Thursday, March 31, 2011

It Gets Better edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living
edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

The internet, for all its stupidity sometimes, is still magic. The ability to connect with people that one might not otherwise meet has given rise to all sorts of opportunities — bloggers become published authors, musicians grow their fanbases, and people from different locales can relate to each another and perhaps become friends. Still, occurrences such as those are mere serendipity compared to the real magic of the It Gets Better project. Founded by Stranger columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller, It Gets Better started with one video that reached out to bullied gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, particularly young people, and told them exactly that — Life might be hard for you now, but hang in there, and the whole world awaits.

“[It] had been live on YouTube for just a few hours when e-mails and likes and friend requests started coming in so fast that my computer crashed,” Savage says in the book’s introduction. “The second It Gets Better video arrived within twenty-four hours. Three days later we hit one hundred videos. Before the end of the first week, we hit one thousand videos.”

Dismayed by the suicides of young adults who were gay or perceived to be gay, within three months, It Gets Better had more than six thousand videos on its site and over twenty million views all together. Not only did the LGBT community reach out, but also forces as high as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and British Prime Minister David Cameron (who is the head of the Conservative party, no less). And now, less than a year after its launch, It Gets Better is a book full of transcripts from the videos, as well as personal essays from people around the world.

To fully come out is an act of bravery, an act I’m afraid I have not fully mustered. Perhaps had circumstances been different, and I’d fallen in the marrying-kind of love with a woman, I would have had a more ‘official’ declaration, out of necessity. However, I’m married (and happily so) to a man. It’s not really anyone’s business, the makeup of our marriage, and so it becomes a matter of sitting against the doorframe of the closet, seeing if anyone notices. Ideally, sexuality shouldn’t matter any more than eye color, but the world isn’t there yet. As a result, I take causes like It Gets Better quite personally. Perhaps humanity’s greatest similarity is loneliness, and so those at their most lonely need to have hope.

I’ve danced around the subject for well over ten years, but yes, I’m attracted to both men and women. An equal opportunity ogler, if you will, but tried, true and irreparably mad for my husband. I’m the misunderstood and the often ignored ‘B’ in the LGBT acronym, that word that feels so odd to say — bisexual. Unlike our gay and lesbian friends who don’t have only the word ‘homosexual’ to describe their feelings, ‘bisexual’ doesn’t really have a good synonym. Even when shortening the word to ‘bi,’ the silent ‘sexual’ remains. As if sex is the only component to a relationship, which is, of course, ridiculous. No wonder so many stereotypes persist — that bi people can’t be monogamous, or that it’s “just a phase,” etc. — and what’s worse, is that one often hears it from both gay and straight people.

(Right now, someone who is both bisexual and transgender is thinking, “Girl, you think you’re misunderstood? Please.” But I digress.)

I’ve mulled over this review for a couple of days, I must admit. How could I review a book about so many personal experiences without being honest about my own? I’m nervous about my audience — relatives, in-laws, people with whom I have not had this conversation, etc. — but my willful nature pulls back with the reminder that I represent myself exactly how I am. (Haters gon’ hate.) When asked a direct question, I answer. For the most part, I’ve spent the last ten years improving myself to the degree that I don’t do dishonesty. So here I am, tumbling away from the closet doorframe, wondering if you have a stiff drink. The anxiety does not stem from thinking anything about liking women is wrong, but rather the self-protective desire not to be hassled. To be misunderstood for those ignorant stereotypes gets under my skin in a way I haven’t quite yet overcome. Life is about making progress, after all.

Still, contrary to the nature of blogging itself, this isn’t about me, and oh lord, do I have perspective. There are kids out there hurting, and there are adults who have had to sail through that hurt in order to find their bliss. Some of the essays in It Gets Better make you want to cry from their poignance, and even when the bullying did not come from outside sources, the inner turmoil is heartbreaking.

One of the things I liked best about the book is that, even in the project’s infancy, they’ve made sure to include a variety of voices. Rabbis, bishops and pastors contribute, as well as adults who were raised in strict, unforgiving, and religious households. There is an essay written in Spanish, and one in Arabic, both with English translations. Another comes from a deaf writer and performer, Terry Galloway. College and high school students are included among more well-known names like Tim Gunn, Suze Orman, Chaz Bono, and David Sedaris. One of my favorite writers, Michael Cunningham, also has a contribution.

The writing styles vary depending on the contributor, but most are in a confessional and conversational style that works well. Perhaps the weakest point to the book is Senator Al Franken’s contribution. Now, I’m glad Al Franken is in the Senate and I’m glad he made a video, but his bit didn’t feel as heartfelt when it ended like a campaign speech:

Bullying is a deadly serious and an all-too-frequent part of school life. And, tragically, it’s often ignored by teachers or administrators. This needs to change. It does get better, and we are going to make it better. Visit my webstire at Franken.Senate.Gov to learn how you can help.

Your heart’s in the right place, Senator Franken, but I think your website is probably at a pretty low rank for bullying resources, especially considering It Gets Better spends its final pages offering specific resources and courses of action for students, teachers and parents.

Both Dan Savage and Terry Miller are working to send It Gets Better to school and public libraries, hoping that people who need the messages of hope will be able to find them. On the website, a $25 donation can send a book to the library of your choice, and I think it’s a fantastic way for adults who have “escaped” small-minded towns to give back. Miller grew up in Spokane, WA, and having spent seven recent years of my life there, I can see the strides the city has made since he’s lived there. The social environment still needs work, but every year, there’s a big Pride Week, and Gay-Straight Alliances are cropping up in the high schools. It’s good to see. Now that I’m back in Montana, non-straight people are a bit more prone to sitting in the doorframe, but there are strides towards equality still happening all over the state. This year’s Montana Pride Festival, held in Bozeman, looks like it’s shaping up to be a big event.

I know it’s still easy to feel alone — even when you’re straight — and it’s lovely to see messages of support be the thing that goes viral across the interwubbery. Oh sure, we still need silly cat videos and Epic Mealtime, but it’s all right to get serious too. It’s okay to get personal and reveal more about yourself in the hopes that it can help another human being. Find your groove, find your family, and above all else, be around to kick ass and prosper.

On a related note, I will be in Spokane at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery, April 1st from 6-9 pm, signing books with my fellow artists, as part of the SEXT exhibit. SEXT is a book and gallery show that provides textual portraits of gender and sexuality, with proceeds from the book going to the YWCA. If you are in the area, come say hello, and I’ll try not to feel too weird about seeing my words in vinyl lettering splayed across the wall.


Full disclosure: Dutton sent me this book. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

This review also appeared on Pajiba itself on April 6, 2011.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Record Machine: The Beatles - LET IT BE

Record Machine is an ongoing project where I document my vinyl collection. Photos of varying quality, compulsive list-makin', inventory-takin'. (Somewhat predictably, this is where I nicked the title for the project.)

The Beatles - LET IT BE

This is among a handful of Beatles albums in my... possession seems like the wrong word. My dad, music fan that he was, did not ever really get into the Beatles for whatever reason, so the albums are my mom's. My mom doesn't play records anymore, and her old ones are alphabetized into my dad's collection which is now under my care. They're still on the same shelves, is what I'm saying. I don't have my own shelving for them yet.

From the back cover: "This is a new phase BEATLES album... essential to the content of the film, LET IT BE was that they performed live for many of the tracks; in comes the warmth and the freshness of a live performance; as reproduced for disc by PHIL SPECTOR."

Capital letters theirs. I don't know if this is a first printing or not, but it was most certainly purchased roughly around the time of its release.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Drinking Closer to Home by Jessica Anya Blau

Drinking Closer to Home
by Jessica Anya Blau

All families have their peculiarities, and every family has its stories that ride the line between hilarity and embarrassment. Pain, frustration and idiosyncrasies become fodder for the legend. Jessica Anya Blau took her own family experience and used it as direct inspiration for her novel, Drinking Closer to Home.

Adult siblings Anna, Portia and Emery Stein have returned to California to see their parents, their mother laid up in the hospital after a heart attack. Her prognosis remains uncertain in the initial days, and they’ve paused their lives in order to all be together. While Portia is still reeling from her husband’s affair and their subsequent divorce, and Anna is stress-eating licorice and relieved to have a break from being a parent, Emery wonders at what time he and boyfriend Alejandro should break their news. They’re going to have a baby via surrogate — except they need one of the sister’s eggs. As they sit with their father in their mother’s hospital room, the narrative shifts back to different points in their childhood.

However, Drinking Closer to Home is no heartwarming, group hug-type family saga. In fact, the Steins would probably laugh at the word “saga” itself. Parents Louise and Buzzy might scoff to the effect of, Aren’t you being a little over dramatic about this? Jesus Christ, it’s just our life.

When Emery was a baby, Louise decides she’s given up being a housewife and delegates all the cooking and cleaning to her daughters. Instead, she smokes joints and creates art in her backyard studio. Anna’s reaction is to compulsive clean and organize her own things, all while judging everyone else’s habits. Portia relishes the chance to mother her little brother, but doesn’t care if he has clean sheets or plays in mud. Their father remains impartial, happy (or oblivious) enough to let everyone do their own thing. And though at times this arrangement strains their relationship, there are no feuds that carry on into the present. They rally around each other’s issues, even if they appear insensitive while doing so.

Moments later, the nurse returns and tells the family that the social worker did not approve of their behavior.

“She thought you were an uncaring family,” the nurse reports.

Louise opens her eyes, suddenly awake, and laughs in a big, open-mouthed way. It is the most vociferous she has been all day.

Buzzy is insulted. “I don’t understand,” he says. “What are we doing wrong? What do other people do?”

“Most people sit quietly in the room,” the nurse says. “I told her you weren’t like most people.”

“She probably didn’t like us because you talk too fast,” Portia says to Anna. The teachers in elementary school wanted Anna to go to speech therapy because she talked too fast. She never went, of course, as Louise and Buzzy only snickered at the suggestion. She still speaks quickly and has an acute intolerance for slow talkers.

“Maybe she’s upset that we’re eating Mom’s lunch,” Emery says.

“Well, she’s not eating!” Buzzy says. “Why shouldn’t we eat it?”

The nurse finishes writing on Louise’s chart, smiles pointedly at the family, and leaves. Anna wonders if the nurse hates them, then she decides fuck it, who cares if the nurse hates them. They don’t need her love. They have each other.

While their behavior is not always admirable, it is often entertaining and understandable. Every plot point and personality detail may not be true to Blau’s real life, but she writes in a way that mimics the honesty within memoir. Writers pilfer from their lives to varying degrees, and I like how she just flat out says, Yes, this is based on my family, right down to the Nixon articles pasted to the bathroom wall.

Of course, some might find it a bit awkward to write sex scenes that involve siblings. “It was a little weird thinking about my brother having sex— but once I distanced myself from it a little it was fine,” Blau said in a recent interview. She also talked about how she didn’t think she wrote about sex all that often until other people pointed it out. If I had not already read the interview, I don’t think I would have noted the amount of frisky business. It didn’t feel out of place or unnecessary, but maybe I just like my books with skin showing. Regardless, the sex fit with what the characters were going through at the time.

Drinking Closer to Home is both a funny and heart-squeezing book, though not outright heartbreaking. That’s not a criticism, just a distinction. For me, heart-squeezing is to poignancy as heartbreaking is to melancholy, and this book is not melancholy. This family may be nutty and occasionally gloomy, but they are not full of Earth-shattering despair. Not everyone could survive in a family like the Steins, but I get the impression they could not imagine functioning any other way.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Dead Dad was in ZZ Top by Jon Glaser

My Dead Dad was in ZZ Top:
100% Real*, Never-Before-Seen Documents from the World of Rock and Roll

by Jon Glaser

You may think that Thomas Jefferson really meant what he said, that “all mean are created equal,” but did you know that shortly after writing the Declaration of Independence, he had a vision of the future? A vision of rock-n-roll, mod suits and a “unique blend of talent, charisma, stage presence, sheer beauty and raw sexuality?” Yes, friends, Thomas Jefferson had a vision and that vision was Paul Weller. And so, if you look very closely at the Declaration of Independence, you will find an asterisk next to “all men are created equal” because, clearly, there is no man equal to Paul Weller. It’s true.*

And did you know that Prince’s set list during Steven Spielberg’s daughter's bat mitzvah included songs like “Raspberry Yarmulka” and “When Doves Kvetch?” Also, did you hear that Jesus is actually a really big fan of The Jesus and Mary Chain, but wishes they’d consider losing the drum machine and changing their name? In the words of the Eurythmics (who are not a mother-son band — yes! Mother-son! Through time travel! — like Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes) “Would I lie to you?”*

*Jon Glaser totally would, and so he wrote a 100% Real! And completely false book filled with “found” rock n roll artifacts that reveal the secret histories of different musicians. The jobs they held before hitting it big, rejected band names, tour riders — Glaser searches far and wide to unearth these “treasures.”

My Dead Dad was in ZZ Top is a funny, quick-read book that probably does better with readers who are familiar with the musicians referenced throughout. One does not need in-depth knowledge, but having spent time listening to both classic rock radio and the first incarnation of MTV’s 120 Minutes certainly helps. There are not a lot of music books that reference Yo La Tengo, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, and The Butthole Surfers within such a short collection of pages.

Glaser’s previous writing credits include Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live, and like those shows, not every joke is hilarious, but there were certainly enough to keep me reading. He rides the line between stupid-funny and witty-funny well, and it would be a good book to give to a music-loving friend with a sense of humor. Is it anything groundbreaking? Perhaps not, but I still really enjoyed reading it.

Besides, there really isn’t anyone like Paul Weller:


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond

The Pioneer Woman Cooks
by Ree Drummond

Anyone who picked up this cookbook and expected a straightforward, recipes-only affair must not be all that familiar with the internet presence that is Pioneer Woman. Since 2006, Ree Drummond has blogged away, chronicling her life on her husband’s family cattle ranch, her cooking adventures, her children and pets, photography, and whatever else catches her fancy along the way. I started reading around 2008, when a friend recommended her site as a great place to find recipes. I made her ‘Marlboro Man Sandwich’ as soon as I could get my hands on some cube steak.

Marlboro Man — also known as her husband, who remains unnamed unless one looks at the author bio on her cookbook. Her children, likewise, are her “four punks,” differentiated mostly by their age and birth order alone. It’s one small bit of privacy afforded to otherwise well-documented lives, and is also just another way for Drummond to let her silliness shine through. Writing a cookbook, inspired by the most popular section of her website and its spinoff, Tasty Kitchen, would be no different.

[E]very man I know, with the exception of strict vegans (and even some of those have come around), loves this sandwich. It uses very simple ingredients and is so incredibly rich and satisfying that a man will forgo food for weeks (okay, hours) if he knows one is one the horizon. Just try it out — make it for a group of hungry guys and you’ll see what I mean. Eyes will roll back in heads. Engagement rings will be thrown your way. You’ll be carried on a litter the rest of your life. Love songs will be composed. Sonnets written.

I have been known to sing love songs to sandwiches, after my eyes have rolled back into their customary position. Hungry, meat-eating sandwich lovers across the land will appreciate this sandwich, although I have one particular trouble when it comes to Pioneer Woman recipes...

I can’t eat butter. Or cream.

Lactose intolerance requires me to tinker with her dishes a fair amount because, like Paula Deen, P-Dub is not afraid of full fat dairy. Her family burns (give or take) eleventy-billion calories working cattle every day, and so they can get away with it, but my lactase enzyme-less stomach cannot. With lactose-free milk and margarine, I can fake things pretty reasonably, but I’m never going to be able to eat her Creamy Mashed Potatoes as intended:

5 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter, additional 4 tablespoons ( ½ stick)
One 8-ounce package cream cheese
½ to 3/4 cup half-and-half
½ teaspoon seasoned salt
Salt and pepper to taste

Yeah. Not happening. I’m sure they’re good though.

Sprinkled throughout her recipes are photos showcasing life on the ranch, including her kids helping with the cattle, her famous basset hound Charlie flopping around, and even the mountain of dirty dishes in the kitchen during the making of the cookbook. She talks about the evening she met Marlboro Man, and how their romance brought her back to Oklahoma, rather than move to Chicago as planned. She talks about the other women in her life — her mother-in-law, her best friends, her sister Betsy — and gives credit to the people who inspired her recipes. For her, food is not just about the mechanics of creating a dish; it’s the environment in which the dish is needed. The necessity of having “cowgirl food” (food the pickier cowboys won’t touch) and sangria is just another way to talk about creating her own community within such a sparsely populated area.

Each of her recipes have step-by-step photos documenting the process, which can be tremendously helpful for beginning cooks. Drummond takes all the photos herself, and it has been fun to watch the evolution of her photography reading her site over the years. She’s the first one to admit she’s no photography expert, but she’s no slouch either. Her photos use natural light well, and though not a professional “food stylist,” her dishes always look fantastic. If the success marker of a cookbook is making the reader hungry, then she’s done her job.

While I enjoyed her asides about daily life, I do wish that more of the material had not already been published on the blog. This is a small complaint, sure, but regular readers will not find a wealth of new material. However, the cookbook would make an excellent introduction for someone not familiar with her work — and it is only an introduction. At around 240 pages, she doesn’t offer an overflow of recipes, but the ones she does offer define her cooking style well.

The main reason why I wanted to buy the book was so I could have easy access to her recipes that I always mean to make, but never get around to printing. The Marlboro Man sandwich, pico de gallo, onion strings, pizza crust, and chicken fried steak — I hate to have to look things up on my laptop all the time. (This where the iPad users get all smug, but I’m a dino who is just not there yet, all right?)

One of Drummond’s prevailing mantras regarding everything, in life as well as cooking, is “whatever makes your skirt fly up,” and she is quick to offer suggested variations on her recipes, even accommodating those who do not drink alcohol. It’s a nice touch, and one that is recognizing of the way people really cook in their own kitchens. Though I’m sure she’d gasp at the idea of not being able to eat butter, I reckon she’d be just fine with my recipe alterations.

Ree Drummond will be appearing in Great Falls, MT as part of Western Art Week. She will hold a talk and book signing at the Heritage Inn this Friday, March 18. Look for additional coverage of her appearance over at GLL sister-site Electric City Creative.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

(And as an aside, this site can now be reached by typing in -- No blogspot necessary! Shiny.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rumpus Women, Volume I edited by Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist

Rumpus Women, Volume I
edited by Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist

I started reading The Rumpus around a year ago, after my friend-and-fellow-Cannonballer Jon-Paul recommended it. Founded by Stephen Elliott, managed by Isaac Fitzgerald, and featuring guest spots from great writers like Steve Almond, Jami Attenburg, Roxane Gay, and Rick Moody, I quickly became a fan. With all the literary site hoopla regarding gender parity in writing, The Rumpus offers plenty of great content from women without making a giant deal about it — these women write for the site because they are talented, and they also have something to say.

With their book club — members pay $25 a month to receive a book a month before its publication — they attempt to keep things fairly even, gender-wise. For November 2010, they encountered some trouble in finding a new book that met their requirements, and so an idea was born: “We’d been searching for an edgy, honest, and literary book — the kind of writing that women contribute to week after week. What we sought was what we published daily. We could publish our own book, a compilation of women’s writing.” In six weeks, they had their material. The result is indeed an honest and literary collection of personal essays, and while some are more affecting than others, it’s a wonderful book.

Already the most well known portion is the correspondence between Elissa Bassist and the advice columnist Sugar. Sugar, for those of you not already familiar, is magic. She has a way of getting to the heart of serious matters in way that’s neither patronizing nor dismissive. Normally the questions come from people who wish to remain anonymous, but Elissa wanted her personal struggles with writing and depression to be broadcast:

How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on, Sugar, when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and be the writer she wishes she’d be?

Sugar’s answer, in part, became a rallying theme for the entire site: Write like a motherfucker.

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

I’m fairly certain there is a large chunk of the Rumpus-reading population who ask themselves on a regular basis, “What would Sugar say?” I know I have.

Elsewhere in Rumpus Women, we hear from Antonia Crane and her perspective on sex work. Her essay on moving from an unsatisfying Los Angeles strip club to a locals joint in New Orleans is upstanding:

I’m relieved to see the range of body types and the signature dead gaze girls toss my direction while floating on plastic heels. They’re not all Vegased out. They’re real girls with stretch marks and round hips and crooked smiles, and their garters hold stacks of green. They’re making money. Maybe I can too.

I don’t have any strong opinions on stripping and other sex work, except to say that it works out fine for some people, and for others, it’s a poor means of escape. I can’t judge in a widespread way, just like I can’t assume all accountants are boring nerds. Everyone has their reasons, and Crane illuminates hers well.

On the flipside of Crane’s perspective, Cheryl Strayed’s essay deals with considering a job as an escort in Portland. She ultimately decides that it is not for her, and that her other jobs “essentially left me the person that I was and wanted to be:” she says, “the sort who neither allowed her body to be a commodity, nor believed that any woman should.” It is just as easy to understand Strayed’s reasons as it is Crane’s.

Several of the essays deal with religion, like Gabrielle Calvovoressi discussing the Sabbath and Junior Middleweight Miguel Cotto, or Diane Spechler’s “Conversions,” in which she cheats on her boyfriend with an aspiring Judiasm-convert, a man who also gets her addicted to cocaine. That essay flows straight into Michelle Myung-Ok Lee’s “Losing My Relgion.” In it, she describes the erosion of her Christian faith after having a severely disabled child. To call it “moving” does not do it justice:

I am confident I can know my own truth without someone else approving it. Because of my son, my writing, and the divine spirit of the universe, I am no longer sitting at a distance to my own life — scared, angry, wondering why I am being punished. I can live into life. That is grace and that is God, once lost and now found.

Rumpus Women has stories of cancer, of sex, of pregnancy and of familial loss. Writers like Michelle Tea are honest about their drug use and bad relationship decisions. All people are flawed in their own way, and these writers are no different. To judge as though we are above judgement would only feed into the perpetual build-up/tear-down cycle in which we often indulge.

Near the end of the book, Michelle Orange touches on that cycle in her essay, “How to Have a Beautiful Corpse: Death and Dying in the Famous Age.” She talks about her childhood obsessions with James Dean, John Lennon and Michael Jackson, and the way the modern media reacts to a celebrity death. There are many great points she makes, too numerous to quote here, but perhaps it all comes down to this:

We have now reached the culmination of this quandary, a destruction accelerated by the celebrity pileup that is the information superhighway. There are no controls on the culture as there are on the individual, and unregulated the primary impulse to adore and emulate can corrupt a society with a programming as vaguely but voraciously attuned to the concept of “success” as ours.

Exhibit A, circa early-to-mid-2000s: “That’s hot.”
Exhibit B, circa, oh, now: “Winning.”

Overall, Rumpus Women covers a wide selection of women, while still managing to flow from topic to topic. Seeing as the women did not have any subject or length requirements when asked to write for the book, it makes the end result seem all the more fortuitous. I look forward to reading Volume 2, whenever it shall exist, and would certainly recommend this book to anyone, regardless of gender.

The book can be purchased directly from The Rumpus, along with ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’ mugs and t-shirts.


(Full disclosure: Two of my reviews have appeared on the site, one for Jess Walter’s The Zero, the other for Nick Antosca’s Midnight Picnic.)

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is desire. It is sacrifice, honor and poetry. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is humor within research. It is massive in both physical size and narrative scope, and it is a lingering, gratifying read. And despite all these wonderful qualities, I might never have checked out the book had it not been for a Rumpus interview with David Mitchell. I’d heard of him at that point, but I’d never read anything by him. With answers like these, I realized the glaring gap in my reading repertoire:

“Books are made of changes of minds. The actual writing of the book, I’ve found, teaches you how you should have written the book.”


“Possibly novelists are all aliens among natives. We should all wear little signs around our necks that mark us as aliens. It happened a few weeks ago, where I completely lost it and I was sobbing my eyes out. I happened to glance and there was a mirror in the corner of the room. I stopped crying and looked in the mirror—oh, so that’s what grief looks like. That’s something only a novelist would do—or an alien. But to get back to what you said… I would say one must be someone else to a certain degree to portray that character convincingly, his voice and his thoughts. The implication of your question is that one needs to escape oneself. I don’t think that is the case for me.”

Never mind that I rarely read anything that could be classified as “historical” (recent reviews notwithstanding), suddenly I had to read a novel set in 1799 Dutch-occupied Japan. Nestled in the new books section at my local library, all 479 pages called to me. My heart burned beyond a mere hunch — David Mitchell would be one of my favorite authors. I would immerse myself in his words, his world, and I would not much mind the month I spent reading de Zoet. I knew this before I made my way to the checkout counter, disappointment only a faint consideration.

Thank goodness I liked the book, yeah?

For all that we hear about British occupied lands and their Empire during the infancy of the United States, one forgets that the Dutch had their own world domination designs. In Dejima, a trading port in Nagasaki Harbor, the “Zeelanders” have felt their power slip. Populated by deceitful merchants and distrustful Japanese, the people coexist only semi-amicably in order to maintain their respective finances. Amidst them lives Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk to the Chief Resident. During his five year post, he hopes to earn enough money to satisfy his fiancee’s father back home.

When he meets Orito Aibagawa, a local midwife, his visions for the future begin to change. Unsettled as he is by his mental infidelity, he must know this woman. His world is now filtered through the light and shortening of breath he feels in her presence.

Night insects trill, tick,bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubbyhole outside Jacob’s door.
Jacob lies awake, clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue’s root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily, he reenacts today’s scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese, half-Dutch window...
... Glass panes melt moonlight; paper panes filter it, to dust.

Mitchell injects bits of poetry into his prose, and it never feels awkward or ostentatious. When time slows for Jacob and he absorbs the minutiae of the moment, one may find a rhyme scheme or more involved imagery. Between the masterful way in which he threads these literary bits of style and the different points of view, the amount of research involved in writing de Zoet is all the more impressive.

In interviews, Mitchell has talked about the difficulty in conveying an accurate sense of the way people talked, without their words distracting the reader. That early19th century people would say “Gadzooks!” does not matter when the 21st century person will too busy giggling to care as much about why the character exclaimed. Though the more formal overall tone takes some acclimating, the distinct voices from the different characters are never distracting, unless one is busy thinking how good they are.

“Twould bend company rules on private trade, aye, but the trees what survive cruel winds are those what do bend, eh, are they not?”

“A tidy metaphor does not make a wrong thing right.”

But forget about the writing for a moment. Really, it is other writers and reviewers who spend significant amounts of time dissecting the craft. What of the story? Jacob de Zoet may at first be the primary voice one hears, but others are quick to share what brought them to Dejima. Jacob befriends a Japanese interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, a man who finds his work rewarding, though not quite enough to satisfy his longing:

“But Mr. de Zoet may pass through sea gate and away, over ocean. But I — all Japanese [...] prisoners all life, who plot to leave is executed. Who leave and return from abroad is executed. My precious wish is one year in Batvia, to speak Dutch... to eat Dutch, to drink Dutch, to sleep Dutch. Just one year...”

Everyone in the port town wants something, and some are willing to lie, while others hold steadfast to their integrity to achieve it. At the moment Jacob decides to make his intentions to Miss Aibigawa known, she is sent away to a mysterious and isolated mountain shrine. The unfolding details concerning the shrine are what make up the meat of the story, and are what propel the pages forward. Yes, there are still concerns regarding the Dutch occupation, and the conflict between East and West, but Mitchell has not written a simple historical novel. At the heart of everything is communication — what we understand about one another, the struggle against the unknown, and what we choose to withhold. Even the more reprehensible characters are fighting their own battles, and while one may not feel the same empathy towards them, their toil is understandable. And despite the seriousness throughout, Mitchell also provides subtle humor — overbearing mothers, card game insults and sarcasm transcend time, really. I invite you all to use the word “cockchafer” at your earliest convenience.

Though I have yet to read David Mitchell’s other novels, I still feel like my favorite has yet to come. That’s not to disparage anything about de Zoet, but for making me love a story I might have otherwise ignored, I can only guess that his more modern settings will leave me lacking in the adequate vocabulary to describe their greatness. This is high and hypothetical praise, I know, but my head and my heart are in agreement.

And on a superficial note, I may be a bit smitten with Mitchell’s author photo shot by Paul Stuart:

All right, I’m a lot smitten, but then, talented, English 40-something men have a way of doing that to me. Does it matter what an author looks like? Not really. We’re the tribe of comfortable pants and inarticulate real-life conversations, after all. But with David Mitchell, it’s one more (albeit small) reason to pick up his books. A bonus, if you will. Get in.


This was a library book. Support your local libraries!

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Record Machine: "Falling Down" by Oasis and "The Roller" by Beady Eye

Record Machine is an ongoing project where I document my vinyl collection. Photos of varying quality, compulsive list-makin', inventory-takin'. (Somewhat predictably, this is where I nicked the title for the project.)

Oasis - "Falling Down" 7 inch single, backed with Noel Gallagher's "These Swollen Hand Blues."

Oasis - "Falling Down" 7 inch

Beady Eye - "The Roller" 7 inch single, backed with "Two of a Kind."

Beady Eye - "The Roller"
Beady Eye - "The Roller" Special Edition 7"

The video for "The Roller," I have already mentioned in this post.