A One-Act Play

July 11, 2013

B: Hey, what’s that word for when you dig up a grave?

A: Grave robbery?

K: Exhume.

A: Unearth?

K: Exhume.

A: No, that’s not it.

B: ‘Uncover, reveal, disclose…’

K: E-X-H-U-M-E

B: ‘…excavate, reveal, exhume.’ Exhume—

A: Exhume! That’s it.

B: What? What’s so funny?

K: I’ve been saying exhume—

B: You have?

A: It didn’t make sense until a man said it.

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I was on vacation last week, so this is a flight in either direction and a little beach reading we’re looking at.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Having read Democracy, I thought I’d finally read the book everybody always means when they’re talking about Joan Didion. Basically it is: Half reported pieces (a murder case, Joan Baez’s school, a think tank, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury area in 1967, John Wayne, etc.) about 1960s California, a quarter personal essays, and a quarter miscellaneous pieces to conclude; each was published elsewhere (in magazines) prior to this publication in 1968. It’s actually a very good capper for this last season of Mad Men, if you wanted to do that.

It’s great writing, especially the long, long trip into Haight-Ashbury, truly somebody in control of every move made. As someone said to my rave about that story, “Isn’t her morose, depressing prose so inspiring?”

She really just knifes people. There’s no way 1960s Joan Didion could exist now. Someone would kill her. In some of them, you’re reading along and waiting for the turn, and it’s like an axe falls out of nowhere, with that SHOOM noise Bill Cosby does in Himself. She is not kidding in the introduction when she tells you writers are always selling somebody out. (Not on Kindle.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel

If Downton Abbey and The Dark Knight Rises had sex, the result would be The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I read this when I was 14, I think (there is a paperback copy at the Dolley Madison public library with some kind of elaborate drawing I did in the back, which I guess is defacement), and decided I’d hit it again on vacation.

Pimpernel doesn’t get a whole lot of play it seems now, probably because, as Keith Law notes, a highly unflattering portrayal of a Jewish character. That unfortunate part aside, it’s a true—in the classic sense—Romantic Adventure, combining a sort of moralist’s action plot (rescuing aristocrats bound for the guillotine) with an anti-antihero tone. We’re dealing with attractive, wealthy, intelligent people here, whose only flaws are some of their actions, where there are always mitigating circumstances.

It’s an exciting book. You want to see how they get out of it. Free on Kindle.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

My favorite genre basically is, the “[X] and his terrible year” comedy. But there are only a few books that really do the disaster comedy well without turning into this creeping despair ordeal. Lucky Jim is the best example of this—it’s funny without being too…dark, I guess? It’s a normal guy who’s a mess.

The Dud Avocado, a largely autobiographical book about a girl who screws up basically everything in 1950s Paris, is in the Lucky Jim league (though not as good). There are a lot of good situational comedy moments, fantastic dialogue, and good one-liners. On the former count, this keeps cracking me up:

“I have even been known to fall out of the cab by reaching and pushing against the handle at the same time (the hotel doorman did).”

Very funny, highly recommended, please don’t read the introduction because if you do there’s references to two literary characters (Daisy Miller and someone more recent) that sort of ruined the first part for me, because the second character was like haunting the proceedings. On Kindle.

Non-book recommendations

This interview with Rick Rubin is awesome:

What was the process like during those 15 days? How did you find a direction for the album?

There was so much material we could really pick which direction it was going to go. The idea of making it edgy and minimal and hard was Kanye’s. I’d say, “This song is not so good. Should I start messing with it? Can I make it better?” And he’d say, “Yes, but instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away.” We talked a lot about minimalism. My house is basically an empty white box. When he walked in, he was like, “My house is an empty white box, too!”

He Is Not a Prospect” — Bryan Curtis on Mike Cervenak, who’s played 15 seasons in the minors. And if you didn’t see Curtis’ piece on Richard Simmons, it’s really good, too.

“(So) I said, ‘You know senator,’ I said, ‘if you were to invite me hunting, I would really love to go.’ And this look of total horror passed over his face. You know, ‘Has this woman just invited herself hunting with me?’ And I thought, I’ve gone too far, and then I sort of pulled back and I said, ‘I didn’t really mean to invite myself, but I’ll tell you what, if I am lucky enough to be confirmed, I will ask Justice Scalia to take me hunting.”


In elementary school, if you read enough books in the summer, you got a painter’s cap (for…for some reason). I’m earning that b this year.

In hindsight, it’s kind of weird to give children painter’s caps for reading. I mean, why not a can of Minwax polyurethane or something useful?

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Somebody the other day mentioned to me that this is the only Waugh book people read — vs., like, Scoop or Decline and Fall — because it’s the Important Book, so the prevailing opinion about what Waugh did is off. That’s kind of the deal, I think, with Edith Wharton where everybody has to read Ethan Frome out in the bleak snowy woods of 1787 or whatever, when most of what she actually wrote was set in the contemporary and has a pretty modern flow to it, and some of it isn’t as depressing.

Anyway, I sort of drive-by said on Twitter that this is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. That caused some consternation, insofar as people actually care about something this boring. But it really is an odd book.

It all works incredibly well, but the micro tone and macro pacing are really all over the place. You shoot from: Dull WWII memoir to Oxford/1920s gay culture experience then a sojourn into alcoholism, onto a more traditional love affair plot, then jump ahead into an entire theological argument with a looming King Lear situation sort of sweeping in from left field.

Just like with Scoop where Waugh keeps it light throughout, though, there is an even keel sense of the foreboding in Brideshead that just hangs over all the proceedings. But there’s a glamor to all of it, too, where Waugh also pulls off making Sebastian and Julia Flyte, who each command basically a half of the narrator’s memoir, alluring enough to justify all this continuing.

If you’re big on this, Waugh also pops off a lot of stuff like this:

“I never see you now,” she said. “I never seem to see anyone I like. I don’t know why.”

But she spoke as though it were a matter of weeks rather than of years; as though, too, before our parting we had been firm friends. It was dead contrary to the common experience of such encounters, when time is found to have built its own defensive lines, camouflaged vulnerable points, and laid a field of mines across all but a few well-trodden paths, so that, more often than not, we can only signal to one another from either side of the tangle wire. Here she and I, who were never friends before, met on terms of long and unbroken intimacy.

Democracy by Joan Didion

This is also a weird book, but it is awesome, and you can bang it out pretty quickly. If you’re looking to read a politics novel poolside (dubious), Democracy is sexy but substantive enough to feel like a good use of your time.

The weird part here is that you have to get on Joan Didion’s level initially. She, Joan Didion, is also a character in the novel (a reporter, narrating) and you have to adjust to that at first. Basically, you have to make it through the first 20 pages then you’re golden.

The plot generally concerns the devolution of a political couple (Didion shreds the Bobby Kennedy-type liberal archetype), but it’s definitely not like some chardonnay candle book. It’s cutting, like Didion is, about Vietnam, the political apparatus, and wealthy people on the east coast, and it’s largely set in Hawaii and Hong Kong. It’s also funny.

On a technical level, Didion really is the best at establishing who somebody is in the fewest words possible. It’s basically, detail, detail, BOOM. And there’s always a setup, so when the characters actually interact, the right detail comes back into focus. It’s like the clinical, industrial, mid-century modern approach to Henry James illuminating with the candle. James is tedious; this isn’t.

Really good read. Highly recommended.


I didn’t finish a book last year, which is a pretty good summary of how it looked on the body, spirit, and mind. Now I’m kind of on a hot streak, so I’m trying to keep this going and moving onto Brideshead Revisited. Working backwards:

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I had never read any other Austen besides Pride & Prejudice, and never really planned to. Y’all, on a technical level, Persuasion is tighter, funnier, looser, more modern in its contemporaneous presentation, and its situations translate well in a modern read. Austen doesn’t quite know how to end the book, but, out of the deep sense of melancholy in the premise, she cracks off enough brilliant, realized set pieces and exchanges that it doesn’t matter. There’s a charged, but considered idea of romance that’s interesting here.

But, really, and I may expand this into a fuller post, it’s the perfect book for the hook-up era (IM SORRY FOR THAT PHRASING). The basic line: Anne Elliot’s father and surrogate mother convinced her not to marry a good guy at age 19 when she was hot and lonely. Now 27 and faded, spends the first half of the book awkwardly running into him—in the present, he’s a handsome, accomplished naval captain—all over the place, as he hits on these sisters, she blows off her family, and they all go on a road trip together. It’s a situational disaster comedy.

It’s so modern that on my run this morning, I easily assembled a modern adaptation of it—all set in Mobile and New Orleans.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

On Fancy Bill McMorris’ recommendation at Christmas, I tried to crack Decline and Fall at Christmas and it really wasn’t my flow. I’m a Lucky Jim girl. Scoop was more my style. It pulls off a light touch throughout that’s impressive, especially given the subject matter; Waugh’s also fantastic at exposing the blind spots of a narrator through dialogue. You know certain characters are playing William before he does, but without it being frustrating or obtuse. I take it Dr. Benito is a reference to Mussolini, given Waugh’s trip to Ethiopia, but a nod to Benito Cereno also works; the treatment of the fake African country has some ugly spots, but I suppose it fits within the treatment of that subject matter during that era.

Secondly, it just occurred to me that I also read Right Ho, Jeeves earlier this year, and just like the use of “fruity one on the shin” is still cracking me up, “He and Mr Salter regarded it sadly” is this book’s minor phrasing that I love.

Separately, while I have love in my heart for several fine writers at the actual Daily Beast, now having read this book, it seems awfully cute to name a website the Daily Beast.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

A perfect book with a nearly perfect ending. I read it in two pretty distant chunks (in the Outer Banks in 2011 and then a few weeks ago), so I’d like to burn through it in a more contained way. It’s the most original book I’ve ever read and it has basically everything. It is worth reading.

And, finally, check out Keith Law’s 100 book list. Nothing I’ve selected off it yet has disappointed me.