2005 • 368 pages • Counterpoint
Ever since I watched Jesus Camp as a teenager, church camp has kind of spooked me. And I don’t mean regular, normal church camp. (I assume regular, normal church camp is pretty chill. I would have no idea, as Madame didn’t want me growing up Catholic and ashamed of my everything, but never settled on an alternative beyond “let the poor kid sleep in.”) I mean the camps bordering on indoctrination, the “pray away the gay” camps, the ones that feel like they’re preying on children. I just can’t understand why anyone would put their child through that.
This morbid fascination is why I alighted on Julia Scheeres’ similarly titled Jesus Land, a memoir of her and her brother’s time at Escuela Caribe, a “Christian boot camp” that’s a cross between those camps and the kind of camps that kidnap kids in the middle of the night to “straighten them out.” (These are real and they are horrifying.) It’s been on the Behemoth long enough that I no longer recall who recommended it to me, just that I came across in the little Carnegie library I used to live across from in Denver long afterwards. (Man. I used to live in Denver. Wild.)
by James St. James
2003 (originally published 1999) • 288 pages • Simon & Schuster
Quoth—or paraphraseth—Snatch Game: RuPaul’s Drag Race is so mainstream… (How mainstream is it, Clare?) RuPaul’s Drag Race is so mainstream that it won’t let you watch the current season online if you don’t have a cable subscription. Wherefore, RuPaul’s Drag Race? Why does being a millennial without a television mean that I must sacrifice the pleasure of worshipping at Kim Chi’s beautifully shod feet? Why can I not contribute to the eternal engine of RuPaul?
Yes, RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul, LogoTV, and World of Wonder have become awful cuddly as of late—presumably the result of natural aging, a more welcoming society, and higher production values. (Although I still spend a lot of episodes murmuring, “Man, remember when Mac was a sponsor?”) But they weren’t always that way. Once upon a time, RuPaul and the personalities of World of Wonder were young, tough, and viciously glamorous. Case in point: James St. James,
My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
2006 • 317 pages • Alfred A. Knopf
Oh, did I ever need Julia Child this past week.
For reasons I don’t particularly want to go into, my ever-fluctuating confidence in myself was quite shaken last week, so being able to escape into My Life in France was an absolute godsend in terms of both general stress relief and relieving my anxiety. (I don’t think I’ve ever read myself out of being nauseous from nerves before, so that was a novel experience.) I’ve never been a particularly ambitious woman, which, combined with being a queer introvert who doesn’t want children, sometimes makes me feel disconnected from the usual cultural milestones my culture tells me I should be hitting to qualify as a real person. So spending my commutes reading the words of a woman who found her true, passionate calling late in life, never had children, and pursued her passion in life simply because she enjoyed it? It was heartening on a spiritual level.
While I’ve never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and have never been an active fan of Julia Child—I’m young enough that I only really know her from pop cultural osmosis and a viewing of Julie and Julia—I’ve long thought of her fondly, to the point that I can summon her voice in my ear despite not having heard her voice in years. (How odd, to put it that way, since she passed away in 2006. Memory is such a weird and wonderful thing.) Anastasia is actually the reason I hunkered down and put My Life in France on my reading list three years ago, and her recommendation was quite successful.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
2014 • 272 pages • W. W. Norton & Company
My entire life, I’ve had what I called “death scares”—existential panic attacks brought on by obsessively thinking about death. (Much like being queer, being what I believe is technically referred to as hellaciously anxious was blindingly obvious to everyone but me throughout my childhood.) I have a very specific memory of having one at the age of twelve, standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom, staring out into the dark hallway, frozen in fear by the idea that it could all end. As an adult who enjoys her life, they’ve slowed down to maybe two a year (I suspect they’re much more about “WHAT IF I’M WASTING MY LIFE?!” rather than fearing the biological process of death), more if I read too many Cracked articles about unsolved murders.
(By the by, have you ever heard of the 1920s Hinterkaifeck murders? The murderer was probably living in their attic before the murders and definitely living in their house after the murders. Look, if I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.)
When my anxiety is not in the driver’s seat, though, I have a more holistic approach towards death; after all, contemplating the ramifications of actually living forever renders me near catatonic. Death gives life meaning, to be trite (and quote Hannibal Lecter, that great humanitarian). My mother and I have had long conversations, her enthroned on the structurally compromised orange leather couch that dominates her living room and me lolling on the floor with the dog, about how it’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s a natural part of life and there’s nothing we can do about it. Fear isn’t useful when it comes to death.
Silver Screen Fiend
by Patton Oswalt
2015 • 240 pages • Scribner
I first heard of Silver Screen Fiend when I couldn’t get to my laptop fast enough to keep Hulu from autoplaying the next segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers at full blast at godawful in the morning. (Why was I watching Late Night with Seth Meyers clips at godawful in the morning? Hi, I’m Clare, I find Seth Meyers personally inspiring, nice to meet you.) And there was Patton Oswalt, promoting his new book and explaining that he should have known the film obsession of his youth was an addiction when he made his date walk back to her car alone at three or four in the morning.
I adored the memoir portions of Oswalt’s last book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In that book, he absolutely nails the frustration and lack of cultural resources endemic to American suburbia in such an immediate, identifiable way. While the experimental comedy portions of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland rarely landed for me, the vocabulary he gave me that I could apply to my own suburban childhood was massively useful.
And yet, I’ve cooled on Oswalt as of late. Continue reading
by Richard Ellmann
2013, originally published 1987 • 736 pages • Vintage
How do you evaluate a biography?
Different books do different things, but few have so specific a goal as the biography. A biography seeks to illuminate one human’s life; any adaptive readings… well, that’s what historical fiction is for. Group biographies do require a thesis (why do these stories need to be told plurally instead of singularly?) but the singular biography, especially the singular biography about an Important Literary Figure, needs no such explanation for its existence. And if the biographer doesn’t make themselves known or makes themselves intrusive (which are both two sides of the same coin), then I never really feel like a biography is a product of a specific biographer—it seems like just the facts, ma’am.
When I read nonfiction, I feel like I turn into my friend Science Princess, who is so enchanted and fascinated by our world that fiction holds little allure for her. Whatever literary flaws they possess usually get a pass, because I’m learning! After all, I’m a fan—I’m well-used to stripping narratives down for spare parts and scant representation. At least reality has a marrow for me to strip down to.
The Genius of the System
by Thomas Schatz
1996, originally published 1989 • 493 pages • Henry Holt and Company
Despite living a stone’s throw away from Atlanta (assuming that you can throw a stone with enough force to make it fly through the air for an hour) as a kiddo, my family never really cranked up the old Turner Classic Movies—or any classic Hollywood movies, really. My mother’s cinematic tastes run towards British film, my father’s cinematic tastes run towards near-future sci-fi, and all their nostalgic childhood movies are French. Which sometimes makes me wonder why I’m so fascinated with Anne Helen Petersen’s pieces on Old Hollywood when I have no context or nostalgia for them. (I’m not a Only Lovers Left Alive-esque immortal pop culture junkie, although I pretend to be sometimes.)
But I think that total unfamiliarity might actually be why it fascinates me. To me, Classic Hollywood feels like a monolith that has always been there. A lot of the world feels like that, sometimes, because I rarely interact with it, don’t have context for it, or whatever. But, as Captain Cinema often reminds me, everything was weird once. The studio system that once dominated all of American cinema no longer exists, shattered into a thousand pieces by the Red Scare, the coming of television, and creative types chafing under the seemingly oppressive regime of the major studios—a designation Thomas Schatz bestows upon Universal, MGM, Warner Brothers, and David O. Selznick’s various independent companies in his portrait of the Hollywood studio system of the early twentieth century, The Genius of the System. This obviously excludes 21st Century Fox, among others, but Schatz points out in his introduction that he had to draw the line somewhere or get bogged down in minutiae when the bigger picture is his entire point.
Girl Walks Into a Bar
by Rachel Dratch
2012 • 272 pages • Gotham
Hear ye, hear ye—my Saturday Night Live fandom has only grown more passionate over the last two years. Captain Cinema and I have at last escaped Chevy Chase on our tour of the entirety of the show, I may or may not finally satisfy my morbid curiosity about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and I am starting to feel like I’m ready to crack open my pristine copy of Live From New York to read it chapter by chapter. And so begins my descent into the various literary offerings concerning Saturday Night Live and its children.
Rachel Dratch predates my Saturday Night Live cast; I began watching in 2007 (and thus will always have warm, fuzzy feelings about Casey Wilson, so, you know, Gone Girl was fun) and began watching seriously in 2010. But even though she left the show in 2006, I was always aware of her through her most famous character, Debbie Downer, the occasional E! rerun of early aughts episodes, and being regaled with several repeat performances of “Lovers” on my college trip to Ireland. Not so much through her post-Saturday Night Live work, which is a shame, since she’s a delight.
You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me
by Nathan Rabin
2013 • 272 pages • Scribner
As I’ve had the opportunity to cultivate my current lifestyle of constant media consumption (dimmed only slightly by the enjoyable necessity of full-time work), I’ve developed certain rituals about how I consume what. (I have an anxiety disorder and I was raised by ex-Catholics. It’s be expected.) I watch films in total darkness, helped by New York’s absurdly early sunset these days. Television programs can be watched in any lighting conditions, with varying attention levels based the program. (Gotham? Appointment viewing. Late Night with Seth Meyers? Keeps me from falling asleep while I do my makeup in the morning.) Even prose, which I previously prized for its ability to be consumed anywhere, now takes center stage during my commute.
However, I’ve come to realize that prose is not prose is not prose. I’ve known for a while that I consume print prose and digital prose differently, whether or not the text in question originated as print or digital. But the context of a writer’s development is also a factor. For instance, especially in light of today’s book, there’s the AV Club versus the Dissolve. The Dissolve is an unofficial offshoot of the AV Club, sprung from both a desire to focus exclusively on film and, I deeply suspect, a desire to write personally about films in a way that the AV Club’s house style for major features discourages. If something as small (if ragingly important) about what viewpoint to write from can influence a writer, then it’s easy to see how a medium can affect them. There are plenty of writers who can capably switch writing mediums without a hitch, or even just impose their voice on any form that takes their fancy.
The Ten-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu
2008 • 448 pages • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I hate it when mediums and genres are conflated. It smacks of intellectual laziness to me to insist that cartoons are inherently for children, or, in an example more pertinent to today’s book, that comic books are synonymous with superhero comics. Percentage wise, that audience and that genre, respectively, dominate each medium, but they are not inherently better suited to that thing than any other medium. With the cultural ascendency of Marvel and (in my anecdotal experience) an increased interest in comics in general, it’s important to remember the medium’s roots—and the controversy it once engendered.
David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague starts at the dawn of comic books—which starts, naturally, with comic strips in newspapers—and follows the medium through a turbulent period in American history, when comic books were blamed for the supposed onslaught of juvenile delinquency, comic book burnings actually happened (barely a decade or two after World War II!), and comic book publishers were seen as unsavory at best and demonic at worst. And this is all long before Spider-Man took Marvel to the top in the sixties.