Book Review: ‘It Chooses You’ by Miranda July

At first I didn’t like Miranda July. She seemed too precious. Her first book of short stories, contrived quirkiness. Like watching Zooey Deschanel shop for leg warmers at Goodwill. But I didn’t like Miranda July in that way that meant I’d be peeking out from behind the curtains to watch her walk down the street. I didn’t like her in a way I understood to mean that I didn’t like her right now, but that wasn’t necessarily my final verdict.

Then I loved Miranda July. It was her movie “Me You and Everyone We Know,” which she wrote and starred in. It was different. Nice. A little uncomfortable. Mostly different, with clever characters whose motivations I didn’t understand, made better for the not understanding. There was minutia, and I’m really into minutia lately. It was funny, but not obviously funny. It was an hour and a half I didn’t regret at all. And now. And now.

Miranda July tipped me over with It Chooses You, the memoir slash journalistic exercise she wrote while she was supposed to be doing something else, namely the screenplay for another movie. It’s a familiar moment she describes, and the reason why my boyfriend and I — both in the middle of other creative projects — first started a basement rock band, then started a web comic (although neither lasted long).

“The funny thing about my procrastination was that I was almost done with the screenplay. I was like that person who had fought dragons and lost limbs and crawled through swamps and now, finally, the castle was visible. I could see tiny children waving flags on the balcony; all I had to do was walk across a field to get to them. But all of a sudden I was very, very sleepy. And the children couldn’t believe their eyes as I folded down to my knees and fell to the ground face-first with my eyes open.”

July starts contacting people who are selling things in the Penny Saver: a suitcase, a leather jacket, cats, a blowdryer. She doesn’t want their stuff, she wants to meet them and talk about stuff. She takes along a photographer, Brigitte Sire, who has her work included in this book and July’s assistant Alfred “… to protect us from rape.” She trades about $50 for a session with these people and asks them about their lives and when they were the happiest. She meets a mid-transition transsexual (selling a leather coat) and a teenager selling bullfrog tadpoles and at a house where a woman is selling a blowdryer, the woman’s daughter sings for them “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus.

And somewhere in Los Angeles, July meets Joe, an old man who has spent years writing dirty poems for his wife. Lots of “tits-and-twats” stuff. He inspires a direction shift in July’s script and then role in her movie “The Future.”

I’m not sure where a person in the book business shelves this. At our local bookstore it was with films/movies/TV. But I’d give it more of a memoir, memoir-y, memoir-ish label. She has a very favorite-blogger voice, funny and a collector of stories, circumstances and non-event events. Just kind of honest sounding. Maybe I’d even stick this book somewhere near Bird by Bird, the quintessential “How to Write Good” guide by Anne Lamott. Especially when it comes to the short personal bursts, writing “The Future” or doing anything creative, actually. She talks about her style when it comes to creating films, being grateful that she is a part of it, but:

“I was desperately trying to remind myself that there was no one way to make a good movie; I could actually write anything or cast anyone. I could cast ghosts or shadows, or a pineapple or the shadow of a pineapple.”

Just pages later she has left a copy of her script untouched. She’s trying to become unfamiliar with her main characters. She imagined it curing like ham, the longer she left it. She also tries to trick herself. She’s a snoopy housekeeper who has stumbled upon this packet of words:

“‘What have we here,’ I said to myself, peeking at the first page and then slyly glancing over my shoulder.”

How many times, how many times.

This review was originally posted on December 1, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls

When Jeannette Walls’ memoir opens, she has left her Park Avenue home and is en route to a party when she sees her mother dumpster diving. She’s not surprised. Still, it’s a buzz kill and she skips the soiree. Later she will meet her mother for lunch. Ask her if she needs anything.

Her mother’s response: Electrolysis.

The Glass Castle is Walls’ story, told in episodic bursts, of growing up under the guardianship of eccentrics. Her father, Rex Walls, is a smart guy, creative, whose big ideas are trumped by booze. Her mother, Rose Mary, is a self-described adventure addict. She’s an artist and prone to depression and can’t help loving that Rex Walls. She’s licensed to teach, but can’t commit to the classroom. The family, including Jeannette, her old sister Lori, and younger brother Brian, spend the early years on the lam. Busting out of small desert towns in the cover of night. Doing the “Rex Walls skeedattle” which means bringing along just one favorite keepsake and sometimes sleeping in the car.

The kids are still elementary school aged when try to count how many places they have lived and guesstimate 12 after trying to figure out what it means to “live” somewhere. Does it have to include a house? Do they have to be there a certain number of days?

Money is scarcer than running water. Food is pilfered from garbage cans in the school bathroom. Roofs have holes. Roaches and other animal life are not dissuaded from sharing their living space. When Jeannette rolls out of the moving car or burns herself to the point of needing skin grafts, the events are treated about as lightly as when they toss their cat out of the car to lighten their load as nomads.

And then there is Rex, in a moment of sweetness, taking each kid one by one to look at the sky and pick out a star to keep as their own. Merry Christmas. And there is Rose Mary, bringing home stacks of library books and self-teaching the kids to a degree that when they enter public schools they are way ahead of their peers. Rex loses another job.

Eventually at the end of their rope, the family heads to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia where they first live with a surly alcoholic grandmother who fondles Brian and an uncle who tries to fondle Jeannette (In both situations, her parents shrug off the incidents as no harm-no foul-life lessons).

As Jeannette gets older and her family’s lifestyle comes into focus, she takes charge. She fashions her own set of braces, knowing that they can’t afford orthodontia. She gets a job. She finds an after school oasis. Things don’t necessarily change at Chez Walls. But she does come to understand that it doesn’t have to be like this forever.

These stories — and there are many — are more outrageous than Orphan Annie trying to outrun those hoodwinkers. Walls’ memoir is told in this straight-forward no frills, journalistic style that clearly states the facts but offers no commentary, blame, or judgement. You see Rex Walls removing road stones from her forehead, winning back the favor of the daughter who spent hours alongside the road wondering if her family even knew she fell out of the car. It’s sometimes physically uncomfortable to read. It’s good, though, in that gawker way of watching a shit show when you know the shit show turns out okay in the end. An obvious and not obvious comparison would be Mary Karr, women with mucky upbringings. But Karr is a writer-writer, while Walls is more of a storyteller with a super interesting story to tell.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Man in the Rockefeller Suit’ by Mark Seal

Before the advent of Facebook stalking, there was a precocious teen named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter who lit out of a small German town and made for the United States in the guise of an exchange student. He gave his name an American makeover, and studied Thurston Howell III’s upper-class accent. He coaxed an unassuming Wisconsinite into a quickie green card marriage, then oozed his way into the Rolodex of the rich widows of San Marino, California.

Journalist Mark Seal has written an account of the man’s ascent through society — helped along by eventually adopting the name Clark Rockefeller — in a true crime account The Man in the Rockefeller Suit that traces three decades, a handful of aliases, and eventual kidnapping and unrelated murder charges. Seal travels to Rockefeller’s former haunts and interviews about 200 one-time neighbors and friends, a group that is divided between chatting freely about the brilliant sociopath and those who are still angry about falling for his con. Seal also uses statements made in court by Rockefeller’s ex-wife, a smart woman who footed the family’s financials for nearly ten years without suspecting anything was amiss.

The story starts near the end when Rockefeller — now going by Chip Smith — kidnaps his young daughter, Snooks, during one of his three days a year of visitation. He knocks out the social worker tasked with making sure Snooks isn’t kidnapped. Then he dupes a friend into driving the duo to the airport and they jet off for a new life, less assuming than the previous. Then the story doubles back to the roots of young Gerhartsreiter, a wily kid with big dreams.

The book is divided into two sections. The first covers Rockefeller’s early years in the United States, working his way across the country and faking a career in the movie biz. He settles down for awhile in California and earns puppy-dog like acceptance in social circles. Along the way he has cultivated a depth of knowledge in exactly the kinds of things rich people like to talk about. His dress and mannerisms suggest a pure bred and at this point his name suggests links to English royalty. The first half ends with him leaving town in a truck that belonged to acquaintances who have gone missing.

In the second half, he has reinvented himself again as a film producer trying on a stint on Wall Street. He starts with the churches attended by society folk and then weasels his way into parties and job titles and eventually a wife with a pretty sweet earning potential.

The entire story is a wonder — enough so that the Lifetime Movie Network took on their own version of the tale that played a year ago. The first half is pretty repetitious, reiterating that people were drawn to the con man, especially women, and that he was smarter than smart. Things really ramp up once he heads out east and takes on the Rockefeller name. The bullshit is bolder. The eccentricities are more eccentric. But the questions loom larger and Seal leaves plenty of them unanswered: How does this man cultivate a collection of fraudulent art pieces that are good enough to fool true art aficionados? How were these elaborate lies, which were seemingly researched and plotted and layered to avoid detection, concocted? And once it was revealed that her husband was not who he said, why didn’t his wife do anything with the information beyond getting custody and spiriting the tot off to London?

Also: Seal does this curious thing of suddenly putting himself and his reporting into the story, which comes across a little rinky dink. He would be better as an invisible reporter relaying the deets.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ by John Berendt

In one of the greatest instances of luck to ever rain on a writer with a bionic eye for detail and a canine sense for sniffing out bedazzled characters in absurd situations, journalist John Berendt just happened to be living in and jotting notes about Savannah, Georgia, in 1981 when one of the city’s largest looming residents shot his hot-head assistant to death.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Berendt’s Travel Channel-True Crime hybrid, a collection of quirky Savannahian character features that is interrupted in favor of an intriguing murder-or-self defense mystery.

Berendt was a New Yorker, fascinated by the culture of Savannah, Georgia, when he set up dual citizenship between the cities. The writer for Esquireseemingly had the good sense to carry a notebook in his pocket and say yes to every invitation. He also, seemingly, is one of those people who always falls in the path of the right fiery drag queen or piano-playing traveling party.

His story starts with an introduction to the character who will drive the tale. John Williams is a Faberge fan, an antiques dealer living like an aristocrat in the historic Mercer House. He’s a controversial character involved with the city’s restoration projects. He also throws a yearly Christmas party, an event that has residents clamoring for an invite. Williams has taken in a young, barely-legal hustler Danny Hansford, described by a woman he spontaneously screwed as a “walking streak of sex.” The 20-year-old serves as Williams’ assistant, a job that seems to include the occasional bump and grind. But the kid is often hopped up on this or that and occasionally goes bull-in-china-shop loco on Williams’ expensive collection.

One night Williams shoots the kid, describing it as self defense. But enough of the facts are murky enough to land Williams a murder charge.

In the interim, Berendt meets neighbor Joe Odom. This former lawyer is a walking-talking fun factory. His door is always open to revelers and he is unfazed by waking up in a bed with two post-coital strangers. He pogos checks and changes residences, squatting here and there and lifting electricity from a neighbor. He opens nightclubs and opens different nightclubs. And when he is called into court for writing bad checks, he takes time out to council one of the plaintiffs.

It is Odom who seems keenly aware that Berendt is going to turn this story into a book, even before the murders. He’s got dibs on playing himself in the movie and occasionally does something akin to breaking the fourth wall to discuss his role in the final draft.

There is also a drag queen named Chablis, who likes to stir the shit. She likes straight white boys and adopts Berendt as her personal chauffeur. In a story where Berendt plays an almost silent observer, it is only Chablis who draws him out onto the page when she damn-near ruins his reputation at a cotillion. There is also a voodoo practitioner who is using a little graveyard dirt and chanting to try to help Williams through the trial.

Even without the murder, Berendt would have had a decent story. He has a great eye for detail and inflection and for story-worthy moments. You can actually hear the distinct drawls of his characters. This could have just been a very detailed sketch of a city that he describes as untouched by external forces. It is a great example of Truman Capote-style literary non-fiction, maybe the best I’ve read. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you keep a pen on your person and your eyes wide open.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’ by David Lipsky

As I was reading Infinite Jest, I was simultaneously reading Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a straight up five-day dialogue between the author David Lipsky and DFW, taken from tapes made while D Lips was interviewing DF-Dubs for a piece in Rolling Stone that was eventually killed.

What a treat, this chance to eavesdrop on these two dudes as they kick it at DF-Dubs’ pad, at airports, diners, long car rides, and a book signing at The Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. It is smart, it is funny, it is silly, and at times uncomfortable. And there is a part in the afterword where anyone with a duct will shed real-live tears and mourn the loss even harder.

The thing I keep returning to after reading this is this: David Foster Wallace is so … normal. Here he has just published this massive piece of fiction that continues to give people brain spasms in their pleasure centers, and in his first moments with Lipsky he’s lamenting the fact that it hasn’t gotten him laid on the book tour. He expresses envy at Lipsky’s rental car, which hardly sounds like a sexy piece of machinery. He is a man repeating the same refrain to ticket agents and wait staff: When asked if they are together, DFW will respond “Yes, but not on a date.” He is a guy tucked away for years pounding out this Gen X trophy from start to finish. He is a guy in need of a Styrofoam cup that he can dribble chaw into.

He is a guy who can totally geek out over the movie “True Romance” or the works of David Lynch, and at the same time deliver a pretty valid reason for why Alanis Morissette is attractive.

I was left with four thoughts when I finished:

A) I’d love to see what would Lipsky would have done with all of this material. How he would have crafted that into a feature about this rising star literary hot shot. (He says he kind of did this with the DFW obit that ran in Rolling Stone). There are definite moments where you can just see where the piece might take bloom. If it was my story, I’d open at a part where one of DFW’s students asks:

“Done being famous yet?”

B) It would be super cool to see a staged reading of this book. Two men (or two women) on chairs, facing an audience and having this conversation as the backdrop changes.

C) I wonder if DFW did in fact go on to read Lipsky’s novel The Art Fair, (I know I’m gonna) which he says he is going to do and then send him a note. “I’m gonna be very curious to see how — to see what it’s like being inside your head,” DFW tells him.

D) These two Davids seem to have enough in common, get along well enough, to remain in each other’s orbit, yet they never met up ever again. It must be a strange dichotomy, spending five days with a stranger, for both the interviewer and the interviewee, and then to just walk away from it. Also: It must suck very badly to spend five days with a stranger who a) is recording everything you say; b) must record everything the other stranger says.

There is, admittedly, a cute factor to reading this book, which is really adorable in the same way that it is adorable to watch men play shirts versus skins on a playground basketball court. But with their brains.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on January 25, 2011.

Review: ‘The Impostor’s Daughter’ by Laurie Sandell

When Laurie Sandell, if that is her real last name, was growing up, her father would have the mail stopped every time he went out of town. If, by some twist, Laurie did get her hands on the delivery, she would find envelopes addressed to all sorts of people she had never heard of.

The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell, a chronicler of celebrity stories and editor at Glamour, is a graphic memoir recounting a childhood spent with a mysterious father who has larger-than-life stories of honors, awards, medals, and elbow rubbing. Sandell, his favorite of his three daughters, is always trying to please him, and likes to leave little funny drawings for him to find. As she gets older, and they disconnect a bit from their original clique, she starts to question the truth in the fantastic stories he has told her. Does he work for the CIA? Who is this guy? And why in the hell did he open multiple credit cards in her name, and completely demolish her credit score before she’s ever even pursed her own plastic?

She begins investigating her father, with plans to write an article for a magazine about his life and lies. At first he is totally game. He spends hours with her talking about killing people and almost being killed and jail time and the biggie bigs he’s called friends. She records these sessions, and then starts fact checking. No, he didn’t graduate from that university. No, he never worked there. Looks like he borrowed a shitton of money from a family friend, never paid it back and ruined the chance for future dinner parties. And he is wracking up some serious debt. Her mother, meanwhile, ignores all of this. Continues to give him, as she says, the benefit of doubt.

As a journalist, I’m not sure why Sadell went the illustrated memoir route. She can obviously write, she’s a professional writer. Her drawings are more from the spare and realistic vein, and they are fine. She doesn’t take advantage of the panel space. No extra details. No hidden jokes. No foreshadowing or clues to the time period the story is set in. It’s a bit of a waste. Especially in the case of this story: Dude, her dad is a total fraud. And as she investigates his claims, he appeals to her emotionally with reminders of family loyalty and vague suicide threats. This is compelling stuff that could have been an epic, if not award-winning, word book. It’s a total page flipper, even for its faults.

The side stories, too, seem to strip away some of the skin from the meat of all of this. Sandell inserts her relationship with Ben, a guy she meets online with whom she develops a long-distance relationship. It’s a lot of mixed emotions, on again off again, and I believe it is meant to illustrate the point that: Look. My dad fucked me up so big time, that I don’t even know what I want with this nice and normal dude from California. She’s also building up her tolerance for Ambien and mixing it with wine. And then there are these celebrity interviews that land her across the table from the fluffy haired and sunglassed sect. She’s clearly enamored with her job among the rich and famous, which she explains by noting the way her father’s larger-than-life stories have made her crave larger-than-life, oft-photographed super people. Unfortunately, paired with a drawing of all the celebs she has interviewed, it seems unprofessional and name dropp-y. (Ashley Judd, for instance, is one of the supporting characters in the story).

There is just so much potential here with the base story, that was all whittled away because of some bad decision making about delivery. I wish she had a do over.

This review was originally published at Minnesota Reads on November 22, 2010.

Review: ‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers

Over the course of the 300-plus pages of Dave Eggers’ journalistic narrative Zeitoun, the leading lad of one of my favorite self-indulgent, albeit delightful, memoirs became more than the guy who was almost on “The Real World: San Francisco.” Mind blown. Imagine having this ability to write, a mix of ambition plus passion, and an established name as a check to float while changing the entire world.

Whoa, Dave Eggers. Talk about using your powers for good.

Zeitoun is an account of the effects of Hurricane Katrina from the voices of the Zeitoun family: Abdulrahman and Kathy. The former, a native of Syria, the latter a Muslim convert he met in Louisiana and married. He is a successful contractor; She mans the phones and does the books. As the infamous hurricane is bearing down on their city, Kathy takes the kids and heads to Baton Rouge. Abdulrahman stays behind to watch the house and their rental properties. And when the levees break, first he uses a triage system to save their most-necessary possessions. Then he travels New Orleans by aluminum canoe plucking the elderly from second-floor windows and feeding the dogs that were abandoned when the owners fled.

In his travels he observes rowdy looters and finds a few friends who also stuck around through the storm. He finds an old woman, her dress billowing in the water, who is floating near the ceiling of her house, clinging to a bookcase. He starts to feel pretty good about being in this place and helping these people. While making his daily phone call to Kathy at one of his rental properties, some officials bust in on the house and arrest Abdulrahman and his three friends. They are accused of being terrorists and of stealing, even though they are in a home he owns. They are strip-searched and thrown into first a makeshift prison at the Greyhound station, then a maximum security prison. Abdulrahman isn’t given a phone call or any way to let Kathy know what has happened. No lawyers. No treatment for illness or injury, and no respect for his religion that doesn’t allow for pork.

This super real story that happened half a country away reads like a science fiction true crime nightmare of epic government incompetence. Not to mention it is an incredible feat of writing.

This is exactly what made me dig Susan Orlean in the early 2000s-to present day and Joan Didion more recently. I like, and envy, a writer who can become embedded enough to tell the subject’s story including the big details, personality ticks, and the color of the walls. The billowing dress, for instance. The smell of dead animals. The water filling the living room and Abdulrahman emptying the family fish tank into it.

And Eggers paints the main character as this mix of 100 percent loyal and hardworking, but also a stubborn man in a way that is heroic for the people he helped, but frustrating for his family — who just wanted him with them. Eggers also doubles back to give a voice to the people involved with arresting Zeitoun and his friends — which I didn’t expect, but makes everything before it even more well done.

I’m glossing over the fact that this is a stunning book that is impossible to talk about without getting completely frothed. And I’d imagine some people didn’t dare open it for fear of self-induced rage fueled brain explosions. But that just shows Eggers’ awesomeness. Instead of using his powers for cute turns of phrase and kitchy plots, he dropped a camera into the mud and gave a very moving account of something that most of us just saw on TV. Damn he’s good.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on November 10, 2010.