Monday, May 05, 2014

writer, interrupted, or: what i read in march and april

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone. Today Angie at Homeboy Bakery was decked out in red, white and green, and almost announced the day’s pan dulce options in Spanish. At the last minute, she switched to English because she felt bad for all the non-Mexicans and non-Spanish-speaking Mexicans who wouldn’t understand her. I’ll be celebrating in my preferred crowd-averse way by having an Olvera Street margarita tomorrow. At least that’s the plan.

An authentic Mexican who does not speak Spanish (that I know of).
For now, here’s my bimonthly book roundup. I’m about two thirds of the way through Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea, which is a great book—very sweet and magical—but I wasn’t in the mood to read it tonight because I saw her Facebook post about being pregnant. She’s written unflinchingly about the highs and lows of trying to get knocked up, and it’s taken her a long time, and she is an incredibly nice and generous person, and I am absolutely rooting for her and her baby-to-be. But I am also the kind of writer who takes the day off reading a good book to wallow in her own envy.

Did you ever read Girl, Interrupted? I remember Susanna Kaysen writing about how, when homosexuality was taken out of the DSM, she was kind of bummed. Because now all her queer friends were officially not crazy, but she still had borderline personality disorder. She felt left behind. It made complete sense to me. That’s how I feel when people who’ve had a little trouble obtaining a kid obtain a kid. It’s not that I want homosexuality to be a mental disorder, it’s just that borderlines are people too. They deserve to feel accepted and not crazy. (I am the borderline in this story.)

Tomorrow I will drown my sorta-sorrow in a margarita.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: This is Gillian Flynn's first novel, and as such it's not quite as masterful as Dark Places, which I loved. It also veers deeper into the horror realm, blowing up petty girl politics and helicopter mothering into larger-than-life gorgons. I can't quite decide if Flynn is interrogating evil-mother fairy tales or replicating them, but I'm a sucker for the tangled world she creates. A cutter protagonist, some murdered little girls, some possibly murderous little girls, all at work in a pork-processing town where violence runs as thick and deep as pigs' blood. (I sound like I'm trying to write jacket copy there, don't I?) Flynn's prose is enviable, and she's one of those writers who--for reasons that are partly obvious, partly mystical--makes me want to sit down and write, which I'll take over perfection any day.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: In almost every multiple-POV story, there's one narrative I like best, or one I trudge through. But Liane Moriarty does such a nice job of getting inside the heads of her three protagonists--Australian women linked by their involvement with the local Catholic school and by the secret in question--that I can't play favorites. I even like Cecilia, who is the sort of overzealous, Tupperware party-throwing woman who gets yanked into debates about the "likability" of female characters.

More important, maybe, is the fact that Moriarty weaves the plot in such a way that no narrative is expendable. This makes for really good reading, although I feel like she ultimately gets too caught up in questions of coincidence and paths-not-taken herself. To me the more compelling theme is that of the walls (represented a bit ham-fistedly by the Berlin Wall, which makes periodic cameos) people erect between themselves and their loved ones. At one point Tess observes how embarrassing it is that she's expected to share her deepest secrets and desires with the man who watches her brush her teeth each night. There are multiple kinds of intimacy, multiple kinds of nakedness, and to love someone means disrobing again and again.

The Cantor’s Daughter by Scott Nadelson: I think Scott Nadelson is a fairly young writer, but these stories feel like the work of a person who's done a lot of reading and a lot of living. He has a knack for sometimes cringe-inducing emotional details--he gets the thoughts and motives that lurk three layers behind a character's consciousness. The stories skew a little dark (not a bad thing in my opinion) and range widely in content, from a cruise-going couple whose meet-cute takes a turn for the painfully real, to a working class headhunter who can never quite come to terms with his own desires. If the stories have something in common beyond style, I think it's that they are about disappointment, and trying to go on after disappointment. I'm taking notes.

G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon: I'm roughly the same age as some of the Boyle Heights gang members whom Celeste Fremon profiles in her well written account of the early days of Homeboy Industries and the worst days of L.A.'s gang wars. While the homies in question were fearing for their lives, losing hope and getting in trouble, I was a few miles (and an entire world) away, buying into the media's gang hysteria as Phil Donohue shamed crunchy-haired cholas for their unapologetic attitudes. What becomes immediately obvious upon reading the oral histories in the book: The homies are alternately wounded, childlike, wise beyond their years, funny, angry, hopeful, and hopeless, but there's not a truly bad person among them. Although Father Greg Boyle is a hero in the book and in real life, I'm equally intrigued by Fremon's own journey as she becomes radicalized by the love and violence she witnesses. Yes, people like Fr. Greg are rare, but the solutions to gang violence--a job, a little stability and a decent parental figure--don't have to be.

This cat also does not speak Spanish (that I know of).

Attempting Normal by Marc Maron: Marc Maron is not the funniest comedian out there, but I do think he's one of the smartest and most honest, which I rank higher than funny, as character traits go. These essays are the musings of a Renaissance man who reads a lot, thinks a lot, gets married sort of a lot, plays the guitar, rescues cats and has food issues. I'm into pretty much all of that except for playing the guitar. And I hope to stick with one marriage. I mean, unless my spouse dies young. Then I guess I'd hope to remarry after an appropriate grieving period. Ugh, now I'm doing some dark thinking. See, this is why Marc Maron is the comic for me.

The book has moments of brilliance and hilarity, but my four stars are really more like 3.7 because it could have used just a touch more in the way of an arc. In general, though, I agree with David Sedaris when he said that the book is good enough that it didn't even need Maron's celebrity(ish) face plastered on the cover. I dig the cat, though.

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