Saturday, April 28, 2012

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey
by J.D. Salinger

When I first read Franny and Zooey around five or six years ago, it occurred to me that the opening section about Franny would make an excellent graphic novel. A good artist could capture the train coming into the station, her boyfriend Lane reading her letter and anticipating her arrival, and the disconnect between them at lunch. Rereading the book now, I was pleased to discover I still feel the same way, and that I enjoyed the book just as much as the first time through. Given the ironclad nature of the Salinger estate, I doubt we'll ever see his work in any form but the books themselves, but it's interesting to think about.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, Franny and Zooey was originally published in the New Yorker as separate stories in 1955 and 1957. Though it's not exactly a plot-heavy book, it centers primarily around Franny Glass' mental crisis over her purpose in life, and the Glass family's residual grief over oldest son Seymour's suicide. Both stories are supposed to be narrated by their next oldest brother, Buddy, who is mentioned but not present during either portion of the book.

The Glass children were all once participants on a radio show called "It's a Wise Child." Because there were seven Glass children total, one or more of the kids appeared on the show regularly from 1927 to 1943. They would "answer over the air a prodigious number of alternately deadly-bookish and deadly-cute questions — sent in by listeners — with a freshness, an aplomb, that was considered unique in commercial radio."

Off and on during their broadcasting years, all seven of the children had been fair game for the kind of child psychologist or professional educator who takes a special interest in extra-precocious children. In this cause, or service, Zooey had been, of all the Glasses, hands down, the most voraciously examined, interviewed and poked at.

Zooey is now an actor, and an attractive one at that, and he's only a few steps ahead of Franny in navigating life. Though he doesn't exactly want to admit it, he's been in the same place as his sister. Their entire family is filled with people who had to figure out how to go from that precocious child to functioning adult. Some of them were not so successful, obviously.

One could write essay upon essay on this book; it is rife with character study opportunities. Loneliness, alienation (self-imposed or otherwise), success, spiritual fulfillment, family, grief — it's all here, and all in a book where the "action" is mostly through conversation and memory. It might not be a satisfying read for everyone, but I really like this book. A friend of mine recently organized a book club, and this was the first pick. Since I'm used to just talking into the internet-ether, it was fun to talk about a novel with people in the same room. (Plus, you know, snacks.)

I'd forgotten how darkly funny this book is, especially in the cutting way Franny describes her university experience. Anyone who has gone to college, Ivy League or not, has probably met a person like this:

"Well, I don't know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man's a person that takes over a class when the professor isn't there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He's usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it's a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Turgenev for about a half hour. Then, when he's completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they're all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths — pardon the contradiction."

There are certain MFA-affiliated sites and a couple undergraduate classes I took that remind me of that quote.

Zooey does plenty of talking in his portion, and he has his own good lines. His mother, Bessie, is trying to get his thoughts on the nature of Franny's breakdown, all while he's trying to finish a bath and then shave. This bit made me laugh:

"You know, I'm the only one in this family who has no problems," Zooey said. "And you know why? Because any time I'm feeling blue, or puzzled, what I do, I just invite a few people to come visit me in the bathroom, and — well, we iron things out together, that's all."

To some, it might seem a bit strange to review a "classic," but you know, we don't come tumbling into this world having magically read them all. I've read Salinger's Nine Stories, but I haven't read the one it seems that "everybody" has read, Catcher in the Rye. How this is possible, I don't know, considering one of my best friends is one of those people who has multiple copies and likes to throw them at others, insisting that they read it. My only excuse is that it's continually checked out of the library, and I haven't gotten around to buying it.

Point is, the same could be said for someone else about Franny and Zooey. With the eleventy-gerbillion books in the world (yes, my number is totally precise, shush), a person has to have some inkling as to why they would want to read a book other than that they "should" or it's a "classic." And Wikipedia is spoiler-central, which is fine, if that's what you're looking for, but old books need new, regular reviews too.

And if you have already read it, feel free to say what you liked about it in the comments.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Smart Girl's Guide to the G-Spot by Violet Blue (+ other Internal News as of 4-27-12)

At Persephone Magazine, I review The Smart Girl's Guide to the G-Spot by Violet Blue. An interesting, straightforward guide that is both fun and science-y. Consider that review #18 for Cannonball Read purposes.

Also at P-Mag, I talk about watching the 2005 BBC miniseries, Bleak House. And still manage to talk about Doctor Who because that's how I roll.

There have also been two Notes From Elsewhere link roundups over at Word Riot since I last did a, er, link roundup here. (I SWEAR, my internet existence is not all about link roundups.) Today, I talked about bathroom reading, a novel about chronic fatigue syndrome, writing-related research, and Pablo Neruda confirming what I already knew: All the wine in Chile is good.

Last week at WR, I talked about Jonathan Franzen being cranky again, Chloe Caldwell cat-sitting for Cheryl Strayed, and The Black Book of Colors, among other things.

World Book Night US 2012 - Just Kids by Patti SmithAlso, I was a giver for World Book Night this past Monday. I gave away 20 copies of Just Kids by Patti Smith to a couple teachers, 4 lifeguards, some skate park kids, a bartender, a dude sitting at said bar, and some other local performers/musician-types. Twas fun.

I believe that is all for now.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fante by Dan Fante

Fante: A Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving
by Dan Fante

"My dad, the man I loved the most in the world, a man who refused to compromise himself for anyone, the man who had shown me by example what it was like to be a true artist, was gone. We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante's gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer's heart. He had begun life with a drunken, self-hating father, backing out of the hell of poverty and prejudice. Now he was ending it as the best example of courage and humility I had ever known. John Fante was my hero."

Part biography, part memoir, and part love letter, Dan Fante's captivating book interweaves his father's history with his own. We all have our troubles and our passions, he seems to say, but here is how we dove into ours. Father and son, driving, failing, trying again, perhaps a little more bitterly this time. Both writers, both alcoholics, both prone to explosions of emotion. Here is how we managed existence.

I've meant to read John Fante's Ask the Dusk ever since I saw the Colin Farrell/Salma Hayek movie — a movie Dan Fante says doesn't do the book justice, but then that's often true. Yes, it was that particular combination of beautiful faces that drew me into the film, I will admit, but I enjoy reading or watching things regarding that era of Los Angeles. It makes me believe that it is possible to love that city, beyond the endless traffic-celebrity-pleasepleaseme state we see now. 1930s California, in some ways, still had the whiff of warm possibility, rather than hopeless desperation alone. Load up the Joad-mobile and head West. If we can make it in California, perhaps everything will be fine.

Some of the best writing talent in America had migrated to the City of Angels, chasing a fast Hollywood buck. Men of great talent neglected their own writing careers in order to cash in. Almost all his life John Fante would be torn between these two masters.

Though it received good reviews, Ask the Dusk sold less than 3000 copies in 1939. The book's publisher "made the dumb and costly blunder of publishing Hitler's Mein Kampf without the author's permission." Any money the publisher had for marketing or anything else for Ask the Dust went straight to court fees instead. The novel was not "discovered" really until the 1970s, less than a decade before John Fante's death. For most of his life, he cashed screenplay checks. It was a living, and in those days, it was a clock-in-at-the-office job. He would make his connections and feed his booze, golf and gambling habits there. The novels still came, but they never got as much attention as he would have liked.

"It has been written that bad luck played a major part in the demise of my father's literary career," Dan Fante says. "Certainly that is true, but his bad temper, intolerance and nasty tongue didn't help either."

Dan Fante was not immune to his own alcoholic rages, though "rage" for him did not manifest itself as violence so often as it did with an "intense sex drive," and an all-or-nothing attitude. Once he started, he needed more, and as addict stories often go, there was plenty of self-hate involved too.

Still, Dan had skills, particularly with anything that involved hustle. He worked as a beachside carny for awhile, followed by a gig selling Kirby vacuums, and then multiple sales and temp jobs thereafter. He moved to New York City with a friend, thinking maybe he could study acting, after having some success with it in college. But then, he started to get into poetry, both writing it and attending readings, and of course, meeting girls at these readings. Slowly, literature began to creep back into his life. Occasionally, a decent job or girl would get him to cut his drinking for awhile, but it took decades to finally stick. Fante isn't all depressive alcoholism though — there's plenty of humor in the witty ways John Fante could tell off a man, or his obsessive interest in cars and cranky pets. Dan Fante also describes the people he's met along the way, the sort of people one might call "characters." The ebullient and over-the-top men and women who are as much, if not more, of a hustler than he is.

His mother, Joyce, is a rock of a woman with her own great moments. When Dan started writing fiction, he needed a trusted opinion on its worth, so he asked his mother to read his manuscript. She had helped his father, and she was not one to tread softly. After criticizing his spelling, she tells him he's a good writer. Then:

"If I were you, I'd look over the notes I've made and fix what needs fixing, then I'll do a retyping for you. Then you can send it out."

"No kidding?"

"Yes, no kidding."

"On second thought, I'll do the corrections myself. Presentation is too important. I don't want this novel rejected because you're illiterate. I'd better write the submission letter too."

Several days later Mom handed me a spotless finished copy with a cover letter. I had titled the book Chump Change.

I'm not yet familiar with his father's writing style, but Dan Fante writes in a very straightforward way. He's not concerned with being "profound." He just wants to talk about his life. Talking about it helps keep the craziness at bay, sure, but he also enjoys it. He knows that he was shaped by the shadow of his father, good and bad, and he achieves a fairly decent balance between triumph and flaw. He's prone to overusing certain phrases within a short page-span — "marching orders" being one I noticed while flipping back through — but caring about that feels a little nit-picky. This is a good, entertaining book. I reread many chapters while writing this review, and I find the included family photos interesting. Now, would his siblings have a different version of events or say he is glossing over some of his own issues? Maybe, but what he presented was compelling. Repeatedly I've said that I like knowing the life stories of people. I like knowing what shaped their character, and Fante is a 2-for-1 deal. Well played, salesman.

I don't know that I'm too terribly interested in Dan Fante's novels, however. They sound fine enough and heavily based on his life, but I feel like I've already read the unfiltered version (or less filtered, as is the case with memoir), and perhaps the novelization isn't for me. I could be wrong, but I don't know. When it comes to John Fante though, my curiosity is intensified. If Fante is partially an attempt to preserve John's legacy and to reignite interest in the man's work, consider the book successful. I want to track down Ask the Dust, and if I like that, his other books too. And what screenplays ended up with his name? Maybe he considered it just another paycheck, but is there anything we might know? Some gem beloved by film students? I'd like to find out.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair in all my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Agorafabulous! by Sara Benincasa

My review of Agorafabulous! Dispatches from my Bedroom by Sara Benincasa is now up at Persephone Magazine. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

“I get where Sara Benincasa is coming from with her memoir Agorafabulous! If anxieties were easily explainable, and therefore more easily worked through, life would be a lot different for just about everyone. However, we wouldn’t have nearly as many funny/ridiculous stories to tell people: ‘Dude, you think you’re alone with your panic attacks? This one time, I…’

This book collects those stories, as well as Benincasa’s steps towards being a more reliably functioning person. ‘I subscribe to the notion that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them,’ she says. ‘And if other people can laugh at your awful shit as well, then I guess you can officially call yourself a comedian.’”

Read the whole thing here.

(#16/26+ for Cannonball Read.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Internal News as of 4-17-12

I've been out of the loop since last Thursday, since I went to Spokane for the Get Lit! Festival. So yes, I know there haven't been many updates here. I'm working valiantly to change that this week. In the meantime, here's where you can find me elsewhere on the ol' interwubbery:

At Word Riot, I review two Tiny Hardcore books: Steal Me For Your Stories by Robb Todd and So You Know It's Me by Brian Oliu. Great books.

My review of Chloe Caldwell's Legs Get Led Astray now also appears at Persephone Magazine.

Also at P-Mag, I talked about the Doctor Who episode, "Vincent and the Doctor," and also have a post regarding various types of synesthesia. The mister has synesthesia, and he didn't know it was unusual until he was an adult.

If you live in the Spokane area, we donated a copy of Infinite Disposable to the Bird's Nest Zine Library, after I read selections from the book at RiverSpeak's Come One, Come All Community Reading on April 15th.

One last thing: If you enjoy the reviews on this site or my writing in general, I promise you a cookie if you vote for me in GoodRead's Independent Book Blogger Awards.

Now, back to writing those reviews...

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Internal News as of 4-7-12:

Greetings, one and all. Here's what I've been doing lately when I haven't been posting here:

At Persephone Magazine, I say there's No Such Thing as a Guilty Pleasure.

Also at P-Mag, I offer some tips on how to cook with dried beans.

At Word Riot, I provide some literary linky goodness in this week's Notes From Elsewhere. Includes how to make a clock out of an old hardback.

AND! Have you ordered Infinite Disposable yet?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Legs Get Led Astray: Essays by Chloe Caldwell

Legs Get Led Astray: Essays
by Chloe Caldwell

Chloe Caldwell's personal essays have a way of making me dissect my own life, whether I want to or not. I say 'me' instead of 'you' (though I bet it would be true for you too), and I am disregarding the editorial 'we.' Reading Legs Get Led Astray is not an abstraction — it is her voice and my brain having a conversation through the page. And though at times what I remembered through her past made me uncomfortable, it was only because I knew the feelings to be true. I enjoyed Legs Get Led Astray in the same way a song can hurt so good. Love, lust and loneliness — Over and over I say that is what I want to read and what I want to write, and this book makes me want to write.

I will give you a typewriter. I will not be able to keep my hands off of you. I will pick flowers and bring them to your windowsill. I will want to borrow your things. I will talk a lot around you because that I do around people I like. I will like you and maybe even love you.

--"Long May You Run"

Caldwell examines her relationships while she's still in the throes of them. Her essays talk about lovers, yes, but also about close friends, her parents, children she has cared for, and more than one instance of the Strand bookstore. Years of retrospect do not factor in here much — her feelings are still raw and maybe a little jumbled and maybe a little closer to the direct noise inside anyone's brain. Her heart swells and stretches, contracts and fractures, and her honesty is refreshing.

And do you remember that in the letter you write me, you told me that perhaps your love for me confused me into thinking you didn't have any love left over for anyone else? Did you forget you were actually really on par with that?
You say that you love me but that you love a lot of people.
You say that you have a lot of love.
You say that my mind is like an elephant's.

Caldwell also likes to know what people secretly think about. She likes other people's journals and emails, and seeing a person's face when they think no one else is looking. Or better yet, when they are oblivious to any world outside their own thoughts. It's voyeuristic, sure, but also somewhat anthropological. She seems to find it all very interesting — it's her own loop of personal reflection through someone else, and then she starts to write.

I like songs like [Rufus Wainwright's] "The Art Teacher," which, in four minutes, I feel like I've read a story. I've been sucked into this child's life — this child that turns into an adult with a broken heart. I feel like I've listened to a well-written essay, wherein I was given the creative freedom to fill in my own gaps.

But mostly I related because I know that I would have bought a painting I didn't love, if someone I was in love with loved it.

--"The Art Teacher"

Wrapped up in music and smells and drugs and strewn pieces of clothing, Caldwell writes from a place of longing for connection, while also yearning for distraction. Release. If you gathered all the songs she mentions throughout the book, you'd have a really good playlist. She is unafraid to admit when she's been fearful, when she's been the fuck-up, or when she judged too soon. But she also loves wholeheartedly, generously, and it's endearing. None of her stories come across like, "Hey, look at me shocking my audience!" No. She is writing to someone.

Is it you?

I purchased this book with my own fool money from Future Tense Books. You should too.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

This review also appeared at Persephone Magazine on April 12, 2012.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Banned For Life by D.R. Haney

Banned For Life
by D.R. Haney

I've had arguments about the definition of "punk." There are the purists who only want to discuss a certain segment of 1970s NYC with allowances for the Sex Pistols and the Clash. There are the hardcore lovers and straight edge kids who talk about 1980s DC and the Misfits and Ian MacKaye. There are the people who like Green Day's "old stuff," and dismiss everything by any band post-1994 for even attempting "punk."

My response? Fuck you. … but can't we all get along?

Look, argue with me all you want, but punk is not a very specific musical genre. Punk is an attitude. Punk is doing exactly what you want to do, regardless of popular opinion or viable income. It is defiance: I won't do what you tell me.

(Rage Against the Machine lasted until 2000, reunion gigs notwithstanding, and they did pretty well for themselves. You want to tell me they're not punk rock?)

Punk is not defined by spiking your blue hair, getting fired from shitty jobs, and recording only on 4-track to cassette. It's not any more about drawing black Xs on your hands than it is about being a junkie. Punk is not solely leather jackets and anarchist graffiti.

But here's the thing: If that's your gig, if any of those things are what get you off and you do/wear/say these things without caring what others label you as? Fair play, my punk friend.

So don't try to tell me that punk is dead, that rock is dead, that print is dead, or anything else you can't be bothered to take more than .012 seconds to search for. Quit lamenting about some nostalgic yesteryear and make good with what you have available now. Pay attention. Show some fucking initiative.

Banned For Life by D.R. Haney is a punk rock novel about punk rock. Unnerved by an editing approach by other publishers that missed the heart of his story, he decided to go with a small press out of Vancouver run by a friend. Drawing upon some of his own experiences — and more importantly, a life-changed fan — he has crafted a novel that firmly does away with the ridiculous saying, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

(Where my Playing By Heart lovers at? Hands up! Also, nice blue hair, Ryan Phillippe.)

Spanning from 1980s North Carolina and New York City to 90s Los Angeles and Belgrade, Serbia, Banned For Life follows the erratic trajectory of Jason Maddox. Jason grew up in a WASPy university town, at first the obedient polo shirt-wearing son with the popular girlfriend. High school was the tenuous battle against being too out of the ordinary, lest one be shamed into obscurity. And then, a pint-sized terrier, a ferocious explosion, a loud-mouthed, book-reading guy soon-to-be christened Peewee arrived.

He got to school and people couldn't stop talking about him. Even people at other schools were talking about him. I remember once I was at a party and some kid from way out in the sticks asked if I knew Bernard Mash (His nickname wasn't coined 'til some time later, and nobody in North Carolina referred to him by it, apart from me). I said, "Well, I know who he is, we don't hang out or anything." And he said, "Yeah, I met him over at Planet Records. Man, is he gay or what?"

That's what a lot of people decided, though he wasn't effeminate in the slightest. He was a brainy Jew from New York City who dressed like TV's Fonzie, but he rarely got shit for any of that; it was more for being "gay." He was weird, right? Wasn't that the same as gay?

But then, there's some business between Jason and his girlfriend's mother, fallout with a friend, and a massive fight that gets him expelled from school and kicked out of his parents' home. He ends up rooming with a co-worker at the same apartment complex where Peewee lives with his sister. Before long, a friendship kicks off, and they are listening to music every afternoon while Peewee talks a novel-a-minute about everything from Norman Mailer to all sports being "boring allegories," sperm into egg.

Then one night I heard a song by Jim's band, Rule of Thumb, and thought, "My God, somebody out there gets it. Somebody out there feels just like I do." I started listening to songs by other punk bands, and shaved off my hair and dyed the stubble blue. I slashed up my clothes and put them back together with safety pins. I bought a used Fender Mustang and taught myself to play it. I was the second punk rocker that town had ever seen, so it goes without saying I got a lot of shit, but I used to fantasize that Jim Cassady could somehow see me and was looking on with approval.

He and Peewee meet Jim once outside of CBGBs, not long before Jim disappears. No one really knows what happened to him, though rumors abound.

It's difficult to adequately summarize everything that goes on in this book, as it's 400+ pages and spans around 20 years of a man's life. He goes from being a square teenager to a touring musician to a flailing filmmaker who wonders why he isn't further along in life. There's a girl, Irina, because there's always a girl who makes us question everything. Furthermore, she's married and also has no idea what to do with herself. They both tried to follow their passions, but what has it brought them?

Haney writes from Jason's point of view with Jason speaking directly to the reader as a man who is not used to creating this way. Yes, he's written screenplays, but anyone who is used to one and not the other can tell you how different those animals are. Jason is not trying to wow us with his literary prowess; he just wants to tell the story. However, his first love, that music that changed everything, exists on a different plane entirely. When he talks about the music in his life, it is easy to feel it right along with him.

So this was Peewee's cover of "Banished." It barely sounded like the original. It was his own version, off-kilter and oddly tuned, but he was rocking out like I'd never seen him before — a holy roller, a spinning top — and when he sang it looked like the veins on his forehead were going to burst open, like his whole head was about to explode. And that sound: it was so fucking raw and so nasty, so out of this world; and Lucien was pounding those fucking drums, so that I bobbed my head 'til my neck started to hurt, and, glancing around the room, I saw lots of other heads bobbing too. I didn't want it to ever end!
I think that was the single most electrifying display of rock & roll power I ever saw (but didn't participate in) 'til many years later at the Fold in Los Angeles. I had goosebumps. Then I walked outside and stood by the door, speechless. It was as if I had to be alone for a few minutes, and only later did I fully understand why. Because what I'd experienced inside wasn't just music. Something had died and something had been born in one fell whack.

What I think is important to point out here is that Jason is not as concerned with being cool — he just knows what turns him on. What makes him punk is that even though he had to use the "uniform" to make the transition (safety pins and etc.), he does not feel like he has to adopt the scene's code of conduct. He will not act blasé because that's what people do. He will not tailor the band's sound to meet the expectations of certain venues. And when he transitions to screenwriting, it is only when he gives into "the game" that he really starts to feel dissatisfied. He has to learn how to find his way back to that passion, whether it's through Irina, or finding out what happened to Jim Cassady, or finally finding a project in which he can believe.

If anything, Banned For Life is about how one does not have to sacrifice a punk mentality with age, and that punk does not come at the expense of happiness. Yes, punk is a reaction, and often an anger against the perceived wrongs in the world, but it's also this: If we weren't so hellbent on screwing each other over, if we were all able to do what we want, we might be happy.

It might seem radical on the surface, but for me, punk = chasing after happiness, independent of any system. Your anger is a gift, it is an energy, it is your means to figure out what it is you hold important.

I enjoyed Banned For Life tremendously. Editing (again) my novel centered around a band in the early 90s (though a different locale and genre), complete with "fake songs" and grappling with notions of love and success — Well, of course I loved this book. The stuff I enjoy writing about is all here, and even though I'm a yoga pants-wearing, homebody, married mother-of-two, I know when I'm among my people.

Attitudes are infectious, and labels are only as good as the people who provide them. I don't know about you, but I'll take passion over cynicism any day.

Full Disclosure: I won this book through a giveaway at TNBBC.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.