Category Archives: the written word

Book Reaction: The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury

Sometimes when I read an author’s first novel, I find myself noticing the author’s effort–sometimes a first novel feels labored, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. Barely a quarter of the way through The End of Vandalism, though, I realized that I trusted this author. I wasn’t distracted by the author’s attempt to craft the novel, I was just reading and enjoying it. This is not an ordinary first novel.

I enjoyed the map at the front and the list of characters at the back, and actually found myself referring to them frequently for at least the first half of the book.

Often when I read a book that reviewers describe as “funny,” I see what they’re talking about, but I’m not actually all that amused. Reading this book, though, I really did spontaneously laugh out loud at certain passages. I keep going back to the description of Marie Person (“woman in pickup”), on pages 84-85 of my copy.

The driver of the truck was a sunburned, overweight woman named Marie Person. She was in her sixties and drove leaning forward, forearms curved to the wheel, shoulders gently rolling in a red-and-white-checked shirt. Marie was one of those eccentrics who travel the lonely highways of monotonous states and almost seem to have been hired by the tourism department to enliven the traveler’s experience. These people have certain things in common. Often they hold a patent, or have applied for one but are being blocked by lawyers, or have some other reason to correspond frequently with Washington, D.C. Sometimes the stamped and addressed letters ride beside them, fanned out on the car seat, which is usually a bench and not a bucket. They travel at midday or late at night. They cross desolate stretches for vague and shifting reasons that often have to do with animals. They need a vaccine for Skip the pony or special food for Rufus the cat to get his urine flowing again. They are going to look at a calf in Elko named Dream Weaver or Son of Helen’s Song. They know everyone in the low-roofed diners along the way, but no one seems to know them. This they account for by giving the details of some unpopular stand they have taken that made everyone furious but was after all the right thing to do. Their surnames are not traceable to other surnames you have heard.

Much of the book is made up of funny little everyday happenings and amusing situations, but then it takes a more somber turn. This is when Drury really impresses me, sure-handedly taking the characters he’s been showing in a folksy and sometimes comical light and putting them through a crisis.

Four out of five stars.  Recommended.

Donna Tartt at Wellesley Books

On Friday night, I attended a reading for the publication of Donna Tartt’s new (finally) novel, The Goldfinch.  The reading took place in a basement room lined with shelves of used titles. I got there early–I’d been afraid that I could get stuck in rush hour traffic, so I gave myself a lot of time. I ended up in a prime spot–front row. The tabletop lectern was situated in front of a section of children’s titles about dogs and horses. One prominently displayed title (cover facing out) was called Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket. That is not, however, how I read the title at first (if it’s not obvious, switch out the vowels in the word “Peep”).

Donna Tartt is a small woman. If you’ve seen her or seen pictures of her among other people, you probably know this. She looks basically the same as she did in pictures from ten-plus years ago. Her eyes are startlingly clear, and she has a crooked front tooth. I kept trying to figure out her voice. There is, unsurprisingly, a little bit of Mississippi in there, but I found her accent relatively subtle. The tone of her reading almost reminded me (bizarrely) of David Sedaris at first. It’s not that it was particularly comic; there was just something about her pacing and the sound of her voice. As she continued to read, that impression fell away.

For any reading of a book that has just been published, it must be a challenge to select a passage to read. Tartt read a section in which the main character, Theo, learns of his mother’s death. It’s difficult to form an impression of a novel based on a small segment read out of context and in a semi-arbitrary setting, but I became more impressed with the characterizations and descriptions as the passage progressed.

What I enjoyed far more than the reading, though, was the Q&A that followed. Tartt answered questions about her writing process, how she works through periods of “writer’s block,” and the role her southern upbringing has played in her development as an author. She mentioned Tolstoy and talked about how to have a unique voice as a contemporary writer.

The whole operation moved upstairs for the signing, so Donna got a much finer table, warmer and more flattering lighting, a backdrop of richer wood bookcases, and a flute of champagne. I’ve been sick, so I wasn’t on top form, but I did sneak in a question as she was signing my book. I asked her if she’d ever taught–I was EATING UP everything she said during the Q&A and found her very inspiring. She said that she had, but only for about a month. The job became too big–too much, she said.

On my way out, a shopper stopped me to ask about the book and about Donna Tartt. I’m still always a little surprised when people–especially people in bookstores, who I imagine are readers–are unfamiliar with Donna Tartt.

My new baby

I’d like to introduce you to my new baby. This baby is new to me, but it’s actually older than I am. And it’s probably a little older than I thought it was when I bought it.

Here’s a 1967 ad for my new baby.

And here’s a picture from the adoption agency:

It works great so far… came with a correction ribbon, the manual, and the case. I suspect that I will be spending less time doddering around on facebook and more time writing useful things for myself and other people. Maybe that will even inspire me to write more here. These are all good possible outcomes, I’m thinkin’.

More Political Gib-Gab

Thank (or blame) our old neighbor Ed for directing me to this Op-Ed piece by Frank Rich from the New York Times.

[…] Aligning herself with “a young farmer and a haberdasher from Missouri” who “followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency,” [Palin] read a quote from an unidentified writer who, she claimed, had praised Truman: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.” Then Palin added a snide observation of her own: Such small-town Americans, she said, “run our factories” and “fight our wars” and are “always proud” of their country. As opposed to those lazy, shiftless, unproud Americans — she didn’t have to name names — who are none of the above.

You know… the lazy, shiftless, unproud Americans in so-called Blue states who actually provide the lion’s share of the tax revenues to pay for government policies? And what happened to that basic tenet of American democracy that says you can and should criticize your government when it goes astray–that, in fact, it’s your responsibility to do so?

While I am hesitant to get into the issue of racism with regard to the election, this bit from the Op-Ed is worth noting:

[At the Republican convention in St. Paul,] Americans saw a virtually all-white audience yuk it up when Giuliani ridiculed Barack Obama’s “only in America” success as an affirmative-action fairy tale — and when he and Palin mocked Obama’s history as a community organizer in Chicago. Neither party has had so few black delegates (1.5 percent) in the 40 years since the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies started keeping a record.


Byron York of National Review, a […] conservative who acknowledges the double standard, captured it best: “If the Obamas had a 17-year-old daughter who was unmarried and pregnant by a tough-talking black kid, my guess is if they all appeared onstage at a Democratic convention and the delegates were cheering wildly, a number of conservatives might be discussing the issue of dysfunctional black families.”

Rich addresses Obama’s response to the recent surge of activity from the McCain-Palin camp, and this is maybe the most important part.

Obama’s one break last week was the McCain camp’s indication that it’s likely to minimize its candidate’s solo appearances by joining him at the hip with Palin. There’s a political price to be paid for this blatant admission that he needs her to draw crowds.

And finally…

This election is still about the fierce urgency of change before it’s too late. But in framing this debate, it isn’t enough for Obama to keep presenting McCain as simply a third Bush term. Any invocation of the despised president — like Iraq — invites voters to stop listening. Meanwhile, before our eyes, McCain is turning over the keys to his administration to ideologues and a running mate to Bush’s right.

What a Community Organizer Does–From Time Online

There have been loads of pieces worth reading since the presidential conventions. Here’s one of the many: What a Community Organizer Does.

here is what Giuliani and Palin didn’t know: Obama was working for a group of churches that were concerned about their parishioners, many of whom had been laid off when the steel mills closed on the south side of Chicago. They hired Obama to help those stunned people recover and get the services they needed–job training, help with housing and so forth–from the local government. It was, dare I say it, the Lord’s work–the sort of mission Jesus preached (as opposed to the war in Iraq, which Palin described as a “task from God.”)

After reading the Time piece, you might want to check out Community Organizers Fight Back.

“I have ‘actual responsibilities,’” said Jacqueline del Valle, a community organizer in the Bronx. “If Mayor Giuliani and President Bush cared more about working people instead of just people who can hire high-powered lobbyists, maybe I wouldn’t have so much responsibility. Maybe working people would have an easier time in America today. But that’s not our reality, and they don’t have to mock us while we’re trying to clean up their mess.”

But don’t miss the comments section at the bottom of the Time article. It’s full of tidbits like this:

What Cindy McCain wore last night – from the rings on her fingers to the dress to the shoes on her feet – cost $300,000 according to Vanity Fair.

Now that is elitism you can believe in, my friends!

How many of you reading this put down a fraction of that (or are saving up to do so) to buy your (one and only) home? How many Americans won’t see that much money in a decade?

And this:

Giuliani’s idea of community organizing is starting the wave at a Yankees game.

And then there’s a comment from a member of an Elks lodge in San Jose that has a membership larger than the population of the town of which Palin was mayor.

Maybe one of the most important points of all comes in this:

I hate to harp on this (not really) but this sad state of American politics has been brought to us, in part, by your friend, Frank Luntz. Luntz taught a generation of Republicans how to lie with impunity. It is quite easy, really. Say whatever you need to say to win elections, i.e. refer to the Estate Tax as the Death Tax (which Palin did last night). When anyone in the media questions you, just say “there goes that liberal media again.” When Democrats call you on it, well, now you’ve got Democrats talking about taxes. Everyone hates taxes. Republicans win!

So, be careful what you get talked into.

Unfriendly reminder

Flipping through the Boston Sunday Globe this morning, I was reminded once again of some of the things I hate about this place. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate where I am, but there’s a certain Boston vibe that I have never accepted as my own. I’ve come to terms with it… anyway, here’s how it struck me this morning. I don’t like the tone of the Boston Globe. The Sunday Globe magazine is reliably terrible. The whole tenor of the paper falls in line with the part of Boston that states the obvious as if it were brilliant and the snobby as if it were obvious. I hope that, as Corey (Lily Taylor) says in the film Say Anything, “That’ll never be me.”

I know I should cite some examples here… it’s painful. Pick up a copy of the paper (maybe just borrow one) or better yet… try to get through an issue of Boston Magazine. Ugh.

Recent Reads and New Picks for the Overflowing Bookshelf

I recently finished Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. I enjoyed it, though my feelings about the ending are a bit mixed. I can’t disagree with how she skewers the academic system and all of its politics, but I can’t help feeling that somehow she lets the protagonist off too easy (despite what happens to him). No one really comes out smelling too good.

I’m currently reading I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Inteviews: 1962-1987 and I’m really loving it. I’ve read a few of them before, but some have been pulled from unpublished goodies at the Warhol museum, and they’re all pretty well presented so far. Beyond just getting more Andy, I think it’s really interesting to look at the interview process and the struggle between Andy and the interviewer as he often tries to subvert–or invert–the whole thing. Good stuff, especially if you have a little background to begin with.

And even though I have so many books to read that I’ll never get through them all, I picked up a few others that I couldn’t resist, as is my wont. At Skylight Books in Los Angeles, home of a pleasant orange cat who put up with my rubbing and petting for a good five minutes, I found a copy of Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager. Those of you who have read my blog consistently (all 3 of you!) will recall how much I love the movie. So I’m going sort of backwards on that one… movie to book instead of the other way around. Last night Ez and I were talking about another movie to book journey I’d like to take–with Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. But I digress.

At City Lights in San Fran, I was lured in by The Last Masquerade. Nice book cover, I thought, and then I read the back cover and the first few pages, and the book was mine.

Something that has always bugged me

The idea of “reverse discrimination” has always annoyed me. Now hear me out. Discrimination is discrimination. “Reverse discrimination” is in itself a sort of discriminatory term. It assumes that one or more groups, generally minorities, are discriminated against. They might be, or they might not be–but that’s not the point. If you want to treat everyone as being on a truly even plane, just call it all discrimination, independent of its target–no special term needed. One is not more or less nasty than the other.

The Little Friend

I recently finished Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, and I love it (that’s present tense) so much that it’s high time I wrote about it. (When I loaned it to Ezra–who gobbled it up–I told him to be especially kind to it, as I plan to tie it with a ribbon and keep it my prized possession.)

The Little Friend

I was completely enthralled by it from start to finish. The descriptions of characters and their surroundings are so rich and she includes just the right details; for example, the foods they prepare for a Mother’s Day celebration–all appropriate to where they live, their social standing, and their personalities–with the important note that these foods are a departure from their usual Mother’s Day fare. The author draws the characters through funny little stories that add too much to the book to be considered ancillary. I love the characters so much, and the events of the book unfold to draw the reader ever deeper into understanding them and their relationships. As I read the book, I thought that it was not so much what happened that mattered to me–though of course that is very important, and it is a great story–but the way it is written, who the characters are, and what they do.

In particular, I identify with the main character, Harriet. Tartt begins her introduction of Harriet with the following sentence (which I’ve now repeated often), “Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart.” When I first read them, those eleven words in all their simplicity shot right into me in their to-the-point (much like Harriet) perfection. I always admire authors who can have that effect on me with language–not using the biggest or most impressive words, but the right ones. I don’t know–that sentence probably doesn’t mean a damn thing to most people who read it, but I love it.

If you don’t want to hear a word more about the book until you read it yourself, stop here. If you don’t mind some minor character points that probably don’t have a whole lot of significance plot-wise but that mean something to me, read on.

Harriet is wonderfully real. I see myself in little things she says and does, and her daring is an inspiration. Early in the book, she makes her small friends–all younger boys, all sort of her minions–act out biblical scenes in costume in the yard (which reminds me of Ez). She makes lists. Lots of people do, but her lists sound like my lists–lists that I still make. I guess some of these kinds of details are supposed to be a part of showing her as an adolescent female, beginning to form a more adult identity. Maybe I am just still living in that adolescent world, but I do that stuff. I reach back for those instinctual tools. Harriet and I make plans.

I could discuss The Little Friend further, and I probablly will. I feel that my connection with this book is somehow very personal. Though I can’t stop talking about it, I’m not sure that my experience is typical. Ezra really liked it though, so I’ll go ahead and make this an official recommendation.