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This White Girl’s Books

Ever since I divested myself of 90 percent of my books, I’ve been very selective about which ones I actually own. Typically these days I take them out of the library. The books that are sent to me for a gig go to Housing Works after I’m finished writing about them. But since finishing Hilton Als’ White Girls, I’ve been wanting to possess it. That is because I want it to possess me. I need to be able to hold it and write in it and embrace it as a magic talisman. What Als does in that book is treat other books, other subjects, other people as magic talismans. He weaves in and out of narrative and criticism and fiction and memoir and poetry and history to reach the heart of big ideas, and he does so with smoky, plummy eyes and smoky, plummy cardigans and smoky, plummy prose. He’s gay and far away in life (if not location) but I find myself in love with him the way I am with all souls that tender and brave-hearted. (They are rare, so rare.) He writes the way scientist-artists should, but rarely do. Edmund White does, and I like to own his books, as well. Ditto for Sherwood Anderson and Eve Babitz and Grace Paley and Marge Piercy and James Baldwin and Louisa May and Toni Morrison and E.B. White and James Joyce and Alice Walker and Pauline Kael and Leo Tolstoy and Grace Paley and Ellen Gilchrist and Adrienne Rich and, of course, Madeline L’Engle and M.F.K. Fisher.

Sometimes when I am stuck I pull their books down from my shelves and copy out passages to channel their grace and diligence and brilliance in some small way. Sometimes I decorate the covers of their books as well. Winesburg, Ohio is featured prominently in my office with a wide stripe of glitter I applied one night when I was especially inspired.

Of course I understand how complicated the concept of “owning” is, especially when it comes to the work of a black author. But the fact remains that paying for a writer’s words is the most direct way I can honor them in our unhappily capitalistic society. (G-d knows I’m grateful when someone buys mine.) And I need to own White Girls because this fall I am seriously rolling up my sleeves to recommence my own book project. I view a sacred item like Als’ work as a key to the gate I have trouble entering without permission. I have trouble entering it even with permission.

I will be grateful to join in the conversation, regardless of where my words fall. I suppose I already am grateful, in some not-small way. But I would like to soar and strut and sway and spoon and shake, just like one of Als’ ladies.  And for that I need his book, festooned with purple velvet and and purple feathers and purple pen, presiding over me from a special spot on my shelves that are so obviously altars.

No Candle Can Replace It

I’m really milking every last bit of summer out of this month. Today I had to read the wonderful book Tracks for a gig so I planted myself behind Red Hook Fairway and read the afternoon away on a bench overlooking the NY Harbor. As the sun dropped lower, more and more locals and Fairway workers came out to watch. I couldn’t stop grinning. When hanging out on the West Coast years ago, I’d been so touched that people would casually congregate on streets and in parks to watch the sunset. I’d never imagined we hardbitten New Yorkers would do the same (which goes to show you how much time I spend on the West Side Highway, I suppose). It all felt even grander since I’d spent the day with a loner in her Aussie desert, widenening into a wordlessness that she painted with the same voluptuous palette.

On the way home, I felt that sour apple feeling: happy to be nestled in a poncho and a long skirt, sorry the layers were rapidly growing essential. It reminded me of when I started back East on my road trip around the country. (My sweet auto Sadie was but a lass back then.) The first night the sun dropped in my rearview mirror rather than my windshield, I wept bitter tears. From then on, I understood manifest destiny not just as a race toward gold but as a race toward the glory of the sun itself. I felt that same grief tonight as the day exploded in the back of my now-geriatric car—and so early, too. Oh, oh, oh. A real lump in the throat. Anyway, apples and fire: that’ll be this fall.

The Players (‘The Drop,’ ‘Life of Crime’)

It takes a keen sense of the absurd to successfully adapt an Elmore Leonard novel to screen. Quentin Tarantino has one, and “Jackie Brown,” his adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch, may be his most best film to date. Steven Soderbergh has one (ever seen his “Schizopolis?”), and his eponymous adaptation of Leonard’s novel Out of Sight may be his best film, as well. Now, in “Life of Crime,” director Dan Schechter applies his own sense of the absurd to Leonard’s prequel to Rum Punch, and the result is a match made in heaven – if heaven were a micro-noir in which people tried to pull off half-baked scams in between stumbling into the wrong person’s bed.

At the center of this small-scale maelstrom is Jennifer Aniston, and it’s been a while since the former sitcom actress earned her keep this well. Deadpan and frostily blond, she plays the beleaguered Mickey Dawson who, in between ducking the drunken rages of her corrupt real-estate developer husband, Frank (Tim Robbins), is sleeping with her friend’s weasley husband (Will Forte). It’s gotten to the point that, when kidnappers Ordell (Yasiin Bey/Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes) stow her with their neo-Nazi pal Richard (Mark Boone Jr.) while awaiting a million-dollar ransom from Frank, she doesn’t seem that much more beleaguered – even after Frank, already planning on ditching Mickey for his morally and sexually flexible mistress (Minnie Mouse-voiced Isla Fisher), calls the con men’s bluff. For a long stretch, everyone just chain-smokes unfiltered cigarettes while languidly considering how to outsmart each other. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy