Saturday, May 29, 2010


So we're having people over tomorrow. An old college friend and his lovely wife are coming for lunch, and I've done the shopping and the smell of ripe apricots in my kitchen is overwhelming. I love having people over to "break bread," as they say. Stupidly, I thought this love of company and food would translate into a career. Somehow, having people over for lunch or dinner seems a lot more enjoyable than baking 278 pumpkin pies. The reality of working in the industry is lots of overtime and stress. Having friends over? Not so stressful. I wish I could have a restaurant where it was relatively close to having people over. Where you served what appealed to you as you strolled through the marketplace. Where lots of conservation filled in the gaps between the starter and the entree. Where dessert was just something you ate and not something you avoided because, oh my, too many calories.

Working  in food is nothing like that. But I want that. I want to buy a gigantic Victorian where I'd put long tables in the living room and the dining room and the other room (in Victorians of a certain age there always seems to be a bonus room next to what should be the dining room), and just serve, well, dinner. Where it's about the food, but it's about the conservation and the joy of breaking bread with other people. I saw a newspaper article today about a company that provides cue cards for conversation. Has it gotten to that point where you need a cue card to accompany your pinot? Not in my house.

Book Review: Juliet, Naked

I'm in a rut, retyping the same sentence over and over again. Where is the editor? Yes, I know that Nick Hornby is a great writer, and I can't dispute that based on this book. This is a beautifully written, badly conceived book, IMO. I'm sure I'll get flamed for this, but I found it profoundly misogynistic, and therefore, angry when I finished it.

What do you do when you have a book where all the words are put together in such a marvelous way and yet it doesn't work for you (or me, I guess). The sum is much shittier than the parts!

I think there are two ways to view this book. Either it is unrelentingly cynical, where we are all doomed to be selfish and myopic for the rest of our born days, or it's one of the most sexist novels I've read in a long time. Neither view is particularly appealing.

The good. Well, the writing. Wonderful, witty, insightful, funny, and, I can't disagree, masterful. This novel is written in three distinct POVs--no mean feat. The depiction of fandom is so right on that I thought, hmmmm, what fandom does Nick Hornby belong to? Because I am heavily involved in fandom, and his descriptions definitely had an insider's feel to it. The sense of a worldwide community juxtaposed to the pettiness, the factions, and obsessive-compulsive nature of fans. Being in fandom, it didn't seem bizarre at ALL that someone would make a pilgrimage to a toilet. So yes, that worked for me completely.

The bad. The last third. We have this man (the musician) who is described as a layabout who lives off of women he impregnates. He has children scattered all over the globe that he doesn't seem to care about. Aside from one child (and why this one child is so much better than the others remains a complete mystery), they all irritate the shit out of him. Just because he admits he's an abysmal father doesn't mitigate the fact he is one. And we, the reader, are supposed to give him a pass because he ends up sacrificing his art because of a ten-minute fuck? Sorry. No. No. And can I say no. He does not get a pass. As much as the author would like us to like him (as the female protagonist clearly does), it doesn't wash. I acknowledge his charm for one second, and then I think about all these children he could care less about. And I think, you know, if you had this epiphany in the bathroom, why didn't you invest in condoms and STOP POPULATING THE WORLD WITH CHILDREN YOU ARE AT BEST INDIFFERENT ABOUT?

This is such a male fantasy. This guy is a jerk and yet all these women fall in love with him and bear his children. Not that I want this fantasy where's he's this amazing guy, so therefore, our female protagonist falls in love with him, because how Barbara Cartland of me. No, I want these women to stop falling in love with an asshole. I want them to grow a pair.

And now we get to the real crux of why this book is so sexist. Because the women are idiots. Because they don't use birth control. Because this man has a history of impregnating women and them dumping them. In fact, they have a little club together, Dumpees United, where they can commiserate over what a horrible father this man is. And yet our female protagonist thinks that it's a really good idea to have a relationship and a child with this man.

For the life of me, I don't know why she's so desperate for a child that she doesn't sleep with her old boyfriend. Because, frankly, it doesn't matter. She's leaving one selfish man for an equally selfish man.

I disliked everyone by the end of this book. For their choices, for their lack of choices, for their apathy, for their stupidity, for their shocking lack of self-respect. Not even the beautiful, beautiful writing could save this book for me.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Review: Open by Andre Agassi

Wow. Okay, although I must confess to taking a few tennis lessons in my life and, on occasion, watching Wimbledon, that is the extent of my interest in tennis. I recommended this book as a present for my son, who I am valiantly trying to get to read more. Tennis isn't his game, but I read reviews of this book and thought it might catch his interest. It had caught mine. After seeing it parked on his dresser for nearly six months without having been moved a single inch, I thought, hmmmm, does this live up to the hype? You bet your sweet ass.

First of all, any book that throws down the gauntlet and says, yeah, I know you don't know anything about "fill in the blank," but you're going to learn and you're going to like it has my respect. I feel that way about John McPhee's books. This is solely down to an author's expertise. In any one else's hands the very concept wouldn't get me by the second page. And while Agassi's book is ghostwritten, there is absolutely no denying that it's Andre Agassi's voice on the page. By page 2 this book owned me. Seriously.

I tore through it, relishing every single, fascinating description of the matches that Agassi played. Of course, what sells this book is that these aren't just descriptions of matches. They are Agassi's evaluation of both his mental and physical state and judgments of his opponents' mental and physical state. The psychological aspects of this book were a surprise and a real treat. How a match can turn depending on the mental shift of a player. How to evaluate a player's strengths and turn them into weaknesses. This is all told against the backdrop of what is now a familiar story with prodigy child athletes: abusive, ambitious father, athlete mills (similar to puppy mills), etc. It's a poignant read (ghost written, which Agassi freely admits in an afterword), funny in many places, gripping in others, and fascinating to watch a young man who was certainly swallowed up by the machine of professional sports but didn't, in the end, let them spit him out. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Yes, Irony Abounds

I wanted to alert people to a new book by Stephen McCauley. It's called "Insignificant Others," and it will be available in June. He hasn't written that many books--we get one about every four years--and I have loved all of them. There are not many authors that I automatically recommend (see previous blog and my growing irritation with publishers and lazy authors), but he's one of them. He never disappoints. His books are funny (really funny), wry, a wee bit sarcastic (I love that in a writer), and always poignant.

It's nice to see a writer move into their skin, to see them starting to flex their writing muscles and, yes, grow as a writer. This doesn't happen any more because authors are churning out books like Model "T" Fords, and if you don't have time to think about your craft, then you don't develop your craft. McCauley has wisely taken his time, or he has lots of money and he doesn't have to tap-dance to a publisher's demands for something that looks like a book, reads like a book, but is nothing but a poor imitation. Regardless, there is a growing confidence and mastery from each book to the next.

His first book was "Object of My Affection" (yes, they made a movie out of it), which was followed by "Easy Way Out." Both are absolutely side-splitting funny, with the hints of the poignancy that really comes to the fore in the latter books. Next was "Man of the House," which I think is his weakest (I say this somewhat in quotes because if I  had written it I'd be in ecstasy), but I still enjoyed it. Most decent authors write a "bridge" book.  By that I mean a book that is trying to make that leap to the next level. I felt that this was a bridge book for him. I base this on his next release, which was "True Enough." I've talked with other writers who found humor to be a crutch after a while, and I think Mr. McCauley reached the same conclusion. Not to say that "True Enough" isn't funny. It's very funny, but it's less about the funny and more about that poignancy. And then we have "Alternatives to Sex: A Novel." Which. Yeah. Lovely, lovely book.

I've read the synopsis of his new book, and it sounds like all of his other books (even though they are quite distinct from each other--by that I mean all the protagonists are completely distinct--the only thing that unites them is their sexuality). By that I mean, they are about people and relationships and people falling in love and falling out of love and messy friendships and, well, you know. People. No bells and whistles. Just really good writing. How rare is that? Apparently, REALLY, REALLY RARE. I can't wait to read it.

Am I Jaded?

I've just put down another book that had a stellar beginning and a magnificent promise, and an ending that sucked big time. This is the second time in three weeks that this has happened. What's even more irritating is that this book (and the previous one by a very well-known author) received rave reviews. Both of these books couldn't be farther apart on the genre spectrum but my feeling when I finished both was exactly the same. No. I'm sorry, author, but no. You didn't make it work. You had all the tools, you were in the home stretch, and the last third of your book did not work. I have yet to pick up a book this year that I haven't felt that way about. I think the last book I read that I thought was stellar was Calvin Trillin's "About Alice." But that's a different animal and non-fiction, so I don't think it really counts. Goddammit. WHERE ARE THE EDITORS?

Okay, this is a total shout-out to the publishing industry. You are in free fall. You are watching your audience being siphoned off by other media and you don't know why. I'll tell you one reason. You're publishing books that don't work. I supposed they work well "enough" in your mind, but they are fundamentally weak. Even decent authors are now getting turfed on the editorial process and it shows in their writing. You don't want to take the time to run an author through their paces. Make them fix a book with fatal flaws. And you wonder why your audience is shrinking. You don't care about what you are publishing; why should I care to buy your books?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oh, Back to X-Ray?

I had some medical nightmare a few years back, the details of which I won't bore you with, but it entailed getting far too many x-rays and CAT scans. My husband and I used to joke that based on the number of isotopes I've had injected into my arm, we should just cancel PG&E and put a light bulb in my mouth.

Anyhow, medical nightmare was taken care of (much to my delight!) and because I'm the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, I avoid hospitals if I can. My father used to tell me, "Hospitals kills people!" Anyone who reads this who is the child of a medical person knows that short of slicing open an artery you keep your mouth shut. So I fell in my yard a week and a half ago and banged myself up pretty damn good. Falling down a flight of concrete steps will do that to you. I am a terribly clumsy person, some of which I put down to being far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other; it often feels as if my eyes are fighting each other, with me being always the loser. At least I tell myself that's the reason I"m so clumsy (although my daughter's eyesight is perfect and she seems to have inherited the clumsy gene from me, as well as the, "Oh, white shirt, we most definitely need to spill something on that right away" gene).

That morning I was wearing my computer glasses, which in addition to the weird eyes, really screws up my depth perception, and I put one foot where I thought a step was and... Oh. No. Step. Who knows what happened? I think I tumbled head over heels, but no matter. I banged the hell out of my head, and also hurt my elbow, but I didn't know that at the time. Did I seek medical attention? Nope. I had a conference to go to; I was flying out to Portland that afternoon. Once I ascertained that my eyes were tracking properly, I got a bag of ice, drove to work one-handed so I could keep the ice pack in place on my head, and tried not to think about Natasha Richardson. At the airport I gobbled down a ton of aspirin in the stupid attempt to ward off any impending stroke and spent the entire flight watching a lump on my elbow balloon into something awful and painful.

A week and a half later I am having tea with my mother and I mention the lump, and how the back of my head still really hurts. I show my mother the lump (she was an ER nurse for decades). She demands that I get this seen right away (which, if you know my mother, you obey her). By this point my elbow hurts MORE than when I actually did it, and I'm sort of thinking that I might actually have a slight skill fracture on top of all this.

So I make an appointment for that evening and halfway through my interview with the nurse I realize that she thinks I'm a victim of domestic abuse. There's far more typing that I've ever had in any other office visit (and, believe me, at one point I was practically LIVING at the hospital), and I could tell she didn't believe that I fell down a flight of stairs. Because my injuries were completely consistent of someone warding off blows and the force of the blows would have propelled me backwards, hitting my head. Of course, I compounded this situation by sputtering and insisting that I fell down the stairs, and that I was wearing these stupid computer glasses. I suppose that if I were a victim of domestic violence I would be making similar affirmations and protests.

The doc and resident didn't believe me either until about halfway through the exam and then the tone in the room changed . But I suspect my file is now tagged, and I wonder if my husband's file is also tagged. Of course, I'm happy that these protocols exist because if someone is being abused, then we need to have those lifelines out there, but the whole interaction left me weirded out.

I can't remember being in a professional situation where it was obvious that someone thought I was lying. Oh, people have thought I was incompetent, but that's not the same thing. Also, here I am, with the legacy of coming from a medical family, where it's pounded into you that you must be the model patient, and I couldn't help but fail at being a model patient here. Because they thought I was lying. I was failing on all levels.

My arm will most likely be ugly and lumpy for weeks. But no skull fracture.