Honest Conversation Is Overrated
Actual Human Interactions Witnessed Or Overheard
In Twentieth And Twenty-First Century America
In Twentieth And Twenty-First Century America
My father doesn't really celebrate Christmas ever since the Church where he served as altar boy for years told him he wasn't good enough to adopt a child. He played along while I grew up, but once he and my mother were divorced, he decided he'd give out unwrapped gifts that he thought people needed. Not what they, necessarily wanted. I've always been ok with that. Even when, some years, it was scratch tickets and beer.
This, the first year (first week really) since his second wife died, he went through the Christmas presents she'd bought, and, without a list, decided who should get what. I was puzzled by the aromatherapy neck & back pillows, until he called and let me know that those were "probably" meant for my grandmother. So I got a snuggie, and t-shirts. Now, the t-shirts. The t-shirts. I suspect they are t-shirts someone gave to my father that don't actually fit him. They are, of course, huge on me. There are a couple of Martha's Vineyard art fairs, and country fair shirts. Those are fine. The seven traffic cone orange Doo-Wop 2007 shirts are...interesting. But the truly fantastic? "Welcome To America, Now Learn To Speak English", and "Richardology: The Study Of Dicks". The first shirt was, I assume, a deliberately ironic shirt. The second? I wonder if my dad understands that when he, a Richard, wears it, it has a very different meaning than when I, not a Richard, put it on.
Doesn't he know I'm an ass man?
I had forgotten they printed books without pictures in them. For the last several months, any time I've wandered dazedly into The Brookline Booksmith or a Rodney's Used Books, I've immediately shot to the Used Graphic Novel section, and looked for out of print books. The only non illustrated books I've even glanced at have been poetry collections. And someone at The Booksmith must have noticed this, because about a month and a half ago they moved the Graphic Novel section next to the Poetry section, so my fat, semi-literate ass doesn't even have to cross the room to see that no one is selling off good modern poetry collections, it's all either material that repulses me (and yet, I'll buy that Jorie Graham book if I'm in the mood to laugh), or classic poetry that I already own.
Today, on my way back upstairs from finding two poetry books (repurchasing Adrienne Rich's Fact Of A Doorframe, which I lent out and never got back, and buying Jorie Graham's The Depths Of The Unified Field
I rarely buy terrible books on purpose. Particularly if they're full price. But there it was, a horrible cover, an almost offensively pandering idea, by an author who should have known better. So I bought that, and then went around looking for books I might actually enjoy (I'll make a post about books I like later). Having sat down and read as much of the book as I can possibly eyeball, I realized, yes, this is awful "literature", and I should warn my friends.
1.) You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs.
When I was first asked to make a manuscript for Houghton Mifflin, I took a bunch of my Insafemode stories, made them a bit less sexcentric (but only a bit), and sent off a draft to my friend Kari, who is the person whose taste I respect who is also very honest with his thoughts, and his initial reaction was "Why are you trying to be David Sedaris?"
I revamped the manuscript.
I like David Sedaris. I think he's the best writer I can think of who gets segregated to the GLBTA shelves. He's funny, he's accessible, but he's also very adept at storytelling. I have yet to be disappointed by any of his story collections. And, of course, the first one I read was Holidays On Ice, which is a brilliant collection of stories that happen to take place around Christmas: his job working as an elf at a department store, a fictional family update from a woman whose world has shattered just around the holidays. The cover of the copy I own has a rocks glass of whiskey on the cover, which is something I've always associated with the holiday that rarely gets exploited by your average retail outlet or Starbucks.
Augusten Burroughs's You Better Not Cry has the photo of a guy in a Santa Suit flashing someone. Cover jackets are rarely selected by authors, and usually chosen by the publisher. The message here seems to be pretty obvious: "Fuck you, reader. The author is lonely, and desperate, and thinks he has something worth bragging about, but as you can plainly see, he's three stripes short of a candy cane."
This book is awful. It opens with a thirty-four page collection of thoughts (they're too choppy to be stories) about things that confused him as a child. He used to think the Pledge Of Allegiance was about "the same furniture polish my mother used and that always, inexplicably, made me feel sunny." How droll. He also used to confuse Santa Clause with Jesus as he "could not tell you for sure why they strapped Santa to a cross. Had he missed a house?"
Those examples are just in the first three pages. You know the "put your best foot forward" pages.
The copy that I bought has blurred typography starting at page 80, and going all the way to 111, then picking up again for the last ten pages. This is either because the printer couldn't even inflict this on the rest of the world without getting shitfaced, or, it's a gift from the printer, as I can now return it for another book.
My main issue is not that this is crappy knockoff of David Sedaris by another Gay author. It's that Augusten Burroughs wrote Dry, one of the most impressive humor memoirs I've ever read. That book is by far better than anything I've read by Sedaris. But it's the only thinkg I've ever read by Burroughs that impressed me. Running With Scissors is more notable for its shocking subject matter than Burrough's literary prowress. This will be the second book I've ever returned to a store for being unreadable.
The first book I ever returned was 2.) Nikki Giovanni's Acolytes, quite possibly the worst book of poetry I've ever read by someone who wasn't a dying toddler. Giovanni was the first famous poet I ever met, and Those Who Ride The Night Winds and Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day were hugely influential for me, even though I didn't read them until nearly two decades after they were written.
While I don't ever expect deep metaphor or gorgeous imagery in Giovanni's work, she usually has a flair for making plain language poetic. Acolytes was an assemblage of bad writing exercises an unscrupulous publisher got a hold of and demanded be printed. There was not a single good line in the whole collection, and as she followed it up with her Virginia Tech poem "We are sad today", I fear that she's just become this senile old has-been willing to print every thought that ever passes her mind.
Most of the books on this list are disappointing to me, because they're by authors I have loved, but they have made a major major misstep. Not just Bill Cosby Leonard Part Six bad, but fundamentally awful, like anything Nicholas Cage has been in since Faceoff.
When I was in high school, I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried for school, and three days after I finished, my great uncle's remains were found in Vietnam, and we flew down to DC for a burial service. So, yes, the book hit me at the right time. But I still love the way O'Brien weaved the stories in that book. So I was thrilled when, a year later, he was to speak at my college about his new book 3.In The Lake Of The Woods. The premise was simple. The technique in the first six chapters intrigued me. I don't remember exactly the order (and wouldn't dare pick it up again), but one chapter would be straight up narration, the next would be snippets of conversations, and another would be newsclippings about the murder. But, after, a while, I got the nasty feeling that the book wasn't actually going to go anywhere. That it would just be the same info over and over. So when my mom asked to borrow it, I let her. She returned it a week later, annoyed that the murder was never resolved, and that the last half of the book contained no new information. She was more annoyed when I told her I had let her borrow it solely because I wanted to know the ending without having to read through all of it.
I did end up going to his speech at my school, and was relieved that he spent most of it talking about his experiences, and his older work. It gave me the imporession that it wasn't the work he was most proud of, either. Of course, they did make a movie about it.
One of the most recent books I've been disappointed by was not awful, so much as awfully overrated: 4. Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. It's another book that suffers from over-stylization. Several people recommended it to me because it had lots of comic book references. And, while there were parts of the book I found really engaging, the whole post-modern foot-noted media infused narrative by the main character was a chore to read. I know enough about Galactus that I didn't have to read the footnotes, but I did. They added nothing. And the comic book references were unnecessary and kept taking me out of the story. In fact, the only parts of the novel that I enjoyed were the parts told from the sister's perspective.
The fact that the more classic narrative voice story about the Latino woman with the overbearing mother was more relatable to me than the outcast comic book nerd with love problems says horrible things about Diaz's reliability as a writer. The fact that the book won a Pulitzer frightens me. Just because something is densely written and researched (sort of) doesn't mean it's good. Even if it's about The Minority Experience. I say, again, if you can't make me interested in reading about a comic book reading outcast with love problems, then you have failed as a writer.
I'm sure there are other books that have disappointed me. But, honestly, most books that don't engage me within ten pages are put down. I'm not a believer in the philosophy that good literature hurts to read. I don't care how good the ending is, if the first seven hundred pages suck, I'm not reading it.
The only book that I ever really enjoyed at the beginning that really put me off the further I got into it was 5. Dave Eggers's A Heartbraking Work Of Staggering Genius. His foreword and afterwords are lyrically written and fluid. While the actual memoir is dry, and really amounts to "I got famous. Want to hear about how difficult it was to buy a new house when I was taking care of my little brother?" Well, sadly, the answer was yes at the beginning. The man led an interesting life, and he's a very talented writer. Unfortunately, he was unable to write about his interesting life in an interesting manner. If you have the gift of lyric prose, use it as often as you can. It's why I love what I've read by Salmon Rushdie. Whenever his stories start to drift out the plot, he'll thrown in some phrase or image that will grab me by the eyelash and pull me along until the next one. He can even make dialect interesting. And one style of writing, I really abhor is dialect focused narration.
I was introduced to 6. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill by J*Me's spoken word poem based on it. And the story sounds beautiful. And people whose opinions I respect, say that it's a structurally sound, heartbreaking book. Unfortunately, it's written in dialect. And while I respect the honesty of dialog being written in dialect, I am extremely put off by narration (or, for that matter, poetry) written in any form of dialect, whether it be the "I iz coo, u is foo" horrendously bad "Black" dialect used by slam poets who don't talk that way in conversation (and also, Prince); "the like oh my god sparkleswoon hairflip Timberlake" of "Gay" dialect; n-e + |-|!l\lg 1337; or the accurate, but frustrating to read, Scottish dialect of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. I believe reading should be something to enjoy, not a task. At Swim just seemed like a school assignment.
Don't misunderstand, I enjoy things that challenge. House Of Leaves by Mark Danielewski was not The Dick And Jane reader, but was a great story that happened to be stylized, not a stylized piece of writing that happened to be a story. His follow up, 7. Only Revolutions was, unfortunately the latter.
That was a case of me buying a piece of fiction by an author whose previous work I loved, the moment I saw it on shelves. Because I HAD to be supportive. Among today's purchases was Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, which I've not yet read, and really hope won't end up on an updated version of this list. because life is too sullen recently, and horrid line break choices amuse me), and no graphic novels, a book caught my eye that I thought we be so awful, I had to read it.