Archive for November, 2013

Reading Roundup: The Rules of Civility, Night Film, Country Girl

You know what’s also wonderful about fall besides apple cider donuts at the orchard, Neil Young’s birthday, riding horses and cozymaking in the kitchen? Reading books. Which I always do, but there’s something about doing it when the air is brisk and you’re curled up with some tea and a blanket that makes it an especially sensuous activity. Just burrow under a cozy throw, light a candle for some company and read away into the night, wind biting at the glass in the windows. Books becomes especially beloved to me when it’s colder, and I relate to them more sharply as companions — friends for the longer, darker nights. These are a few I’ve read in a tear recently — they were all good friends for a weekend, a few evenings or a week, and I greatly enjoyed their company:

The Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

Someone mentioned reading and liking this book here in an earlier post’s comments…or maybe it was also Twitter? Or Facebook? Ach, I can’t keep this electronic output straight. Either way, dear person who mentioned this book, THANK YOU — because of your mention, it caught my eye at the library, so I checked it out and I loved it. The story of a woman who finds herself moving in increasingly elevateed social circles, it evokes Fitzgerald, but with tinges of James Salter and Edith Wharton. That’s a cocktail of influences that would catch my eye anytime, and it makes for a pleasurable, chic, elegantly mournful read. Not a perfect book by any means: the plot kind of gets muddled and stuck at a certain point. Honestly, if you asked me what happened in this book, I would say, “A young woman in Manhattan has a series of love affairs, neither of which come to a satisfying conclusion” — and that would be entirely accurate. Amor Towles can really turn a phrase and conjure an atmosphere, and my memory of this book is like a gorgeous late night out, hazy, strewn with cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey in the air. If you like melancholic nostalgia of the sophisticated, New York variety, this is lovely.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

I think I am one of the few people who wasn’t entirely captivated by Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl’s first book. I am not sure why; perhaps I was overly distracted by film school at the time, but I just didn’t feel very attached or intrigued by the characters, and felt I was reading a clever exercise for a creative writing seminar versus a story about flesh-and-blood people. (Perhaps I was just way too deep into my own MFA program at that point, I don’t know.) But I sort of knew that I would love Night Film, even before I read it: it’s about the mysterious suicide of the daughter of a cult horror filmmaker, and early reviews were touting its suspenseful plot and beautiful writing. First: Pessl really is a great storyteller, and the story pulls you along in that “YOU MUST FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT” way. I couldn’t really put it down, and when I had to, I was itching to get back to it again. I loved the imaginative bravura of Night Film, and wow, I have never wanted to see the nonexistent films of a made-up filmmaker so badly before. (Please let this book inspire a bunch of handmade Etsy posters for Cordova movies, yes?) The work and persona of Stanislaus Cordova was so beautifully imagined — and I loved the “clippings” and articles that formed the “evidence” of the story. This was one instance where extratextuality didn’t bother me. I’m sure people will think the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together satisfyingly at the end, and like many tight-plotted books, the third act is like a pell-mell of excitement, drama and pow-pow-pow that sometimes careens and wobbles if you really think it over. I think people will be sad this isn’t more avant-garde or whatever, but if you are a fan of old-fashioned, campfire-type storytelling and the primal pleasures of suspense, horror and mystery, this was a fantastic read. I loved it unabashedly.

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien was once described to me as an “Irish Colette,” and that was enough for me to pick up a book of hers. I loved reading Country Girls ages ago, with its combination of rich natural detail and feminine yet brutal sexuality, but I was not sure what to expect from her memoir Country Girl other than richly beautiful writing. O’Brien’s prose works in a special kind of way: a sentence will hum along, piling beautiful detail upon beautiful detail, and then something will twist or turn enough to really stab something into your heart. It’s gorgeous yet unexpectedly violent sometimes, and it feels very much like how her childhood and coming-of-age sounds. O’Brien’s writing is as powerful and prodigious as ever, and she can conjure startling images and phrasings that take your breath away. Her writing’s most compelling in the parts detailing her early life — her religious upbringing, her family, her early marriage. And then she gets famous, and suddenly we are hearing how she went to spas to break her writer’s block and her one-night stands with some famous men — all told in a very classy, elegant yet frank way.

In a way, when I read memoirs and other first-person “real” narratives, I try to think of myself as a guest in their living room for a night, picturing them on a sofa, talking to me late into the evening. Sometimes it’s a friendly, chatty gossip, sometimes it’s a deep discussion of what their experience means as a philosophical text. I’m on the writer’s side, for the most part, and am willing to play by the rules of their game, but I’d very much like to feel like a friend. In this respect, Country Girl was like being enchanted by a charismatic, world-weary, glamorous doyenne, a woman with a rich voice and even richer memory — a woman who has spent a life enchanting and dazzling, but in the end, when you come home and think over the night, you realize you actually know very little about her. She offers beauty but no real intimacy, glamour but not wisdom, but still good company over some cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Taken on that level, Country Girl is a glamorous read, much like being a courtier of a queen in her own court. But if you’re looking for a kindred spirit to illuminate the strange path of being a woman making incandescent, incendiary art and life in a brutal world, there’s little here to help you map your own terrain.

Let’s All Be Irascible Sweethearts Like Neil Young

Today is November 12, and it is Neil Young’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Neil! You are 68 years old and just as grumpy and restless and loving and fierce as ever. I haven’t heard your latest record because I am tardy like that, but I have been listening to lots of After the Gold Rush and Zuma and Harvest lately. I’m sure you hate that and want me to move on from your past. That’s a good lesson, but I just can’t let go quite yet. The stuff’s too good.

A long time ago, you taught me how to look for the champion inside of dudes, and it changed my life. I learned to let your music and life example color my perception of the world and its inhabitants, and overall meditated deeply on your particular brand of personhood: your combination of honor, integrity, authenticity and don’t-give-a-shitness. But lately, I’m thinking how being a Neilers applies to myself as a lady-type and human being in general. How to create great enduring work with the simplest of elements, like how you’ve created a bajillion immortal songs from just campfire chords, words, and some melodies. How to stay committed politically and socially, even when the world constantly disappoints you, putting the fight in your might again and again despite the odds. How to take your own personal tragedies and challenges and grow them into opportunities to give to the world at large. How to let your ire evolve into something laser-sharp and heat-seeking and purposeful. How to love well and deeply and fiercely. Big-picture stuff, I guess. Older people stuff, stuff I would’ve laughed at as a kid but feel ready for now.

I’ve always appreciated Neil Young the musician, once I got over the association in my mind between classic rock and frat boys and jocks I got from high school and college. I appreciated the Neil Young brand of masculinity. Now I’m moving onto Neil Young as the enduring, immutable force of nature: how to endure, how to stay true to your path, even if it winds through the thickets of commercial unviability, how to be an icon to yourself in your own life. Not in a vainglorious way — if anything, Neil, you’re aggressively humble. But you’re kind of my guru on how to be kind of a mensch, a stand-up down-home kind of gentlewoman, a thoughtful being who can still rock. Thanks for being you, for being loud and for keeping on.

I wrote my best Neiler thing ever for nogoodforme.com, which was subsequently pubbed in my book . In honor of my unofficial Neil Young Day, the ! Enjoy, you lovely rascals!

A Day at the Orchard

On Saturday my beau and I headed out to the countryside to go to one of the local apple orchards, bundling up in out coats and scarves. It was a gorgeous day, crisp and brisk, and the drive was beautiful, with sunshine flooding the land stretching out all around us.

The landscape is that middle ground between the sumptuous colors and textures of fall and the spindly elegance of winter: there are still brilliantly richly colored leaves on the trees but they’re falling off, shedding fast to reveal the skeletal lines of the trees beneath. Even the daylight is different: softer, more fragile, delicate even, sluicing everything in a veil of gold. A perfect sunlight for the apple orchard, in fact.

I’ve been going to Edwards Apple Orchard since I was a child, when my family used to go apple picking together, filling up bushels with Granny Smiths, Galas, Honeycrisps and Pink Ladies. (Who gets to name apples? Because I want that job.) We didn’t go apple picking today, but much else has remained the same as when I was a kid. There’s always a crowd of people since it’s a popular local attraction, and the irresistible smell of hot, buttery apple cider donuts wafting in the breeze. We made a beeline for the little cafe-like area (though cafe is too fancy a word for the eating area), where they serve up those apple cider donuts, apple pie, hot and cold cider and other goodies.

These donuts are actually pretty legendary around this area: freshly made, the outside is just perfectly crispy, dusted in sugar, with a delicate crunch when you bite into it — and the inside is a beautifully soft and fluffy contrast, sweet but not too much so, and it really does taste like apple cider in pastry-like form: like a real idea of an apple, not a chemist’s idea of one. I’m biased, but these are the best donuts in the world — and I’ve had plenty of fancy real-deal gourmet desserts in my life, like Laduree macarons, and a pretty incredible ganache at Petrossian. I once begged my mom to Fed Ex me a dozen during the fall semester of my first year in film, and I remember how every night, I’d warm one up in the toaster oven and then have it with a pumpkin spice tea. It was absolutely comforting and rampantly delicious. If God put a gun to my head and said I could only have one baked good for the rest of my life, it’s be an apple cider donut from Edwards Apple Orchard in Poplar Grove, Illinois. Together with some hot cider and a warm fire in the Dutch oven nearby, and that’s just about a perfect Midwestern afternoon.


Gratitudes + Beatitudes: Odd Things I’m Grateful For

So, I guess Jupiter entered my astrological sign this fall. Astrologically, Jupiter is the planet of expansion, philosophy, higher learning and just that exciting energy of absorbing and growing and learning. And boy did I get all Jupiteresque in my life this fall: I decided to take a novel-writing course, ramp up my riding lessons, join a Monday-night bowling league…and now I decided at the last minute to do Nanowrimo! Where did I get my crazy pills and why did I take them all at once?

It’s all tremendously fun, but the Nanowrimo-ing is definitely eating into my blogging time. So, in honor of November, I decided I would “focus” and do a series on gratitude, in honor of my favorite holiday feast of the year. People on my Facebook are giving thanks every day leading up to Thanksgiving, and while that’s all cool and I like reading them, I can’t really deal with Facebook so I’m doing it here. Some will be expected in their earnestness, and hopefully other gratitudes will be eccentric and unexpected. Anyway, onward and upward…six things I’m grateful for, one for each day of the month so far.


A car is a strange thing for me to be grateful, because I’m really all for public transportation and have been for much of my life. I didn’t even have a car until this past year. But now I am thankful for my wonky little white Grand Am, not just what utility it provides in my life, but because it’s my favorite place to hear music, and it’s kind of become my other room where I can store my riding things, gym bag, old clothes and weird things that don’t fit in my apartment. But more importantly, my car was given to me by one of my sisters, so every time I drive it, I try to remember that it’s also a symbol of my family’s generosity with one another, which is always a good thing to remember and be thankful for.


The other day in the mail I got a check, a letter, a free book via Paperback Swap, a magazine and a postcard. I felt very much like “Score!”, which is always a good feeling to have in your everyday life, and one that I think we’ve lost over the years, now that everything is electronic. If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that mail service even exists in the first place, bringing you objects from all over the world right to your doorstep. So, mail service, thank you for making it like not-Christmas-but-kind-of-Christmas every now and then, and for being the conduit for many odd, sometimes marvelous things, including weird coupons, trashy catalogs and misdirected mail that makes me indulge in odd speculation over the hobbies of my neighbors.


It’s fun being the crazy auntie because your nephews and nieces aren’t scared to ask you the questions they’re dying to ask but other adults around them avoid. Questions like: “When you die, are we still related?” or “Does God watch me when I’m pooping?” or “Why are people scared of boobies?” I’m thankful for the opportunity to drop some serous concepts on them, like reincarnation, the panopticon and patriarchy, well before they’re old enough to really get them. It also allows me to indulge in my odd fantasy of writing children’s books on feminism and post-structuralism, with titles like “Don’t Be Scared, They’re Just Boobs.” Mostly I just give them straightforward answers to their queries, and then I get into trouble later. But that’s kind of fun as well, because then I get to explain the ideas of panopticon and patriarchy to their parents!


Oh my god, can you imagine trying to blog BY HAND? Or freaking typing out a novel on a typewriter? Or doing Nanowrimo with just a pen and a spiral notebook? Imagine how long it would take to validate your word count! Seriously, though, every time I want to throw my computer out the window because it’s pissing me off, I try to remember just how much in my life computers have possible: art, friendship, communication, jobs, kitten videos. I’m still pissed off, but it keeps me from inflicting extraordinary levels of violence upon inanimate objects.


I remember my first memory of a hot tub. It was the 1980s, and I was over at my friend Becky’s house. Becky lived with her divorced father without any brothers and sisters, which I always found a rather mystical, interesting, almost glamorous situation. Becky’s dad had a Tom Selleck-like mustache, and he was fond of popping the collars on his polo shirts, which I also found really strange yet fascinating. (Wow, I was easily intrigued as a 7-year-old, wasn’t I? I must’ve been more sheltered than I thought.)

Becky’s dad installed a hot tub in their basement, and I remember we went down to look at it once. It was surrounded by empty bottles of wine coolers, and a bikini top was strewn off to the side. Becky held it up and we went “Ewwwwwwww!!!!” and ran upstairs and threw it in the garbage. I mean, we didn’t know what happened down there in the hot tub, but WE KNEW. I could never really look at Becky’s dad straight in the eye after that, and hot tubs became associated with divorced-dad-having-a-midlife-crisis sex in my mind for a long time. Which is kind of ewww-inducing, and ever since, it’s been like, “You’re a divorced dad? My ovaries just shriveled up!”

Luckily I got over that. Now I’m grateful for hot tubs, especially the ones at my gym, because they’re nice stopgaps in between massages, and I swear I’d have shoulder and neck problems if it wasn’t for hot water jets’ relaxation powers. But God help me if I ever go on a date with a divorced dad who tries to wrangle my bikini top off while plying me with Bartles & Jaymes.


Okay, parents are not such an odd thing to be grateful for. I mean, how can we not be thankful for the people who give you life? My parents raised me, made sure I didn’t die from stupidity and somehow love me in ways both perfect and imperfect everyday, even when I am a knucklehead. They also let me use their laundry machines, feed me copious amounts of food when I come over, take my car to get its oil changed because I’m scared of talking to mechanics, give me bowling tips from their heyday as champions of the sport in the 70s, hug me when I am sad, re-pot my plants and guilt me into various things that I know I should do but avoid. In all my teenage arrogance, they once seemed to me to be really boring, but now I realize they are the humblest, wisest, gentlest people I know, with extraordinary compassion and acceptance. What would I do without my mom and dad? A lot, probably, but only about 40 percent of it would be anything good.