by Meghan Daum, May 28, 2010 2:12 PM
I hate to end the week on such a depressing note, but since I can't seem to get my mind off this topic, I'm afraid I have no choice but to talk about Sex and the City 2. I went to see it yesterday morning in San Francisco. The reasons for this were A) it was raining, and B) my friend Alison had come up to the Bay Area to join me for the last leg of my book tour. We spent a fun evening yucking it up over dinner at the hotel bar (just like the SATC girls, except we only had two drinks each and our clothes were from Chico's and Old Navy) and the next day, since our flight back to L.A. wasn't until the afternoon, we decided to hit a 10am showing. We'd gone to the first one together and, before that, had spent many hours watching the television show together, so it seemed only right to continue the tradition.
Boy, was that six hours of my life I'll never get back. (Oh, wait... it's only two and a half hours, you say? Nonsense!) The reviews have been so uniformly eviscerating that it's nearly impossible to add anything new to the chorus of mockery and truly mind-blowing shock at just how bad a film can be. "Your watch will tell you that a shade less than two and a half hours have elapsed," A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, "but you may be shocked at just how much older you feel when the whole thing is over." Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post called it "an enervated, crass and gruesomely caricatured trip to nowhere — seems conceived primarily to find new and more cynical ways to abuse the loyalty of its audience."
Less diplomatically, Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, "The only thing memorable about Sex and the City 2 is the number two part, which describes it totally, if you get my drift."
My favorite observation so far comes from Lindy West of Seattle's alternative weekly paper The Stranger:
SATC2 takes everything that I hold dear as a woman and as a human — working hard, contributing to society, not being an entitled c*** like it's my job — and rapes it to death with a stiletto that costs more than my car. It is 146 minutes long, which means that I entered the theater in the bloom of youth and emerged with a family of field mice living in my long, white mustache. This is an entirely inappropriate length for what is essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.
I'd love to make a big, sweeping, overarching point here. I'd love to acknowledge all these quotes and then offer my own pithy yet totally original remarks as to just what made the film so unbearable and, moreover, what this particular brand of unbearability says about the current state of society. But I don't think I can. Some movies are just bad and that's all there is to say.
Like many others who are now picking their jaws off the floor at lines like "Lawrence of My Labia" (which, I'm sorry to admit, is almost clever compared to useless chestnuts like "We're not in Kansas anymore"), I was a fan of the television series. Not a hardcore fan but a B-plus-level fan. That's to say, I didn't become overly upset when I missed an episode, but I did make a point of gathering with friends to watch the last one. I never aspired to dress (or act or talk) like Carrie but there was something about some of her struggles — the tension of independence and commitment, the tug-of-war between an idealized version of city life versus the reality of life (not that her "reality" was ever that real) and the vagaries of maintaining a freelance writing career — that I related to just a little bit. Sure, the trimmings were fairy tale-like and so glittery as to be almost tacky (often, more than almost), but some of the girls' core issues had similarities to my own. Moreover, the show was often extremely well written. Not just by series creator Michael Patrick King but by a stable of smart, talented, funny female writers who seemed interested in cutting through the kitschy surface and getting to issues that were both real and too often unspoken. No surprise, none of these writers are in evidence here, either in the content or on the credits.
There wasn't much of that in the first Sex and the City movie and, needless to say, to call the sequel kitsch would be to demean to whole concept of kitsch. And for a movie featuring an epic gay wedding in which Liza Minnelli officiates, that's saying a lot.
And yet, once again, nothing.
Thanks, all, for indulging me this week. It's been
by Meghan Daum, May 27, 2010 12:03 PM
An article in today's New York Times came with the headline "At Book Expo, Anxiety Amid the Chatter." Predictably, it reported on the major presenters at the annual book industry convention, Book Expo America, and, even more predictably, conveyed various forms of bellyaching about the future of print media. As a newspaper columnist, this worry is an almost daily refrain. Nearly every time I do a public event someone in the audience asks me a question about "the death of print" -usually something like "how much longer will the L.A. Times be in business?" (as if I, a non-staff, contract writer who doesn't even have an office in the building knows the answer.) My standard answer (which I also happen to believe) is that we're in a transitional time, that the business model for print media just needs time to adjust itself so it can turn a profit in an electronic media age, that people need time to realize that news aggregating is not the same as news reporting, that eventually people will realize that reliable information is a commodity worth paying for.
The thing is, I don't know when this will happen. Moreover, I'm about as far from an "early adopter" of technology as you can get. I don't have a Kindle, a Sony Reader, or a Nook.
I have no interest in the Ipad (in fact, I only got an Ipod a few years ago.) I've had a smartphone for less than a year — and there are still many parts of it that I cannot use. In other words, I'm not the person to ask about this stuff. I still like to hold a book in my hands. I like to pick it off the bookstore shelf and feel its weight and dimensions and run my fingers along the spine.
I like to tuck in my bag when I travel and see it poking out like a piece of candy that I look forward to eating later. But apparently not everyone feels that way.
People love their e-readers (sorry, that just sounds so much like the Scientology e-meter I can't help but laugh.)
They love their Ipads and their Kindles and their Nooks. If they could get their reading material wirelessly transmitted to the surface of their contact lenses they'd apparently do so in a heartbeat.
And, you know what? That's actually good. In fact, it's more than good. It's necessary.
It's easy for Luddites like me to smirk at technology (and, for the record: I am hereby proclaiming cinema lobbies highly dangerous places because of the number of people who are checking their BlackBerries and Iphones while exiting the movie and literally walking smack into each other.) But, as an author, I'd be crazy if I pooh-poohed anything that facilitated the reading process. A staggering number of books are published each year (half a million in the U.S. along according to some counts.) Most of them are read by few people other than the author's mother or perhaps some dissertation committee (and, let's face it, these committees usually just look at the table of contents.) The way I see it, there's a tremendous about of hubris inherent in being an author. To ask someone to sit down for several hours to read what you've written is to make an enormous request. So why should we turn our noses up at anything that makes that process easier?
Why? Because writers love to complain. I'm no exception. In fact, complaining is one of my major hobbies. But if there's one thing I'm not complaining about it's anything, anything that encourages people to read my book. Sure, I don't make as much money when someone buys an electronic version of my book rather than a physical book. That takes us back to the ways in which the business model needs to catch up with the times. But just as there's a huge amount of truth to that adage "the only thing worse than a book tour is no book tour" it's also true that the only thing worse than the death of print would be the death of reading.
And it doesn't look like that's happening anytime soon. People love their gadgets too much to let that
by Meghan Daum, May 26, 2010 1:30 PM
One of the things you become aware of when you're on book tour (in addition to the fact that you cannot buy a sandwich at any airport for less than $12) are the other authors who are touring at the same time. It can be frustrating, though, if you happen to want to meet one of these authors, since they tend to be one stop behind or in front of you in the line-up of cities. In other words, the fantasy of running into one of your heroes on the road and then talking the night away with them at the hotel bar (which would inevitably lead to them becoming your best friend and/or lover) very rarely comes to fruition. That's why it's best to put your hero worship aside and basically focus on the task at hand: catching your flights on time and trying to make your audiences feel it was worth it to schlep to whatever bookstore to listen to you yammer for 40 minutes.
The other day, though, my hero worship flared up in a big way. While milling around in a bookstore I noticed that one of my great childhood idols, Melissa Anderson, has a book out. Yes, I'm talking about that Melissa Anderson: Mary Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie!
She was identified on the show as Melissa Sue Anderson (not to be confused with Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura) and, as you may recall, her character eventually went blind and then married the handsome and also-blind (though he was so adept at everything you'd never know it) Adam Kendall.
Now, as I've written about and discussed throughout my career probably ad nauseum, I was and am a huge Little House fan. As a child, I was so obsessed with both the books and the television show that I made my mother sew me a sun bonnet and also put an extra box spring under my bed along with a step ladder so I could "climb up" to bed as though it were a loft like Mary and Laura's. Despite my hopelessly bourgeois, suburban existence, I was fascinated by the idea of living on a farm, especially a farm on the stark, windblown, and treeless prairie. In fact, I was so fixated on this that when I was 29 I randomly (well, it appeared random to most people) moved from New York City to Nebraska so I could live on the bonafide high plains. I thought I'd probably only stay for six months but I lasted for years, during which time I lived in an actual little house on the actual prairie. When I wasn't going out of my mind with anxiety about what the hell I'd done to my life, I was completely ecstatic and exhilarated to live there. The experience even inspired my novel, The Quality of Life Report. Better yet, though, I once traveled to the Ingalls family's real prairie hometown of DeSmet, South Dakota (sorry, it wasn't Walnut Grove) and reported on the annual Little House pageant for This American Life. There I learned that, in real life, Mary did not marry Adam but, rather, lived with Ma and Pa until Ma died, after which she lived with her sister, Grace. She never married.
Now that I'm going around talking about my new book, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, I find myself discussing Little House on the Prairie quite a bit more than I'd anticipated. The book is about real estate lust and serial moving and when I think about the reasons some people (Example A: myself) are so enamored of moving. In that sense, it's about the concept of "pulling a geographic." This is a term that comes out of 12-step groups. It refers to the mentality wherein we think we can solve our problems by simply relocating them. It's that plague that makes us think we'll be happier, smarter, better looking, more in love, etc. if we just lived in a better house or in a better place.
A while back, it occurred to me that the original purveyor of "pulling a geographic" was the Ingalls family. As Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicled in the books, their lives were consumed with trying to make a life on a given plot of land and then moving on when things didn't work out. They went from the big woods to the prairie to Plum Creek to the shores of Silver Lake to the little town on the prairie to... (I'm sure someone can remind me). Today, this pattern might be seen as indicative of some kind of pathology. But for rural people in the 19th century, this was just how you survived in the world.
So as I prepare to move again — and, indeed, as I travel around the country talking about all these moves — I'm going to think of "pulling a geographic" in terms of the Ingalls family and not someone who necessarily needs a rehab program. Meanwhile, I would be so incredibly jazzed if I ran into Melissa Anderson. Apparently she's about two days ahead of me on the tour circuit, but maybe a locust storm will descend upon her (stuff like that always happened to her family) and she'll get
by Meghan Daum, May 25, 2010 3:49 PM
I suppose I should get down to the business of talking a little about my new book. It's called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House
and it's a memoir about real estate addiction. Not that it's an "addiction memoir." There's no hiding bottles in frozen turkey carcasses (thank you, Mary Karr, for Lit
and that unforgettable image) or unanesthetized dental surgery (thank you, James Frey, for the now-celebrated fabulism
). But it does deal with my years of obsessive house hunting and my inability to peel myself away from open houses and internet real estate listings. The centerpiece of the book involves buying a house by myself in Los Angeles in 2004, just before the housing bubble inflated itself into a distended behemoth.
For years, I'd been fixated on moving from place to place (across cities and states and the country itself) and, eventually, on shopping for a "permanent" house. After I finally made my purchase I spent about a year totally consumed with repairing the house, with finding the perfect wall sconces on Ebay, and with various do-it-not-very-well-yourself improvements such as prying up bathroom tile in the middle of the night with a butter knife.
Despite my predilections for moving every time I decide I no longer like the color of my bathrooms walls, I managed to stay in this house for six years. Admittedly, there was much changing of paint colors (originally I'd painted the living room mint green and the bedroom a bright azure; later I changed the living room to a terra cotta color and the bedroom mint green) and a rather ridiculous attempt to make my kitchen cabinets look like barn wood. But nonetheless, I have, as of this writing, made it 2,145 days without calling a moving van.
That, however, is about to change. I am moving again. More than four years ago, I met a guy. Two years ago he moved into my house (no small thing) and about seven months ago we got married. The house is 890 square feet and has no garage and very little storage space. My husband, in addition to being a serious journalist, is a competitive cyclist and owns three bicycles and untold quantities of cycling and other gear. We also have an 85-pound sheepdog who's been my companion since he was seven weeks old and who's been accompanying me on my moves for 10 years. Our household was beginning to resemble an episode of Hoarders, so we decided to sell this place and look for something bigger.
We did not, however, intend for the sale of the house to coincide with the publication of my book about the house. Though a few people have suggested — kiddingly, but not really — that the house sale was an elaborate publicity stunt to benefit the book (or, my preferred theory: that the book was merely advertising for the house), the truth is that it's just awkward timing. I would have sold the house last fall but, as it happened, my mother was terminally ill and I spent most of the end of last year with her in New York. It would also have been my preference to wait to put the house on the market until at least a few months after the book was released, but there was the not inconsequential matter of the April 30 tax credit for new home buyers. Given that this house has "first-time buyer" written all over it (often in the form of walls that have been repainted numerous times because the rookie homeowner couldn't make up her mind), I needed to take full advantage of this nifty little government incentive. And I'm glad I did, since I got a bunch of offers and the house sold in four days. This was due in large part to my Realtors' "staging" techniques (hint: we put a flower arrangement in the shower) and some glamorous and highly deceptive photos. More on the emotional fallout of that here.
But the photos and the quick sale have been the easy part. The less easy part is that now I'm in the somewhat surreal position of going around the country and talking about a book whose subject — my house — is in a state of real time flux. Audiences ask me if the plumbing, as I described in the book, still "dates back to the Coolidge Administration," and I worry about my answer because I'm afraid of jeopardizing the sale.
Radio hosts ask what I'm looking for in a new house and end up fielding calls from listeners who suggest that I could buy their houses (one woman with an Italianate mansion in rural Iowa almost succeeded).
Meanwhile, we are closing escrow (I kid you not) tomorrow. And I am on a plane to Seattle, where I will read tonight at Elliott Bay Books and wait for the inevitable "What does your dream house look like?" question.
These days, it's any rental that will take three bicycles and an 85-pound sheepdog. And a landlord who hasn't read my
by Meghan Daum, May 24, 2010 11:25 AM
Once upon a time in my life, a time that now seems both eons ago and kind of like last week (i.e., 10 years ago; somehow, 10 years always feels this way), I thought there would be nothing more gratifying than going on a book tour. When I later had the rare good fortune of finding out firsthand that this was not even remotely the case (i.e., when I actually went on one and became intimately familiar with the sight of empty folding chairs), the salient image of the whole disenchantment boiled down to the fact that I never once saw someone on a plane or in an airport reading my book. And it wasn't just my book that people weren't reading; they weren't reading anything resembling it. Based on my observations, air travelers' tastes seem to run toward paperback thrillers, celebrity memoirs, and business philosophy books of the Who Moved My Cheese?
variety. Not that I should have been surprised, of course. I was the first to admit that my novel
, a work of "literary" fiction (sorry, can't help but put that in quotes; what does the word even mean?) with satirical and occasionally downright transgressive undertones, wasn't for everyone (after all, there's a masturbating horse). But, as I traipsed through airport terminals and surveyed rows of airplane seats in which reading material was abundant yet utterly devoid of my opus, I finally internalized the idea that writers don't write just for the sake of writing. We write in order to be read. Preferably not just by one person.
As authors and publishers know all too well now, getting masses of people to read a particular book is a crapshoot of the highest order. There are the classic paths — getting reviewed in major newspapers, landing interviews on NPR, doing bookstore readings for (ideally) audiences larger than four. There are, these days, the social marketing strategies that have become standard — Facebook pages devoted to the book, Twitter accounts for the author, and, of course, increasingly elaborate websites where the author lists every tour stop and chronicles every passing thought on a blog (or, better yet, a well-established, high-traffic blog like this one).
Every once in awhile, though, you hear of a publisher or an author truly "thinking outside the box." Granted, this is a horrible expression (it belongs in quotes even more than "literary" does). I don't know about you, but just about anyone I've ever met who uses the phrase "think outside of the box" has an imagination that's about as hemmed in and permanently suffocated by the box as is humanly possible. But sometimes the phrase is the only one that applies.
Case in point: author Jennifer Belle's hiring of dozens of actresses to read her new novel (while hysterically laughing) in public places. "There is just no better feeling than seeing someone you don't know reading your book in a public place," Belle said in this New York Times story. And how right she is! In fact, it's such a great feeling it's apparently worth paying for. After her casting call resulted in 600 young women "auditioning" for the job of reading her new book, The Seven Year Bitch, on the subways, park benches, and buses of New York City, Belle selected those with the "most infectious laugh" and paid them eight dollars an hour. There's a video of the campaign here.
This is genius, but it also reminds me of a similar campaign my publisher launched for my novel, wherein "buzz agents" were hired (yes, this was the official job title and, yes, this was before the financial crisis turned such jobs into volunteer positions) to function as stealth cheerleaders. The idea was that these "agents" would go to cocktails parties or garage sales or wherever book readers could be found and spontaneously start gushing about how great my book was and how everyone should buy it immediately. It was an interesting idea, not least of all because on the few occasions when someone said to me, "Hey, I was just at this party and this woman was totally into your book," I had to wonder if it was a buzz agent and not genuine enthusiasm. On the other hand, I'm one of those people who can't take a compliment, so I tend to think that about anything nice anyone says about me. I'm pretty sure my parents were buzz agents when they went to my school plays.
Is my low self-esteem making you uncomfortable? Don't let it. This is a passing condition stemming mostly from being on book tour for my new book (more on that later), and from the fact that on a recent flight the person sitting next to me said her favorite author was Jill Zarin from The Real Housewives of New York. On the other hand, maybe Jill Zarin was paying this woman eight dollars on hour.
Or maybe the people who read my books all have private planes. Yeah, that's it. Definitely.
Okay, see you