Saturday, January 5, 2013
12 Days of Book Lists, #8
I haven't checked, but a small cup of Dunn Bros' Coffee says that The Socialite Who Killed a Nazi with Her Bare Hands and 143 Other Fascinating People Who Died This Past Year makes room for Robert Hughes, the great art critic who died in 2012, just shy of the paperback release of his book Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. Now the funny thing about this, the second collection of obituaries published and selected by The New York Times, is that it bills itself as "pithier, quirkier," and, for all intents and purposes, "less fact-based" than the original. I'm kidding, but it really does say "pithy," and it comes "in a new impulse format," in case you can't decide, I guess, whether to read the book, one notification of death at a time, or eat all 144 at once and feel immeasurably worse about yourself, less than a week after having made that, in hindsight, impractical, last minute New Year's resolution. The funny thing about Rome is... Hey! The guy just died! Show a little respect!
What Hughes' in-depth analysis of a portrait of a city lacks in humor in the guise of our own culture's vast fear of intimacy, however, it most surely makes up for with pictures! Not just of famous art and architecture, but the kind that poets and Abstract Expressionists are always allegedly "working on"; the kind that direct the reader's soul much like an eye over their canvas to convey a sense of what it's like to breathe in and breathe out a place. And while I've no doubt any place would work (I, for one, am currently at work on a treatment of a poem to be turned into a much longer poem, and then eventually made into a film based, in part, on something else about What Cheer, IA; there's a lot more to it than a goofy name, folks...), it doesn't hurt that Hughes picked Rome, The Eternal City, which Hughes first visited in 1959 at the eternally eternal-feeling age of 21.
Now if I were to write a book about my personal experience of traveling Rome back in 2006, its subtitle would probably be something like: "Calling Home for Beer Money," or "A Young Man Learns to Apologize, in Italian." That said, I'm no Rob Hughes, and anyway, this visual account is both that of the city's unique history and paramount place in it, as well as Hughes' own, so much so that the word "personal" itself starts to feel, not like a misnomer, but a mellifluous trading card passed between history and the various and sundry identities that shield their foreheads from its sun or, more specifically, march underneath its imperial, Italian palm trees. The experience of reading Rome is akin to being guided by an intern on the first day of the job, whose interest and enthusiasm is anything but rote, or perhaps more like a fancy cocktail: the hard stuff mixed with a dash of the unnecessary (how's that for quick and easy?).
The other day, a customer came in asking for a book that was, or rather, would be--assuming said customer wasn't just testing my knowledge or willingness to bullshit about books she'd read--both smart and accessible; a word I've taken to define as meaning of or related to the experiences of a privileged few and/or member of one's social group. For instance, I find contemporary fiction about still not coming close to understanding economics on a global scale "accessible," and in fact wish I could find more of it. Like one of those Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan "Super Saver" 2-Pack DVDs you see at Target--excuse me, I see at Target--these words, "smart and accessible," find each other once a week, at least, on NPR and without fail each time Billy Collins releases a new book of "smart and accessible" poetry. And lest I don't make a joke about not assuming everyone here knows Billy Collins, he's a poet, and he's white, and he's male, obviously, and, for your information, his poems mean a lot to a lot of different, smart people who are open to things!
I guess Jess Walter's books are also smart and accessible, and if you smell a hint of reservation on my breath it's just due to the fact that I happen to think so much more of him than... that. There's no more sense in calling a writer with such an obvious eye for structure and authentic ear for humor "smart," then there is sense in aiming to convince a three-year-old that ice-skating on marshmallows or wearing pants for earmuffs is, in fact, absurd. Trust me. Before you raise y our voice three octaves and start proclaiming everything "silly": they get it, and so should we. Such "criticism" is superfluous, on top of being lazy, like a marshmallow stuffed between a Hershey's Bar, or rather like a jar of peanut butter and jelly mixed together for you so you can avoid the hassle of having to, I'm not sure, keep track of your peanut butter, I guess. And in regard to Walter's never previously disputed, until now, accessibility: it's not like the guy is holding a machete dressed like Santa in his author photo. What do you want from him? A written invitation to either grab lunch or read Beautiful Ruins, you choose, signed Jess Walter?
Another way for a corpse to describe a book like Beautiful Ruins, and Jess Walter's work in general, which I've become addicted to since reading and falling hard for The Financial Lives of the Poets, might be "quick and easy," which, come to think of it, might also serve as a means of describing sex one has to pay for. Both novels are "quick," in the sense that you can't leave them hanging, and "easy," insofar as neither one is about economics, but like all writing that--no matter what you call it--makes you want to mail it to your dad in Oregon or slap it in the hands of the person sitting near you on the bus and then apologize for being so rough, it leaves you with the perduring sense that what has been experienced and however briefly joyed over has also been taken for granted. It is to Walter's credit that at the end of each alternating section of the book, which takes place, by the way, in 1960's Italy during the shooting of the unintentional disaster film, Cleopatra, and present day Hollywood, I was slightly and nonsensically disappointed to have leave one set of characters and scenarios for the other. Every time! I mean that's like not being able to decide which side of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich you like more! Ha! Oh, now I get it.