Friday, August 20, 2010

Snobber's Favorite Books

Last week, a friend of mine asked me if I had a list of my favorite books posted somewhere and I realized that I didn't! Not a real list, with explanations and such. So here, friends and readers, is a list of my top ten favorite books. Some are linked to prior ruminations of mine. Though my affections wax and wane, these ten are pretty solid choices, no matter what.

1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Though To the Lighthouse and Orlando occasionally compete for the representation of my Woolf-obsession, Mrs. Dalloway is the novel I recommend for Woolf-virgins. She's at the height of her powers here in 1925 in this story about life, love, and the moments of being that define who we are.

If you ever wanted to read a Holocaust novel that's about anything but the Holocaust, Sophie's Choice is a great pick. If you're a downtrodden editorial assistant or aspiring writer, find solace in the character of Stingo. (This transference works even better if you are a South to North transplant). Though the romance in this novel borders on melodrama, it's descriptive moments of Brooklyn and love and sex are completely transcendent; Stryon's lyricism borders on book porn. This novel's first read is so enjoyable you will spend the rest of your life trying to duplicate it.

3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Probably the most beautiful book written in English by a non-native English speaker. Perhaps it's Nabokov's Russianness that turns his appreciation of the English language into our pure, unadulterated joy. And with a tricky subject manner, he still makes us love and despise these characters equally. When I talk to people who haven't read this novel I just think, what? What are you doing? You know nothing until you have read Lolita.

Master of misanthropy, Bernhard's energy for hatred turns into an obsession with life through our failures and hopelessness in the face of fate. Our narrator recounts the suicide of his friend Wertheimer, who gave up at music school when he realized he couldn't compete with likes of Glenn Gould. Bernhard's endless repetition, his constant droning of sorrow and spitefulness becomes the chant of genius. You will want to read everything he's ever written. And you should.

I say with ease that this book changed my life and continues to change my life every single time I read it. Stumbling upon this thing when I'd just moved to New York and had no idea that Salinger had written anything else besides The Catcher in the Rye was a pure delight. His sheer brilliance at writing dialogue is, in my mind, unparalleled. His books are some of the only ones that can make me laugh out loud and weep like baby. Nine Stories comes in at a close second here, but Franny and Zooey is truly a religious experience.

After reading this book, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was write. I had no fucking idea that it was even possible to write books like this, and my whole body was jittery with excitement. Every single page of this thing is smart, moving, and stylish. If you are at all interested in the genesis of the nonfiction novel, or creative nonfiction, or if you're just into crime writing, oh holy Lord, get off your butt and get a copy of this book. In this same category I'd place Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Janet Malcolm's excellent The Silent Woman.

7. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
If you are a feminist, and you find yourself exasperated at trying to explain the difference in how art created by women is treated versus art created by men, then look no further for your BIBLE. This pseudo epistolary novel cum treatise on women's art and identity is so fucking good. It will incite a fire under your ass. The good kind. Her honesty and fierceness on sex, love, respect and never-ending struggle between the private and public make this a must-read.

8. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Attempting to describe this book is like trying to describe the Mona Lisa. Why is it so transfixing? I could offer my own explanation, something to do with it's hypnotic rhythm and it's love of sorrow and nostalgia but, just, if you have the time and the energy, just. read. this.

9. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Though I love his showier The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay almost equally, there is something so beautiful about this book that I return to it again and again, always finding something new in its pages. Grady is your typical washed up, pot-bellied, middle-aged novelist who's looking for something to quicken him - he finds it in James, a struggling student with serious issues, maybe a pathological liar. The two find themselves involved in a messy affair concerning Marilyn Monroe's fur-lined jacket she wore when she married Joe DiMaggio. The descriptions of James' writing versus Grady's writer's block are heartbreaking and beautifully written. The perfect winter book.

10. Atonement by Ian McEwan
If I could relive the first time I ever read the chapter when Cecila drops that goddamned vase into that goddamned fountain, I'd be a happy woman. Atonement has practically everything you could want from a novel and so much more. The sheer horror of this book, how quickly it turns from beautiful to horrible and yet somehow remains gorgeous throughout - it's McEwan's masterpiece and I don't think he'll ever be able to top it. Even if you aren't that jazzed about the plot (which I think is fantastic) McEwan's sentences are some of the best in English letters today.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966

Until last night I had never seen "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" which is odd because I love Virginia Woolf. Not that the play necessarily has much to do with Woolf herself. I'm not sure how faithful Mike Nichols' film adaptation is to the play, but I experienced such a range of emotion last night watching the movie. In the beginning, all the one liners and epithets George and Martha lob at each other are incredibly funny - but by the end of the movie I was deeply depressed. Also, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are both really good in it. It's strange how no movie stars in this day and age are really talented actors. We've gone from actually talented larger than life personalities to simply outrageously attractive people with no substance whatsoever. I was struck by the deep sense of stasis that all four characters are mucking around in - all trapped in their little jail cells. In the beginning I was trying to keep track of how many drinks were consumed but within fifteen minutes I had lost count. I'd like to resolve to never be this unhappy. Regardless, it's an incredible film. I'd love to read the play and see a great stage production if someone will revive it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Marina and Ulay

I've been reading When Marina Abramovic Dies, a biography by James Wescott that was published in March during her residence at MoMa. Ever since I saw The Artist is Present, I wanted to know more about Abramovic's personal life. Wescott worked with Marina on the book, and it's undoubtedly slanted a bit in her favor - however, if you're looking for a biography with a balanced look at her work and her private life I highly recommend it. Unfortunately it's more of an "art book" so it's not great for subway rides. I just keep it by my bed and read a little of it every night before I go to sleep.

Marina and Ulay's relationship is the center of the book and of Marina's life - they were together for nearly twelve years, living and working together in intense intimacy. They had originally planned to walk towards each other from the opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, meet in the middle, and get married. When they actually did it ten years later they walked to each other over the course of ninety days, embraced, and went their separate ways. Ulay married his translator from the trip shortly thereafter, and Marina returned to New York. I can't imagine the heartbreak she must have felt (not to mention the exhaustion) on that plane ride home. As she wept when they met on the Wall Ulay told her, "Don't cry; we have accomplished so much." And Marina would go on to accomplish much more without Ulay. I think her incredibly lucky: it was possible for her to do the work. And it has sustained her. At 64 years old she glows.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Catching Up

Shameless Self-Promotion:

Since we last spoke, I wrote a little ditty for one of my favorite sites, The Awl, on how to cast a film adaptation of Les Miz so it will be as successful as Twilight. It was great fun working with Natasha Vargas-Cooper, who edited the series on musicals and is the author of the new book Mad Men Unbuttoned.

Later, I romped over to This Recording with a piece on Spielberg's oft-overlooked masterpiece, Jaws, in honor of shark week. Check it out for more on Richard Dreyfuss' surprising attractiveness in 1975 and Moby Dick analogies.

Today I made my debut at The Rumpus, an incredibly smart culture focused site, with a review of Jeffrey Meyers' The Genius and the Goddess. You may remember my mentioning the book a few posts ago. Though the book intends to be about the marriage of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, the finished product is really more of an unflattering, even offensive biography of Marilyn. I've pointed out the issues I had with Meyers' approach.

My professional website now includes a "News" section so you can keep up with the latest, if you are so inclined.

Promotion of others:

In non-Jessica related news, I really enjoyed reading Laura Shapiro's piece on Shirley Jackson at Slate. I also loved her sketches of Hill House that were posted on Writer's Houses.

Richard Morgan's piece on being a freelance writer at The Awl really encompasses everything and more about one of the most difficult, oftentimes obnoxious jobs ever. The section where he describes pitching an idea and having it rejected only to find it on the site several weeks later written by the editor who rejected it is something I think all writers have encountered. I felt this piece. Hard.

Chelsea Biondolillo compared her MFA rejections with famous rejections throughout history at McSweeney's.

Coming Up:

- There are quite a few more book reviews in the works, and an academic paper which I hope you will enjoy.
- For ten days in September I'll be in Berlin, so if anyone has suggestions or recommendations on Berlin-related things, please let me know.
- Soon I hope I will be a proud owner of an iPhone, which means more posting and more images on the blog.
- Exciting professional news to be shared.
- Dying to read Tom McCarthy's C. - will someone send me a copy? Pretty please?
- Currently reading Hans Kielson's Comedy in a Minor Key. Francine Prose called him a genius in the Sunday Book Review and she's probably right.
- Also dying for the new Bernhard, My Prizes. You may remember my Bernhardian worship which began a few years back with The Loser.
- Very, very excited to see the film adaptation of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I wrote about the new Sci-Fi a ways back here on the blog.


Hello. And thanks for reading.