Tuesday, March 06, 2012

what i read in february

March has come in like a lion, which is not easy on a sheep-snake like me. Hence the lack of blogging (that, and my continued addiction to Polyvore; why do I not spend all my free time applying to writing residencies and reading things by smart people?!). Anyway, here’s what I read in February before I discovered Polyvore. A lot of it was short.

Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: This is a strange, great, funny little nugget of a book. Gurba writes about having Tourette's Syndrome (though in no way is this a memoir about a clinical condition), and sometimes the chapbook feels like a performance of Tourette's. In the best way--like, thank you for SAYING that! If you get deep satisfaction from popping zits and think Michelle Rodriguez is only made hotter by an eye patch, this is a book for you.

Me, Frida by Amy Novesky; illustrated by David Diaz: Just as the best biopics are strategic snapshots of famous people's lives, Novesky wisely chooses a key moment as her way into Frida's life: the artist's trip to San Francisco in the early 1930s, in which she stepped out of the shadow of her husband, Diego Rivera, to become her true, bold, colorful, singing self. There's a nice (but not overly didactic) lesson for kids here, and the illustrations are as beautiful as a book about Frida Kahlo warrants. Diaz paints with his signature strong lines, and I especially loved how his large washes often dripped with two or three colors--like a painting in progress, like something that demands a closer look.

Sonics in Warholia by Megan Volpert: A hybrid of pop culture essay, lit crit and prose poetry, Warholia is likely to appeal to Warhol enthusiasts. Addressed as a long letter to Andy, it's packed with facts about the artist's life. In riffing, stream-of-consciousness-style, on these facts, it emulates Warhol's voyeurism and obsession with celebrity. Warholia is a sort of bookend for Warhol's little autograph book, updated for an age of quick internet searches and cynicism toward idols--the age Andy helped usher in.

That said, I'm *not* a big Andy Warhol fan, and the cerebral nature of some of Volpert's essays didn't make me want to ponder him--or voyeurism or celebrity or pop culture--more deeply. The book can feel like a long game of Six Degrees of Andy. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer Jennifer Clement's Widow Basquiat, another collection of short pieces about the same era. The comparison probably isn't entirely fair, but I'm a sucker for narrative, warmth and lyricism, which aren't exactly *absent* from this collection, just harder to find.

I was most drawn to pieces in which the author/narrator uses Andy's life as an opportunity to consider more personal, less strictly postmodern aspects of the human condition, such as "Dear Diary of a Dead Man's Telephone Number," about the possibilities of cell phone as grief tool. The grief-to-cell phone ratio is somehow just right.

"Ballad of the Maladies," which uses Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of grief as an architecture on which to hang subject matter from Typhoid Mary to patron saints to Andy's own death, is one of the book's most effective uses of a conceit. Here, at last, is the feeling I think other parts of the book might be trying to evoke: that of a big, mysterious and inextricably connected world.

Dracula by Bram Stoker: Some notes about Dracula:

1. They’re quite the little Scooby Gang (both Buffy- and Mystery Van-style, I suppose). I love how all four men go traipsing through Dracula’s house together—-I picture them lifting their feet high and stepping down on tiptoes in this really cartoonish way. They’re all very sweet to each other, constantly professing love and friendship. Which reminds me…
2. …there are some of what my writing teacher called “missed opportunities” in this book. If a villain is really villainous, wouldn’t he make people turn against each other? But Mina’s personality never really changes as she’s drawn deeper into the underworld. Shouldn’t some of her diary entries be more like, “Dear Diary, I secretly want to suck everyone’s blood”?
3. Everyone is really obsessed with the means of documentation—-phonograph! Travel typewriter! Shorthand!—-but they all talk in the same style (except wacky Van Helsing) and present a linear, un-contradictory narrative, so I never felt like Stoker was taking full advantage of the epistolary form.
4. Someone should write a dissertation about Dracula’s female victims and the virgin/whore anxiety they provoke among men. I’m sure someone has.

All in all, a quaint and sometimes unfulfilled book, but also an endearing and spooky one.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: This YA novel, about a Spokane Indian kid who dares to go to high school in a farm town outside his reservation, is funny, gutsy and insightful. It covers such complicated sociological issues as assimilation, the cycle of poverty and violence, and white trophy girlfriend syndrome without pulling punches (literally: Alexie's characters often smash fists in each other's faces). There are no easy solutions, but at the same time, Alexie isn't afraid to voice an opinion about rez life via his young narrator. And yet, I feel like my love for this book comes from a more visceral place: Arnold Spirit, Jr. just has a great voice. He's a kid who can describe farting while climbing a tree and make it poetic. (My only quibble is his friend Gordy, a local genius who is on hand anytime Alexie wants to reference Euripides or Tolstoy, which seems like a cheap writer trick. But this is a tiny, tiny quibble.)

Ghosts of Wyoming by Alison Hagy: There is much to love about this very cohesive story collection: Hagy's use of ghosts as metaphor and actual spooky plot device, her deep appreciation of Wyoming's history, and her transformation of Western motifs from the stuff of genre movies to true literary grit. Not to mention her ability to describe a landscape ("ribs of wind-polished granite began to emerge from the tresses of prairie"). But for some reason I liked the idea of this book more than I liked the actual book--it never crossed over into can't-put-it-down territory for me.


Alberto Brian said...

1. I'd be very interested in borrowing that Warholia book from you, if you were inclined.
2. Having yet to begin the book club book, and given the realtive sloth that is my reading pace, there'll be no need to expedite any offer, were it possible or were it to come at all.
3. I like the way you write about books.

Cheryl said...

Thanks, Alberto. :-) I read Warholia as a pdf, but I'll send it to you! (Maybe you can read it on your phone.)