It sucked because I’d read it before

dooceIt Sucked and then I Cried Heather B. Armstrong

When I first heard of Heather Armstrong, she made me mad. A woman who supported her family–kid, husband, and dog?–just by blogging? Seriously? WTF? Blogging?? She must be the suckiest sell-out ever!

I rejected her on principle.

Then I started reading.

Heather is the cool girl you’d die to be friends with in real life, because she’d make the best margaritas, have the funkiest nail polish colors even if her mani/pedi wasn’t perfect, and the most catalog-amazing house Ev-Ah. Her writing is truly laugh-out-loud funny (no stupid abbreviations necessary), her quirks are endearing, (ALL CAPS ARE FRIGGIN’ AWESOME WHEN USED IN MODERATION!) AND–whoops! and she’s been through some real shit.

In Sucked & Cried, Armstrong writes about getting pregnant, freaking out, her crazy family, her amazing husband, her own (very real) craziness, her recovery, and her unmeasurable love for her supersweet daughter. What could be bad about this? one might wonder.

Simple. I paid $16however much for a hardbound copy of what I could (mostly) read for free online.

I love Heather Armstrong. I wish her well. I just don’t get the trend of turning blogs into books and not putting tons of new content into them. I was actually excited, anticipating the arrival of Sucked & Criedfrom Amazon, and then when it arrived and I dove in, I was all… Oh.

I think the best bloggers out there should get paid for their work. They should get ad revenue, they should charge per post if they wanted to (I’d pay 50 cents to read one of Heather’s blog posts, and a cool quarter for one of her photo-plus-captions easily. And all that change, from all over the country, would most def add up for her, I’m sure.

But honestly, after this experience, I doubt I’ll be shelling out for anyone’s blog-to-book*. Not Cake Wrecks (Sorry Cake Wrecks! I did buy a shirt from your Cafe Press store!) Not Picture is Unrelated. Certainly not Lolcats.

I love me some internet entertainment, but paying for a “real” copy of something that exists primarily, firstly, on the internet just kind of sucks. And when there’s a limited amount of new content, well, double suck.

Sorry Heather. Love you. But next time I want more.

*I might be very tempted to buy a Sweet Juniper product because they do kick ass. Go Jim and Wood! Publish something already!

p.s. Yes, savvy readers will note that there’s no direct mention of the name of Heather’s blog. There is a hidden one, however. For fuck’s sake, though, if you don’t know who she is then just google her. You must be the only one on the planet, though…

Not Quite What I Was Thinking While Reading

sixwordNot Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs
Edited by Smith Magazine

This is a feather of a book–lightweight and inspiring flight–in which folks famous and obscure summarize their lives in six words, modeled after a famous short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn. I always found that string of words to be evocative: of hope, of pain, of empathy, of fiction.

The real “memoirs,” we can assume, are mostly true, and summarize some facet of the author’s life in a way he or she found pleasing, though they necessarily only put forth the face the author wants you to see. But that’s the point; the best of them inspire questions and inferences, making you wonder what that person is really all about.

Dave Eggers’ contribution, for instance, says only: “Fifteen years since last professional haircut.” Nothing about his work or his losses, nothing personal, nothing risky. What does it mean? That he’s thrifty? That he has a wide enough circle of friends to include one (or more) individuals capable of taming his locks at no charge? That he’s been so busy in the last fifteen years that he hasn’t taken the time to meander down to a barber shop or salon? That he’s content with himself without a lot of frou-frou grooming? That appearance isn’t important because the people who mean the most to him see past what’s on the outside?

All of that? None of it? I could go on and on wondering.

Some are silly. Some suggest lives of pain, bad decisions, quirky changes of heart. Many are about writing. They all make me itch to tell a fiction behind the truth:

“All of my students hate me.” Sharon Fishfeld, page 100.
She could be a high school teacher, pretentious or insecure. She could be a judge, creative in her sentencing. She could be a Lamaze teacher, reminding her very pregnant students what lies ahead. An obedience instructor, a critical ballet teacher, a mom who homeschools. Why do they hate her? Why do they all hate her?

Assuming she’s a teacher at a school, did she get someone else fired? Does she assign too much homework, maintaining the highest of standards in today’s slacker society? Is she misanthropic, hating all of them and receiving their hate in return?

Those six words could easily inspire 60 different novels, each with a unique conflict.

“I am a cartwheel of mentorship.” Anne Asher
Um, what? Cartwheel: gymnastic move. Requires grace, balance. Can be mastered by six-year-olds. Mentorship: the relationship between someone who is experienced and someone who is not.
Cartwheel of mentorship: She is at once learning and teaching, spinning through life sharing and gathering information, knowledge, experience.
She relied on help. She gave it in return. Sometimes it made her dizzy.
An elegant metaphor, if a touch confusing. Maybe she was a gymnastics great? Maybe I’m overthinking things?

Maybe that’s mine: Maybe I’m overthinking things again. Maybe?

One more, just for fun:
“Legs spread, I withheld my intelligence.” Christine Granados
So evocative. A memory of youth? A continuing pattern? Is she seen only as a sex symbol? Is she a porn star? A burlesque dancer? A very expensive prostitute? A desperate soul, longing for love, overlooking the tan line around his ring finger? Did it bother her to do it, or does she have no regrets? A girl who wants to fit in, be considered “sexy,” too afraid to express her opinions? Or just smart enough to keep her mouth shut? Or does she mean intelligence as experience–she withheld how smart she was about sex in order to appear more virtuous, even with her legs spread?

I love this book for what it calls forth in me. Some of it is pretentious; some of it makes you wonder about the criteria for inclusion. It can be read in an hour, or lingered over for months. It’s a trifle and a starting point all at once.

Titles of the Week: Frank Lloyd Mix Tape

frank-lloyd-mix-tapeLoving Frank by Nancy Horan
Love Is a Mix Tapeby Rob Sheffield

Loving Frank was a birthday gift from my best friend from high school, a genuine bibliophile and an all-around smart person. I knew I was going to like this one if I only let myself fall into it.

I have to admit, my experience of reading it was not my favorite: I had to do it on the sly, as I feel tremendously busy right now. So I read it in drips and drabs: a few pages before bed, or while I stood in the kitchen, waiting for water to boil for mac and cheese. I never felt like I had an afternoon to really lose myself in it. I never gave myself that luxury.

But really, that’s what this book asks of its readers: some devoted time to get lost in another time, a familiar time, but a distant time nonetheless. The story recounts Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright in a time when sex scandals sold newspapers like crazy and reporters hounded celebrities at home, during private moments, whether it’s moral to do so or not (anyone else thinking of Eliot Spitzer? Balthazar Getty and Sienna Miller? Brangelina, for crissakes? Anyone? Anyone?) The part of the story in which Mamah and Frank were demonized and crucified for their extramarital affair and their desire to just belong to each other felt incredibly modern, current, and realistic. It wasn’t a wonderland of crazy sex and happiness: there was pain and regret and an awareness that they were making life-altering decisions not just for themselves, but for many people in their lives.

That said, there were a couple of things that bugged me:
–I could not stand reading Mamah’s name over and over and over again. It literally drove me nuts. I know it was her real name. I know there was nothing the author could do about it. But seriously–Mamah? It must be the ugliest name ever, and it really prevented me from imagining her as a lovely, intellectual woman. I got the sense that it bugged the author a bit too: the fact that she had to remind the readers how it was pronounced several times throughout the book, and the musings she put into Mamah’s head about it seemed to speak to her own feelings.
–The big surprise ending kind of blew me away. I will not describe any aspect of it. No spoiler alert necessary. However, I have to say that given that this was a fictionalized version of real events, I would have liked to have seen the author’s touch come in and foreshadow it a little. I see how this might have occurred to her, and why she might have rejected it: the characters involved had no foreshadowing of the events themselves in real life, so why should the author then place it in? Given how much of the rest of the book was so realistic–the emotions, the lack of romanticization, etc–it was an artistic touch the author likely deemed unnecessary. But when it happened, it hit me like a ton of bricks and made me wonder why I had spent so much time reading toward that particular outcome.

It could have been handled differently. Perhaps if the whole story itself had been a flashback imagined by some key characters as they were experiencing the fateful day described near the end of the book, the ending would not have been so shocking and disconnected from the rest of the narrative.

Despite these beefs, I enjoyed learning about FLW and Mamah’s slant on the feminist movement of the time. I’m totally psyched to go out and visit Falling Water now (the closest FLW building to me), and to get to see some of the kind of art described in the novel. And I respect the way the author imagined the story: the realism she brought to the emotional aspect of the story was very genuine.

Love Is a Mix Tape sat on my Amazon wish list for quite some time, and I finally got it for my birthday. It’s a quick read and an entertaining one, especially for someone of my generation–I think Rob Sheffield is just a few years older than me, and I definitely came of age in the era of mix tape creation.

He tells the tale of how music brought him together with his wife Renee, and how, once she passed away very unexpectedly, it became a torture and finally a healing salve for him. It’s a quirky story, filled with playlists and an indier-than-thou attitude. Rob has great taste in music for sure, and getting to see some of my own familiar favorites mixed in with new bands has, if nothing else, inspired me to spend some time on iTunes digging up some new songs with the book open. I found myself asking whether or not the role music played in the Sheffield’s life was really as important as he described it though. I’m pretty obsessed with music myself, but it seemed as though Rob and Renee were endlessly making mixes. Really? I found myself wondering at various points: Are there reallythat many hours in a week that one could spend creating these tapes, especially in a pre-mix cd world? Making tapes is a long process, a real-time process: if the tape is 90 minutes, it takes 90 minutes plus to make one. It seemed exaggerated.

Or maybe the time I spent watching Blossom reruns was the time they spent on mix tapes. Who knows?

The thing I loved best about the book was how Rob made Renee a very vivid character in showing details about her rather than telling them. Renee apparently was a girl who struggled with her weight, but Rob never comes out and says this: he describes her as incredibly beguiling, but as someone who spends a lot of time sewing her own clothes because she’s frequently needing larger and larger sizes. It’s a very loving way of describing what must have been a frustrating battle for Renee. Because he keeps his description focused on her action of sewing, I never lost sight of the sexy, head-turning (and probably thinner) girl he originally fell in love with. It was a gracious touch, and it made his devotion to her come through crystal clear.

I can’t imagine being as young as Rob was and having to bury a spouse. I can’t imagine building a life with someone and having it crumble in the space of an afternoon. I can’t imagine having to go back to an apartment after that particular loss and then figure out what to do next: going through her things, sleeping in the bed he once shared with her, getting rid of things and moving on. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life, but never one quite as visceral as Rob’s loss of Renee probably was. I love that he’s moved on. I love that music and writing and living are all still important and wonderful for him. It’s what she would have wanted–of course I didn’t know her, but it’s so clear from the text that she would have wanted him to go on, to love again, to be happy, to think of her fondly when he hears some certain song.

Loving and losing and loving again: when you’re in the middle of the loving part, the losing seems impossible, distant, ridiculous to even consider. And when you’re losing, the loving again seems sometimes sickening and sometimes as likely as winning the lottery. It’s such a cliche to dwell on the fact that life goes on but it does. It’s a minor miracle, but it does.

Six Degrees of Chinese Democracy

I’ll say first of all that I’m not a fan of GNR, nor heavy metal in general. Yes, I’m a child of the 80s, so songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” are part of the soundtrack of my youth. I had to take notice, though, when Chinese Democracy came out this last week for one main reason, which led to another:for starters, one of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, was bound to be totally psyched about it (and as a result, have some interesting things to say.) Turns out, he was.

A side note on Chuck Klosterman: He is almost exactly my age, and as such, I tend to be interested in his writing because he gets things–cultural movements and whatnot–in much the same way that I do, even though he has vastly different opinions than I do. I read all of Fargo Rock City despite its topic: a deep and seemingly endless fascination with all things Heavy Metal, but it wasn’t because I cared whether he thought Girls Girls Girls! was better than Slippery When Wet. It was more that the thought process he went through in discussing those albums (and his youth in rural North Dakota and his college years and how he sees completely weird connections between utterly different things) that made the book a good read. Chuck is cool not because he likes all the same things I do, but because I can see the way he thinks about the world in his writing and it makes sense to me.

So knowing that he was going to be jazzed about the release of Chinese Democracy made me slightly interested in the album itself. And then as I went on to read Chuck’s assessment and a few others, too, the second important thing about the album jumped out in full color for me: the album’s seventh song, “The Catcher in the Rye”.

On seeing that title, I wondered a bunch of things. How many listeners would get the reference? Would the song even make sense as a connection to that reference? And what exactly was Kevin W., one of my former students, thinking?

“The Catcher in the Rye” is of course a nod to J.D. Salinger’s seminal coming-of-age novel of the same name. Both the novel and the song concern a troubled kid. In the book, it’s Holden, natch; in the song…I’m guessing it’s Axl? Or at least a former version of Axl? Or maybe just Mark Chapman, the seriously deranged guy who, with Catcher supposedly in his coat pocket, went out and got a gun and shot and killed John Lennon for nebulous reasons. And in that regard, the song’s connection to the book is not especially clear. When Axl sings, “It’s what used to be’s not there for me / And ought to find someone that belongs insane like I do” I’m vaguely reminded of Holden’s extreme, continuing grief over the death of his brother, Allie. But I also kind of wonder if Sarah Palin wrote those lines for him. Find someone that belongs insane like I do? Huh?

And of course, I’m reminded that Christmas season is nearly upon us. When I was teaching American lit, this was the time of year when I’d always start Catcher, so that the events of the book would roughly line up with the actual season. I miss the classroom like crazy, though I don’t miss the hectic workload, BS paperwork, and a million other things that distracted me from doing the most important part of my job, which was encouraging kids to explore the world of novels and find something they could connect to even in mold old books from the 1950s. I wonder about how some of my extreme slacker kids like Jordan K. or Frankie G., who were both metalheads (or whatever the 2008 version of metalheads is) would feel about the fact that the novel we were about to start was also a song on the latest GNR album. Which leads me to wonder about Kevin W., also a former student and also something of a metalhead, but one who was less of a slacker and more of a thoughtful, intelligent kid who pretty much got A’s on everything. He had enjoyed our work on Catcher…now about four years ago? (Man it seems like two weeks ago that he was sitting in my classroom, and just yesterday that I actually had a classroom…) Kevin was a student who absolutely loved a traditional extra credit project I always assigned with Catcher, which was to create a soundtrack for the novel. I don’t remember which tracks he put on his project, but I remember that he described each in the requisite writing portion in great detail. I wonder if he’s picked up the album (or, more likely, downloaded it) and what he thinks about Axl’s wonky lyrics. I wonder if he remembers me blabbing on and on about how culturally significant the book was, and how lots of musicians and screenwriters and even artists were influenced by it. (Back then, I proved this point with Green Day’s “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?”)

And I wonder if my life will eventually lead me back to teaching, and how moldy the GNR song will be on my next occasion of teaching the novel. And if Chuck’s latest novel, sitting on my Amazon wish list, is any good. And if any of my former students who suffered through our very close reading of the book have been reminded of our class upon hearing the song. 

I didn’t expect to be caught in the Chinese Democracy web, but here I am.

Titles of the week


To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, David Rieff

Two very disparate titles, yet they are each holding my attention this week.

Mockingbird…such a joy in every way. I am rereading this novel in anticipation of teaching it to my home-schooled nephew, with whom I am doing some supplementary literature and writing studies this year. Seeing Mockingbird through the lens of an educator is unique. First of all, it may be one of the richest books I’ve read for teaching vocabulary. This is true for many of our classic novels, but given that our narrator, Scout, is a child herself, the “five dollar words” seem less intimidating somehow–or maybe it’s just because now, as an adult, I know what they mean. (Taciturn is a nice one that comes to mind, one that might be especially foreign to teenage readers both as a word and a concept; one I’ve had to look up is scuppernong, as Scout and Jem are continually eating them. Turns out they are plum-like fruits.) 

Beyond the vocabulary is the whole fascinating issue of race in the novel. Do we think less of Scout because she uses “the N-word”? Of Atticus, who chastises her use merely because “it’s common”? As an American Lit teacher, I never had the opportunity to teach one of the great American classics that prominently features the word–we never had time in our syllabus to work in Huck Finn, and the 9th graders had dibs on Mockingbird. How do African-American students–especially younger high-school students, the 9th and 10th graders, feel about the context of this? About the whole Tom Robinson issue? About the wicked words of the townspeople toward Atticus, and more hurtfully, Jem and Scout? How do they feel about a character like Mrs. Dubose, who abuses Jem so hatefully and yet is described by Atticus as “…the bravest woman I ever knew”? Personally, Atticus’s assessment of her is one of the most masterful presentations of someone seeing the world through another person’s eyes that I can recall. How is it possible to see someone whose opinions are so different from one’s own in an objective way? Maybe lawyers have to be good at such things.

I’m just into Part II. A follow-up post on the ending will come.

Swimming in a Sea of Death is the memoir of David Rieff, the son of Susan Sontag, and it recounts his memories of her final illness, a battle with leukemia. It is the angry, grief-filled rant of a wonderfully literate, loving son who perhaps considered (on some subconscious level) his mother to be immortal simply because she had faced tremendous odds in the past and emerged unscathed. Sontag had battled breast cancer in the 1970s, back when a horrendous-sounding surgery called the Halstead (a mastectomy that removed a lot of tissue and muscle as well as lymph nodes) was the norm for treatment. She also suffered from a type of uterine cancer in the 1990s, for which she underwent a particularly poisonous course of chemotherapy, a treatment which likely triggered the leukemia in 2004. 

He describes his mother like a warrior: she overcame a lonely childhood to become an academic star and cultural icon; she struggled with a crippling loss of sexuality as a result of her initial cancer (a topic which sounds fascinating, but which poor David does not elaborate on extensively–understandably); she faces the very real possibility of her death for the third time in her lifetime and battles courageously against it. And yet, this is not the story of diagnosis and decline; this is Rieff’s musings, his emotions, his inner monologue about the events he saw unfolding. The story lacks details about Sontag’s struggle. It wanders around, skimming the surface, dwelling on Rieff’s fear and pain and helplessness. It is not journalism. It is a story of the pain of losing your anchor in the world–the pain of watching your own flesh and blood be slowly debilitated by that very flesh, that very blood itself. 

Its title is a true indication of the tone of the work.

What I’m getting from it at the halfway point is an interest in Sontag’s work itself. I’ve been aware of her as a cultural figure for what feels like forever, and yet I’ve always found her writing to be dauntingly academic, intimidating, above me. Rieff’s book is changing that impression. I’m sure I’ll slog through the end of it–the slow march toward the subject’s sad demise–and then rush off to read her essays, her fiction, her legacy.

Next on my pile: The Tao of Poop and Christopher Ciccone’s Madonna tell-all. Can’t wait.