When my pile of New Yorker back issues gets too high, first I find all the cartoons, then the “Shouts and Murmurs”  features.  If I don’t get to all those old articles, at least I have a good laugh.  Paul Rudnick is a frequent contributor to “Shouts and 9780545464260_p0_v4_s260x420Murmurs,” and before reading Rudnick’s novel – Gorgeous – I laughed at his reaction to Pope Benedict’s abdication in the February issue (“Fingers Crossed”) and his first person narrative as Gwyneth Paltrow -“named both the Most Hated Celebrity… and the World’s Most Beautiful Woman….” in the May issue.  So I knew he was brash, irreverent – downright sarcastic – and so funny.

Rudnick’s Gorgeous has a not so subtle message about the power and danger of superficiality.  After her obese mother’s untimely death, 18-year-old Becky leaves the Missouri trailer park for New York City.  Thanks to her mother’s bequest, punctuated with timely postmortem cell phone rings, Becky gets a makeover and new clothes from her mother’s former manager,  Tom Kelly, a fashion guru resembling Calvin Klein with a diabolical Dorian Gray look.  The fairy tale plot is predictable at first, but Rudnick spins a new twist on the Cinderella story.  Tom promises Becky beauty, fame, glamour, and a new life if she agrees to the wearing of his three dresses (strategically stamped with his logo), with the caveat that she must fall in love and marry within the year or the transformation, and the wardrobe, will disappear.

The first dress – red – transforms Becky into supermodel Rebecca.  She stars in the newest blockbuster movie; she meets the Prince (William before marrying Kate); she gets ready for her next dress – in bridal white.  Rudnick inserts comments on the Prince’s dead mother (Diana) – “only her death made her truly acceptable,” the Queen’s “seventy-two” corgis, and history lessons on the British empire that had me laughing:

“Years ago, centuries ago, England owned everything. America, India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, half the planet. But there were wars and uprisings and tiffs and gradually, it all went away. And now the English have nothing. They’ve even lost their shoulders, their chins, and the ability to carry a tune…all they have left are non-folding umbrellas, decent skin, and their pride…”

Although the book is categorized as young adult fiction, the profanity and level of sophistication of the characters is for adults – but not all – you need to appreciate Rudnick’s brand of humor to enjoy his jabbing at today’s shallow culture, flaunted mercilessly in unending reality shows.

“…nobody likes a whiner, especially a whiner whose most recent activities are preempting every top-rated sitcom, every major sporting event, and the president’s State of the Union address…”

Maybe, to appreciate the satire, you need to feel the same way.  I laughed through Rudnick’s clever gems, when I wasn’t quietly smirking as a fellow conspirator.  The plot mixes a modern version of Grimm’s fairytale with a Faustian bargain, and Becky’s identity crisis resolves in a happy fairy tale ending with a moral.

Just think of this as a lengthy “Shouts and Murmurs” and enjoy.

Advice for Graduates

The May, 2010 cover of The New Yorker had a graduate hanging his degree (Ph.D.) in his old room back home, with his parents looking on.  Not much has changed in two years – even for undergraduates, with the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree at 4 percent.  Graduation speeches haven’t changed much either; Richard Perez-Pena in his article for the New York Times suggests they are following a standard template, including well-worn references to:

  • Do what moves you.
  • Much in the world needs fixing.
  • Have a little humility.
  • Be willing to make mistakes.
  • You can make the world better.

Many of this year’s graduation speakers hail from the media, rather than the august halls of academic learning.  A few used humor – maybe that’s the best way to face the world.

From Adam Samberg of Saturday Night Live fame for Harvard grads…

“The following majors are apparently useless…history, literature, all things related to art, social studies, East Asian studies, pretty much anything that ends with studies, Romance languages, and, finally, folklore and mythology.  Unless, you can somehow turn them into an iPhone app…”

Coming to That

Will you still be writing – or doing anything else – when you are 101?  Dorothea Tanning could be the world’s oldest living poet, and at 101 has just published a book of poetry – Coming to That.

A slim volume of 33 poems, this book of poetry is not a quick read.  Better to savor the words, reread the lines, make them personal, and wonder about the woman who writes with a laugh for the past and an eye to the future.

The title is based on the poem that invokes the line –

“If it comes to that,” he said, ” they’ll be no preventing it.”

Only a wise old woman could turn the phrase around and slap it back to the speaker – to make sure it would come to that.”

Some poems are nostalgic, but most leave the possibilities to the reader’s imagination.  Among my favorite lines:

from A Woman Waving to the Trees

Loungers on the benches

begin to notice.

On to another,

“Well, you see all kinds…”

Most of them sit looking

down at nothing as if there

was truly nothing else to

look at, until there is

that woman waving up

to the branching boughs

of these old trees.  Raise your

heads, pal, look high,

you may see more than

you ever thought possible,

up where something might

be waving back, to tell her

she has seen the marvelous.

from For Instance:

As everyone knows

dreams come true?

But you have to

dream them first.

Related Articlefrom The New Yorker: Dorothea Tanning’s Second Book of Poems

The Quality of Life Report

Meghan Daum may be the L.A. Times equivalent of Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.  Her political columns are witty and acerbic, attacking idiosyncracies with the smile and parry of  Jon Stewart – funny with underlying truth.  Although I have sworn off memoirs, I read her latest book – looking for that humor and zing.  Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House did not disappoint.

 Daum refers to using the royalties of the novel she wrote while in Nebraska – one of her many places to live – to ultimately buy a house.  I found that novel – The Quality of Life Report.

Although fiction, the book matches some of Daum’s brave revelations about her personal life in her exaggerated memoir – you write what you know?   The character Lucinda Trout might have been having the same adventures as Meghan Daum, but I had read the nonfiction sequel, and Lucinda was (mostly) fiction.

In the novel, after a visit to Prairie City, Nebraska to cover a news story on drugs, and noting the difference in rentals – 1000 square feet for $400 a month compared to her New York 400 square foot rental for $2000 – Lucinda Trout creates a documentary project that would have her feeding reports on “the quality of life” from her on-site experiences over a year from Prairie City.

Lucinda’s New Yorker sensibilities confronted with rural life of coyotes and truck stops give Daum the opportunity to demonstrate her cynical humor as Lucinda explores her new surroundings.   Mason Clay, a combination Sam Shepard/Brad Pitt, grain elevator operator with three children from three different women, becomes the love interest – an echo of the Nebraska “ex boyfriend” Daum often references in her memoir.

While the book was funny in places, it didn’t hold the same interest for me as “Life Would Be Perfect…”  I had been fascinated with Meghan’s real adventures; when I read them as pieces of a fictionalized venture with Mason – not so much.   But I still like Daum’s style – maybe the next book will reel me back in.

The New Yorker’s List: A Year’s Reading

The New Yorker lists reviewers’ favorites from 2011 included some of my literary fiction favorites too.  You can read my reviews by clicking on the title:

Among those listed that I want to find and read in 2012:

       Started Early, Took My Dog (A private investigator looks for a woman’s natural parents.)

  • Train Dreams (The life and times of an anonymous drifter)
  • Coming to That (Poems on age)

Have you read any of them?