while you can stand there, you could move on this moment

(30 september 2006)

ie. reading u2

achtung baby has always been my favorite album and i didn’t ever really understand why. it’s not an unconditional affection. i would argue it hasn’t held up quite as well as the much-maligned pop, which- though it’s a far less solid album- has such an avant garde sound that it could be released tomorrow and floor everyone. am also not a fan of the album version of “who’s gonna ride your wild horses.” the temple bar remix was better. but narratively speaking, achtung baby is without flaw. and we know how i love to speak narratively.

as a writer, i have to “read” everything- music, novels, poems, etc. and i know we’re not supposed to read anything but biography as biography, but- and this could be why i’m a biographer- i think it all is. so while i can think of achtung baby as not necessarily being bono’s journey, i can’t see it as just a random collection of great songs. as with a book, there’s a cohesive plot. however unintentional or haphazard, there is a story.

as though it were sweet valley high, i can no longer read u2’s oeuvre as anything but a continual narrative. because it so obviously is a continual narrative. the continental american tour of the joshua tree and rattle & hum leaves the protagonist dazed and exhillarated, stumbling about the berlin subway system in the opener of achtung baby. he’s done with the past and he’s frantic for something new. he screws it up and it takes him thirty-four songs to recover. you could love “mysterious ways” without ever having that context. but, to me, u2 is an important band because of that context.

reading the complete u2- ie. playing their albums in a chronological cycle- my favorite chapter comes between pop and all that you can’t leave behind. when the page is turned from the defeated, exhausted plea of “wake up dead man,” where the protagonist is literally on his knees begging for the second coming, to the total euphoria of “beautiful day.” obviously to get to the beautiful day, you have to plod through a whole hell of crap. lyrically, u2 spent all of the 90s doing this and i’d never before realized how that pulled together to make a central point.

in the grim little trip of achtung baby, there’s infatuation, adultery, manipulation, desperation, treachery, forgiveness, euphoria, resignation, love, hope, and a phone call from hell. it’s about taking a risk and getting burned and wounding everyone around you. it’s no accident that the protagonist continues reassuring himself with the line “it’s alright.” the ticking bomb in “love is blindness” leaves him paralyzed, numbed- by images, the past, the future- in the hypnotic zooropa. for nine tracks, he is “faraway, so close!” yet he cannot let go. he wanders away and doesn’t even have the heart to sing the last song himself. instead he hands it over to johnny cash and winds up in the discotheque of pop, the glitzy tangle of conversational tidbits born from a month-long bender in the south of france.

the narrative cohesiveness between these albums has fascinated me ever since all that you can’t leave behind was released. all the critics said u2 were “getting back to their sound.” what resonated with me was that their protagonist, after falling and crawling and pleading and running and wandering, had finally dragged himself to the ledge and made the jump. the jump that is laid out in “zoo station” when he says he’s ready for what’s next. when he repeats that he’s ready for the push.

and we believe him and we think achtung baby is that jump but it isn’t. listen to “mysterious ways” and you hear the line while you can stand there, you could move on this moment, follow this feeling. he wasn’t ready for the push in track 1 and he stayed put through track 9. achtung baby and the two albums after are all the scary shit that happens when you don’t jump, when you hold back, when you run away, when you try to throw your arms around the world. it’s only with the final plea of “wake up dead man” that he at long last takes the leap (i swear he’s gliding through the air in the last 40 seconds). and it’s only in “beautiful day” that he realizes the leap wasn’t so scary after all. that after the flood, all the colors came out.

i do not want this

(20 november 2007)

i have this little thing for alexandre dumas. little isn’t quite the right word. enormous literary crush is probably more appropriate.

but i do not want this.

i’m supposed to be having a torrid, raging love affair with mr. shelby foote. we’re fighting the “wawah.” have been since april 2006. having learned nothing from the johnny rebs, i said i’d be through in a couple weeks and the years have dragged on and on and on and we aren’t even to perryville yet. mcclellan’s still sitting on his ass and hundreds more bazillions of men have to die before shelby and i are rid of each other. and that’s only volume 1.

this seemed kind of awesome in the beginning. what with the “rebellion” and the “rebels” and the “war of aggression,” it was all very star wars and there were all these people with fancy names toting sabers, taking hills and commanding cannon-bearing boats. kind of hot. but now, not so much. war’s fine and all, but, really, it lacks glamour. glamour and velvet. and a girl really needs glamour and velvet from time to time.

you know who has glamour and velvet ALL THE TIME? yep. that good old boy dumas. but i can’t be having enormous literary crushes nor dalliances with dumas. shelby foote holds my keeping for volumes 1-3.

but still…

shelby’s dead so he’s not producing much these days, which is only to be expected. most authors cease writing after they die. most authors are mortal. but then most authors are not dumas.

as if it weren’t enough, as if it weren’t plenty that i have this enormous literary crush, dumas couldn’t be content with that. no, he had to go and write another book. from the grave. never mind the fact that he’s been dead for centuries, he had to go and have a long-lost manuscript (because, i ask you, what on earth is sexier than a long-lost manuscript?!) suddenly unearth itself as if by magic. obviously, specifically to torture me.

as was to be expected, it was an enormous manuscript that was subsequently published in an enormous hardback book. and that’s kind of a dealbreaker.

i do not want this.

there are so many reasons why this is not feasible, why this absolutely will not work. why we are doomed- dumas and i and his big-ass book. chief among them the many reading-related injuries i would sustain attempting to balance a 750-page hardback while standing amidst a crowded, careening train.

i do not want this.

but that hasn’t stopped me from visiting it (and we shall have to call it “it” for now because the name is so enrapturing i swoon at the bare mention) in various bookstores across our fine town, just to caress its spine and flutter its pages, teasingly savoring the aura of the anticipated awesomeness therein (because it’s dumas- it will be awesome). it didn’t prevent me from dragging multiple friends over to genuflect before barnes & noble’s dumas section.

nor did it keep me from reading the black tulip and the three musketeers as a distraction, which, in turn, intensified my lust and sent me scouring reviews so that i stumbled across this sentence: “it’s full of melodrama and coincidence, shamelessly studded with every possible romantic cliché and period flourish.” because melodrama and coincidence are one thing, but oh to be studded with romantic cliché. throw in some glamour and velvet and be still my heart.

but i do not want this.

i can live, i must live without meeting the last cavalier: being the adventures of count sainte-hermine in the age of napoleon, though the title make me weak in the knees. i can content myself with shelby. i can wait it out. the interminable 12-17 months before the count sainte-hermine deigns to make his appearance in paperback. that’s plenty of time in which to fight a wawah. i can do this. i will do this.

i do not want this book.

but, by God, isn’t it the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen?

desperate characters

(19 march 2009)

every spring/summer, i become mildly obsessed with historical romances. something about the rising temperatures just sends me running to the pile of petticoat paperbacks.

but i think it imperative we establish a definition.

first and foremost, this is not chick lit.

chick lit involves a young woman living in new york on a salary of approximately $15,000 per year, working as a junior something-or-other at (a) a publishing house or (b) an advertising agency alongside an unrealistically attractive (i) boss, (ii) co-worker or (iii) client whom she initially finds repulsive, but with whom she will eventually fall in love and have mad, passionate sex and a wedding after her (1) burdensome financial debt, (2) past history with her own and/or a sibling’s eating disorder, (3) disastrously ended affair with a richer, older man or (4) success in a theatrical adaptation of a jane austen novel make him fall in love with her. that is chick lit.

we’re talking historical fiction. by which i also do not mean harlequin romance, but rather the mighty gone with the wind and vanity fair, the epically sexy forever amber, and their less literary sisters from contemporary writers like karleen koen, et al.

like any type of literature, historical fiction has its conventions. the story will require no less than 500 pages. sex will take place in an unplowed field at least once. ribbons, fans, and carriages will abound. there will be dancing and there will be wigs.

but then that just sounds like chick lit in full make-up and fancy dress. and this is not chick lit.

the difference is a matter of character. in chick lit, the protagonists are a product of our times. they are whiny, cloying messes with drinking problems, dysfunctional relationships and credit card debt. i know these people. we don’t hang out.

historical fiction is altogether different. the heroines are peasants or country girls or irish or orphaned. naïve sprites or cunning bitches (it depends) who somehow wind up at the center of everything, be that versailles, restoration london, or the crumbling old south.

unlike bridget jones– who can screw up every interview and still get a job in tv– there is no room for error here. these women have to fight for what they get, have to claw their way through the intricacies of court, through the overthrow of governments, through southern manners and sherman’s army, to survive.

these are girls with real problems. and yes, it’s ridiculous. yes, it’s overblown. yes, there are sex scenes that should probably be read aloud in high school english classes to educate kids on things not to say while having sex and how not to write but, ultimately, this is not about sex or writing. it’s about characters.

there is something more honest here, in these stories of women who have to work to get to where they are. of women who actually want to wind up somewhere different from where they began. i say this as a woman who is often restless and wants to go somewhere. who would like to believe that marriage is more than a means to an end and that there is more to life than weddings and husbands, which is where chick lit usually bids us adieu.

historical fiction is peopled with mistresses, wives and mothers who are characterized not by the men they are with but what they are doing themselves. they are far from helpless. they are often on the run.

it is a genre characterized by a swiftness that belies the fact its members are usually over a thousand pages long.

ambition is seldom a motivation in chick lit. bridget left her job because she slept with her boss. becky bloomwood deals with her problems only after the fact that she has the debt of a developing nation has been exposed to the whole wide world. in chick lit, women wait. they shop. they keep diaries. they are content to bide their time.

in historical fiction, our girl will claw the face of anyone who stands in her way. becky sharpe would’ve. amber st. clare did. scarlett o’hara shot him dead.

and i think that is why i return to these books again and again, silly as they may oftimes seem. because, beyond the heaving bosoms and hiked petticoats, there is extraordinary substance here. hunger and violence, dirt and blood.

these are not the delicate, helpless girls chick lit would have us believe we should be. they are fierce. they are tough. they are women.


(28 march 2007)

as the cliché goes, you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover. i know this isn’t strictly a literary moral. it has deeper meanings. it’s trying to say that we aren’t supposed to judge our fellow humanity for things like wearing caftans and carrying amulets. we should get to know them and understand why they wear caftans and carry amulets and then we can judge them at our leisure.

but to take the cliché literally, what the hell are we supposed to judge a book by if not its cover?

recently, i’ve been dabbling in novels. not heavily and not with any intent of defecting to fiction, but just poking my nose here or there as a flippant distraction as i biographically wind my way through the many mistresses of george iv. and i’ve come to notice that i always judge a novel by its cover.

in biography- because biography is most often about a single character- the cover is a fairly straightforward thing. it involves a picture of the biographical subject. since there are inordinately more biographies of beautiful people, this picture is usually quite lovely. if it’s a woman, she’s in soft-focus and fluffy-haired and possibly accompanied by a small dog. if a man, he’s stern, and in a becoming power pose and tight pants.

the plot of a biography is captured not so much in the cover as in the title, which is often a breathless variation on this theme: my lady scandalous: the many scandalous lives of the scandalous mary robinson: the secret, the sex slave, the scandals! or, if a man: the scandalous sex prince: the many scandalous lives of the scandalous king george iv: the secret marriage & the scandalous seductions! that’s biography.

but what about fiction? its titles err of the side of brevity and the allures of its covers need to be immediately accessible. we do not wander into the fiction aisle and grab the first plain jane penguin edition that catches our eye. nay! we want cool colors! provocative pictures! gold stickers! or maybe this is just me and my acute aesthetic attraction to all things bright.

wives & daughters entered my life because it was hot pink. it was written by elizabeth gaskell and that had a teeny tiny something to do with my forking over the $7.98, but mostly i coveted the hot pink. it would be a welcome burst of life alongside the lineup of dark and dreary austen maroons. a 678-page fragment of a novel, wives & daughters is one of the best things i’ve read this year. and i read it only because it looked like it’d been dunked in a bucket of flamingo dream.

equally superficial attractions drew me to bel canto. it first caught my eye years ago, but i nabbed it at the white elephant for two reasons- 1) it cost 50 cents, and 2) it’s cover boasted that it had won the orange prize. like most fiction, bel canto concluded in a manner perfectly calculated to exceedingly frustrate me, but i enjoyed it nonetheless. it’s a lyrical little novel about a south american dinner party taken hostage by terrorists- and i picked it up solely because it was cheap and had won a prize named after a fruit.

the grim reality is that we can never read all the books we want to read. thus, we must pick and choose. i’m sure i’m missing a whole heap of glories simply because an art director somewhere out there has a fondness for beige and his books are winning boring normal awards named for people rather than produce. but i’m okay with that. we can’t read all the books we should read, so why not read the 50 cent oranges instead?

sweet 16

(9 june 2006)

long long ago in graduate school, we used to watch the first half of titanic– pre-berg. though we always had every intention of tackling the second part, it inevitably fell by the wayside and when we went to watch it again, we would return to part 1. because, really, part 1 is all you need.

it’s bridget jones on a boat. it’s anne and gilbert in the atlantic. like twilight, it makes us feel 16 again.

watching titanic with croftie the other day, just the introductory music was enough to bring a nostalgic tear to our eyes. we recalled sitting in backseats on long vacation rides, sniffling to james horner’s plaintive notes and wiping our eyes on flannel shirtsleeves. we remembered thinking my life is so tragic– though we couldn’t recall why and we’re pretty sure it wasn’t.

at the time, way back in the winter of 1997, i was wrought with grief that princess diana didn’t live to see titanic. as though had she lived three months more, jack and rose’s timeless tale might have pulled her from a wayward course and assuaged the pains of mental illness.

there’s something about being 16. stupid things seem so big and the big stuff seems so easily resolved by stupidity.

the most stupidly fantastic element of titanic, that which most endears it to 16 year old girls, is the ridiculously absurd plot. jack and rose knew each other for under a week. yes, he saved her life and that would tend to bring one pretty close to a person pretty quick, but not that close.

in rose’s shoes, we would have complained that jack called us “rose” too much. we would have rather died than hock up spit in front of him. and we most certainly would have been a little more frightened when he pulled us into that medieval looking gym, stared deep into our eyes and emphatically declared: “i KNOW you, rose. and YOU won’t be happy living like THAT.” unlike us, rose was naked within hours.

but these realities are nothing when you’re 16. and james cameron was eerily aware of that. which is why we will love him forever for making titanic, part 1. we don’t know how he did it. the mournful music that tugs at our girlish hearts. the beautiful clothes for which we would at least consider life-long enslavement to evil billy zane.

not to mention the shots that capture every single glorious nuance of the wonder that was leonardo dicaprio’s cuteness in 1997.

leo chewing on a cigarette during the poker sequence; leo rocking a tux during dinner; leo telling cora she’s his “favorite girl”; leo dancing in the jauntily unbuttoned white shirt; and our absolute favorite, leo blowing the strand of hair out of his eyes during the portrait session.

years later, it almost hurts to look. and yet, still, we have to rewind.

and somehow james cameron knew all of this. he knew what we girls wanted and needed: a movie about a ridiculously good-looking couple who fall ridiculously in love in a ridiculously short period of time, have a series of ridiculously dramatic adventures set to ridiculously mournful music and meet a ridiculously predictable end to the crescendo of a ridiculously saccharine ballad by a ridiculously skinny diva.

yes, we are ridiculous. and he knows us so well it’s scary.

as usual, croftie says it best: “watching this movie, i’m really surprised james cameron isn’t a 16 year old girl.”


(13 july 2007)

lady bird johnson died the other day. and i’m quite sure most of america’s response was: she was still alive??? and it’s hard to imagine that she really was. she and LBJ seem so long ago. so far away from when we were even born.

first ladies are important, people. i’ve had this argument time and again when some fool has gone off on a “what did jackie ever do?” tangent. i refuse to fold.

it has to be quite possibly the hardest thing in the world to be “the wife of…” of anyone- let alone a president. clearly, the entire status of a first lady derives from being “the wife of…” but there’s more to it than that. i’m pretty sure it’s a freakishly tough job.

let’s imagine being married to LBJ. a man most known for two things: 1) being incapable of cleaning up JFK’s mess in vietnam, and 2) showing his apendectomy scar to a roomful of reporters. privately, he was a bit of a douche. an aggressive politico, a brilliant legislator, an unfaithful husband, and an extremely insecure, proud man whose primary negotiating tactic was to bring someone into the bathroom and ask them incriminating questions while they were pissing. classy.

and let’s imagine being the followup act to jackie kennedy. fun times there.

so lady bird had a bit of a rough ride, as they probably all do. and yet, despite the rather demeaning nickname, she was tough stuff. she had her own money. she owned her own radio station. she was the main proponent of the highway beautification act and she won the congressional medal of honor. bravo.

yet, there she was the other day, passing into history with little more than a 15 second obit on CNN. which is both sobering and terribly inadequate.

i wrote lady bird johnson once. after jackie’s death, in that summer of 1994 when i was manically, unconsciously gathering information for the something i was going to do ten years down the road. liz carpenter, her press secretary of a bazillion years, wrote back. an ivory sheet of paper curiously scented of lilacs and that smell that paper gets when it sits out in the sun. it answered all my questions with only the occasional smudge of typewriter ink.

i like to think that the pair of them, little old ladies in their eighties by then, sat out in their lawn chairs amidst a field of wildflowers answering correspondence all day long under the texas sun. leaving the pages atop the buds waiting for the ink to dry.

oh jack kennedy, you cad you

(18 february 2010)

so let’s talk about “lot #1174: ‘Love, Jack’ – Senator John F. Kennedy’s Complete Correspondence with his Swedish Lover, Gunilla von Post.”

(no, i did not make that up. and to quickly answer some FAQs: yes, that is the actual entire subtitle. and yes, the words “swedish lover” were used. can’t you practically hear the little old ladies who lunch tittering in the back row?)

so… “lot #1174: ‘Love, Jack’ – Senator John F. Kennedy’s Complete Correspondence with his Swedish Lover, Gunilla von Post.” several things.

firstly, i should mention the auctioning of “Senator John F. Kennedy’s Complete Correspondence with his Swedish Lover” is being conducted by LEGENDARY AUCTIONS. so in case there was any doubt re: the historical significance here, people, beware, wait for it- it is LEGENDARY.

nextly, the copywriters for the aforementioned LEGENDARY AUCTIONS? freaking genius. seriously. amazing. for reals.

oh, but where to begin?

if you were beginning at the beginning, you would begin HERE. but don’t. you have me. i will spare you that.

so imagine, if you will, that we have somehow wandered into the highly specific realm of the LEGENDARY AUCTIONS auctions/history/presidential autographs/catalog/lot detail/lot #1174:” ‘Love, Jack’ – Senator John F. Kennedy’s Complete Correspondence with his Swedish Lover, Gunilla von Post” webpage with no prior knowledge of our 35th president. fear not! LEGENDARY AUCTIONS is there to inform us that our 35th president was beloved for his “sparkle of hope,” “not-so-rosy marriage,” and “‘ask not’ imperative.”

but this is irrelevant, because we already know all of this. according to LEGENDARY AUCTIONS, we already know everything there is to know about jfk. according to LEGENDARY AUCTIONS, “there is one stone left unturned.”

yep. you guessed it. ohmygod, letters to his swedish lover! (nevermind that this stone was, in fact, turned over repeatedly way back in 1997.) letters that allegedly reveal a whole new side of jfk, “a tender side, heartfelt and sincere, hopelessly romantic, naïve even, while his bright star was still on the rise and before universal fame came to dim and pollute, turning him callous and insatiable in his lust for conquests.”

i’m going to pause briefly here and let you digest. because that was some pretty rich stuff and i’m assuming everyone could use a moment to reflect on the beautiful bob ross-style word picture our friends at LEGENDARY AUCTIONS have just painted. dim, polluted, callous, lustful jfk. as conquistador. i imagine he is wearing boots. and tassels.

there is much much more- including transcripts of the letters themselves and an interactive timeline- but it all pales in comparison to the glutinous description of jfk and his swedish lover’s “one-week ‘brief, shining moment’ of smitten bliss,” which can only be quoted in full:

It all started in August 1953, just weeks before the 35-year-old Senator Kennedy’s wedding to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. Vacationing on the French Riviera, he made the acquaintance of Gunilla von Post, a 21-year-old blonde siren with aristocratic roots, and he fell in love with her. They had eyes only for each other as they dined, danced and later kissed—fairy-tale-style—with the stars shimmering on the Mediterranean Sea. As far as von Post knew, she’d enjoyed a magical evening with a fun-loving American prince and would never see his tousled hair and jaunty smile again. But this Jack came calling … and writing. He pursued her despite the daily demands of public service and newlywed nesting, and even despite a near-death experience on the operating table. No obstacle was too great to bar the soon-to-be King Arthur from courting his beguiling Lady of the Lake.

and i leave you with one question:

who the heck wrote this?

(a) an old, old man.
(b) an old, old woman.
(c) a high schooler with a tenuous grasp of arthurian legend.