Summer Reading 2016

woman reading

Geez, Louise, this blog needs some resuscitating. Again.

I have been very, very busy with my summer reading, so some things have gone neglected. The stacks of books have grown so tall, in fact, that I have my eyes on winning the top prize in the adult summer reading program at my public library. All the lines are filled on a folded paper form, and I am quite pleased with myself. If I were 9 years old, I would be digging in a treasure box for a Lisa Frank pencil set this very minute.

I have since read the fine print, and there is no grand prize.

So what they are telling me here is that prizes are awarded by a drawing, not by an impressive volume of reading. What they are also telling me, then, is that some slacker who reads only one dog-eared copy of 50 Shades of Grey this summer while on a girls’ weekend to the Gulf of Mexico while sipping mojitos can easily sweep the prize box, while I sit here next to a stack of books and no prize.

It’s OK. I know who the real winner is. The winner is this girl. In return, I would like to award a few of my own prizes from my summer reading list thus far:

  • Quickest readThe Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son Talk About Life, Love, and Loss by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
  • Most bizarre readGone With the Mind by Mark Leyner
  • The “I’m Now Going to Sound Smart at Dinner Parties” read—(a tie)Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works by Jay Newton-Small AND First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower
  • The “Can’t Wait for the Movie Starring Jason Bateman” readThe Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

While The Rainbow Comes and Goes deservingly earned the accolade of “quickest read,” I need to set the record straight. The speed in which I read this book (one day) had nothing at all to do with the reading level or font size or skimming. In fact, the reading level was very Cooper-like, the font size was not “large print,” and I do not skim. Skimming is beneath me. Either read or don’t read, I say.

My interest in the Vanderbilt mystique began lo some 37 years ago when I bought my first pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans through a layaway plan. I was a disciplined consumer—disciplined by the pathetic wage earnings of $1-1.50/hour, made by babysitting spoiled kids whose parents had to post-date checks for $9 during the Carter administration. The jeans came with a prohibitive price tag of $35. Having Gloria Vanderbilt’s name gold-stitched onto my 13-year-old butt was a mark of vanity and financial recklessness, yes, but it was also an announcement that I was willing to do what it takes to earn the money over several weeks so that I could slap that denim on my size 3 rear end. (I would pay even more today to be able to make that same statement with some modicum of legitimacy. But I digress.)

“The rainbow comes and goes” is a line from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” When you pair designer jeans with a fashionable top, or an early 19th-century poem, well, you really have yourself something. An excerpt:

The rainbow comes and goes,

And lovely is the rose;

The moon doth with delight

Look round her when the heavens are bare;

Waters on a starry night

Are beautiful and fair;

The sunshine is a glorious birth;

But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

The only thing more beautiful than this here poem is a pair of dark denim designer jeans, paid for on installment at Casual Corner. That pair of jeans was a testament to a tireless work ethic and an insatiable desire to fit in among the other girls in the halls of my junior high. Beautiful.

But back to Anderson Cooper and his book.

A consequence to my dogged dedication to own my first pair of designer jeans is that my loyalty to Gloria Vanderbilt runs deep. She introduced me to high fashion, after all. Today I watch Anderson Cooper with such jealousy and curiosity. He’s a Vanderbilt, for heaven’s sake, but he doesn’t act like it. I won’t go into all of the ugly and sad family history that Cooper lays out with the transparency of Waterford crystal because, frankly, you need to read for yourself. This isn’t Sparknotes. But I will tell you that Gloria Vanderbilt somehow managed to give Anderson Cooper the wherewithal to do what he was led to do. She didn’t smother him or consider his successes and failures an extension of herself. She gave him space. His living and his choices have not been part of her performance. She is fiercely independent, and she has allowed Anderson to live likewise.

And that leads me to a work of fiction that we could somehow manage to view as a nice companion piece to The Rainbow Comes and Goes. Nothing is more fun than analyzing families and parenting. NOTHING. Kevin Wilson delivers a whopping tale of a family who is at once exhausting and peculiar and just. like. us. And by “just. like. us.,” I mean, like you and your family. My family is perfectly normal in every way. The rest of you have a lot of work to do.

OK, I think they’ve gone now. My kids never read this far. So I can come clean and tell you that The Family Fang explores, in a most extreme way, every single parent-child relationship, even in my own family. I don’t care who you are. The parents are performing, and the kids (like it or not) are part of the performance. My parents did it to me, I do it to my kids, they will do it to theirs, and so on. It wasn’t until about 2/3 through this book that I made this connection. You will likely draw your own conclusions, which is what everyone should do when they read. As I tell students in composition and literature: There is no right answer.

If you are a parent or have ever been a child of parents, you perform. This whole thing is an act in some way. We are either trying to conform or trying to stand out. Either way, it’s a performance. I’m not sure, but I think we are wired this way. It ain’t pretty, but we can’t help it.

The Family Fang is one of those rare books that left me angry that it was over, that I had read through it too quickly. Wilson’s storytelling leads to a lot of rereading and reading aloud. It’s that funny. And that poignant. And then funny again. There needs to be a yield sign or pause button every few pages so that the reader doesn’t speed right through and miss the scenery. It’s fabulous.

Let’s cross our fingers and hope the movie version doesn’t screw it up.

I am not going to baby you people and go book by book on my Summer Reading List, outlining the plots and dissecting the good and the bad. Besides, as I have pointed out, I have read a lot this summer. But what I have done, good reader, is add a page to this blog—a page that lists a few book recommendations for anyone looking for some non-required reading.  Look for it under “Book Recommendations.” Think of it as my gift to you. Your money is no good here. No layaway needed.

Numbed down

TV family

I am just sitting here, amid the ashes and debris that is American politics, and I’ve decided to do a little math. Not because I am good at math or because I enjoy it, but because the numbers never lie. Just ask Donald Trump. He owns a few casinos. And he seems to like numbers. Tremendous numbers.

Stay with me for just a minute here, and let me sort through this timeline that is looping through my brain.

Thinking back nearly nine years ago, in late 2007, members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike for a number of reasons that we don’t really need to get into right now. And it is around that time that major networks scrambled to produce more “unscripted drama” so that they could do without writers for some time and hang onto a few viewers. (I am simplifying.)

And we bought into it. Because, after all, TV is still TV.

It was like saying, “Who needs someone who can cook a balanced meal around here when we have all these gummy bears and Doritos?”

I’m working largely off a rose-colored memory here, but I think I grew up on a steady diet of quality, politically relevant, scripted sitcoms. And if they weren’t demonstrably politically relevant, they exhibited comedic brilliance…and good writing. (Fill in your own ideas of what I am talking about here. Everyone has their preferences.)

Sure, there was some total crap, but by and large, my generation doesn’t have an entire genre to be ashamed of in terms of TV viewing.

Only six years ago, in 2010, the most popular shows on American TV were Big Brother, America’s Got Talent, The Bachelorette, and So You Think You Can Dance. Oh, and Jersey Shore. And because these were deemed “reality” or “unscripted,” we came to ignore the line that once divided “fiction” and “reality.” Or “not important” and “important.” And we accepted such programming for The Way Things Are.

Yes, I find reality TV sort of a turn-off—cheap and not very creative. I appreciate a good dialogue that is reflective of the social condition and demonstrates some ingenuity and a respect for the written word, and such dialogue and scripting requires writers. If there are no writers at the helm, we instead end up with a bunch of nearly divorced women throwing wine bottles at each other in the back room of an Italian restaurant, or big men driving under cloak of darkness to repo someone’s boat,or a dance instructor turning blood red over a kick-ball-change gone wrong, or a 20-year-old donated tissue specialist crying in the courtyard of a clubhouse mansion because The Bachelor is making out with a 22-year-old Jumbotron operator in the hot tub, or an overweight mother of a 2-year-old beauty contestant crying in the hallway outside the ballroom of a Holiday Inn Express because she left the top half of the mermaid costume back in Arkansas.

So what’s your point, Amy? My point is, holy moly, what have we done?

Glad you asked. I’ll tell you what we’ve done. In the years surrounding the 2007-08 writers strike, reality TV really took off. And we shrugged our shoulders and said, “Eh, whatever. I’ll watch another dance show. Another Real Housewives. Another home renovation show. Another group of strangers living together in a house/in the woods/in a convent/I don’t really care where they live.” As a result, we became conditioned to watching people yell and blame and lie and cry and lose their principles and their minds until they either stormed out of the woods, out of the gym, off the beach, out of the mansion, or away from the conference table.

As we became conditioned to “unscripted drama,” we somehow came to expect the same pace and content from our talk shows, our news programs, and whoa, Nellie! Even our presidential debates and town halls.

Consider what might have happened if the writers had not gone on a 14-week strike in 2007-08. Maybe the networks would not have resorted to throwing together a bunch of crap disguised as “programming,” and we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to feed the Reality TV Monster so much of our time and attention.

Yet here we are, facing down a monster that we ourselves have created. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, but that’s a fair assumption. (How astute of you, alert reader!) The monster that we ourselves have created is a bewildering set of circumstances that has the potential to change the course of this country’s … OK, this is getting a little didactic for a space that I prefer to keep light and lively.

All I really wanted to accomplish here is to find someone to blame for what is going on around here.

And I choose to blame the Writers Guild. Because mercy, this is definitely not my fault. [Exit, stage left, bottle in hand, unfiltered Camel between my teeth, baby crying in the background.]


“I’ve had it with Trump”; and Nancy Reagan: a funeral review

Woman watching TV (vintage)
(Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Anne Lamott tells this story of a friend who reads a magazine feature about Adolf Hitler and his troubled childhood, tosses the magazine aside, and declares, “I’ve had it with Hitler.”

I’ve had it with Trump. Not because he is like Hitler or had a troubled childhood. I don’t know that either of those is true. Or untrue. Frankly, I don’t even care. I’ve had it with Trump because he draws me to the TV screen and to my tablet, Day And Night. He consumes my prime-time, TV-viewing hours. He has moved in and occupied way too much room in that part of my brain where celebrities reside, and it’s about time I reclaim my brain space and fill it with smarter, more worthwhile residents. Like Jason Bateman.

So, Amy, why don’t you simply turn off the town hall meetings? The nightly news? The Twitter feed?

Sure, that’s easy for you to say. I’m like the little blonde girl in Poltergeist, drawn like a magnet to the flickering screen and nonsense words. The only difference is the kitchen chairs aren’t rearranging themselves, and JoBeth Williams is nowhere to be found to save me from this crazy train.

Simply put, I can’t stop listening to, watching, and following Trump. He’s like a bad drug. Not unlike this narcotic cough medicine I was prescribed last month and am now rationing in half-doses so that I can continue to enjoy these really, really restful nights for just a little while longer, despite the occasional interruption of nightmares that typically star Trump, playing “Bride Bingo” at my kitchen table or vomiting glitter glue.

I know he is bad for my psyche and—this is purely conjecture—bad for the country, but I can’t just ignore him. He won’t let me. His ubiquitous presence in my life is gradually taking over my brain. I feel like Mildred Montag under the spell of those blasted TV walls in Fahrenheit 451.

Yet there have been brief reprieves from town halls, debates, and interviews. At times, I seek them out to counter the obsession and insanity. As my friend Rebecca recently pointed out, “TV is so GOOD right now!” There really is so much to blot out Trump’s image that is burned onto the screen or to quiet his “terrifics” and “I am the most (whatever) you will ever meet” rants. I regularly remind myself that CNN is not the only station and that I can find great delight in sitcoms and singing competitions. However, the best program I have viewed in recent months—and the one true antidote to my Trump fixation—is Nancy Reagan’s funeral. (Thanks, Nancy!)

Three Fridays ago, I cut short an English 102 class because, I told students, “I have a funeral to watch.” All the 19-year-olds heard was “We’re getting out early.” I drove home, heated leftovers, and sat cross-legged on the coffee table in front of the TV for more than three hours. If there were such a thing as Funeral Reviews, as there are book reviews, movie reviews, and so forth, I would have much to say about Nancy Reagan’s funeral. And it would be largely glowing and beautiful and true. In fact, let’s give it a try, shall we?

I would be bold enough to write that a good state funeral has the capacity to remind us of what patriotism looks like and how honor and integrity still have a place in this world, and I don’t care what you have to say about Reaganomics or Nancy’s advisory role because none of it matters right now. I would observe that even presidential families aren’t perfect, but in the end, long after they have left office, we readily accept their imperfections, as if to say, “Oh, what the hell. None of us are perfect either.” I would write that Patti Davis resumed her place in the literary world with a eulogy that was more confession and poetry than it was a tribute, beautifully written and beautifully read. I would point out that Hillary is always in charge, even at a Reagan funeral, shuffling the former First Ladies around and (literally) putting Caroline Kennedy in her place. I would write that while I’ve always thought that Ron Reagan and I would have made good friends, he sort of scared me with his talk of his mother’s ghost prowling about the Reagan Presidential Library. I would observe that Nancy Reagan was just the sort of person to arrange for both Mr. T and Tom Selleck to attend her funeral, which was clearly an ’80s Who’s Who. I would question the choice in having Diane Sawyer speak, as Tom Brokaw clearly upstaged her as Journalist Friend to the First Lady. I would acknowledge that we should all have a buddy as genuine as James Baker. I would write that Michelle’s expression, at times, suggested, “Mercy, I sure hope my service is as cool as this one.”

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Absolutely, completely, blissfully, refreshingly nothing.