A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
At the suggestion of a friend, I read a vintage New York magazine piece by Nora Ephron. Let me back up: in my short time on this planet, I haven’t liked Nora Ephron. I don’t hate her, but I don’t actively like her either. I liked When Harry Met Sally… enough, which is to say not as much as everyone else, but this is also the woman who wrote the screen adaptation of Bewitched. Wait, backing up again: it’s not honest to point out the flaws in her filmography, because there are tons of people I forgive for their Hollywood indiscretions. Her output isn’t really the point. The point is I immediately bristle when women tell me what women are like, almost as much as I bristle when men do it, because they’re inevitably wrong about me and I’m self-involved like that. It’s one of the reasons I couldn’t like Mating, which is probably a major flaw in my outlook, but whatever.
When Nora died there was an outpouring of love, and I started to get curious about all these amorous responses to her essays. Not so curious that I would buy any of the books, but curious enough. So when I was talking to my friend on a subway platform, trying not to sweat through my clothes and failing desperately, and when she told me that she had read a very good piece by Nora Ephron in an old issue of New York magazine, I didn’t fake my interest. The next morning, I tracked it down via her Twitter, and man did I love that piece by Nora Ephron. I read it twice. It’s the first column of several for the magazine, and she kicks it off by writing about how she almost got a job as a news anchor for CBS, itself an alarming piece of alternate history, and about how she felt when the job was given to a sexy female reporter I’d certainly never heard of before this. Ephron’s sense of humor in the first part of the piece—self-deprecating, judgmental, understated—hits me where I live, and her self-awareness and clarity in the second part seals the deal. I won’t spoil any of the revelations, but it’s refreshing to read someone talk like she does. She doesn’t portray women as being in competition with one another, although that is ostensibly what the piece is about. There are no catchy catch-phrases about what women are “like.” Okay, so maybe I’ll buy Crazy Salad now.
I’m also reading an anthology of Frank O’Hara’s poems and swooning at late hours of the night, but that almost goes without saying.
Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints turns out to have been an appropriate followup to last week’s dose of smart culture-writing. It’s less the series of capsule biographies that I’d expected and more of a meditation on the role of the saints as inspiration to culture. To that end, Dickey cites writers, painters, and filmmakers, from Luis Bunuel to Mary Gordon to Gustave Flaubert. It’s occasionally a bit digressive, but also quite illuminating (no pun intended). And hey, I know know which saint is most likely to play a prank on me, which is good to know.
China Mieville’s latest, Railsea, is a lot of things: his latest bravura example of worldbuilding (short version: take the title literally); a subtle continuation of his explorations of perception and language in The City & The City and Embassytown; a fine all-ages adventure yarn; and something of a sly riff on Moby-Dick. I enjoyed it tremendously. And Kristin Cashore’s Graceling came highly recommended as well; it’s a quest novel about a young woman who’s preternaturally gifted at killing, and it does a fine job of acknowledging certain tropes while boldly tossing others aside.
I’m hoping to get to Tamora Pierce’s Terrier this weekend, along with the latest from Vol.1 favorites Joshua Cohen and Karolina Waclawiak. I’ll be making with the road-tripping, and seem to have plans to visit, basically, every indie bookstore from Boston to Portland. So…yeah.
Without calculation, I find myself reading the master of maximalism and minimalism at the same time. Anecdotally, it feels as if the literary world takes off for the summer. Maybe everyone vacates to write their novel, or maybe we all enjoy summer too much to sit inside behind a computer. Regardless, I finally found enough time to start in that eternal quest to read the the archives of literature. I just finished volume two of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and I have read three Hemingway novels according to their dates of publication. (The only way to actually make any progress is to shed the embarrassment over how many book you haven’t read.) It’s fascinating to me that people speak of returning to a natural way of writing, both in regards to Proust, i.e. the perfection of the stream of consciousness style that captures that infuriating, endless inner monologue, and with regards to the stripped down, supposedly basic prose of Hemingway. Reading these two giants head to head affords me a first hand look at the emptiness of this distinction. Both write with a masterful sense of the craft, and both are often frustrating and almost annoying to read at length or in one sitting. Proust feels endless. Once you realize that you need to discard any expectations a normal novel with plot etc. then the book gets easier, but it stills feels challenging to read more than 50 pages in one sitting. Part of this lies in Proust’s onslaught of intelligence. You need time to think about what he said because if you read to fast you can miss something brilliant. Imagine walking with a David Foster Wallace type, but instead of his obsession with cynicism, irony, and addiction etc you walk everywhere you go with an Uncle obsessed with social hierarchies, with snobbery, with classification of people and things, and with a instinct to see everything in its most beautiful and psychologically shrewd light. Proust’s abilities attack you on his first pages, but its the cumulative weight of his effort (a mere 4,300 pages) that reminds me why Virginia Woolf felt incapacitated by his talents. Hemingway presents different difficulties. He work within the well-tread territory of narrative, but with his now famous/infamous style of prose that often feels like a child listing objects in the room. (To the left of me stood a women in clothing. To the right of me stood a man in his clothing. I sat on a black leather couch. I felt the cold of the winter. It was cold and I felt it on my skin.) As much as it takes time to the brilliant tangents of Proust it takes as much time to realize that Hemingway’s character are not daft, or empty, but subdued. I need more time to digest both of the master stylists, but neither of them have insinuated themselves into my own inner monologue.
In terms of movies, I felt only slightly disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises, but perhaps the best movie of the summer is Easy Money, a swedish film starring the magnetic, charismatic Joel Kinaman (Perhaps the only redeeming part of AMC’s The Killing.) Based on a Swedish novel of the same name, Easy money is a crime thriller with creativity that young director, Daniel Espinosa, crafts to perfection. What separates Easy Money from much of the rest of the crime movies of the past decade, even Breaking Bad, is its seemingly more realistic take on the criminal life. It’s actually hard to succeed at the criminal life. We witness the abject failure of so many lives with such brute force. It is by far the most gripping movie I have seen this year.
Here are the reasons my reading has fallen off in the past week:
The Dark Knight Rises: I’ll only say this–do not see this movie at a drive-in movie theater, because Bane becomes even more incomprehensible than every complaint that you’ve heard. Other than that, I love the drive-in.
Spider-Man: Yes, two days later I returned to the theater for the Spider-Man reboot. I was skeptical, and still pretty much am, because Emma Stone weirds me out with her bug eyes and quivering lips and Spider-Man is more emo than in the last Tobey Maguire one, which I thought could not be achieved. Hollywood continues to surprise.
Martha Marcy May Marlene: I’d heard a lot of buzz for it a few months ago and finally got around to seeing it. The movie begins with the protagonist escaping from a group home cult situation, into the weekend home of her sister and her new husband. There are a lot of sideways swipes at materialism vs. communalism, but what I liked most was the unique storytelling–the director seamlessly stitches the present with memories at the cult farm, creating a non-linear tapestry that mirrors Martha/Marcy May’s memory.
Breaking Bad, Season 4. Yes, I know I’m behind. At least Netflix surprised us all and put it up after months of anticipation.
I also started reading that much-hyped Springsteen article in the New Yorker. I don’t know why. I don’t like Springsteen.
My decision making skills erode in the middle of summer.