Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday Gift Idea

For devoted readers of this blog, there is really only one possible gift this year: Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick. Lizzie wrote the beloved (and hopefully on hiatus, not cancelled) Fine Lines column for Jezebel, which revisited classics from our youth with an affectionate, if gimlet eye. Some of my most adored essays topics: The Westing Game, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler, and every word she wrote about Madeline L’Engle. For the record, I am a Vicky girl and A Ring of Endless Light is one of my favorite books ever.

Anyhow, Lizzie is hilarious and super smart. The only drawback to bestowing Shelf Discovery upon a lucky recipient, is that you should be prepared not to see her for a week or two as she will immediately embark on a massive re-read campaign. Or so I’ve heard.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More Holiday Books!

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

David Sedaris begins his collection of holiday essays with an autobiographical tale of his experiences as an elf in Macy's SantaLand. His chosen name was "Crumpet," and his experiences in SantaLand are both hilarious and a little horrifying. If you've never read Sedaris--God forbid--Holidays on Ice is the perfect place to begin.

Sedaris is amazing. His writing is succinct and enviable. He's my humor hero. I once waited almost three hours in line to get his newest collection of short stories, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, autographed. I had promised my good friend X--- that I would get her book autographed as well, as she wasn't feeling well and had gone home right after the reading. It was midnight. I was tired. I had been standing in line for almost three hours. This is the only explanation for what happened when I finally met Mr. Sedaris (again, my humor-essayist hero):

David Sedaris (very polite): Who would you like these signed to?

Me: Oh, myself--Elizabeth--and my friend X----, please. I love your new collection!

David Sedaris (more polite banter while signing books): Thank you. Where's your friend X---? Did she come with you?

Me: She did, but she fell asleep during your reading and then decided to go home. (Dawning horror when I realize what I've said.)

David Sedaris: Cold stare. Completely understandable cold stare.

Me: Oh no, not because it was boring! She wasn't feeling well! Your reading was excellent! (More incoherent, frantic babble.)

David Sedaris continues to stare at me. He scribbles something in my book and hands it to me. I'm shuffled out of line by attendants even as I'm continuing to apologize.

It was so, so incredibly embarrassing.

When I get out of the bookstore, I check what he's written in my copy, expecting something like "You are incredibly rude," "I forbid you from reading any of my books every again," or even, justifiably, "Screw you." I should have expected more, of course, and he delivered: "Friendship is a cancer."

Oh, David Sedaris, I love you.

If you like David Sedaris, try his sister Amy Sedaris' I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Filled with helpful recipe tips including some truly terrible-looking jello molds and hints on how to entertain all ages, sexes, and inebriation-levels, I Like You is pure gold, especially with the kitschy, old-school photos.

I picked up Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake because I thought the title was pretty funny--I, too, have been told there would be cake and there was no cake, none! which is always disappointing--and the autobiographical essays within lived up to the humor the title promises. Crosley chronicles her life as a young woman living in New York and her childhood in a suburb of the same city, from the horror of her mother giving her "the talk" to trying to figure out why, for the love of God, would any of her dinner guests leave poo on her bathroom rug.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Holiday Books

I set out with the best of intentions to compile a list of fun holiday reads, only to discover that the books I re-read around this time of year only have one thing in common. They're massive. My traditional holiday reads are 1) The Lord of the Rings and 2) all the Harry Potter books except the second one. Harry Potter does have great holiday scenes, but they're kind of a non-recommendation. You've either read Harry Potter or you haven't and nothing I write will change your mind on the subject.

So I wracked my brain, scoured my shelves and came up with the following list. Of two books. Um, hopefully Elizabeth can do better. I did come up with a rather long list of holiday books that I hate. You'll find that at the end of the post.

1) Little Women. It references Christmas in one of the greatest opening lines ever! And it just keeps going from there: pickled limes, burnt bangs, and the stupidest rejection of a proposal of ALL TIME. It was my favorite book for about ten years (I think it kind of brainwashed me into becoming a transcendentalist for a while). Regardless, Little Women is heartwarming and long, both integral ingredients for a cracking holiday read.

2) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's the most random appearance of Father Christmas ever! He arrives, distributes weapons to the underage and unsupervised children, and then, with nary a ho ho ho, drives off in his non-flying sledge. But the rest of the book (and the series) is awesome and since most of the action takes place in an endless winter, it's totally holiday appropriate.

Holiday books I thought of but refused to list for parenthetical reasons:

A Prayer for Owen Meany (irrational hatred of John Irving); The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (irrational hatred of children who constantly misbehave); A Christmas Carol (irrational hatred of Jim Carrey and anything he's associated with); and The Gift of the Magi (irrational hatred of morals that are FORCED DOWN YOUR THROAT).

So it appears I might actually be something of a holiday book Scrooge. Does anyone have suggestions I missed? Impassioned defenses of books I maligned? I know there are good holiday reads out there, help me out!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jellicoe Road

“It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where the trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La.”

Jellicoe Road kills me. Seriously. Every time I read it (and I’ve read it four times now, not bad for a book published in the U.S. in 2008), I cry. Not a few happy tears at the end of the book, but Beth-dying ugly crying – for at least half the book. The first time I read it, the tears didn’t kick in until the end, but when I re-read it, I barely made it past page 10 before I was a goner.

When Elizabeth and I were talking about it, our conversation basically went like this: “It was so good.” “I cried.” “It was so embarrassing; I couldn’t stop crying.” “It was awesome!”

So I realize all this crying might put some of you off, but that would be a shame. Because Jellicoe Road is lovely. It’s beautifully put together and as the characters slowly emerge, you can’t help but feel affection for them, all the more because they’re not immediately easy to get to know.

I realize I’m being a little obscure, but Jellicoe Road is one of those books, like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, that’s better read with very little prep. If you’re a fan of interesting writing and strong heroines, I’d encourage you to just go grab a copy now and start reading.

For those of you who want a little more info before committing, I’ll dig in a bit.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Alas, Poor Yorick . . ."

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

If you've never read a graphic novel, please start with Brian Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. The first in a series, Y: Unmanned is at heart a social critique, one which is told with compassion rather than derision. It also happens to contain some of the most humorous dialogue I have ever had the pleasure to read.

Y opens with Yorick Brown--young, broke, recent college graduate--pining for his girlfriend, Beth. While Beth is in Australia on an anthropological dig, Yorick spends his time perfecting his amateur escape artistry and attempting to train his pet monkey, Ampersand. Needless to say, Yorick is an unlikely hero. He seems especially unlikely to survive a mysterious plague which kills every mammal with a Y chromosome--except for Yorick himself and Ampersand. The world is plunged into chaos, and as the last males alive, Yorick and Ampersand are valuable commodities.

While at first this seems like an adolescent fantasy--the only man in a world full of women?--Vaughan respects his audience too much to allow Y to fall into a tawdry cliche. Personally, the idea of a world populated only by women (or men) sounds pretty horrifying to me, and it's not a pretty picture according to Vaughan, either. But don't get me wrong; this book is in no way misogynistic. In fact, it's populated by some of the strongest female characters I've encountered. Specifically, Agent 355 and Dr. Allison Mann, the government agent and geneticist who locate and protect Yorick in an effort to determine what, exactly, has caused the "gendercide."

By the end of the series, Vaughan and the excellent artist Pia Guerra have explored love, hate, sexuality, the bonds of family and friendship, and the pressures of unexpected responsibility. I fell a little bit in love with Yorick, Agent 355, and Dr. Mann--and I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the (very affecting) end of the series. Please read Y: The Last Man. You will thoroughly enjoy it and hopefully, for those graphic-novel-doubters out there, become addicted to the genre.

***I would suggest borrowing the series from the library; it's composed of ten books at $15.00 each, which can get a bit pricey. The movie version is due to be released soon (about which I'm definitely reserving judgment) so I'd check these out before cinema hype makes library queues long.

If you like Y: The Last Man, try another of Vaughan's graphic novel series, Runaways. The first in the series, Pride and Joy, introduces a group of teenagers thrown together throughout the years when their parents meet. . .for what the teens discover isn't bridge, gossiping, and discussing their children's college plans. Their parents are the Pride, a group of super villains and criminal masterminds who plan on their children following in their dubious footsteps. Needless to say, the majority of the teens aren't too excited about this idea, thus the title of the series. While Runaways doesn't have the depth of Y: The Last Man, it's surprisingly introspective for a teen graphic novel series. The only downfall? The binding of the books is awful--they quickly fall apart. Another library visit is definitely recommended.