Thursday, November 14, 2013

Uncle Dusty's Guide to Literature

                I recently attended a Q&A session/book signing for James Franco’s book, Actors Anonymous with my friend Teresa (Hi Teresa!).  I’m not quite sure if I'm a fan, and I'm also not really sure the genre and I haven’t actually read it yet but something he said during his talk I found interesting.  When asked how he is able to portray such a wide variety of people on screen, he said he finally learned how to “relax into (his) character.”  And I think that is what I have done with this blog; relax into my voice.

                When my friend Liz Shellman (Hey Liz!) suggested I chronicle the life I would lead once my Dad moved in with me, I tried to figure out just how I would say what I wanted to say.  She suggested that I “write like you talk, dude; it’ll be all good.”  That right there is some sage advice from one of my favorite Texans. 

People ask me if I’ve always been a writer and the answer is…sorta, kinda, not really.  I have always been a story teller but I haven’t always excelled putting pen to paper.  While I may have entertained at telling stories, I have found it difficult to have that same kind of connection when writing.  A writer has an edge because they can stop and think of the perfect thing to say or to formulate a brilliant quip.  Storytellers just say what they are going to say, for better or for worse. 

                And my “voice” when telling stories has remained pretty consistent; my “voice” while writing has definitely improved with age and practice.  Anyone who read anything I wrote in high school knows I was a very dramatic writer.  And not in the good way.  Were Nola Faye Boyd alive, she could attest that my first foray into short stories, the ludicrously titled “Forever, Meredith”, was a painful exercise for both writer and reader.  I can’t remember the specifics but I do know there was a jilted blind girl and, well, do I need to go on?

                Although I considered my first book A Gone Pecan (and if you haven’t purchased it, why not?) as a way to capture the essence of my mother, I have summarily been informed by innumerable people whomever’s voice is (the narrator) Cady McIntyre, it is most definitely not my mother’s.  I guess it’s mine were I to be a middle-aged woman.  When I sat down to chronicle my relationship with my father, I finally felt, at age 41, that I could just be myself, warts (or should I say, farts) and all. 

It took me until the ripe old age of 40 to stop being concerned with people’s opinion of me.  I would like to think it’s because I have become much more at ease with myself and have settled into a comfortable maturity.  Although, full disclosure, it may be because I think I am fancy enough to pass muster with anyone, should they be so inclined to ponder the wonder that is me.  Let’s go with the maturity thing.  It sounds better.

                I have recently been gifted with the newest novel from one of my favorite writers, Donna Tartt.  My best friend Christopher knows the connection I have with her first novel The Secret History and he very thoughtfully sent me a copy.  It has been sitting on my bedside table taunting me and I am, frankly, a bit nervous to start as I was disappointed with her second tome, The Little Friend.  Pondering that got me to thinking about other books or authors that have excited, illuminated, saddened or affected me profoundly and I thought I would share with you Uncle Dusty’s Guide to Literature.

1.       Candide by Voltaire.  The book that helped develop my cynical view of “classics”.  Seriously, overrated as is most of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The only positive outcome of publishing The Great Gatsby was the Brooks Brother’s Gatsby Collection. 

2.       In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was the book that caused a fundamental shift in my reading habits to heavily non-fiction.  Other non-fiction favorites include Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson; although, I did not like his In the Garden of Beasts.  Two other interesting reads are Fingerprints by Colin Beavan and Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine.  Kim Powers’ Capote in Kansas is a fictional take on Truman Capote while visiting Kansas writing ICB.  It is excellent.  Demonstrating how hysterical non-fiction can be is Will Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.

3.       A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  The first book to make me actually laugh out loud.  The second book that caused a lot of LOLing was Yeah, I Said It by Wanda Sykes.  The book that made me scream and throw it across the room was The Amityville Horror.  I don’t care who wrote it.

4.        Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich was the book that caused me to re-think my views on the working poor.  It also made me able to admit without embarrassment that my family has, at different times, been on food stamps and lived in a motel.  The working poor, whose number increases daily, is a shameful reality in this country.

5.        The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff are the two reasons I appreciate the novella.

6.       The memoir that helped me realize that although I am a product of my family, I am fully in control of the outcome of my life was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  Other surprisingly good but not life-altering memoirs are My Life in France by Julia Child and Vicki! by Vicki Lawrence.  One that was absolutely hilarious but vulgar in parts was Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson.  The memoir I wanted to like but didn’t was Ali in Wonderland by Ali Wentworth.  I only kept my copy because it’s autographed.

7.        Andy Warhol’s Diaries edited by Pat Hackett was the book that started my weird fascination with New York Society.  Interesting, funny and surprisingly down-to-earth, Andy Warhol was the master of observation.  Other Society-based non-fiction I’ve enjoyed is Philistines at the Hedgerow by Steven Gaines, The Last Mrs. Astor by Frances Kiernan and Empty Mansions by.

8.       The best book that made me uncomfortable was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.  Difficult subject; beautifully handled.

9.        Microserfs is the book that introduced me to the genius of Douglas Coupland.  The book that made me his lifelong fan was Miss Wyoming.  The book that he signed when I met him in Alaska was Hey, Nostradamus!  He brilliantly did a reading…of John Grisham’s The Client and found a haiku about a hushpuppy!

10.   The best John Grisham book is A Time to Kill.  The next best is A Painted House followed by Skipping Christmas.  Yes, I know it was a terrible movie; the book is excellent!  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is one of my all-time favorites.  Clint Eastwood’s massacre of the movie is repugnant.  You can’t blame the source material, people.  On that note, I think the Harry Potter movies are the best example of my liking both the book and the movie; all eleventy-hundred of them.

11.   The books that made me want to befriend TV stars were Bossypants by Tina Fey and Is Everyone Hanging out without me and Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling.

12.   The book that began my devotion to all things British and mysterious was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.  All 5 entries in his Flavia De Luce series are exceptionally good.  The book that started my anglophilia was Gone With the Windsors by Laurie Graham.  Other books that have fueled my obsession are Royal Sisters by Anne Edwards, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn and The Windsor Knot by Sharyn McCrumb, although the last one is only remotely British.

13.   My appreciation of peeks at other writer’s journals was sustained by Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Know-it-all by A.J. Jacobs, Reading the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) by Ammon Shea and The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose.

14.   The book that tells you it’s awesome?  The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha, of course.

15.   The impetus for my lifelong relationship with music trivia was The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits by Fred Bronson.

 All this book talk has me itching to read “The Goldfinch” now.  I’ll let you know what I think.

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