Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Dud Avocado

July 1, 2013

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.”

Leave a Comment