Friday, January 13, 2012

My Favorite Books of 2011

Again, not a best releases of the year list, just some personal favorites I encountered, old and new. All highly recommended.

The Biggest Laughs Since Bossypants

Like me and many women of our generation, Chicago writer Wendy McClure has been a fan of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder since she was a girl. Her book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie explores the not uncommon phenomenon of being a passionate fan of the series and its semi-delusional nature as she takes roadtrips to the tourist sites of what remains of the Big Woods, the Prairie and the Silver Lake of which Wilder wrote.

It's all very funny and moving, filled with both wistful longing and dry humor - McClure captures the feeling of "profound mind-meld" that readers experience when reading a deeply evocative author as well as the disappointing pitfalls of trying to recreate that feeling by walking in the author's footsteps.

Wendy McClure spoke at the Off Campus Writers' Workshop in December and it was a treat and a thrill to hear her share the fruits of her research into the books. There's a whole fascinating theory that the series was ghost-written by Wilder's daughter, but I was even more intrigued by McClure's comments about the changing of the objectives of the series as the books progress. The first, Little House in The Big Woods, was originally conceived as a picture book; its language and story are simple, observational and hopeful. As McClure puts it, "(the) family...always moved west, endured noble, spirit-galvanizing tragedies instead of senseless private ones, and always, no matter what, had happy Christmases." By the fourth book in the series, the language and the challenges of a perpetually moving family became more complex. Beloved pet dogs die, sisters go blind and we're not just learning about how they used to churn butter in the good old days.

Laura Bennett's clothing creations on Season Three of Project Runway were elegant and flattering but it was her wit and candor that kept me on her side in the competition, right down to her gusty and just accusation of another designer of cheating. (You know you did it, Jeffrey.)

Bennett's book, Didn't I Feed You Yesterday: A Mother's Guide to Sanity in Stilettos, has as much candor as her TV persona and as much style as her designs, but it was the laughs that made this one of my favorite books of the year. Laura Bennett is not a member of the "bad mother" crowd who laments her parental neglect and drowns her guilt in drink; she knows exactly who she is and what she will and will not do for her six (!) kids and I love her for it.

On her shoe collection: I won't say that they make me happier than my children, but I won't say that they don't, either.

On weekend guest under twelve: It's well worth any extra work, because they are far less likely to spend the weekend trying to kill each other. In the country, I can simply lock the door and let them in only for meals or the occasional emergency bathroom break. "Pee in the grass like you always do," I say through the screen of the locked door.

On Santa: Like most parents with children hopped up on snowman-shaped cookies and dreams of the latest iPod, Peter and I wield the old fat man like a cudgel. Every other sentence out of my mouth is a shouted "Santa's watching you!" After many repetitions of this threat, I sometimes have to take myself into the bathroom and soak my face in a sink full of ice water to keep from going insane. Who am I? How did I become this harpy, demanding that my children answer to a fictitious red-and-white executioner?

One piece that belongs on this list, although I did not read it in book form, was the Twitter feed of @MayorEmanuel, an epic fantasy in 140 character installments starring Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, a duck, an intern, Penny Pritzker, a puppy, and David Axelrod's mustache, among others. Part love letter to Chicago, part (I'm sure) inadvertent campaign booster, the feed was profane, moving, inspiring and so so so funny. Laughing out loud funny. You can buy the book version or you can read the entire archive here.

Three By An Old Friend

I galloped through William Goldman's meta-adventure-satire The Princess Bride from 1973 for the fourth (at least?) time this summer.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid, The PB impressed me once again with its humor and rich secondary characters, but it was the quick brushstrokes with which Goldman painted his scenes that caught my eye this time around.

On the last page, "The four great horses seemed almost to fly toward the Florin Channel" is all that Goldman gives you and all that you need to imagine the night, our hero and heroine and their helpers running for their lives. Part of the reason this sketchy description works is that Goldman's funny and clever dialogue is really what carries the story and it is a story, after all, not a reverie on the color of the moonlight or the clattering of the horse hooves. And part of the reason The PB works (and why I prefer the book sorry, fans! to the movie - yes, Robin Wright is spectacularly pretty, but she's nothing to the Buttercup in my head) is that Goldman trusts the reader's imagination. The setting is a boilerplate fairytale European fantasy kingdom with castles and hovels and such, a setting you already know very well. And there's a fluidity and fleetness to the novel because the reader fills in the blanks, rather than working to picture precisely what the author is describing.

Goldman's a novelist, but most of his success has been as a Hollywood screenwriter - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, and many others. By happy accident, I saw a copy of Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting at the library not long after.

Here are a few bits of Goldman's wisdom on writing screenplays, which can be easily extrapolated to writing in general.

On the issue of time:

"It's possible to conceive narrative as an endless piece of string. The writer makes two snips, one for the beginning, one at the end, and the placement of those snips may be as important as anything a writer does.... In a screenplay, not only do you attack each scene as late as is possible, you attack the entire story the same way.... You must cut the narrative string yourself, with what you emotionally feel is sound. No one can tell you how or when."

Most important:

"The single most important lesson to be learned about writing for films is: SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE.... The essential opening labor a screen writer must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story -- what is its spine? Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death."

Confidence is everything:

"Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound. If you're trying a screenplay, you know it's never going to be Bergman. If it's a novel, well, what kind of novelist can you hope to be when Dostoevski was there before you. And Dickens and Cervantes and all the other masters that led you to the prison of your desk.

"But if you're a writer, that's what you must do, and in order to accomplish anything at all, at the rock bottom of it all is your confidence.....You tell yourself lies and you force them into belief: Hey, you suckers, I'm going to do it this one time. I'm going to tell you things you never knew. I've--got--secrets!"

After all that good advice, I was eager for more of Goldman's voice. His Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade has more writing wisdom, but also plenty of chewy Hollywood gossip from a first hand player, like why Clint Eastwood is an actor's dream of a director and how Michael Douglas was a writer's nightmare of an actor-producer.


In the first sixty pages of her American Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, punk rock goddess Patti Smith describes living poor but happy in New York, meeting and becoming the friend, lover and muse of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, making jewelry and tiny art installations with him, writing poetry, performing in fringe plays, and living the boho life with no mention of creating her own music.

This was amazing to me. Smith's melodies and voice have made her identity indelible to me ever since that day in my twenties when I first heard her nearly losing her shit on "Birdland." Here was something fearless, here was some kind of wild meeting of poetry and rock music, here was genius, both strange and also, somehow, in its wild off-the-rails chanting, in her bare emotion and howling expression, strangely familiar.

But music was not on Patti's mind in her early New York days. Until she goes to a Doors concert.

She writes, I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison...I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness...I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can't say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence.

That moment made me shiver. Like being witness to an artistic birth.

Four Surprisingly Exhilarating Books with Grim Topics

The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss by journalist Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a fascinating rebuttal to the well-known work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, researcher and author of On Death and Dying from 1969. Konigsberg parses how Kubler-Ross's organization of patients' reaction to oncoming death into five stages has been misunderstanding by pop culture and misused by mental-health professionals. Konigsberg does not write here from personal experience, so readers feeling raw may be put off by the clinical tone, but her debunking of the popular idea that grief has consecutive stages or must be "worked through" is a bracing relief to read. Although most of the studies she uses researched adults suffering the loss of a spouse and I question the extrapolation of the results to children, her revolutionary ideas that grief has no pattern nor rules are needed and worthwhile.

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. Imagining the natural world if humans abruptly disappeared. Full of hope and warning in equal measure. What damage we wreak on this earth and how resilient she could prove to be.

Emily White's memoir/research analysis hybrid Lonely takes on the nearly taboo topic of loneliness. A fascinating, if flawed, read about an under-discussed malady that has been proven fatal to many who suffer its strange pain. White discusses her own loneliness with great courage and perception, yet strangely does not make the significant connection between it and her own state as a closeted gay woman. White does find a degree of contentment and companionship by the book's end, but the important questions she has raised remain - is loneliness a permanent condition? Are those who hate solitude and those who thrive on it different kinds of humans?

I'm currently reading the extraordinary ideas and excellent prose of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. "Cancers possessed temperaments, personalites -- behaviors." An illuminating companion piece to Christopher Hitchens's final essays for Vanity Fair.

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