably the most depressing image of a modern woman I've ever seen. She's every cliche that the anti-feminist movement warned us about come to life in a miserable, aging bag. Mindy is married, but not happily, to an underachieving writer. She has a job that most people would consider quite decent, but she finds it unfulfilling in every way. She has a son, but doesn't seem to spend much time with him. But hey, they own an apartment in One Fifth, right? And she's the president of the condo board! Doesn't that count for something?

Not really. Not to Mindy. As Mindy is all too acutely aware, they have the worst apartment in the building, cobbled together during a previous recession out of luggage rooms. It's dark and cramped. And while she's president of the condo board, it seems that she got the position more out of sheer pushiness than because she was liked and respected. Mindy confesses that she doesn't even have sex with her husband (apparently it hurts too much).

Then there's Lola, the anti-Mindy, if you will. Lola, as I mentioned, is 22 years old, and a real striver. She comes from a wealthy family in Atlanta. Her mother's name is Beetelle, which is perfect. She kind of is a beetle, or some other predatory insect. Her father's name is Cem, which is also perfect. Cem? How do you pronounce that anyway? Like "chem class"? "Sem?" Is that supposed to be short for something? Who knows and who cares, he supplies the money and that's that. Lola's mother pushes her relentlessly, not academically, but in the realms of fashion, beauty and popularity. Lola's been denied nothing and told she was special all her life. She has a nose job, a boob job, and designer clothers. Her hobbies include Facebook, YouTube and "The Hills." Now she's been turned loose on New York to get a man.

Lola reminded me a great deal of Lily in The House of Mirth. Both sort of played a trick on the reader. When you first meet Lola -- and Lily -- they are arrogant, entitled, vapid and silly, and you long for them to get theirs. But when their inevitable downfall comes, it's so tragic, so vicious, and so awful that you wind up rooting for them --but never fully escaping that voice in your head reminding you that you'd lusted for this from the beginning.

The characters in this book are really brilliantly done, and for having so many separate plots, the book has a brisk momentum and never bogs down. But the thing about it is that it's not fun. No one in this book is really happy. Everyone's looking over their shoulder. When Phillip and Lola have sex, Phillip feels slightly ashamed, while Lola's mostly "closing her eyes and thinking of England", or her future status, rather. The Rices have an absolutely obscene amount of money, but it doesn't buy them any kind of happiness, either. I've already covered the misery of the Gooches.

I always thought part of the fun of reading a book like this was the fantasy aspect. Imagining, for a moment, what it must be like to be able to go shopping for new purses every day, to get your hair done someplace where it costs $400, to be featured regularly in "Women's Wear Daily." But apparently, it's no fun at all. It's just anxiety-inducing. And it made me grateful to know that I'm free to enjoy the salon I visit every couple of months without worrying who else goes there, that I appreciate my $35 Kohl's purse even if it didn't come from one of the 'right' stores, and that if I'm ever fortunate enough to get an expensive piece of jewelry as a gift from my boyfriend, I can be secure in knowing that he chose it himself and his motives were pure. And seriously, that's more than anyone over at One Fifth Avenue can say for themselves.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I just finished I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I'd heard of the book before, and the jacket gushed how it was one of the most beloved books ever, that it was finally back in print, that it was a delightful read. I took the bait.

I enjoyed it well enough, but I think this is one of those books that has its strongest appeal for girls of a certain age, maybe 10 to 17 or so. Something in its tone and tenor reminded me very much of L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle. I've probably read that book several hundred times during my life, to the point where I scarcely need the book to re-read it. But if I came across it now, I probably wouldn't like it as much, even though I'm closer to Valancy's age now than I was then (in fact, now I'm older than Valancy. I believe she was 26 or 27 in the book).

I Capture The Castleis the tale of the Mortmain family, as told by 17-year old Cassandra. To me, the best part of the book was the opening, when it was just them. Cassandra's mother is dead. Her dad wrote a very, very famous book that redefined the boundaries of literature and philosophy -- but that was well over a decade ago, the money's gone, and he hadn't written anything since. Her older sister Rose, dreams of finer things. Their young stepmother, Topaz, is a nudist and artist's model who views herself as a helpmate to Mr. Mortmain's genius. They have a younger brother, Thomas, and a boy named Stephen who does chores in exchange for his board (such as it is). They live in an old ruined castle, with literally no money at all.

Technically, they rent, but at the start of the book, their landlord has died and they haven't heard anything from his estate. That changes when his grandsons come crashing in from America.

Neil and Simon never really captured my imagination, but they sure did that of the girls. The rest of the book revolves around their confused love affairs with the boys.

I think I had a hard time with this book because few of the mains seemed to emerge as characters in their own right. I had a hard time picturing any of them, or predicting how they might act. The middle of the book dragged to me, as Rose prepared to marry the same one that Cassandra had fallen for. The ending was as sharp, surprising and heartbreaking as the beginning. But sadly, I feel that for me, I missed this one. Had I read it as a teenager, I probably would have loved it as much as Susan Issacs and several other prominent authors proclaim that they do on the dust-jacket. But as it is, I thought it was just OK.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wanna Be a Member?

Image from

In carrying forth my solemn vow to read everything Carson McCullers has written, I nabbed The Member of the Wedding at the library right before Christmas. I finished it the other day -- it's very short -- and enjoyed it.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie "Stranger than Fiction" is where Dustin Hoffman advises Will Farrell's character to spend a day alone in his apartment doing nothing, absolutely nothing at all, in order to determine whether his story is plot-driven or character-driven. Those who have seen the movie remember that while he's earnestly doing nothing (having fallen asleep on the couch the night before to a television channel he'd pre-selected as one he could stand to watch all day), a bulldozer takes out the exterior wall of his apartment before the crew could realize that they were demolishing the wrong building. The Member of the Wedding is as aggressively character-driven as Farrell's story was plot-driven.

The story concerns three people in the World War II-era South. Frankie, who has recently adopted the appelation F. Jasmine, is a white twelve-year-old girl. Berenice is about 40. She's black, she's the survivor of one wonderful marriage and three abusive ones, and she is the housekeeper for Frankie and her dad. John Henry is Frankie's six-year-old cousin.

Just from the thumbnail descriptions, it's obvious that these three are not terribly appropriate companions for one another. Berenice is too old to be hanging out with a bunch of little kids, and I'm not sure I'd exactly call her a mother figure. Frankie and John Henry, too, should be with kids their own age instead of hanging out inside all summer with the housekeeper.

But there is the real crux of the story. Like many of the characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, these three fit in nowhere, not really even with one another. This is where the title of the story comes from. Frankie has a much-older brother who had returned home from Alaska to get married. Frankie, like Mick, is a dreamer and a seeker, with an active fantasy life. Seeking her place in the world, or "the we of me," as she so beautifully puts it, she decides that she will run away with her brother and his new bride. A member of no club, no friendship, and not particularly noticed by her own family, Frankie seeks to become...a member of the wedding.

That's it. That's really the entire plot. I enjoyed this book a lot, though not as much as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It, too, is unlike anything much you see written today. It's extremely short, which is a good thing as I'm not sure it would have held up if it were stretched out. Frankie is a little hard to take. She can be mean. In fact, the 'girls' club' in her neighborhood turfed her out for being too mean. She's difficult to get a handle on, girly in some aspects, tomboyish in others.

One reviewer was inclined to take a psychological approach to the story, noting the death (in childbirth) of Frankie's mom, the fact that she had slept in the same bed as her father for most of her life, and that her cousin spends the night in Frankie's bed during the course of the book. I don't agree with that, personally. For much of American history, and in varying subsets of American culture, sharing a bed wasn't anything even remotely sexual. Poor families did it when there was only one bed. Pioneer families did it when there was only one room. Guests to the home did it as most people didn't have the means to provide a separate sleeping space. It may look weird or pervy today, but it wasn't sixty years ago.

For me, this book brought back vividly what it was like to be that age. A twelve-year-old may fancy herself a mature adult, but no one else does. It's not an easy time. McCullers brings it to life vividly. Read the book, if nothing else, you'll remember too.