Thursday, December 31, 2015

Kelly's TBP 2.15: Prom

Dear Jenny,
I finished this book back in February and I procrastinated on publishing this. Then the artist passed away in May and I thought, "I should just write this thing up!" And then... more time passed. But it's been sitting in our Drafts folder for 10 months, so hey -- let's finish it.

I cannot remember where I first read about this book, but I basically saw a review and did not hesitate to order it straight from Amazon. I have no idea why I was so immediately drawn to it, but I sure was.

Here's the book description:
Using a Polaroid 20x24 Land camera, photographer Mary Ellen Mark traveled across the US from 2006-2009, photographing prom-goers at thirteen schools from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Houston to Los Angeles. Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, collaborated with her on the project to produce and direct a film, also called Prom, featuring interviews with the students about their lives, dreams, and hopes for the future. A DVD of the film is packaged with the book.
I did go to prom, but I really don't remember it being a "huge deal" -- in fact, one year I wore a Hawaiian print dress that I had gotten on sale the previous year for $20. So, you know... it wasn't like my "big dream." But... I do really like to see kids dressed up for prom. I don't know why, but it's a thing I enjoy.
So... about this book. Well, the photographs are terrific. A really broad range of kids from all walks of life. And that Polaroid 20x24 Land camera produces some amazing quality photos. 

So that's great. But then... I had some problems with the actual structure of this book that took away from my reading experience.

Basically, every page features a photo and I found myself really wanting to know more about these kids. A few of them had quotes interspersed with the photos, but not all of them. So I wanted more of that. But then, I realized that there were more quotes... in the back of the book. Weird. So I had the uncomfortable experience of flipping back and forth between the photographs and the back of the book to see what the quotes were. Not so great.

And then sometimes, that was just a waste of time because... not all of the kids had quotes! So I'd flip to the back of the book to find just their names, the school, and the year, which was already on the page itself. I honestly have no idea why the author (editor? publisher? Not sure how much power the artist/author has in this kind of book) decided to lay this book out like this. It was like flipping back and forth for footnotes with a giant, unwieldy book (only to discover most of the time that... there was no footnote there!) Sooo... not fun.

I went online to look the artist up and I found... that this entire book is available at her website. And if you go to the "Plate List," you will see a list of all of the quotes, next to the photographs that they match. So, you know... a better reading experience for free on her website. I mean, I know that the paper reproduction of the photos are better than what is on her site, but still -- it just seems so strange to me that she is offering the same thing I paid for on her site for free.

However, I will say this -- what you don't get on the site is some of the really great juxtapositions that the author put together in the physical book...

Similar poses for dramatically different couples:
 Same couple/two poses:

And just look at these cutie patooties:

There was also a DVD included that was a sort of "behind the scenes" on the book itself. Like the book, you can also watch it online in its entirety. The film was fun -- I liked seeing some of the outfits in color and the kids interacting with one another was pretty adorable. Probably the highlight is this one kid from a family of dentists that they keep going back to -- he's got some hilarious lines about not wanting to be a dentist and the impact that the "family business" has had on him.

If you're interested in seeing all of the photos for yourself, head over here. I'd start with the Plate List, because that's got all of the quotes with the thumbnails. You have to click on the thumbnails to see the larger photo and then go back to read the quotes... Hey! It does sort of mimic the difficult-to-navigate experience of reading the book itself!

Final update on this post: I just scrolled through that Plate List page and remember a lot of the feelings I had when perusing this book. The kids' quotes are all over the map: funny, real, childish, and heartbreaking. It makes me wish (again) that the quotes were better incorporated into the book itself (and that every couple had a quote -- I'm wildly curious about the ones who did not say anything!)

This one girl has stuck with me, as she had this heart-breaking thing to say:  "Me, I'm not going to college. I'm going to the military. It was just something I wanted to do since I was like a little girl, and also it's just to get away, you know what I'm saying? Have fun, travel, see the world." Man... that is not what I think of when I think of going into the military.

I guess this seems like a negative review, and that's why I've been sitting on it for so long. I read something earlier this year that said that John Irving never writes a negative review. If he didn't like the book, he just... returns it. I kind of like that. But... this review wasn't meant to be all negative. I really did enjoy this work -- it just could have been better. That's all.

Now -- go look at kids in their Prom attire. It's some good shit.


That Supposedly Fun Thing We'll Never Do Again


It's always a bit shocking when your low expectations are correct, right? I'll take the hit for picking this one. I guess I should learn to trust my instincts -- we knew all along that he wasn't for us. The only upside that I can think of: now, when I sneer derisively at DFW, I'll have earned it.

This book is comprised of seven different essays. I'll just leave brief notes and quotes from our conversation under each title.

Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley
The conversation started with our agreement that DFW's writing is "pretentious, overwrought, douchebaggery." We agreed we really were not the target audience for this guy. We observed that if WMFuNs are their own genre, then DFW is their king. But then we felt sort of bad since things ended so badly for him personally.

As for the essay itself, we weren't that impressed. We don't like tennis and didn't find all that much there to like. He's coy with some details and deliberately obtuse with others. What had the potential to be most interesting story --being carried away by a tornado and slammed into a fence?!?-- fails to be convincing as either truth or metaphor.

We wondered if we were giving him a fair shot but, ultimately, we didn't care. We ended with a small hope in our hearts that things would get better with later essays. After all, this was probably one of the first things he'd ever published. It's going to get better, right?

E Unibus Pluram: Television in U.S. Fiction

We did some texting back and forth while reading this one.
You started off our texting extravaganza with this observation.
We knew we were in trouble.

A threat he carries out for what, 50 pages?
I checked this out from overdrive because I had to know: 17.
He says *seventeen times* that Americans watch six hours of TV a day.
If reading shit like this is the alternative, who wouldn't watch TV?!
It's a problem.
As we were discussing, we both said at the same time, "What was the point?" So many words. So many words.

Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All
We were both pleasantly surprised by this one. In it, DFW visits and reports from the Illinois state fair. His whole shtick seems to be "I'm a non-reporter doing reporter-y things!" But both of enjoyed this, even to the point where we laughed out loud. What a relief to find some redeeming qualities.

This is the first time a female character of any kind really shows up, his friend that he takes along with him, and he refers to her as his Native Companion (also "Native C," "N. Companion," "NC," etc.) For the most part, she's the only character we really related to, as we both wished we could have been around to tell him to shut up and stop taking everything so seriously.

However, we still had our issues. The continuance of his irritating regionalism. (We thought maybe we were especially tuned into this because of the book you recently read where the gross generalization is made that everyone in Portland "lives a minimum of three lives" -- as if they don't everywhere else.) We appreciated that DFW owned up to being a pretentious douche about his own East Coast snobbery. But as you said, "Once you recognize it, stop doing that thing." Alas. He kept doing it.

Greatly Exaggerated
The best thing we could say about Greatly Exaggerated is that it was 6 six pages long. Again, you said it best, "This pretentious douchebag just wrote a pretentious douchebag review of a pretentious douchebag PhD thesis." This essay made us actually think back to the tennis story fondly, which we basically ripped to shreds!

We had a long discussion about what makes something readable or unreadable? Why is the State Fair one so readable, and Greatly Exaggerated is so NOT readable? We had a lot of ideas: the language he uses is not the language we use. You pointed out that it feels like Victorian literature. We couldn't quite figure out what we had missed: who decided that this qualifies as "good writing?" We also spent a lot of time talking about the fact that this guy has an audience (white guys, maybe younger than us) and since we aren't that audience, maybe that's why it just didn't work for us.

We agreed that it was a good thing we only had 3 essays left. We were not happy to see how long they were. We agreed that we must solider on.

David Lynch Keeps His Head
The beginning was interesting and we both liked the vivid descriptions of David Lynch, but then it ran into the DFW problem: Why is this going on so long? You felt like this essay was the longest by far. In an episode of Gilmore Girls, Rory tells an author to cut her article by 400 words because she can't have the paper being "as long as a David Foster Wallace novel." And we couldn't agree more, he just goes on and on. What was the take away from this one? That David Lynch pees on trees. We think that might be all we remember.

If these essays are arguments, what is the argument? I thought maybe it was just a think where his whole strategy for winning the argument by talking the other person to death. I also shared a metaphor. I said that reading DFW is like being stuck on an airplane next to a person who just loves the sound of his own voice.

Some super long bullshit, bullshit title
Even though this is the douchiest title, this was one we both enjoyed. The story of almost tennis pro Michael Joyce was interesting and DFW described the pro-circuit well.

This is really where we started to have a lot of questions.

Why is DFW as awkward as fuck with women? Every time he describes women, it's a little weird, stalker-y, or just plain bizarre. For example, both of us noticed that he described something as "menstrual pink." Wait. What?

Why does he use all those silly abbreviations (for instance "w/r/t") but then go on and on with all the fifty cent words?

Why did no one edit the hell out of him? I noticed that this essay was originally published in Esquire with the title "The Score." We wondered if the book we're reading is the equivalent of the Director's Cut. It seemed like we could cross check the book against the essay online. But, really, who has energy for that?

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
This was the best one, you thought. I agreed, but definitely had the "Oh God make it stop" feeling when he started listing what he did by the hour.  I definitely thought this one was the longest and admitted to doing some prodigious skimming in the last 35 pages.

We discussed the role of the essayist here, since he makes the statement that "an essay's fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader." [288] I thought he did a shitty job of holding to this, instead always making it all about him. You pointed out that maybe the reader is a person just like him. And since that's not us, we're always going to feel annoyed by him, regardless of the moments of interest, humor, or insight.

Basically, this one was the most funny and entertaining of the bunch. A good way to end, and we are just glad it's over.

As a wrap-up, we noticed that all of our "shared" books this year were disappointing! How did we end up choosing a bunch of WMFuNs?! We vowed to do better next year.

And with that, we're calling it a wrap on 2015.

Completed: From Girls to Grrrlz : A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines

Dear Jenny,

For the most part, this was a fun read. It's not really about women in comics, as much as "women's comics" (which it does say right in the subtitle) -- that is, comics written specifically for women (or girls). So it was more positive that I was concerned it would be (a book about women in comics would be... sort of depressing, right?)

It was divided into four general sections, so I'll just walk on through 'em here.

Girls' Comics 1941-1957

So we start in the 1940s with "Girls'" comics (aka "Teen" comics) which began with Archie comics being a sort of  "everyman" answer to Superman. And while Betty and Veronica's worlds mostly revolved around Archie's (although they also had their own books later), there were several other titles during those years that featured girls as the primary characters, mostly along the same "teen" lines.

The depressing part is that women in comics in 1945 were dealing with the Same. Damned. Issues. that we are dealing with today, 70 (!) years later:

(The girls that Patsy has gotten to join her turn on her and eventually Patsy admits defeat and puts her skirt back on. Sigh.)

Women's Comics 1947-1977

I think this section could have been subdivided -- 30 years is a lot of time to lump together under the title "Women's Comics," especially when a large portion of these comics were along the line of Josie and the Pussy Cats and Sabrina the Teen-age Witch, which were the natural evolution of the Archie-style teens and, while they had a bit of a more independent edge, the primary audience was still teenagers.

Some of the other comics in this section were directed at an older audience, but, like Harlequin Romances, I'm sure there were a fair number of teens who got their hands on these. There was this whole "True Romance" genre -- basically soap operas in comic form (imagine the backs of many hands applied to many foreheads and you've got it).

In the later part of this long-spanning era, we also get some "career" gals -- nurses, flight attendants (at that time... stewardesses), reporters (remember Brenda Starr?), etc. Check out Linda Carter, Student Nurse, over there (pre-dating the Lynda Carter we now associate with another comic book character!)

And the 70s brought... flower children. (Check MODniks: "A drop-out digs where it's smart to be in -- school!")

Honestly, I think calling these "women's" comics might be a stretch... depending on how you refer to teenagers. I guess the idea here is that the topics and the characters are more "grown up" than the girls in Archie's time, but I would also argue that each generation's teenagers are more grown up that the last.

Womyn's Comix: 1970-1989

Even though ol' Patsy up there was trying to "liberate all womankind" back in 1945, the 70s were a time when this concept became more mainstream and women's (or "Womyn's") comics reflected that. Robbins herself became active in writing comics during the 70s, so she's got a lot of opinions about this time period.

I wrote some more here but could not wrap it up succinctly, so I deleted it and I will share my personal experience with one of the "comix" mentioned in this section...

One of the first comics I got completely hooked on was Dykes to Watch Out For. I checked out every single anthology -- and bought the ones that were not available at the library -- and burned through those books over the course of several weeks in the fall of 2001. Alison Bechtel is hilarious and made me cry laughing -- look at this still! (Everything is hilarious about this -- even the CAT is funny!)

It's worth noting here that  Betty and Veronica were also still going strong in the 1980s, but there were also quite a few other actual real "women's" comics being written during that time (that is, comics for adult women) and many more comics being written by women than at any previous time.

Grrrrlz Comix: The 1990s

I  also remember reading a lot of these comics in the early 2000s. One of my all-time favorites, Strangers is Paradise, gets a shout-out in this section, as well as Art Babe by genius Jessica Abel.

I'm not sure I have a lot to add here -- you can kind of guess the trajectory of the comics, as they followed the rest of the culture at that time -- grunge, "riot grrrls," etc. (I'm sorry -- I'm flaming out here with this "review"-- laugh at this comic and pretend that this post is not a trainwreck...)
(Click to see it bigger.)

In conclusion (dare I even say that?)

Overall, the writing in this book was decent and well-researched -- Robbins has a lot of opinions and they certainly show through, but since I generally agreed with her, that was fine with me (and sometimes made me laugh out loud).

There was a strange typographical choice where all comic titles were larger font that the rest of the writing and, as Robbins got more opinionated, she started using a different larger font for CAPITAL LETTER emphasis and that was kind of jarring. I guess my issue with the opinions and the typographic choices is that they help relegate this book to a "fun" read when it could have taken an opportunity to shine a more serious light on the topic. But... it's okay. They're comics, right?

Aaaand... done!
(Yes, yes... skidding into the very end of the year... per usual!)


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Completed: White Girls


Being somewhat pressed for time, I didn't write a preview post of this one. But I got this book as a gift from my friend Jannah when it came out a few years ago.

I'm also totally tired and probably not going to do this book much justice, which is too bad. Here's the thing that's especially ironic about me saving this one for last: it's a book of essays, weaving together a look at how the individual life of the author (he's the theater critic for the New Yorker) is shaped and informed by pop culture.

In other words, it's impossible for me not to read this as a companion to our current David Foster Wallace situation. In fact, White Girls  was blurbed by John Jeremiah Sullivan, who I mentioned the first time we talked about DFW. I said that JJS was an example of an essayist I really enjoyed, a guy who was genuinely interested in his work rather than just a smug East Coast asshole. In his blurb, he says that Als is working in the genre of "culture-crit-as-autobiography" and that is exactly right. Als is gathering up his observations about film, theater, books and thinking about how it intersects with his life; DFW is arguably doing the same thing.

But here's the thing: Als' book is better in every. single. fucking. way.

It's clear and incisive without being overwritten. It's arguments are cogent and fierce instead of meandering and boring. It's interesting and smart without with smarmy and self-satisfied. It looks at people of all kinds-- gay, straight, men, women, people of color, old, young, urban, rural North, South---instead of just focusing on the insular view of a particular kind of smug white man. In fact, Als' personal lens is consciously and explicitly that of the outsider: gay and black in America. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, he's not interested in sugar-coating his writing for a white audience. But I do love how he constantly shifts his lens as he examines the world around him: gay, black, male, New Yorker, younger, older, critic, fan. He's one of those writers who just thinks about the world in an interesting, dynamic way. He strikes me as the kind of person I would want to be my friend--and the fact that he has such a generous, curious spirit would totally make up for the fact that he's way smarter than I am. Like, I know he'd be slumming it a little with me, but it'd be worth it to hang out with someone that funny and smart. I'd totally be his Native Companion, know what I mean?

The essays themselves cover a variety of topics, and even if I don't know much about the topics, Als writing makes me more interested in the topic, not less. There are essays here about Truman Capote, Flannery O'Conner, and Eminem; there are essays about his life-long best friend and about his inability to write about his own mother. I would fiercely agree with him on one page, be amazed at his ability to capture something true about life I'd never noticed on another, and sort of pissed off and thinking he's totally wrong on yet another. In other words, his arguments are actually argumentative! Even more astounding, his arguments and ideas are easily followed and clearly laid out. WHAT A CONCEPT!

My one real regret is that I wish I wasn't reading it this way. I'm just sort of burning through it all, wanting to hit my deadline. And I also wish I wasn't doing Als the disservice of comparing him to that jackass DFW.

All I can do, really is quote some Eminem lyrics that Als quotes when talking about Eminem's self-awareness of his own status as a white rapper:

Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself, if they were brown, Shady lose, Shade sits on the shelf, but Shady's cute, Shady knew, Shady's dimples would help, make ladies swoon baby, ooh, baby, look at my sales, let's do the math, if I was black, I would have sold half. 

One thing that this has made me pledge: to no longer skip his stuff in the New Yorker. I don't usually read his pieces because it's weird for me to read reviews of stuff I haven't seen or can't see---Although this is silly, because I read book reviews of books I haven't read all the time. Either way, now I realize I've been missing a great thinker and am going to try to do better.

To Hilton Als! An essayist that doesn't drive me to drink!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Completed: Their Eyes Were Watching God


I'm weeks behind schedule, and I had really been hoping to finish this on Thanksgiving. However, something about finishing this does give me hope that I might be able to get through this year.

I ended up listening to about 2/3 of the book on audio while reading along, and then read the last part on my own. Mostly because I felt like I was so close to the end and knew I could finish. Also, by that time, I was pretty sure I could understand it on my own without the narrator. Even though I loved her narration, I also wanted to see if I could do it on my own!

I know you mentioned that you read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college, but I'll give a brief summary. The novel starts with Janie, a black woman in rural Florida in the 20s or 30s who has buried her husband, Joe (she calls him Jody) Starks. He was the big man in town, both the mayor and owner of the local store. Eventually, Janie falls in love with a much younger man, Tea Cake. The townspeople are convinced he is only using her for her money, but she is convinced that he is her true love and takes a chance on him.

I guess I'm still just soaking it all in, but I don't feel like I have anything all that dazzling insightful to say about this book, except for a few observations.

More than anything else, I loved the language in the book, which I noticed both with Ruby Dee's narration, but also when reading on my own. There's something about Hurston's ability to capture in only a sentence the most heartbreaking inner workings of a woman's mind. Especially in the beginning of the book, as we watch Janie's transformation from a young woman brimming with life to a quiet, watchful silence as the years pass with Joe. Hurston describes her like this, "The years took all the fight out of Janie's face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels...She didn't read books so she didn't know she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop" (72). Time and time again, I noticed these passages and marked them. It was just a pleasure to read.

The novel itself is beautifully constructed, and some of it I only noticed when I went back through it. Janie both starts and ends the book burying a husband, the major difference being that Tea Cake, the man she buries at the end is the one man she truly loved. The book ends when a hurricane sweeps through and Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. Before he completely loses his mind due to rabies, they have a conversation about the one thing that had always bothered Janie about their relationship, which was that he was at least 15 years younger than she was. (I'm going to quote at length here but click here to listen to Ruby Dee's narration so you can see how brilliant it is!)

     Tea Cake began to cry and Janie hovered him in her arms like a child. She sat on the side of the bed and sort of rocked him back to peace.
     "Tea Cake, 'tain't no use in you bein' jealous us me. In de first place Ah couldn't love nobody but yuh. And in de second place, Ah jus' uh ole woman dat nobody don't want but you."
     "Naw, you ain't neither. You only sound ole when you tell folks when you wuz born, but wid de eye you'se young enough tuh suit most any man. Dat ain't no lie. Ah knows plenty mo' men would take yuh and work hard for de privilege. Ah done heard 'em talk."
     "Maybe do, Tea Cake, Ah ain't never tried tuh find out. Ah just know dat God snatched me out de fire through you. And Ah loves you and feel glad."
    "Thank yuh, ma'am, but don't say you'se ole. You'se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo' ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo' young girl days to spend wid me" (172). 

Isn't that beautiful? He's the love of her life, and she's going to lose him. And it's tragic! He is so ill and delusional that he tries to shoot her and she has to shoot him to save herself. The only thing that seemed like a weird misstep was that she's then jailed, and there's a trial which lasts maybe for 3 pages before she's found not guilty.

We then have made it full circle. The book started with Joe's funeral, and now we see her plan and prepare for Tea Cake's funeral. Janie prepares a grand and beautiful ceremony for Tea Cake, but the last line of the chapter is devastating: "No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief" (180). Isn't that lovely and so heartbreakingly sad?

There's so much I didn't talk about with this book, but my initial impressions are all about Janie and her journey as a character. I'm so happy I read this. I have a feeling I will be sitting with this one for a long time.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Joint Book #4: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again


In college, one of my favorite professors was a guy named Evan Radcliffe. I ended being able to drop some dumb freshman comp class because of my AP English score and landed in Dr. Radcliffe's Survey of Western Lit class. This is the guy who said, "You're my ninth Jennifer this semester!" I took at least a few more classes with him, and now that I think about it, most of my super memorable moments in college were in his classes. I did a teaching practicum with him my senior year. This makes him, along with Eli Goldblatt, one of the first people to explicitly teach me about being a teacher.  HE WAS THE FIRST PERSON I EVER SAW USING THE INTERNET! He taught me about comma splices, the Romantics, and how to annotate. And, also memorably, he told a story about how he used to sit around with other English professors and grad school friends and talk about what books they'd never read. He knew someone who'd never read Hamlet. I remember him saying something like, "And now she never will. It's too late now and too good of a story to not have read it." [I'm sure he said this much more elegantly.]

It's that last part that is sort of the most relevant to where I'm heading here. Because is there anything more weird than missing a cultural phenomenon in your favorite form of media? Imagine meeting someone who loves female superheroes who'd never seen Buffy. Or someone who loves YA never having read Harry Potter. There are some things that just become cultural touchstones---it seems like EVERYONE knows about it, is talking about it, has done it, is planning to do it, or wonders how you haven't done it yet.

Enter David Foster Wallace.

This is the one that got away...for both of us. How in the hell did this happen?

Obviously, some of it is timing. Infinite Jest came out in 1996. It was right when you and I entered adult life. The rise and tragic fall of David Foster Wallace overlaps with a time in my life where I was completely unplugged from literature-with-a-capital-L. By the time I started paying attention and talking about books again, I was completely befuddled by the whole thing. Who is this guy, why is everyone talking about him, and why should I care?

Famously, my only real claim to fame with David Foster Wallace was my suggestion at the Tournament of Books 2012 that invoking his name was a modern day drinking game waiting to happen.

Turns out I'm not the only one who can think of literary themed drinking games. Check this out. 

Well, I guess we're about to tear off the DFW band-aid with our agreement to read this book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I'm a little afraid that we will both hate this book. How could he possibly live up to the hype?

Here's our proposed schedule. I'm loving what we did with The Night Manager when we skyped when we were talking about it. Looking forward to doing that again. Also, since I've decided to be done with graduate school this week, if it's better to read the first two stories for the 13th, let me know.

Dec 13: first story 
Dec 20: next 3 stories 
Dec 27: final 3

Any thoughts and feelings as we embark upon our own personal DFW drinking odyssey?