You Should Read: Fran Lebowitz’s METROPOLITAN LIFE

I got my copy of METROPOLITAN LIFE from a friend about a month ago. It’s a small paperback, found languishing in a used book store and saved from obscurity. Or, at least, saved from being bought by one of those English Literature students who is more likely to line a wall with books by famous authors than they are to actually read any of them. I have been reading it in bits and pieces, whenever I needed a quick shot of crisp humor to pick me up or clear my head. Lebowitz is brilliant, insightful, and sharp, there’s no doubt about that. She’s also truly humorous, in a dry and brittle way, as if the humor is mainly to be found in realizing that you get the joke many others would not. I love her. (Note: PUBLIC SPEAKING, the Scorsese documentary, was one of the ones I recommended a few weeks ago.)

The book is broken up into sections which contain a great number of tiny essays, most two or three pages long, which largely appeared in Interview and Mademoiselle before being collected into a book. There’s a quick introductory essay about how little she can get done in a day, and then the essays are sorted into the following categories: MANNERS, SCIENCE, ARTS, and LETTERS (capitalization hers). Some of the essays cover topics such as race or feminism, and a few contain ideas that may seem outdated now, but to be fair, it is nearly 40 years since she wrote the essays in the first place. For the most part, they are just as funny as they would have been to someone reading them when they first appeared in print.

There are too many to review individually but some of my favorites from MANNERS were “Vocational Guidance for the Truly Ambitious”, where I discovered that I was a natural dictator*, “Children: Pro or Con?”, where she explains that the right child is more useful than one might assume, and “Notes on ‘Trick'”, a handy guide which might serve some of us even today. In SCIENCE I was especially fond of “Weak Speech Handsets: Aid for the Dull”, where she invents a device to make some people worth listening to, and “Why I Love Sleep”, where she lists famous people who appear to also have slept at least once in a while, and “Food For Thought and Vice Versa” where she explains that real food is meant to be eaten instead of merely being pretty, and that “Large, naked, raw carrots are acceptable as food only to those who live in hutches eagerly awaiting the return of Easter.” ARTS focuses on design, and furniture, and her inability to find either that doesn’t rob “comfortable” to make “modern”. In “Color: Drawing The Line” she explains the true meanings behind the primary colors, none of which she particularly approves of. In it she describes blue by saying, “In dealing with champions of this hue one could do worse than remember that water is also the favorite environment of sharks and is the cause, nine times out of ten, of death by drowning.” I cannot argue with her on either point, though I will note that I rather like both blue and sharks. I am less fond of drowning. In LETTERS she writes on the act of writing and the meaning of being a writer, and therefore I can recommend each essay in this section. Very important is “Writing: A Life Sentence” where she helpfully describes the things by which you can tell if your child is doomed to become a writer, so that you can avoid this at all costs.

If you have no idea who Fran Lebowitz is, and certainly some of you don’t, go out now and pick up this little book with great haste. You can thank me later.

* Please note: I already knew this.

Publisher: Fawcett (The edition I have is 1978)
ISBN-13: 978-0449241691

Your Book Synopsis Should Never Be This Bad

Searching through my Netflix instant viewing options, I was struck by the similarities between a movie blurb and a book blurb. When we’re pitching our novels, especially in person, we often have to be able to explain our brilliance in only a few sentences. Even when talking about our work with other writers, it’s helpful to be able to give a quick “this is my book” speech. Reading movie blurbs can help give us a sense of what works, and what doesn’t.

Below are some of my favorite bizarre, disturbing, and completely unnapealing choices:

MUTANT HUNT, 1987. “When a corporate executive named Z comes morally unhinged and unleashes an army of cyborg robots on an unsuspecting New York City, there’s a lone mercenary who can save the Big Apple from complete and total annihilation.” What is it? Are they mutants, or cyborgs, or robots? Pick one!

NARCOSYS, 2000. “The world is ruled by the heartless IT Corporation, which controls citizens through manufactured drugs and a destructive virus that’s spread through the streets. Can a gang of cyber-punks stop the mammoth institution bent on domination?” Aside from the awful plot, the grammar makes this blur read like there’s a diseased street out there, citizens, so watch where you step!

Continue reading

Dear (Jackass) Writer, Offering Your Book For Sale Every Other Hour Is Quite Enough

Dear (Jackass) Writer,

Yes, I know you wrote a book. Your novel, the first of many (you are sure), is a thrilling/scary/original/erotic/captivating/special story that only you could have written. It is sure to include thrills, spills, and some sort of romance. Probably “paranormal”. Unless you are, dear writer, of the male persuasion, in which case your hero will only find romance as a side note while he is doing thrilling and heroic things, probably including the saving of a romantic/erotic character at some point. Good for you. The world needs more horror/fantasy/erotic/paranormal/romance novels. I have no problem with the fact that you wrote the book. I have slightly more problem with the fact that you appear to have published it yourself, but do not appear to actually have had your novel edited by anyone. Well, that’s a personal choice, and one you’re free to make. I would never judge a book by its cover, as they say, unless of course your cover was created in some sort of computer graphics program, one which manages to make your artwork look as if it was drawn by a not overly-talented 9th grader. In that case, I will judge your cover, since if you can’t be bothered to pay for a professional artwork (or, let us remember, an editor), why should I pay for your book?
Continue reading

You Should Read: Mira Grant’s DEADLINE

I have just finished reading the second in a series of zombie-novels by Mira Grant (or, depending on your perspective, a series of political novels that have zombies in them, or, alternatively, a series about cutting-edge journalism in a world were politics are just as nasty as ever and oh, by the way, there are zombies too). Following in the style of the first, DEADLINE has a mostly-reliable first person narrator, if you can accept his cracking sanity doesn’t interfere with his ability to do his job. Shaun Mason is a journalist, and brother to Georgia Mason, who was the narrator of the first book, FEED. If you’ve read the first you’ll recognize the same basic cast of characters, though individuals have been replaced. Occupational hazard. More importantly, if you haven’t read FEED yet, why not? Go, buy FEED, devour it, be shocked, be sad, be happy not to have zombie eating your brains, and come back when you’re done. Or, if you’d rather finish this review first and then go buy (and read) both books, that’s fine too, but take a moment to watch the official FEED/DEADLINE book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUXWlXK985U&feature=youtu.be. It explains some stuff. I’ll wait.

Ok then. Ready?

Ow, does this book have sharp edges. First, there’s the horrible thing at the end of the first book which Shaun is struggling to recover from. He’s failing pretty spectacularly, in case you were wondering. Then there’s the exciting knowledge that maybe things could have been done differently, which, btw, Grant? Yeah, that was mean. Brilliant, perfect for the story, and … hard to take. That the zombie situation suddenly gets worse isn’t helping the fact that once again, Shaun and his crew spend most of their waking hours trying to avoid the people who’re trying to murder them while simultaneously trying to crack open a news story that might just reveal enough to save the world. Grant moves into a slower arc with this book, allowing her characters to face a more certain kind of villain, and to endure fewer number of sudden shocks. This doesn’t mean she’s being nice to them, or going easy on you, because the shocks are still there, and when they do come, they’re massive. She remains an author I want to hug for being brave enough to do terrible (but necessary) things in the course of writing these novels. Also, I want to poke her with a pointed stick for the terrible but necessary things that she does, because, did I mention the ow?

BLACKOUT, the third in the series, isn’t due out til next year and I’ll have to wait, but with DEADLINE Grant has proven herself (again) a storyteller worth waiting for.

It’s the wisdom of our elders, so listen up.

Over the last three weekends I’ve seen three different documentaries about famous writers. Done in dissimilar styles, I think all three were worth watching.

The first one was two weeks ago. I watched PUBLIC SPEAKING, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and put out in 2010. It’s primarily a conversation with Lebowitz, interspersed with a few clips of speeches or performances of people she found inspiring. I love that sort of context, uncovering pieces of the foundation that makes a writer’s perspective and language and education. I know I am made up of the writers I associate with, the books I have read, the stories I’ve been told over a cold beer in a hot bar right before last call. We’re all a collection of our bits. Lebowitz makes no apologies or excuses for her opinions and why should she? She’s brilliant, insightful, funny and above all appreciates brilliance in others. My kind of person. I would happily spend an evening handing Lebowitz cigarettes and refreshing her drink as long as she kept talking.

Last weekend I watched Harlan Ellison’s DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. Directed by Erik Nelson, put out in 2008, it’s a mix of Ellison’s cheerfully sharp ramblings and interviews with his friends, which includes Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman. Harlan’s got a nasty reputation but oh the man can write. Talking the documentary over with a friend, the question came up: does his writing excuse his being an ass? I think that no one is strictly one thing, and Ellison is clearly a nuanced character with a history and a sense of humor and a comfortable familiarity with his role as a “cranky old Jew” (as Gaiman keeps pointing out). Still, does his writing excuse his behavior? I think it doesn’t matter what I think of the man. I doubt very much he would care. What will endure, after he’s gone, after we’re all gone, is his writing, and his writing is brilliant.

This weekend I learned something completely new. I watched TRUMBO, a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers blacklisted in the 1950s. I admit, I didn’t really know who he was before this. Put out in 2007, it includes some footage of Trumbo himself, some interviews with the children of his friends, but also the most beautiful readings of his personal letters. Trumbo was fabulously prolific, writing novels, screenplays, and thousands of these letters, which have since been archived. Famous actors (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland) lend their voices to Trumbo’s 2 am missives to friends and family, musings on his political and economic situation, and even a couple of snarky letters to the phone company over the price of their intercom systems. There’s another about masturbation, but you’ve got to hear that for yourself.

In all three cases we’ve got smart, sharp, witty, individuals, unafraid to be themselves, who’ve had their lives strongly affected by that bravery. I think this, more than anything else, makes a writer unforgettable.

Be bold, young writers. Learn from your elders (and maybe even from me). Be who you want to be. Be kind, be thoughtful, but be bold. Write stories that speak about something you think is important. Bring to life characters that live their lives, deeply, fiercely. Frankly, don’t be boring, don’t be dull, don’t be afraid. What good is that going to do you? Fear keeps us in dead-end jobs, bad relationships, makes us stay friends with people we outgrew twenty-years ago just because there’s safety in numbers. Be like Fran, and respect art, respect genius, respect real individuals. Be like Harlan, and be unafraid to be brilliant, and to demand that the people around you are also living up to their potential. Be like Dalton, and stand up for your beliefs.

And above all, keep writing.