A Year in Reading: Catie Disabato


While most of my life I’ve been interested in long narratives that I could really live inside, something about the overall vibes of 2015 got me into a mood to dip in and out of multiple stories, and/or to get in and out quick. After years of side-eyeing books of short stories without ever really diving in, I finally spent some real time with them. I fell in love with Amelia Gray’s Gutshot; I started many Sunday mornings trying to work my brain out of a hangover, opening to a random page and reading a very short story very slowly. At AWP, I stopped at the booth for the Austin-based indie press A Strange Object and picked up Nicholas Grider’s Misadventure after hearing Grider had written a piece that was a catalogue of ex-lovers. “Formers (An Index)” is my favorite story in the book.

My brain was also primed for poetry this year and I finally picked up Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbird, which contains my favorite contemporary poem “Why It Is a Black Life” (the text of which I framed and hung in my closet). I discovered the poem right next to it in Thunderbird, “The World Doesn’t Care,” excites me just as much. I read the two poems out loud to myself dozens of times this year; they always steadied me.

At a few points during 2015, strong voices pulled me in for longer periods of time. Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness was the best straight-up novel I read all year and I loved Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level, an examination of what looking at another person can make us learn about ourselves.

Most of the rest of the books I read this year contributed to my ongoing project of trying to figure out how to live as a difficult woman by reading about difficult women. I’m no closer to answers but I read well: Kate Zambreno’s chapbook Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, and Toilet Bowl: Some Notes On Why I Write, Amelia Morris’s memoir Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, reality TV star Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here To Make Friends: Confessions of a Reality TV Villain, Lili Anolik’s dark teen girl mystery Dark Rooms, Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, and Carrie Brownstein’s new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Birdie’s the Word: Mad Men’s Pop Culture References

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My mom kept an old VHS copy of Bye Bye Birdie, recorded from a television broadcast, complete with commercial interruptions.  I watched it at least once a month in junior high, so the opening moments of the second episode of the third season of Mad Men was a sense-memory jolt back to my childhood.  The advertising executives and writers of Sterling Cooper sit around a long table in the projection room, watching the opening number of the Bye Bye Birdie film: Ann-Margret (born Ann-Margret Olsson) sings the title song, running towards and away from a camera that pushes in and pulls back on her, like the girl and camera are engaged in a coquettish, flirtatious dance.

The clip from Bye Bye Birdie, and the subsequent discussion of Ann-Margret’s allure, provide a framework for the episode of Mad Men.  Pepsi wants Sterling Cooper to design a Birdie rip-off to advertise their new diet cola product.  However, that advertising-related story is simply the element that pulls Bye Bye Birdie into the character’s lives.  What the characters do as a result of watching provides their emotional story arcs for the episode.

Most television shows incorporate some popular books, movies, music, and even other television shows into their story lines.  But most of the time, those references are shallow.  In The O.C., loveable geek Seth Cohen would rattle off the names of whatever indie band was the new cool thing; in an episode of Six Feet Under, an ill-fated day-player read the then-hot book Fast Food Nation as a golf ball struck her in the head.  She died and the book, a glorified prop, fell out of her hands.

A popular trend of this type is for geeky characters to use the word “Frak,” a minced oath developed in a burst of genius by Glen Larson, the creator of the original version of the geek-popular sci-fi series Battlestar Gallatica.  Kudos to the other writers, who realized they could use it as an FCC-approved profanity too, so long as it was coming out of the mouths of geeky characters.  (And doesn’t Seth Cohen just wish he were around to get a piece of that action!)

One reason these references are used is to tie a television show’s characters or world to our world, the “real world,” and to trick us into believing they live in it.  Another reason is to trick us into thinking a character is cool, because they consume “cool” media.  Pop culture references are an easy way to write quick characterization.  A guy walks into the room and mentions the new issue of Green Lantern, you know what kind of guy he’s going to be.

These references are sometimes cloddish or clumsy, and work against the writers by calling attention to themselves.  However, I love it when television shows reference other television shows.  I enjoy the mixing of media, watching a world where the geeks say “frak” for fun, right after watching a world where “fuck” would be the strange-sounding replacement profanity.

Mad Men does something different, though, something better.  The show’s writers use media references not just in passing, not just to create basic plot lines, but to develop emotional arcs for the characters.  The characters in Mad Men react emotionally to the media they consume, just like we do in real life.

After seeing Bye Bye Birdie with a gang of salivating boys (and one closeted homosexual pretending to salivate), the only female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, Peggy Olson (same surname as Ann-Margret) goes on a related emotional journey, trying to find herself in the world of alluring women. Peggy Olson tries, and both fails and succeeds, to be sexy.

Peggy, dancing in front of her mirror Ann-Margret style and failing to entice, breaks your heart.  Later, Peggy picks up a college kid at a bar using a joke stolen from the always sexy office manager, Joan. The kid is lame, a messy eater, and assumes she’s a secretary – but we know why Peggy goes home with him.  Though part of us is silently begging her not to bag the loser, we are also elated that she’s able to.

And as viewers, we know how Peggy feels.  All the books and movies and music and TV around us help to define our relationships with others and our views of ourselves.

The characters of Mad Men seem more like real people because their relationships with their pop culture are deep and emotional ones, because what they watch and read and buy affects the course of their lives and the way they see themselves.  Even if I didn’t care about Bye Bye Birdie, Peggy’s emotional reaction to the film means more to me as a viewer than another character name-checking the year’s coolest new band.

The Technology Fails Essay

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One morning at work, I tried to sign on to my email account and had a door slammed in my face. Google interpreted something in my emailing activities as a possible security risk, and decided to lock me out of my Gmail account for 24 hours. Naturally, I panicked, then opened a Microsoft Word document and began to write this.

A subgenre of confessional personal essay has grown from the seed of technical disasters just like mine: the Technology Fails Essay. (In my own essay, right now, I’d be talking about my frantic attempts to access the account by restarting my computer, as if I could trick the internet that way.) Most of these essays appear in online literary magazines, and they are probably so prevalent because the writers no longer have Twitter or Facebook or Gmail to distract them from writing. The essays aren’t shallow, though, because the immediate reaction to technological failure is a deeply emotional one, whether the emotion is desperation, anxiety, fear, or despair.

(In my essay, I’d be writing about my frantic Twitter posts and Facebook status updates, chronicling my Gmail woes and instructing all my friends and followers to email me on my work email account for the rest of the day.)

During these terrifying technical blackouts, writers sometimes look inward, to comment on their own addiction to all the bright, shiny technology. (Once my most important email account was unreachable, I realized that I had five other email accounts, each for a specialized type of correspondence. My email-account-creation-behavior is obsessive compulsive and has gotten completely out of hand. I must make changes in my lifestyle.) These writers treat technology like low art – we love it, but know that it’s not “good,” but we can’t easily explain how it’s not “good,” so we spend pages and hours and thousands of words trying to explain ourselves, when all we really want to do is curl up around a Nicolas Sparks novel (not me, but I’ve heard they sell well) or re-watch Bring It On (this example is taken from personal experience).

Sometimes in these blackout-essays, the writer takes a broader look at our world’s dependence on technology to function. Sometimes, they write a personal history story about their relationship with their tech. (I remember my first blackout, back in ’03, when Livejournal was inaccessible for a whole day and my entire high school freaked out.) Sometimes the writer uses blackout essays as a metaphor for distance or being cut-off from the world.

Why are these stories compelling? Is it because they give shape to a shared experience? Does a Tweeter who was frantic during a Twitter blackout want to read about another frantic Tweeter because it makes them feel less alone in this isolated world of Internet socialization? We’ve all been there: our phones have broken and all of our contacts lost forever, our computers have crashed, our Gmail accounts have been temporarily closed to guard our security when it didn’t need guarding. Maybe reading about other people with the same problems makes each of us feel like a citizen of the world behind our keyboards.

Personally, I’m starting to find this kind of essay tiresome, but I don’t understand why. I can read four blogs from four different television critics breaking the same news story in four nearly-identical ways – and I keep going back to all four writers day after day after day. I can empathize with the writers bemoaning their technologic issues; I should feel more with every new essay, not less.

(The next morning, I logged on to my Gmail, good as new. I hadn’t received any urgent messages during the time I was shut-out of the account, so I didn’t even explain my problem when I was writing responses. Now that the email account was restored, I felt even more like writing and contextualizing my experience, but I didn’t know where to begin. Not being able to access my email made me stressed out for 24 hours, and if it had happened to anyone else, they would’ve been stressed out too. But it wasn’t a shot heard round the world, it barely echoed. The pain and stress of the problem was all inside of me, and the world couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t empathize, because they were logging on and sending off emails so easily, while I waited for Google to give that back to me.)

When my technology fails, the lack of it consumes me. When someone else’s technology fails them, I am vaguely sympathetic, but I’m losing my ability to feel anything in response. Their problems wash over me, because it’s so simple to put contacts back into a cell phone, and if they were smart they would’ve backed up their computer files, and what are you bitching about anyway, your email will be back in 24 hours, just wait it out, it’s not that big of a deal.