The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano
2014 (originally published 2011) • 224 pages • Ten Speed Press
Once, in college, I helped my mother clean out her garage. We waited until my father was assigned a long trip at work to don our nastiest utility clothes and get to work. We put on work gloves and dug through childhood toys I’d long forgotten, badminton sets missing their parts, a complete set of vintage soccer magazines that was also almost completely decomposed. We had to ask my mother’s neighbors if we could put our trash out with theirs, because it would otherwise overwhelm her lawn. I uncovered a box that turned out to be a shrine to my father’s childhood dog, complete with photos of my father’s family with the dog and a lock of the dog’s fur. When we were done, the garage looked wonderful—and then we put the overflow of my dad’s book collection in there so we could breathe in the house.
The point is, my parents like to hold onto things. It makes sense. My father grew up in a military family and became a military man himself, which meant that moving was a near-constant. And my mother immigrated to the United States with, from what I hear, a sundress and an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques to her new name. For them, their younger lives were characterized by the constant need to compromise on their possessions—what can survive the move to new housing? A new state? The move to France? The move back? The luxury of having a more or less permanent home where they never have to worry about that must be such a relief.
Having grown up in an environment like that, it took me a while to realize that I’m not like that and that’s okay. I do get sentimental about some objects—you will pry my Agnes Scott beer stein from my cold, dead hands, and then I will zombie-punch you in the face—but I feel emotionally and almost physically oppressed by having too many things around. To combat the oppression of accumulation, I regularly clean, recycle, and just throw out. I’ve had to become ruthless in my assessment of my material possessions.
Saturday Night Live: The Book
by Alison Castle
2015 • 500 pages • Taschen
Having worked in a bookstore, Taschen, the boutique art book publisher, is practically legendary. When I worked at the bookstore, we had a few stands to display art books out of their shrink wrap for customers. The James Bond Archives held court for several months, a gorgeous book so heavy I could hear its fall from clear across the building. I sometimes dawdled and flipped through it, deeply reverent of the paper’s very finish. Taschen books are often about art, but each volume is a work of art in and of itself—the codex itself as art.
So when I discovered that there was a Taschen outpost in New York, I immediately visited. (While Rory Eccleston, my erstwhile laptop, was being held hostage at the nearby Apple Store, I spent a lot of time there.) And it was everything I hoped. Even the paper bags they provide customers to tote their purchases home features art from one of their many art books.
Of course, Taschen books cost a pretty penny, although they do have an annual sale to clear out their warehouse. (Pro-tip: it’s actually better on their website than in the store.) While I always wanted a Taschen, I knew that my first Taschen would have to be worth it.
And then they announced they were doing a Saturday Night Live book for the show’s fortieth anniversary. I took one look at the book’s listing on the sight, starting tearing up because Stefon’s wedding means a lot to me okay?, and decided that it was going to be baby’s first Taschen. On my birthday, I retrieved my copy and carried it home. It took me weeks to open it, because I needed to be in the right space and have time to go over it. (It’s hardly commute reading, as you can imagine.) Which explains why I’m getting around to reviewing it now, in June.
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
Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press
I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.
What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.
The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.
2000 • 400 pages • Basic Books
Previously on the Literary Omnivore, I finished my review of Richard Ellman’s (widely considered) authoritative and eponymous biography of Oscar Wilde with a question—“can a biography make a sharper point”?
Joan Schenkar’s Truly Wilde is the biography that proves that they can. In illuminating the life of Oscar’s niece, Dorothy “Dolly” Wilde, the playwright and biographer asks what qualifies a subject for biography. By most mainstream standards, Dolly is not a conventional subject—she never published, she never edited, and she only occasionally deigned to translate. She’s difficult to track throughout history, vanishing from the historical record for years at a time and, when she did surface, always refusing to talk about her childhood. (She did have one story when pressed: a memory of dipping sugar cubes into her mother’s perfume and then eating them. Factual nor not, it usually got the mildly repulsed response Dolly seemed to want.) For all her comparisons (both hers and others) to her uncle and her sparkling, attention-seeking behavior (she once injected herself with a drug in the middle of an otherwise respectable dinner party quite on purpose), Dolly Wilde was a woman who avoided, by chance or by choice, the spotlight.
Or, as Schenkar puts it: “Dolly Wilde’s life offers a rare opportunity to look at what it means to live with the endowments but not the achievements of biography’s usual subjects: those obliterating ‘winners’—like Dolly’s uncle Oscar—whose notorious stories have almost erased interesting histories like Dolly’s own” (7).
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.
by Roxane Gay
2014 • 336 pages • Harper Perennial
In Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, you will find three versions of the eponymous essay. The final product opens the collection and two of its preceding drafts close it. They’re different enough that it doesn’t feel repetitive, but bookending the entire collection with them makes perfect sense. It shows how rocky the terrain of our current culture is, humanizes the writing process (which can feel sterilized in the seemingly permanent spaces of either the Internet or print), and drives home Gay’s point: that she “would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” (318). For Gay (and, I would hope, for us all) being a feminist is an active process.
To be a feminist in the digital age is to be easily able to find both your community and those who would stand against you—even (and perhaps especially) those who also consider themselves feminists but are not committed to the cause as to a version of it that benefits them. There’s always that moment when a new acquaintance brings up Caitlin Moran and I tense up, wondering if they, too, subscribe to the same kind of cissexist feminism that doesn’t believe in intersectionality. To quote Flavia Dzodan, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” I have, in my long time on the Internet, sought out, found, stumbled across, and otherwise just looked up to find myself in complex feminist (and if not explicitly feminist, feminist-minded) spaces that have much more to teach me than I have to teach them. Reading Bad Feminist, I was reminded of nothing more than that online feminist universe that I haunt, to the point that discovering where versions of the collected essays had been previously published in the acknowledgements read quite a bit like my Feedly.
by Samira Kawash
2013 • 416 pages • Faber & Faber
“Do you have an opaque bag?” I asked the Best Buy employee. “It’s a gift for my dad and I don’t want him to see what it is,” I completely lied, and she handed one over. I immediately stowed my true prize inside—an economy pack of Juicy Fruit gum.
I hid it in my nightstand drawer, alongside my copies of Princess Princess. I had two pieces a day, the better to draw it out. It satisfied both my sweet tooth and my constant, anxious fidget, so I could stop picking at my nail beds or sucking on my teeth and gums. I chewed and chewed until I was left with a flavorless, stiff putty. It was a marvelous week, until I came home from school to find my mother ominously still at the threshold of my bedroom.
It was as if Madame had caught me with a stash of hash. It was immediately confiscated, of course, and a sharp eye was kept on my gum consumption. Later, she began to soften, but I still spent many trips to the grocery store reading ingredients off of gum wrappers to her to make sure they weren’t going to give us cancer. Candy always came into my childhood home with suspicion. (Whereas chocolate was only ever suspect for being milk or, worse, white. Blurgh.)
Samira Kawash opens Candy with a similar story: at a playdate between her son and a friend, another parent implied that she was poisoning her child with a handful of jelly beans. The idea that a little candy—a little kid’s fistful of jelly beans!—could ruin her son’s life sat with Kawash, until she became the Candy Professor and started looking into both the history of candy in America and the history of Americans’ relationship with candy.