“Every journal is a confessional. If it’s in the first person, it cannot help but be. Unless the author of it lies to himself—and that makes it even more of a confessional. For some reason, travel brings out confessions one would never make at home. I am trying to draw the rake of my journal over the landscape. Perhaps I will uncover something.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s new collection of travel journals, Writing Across the Landscape, is out now. Travel on back to The Millions for Kate McCahill’s essay on traveling with books.
The photo on the cover of Bossypants embodies--in all senses of the word--Tina Fey's comic schtick. Her auburn-colored hair is lustrous and a touch windblown, her face artfully made up, but not too much so. Even with that jaunty black hat on, which, to me, reflects her improv/drama kid dorkdom, she is attractive, in a non-threatening, accessible way. But one can't look at the photo for more than a millisecond before cognitive dissonance sets in: Wait a minute! She's got the huge, hairy arms and hands of a huge and hairy man! It's disgusting. Some have called it upsetting. Most people call it funny. It's also a sharp commentary on being a powerful, successful American woman in 2011. As Fey says in the prologue of her book, people often ask her if it's uncomfortable being the boss, "You know, in the same way they say, "Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?"" Fey loves to point out the double-standards and unfair expectations placed on women: in high school, in motherhood, in the world of entertainment. But she always does so with a wink; she disparages herself, making herself the butt of the joke, so that the joke sings louder and better than you thought it would. She undermines her own femininity with her tongue placed firmly in her cheek. Yep, Tina says, I've got man hands. So do I. (Well, that's not totally true: my hands are less mannish and more just, well, ugly: crooked and dry and wrinkly, no matter how much expensive hand cream I slather on them. But I digress.) My point is, a lot of women I know identify with Tina Fey, or at least with Liz Lemon, her character on 30 Rock. Liz is a broadly-drawn character in a sitcom of broadly-drawn characters, but, as with all good satire, there's zing of truth to her. She is an overworked, unmarried woman whose hips, to her chagrin--and it seems, to everyone else's--are a little on the wide side. Even if that doesn't describe me exactly (though, dear reader, my hips are wide!), I see myself in her. She's competent, and she's a mess. She's running the show, and no one will listen to her. She'd make a terrible hooker. It's in this spirit of fandom that I picked up Bossypants. My first celebrity memoir! I thought. I wonder who ghost wrote this! I thought. (I'm actually still wondering: Did Tina Fey have a ghost writer or not? Is that a stupid question? Can anyone shed some light on this for me?) I read the book in 48 hours--probably in 4 of those 48. It was a fast and entertaining read, and I laughed aloud many, many times. A few turns of phrase really pleased and surprised me, my favorite one being, "A sweet, quiet girl with short curly hair and a face as Irish as a scone." Man, I wish I'd written that! The chapter about her father Don is a concise and sharp character sketch, and Fey's assessment about her own complicated homophobia as a teenager was honest and perspicacious. She admits of her gay friends: They were supposed to be funny and entertain me and praise me and listen to my problems, and their life was supposed to be a secret that none wanted to hear about. I wanted them to stay in the "the half closet." When I read this, I felt a shameful twinge of recognition. But even with the one-liners and the nuggets of wisdom and honesty, the book lacked structure and direction. It didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. One chapter was about her childhood, one was about standards of beauty for women, one was about her honeymoon cruise with her husband, and on and on. The placement of these chapters seemed almost arbitrary, their relationship to each other tenuous. The chapters about Fey's stint as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live struck me as workman-like, as if Tina were describing a day of errands. Even as I was laughing, I wondered what I was supposed to glean from these stories, these jokes. It became clear to me, over the two days that I lapped up this book, that Tina Fey is a true comedic genius, but she isn't a master of prose. Bossypants was a delight, but it lacked power, intention. Perhaps that's what happens when someone wants you to write a book before you've actually written it. I mean, let's get real--that's what happened, right? She sold this book on the idea of it alone, and then she had to whip it up for her editors like a creative mom whips up dinner on few ingredients. The meal is tasty, but is it inspired? Will it keep you full? I wish that this book were organized better, with a stronger sense of purpose. I wanted to trace Fey's evolution better, from dorky little girl to dorky, successful woman. I would have liked more interpretation from her, about 30 Rock, and her character Liz Lemon--it's not enough to just recount experience. I would have liked a deeper investigation into this notion of being a bossy woman. I just wanted something deeper, I guess. But, you know, it is a celebrity memoir. I think I'll go read some other examples of the genre, so that I understand better how it works. But next time, Tina, maybe you can hire me to be your ghost writer. (You know there will be a next time!) Lord knows I would benefit from hanging around with you. Also, like all fiction writers-turned-ghost writers, I could use the money. Call me!
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1. Being a nerd used to mean something, Patton Oswalt proclaims in the opening sentence of his lauded Wired essay, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” Being a nerd used to take patience and sacrifice. Patience because issues of Watchmen were few and far between, and the time between a science fiction movie’s theater run and its release on video was completely void of illegal viewing options. Sacrifice because, firstly, true nerds were collectors, which is expensive, and secondly, you probably weren’t popular. These days, if you’re into Watchmen, searching for “Alan Moore interview” on YouTube brings up 379 results. You don’t have to memorize the names and call signs of all the pilots on Battlestar Galactica, you can Google it. I just did. Oswalt deems this new era of nerd culture Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. Nothing is collectible or hard to find, there are no personal obsessions that someone else isn’t already blogging about. The nerds of the 80s and 90s aren’t even nerds anymore. Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow are household names. Patton Oswalt has 243,000 followers on Twitter. In his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt looks at life as a nerd, before and after Dungeons & Dragons came out of the basement. The result is both and elegy for an underground world, and an examination of how, as an exile of that world, he functions in the modern day. 2. Falling into the Patton Oswalt Didn’t Fit In In The Past category, (Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In The Present will follow shortly), the book’s first essay is about the underground movie theater where Oswalt worked as a teenager in northern Virginia. In this instance, underground merely means below street level. As he describes it, “you descended three flights of stairs into a murky, fluorescent-lit lobby…Then, once you bought snacks and drinks, you descended another flight of stairs to an even dimmer, grimmer lobby where you’d choose one of three theaters. It was a theater designed like an artless logic problem—which door leads to freedom, which to death, and which to Adventures in Babysitting.” Oswalt and his coworkers were a truly bizarre band of cinema personnel. The assistant manager lived in one of the theater’s closets, where he hid weaponry. The manager wanted to be a cowboy. When not reading Orson Scott Card at the ticket booth, Oswalt would engage with his coworkers in casual harassment of each other and after-hours drinking. As he points out, while he was doing so the hardcore punk scene was exploding a few miles away in Washington, D.C. That, the implication goes, would have been a cooler place to be. But no one chooses their own origin story, and if he’d been in a club getting sweat on by Fugazi, he never would have spent all those nights listening to R.E.M. and reading William Gibson, which gave him the sense of pride that comes from finding something you love and keeping it to yourself. When being a nerd meant something, Patton Oswalt was a nerd. Which is why it’s not surprising that, once his hobbies went mainstream – as he writes in Wired, “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s.” – he darted back into the shadows. The basically chronological essays move from his pudgy, sexless youth to his years as a stand-up comic on the road. Stand-up comedy is a thankless profession for those who aspire to be good at it, Oswalt explains, because comics who are bad at it are so frequently popular. He cites Louis C.K. and Bill Hicks as role models, but was forced to open for three types of comedians whom he calls Blazer, “Wild” Willy, and Topical Tommy, whose names I hardly need expound upon. But great comedians were out there, he says, “And knowing they were hidden in strip malls made me feel like I was a member of one of the last mystery cults on Earth.” It’s nice to hear this - that he found another hidden fraternity. Which brings us to the Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In the Present portion of the book. What this portion lacks in poignancy, it makes up for in being outrageously funny. It lacks the hazy poignancy of the first half of the book because, yes, while those years on the road were excruciating, they eventually landed him on The King of Queens and Ratatouille, and got him an invitation to an MTV gifting suite where the free Adidas made him feel shallow (the poor guy!). At this point in the book, though, you’re happy for how well he’s doing, because his writing shows him to be such an endearing, brilliant, funny guy. All essay collections are hit or miss. Oswalt hits well and misses infrequently. His skewering of 90s comedy is spot on and, like a true stand-up, he can make almost anything funny. He lovingly describes his former Dungeons & Dragons avatar, then writes him an epic poem. There is a comic strip in which two vampires bicker over who has more vamp cred. His description of hotel amenities, in particular, got me: “I make a pot of coffee with the little coffeemaker that’s in the room. Now the room smells like a hot, wet hat. The coffee tastes like pants.” 3. The title essay is a classification of the three main elements of science fiction, and therefore the three kinds of science fiction fans. Zombies simplify, Spaceships leave, Wastelands destroy. Oswalt counts himself as a Wasteland. “What is stand-up comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs? Or, in a broader sense, pointing out how so much of what we perceive as culture and society is disposable waste?” I agree to an extent, but I’d color him a Spaceship. Pop culture’s embrace of old school nerds has obviously been good to him – with the Comedy Central specials and working next to Jerry Stiller – but I get the feeling every once in a while he’d like to fly back to visit rural Virginia in the 80s and re-read Ender’s Game.
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When my debut novel came out, I had two firsts—a work of published fiction—and a lawsuit. I had never thought about lawsuits before. I incorporated everything and everyone I knew or imagined into my fiction, spinning them into characters. At first, to my surprise, most people didn’t know they were any part of my stories. I was sure my mom would be delighted that I used a story in my novel that she had told me a million times over: how at 19, she had been jilted at the altar by the man she thought she loved, marrying a brute on the rebound. She was later visited by her ex, who brought his wife with him, taking my mom aside to whisper to her that he had made a mistake. “It’s really lovely you wrote that,” she told me, “but that character is not anything like me at all. Plus, that never really happened that way.” My mother might not have recognized herself in my pages, but another family—one I didn’t know—did. A week after my first novel came out, I received a letter from a lawyer. A family, who lived in Pittsburgh, where I was living at the time, just happened to share the same (very common) names I had given my characters, along with the same dramatic conflict. They were suing me for invasion of privacy. I called my publisher, shocked. “I want to countersue.” I cried. “Even if I did know them, which I don’t—how could they imagine I’d be stupid enough to use their names and their situation?” There was a funny silence and then the publisher said, “We’re changing the names in the paperback. We don’t want to hold up the book because of some lawsuit.” I was upset. These people were claiming that I had stolen their life when I hadn’t! And worse, I had to change the names because of them and only then was the lawsuit dropped. But that didn’t squelch my yearning to write about what mattered to me. I started publishing personal essays, and I worried about how things might get more personal without a character to hide behind. I was writing about my life, I was laying myself bare—how I felt, how I hurt, and sometimes how I healed. When I was asked to write an essay about food issues for an anthology, I wrote about a long-gone ex who monitored my food intake until I was down to 95 pounds, who clouded my vision so I couldn’t see how controlled I was. Of course I knew enough not to use his name, his physical description, or his job, but even so, two weeks after the anthology was published, I got a call from the publisher’s lawyer. Somehow my ex, who I hadn’t seen in years, had read the essay. Though he insisted he had never done a single thing I had mentioned in the essay, he still recognized himself. And he wanted to sue. “His wife is very upset,” the lawyer told me. “He said that’s why he called. Did you ever tell him you were writing about him?” “Never,” I said. “Okay, good,” the lawyer said, “then I can make him go away.” So was that the key, I wondered? You had to ask people before you wrote about them, even if you disguised them? When I was asked to write an essay for an anthology about infidelity, I played it safe. I asked permission. I was writing about one long, hot brutal summer when my first husband was cheating on me. His sister, who was also my best friend, was orchestrating his trysts without my knowing, and her shrink was stalking her. She not only okayed the piece, she enthusiastically provided extra details. She was fine when my piece was reprinted in a major magazine, fine when it landed me on the Today Show, but when I got a movie option, she immediately threatened me with a lawsuit. I was gobsmacked. “But you gave permission!” I insisted. “And it’s my point of view of what happened!” I had to hire a lawyer from The Author’s Guild who assured me that because she had known about the story for so long, because it had been out there, she had no recourse. And he wrote a polite letter to her to tell her so. I was fed up and frightened by lawsuits. So I gave up personal essays for a while and wrote another novel. Set in 1969 and 1970, it began to morph into a lot of things. I wrote about my mom falling in real reciprocated love for the first time, at 93. Like most writers, what I think I am writing about often u-turns into what I need to write about, and I began adding in a new character, exploring a really important relationship in my life that had become troubled over the years. I had kept trying to fix her, to help her, but the more I did, the worse things got for both of us. I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to change anyone, let alone someone I loved, and that sometimes you just have to let people be. I meant part of the novel as a love letter to her, and when the novel came out, I said so on NPR—without mentioning names, of course. The email came almost immediately and it was spikey with threats. She recognized herself, and so had a friend of hers. And she said she could prove it. She had, she said, already spoken to a lawyer, and she was going to sue for defamation and invasion of privacy. It didn’t matter that I took the blame for my persistence in trying to change her. “You’re dead to me,” she said flatly. By now, I was used to talking to lawyers and I knew I had to contact mine. “It’s sticky business,” my lawyer said. “People can sue for anything they want, but no reputable lawyer will take on a case like this, at least not without considerable money, plus anything you said was only your opinion, and not fact, and you can’t sue for that. I’d just let it go. I can write a letter to her, but it might make things worse.” “They already are worse,” I said. “She won’t sue,” he assured me. And she hasn’t. Why didn’t I learn my lesson with my first lawsuit? Because it’s a writer’s nature to keep digging into peoples’ lives, to be curious. And the truth is that whether I am writing about a character or myself or a living person, the story always comes from a deep place within. I’m not trying to hurt, expose or defame anyone. Instead, I’m trying to figure things out—to make sense of why I (or anyone else) couldn’t and wouldn’t leave an emotionally abusive boyfriend, why I (or anyone else) felt I had to rescue someone who not only resented my help, but was furious that I thought she needed any. It has nothing to do with revenge, and everything to do with revelation, with connecting to some reader who might say, gratefully, “Oh, thank you for writing about this scary/terrifying/wrenching topic, because Me, too. Me, too. Me, too.” Image Credit: Public Domain Photos.
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Radiohead can typically do no wrong in the eyes of fans and culture pundits, but author Ian Rankin describes how even these indie heroes got him stuck in customer service hell: " no e-mail address; no phone line; no possibility of human contact."
“You know, it’s dangerous to focus on one person as a way of talking about a big system. But I think Kissinger reveals the system. He’s not singularly responsible for the system—if we expunge Kissinger from history, we still wouldn’t have a Virtuous Republic—but he illuminates it like nobody else.” Greg Grandin discusses his recent release, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, at The New Republic.