Pop Culture

From reading nonfiction to writing nonfiction.

Binge for blogsIt's here! My new book Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching is now available as a paperback from Amazon!

The book is my love letter to all things British television, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is that it provided me with an excuse to make a new British friend: my co-author, Jackie Bailey, who provided the Brit perspective and answered all my questions about Brit TV (and life), like "How many BBCs are there?" and "Why don't the cops in your cop programs have guns?"

AND...we're running a promotion! It's called "Buy a Copy, Review a Copy, Get a Copy." Buy a copy of the book at Amazon, review it for us there, leave a comment here or send me the review link, and I'll contact you to send you a FREE second copy that you can pass along to someone else! BOGO, if you will, with a review in the middle.

I'm very excited, and yes, I want to hear your ideas for promoting this book. Marketing has never been one of my skills*, but I want to learn!

*Indexing is, though, and please note the book is fully indexed!


Tripp & Tyler's Stuff You Should Know About Stuff.

Sometimes you just want a short fluffy nonfiction book.

When that's what you want, consider Tripp & Tyler's (yup, they just go by "Tripp & Tyler") short book Stuff You Should Know About Stuff: How to Properly Behave in Certain Situations. Evidently Tripp and Tyler are a comedy duo who post their sketches on YouTube. I didn't find them there, and frankly, I don't even remember how I found this book.

StuffBut I enjoyed it. They offer sections on how to behave in public situations, situations involving communication, situations involving friends, and "situations we wanted to include in the book but couldn't figure out how to categorize" (among others).

When reading it, I just flipped through it at random and enjoyed it as it came, and here was the first thing I read, in the chapter titled "Recommendations for the next hotel I stay in":

"Please start washing the comforters. We all know that earlier in the day, a naked, sweaty, fat man rested his taint on the comforter while he blow-dried his hair. I know you can neither confirm nor deny this, but the least you could do is have the housekeeper bring a new comforter to my door, shrink-wrapped like an airline blanket." (p. 29.)

Oh, and there's a very funny picture to go along with that.

Another of my favorite chapters was the "Golf Rules for the Rest of Us" one:

"The vast majority of us suck at golf. We need to figure out a way to make the entire experience better; thus, Golf Rules for the Rest of Us:

When you hit a ball into the woods, just find a ball. It doesn't have to be your ball--any white ball will do...

No player should feel guilty for quitting after 14 holes. Everyone knows that is the ideal length of a round of golf." (p. 210.)

So, yeah. Is it great nonfiction literature? Nah. Is it a fun little read that might give you a few laughs? Yes, it is. Oh, and it includes this handy tip: "Get rid of a brain freeze by pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth." Nice. Fun AND educational.


Officially off the reading rails.

The other day I tried to pick up my holds at the library and was stopped at the self-checkout when it informed me that I had 100 items checked out and couldn't take any more. This was a problem, as I still had three holds to check out.

So I moseyed to the checkout desk (what's odd was that I almost NEVER use self-checkout; I loathe and despise self-help machines, but I was just ducking in by myself and thought, well, I can try self-check this one time--see how that worked out for me?) and they very nicely let me take out the three additional books. Yay for human workers! Our machine overlords clearly were not going to override the system for me, but the librarians did.

Wild krattsBut the point is: 103 items (plus a few on Mr. CR's card). And my house looks it. There are picture books, kids' sports books, novels, adult nonfiction books, and DVDs on every single surface around here. Ever since my eye has felt a little better I have just been pounding through any kind of reading material I can find. Add to that the two little boys demanding I order and pick up more books and DVDs for them ("Mom! More basketball books! Mom! More car books! Mom! Wild Kratts DVDs, STAT!"), and the fact that I'm taking Spanish language lessons and am now checking out Spanish CDs and kids' books, and it all adds up to one full library card.

Of course the obvious answer is to get CRjr his own card, but frankly, I don't have the energy to monitor two cards' worth of materials. So we will just have to streamline a bit.

What's also weird in this reading bacchanalia is that I don't really have one book I want to review today. In the past week I've skimmed a book on Dr. Who (Dr. Who the Doctor: His Life and Times), two books on reading lists and suggestions (Book Lust and The Novel Cure), a book on race that I really don't want to talk about because it's just too depressing and I can't figure out a way to talk about it without someone yelling at me for something, because that is how we don't talk about race in this country (The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America), a frothy romance (The Royal We), and listened to several intro Spanish CDs ("Hola. Que tal?" "Hello. What's happening?"). Oh, and did I mention I'm binging on British TV? Have you seen this series Line of Duty? It is UNBELIEVABLE.

Okay. I will try to be more focused next week. Really.


Scaachi Koul's One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.

Let's look at the entire experience surrounding my reading of Scaachi Koul's essay collection One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, shall we?

One day we'll all be deadWell, first of all, I only got it because I saw it mentioned somewhere while doing the weekly links round-up, I love reading essays, and I really enjoyed the title.

So then I brought it home, and I started reading the first few pages, and I wasn't loving it, so I started skipping around in it. I got as far as page 139, to the essay titled "A Good Egg." And here's how it begins:

"'DID I TELL YOU,' I bellowed into the yawning chasm of existence, on the first day of a new month of a new year, of renewed body and refreshed mind, 'THAT I AM DOING A CLEANSE?'

Before Hamhock [her boyfriend] and I left for our trip to Thailand and Vietnam, I knew that my body would be taking a beating because I have no self-control. We were going to a part of the world where beers cost a few bucks and you can still smoke indoors, so I figured I'd give my liver a head start by avoiding alcohol for the month of January. Dry January, they call it, an attempt to start the year off right, to cure your body of what you did over the winter holidays, to be a better person...My trip would be self-indulgent enough, complete with what the locals call a Bucket of Joy: ice, Red Bull, Sprite, and rum or whisky. It's a death wish served in a frosty pail, and I was going to drink all of them." (pp. 139-140.)

And my immediate thought was, God help me, I can't read essay collections by people in their twenties anymore. And I stopped reading it, but left it in my bedroom.

That was two weeks ago. And I've not touched the book since. But tonight was a particularly trying night in the household, as the juniorest CRjr has taken to not wanting to go to bed and makes the stereotypical 800 preschooler demands at bedtime: tuck me in. I need more milk. I heard a scary noise. You didn't tuck me in. And so on and so forth. So finally, because I was about to lose my temper, I left Mr. CR to corral Jr. (I'm a giving spouse like that) and went to our bedroom and shut the door. And then didn't have anything to do. So I picked up Koul's book again.

And this time, for whatever weird reason, I picked the book up almost exactly where I had left off. And the rest of that essay is about Koul going to college, and drinking, and the friends she made who were also drinking. And sometime later in the essay there's this. Please forgive me if I quote at length, but I don't want to truncate it:

"But girls don't actually get to drink like boys because boys do things to girls when they drink. When I was a teenager, the world told me that a girl is responsible for her own body if she's raped or assaulted when she's drunk: that's her fault, it's on her to not get so drunk she stops being fun and starts being a liability. My parents always told me drinking was risky, that it opened up the recesses of a man's brain and made him primal and territorial. Of course that's bad, we were told, but it's up to you to keep yourself safe. For the first few weeks at the hotel [where she stayed in improvised university housing], when I was invited to different parties in different dorm rooms, when older students offered to buy drinks for me, I attended reluctantly, in bulky clothes and with unbrushed hair. I refused to let anyone touch my drink, no one could open a beer for me, no one was allowed to offer me a cup, even an empty one--I'd bring my own. I was learning how to be fun, sure, but the threat loomed: one of the guys here can take it away from you in a heartbeat, and it'll be your fault." (pp. 143-144.)

And I thought, oh, God, I guess I have to read essay collections by twenty-somethings.

The rest of the essay just struck me as so sad. I won't tell you more about it, other than to say everything I read about being a woman these days (especially a young woman) just makes me feel really bad for both young women AND men. So: downer. But I still may read the rest of the collection.*

*If nothing else, I will have to read her essay about women and online trolling, that is discussed in this review. Sigh. Another reason to feel sad.


Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies, by Hadley Freeman.

Well, thanks a lot, Hadley Freeman. Not only did I spend the time reading your book, but then I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of "Say Anything" clips. My productivity this week is not high.

But you know what? Sometimes it's not about high productivity. Sometimes it's just about reading and enjoying a book, and if that book is about watching and enjoying eighties movies, well, then, so much the better. I very much enjoyed Freeman's book Life Moves Pretty Fast. Who should read this? Anyone who's ever enjoyed an eighties movie, for one thing, and that includes people who were too young to see eighties movies on their first pass around, and who instead found them on VHS, DVD, or on YouTube or any streaming service in any decade since. But you know who else should read this book? Anyone who would ever like to see a movie again that is NOT about superheroes or big explosions.

The most obvious and enjoyable part of Freeman's essays are her unabashed love for and knowledge of these movies; also very enjoyable are the "lessons" she draws from them. In her chapter on "Pretty in Pink" she suggests that she learned the lesson "awkward girls should never have makeovers." From "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" she learned about social class. From "Baby Boom" she picked up the fact that successful women are "sexy as hell." I loved reliving some of these movies through her eyes (and was completely pleased that she focused a lot of attention on "Baby Boom"--I saw that one with my mom when it first came out and we both enjoyed it, although I was a bit young for it, and now whenever I see it on TV I can't NOT watch it) and came away with a desire to watch them all again.

But the subtitle of the book is "(And Why We Don't Learn Them Anymore)," and that part of Freeman's thesis is not nearly as fun to read. To wit:

"So now studios will only back films that are easy to sell and will work around the world because this then guarantees they will make their money back. This also means that they want movies that appeal to as many demographics as possible, or 'quadrants,' as film marketing staff refer to people: men, women, old people, and young people. This is turn has led to the demise of traditional women's movies, because they wouldn't appeal to enough quadrants (according to a Hollywood theory that has been around only for the past thirty years, women will see movies starring men and women, but men will see only movies starring men). It also means that films become less interesting because whenever anyone says they want to make something appeal to everybody, they inevitably blandify it to such a degree that it is loved by nobody." (p. 13.)

God, we're in a sad state, aren't we?*

Anyway. It's a fun book. Read it. But be aware that after you're done you're going to have to drop everything and go watch a John Hughes movie or some early John Cusack. Don't say I didn't warn you.

*This wouldn't have been SO depressing, except I read almost exactly the same book this month in actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar's memoir Mustache Shenanigans: Making Super Troopers and Other Adventures in Comedy: "The idea factory that was the American film business from the seventies through the late nineties can't function if the expectations on each film are that it make $250 to $400 million or be judged a financial failure. Corporations bought film companies, in part, because they were 'fun investments.' But when corporations took control of the studios, they took all the fun out of them by forcing film presidents to hit incredibly high profit targets...So, my dear corpoations, make your grand-slam profits on some movies, and also on computers, phones, cars, and insurance. But get back to making the $30 to $50 million theatrical film that makes enough of a profit. Do that, and there will be a creative rebirth that will propel a whole new generation of maverick filmmakers." (pp. 282-283.)


Edward McClelland's How to Speak Midwestern.

So here's what I got read in Edward McClelland's book How to Speak Midwestern:

The intro;

the chapter on North Central (arguably my region, although I might also qualify as Inland North accents;

and the "Wisconsin" portion of the glossary.

I should just have read the whole thing (I still might)--it's only 147 pages long.

Speak midwesternI particularly liked the bits where McClelland explained why Midwesterners often think they "don't have an accent,"* although of course they do. And I really, really enjoyed this bit, about how Midwesterners mostly like to do their criticizing passive-aggressively:

"In the Midwest, you're never certain whether you're being complimented or insulted. Midwesterners don't like to sound critical or hurt anyone's feelings, so we've developed code words that allow us to avoid stating an opinion altogether. The most important words to know are 'interesting' and 'different.' If something has merit, but you don't personally care for it, it's 'interesting.'

'What do you think of the Vikings' new stadium?'

'It's interesting.'

(The story is told of a consultant who presented an idea to a group of Minnesotans, and thought it was going over well because they all said it was interesting.)

'What do you think of the mural under the Wilson Avenue viaduct of three dolphins copulating with the Queen of the Nile?'

'It's pretty different.'" (p. 15.)

I've never thought of myself as a particularly passive-aggressive person, but I think I've used both "interesting" and "different" several times in conversation this past week alone.

I didn't read the whole thing, and I don't know that all of it rang true to me, but it's a good solid effort on an interesting topic. Do check it out sometime.

*I know I have an accent because a few years back my college roommate and I got together after not seeing each other for a few years. She had moved to Virginia and was back for a visit, and when we each got out of our cars and I shouted an exuberant greeting, she tipped her head to the side and smiled at me and said, "Oh, the accent..." I do try to sit on the accent sometimes but when I yell exuberantly it tends to come out.

 

 


Getting rather tired of Difficult Men, actually.

After first starting it, I actually didn't think I would end up reading Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution--From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Difficult menBut I did. I'm helpless when it comes to books about television. I did read the whole thing, although I'll admit to skimming quite a bit as well. The basic idea is this: TV has been evolving to the point where we are seeing a wide variety of characters that are really not that likable. And this is a good, nuanced thing. Here's some of the jacket copy, to give you a better idea of what this book is all about:

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television's narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition.

A new breed of auteur--given the chance to make art in a famously maligned medium--took full advantage, sometimes proving to be nearly as conflicted, idiosyncratic, and 'difficult' as the complicated protagonists that came to define the genre."

Everything I read about television lately seems to suggest that we are currently in a great age for high-quality storytelling. (And after getting sucked in to re-runs of "MacGyver" on MeTV the last couple of weeks, okay, I can see their point that there was a lot of dross TV in the 80s and 90s. Although I still find Richard Dean Anderson super-cute, even with a mullet.)

So far so good. But I find that I am tiring just a bit of all the glowing reviews and study of television programs that almost exclusively feature (and are created by) "difficult men." Perhaps I am not being fair to these programs, as I am largely uninterested in them. Of the shows listed in the book's subtitle, I know I had NO interest in "The Sopranos" because Mr. CR watched that series long before we had kids and I certainly would have had time to watch with him. I really don't want to watch "Breaking Bad," although I have loved Bryan Cranston since he played the hilarious dad Hal on the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" (which was more my speed than a program about a teacher-becoming-a-meth-lord). "The Wire" sounds somewhat interesting but I think it's going to be as depressing as hell. I have seen most of "Mad Men" and it was okay, but I haven't seen the last two seasons and I can't say I'm in any hurry to correct that situation.

So I am not really the target audience for this book. I can't fault its writing; it's interesting and there's a lot of interview material and behind-the-scenes information about how these (and more) shows were created and filmed. It jumps around a bit and I don't really know what the author made his case that these "difficult men" are making TV shows about difficult men that are among the best ever made.

But at the end of the day I think I'm just kind of tired of everything that men touch and watch and create, particularly when such creations focus on such traditionally "male" worlds as crime, advertising, the mob, etc. (I'm also really tired of no one but men rating movies and doing TV writing.) And I really don't need to hear about such men complaining about their mid-life crises. Here's a quote from this book about Matthew Weiner, creator of "Mad Men," on how the show came about:

"As he told Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he remembered the thought that led him to first hearing Don Draper's voice: 'I was 35 years old; I had a job on a network sitcom; it was rated number nine...there's 300 people in the country that have this job, and I was one. I had three children, and...this incredible life--you know, I was like, 'What is wrong with me? Why am I unhappy? Why is there so much going on in my head that I can't express to other people because it's all awful? And what is enough? And I'm going to die one day.' And I'm looking at it and saying, 'This is it?'" (p. 242.)

And I'm looking at THAT and saying, yeah, Matthew Weiner, why were you so unhappy? If that's the impulse that led to the creation of that show (and may be leading to the creation of a lot of similar shows), well, I guess I can see why I'm not too interested. Let me close by quoting a truly great movie, "Broadcast News." It's the exchange between William Hurt, the hot but stupid news anchor, and Albert Brooks, the smart but decidedly not-hot reporter:

Hurt: "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?"

Brooks hisses: "Keep it to yourself."

I guess that's where I am right now. Are your real lives exceeding your dreams, boys? Keep it to yourselves.


Frank: The Voice, and Sinatra: The Chairman--My first big reading experience of 2017.

My reading year 2017 started off with an intense biography experience.

It should also be noted that my first worthwhile reading experience of 2017 actually started in 2016. For some time I had been aware of James Kaplan's definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, but hadn't yet had the time to tackle either or both books. However, every year we go to my in-laws' house sometime during the Christmas holiday and stay an overnight, and I can never sleep at my in-laws'. They're lovely people, they always welcome us, we get our own room with the boys, and in general it's a pleasant experience. It never matters. Usually I drop off around 4 a.m. and wake up again at 7 a.m. when the boys start stirring. So in recent holidays I have wised up and started taking along books that I know will either require some time or which I anticipate to be lovely reading experiences that I want to savor.* When you're up reading at 2 a.m, wherever you are, you generally are in search of something engrossing, I find. So this year I thought: I'm going to take the first volume in the Sinatra series, Frank: The Voice!

Frank the voiceAnd it was a good choice. Clocking in at 718 pages, this was definitely one that was going to take some time. I started it a bit before Christmas, read a huge chunk of it on Christmas night from midnight to 4 a.m., and then finished it up during the week after New Year's Day. I could put it down, because sometimes when you're dealing with a big brick of a biography like that, you have to put it down, but I was also dedicated to picking it back up and finishing it.

Regardless of how you feel about Sinatra, I must say that there have probably been few entertainers who merit a biography to the tune of 1500 combined pages (which this volume, along with Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, totals), and Frank Sinatra is totally one of them. In addition to the unbelievable and dominating musical career, you have several other aspects to consider: his personal life, which was complex and filled with first a domineering mother, and then a variety of wives and paramours; his acting career, which included an Oscar-winning performance in the critically acclaimed and popular film "From Here to Eternity," as well as other star turns in "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate"; his business and singing career in Las Vegas; his long-standing associations with mobsters and Mafia connections; and his political work and friendships.** It should come as no surprise that the guy hardly ever slept and, by all accounts, had to keep moving at all times.

Perhaps my favorite part of this first biography was all the discussion surrounding Frank's very challenging rise to stardom, and, later on, the details about the arranging and recording of many of his biggest hits.*** Kaplan also has a fairly lively writing style. I don't know that this will appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it and thought it suited his subject matter. Consider this sample, in which Frank first performed an arrangement of the song "I've Got the World on a String" by Nelson Riddle, with whom he'd never worked:

"From the moment the nervous-faced guy on the podium signaled the downbeat, Frank knew something was up. Stoller clashed a pair of cymbals; the horns swirled a downward-spiraling cadenza; and then the second Frank sang, 'got the string around my fin-ger,' the brass kicked--BANG!--and the band was cooking. Frank was smiling as he sang, as the seventeen musicians swung along behind him--he even had a smile for the unsmiling guy on the stand, who was waving his arms for all he was worth.

It sure didn't sound like Billy [May] to Frank. It didn't sound like anybody. He loved it.

They did a take, and then another, got it just right. It was golden--but it wasn't Billy May. 'Who wrote that arrangement?' Frank asked Alan Dell.

'This guy,' Dell said, indicating Mr. Serious, who was distractedly leafing through pages of sheet music. 'Nelson Riddle.'

The name registered for the first time. Sinatra made a surprised face. 'Beautiful,' he said.

It was a serious compliment. Frank was generous with gifts and money but extremely stingy when it came to praise. If he said it, he meant it; if he didn't mean it, he didn't say anything.

He looked at Riddle and said it again. 'Beautiful.' And Mr. Serious managed a quick, almost undetectable smile: more like a wince, really." (pp. 615-616.)

I thoroughly enjoyed that. I could just picture the scene. And if you go listen to the song (DO IT) you can just hear the joy. Combine that with the fact that this scene took place at the beginning of his career comeback--perhaps the biggest and best comeback of all time--around 1953/54, after many very bad down years, well, then it takes on even more import. Imagine singing that song, like that, after living through several tough years. THAT is art.

Which is not to say that Sinatra was not a major asshole in many and various ways, all of which Kaplan details. I enjoyed Frank: The Voice so much that I went on to Sinatra: The Chairman, but I did not enjoy that as much, and actually skim-read most of the last 300 pages so I could get some closure. For one thing, I much preferred to read about Sinatra the hustler in his early career years, rather than reading about Sinatra the Rat Pack pig who turned misogyny into an art form in Vegas and beyond. But it was still a great reading experience, and sometime I might revisit it when I can give it more time. Next Christmas at the in-laws', perhaps.

A few technical notes: these biographies have pictures spread throughout the text, which I do not enjoy as much as dedicated picture sections, but which probably allowed them to fit more pictures in, so that was good. Also, these books are exhaustive: volume one covers the years from Sinatra's birth in 1915 through his Oscar win in 1953, while volume two largely covers 1954 to 1971 or so. The nearly twenty last years in Sinatra's life, and his fourth marriage, are dealt with in a less-than-40-page "Coda" at the end (and boy, is that a depressing 40 pages. Getting old, my friends, is not for pussies, even when you are Frank Sinatra).

*And yes, of course, I always take at least two books along so I have options. I'm already dragging an air mattress, pillows, all our clothes and a thermometer and kids' Tylenol (just in case, because I am nuts), so what's a couple more things to drag along?

**I didn't just learn about Frank Sinatra in these books. I can quite honestly say I never realized what a disgusting pig and prick John F. Kennedy was until reading about his dealings with Sinatra and Hollywood (namely: women in Hollywood). Gross.

***Also, please note: Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't read music. How crazy is that? He learned the songs by reading the lyrics and having the songs played to him once or twice.


Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Thank goodness some nonfiction book bloggers have had their acts sufficiently together to host Nonfiction November. It's such a great idea, and every year I'm late to the party, because, well, I'm always late to parties (if I go at all). If you haven't seen any NN posts yet, please check some out. It's great stuff.

The discussion this week is called Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert, and I first came across it when reading Unruly Reader's post about aviation books. (A great post, by the way, and even better comments discussion.) So I thought, I'm not really an expert on anything and I don't have the time or energy to become an expert at anything (and my TBR pile is too huge to even think about asking for expert recommendations and adding to it), so I should probably leave that discussion around. But then I looked around my house and noticed that I have three, count 'em, three books on the go (and a fourth on hold at the library) about...television. So I may not be an expert, but three or four books on the subject seems like a good start for now.

First, a word about me and television. One of my family members is not really a fan of television, and although she never tells me to get off my butt and turn it off (or turn off the CRjrs' PBS Kids, which, not to put too fine a point on it, was the only thing between me and total insanity this past summer, when the CRjrs' sole entertainment was pushing each other down every. single. minute.), I have gathered from her that TV really is a big waste of time. Finally I just had to tell her, okay, but here's the thing: I LOVE TV. I always have and I do and I think I always will. I am the kid who avoided working on the farm by telling my mother I had to do homework, and then I snuck into my brother's room to watch Remington Steele.* I love television almost as much as I love reading. And that, as I think you know, is a lot A LOT. It's like I have two best friends: the solid one who is always there for me and knows just what I need and yet still manages to make me laugh, often. That friend of mine is named Reading. And then I have my other friend, the slightly flashier one who is almost always tons of fun and who isn't always good for me but who I love anyway. That friend is named Television.**

I come from a family of workers and producers, so it has been a long lifetime for me trying to become comfortable with the fact that, for the most part, I am a consumer. I can churn through work with the best of them but for my money? NOTHING is better than reading a book or watching a truly great TV show. It's just the way it is.

So you can see how I ended up with three books about TV in my house at one time. (Incidentally, how's that for having my cake and eating it too? Reading books about TV? So awesome.) And here they are:

Tv the book1. TV (The Book): Two Experts* Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. I'm really enjoying this one. The general theme is that these two longtime TV critics used some sort of "objective" number scale to rank what they feel are the greatest (American) TV shows of all time. I don't care at all about their rankings but they generally do a nice job of summarizing a wide variety of television programs, without giving too many spoilers away. For instance: I can quite safely state that I have never had a desire to watch one episode of the show "Homicide: Life on the Street." But after reading these guys' description of it? I totally want to watch it. The book also includes nice sidebars with further rankings, like "Best Mustaches" (the winner there is Tom Selleck on "Magnum, P.I.," of course). I don't always agree with their choices, because I think their rankings and choices reflect their stereotypical male tastes (their top five shows are "The Simpsons," "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Cheers," and "Breaking Bad." Now, I know women watch and enjoy those shows, but to me that list still reads like it was written by two men. Which it was.

Still. A fun compendium.

Seinfeldia2. Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. I'm actually only partway through this one. It's a serviceable read and I'm enjoying the behind-the-scenes tidbits about how the show started, was cast, and the various personalities that made it all happen. And the author (a former writer for Entertainment Weekly) seems to have done her homework on all the interviews and resources she could find, as well as an impressive interview list with many of the show's key writers and other creators (among them Peter Mehlman, Alec Berg, Spike Feresten, Carol Leifer, and many more). But it does not appear that she got to interview any of the four main stars personally? I know. I suppose none of them have the time or inclination to grant interviews, but it still makes this book feel like it was written at a bit of a remove. Although it's getting terrific reviews. I should probably reserve judgment until I've read the whole thing. I was glad to see that a woman wrote this book, though; have you ever read what a sausage fest most TV and movie reviewing is? Jesus.

Play all3. Play All: A Bingewatcher's Notebook, by Clive James. This book, on the other hand, is annoying the piss out of me.

First of all, it's boring. The introduction is titled "Title Sequence," and here's a sample: "There will always be formal scholarly work to be done. But it will be done best if contact is not lost with the tone of common speech in which habitual consumers discuss the product; a tone not all that far from the voluble congeniality with which they pass the popcorn. Binge-watching is a night out, even when you spend the whole day in. It's a way of being." (p. 11.)

Okay, whatever. It's good writing but it's not exactly prose that you just blow through because it's so fun. I should give James a pass; he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 and points out himself that, while drugs are currently keeping the disease in check, he's still facing his mortality. And I'm sure he knows his stuff; he wrote a weekly column about television for the London Observer from 1972 to 1982. But I'm just not enjoying the book. For one thing, it's another sausage-fest of programs: those that get the most attention include "Band of Brothers," "The Sopranos," "Game of Thrones" (I know GoT is popular with women, too, but something about it still says GUY to me), "Mad Men," and "Breaking Bad" (although it doesn't read like he's a very big fan of "Breaking Bad"). Secondly, he blows spoilers all over the place where he wouldn't even have to. I don't even particularly mind spoilers but the way he uses them doesn't even seem necessary (he really lets a big one out for "The Wire," which annoyed me somewhat, because I'd still like to watch that one without knowing about the plot point he's told me). Definitely not a book I need to binge-read.

So that's what I've got home. And now I just heard about this new one, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific. Anyone read any of these books? And, of course, here's the real question: Seen anything good on TV lately?

Have a very happy Thanksgiving, all.

*Eventually my older brother, not as dedicated to shirking work as I always have been, noticed the blue glow from his room when our mother was out working in the garden alone, and ratted me out for not doing my homework. Yes, it was not nice to make my mother work alone while I watched TV. But, in my defense: it was REMINGTON STEELE.

**If I really wanted to beat this analogy into the ground (and I do) I would say I have a third friend, like a good guy friend who I have a little crush on but who isn't interested in me in that way. That friend is named Movies. Movies are great but are just a little more standoffish (sometimes you have to leave your house to see them, after all) than books and TV.

***OOooh, extra points, because "expert" appears right in this title!


Really? This woman was "not pretty enough"?

If you'd asked me before I read her biography, who is Helen Gurley Brown?, about the only thing I would have been able to tell you was that I thought she was connected to the magazine Cosmopolitan in some way.

And that is correct. Now that I have read her biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown (by Gerri Hirshey), I know that she was editor-in-chief of that magazine for more than thirty years, from 1965 to 1997. I further know that she published her bestselling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, when she was forty years old.

And now I know a good deal many other things about her, both tangible and intangible. I only got this book from the library because it got a lot of press attention this summer; I've never been interested in Brown at all.* I learned she had a really tough childhood, in which her father died when she was only ten years old, and in which she had a close but difficult relationship with her mother. I learned she worked a lot of crappy jobs as she tried to earn enough of a living to lift herself and her family (including a sister who suffered from polio and required medical care and help) out of poverty. I learned how she entered into a late(ish) marriage with David Brown, and how the two of them shared both a professional and working bond as well as a loving one. I learned she could be a difficult woman; an extremely driven woman; a painfully frugal woman (even when she had way more than enough money); a stubborn woman.

In short I learned that Helen Gurley Brown was a lot more interesting person than I ever would have thought, if I'd continued only to think of her in terms of her Cosmopolitan legacy. I found it rather hard to put this biography down (although I think I liked the subject matter better than the biographer's writing style), and you know? I kind of ended up liking old Helen.

One of my favorite stories from the book was one about how Nora Ephron interviewed and wrote about her for Esquire:

"Nora Ephron's Esquire article was titled 'If You're a Little Mouseburger, Come with Me. I was a Mouseburger and I Will Help You,' and it stands as the smartest comic/simpatico distillation of HGB's maddening complexities to date...Ephron was a seasoned journalist by then, but she was not prepared for HGB's insistent candor. Helen gave Ephron the name and phone number of a married ad executive she had an affair with during her single years. Ephron interviewed the man, who was still married and was perplexed that Helene would identify him. She judged it too awkward to use in the article.

'I can't believe you gave me his name,'" Ephron told Helen later.

'Oh. Well. Yes.'

Unbidden, Helene also announced to a startled Ephron that she was very good in bed and she liked sex, very much. Ephron served it all up with both glee and deadpan reserve; she had the canny and humane instinct to merely quote Helen at length, and meticulously..." (p. 322.)

I kind of got a kick that she named the married man, and that he was "perplexed" by that. I'll bet!

This is a big and a comprehensive biography, and for the most part it's very readable. But sometimes I found Hirshey's voice a bit overwhelming, as when she told this story about Beverly Johnson's cover shoot:

"And for the models? Beverly Johnson would like to explain how her first Cosmopolitan cover made her a woman. No lie. Listen." (p. 340.) So then the story goes on that the head of Johnson's modeling agency didn't think Cosmo was a good career move, and then you have this: "Johnson, a skinny, brainy African American girl from Buffalo, New York, politely but resolutely got up in Mrs. Ford's business. 'Why not?'" (p. 341.)

"No lie. Listen."? A bit familiar, that. Also: "got up in Mrs. Ford's business"? I don't know. That's all just a bit more casual than I really want my biography writing to be.

But overall? A good story and a singular woman. It's worth a read, if you've got the time (it's nearly 500 pages long, although it's got quite a few pages of notes and index.)

(Oh, and regarding the title of this post? Evidently the title of the book is how Brown thought of herself. Really? She seemed quite attractive; she had a good head for business and advertising; by her own account she loved sex. If this woman isn't "pretty enough" none of the rest of us stand a chance.)

*In fact, the few times I ever read a Cosmo magazine, mainly in high school, I found it boring and actually not as titillating as its cover headlines always seemed to promise.


Female Comedian Memoirs: the scorecard.

So earlier this summer Mr. CR asked (begged) me to read some happier nonfiction. Or at least stop bringing home and telling him about sad nonfiction that I was reading. So I thought, okay, I'm going to bring home some memoirs by female comedians. (I decided on this project when I saw that Amy Schumer had a new book coming out this fall, so I thought I'd read some other memoirs this summer, then finish up with that one because it would be a timely topic.) That should have been light reading, right?

Well, kind of. Not really, actually. Taken as a group, I found that this group of books kind of depressed me. On the plus side, they were all pretty quick and easy reads. On the negative side, I didn't find most of them hilarious. And at their worst, they made me horribly sad. So let's do this thing, shall we?

A note: I forget what order I read these in, so they're just presented in the order in which I re-piled the books up on my table, so I could look them over and write about them here before returning them to the library.

BedwetterSarah Silverman, The Bedwetter: Stories of Redemption, Courage, and Pee. I actually don't know a lot about Silverman's comedy, and I've never seen an episode of "The Sarah Silverman Program." But for whatever reason, I think she's kind of funny  (go to :45 on that clip) and she doesn't much bother me. (You know how you form these opinions of celebrities, or entertainers? Like you know them personally or something?) And I'll say this for her book: it didn't make me want to kill myself as much as some of the other books on this list did. The book is primarily personal essays and memoir, with some chapters on how she broke into stand-up and the production of her television show.

And she doesn't waste time: on page ten, she relates the story of the accidental death of her older brother (when he was an infant and she wasn't yet born). Her parents went on a cruise to Bermuda that her mother had won while appearing on a game show, and while they were gone, they left the baby in the care of his paternal grandparents, where he accidentally smothered in his crib. (Is that terrible or what?) So yeah: you can see how this family and person might develop a dark sense of humor. And the title's not really a joke either: Silverman really did have a problem wetting her bed at night, well into later childhood and her teens. Or, as she puts it: "At eight years old, my urine showed no promise of abandoning its nightly march out of my urethra and onto my mattress. New Hampshire was running out of clean sheets." (p. 21.) Some of the funniest things in this book were the separate headings within the chapters; here's one of my favorites, how how she suffered from clinical depression as a teenager: "Another Chronic Condition that Nobody Has Any Fucking Clue How to Treat." (p. 30.) And that was followed immediately by another hilarious, if sad, heading: "An emotionally disturbed teenager is given a bottomless well of insanely addictive drugs as a means to improve her life, and other outstanding achievements for the New Hampshire mental health community." (p. 31.) Grade: Okay. I got some chuckles. (Yeah, no letter grades, no star ratings. I refuse to use quantitative standards when good old ambiguous qualitative standards are available to me.)

Tiny Fey, Bossypants. Actually, this one was a re-read. I don't think I finished it last time and I wanted to see if I'd underestimated it. I stand by my original assessment: Tina Fey is Not Funny. I did finish it this time, though. Grade: Pointless, but at least not appalling (See: Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl).

Not that kind of girlLena Dunham's Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned." Another re-read, as I couldn't finish this one the first time I had it either. (I know. I am not a fast learner. But I was so appalled by so many of these "funny" memoirs and by the positive reception of them by other reviewers and readers that I kept thinking, well, I must just be missing something.) This was another book that was primarily a book of not-that-great personal essays with a few chapters thrown in about Dunham's professional life and her seemingly sudden and meteoric rise to fame and omnipresence on the Internet thanks to the popularity of her TV show "Girls." This book made me the most unhappy, because Dunham was the youngest author whose book I read, and all I could think when I was done with this one was, Wow, I'm so sorry for all the young girls out there.

I'll illustrate. Here's a charming story from her chapter titled "Barry," about a man with whom she had an unpleasant (if not illegal, on his part) sexual experience when she was in college: "Barry leads me to the parking lot. I tell him to look away. I pull down my tights to pee, and he jams a few of his fingers inside me, like he's trying to plug me up. I'm not sure whether I can't stop it or I don't want to..."

Okay. In addition to being disturbed by that, it's also where I lose some patience for Dunham. Really? How is this guy even getting in a physical position to make that happen while she's peeing? What part of that don't you want to stop? I'm not trying to be judgmental, really. I literally just don't get it. It continues:

"Now Barry's in my place. Now we're on my floor, doing all the things grown-ups do. I don't know how we got here, but I refuse to believe it's an accident." This continues until: "Before sunrise, I diligently enter the encounter into the Word document I keep, titled 'Intimacy Database.' Barry. Number Four. We fucked. 69'd. It was terribly aggressive. Only once. No one came." (pp. 58-60.)

Nobody in this book, even the author, sounds like they're having any fun, and it's certainly not funny. Grade: I may need some True Crime to cheer up after this.

Amy Poehler, Yes Please. There were some funny bits in Poehler's memoir, but as with Fey's, I didn't find it that interesting, either. Grade: If you must read something by a female SNL alum, choose this one over Fey's.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (and other concerns). Okay, again, I wouldn't put this one in the class of great literature, but at least I laughed at it throughout and Mindy did not make me feel that being a woman today, putting up with the industry and men (wow, that is a lot to do), is just the worst job ever. These are mostly personal essays too, in sections titled "I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back," "I Love New York and It Likes Me Okay," "Hollywood: My Good Friend Who Is Also a Little Embarrassing," "The Best Distraction in the World: Romance and Guys," "My Appearance: The Fun and the Really Not Fun," and "My All-Important Legacy." Her look at her career trajectory is probably the most interesting one among these memoirs; she thoroughly describes her low-level entertainment and TV jobs, her two-woman play "Matt and Ben," writing for The Office, a brief stint at SNL, and her writing process in general.

Mindy also scores as the only writer whose book I recalled pleasurably after reading it. She has this very hilarious, and strange, chapter titled "Why do Men Put on Their Shoes So Slowly?" It's all of one page, and here's most of it: "Why do all the men I know put their shoes on incredibly slowly? When I tie my shoelaces I can do it standing, and I'm out the door in about ten seconds. (Or, more often, I don't even tie my shoelaces. I slip my feet into my sneakers and tighten the laces in the car.) But with men, if they are putting on any kind of shoe (sneaker, Vans, dress shoe), it will take twenty times as long as when a woman does it. It has come to the point where if I know I'm leaving a house with a man, I can factor in a bathroom visit or a phone call or both, and when I'm done, he'll almost be done tying his shoes." (p. 188.) Ever since I read that, I've noticed the many, many times I've waited for Mr. CR to put on his shoes and get out of the house, while I wait in the car. It wouldn't be so funny, except if I'm in the car, it means I've dressed myself, dressed two small boys, packed our going-out bag, and gotten said two small boys strapped into their car seats...all while Mr. CR is still putting on his shoes. Mindy is onto something here.

Grade: If you're going to read one book on this list, make it this one. It's funny, it's interesting, it's personal without being TOO MUCH, and if you're trying to inspire a woman to be a writer and entertainer, this is also probably the most positive book here.

Jessi Klein, You'll Grow Out of It. I reviewed this one not long ago. Grade: Points for some solid laughs, but overall? It left me wondering once again why smart, funny, good-looking women are taking semen shots in the face (that they don't seem all that excited about getting) and trying so hard to be what guys want. Not really Grrl Power, in my opinion.

Last but not least:

Girl with the lower back tattooAnd then we come to Amy Schumer, and her book The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. I just struggled to get through the first 75 pages of this one. May I illustrate? The first essay is titled "Open Letter to My Vagina," and here's how it starts: "I know I've put you through a lot. I've had hot wax poured on you and the hair ripped from you by strangers. Some of the strangers have burned you even though I told them you have very sensitive skin. But it's on me for going to a shady-looking place in Astoria, Queens, that you thought may have been a drug front. I've been responsible for getting you yeast infections and UTIs and have worn stockings and Spanx for too long, knowing it could cause you problems. And I want to apologize for Lance on the lacrosse team, who treated you like you owed him money with his finger. That sucked, and I'm totally with you in being pissed. But you've also had a lot of nice visitors, right? Huh? You have to admit we've had a lot of fun together. I even fought to be able to call you 'pussy,' which I know you prefer, on television." (p. 3.)

Yeah, I don't know. I'm just not laughing. And this hurts me, as I know Amy Schumer and her writing team are capable of some really funny stuff, as in this clip from her show: Last fuckable day. Overall I much preferred it when she was talking about getting started in stand-up, and writing her show, and learning the business. And I'll admit that I laughed out loud as she describes writing down the first joke she really "wrote":  "This old woman on the subway asked me, 'Have you heard the good news?' She was trying to save me. I said, 'Ma'am, I'm so sorry. My people are Jewish.' She said, 'That's okay, your people just haven't found Jesus yet.' I said, 'No, we found him. Maybe you haven't heard the bad news.'" (p. 153.)

But once again there were too many personal stories that just made me unhappy, thinking of what women put up with. And that's really not how I wanted to feel after my "lighter reading." Grade: Okay, if you're really interested in Amy Schumer. Personally, I'm heading back to some good depressing nonfiction so I can cheer up.

 


A pair of graphic novels I either could have done without, or really needed.

Mary weptLast spring (or thereabouts) I noticed that a graphic novel titled Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible was getting a lot of press attention. As it was a historical/religion graphic novel, and therefore nonfiction, I thought I would try it. I had read another graphic novel memoir by the same author, Chester Brown, about a million years ago. I couldn't remember it at all, other than its title: I Never Liked You. But I thought, let's try it.

And then I waited for it on hold from the library for so long that I forgot all about what it even was. I kept seeing the title "Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus" on my hold list, and I thought, I wonder what that book's about? And then it came.

How could I forget this one? It's a graphic novel, illustrating the stories of numerous women in the Bible, as well as other well known books/stories. Included here are illustrations of the Cain and Abel story, Ruth's marrying Boaz, the Annunciation of Mary, Bathsheba and David, Tamar, and Rahab (the latter two whose stories I don't know very well, but involved prostitution or sex as an exchange in some way). And what is the theme? Well, I'm vastly simplifying it here, but Brown speculates that the way the stories of these women were told, particularly in the Gospel according to Matthew, means there is some evidence that not only were there many prostitutes in the Bible, but that Mary the mother of God was one of them. Here's Matthew talking to himself while writing his Gospel account:

"All the evidence indicates that Jesus's mother was a whore. Jesus himself said so. But many Christians are against prostitution, and they don't want to hear the truth. Even if I wrote it, it would just be censored when the scribes copy out the book. But I want to acknowledge the truth in some manner. Is there a way of hinting at it without it being censored?" p. 146.

So I finish this thing, copious afterword and notes included, and my one thought, is, Wow, for some reason this guy really needs prostitution to be okay.

So I looked up his earlier books, and find his title Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John. And of course, everything makes more sense now. Of course he needs prostitution to be okay, because he goes to prostitutes.

Which is all, at this point, bothering me much less than you would think (or my mother would expect of me). For one thing, as a Catholic of a certain age, I was raised in a religious education environment that didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to the Bible. Sure, we had scripture every week in church, but Catholics doing "Bible study" when I was growing up was pretty much unheard of. In my family we seemed to depend a lot more on certain prayers, saint stories (although yes, I had books of Bible stories too), Catholic catechism (as laid down in the conservative Baltimore catechism series), and a special fondness for Mary.* So you know what? I don't care if Mary was a prostitute. I don't really care if she was a virgin, although that's what I learned and frankly it's just as easy for me to believe she was a virgin as anything else (see earlier: I just don't particularly care). The important thing is Mary IS my mother. I love her as my mother and I ask for her help and her intercession like a mother. She has been my only friend at many dark 3 a.m. hours in my life. The Catholic Church has done many things appallingly wrong in its history. But I am so grateful to Catholicism for giving me Mary as an individual in her own right, and my mother.**

So if Chester Brown wants to think she was a prostitute, and has done a lot of reading and research to back that up, well, okay.*** Evidently a lot of his ideas are based in part on Jane Schaberg's scholarly book The Illegitimacy of Jesus. At this point I wasn't particularly bothered.

But then I had to go and read his memoir Paying for It as well.

And now, friends? Now I'm a bit disturbed.

It's not a complicated book. Brown decided, after his girlfriend (with whom he lived) asked if he minded if she pursued a relationship with another man (while they still lived together), that he really didn't mind, and that in fact he was glad to be rid of the jealous feelings of a monogamous relationship. Things progress until he decides to pursue his two competing desires: "the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend," (p. 16) and soon he responds to an escort ad and begins a series of encounters with paid sex workers. Most of the book thereafter details those encounters, set off by interludes of him and his friends engaging in discussions about whether his behavior is wrong or not.

Well, okay. I read the whole book--once again with copious appendices and notes wherein Brown lays out most of his arguments that prostitution should be decriminalized--and while I was reading it I didn't really have much of a reaction. But then I found I would think about different parts of the book, and Brown's arguments, at random points later in the day. And the more I recounted his experiences and his arguments, the more I reacted.

I'm not going to take each chapter or experience in turn. Instead, I'd like to give you a broad overview of what disturbed me about some of Brown's encounters with sex workers: 1. he often pays for half-hour sessions rather than full-hour sessions, and then depicts himself variously trying to get the prostitutes to move on from oral to full sex, or he shows himself periodically stopping the action to slow down his, ahem, "completion." At least one of the women asks him why he keeps stopping and starting again, informing him, "it's starting to hurt, y'know!" (p. 63.) 2. Periodically he has to question whether the women even understand English, or whether they are really the age they claim to be. 3. At least once he wants to walk away because the prostitute is unattractive, or (gasp) appears to be as old as "in her thirties." 4. After several visits to the same prostitute, he notes afterward that the "dates" are starting to make him feel empty inside. 5. Several prostitutes indicate (to me) they might not be enjoying the work--one says "ow" throughout the entire encounter, another answers Brown's questions about her previous work in a massage parlor and admits that she would rather be back at the massage parlor rather than working as an escort.

So, looking at the above as a whole, the picture I'm drawing of the author is that he's a cheap bastard who so badly wants what he's doing to be okay that he never questions whether women are foreign-born or actually eighteen; who's in his late thirties himself but of course is completely uninterested sexually in women of a comparable age; and although he seems desperate to reassure his friends that he treats these workers kindly (he tips them, lets them use his phone, etc.) he clearly is not put off his stroke when a woman shows clear signs of being in discomfort or pain.

I'm sorry, but there you have it. With that picture in my mind, I simply cannot take most of his arguments for the decriminalization of prostitution seriously. Like the one he relies on a lot: "I believe that, if prostitution is decriminalized, its normalization will happen relatively quickly--within a few generations. When I was born, in 1960, homosexuality was widely seen as 'sick' and disgusting. It was illegal to engage in homosexual activity in this country (and probably all of the other 'western' countries). In 1967, Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality in Canada...The result, forty-something years later, is that homosexuality has become normalized for most people 'in the west.' It's no longer widely seen as sick or disgusting." (p. 231.) Does anyone else find this argument weak? Are paying for sex with professionals and homosexuality really analogous situations? Also, if activities like pedophilia or necrophilia were "normalized," does that mean they would be okay?

Brown also likes to make the point that prostitutes should have their choice to make their living in the way they choose. Another weak argument, I think. How much money can a woman really make in this line of work if men stop choosing them (as Brown does) the minute they look like they are past their twenties? What is the percentage of women who are really CHOOSING this work? I would suggest you read Robert Kolker's Lost Girls for a look at how someone gets into this work and what happens after they do. It doesn't seem to me that choice often has a lot to do with it.

Anyway. Blah blah blah. I had a lot more thoughts about these two books, but this post is already ridiculously long. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of interacting with these books, but I do have to admit that I have now given them a lot of thought and even argued with their author in my head. So, paradoxically: A good reading experience. I think the Paying for It book might actually be a good book for all women to read, for its scary insights into one male mind (particularly what Brown describes as the "burden" of his life--"Every time I saw an attractive woman, I wanted to walk up to her and try to initiate some sort of interaction. I usually lacked the confidence to do so...I wasn't even aware that all of that felt like a burden until I walked out of that brothel and saw an attractive woman on the street and realized I felt no inner tension about whether or not I should talk to her. Of course I shouldn't--she was a stranger. Why would I worry that I was missing an opportunity to potentially have sex? Suddenly, sex with beautiful women was easy to get." (p. 263.) I'll tell you this: it obviously takes all kinds.

*Family legend has it that Dad appealed to Mary to intercede and help him find a good wife, and he found our mother. My mother is spectacular, so thanks, Mary!

**And the subject of one of my favorite prayers, a poem by Anne Porter: "Mary, in you/We see the flowering/Of our human beauty/And hear/The songs of God. And in your heart the lost/Rejected and abandoned ones/Are held in honor. Stay with us now/And always."

***This is way off topic, and I never reviewed it here, but this summer I also read a lot of Tom Bissell's really interesting book Apostle: Travels among the Tombs of the Twelve, also about Bible history, and how very little anyone knows about even the Apostles (arguably well-known and often-cited figures that they are). In that book Bissell noted that when he noticed all the inconsistencies and historical fuzziness in the Bible, he lost his verve for his Catholic religion. This does not happen to me. The more I learn about how complex the Bible is, how historically difficult it is to pin anything in it down with certainty, it doesn't make me take my religion less seriously. It makes me take the Bible less seriously. If that makes any sense.


Jessi Klein's "You'll Grow Out of It."

Oh, I was so on board to enjoy this book by Jessi Klein*.

Jessi kleinFirst, there's this excerpt on the back of the book: "Everyone is charmed by a little tomboy. A scrappy little girl in overalls with a ponytail and scraped knees, who loves soccer and baseball and comic books and dirt. But what are we charmed by? It's not just that she's cute. It's that she so innocently thinks she's going to stay this way forever. But we all know she won't. And why is that?

Because as much as we like a tomboy, nobody likes a tom man."

Tee hee. And then there was this, about "learning the secrets of being a woman":

"Being a woman usually means you are born with a vagina and after that you'll probably grow boobs and most likely pretty soon after that you'll have long hair because it's no secret that men are pretty non-negotiable about that, except for the times when some Frenchwoman with an insanely long neck pulls it off and a certain segment of men who are open to being a little different go fucking bananas for her." (p. 14.)

Oh, I laughed at that. Laughed and laughed and laughed, the way only a short-haired girl who does not have an insanely long neck and has relied on that (tiny) segment of men who are open to being a little different for my dating and marriage action can laugh. So I was totally on board. But then, later, there was this, in the essay titled "Long Day's Journey Into Porn":

"What I was not prepared for was sex in the age of Internet porn, and how interested Harrison was in ejaculating on my body, and then, gradually, when I didn't flee or register protest over that act, my face. I was unhappily surprised by it, but I was so timid about my lack of experience at the advanced age of twenty-seven that I didn't want to ask any of my plentiful follow-up questions, among which were: 1. Why did you want to come on my face? 2. How do you think I feel about you coming on my face? 3. Is this A Thing everyone is doing? 4. What gave you the idea to do this?

The answer to #4, of course, was Internet porn. I didn't know this yet. I was at the very beginning of this new trend where masses of young men learn how to have sex from watching porn..." (p. 179.)

And the essay ends with Klein using porn herself as an "assist in pleasuring myself." One night she takes care of business while completing the gift registry for her expected son, and this is how the essay ends:

"They finish. I finish. I close out of the window with the x's and by default I am back on my last webpage, face-to-face with the elephant humidifier. At first it feels like the proximity of these two tabs is a bit profane--these things shouldn't have been so close to each other. But then I think, Well, isn't all this part of life. Birth and sex and porn. Exciting and horrible and great and disgusting and joyful." (p. 186.)

I don't know. She's keeping upbeat but the whole thing just depressed the hell out of me. Seemed like a lot of compromising for a tom man. But maybe that's just me.

Want a more complete review? Try this one at Paste Magazine or this much more comprehensive one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

*Perhaps best known as head writer on the series "Inside Amy Schumer."


Eye candy for Anglophiles: "British Stuff: Life in Britain through 101 Everyday Objects."

So I've pretty much given myself over to just pretending I'm British. Yesterday I was writing something about colors and I almost wrote colours. Today I told a friend I had to go to the piddly diddly department.*

British stuffSo of course when I see books in the library like British Stuff: Life in Britain through 101 Everyday Objects, I have to immediately take them home and read them. I LOVED this one--beautiful photos and just enough text to impart good information while still making it a quick (and fun) read. And yes, I'm totally pathetic and prided myself on how many of these objects I already knew about. Sad that my self-confidence is tied up not with keeping a tidy home or making awesome craft projects with the CRjrs, but rather with how many British things I can identify on sight.

Here's a particularly fun entry, for the simple "Garden shed":

"A shed is usually a simple, single-storey structure in a back garden or on an allotment which is generally used for storage, for hobbies or as a workshop. Of course sheds exist all over the world, but in Britain the shed has particular cultural significance. It is where British people, especially men, retreat to, in order to 'potter,' to escape, to 'do stuff.'

It is their refuge from the rest of the world, a place where they can dismantle a motorbike without having to suffer the abuse they might otherwise earn if they carried out the same task on the kitchen table. In exceptional circumstances the shed may also be used to sleep in if their owners have locked themselves out after a night at the pub. And whilst it may still be men who most often seek refuge in their shed, increasingly women are also enjoying their own space there."

I'm totally going to build a backyard shed to be my refuge. I will go there and pretend I'm British, and I will tell Mr. CR, "I am going to my shed. Kindly do not bother me whilst I am there. I will be back in when I need to go to the piddly diddly department."

It's a great book. Do humour me and go and read it.

*Meaning the bathroom, of course--you would totally know that if you had read Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicolson books like I told you to.


But Enough About Me by Burt Reynolds.

Before my truly epic and unbelievably mucus-productive cold hit this January, I was able to blow through Burt Reynolds's autobiography But Enough About Me.

Why, you say? Well, why not? I'm not really any kind of Burt Reynolds fan but a. I did enjoy "Smokey and the Bandit" when I first saw it, and b. as a former film major, I've always felt a bit bad about never having watched the movie "Deliverance," which is, by all accounts, a film classic.*

And you know what? I really enjoyed it. As are most celebrity autobiographies, it was a quick read, and although you learned a bit about some of Reynolds's many friendships and relationships in the business (who knew he dated Dinah Shore, when she was in her fifties and twenty years his senior?), Reynolds and his co-writer Jon Winokur really kept everything pretty light. That said, there were a couple of anecdotes I enjoyed, like the one where he advocated for the casting of Sally Field as his love interest:

"When I told Universal that I wanted Sally Field for 'Smokey and the Bandit,' they said, 'Why would you want the goddamn Flying Nun?'

'Because she has talent,' I said.

'She isn't ready to star in a feature film, and she isn't sexy.'

'You don't understand,' I said. 'Talent is sexy.'" (p. 188.)

And although he married her, he didn't have good things to say about Loni Anderson:

"I didn't see Loni again until a few years later, at an awards gala, after Sally and I had broken up. She asked me to dance and whispered in y ear, 'I want to have your baby.'

'Right here?' I said.

'You know what I mean,' she said.

'Yeah, I know what you mean and I'm flattered, but don't you think we should find out if we like each other first?'

The truth is, I never did like her. We'd be together and she'd be gorgeous, though I always thought she wore too much makeup. It would be nice and all that, but I'd be thinking, 'This is not the person for me. What the hell am I doing with her?'" (p. 203.)

Something about that was just so funny. Like he was just powerless when big intimidating Loni Anderson came around and forced him to marry her. But anyway: I'm not sorry I read it. Particularly because after I did I got a real urge to re-watch "Smokey and the Bandit," which I did, and, since he was still up, LilCR watched it with us, a circumstance about which Mr. CR was conflicted. I said, Dear, if he remembers watching "Smokey and the Bandit" when he starts to drive, and tries to outrun cops, well, then you can yell at me. And LilCR REALLY enjoyed it. The next morning, he said, in his piping LilCR voice: "Watch. Car. Movie. Again?"**

Awesome.

*The one thing that I know about "Deliverance," as does everyone else, is that it includes the depiction of a man being raped by another man. Yeah, I just can't get myself to watch that, even if it's a small part of the picture. I can just barely read about such things, but watching them on film is one of my deal breakers.

**LilCR talks like this, like he's trying each new word for. the. first. time? Ending with the up inflection. It's like living with a diminutive and male Valley Girl.


Blowing the lid off nookie: Much Ado About Loving

Like all boring old married people, Mr. CR and I share certain phrases and words to use as conversational shorthand. One of our most frequently used phrases is "Thanks for blowing the lid off nookie." This in-joke comes from a line uttered by Albert Brooks in the awesome movie Broadcast News, but I am not going to explain its context any further; you'll just have to go watch the movie.* For our purposes here I can explain the phrase as meaning (to us), well, thanks for stating the painfully obvious. I'll illustrate:

CR: Taibbi just wrote another article about Donald Trump loving attention.

Mr. CR: Wow, he really blew the lid off nookie with that one.

This phrase also sums up how I feel about the small essay/correspondence collection Much Ado About Loving, co-written by Jack Murnighan** and Maura Kelly. What the authors did here was look at the subject of romantic relationships by comparing their own experiences with those found in literature. I was so primed to like this book. I like books about books; I like books about relationships; I love collections of correspondence and back-and-forth essays.

I did not really like this book.

I mean, it was okay. And the premise was kind of fun. I enjoyed reading about books (a lot of which I haven't read--classics like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Light in August, The Magic Mountain, etc.) through the lens of the relationships among their characters. But when it came time to actually glean relationship insights from these books (and from Murnighan and Kelly), I was underwhelmed.

Here's what I learn from Murnighan, by way of Tolstoy's War and Peace and the character of Natasha:

"This is the effet joie de vivre has on the people around you: They share in it, feeling more engaged, more alive and vital, like crocuses rising up to see the sun. When you are joyful, when you say yes to life and have fun and project positivity all around you, you become a sun in the center of every constellation, and people want to be near you...Women like this, women who are really alive, are the most captivating of all; they are making the most out of living, and they help you do it, too." (pp. 85-86.)

And here's Murnighan again, on reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and noting that Miller is "pretty much all about un-repression." He also has this to say, on how everyone can enjoy sex more:

"I suppose it's not surprising that many women don't realize the degree to which the simple fact of loving sex can make the act great for both parties." (p. 110.)***

So, here's what we've learned for relationships, particularly the man's advice to women: Be charming, and have a lot of joie de vivre, and oh yeah, love sex. To which I say: well, thanks, Jack Murnighan. You really blew the lid off nookie with that one.

*I will stop at nothing to get everyone, everywhere, to watch the movie "Broadcast News."

**Of Beowulf on the Beach fame (which I actually liked).

***By the way, women totally realize this (making it happen, always, can be a challenge, especially after having all that joie de vivre, which is exhausting), but thanks for assuming we're all idiots.


Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the Anglophile in your life

Know any Anglophiles? You know, your friend who watches more British TV than she does American, and (largely as a result of that) clicks on all the royal family linkbait she comes across?*

Well, if you need a gift for an Anglophile, you could go more wrong than buying Fraser McAlpine's fun pop culture/reference guide Stuff Brits Like. In short chapters McAlpine covers a wide variety of subjects of interest to those with an interest in all things British: Pedantry, Talking About the Weather, Apologizing Needlessly, Sarcasm**, the National Health Service, Dunking Biscuits, and many, many more. It's engagingly written (as seen in this chapter on "Reality TV"):

"It's bubble-popping time! A certain number of people may be interested in reading a book about British culture because they believe the world is going to aitch-ee-double-hockeysticks in a handcart and entertainment media are throwing vacuous nonentities out there as hard and as fast as they can and it's the end of civilization as we know it unless the British--with their tradition of theater and literature and thinking hard about stuff--have the key to making everything okay. Surely they won't have fallen prey to the base demands of reality TV? Surely they've seen through the giddy parade of desperate egos and stuck to watching BBC dramatizations of the lives of prominent scientists, starring Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston? Surely? Please?

Sorry. That hasn't happened. I mean yes, Benedict Cumberbatch has made those dramas, that's still a thing, but the Brits are as dazzled by reality TV as anyone." (p. 160.)

It's also got loads of pop culture references, to British music, films, and television shows that any Anglophile worth their salt will simply drool over.

So do you know anyone who reads all British books and watches all British TV and whose crushes are exclusively Brit stars like Tom Hardy and James McAvoy? Buy them this book, and Bob's your uncle***, they'll love you forever.

*I may or may not be describing myself.

**You can see why I love these people.

***You'll know what I'm saying if you're an Anglophile.


Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the Bill Murray fan in your life.

I thought I'd put a twist on the holiday book buying guide experience by suggesting some ridiculously specific books for specific readers. What do you think?*

I really, really enjoyed Robert Schnakenberg's compendium The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray. Arranged in an A to Z format, every single topic you can possibly think of, from Murray's movies to family to personal likes and dislikes, is here. It's also got a lot of great quotes, pictures, and sidebars detailing "Tales from Murrayland," detailing such exploits as how Murray has taken to crashing people's parties and pictures.

And I do mean comprehensive. There's even entries for things Murray doesn't like, like this one for Ball, Lucille:

"Despite a self-professed predilection for 'funny females,' Murray is not a fan of the wailing red-headed comedian who starred in the eponymous 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. 'Lucy never really made me laugh,' he told film critic Elvis Mitchell in a 2008 interview. 'Lucy was never my girl.'" (p. 19.)

This book was a lot of fun to read, and gave me an appreciation for all the Murray movies I want to re-watch (Stripes) as well as watch for the first time (The Razor's Edge). It also gave me some insight into how you probably don't want to be married to Bill Murray, as well as great stories from his large family, including his sister's feeling sorry for his SNL co-stars:

"Murray's sister Laura once revealed to an interviewer that Todd DiLaMuca's penchant for giving people noogies was based on her brother's own adolescent proclivities. 'We just couldn't believe it,' she said of her family's initial reaction to the sketches. 'He was just in the kitchen giving us those, and now there he is suddenly doing it on national television and getting standing ovations. I actually felt sorry for those other cast members any time I saw him doing that, because they were painful.'" (p. 61.)

So there you go. My first official ridiculously specific book-buying suggestion.

*Although aren't there a lot of Bill Murray fans? He is pretty funny.


Jacob Slichter's So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: Reading that's way more fun than actually being a rock star.

For whatever reason, lately I've been rekindling my love affair with the late-90s band Semisonic.* Certain bands just hit you right at the right time in your life, and Semisonic was one of those bands for me.

So somewhere in the foggy mists of my brain I remembered that Semisonic's drummer, Jacob Slichter, actually wrote a memoir about his time with the band, titled So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. And I thought, why not? Time to read it.

And I enjoyed it so, so much.** Slichter dishes on the entire music business, from signing with a music company, to negotiating contracts, to photo sessions, to video production, to touring--really every aspect of the business you could possibly think of. This book was published in 2004 and the band did most of its recording between 1996 and 2001, so I don't know if any of the information given here is still accurate. But it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes work memoir of what turns out to be a surprisingly horrific and un-lucrative job.

Of course, this book is also a heartbreaker, because Semisonic only recorded three CDs as a band and never quite achieved the megastardom they (and all rock stars, I would guess) really dreamed about. The biggest hit they ever had, Closing Time, was really only lucrative enough to help Slichter upgrade from his old used car to a slightly newer used car. And although Slichter doesn't really focus on personal details, he does discuss how the band (and particularly its lead vocalist, Dan Wilson) dealt with adversity when Wilson's daughter was born extremely prematurely.***

There were so many enjoyable bits here. In this excerpt, Slichter betrays the frustrations of being adored by few but ignored by many:

"When nightfall brought the headline acts onto the stage, I stood in the crowd and watched. Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst pointed across the throng. 'Link your arms together. Everyone. Link your arms. We're a big family. A big fucking family. No one can take us apart from each other, all right?' Seconds later, tens of thousands of fans unlinked their arms and pumped their fists in the air as they shouted along with Durst, 'I did it all for the nookie!'...

After the show [a different show where they played], a Japanese woman introduced herself and told us she had flown all the way from Tokyo to see us. I was starting to regard such extraordinary expressions of adoration with impatience. Why were our fans a select group of considerate and sweet people who went out of their way to see us and bring us gifts from afar? Why couldn't they be the dull-witted masses who pumped their fists and shouted, 'I did it all for the nookie'?" (pp. 271-272.)

Now, actually, that quote makes Slichter sound like something of a jerk. But he's not. I think anyone who's ever made good art that they're proud of, but would still like to make some money on it (and fails), will get what he's talking about.

I've loved a lot of bands, and I hope to love a lot more. But I don't think I will ever again love a band the way I loved Semisonic. I mean, watch this video.

Could they be any cuter? I'm so grateful to Slichter for showing me another side of their experience.

*CRjr's favorite CD is Dan Wilson's solo release, Free Life; Wilson is one of the founding members of Semisonic. In other hilarious news, if you follow that link, you'll see I talked about Wilson's music the same day I announced we were expecting CRjr. And now it's one of his favorite CDs. WEIRD.

**I also took it along on a trip to my in-laws', and it was lovely to have something good to read while there, because I couldn't sleep. That happened over last Christmas too, when I was lucky enough to have James Cain's fabulous novel Mildred Pierce to keep me company. It sucks to get two hours of sleep while dealing with small children and other family, but having a good book to get you through the lonely hours makes all the difference.

***She weighed 11 ounces at birth. Can you believe that?


Every single thing about video games bores the shit out of me.

I'm sitting here wondering how to start this post because even just thinking about video games, or playing them, makes my mind wander.

So I'll keep it short. I keep checking out books about video games and gaming, because it seems like the subject comes up a lot (especially when you are the mother of young boys). But I never actually finish reading these books. To me it's literally like reading the instruction booklet for doing your taxes. The latest book I've tried and can't read is Greg Toppo's The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Here's some of the jacket copy, because even though I dipped into this one in a number of places, and read about 50 pages of it, I can't remember a thing about it, except that it was VERY DRY:

"What if schools, from the wealthiest suburban nursery school to the grittiest urban high school, thrummed with the sounds of deep immersion? More and more people believe that can happen--with the aid of video games and simulations. Experts argue that games truly do 'believe in you.' Games give people a chance to learn at their own pace, take risks, cultivate deeper understanding, fail and still want to try again--right away--and ultimately succeed in ways that too often elude them in school."

Sigh. I won't be reading this one. I didn't make it through Tom Bissell's book on the subject either, and that hurt, because I LOVE Tom Bissell. Anyone out there ever read an interesting book on video games? Does such a thing exist?