Lit Review(ish): WHO IS MAUD DIXON?

In which I do a rough courtroom sketch

This won’t be a full review, as I’ve written for other, similar novels like Bunny and The Girls; I’m saving that for an Actual Publication I’ve spent some months trying to battering-ram my way into. (If I succeed, you’ll know.) But I can’t not comment here on Alexandra Andrews’s Who Is Maud Dixon?

I was alerted to its imminent publication back in February and pre-ordered the e-book. I began reading shortly after it arrived but became sidetracked by other reading and, you know, work, and didn’t bring my full attention back to it until last week. At which point I finished within three days.

It follows a reclusive writer, supposedly at work on a follow-up to the debut that made her world-famous, and the young publishing-assistant-with-literary-aspirations who is drawn into her world. You expect it to maybe take an All About Eve turn, and you aren’t entirely wrong. Later, you might draw a comparison to The Shining, and you wouldn’t be far afield there either.

So here follows a survey of what I loved about this narrative:

  • It’s almost wholly female-driven—only two men figure in with any significance, and even then mostly as the means to an end—and the various relationships between the various women form the heart of the action and tension.
  • The two central women are built up to be polar opposites, and then revealed in a few crucial ways to be very much the same.
  • The inciting incident is truly both inciting and an incident—one of the best I’ve encountered recently. It first strikes you as insane, and then you’re kind of thrilled by it, as the protagonist is.
  • Said protagonist is a little unhinged. She can get carried away with visions of future glory. The Cecilia of ten years ago would have been just as intrigued by her—if memory serves, the Cecilia of ten years ago even wrote a protagonist not unlike her, albeit whose ambitions were on a smaller scale.
  • It sometimes functions almost antithetically to a typical thriller: there are certain details you register as Things to Remember, and then they never show up again. But you didn’t notice, you were too busy being caught off-guard by something else.
  • International travel! Expat communities and all!
  • Characters get swept up in one another’s potential and allure, only to reminisce later and wonder what they could ever have found attractive about those people. Universal.
  • There’s enough drinking for you to suspect it might be a story of alcoholism…but alcohol turns out to be the least of anyone’s worries.
  • You just know Andrews must have wrecked her search history Googling how certain crimes are carried out. The detail is meticulous.
  • It’s never explained how some characters got the way they are, how they justify their actions to themselves. A good reminder for aspiring writers that all that personality deconstruction often doesn’t matter, if the rest of the backstory—and the present story—can do the heavy lifting it needs to.
  • It warns you that no one is immune to the corruption of ambition. But it also celebrates ambition in its own perverse way.

I’ve said before that I love a book that calls out literary culture (or perhaps the Cult of Literature, I haven’t decided). Andrews does it well, particularly because she isn’t overly focused on it but merely considers it a stop on the way to telling the story proper. Will have you turning the pages, even on an iPad.

Image: Little, Brown & Company, 2 March 2021

Farewell, Charlie

A brief remembrance

This evening we lost someone I was definitely not prepared to say goodbye to. I mean, I knew we were going to be coming to terms with this generation of artists parting ways with us bit by bit (we already have), but I expected to have Mr. Watts around for a while yet.

To that end I thought I’d break this out again. He was an extraordinary talent. He made the Stones what they are. And, for 60 out of his 80 years here, he made it—all of it—look easy.

Heaven’s dress code just got an upgrade. Rest well, sir.

🥁

Never Write a Hasty Review or You Will Live to Regret It

In which I CANNOT let it be (naked)

Last week I read Juliet, Naked, a novel by the illustrious Nick Hornby. It’s the third novel of his I’ve read (if you don’t count State of the Union as a novel), the first two being High Fidelity and About a Boy. Given that Hornby has made a literary career out of being a Nerd For Music That Is Widely Considered Good, you would think that I would have devoured, and thoroughly relished, everything he’s committed to paper.

So the first thing I have to say is AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGHH.

*deep inhalation*

Let me make abundantly clear that I respect Hornby as a writer. I always have. His narrative voice is wonderfully funny. His sense of pacing, a difficult thing to master, appears effortless. And at the same time, I am not sure how much more I can take of his characters. Specifically, his men. Specifically, his men-children.

Also, I am in fact aware of the SUPREME irony of going on the internet to complain about a book in which people go on the internet to argue about music. Story of my life. I get it.

I’m not saying all characters need to be ‘likable’ to be worthwhile. I would just like one to be. The men, as Hornby men, are stuck in an adolescent limbo characterized by this type of pop-culture obsession. The women…are slightly better? Put another way: Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov is a double axe murderer, and I’d still keep him around. Every adult in this book I felt like throttling at some point.

For me, Hornby is so quintessentially ‘90s that I instinctively place all his novels there, even this one which is set in 2008 and whose technologies did not exist in the ‘90s. And things have changed at the very least as much between 2008 and now as they did between the ‘90s and then, in many ways more so. Particularly the ways people interact with, and commodify, music. (Insert jab at content creators.) I suppose it’s for this reason that so much of it rings outdated; there are rom-coms these days concertedly counteracting the tropes of the Love, Actually days. The female (and I guess main) protagonist, Annie, has a gay best friend and all. Well, ‘best friend’ is a stretch, because nobody in this story has real friends, because they’re all too busy being miserably single or single-feeling to intentionally temper their loneliness with friendship.

(I’m also of the opinion that Hornby should just drop the b from his name, as only a major catastrophe could stop his characters thinking about sex all. the. time. Do you remember how many different things you thought about as a kid? And now, in adulthood, most of the content targeted at us—TV, books, jokes—revolves around sex. Like we’re supposed to relinquish all our other interests. I hate it here.)

Moving on. The people I felt comfortable liking: Jackson, Tucker’s six-year-old son, who doesn’t always talk like a six-year-old but writing kids can be hard, and who, in my headcanon, grows up to be Jackson Maine in A Star is Born; Lizzie, Tucker’s twenty-year-old daughter, whose storyline is platformed nicely until it takes a backseat to the trainwreck that is Tucker’s relationship to the rest of his far-flung family; Farmer John, the only one remotely ready to speak the truth about anything; and Gav and Barnesy, the “northern soul” dancing duo who absolutely deserve their own spinoff.

The people I hated: Duncan. I didn’t find anyone else as intolerable as I found him. Mostly because he is so intolerant. His superiority complex and arrogant gatekeeping attitude antagonized me from the start, as I believe it was meant to. I couldn’t see why Annie has stayed with him for fifteen years: he doesn’t appear to have a single redeeming quality that would justify her reluctance to try going it alone. Going it alone, however daunting, would beat sticking with this self-important turnip.

And it is at this juncture in the analysis where my feelings toward the book and the characters start to blur into my feelings toward myself. You see, I was recommended this novel—and its film, which I do want to see because it has actors I like and I wonder if they would make me feel more sympathetically toward the characters. Credible sources suggested that I would find meaning in this work. And I did…just perhaps not a meaning that pleased me.

It made me doubt myself. It made me suspect that I come off as judgmental and crazed as Duncan does despite my efforts to be welcoming of all opinions. I was more judgmental in my teen years, let’s say, than I am now, but that was proportional to how little I liked myself and how much I felt I had to prove. And, keeping it real here, I started this blog because (and this really is the best way I can think to put it) I had a head full of ideas that were driving me insane, and I felt the people in my life were getting tired of hearing me try to express them. Plus I wanted to find a certain level of community online, which I have. Plus I just wanted to create a channel for myself, an outlet. Which I have. I’d wanted that for several years by the time I launched it, and this is the shape it took.

Basically, the thought that a passion for art could be so ugly troubled me. I hoped I had nothing in common with that. Art is about whatever you think it’s about, and one take is (generally) as valid as the next. I learned to relate to people comfortably and confidently by wielding my opinions about art. I like what I like, and you like what you like, and if we like the same things maybe we’ll be closer. Either way I’m not going to make you listen to twelve takes of this B-side if you don’t want to. And I like to hear about things other people care about: I like to see their eyes light up, the way they shift, as if physically shifting gears to get into their specialized subject. I hope no one ever feels ashamed of that. I’ve battled, and continue to battle, plenty of that shame.

Anyway. Kind of a frustrating read. Nick, I gotta stick by you, even if I don’t always like you, in the way I gotta stick by myself even when I don’t like me. To my credit, I learned enough to wait several days and mull over the presentation of my thoughts; certain characters rush their reviews, to disastrous results. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go jump on the album Lorde just dropped.

Image: first edition, Viking, September 2009

songs on rotation

In which impressions are formed & reformed

“Sorry Not Sorry (Acoustic),” Demi Lovato

So I wasn’t big on the original until it came on at one of the three (3) spin classes I have taken in my life, and for some reason a switch flipped and I’ve liked it ever since. It probably had something to do with the production, because I think the acoustic version is even better: it sounds like a live jam with a roomful of talented backup singers—Demi is in fine voice, of course. And it emphasizes that perfect kiss-off of a lyric.

“Rollin Stone,” Little Simz

Apple Radio played this track as I waited on an interview with Griff (see below) and got me addicted to it for several consecutive days. Her accent is the kind I could listen to forever. The beat change halfway through is so cool. It’s a single off her new record, for which I am eager.

“Play Date,” Melanie Martinez

Not sure why I didn’t come across her sooner, but better late than never. Caught a snippet of this song in a YouTube video, looked it up, and am now a fan of the whole album Cry Baby. (I hear it’s experienced something of a revival on TikTok.) We love an artist with a concept!

“Body,” Megan Thee Stallion

The rhythm of the first line of the third verse—the category is body—is so satisfying. I mean, she knows her way around a rhythm, but that particular one takes the track from good to great.

“E•MO•TION,” Carly Rae Jepsen

The album named for this song (or for which the song is named, I don’t know which came first) is six years old, if you can believe it, and for me it only gets better with each listen. I love the line not a flower on the wall / I am growing ten feet, ten feet tall. And not only because it gives me Alice vibes.

“Daisy,” Ashnikko

Not gonna lie, I lip-sync to this song and feel tough as hell. Menacing.

“How Does It Feel,” Avril Lavigne

Underrated song on an underrated album. I get to exercise almost two octaves when I sing it. Need I say more?

“Triste com T,” Pabllo Vittar

For months on end, nothing has induced me in the least to want to go dancing in a crowded club, and then I heard this track, and then maybe I opened up to the idea.

“Black Hole,” Griff

She advertised it on Spotify, I clicked, and here I’ve listened to it way more than I ever expected to. Very solid hook.

“Trader Joe,” Junglepussy

Discovered through a podcaster’s recommendation, and I kid you not when I say it lodges in my brain for twenty-four-hour stretches at a time. Unbelievably chill. I think I like him more than I like Trader Joe’s is one of the best opening lines in recent memory.

“Dynamite,” BTS

I’m largely unfamiliar with BTS, honestly, but this song has had me bopping all summer, strutting down the street like the world is my music video. Granted, I’ve always considered the world my music video. (Their spot on Colbert was, well, fab.) I appreciate the shout-out to milk, a drink that does not get enough credit.

“Hard Out Here,” Lily Allen

Loved this one since it was released back in 2013 thanks to my roommate’s perpetual radio habits. What with advancements in movements for the rights of all women, the “glass ceiling” isn’t as all-encompassing a metaphor as it was once thought to be, but the lyric still makes a point—and a damn catchy one. Exemplifies how smart Lily’s stuff is, and how she’s never hit the superstar level that I feel she deserves to. The video is wonderfully ironic, too.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Whitney Houston

Because I’m a human being who needs joy.

playlist here!

More poetry!

In which new lit is lit 🔥

Ciao tutti—

The lovely new lit mag Journal of Erato dropped its second issue today, entitled Hometown, in which my poem “Me and Mike #3” is featured.

It began life as a fragment, a half-thought-out meditation on being away from familiar places and people. Then I realized it could accommodate line breaks, and the rest is history.

There are three sections to the issue—Childhood, Adolescence, and Adulthood (my piece belongs to the third)—each of which is affecting in its own way. I recommend it all.

Each journal publication is an unrepeatable experience, a group of selected voices assembled to tell the story of that singular publication as only they can. However big or small the imprint, it’s pretty extraordinary.

Oh, on another note, the podcast broke 600 downloads this morning! Deep thanks to all who listen. We hope it brings you as much joy to hear as it brings us to create.

More full-length posts soon.

Tschüss!

Cecilia

Clemens > Dickens

In which I match, or mismatch, wits

I just reread The Adventures of Tom Sawyer after quite a number of years, possibly predating the last time I read Huck Finn. Not only is the prose as precise and entertaining as ever, this time around has elucidated something I’ve long struggled with concerning certain contemporaries of Mark Twain aka Sam Langhorne Clemens. Specifically Charles Dickens, who wrote to mirror the world he saw just as Twain did, and who often centered his stories on children just as Twain did, albeit with a style and tone that could not be more different.

For a while growing up I subliminally tried to convince myself that I liked Dickens. (I never had to resort to psychological tricks with Twain.) I haven’t even read very much of him, and ultimately made my peace with that after realizing I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel good after reading what I did, and of course an artist is perfectly within their rights to evoke unpleasant feelings; but nor did I feel productively or constructively bad—stirred to action, you might say. A Dickens reading experience was, for me, simply depressing.

Put another way: as far as Victorians demonstrating the world’s frightening and disorientating potential go, Lewis Carroll has done more for me than Dickens ever could.

Twain, meanwhile, was acclaimed for his sense of humor, which will always snag my attention. I should note that I spent the summer before entering college in a journalism apprenticeship at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, so I was at one time in my life intensively immersed in his aura. My work didn’t have to do with him exactly, but I inevitably learned more about him than I’d ever consciously thought to. I even wrote an article on the effect of dialect in his fiction. And I retain a special affinity for him given the time he spent in my neck of the woods. Despite that eventual move, though, he never stopped platforming his home state: the Tom/Huck stories probably constituted the most visible Missouri representation up until Cam Tucker on Modern Family.

It could well be my reverence for Twain, then, that throws my feelings about Dickens as a writer into such stark relief. Dickens’ work strikes me as extraordinarily exhibitionist—look at these miserable people, in what abject poverty they live, they’re not even sure it’s worth trying to survive…now congratulate me for deigning to show it to you. Distasteful, if you ask me. After all, nobody in either author’s universe has much in terms of money or assets, and yet I’m not confronted with that impinging perspective when I read about the villagers of St. Petersburg, Missouri. I’m discomfited for other reasons, but that’s the point! I don’t feel as though Twain is talking down to me.

What’s more, Twain isn’t talking down to his characters, and herein lies the thing I most enjoyed about rereading Tom Sawyer. Twain treats the problems of children seriously, because they are serious to the children. When you’re that age, and you have a falling-out with a girl you like, that’s a big deal to you. Twain, as author, honors that and makes space for it. And then maybe you encounter some problems that others would also consider “real,” such as being trapped in a cave for three days after you wandered too far in. Everything is on equal footing in this universe.

But then of course I enjoyed the read simply for the dynamic between characters. Joe Harper doesn’t get nearly his due anymore, given his pride of place as Tom’s original best friend (after all, he knows how to play Robin Hood); and Tom’s younger brother Sid is an excellent foil, everything a conniving sibling should be, especially one trying to live up to the standard set by his master-manipulator predecessor. Tom and Huck establish their alliance in this volume, having sized each other up for a while before witnessing a frightening event together. That trauma bond turns into a friendship so pure it just melts my heart. And I’m reminded that Huckleberry Finn is truly one of the great literary figures: his reasoning for not wanting to return to the Widow Douglas’ house, which he delivers to Tom at the end of the book in what amounts to a rant against civilization, is a self-affirming statement like no other. (He hasn’t said too much throughout the rest of the story by comparison—Tom is the gregarious, loquacious one—so this moment is particularly cathartic.) It’s no wonder at all that he gets his own spinoff, and that it’s more mature than this venture, because he occupies a more difficult and unique space than Tom does, wedged between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. I knew I was right to get attached to him all those years ago.

(Dickens, who arguably perfected the modern Bildungsroman, just doesn’t hit the same way.)

The entire community is so richly imagined, though, that one need not even focus on any singular character for an accessible point of entry. Around the middle of the story Twain portrays the final exams of the school year, in which all the children have to get up and do recitations. Tom appears in the scene but is not central to it; it’s about everyone. (He starts out brimming with confidence in his declaiming, predictably, but crashes and burns halfway through.) It provides a blueprint for the comedic montage sequences of the movies we love today. Twain openly inserts authorial commentary on the quality of the students’ “sermons,” and I am absolutely here for it.

So there you go. All this judgment I’ve also got to attribute partly to a matter of personality, because I would have hung out with Sam Clemens at any time ever (maybe not lend him money, but have dinner with him anyway), whereas I hear Dickens could be quite arrogant. I suppose it’s understandable for the bestselling novelist of the century to let that go to his head, but it doesn’t mean I’d want to be around him.

(And in case you needed another argument, Twain had that impressive mustache, while Dickens had this whole situation.)

Meanwhile, the next time something doesn’t go the way you hoped, just consider that you’ve hit upon “an unpromising market.” Not a word out of place in Twain.

In the Garage with the Revolver

Or, a breakdown

This is the last spiel about a record turning 55, I swear. It’s my boys and it’s maybe their greatest album (the case has been made) and it’s one I’ve come to really love as an adult and I had to.

Song I’ve loved from the start: “I’m Only Sleeping”

Song I returned to after doing some growing up and discovered just what I’d been missing: “Doctor Robert”

Song that in my darker moments makes me want to quit doing anything creative because it can’t possibly measure up: “Here, There, and Everywhere”

Song that I’m not that into but the bridge is cool: “And Your Bird Can Sing”

Song with the best riff: “I Want to Tell You”

Song that might have been the point at which the McCartney-ness began to go off the rails: “Good Day Sunshine”

Song that proved they were not gonna be cute and cuddly anymore: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Song with a horn interlude which no one can hear over all the talk about “Penny Lane”: “For No One”

Song that I suspect is a portal to another dimension in the right circumstances: “Love You To”

Song that was fast growing on me anyway and then the demo made me Explode(TM): “She Said She Said”

Song that you can tell which artists have the best taste because they choose to cover it: “Got to Get You Into My Life”

Song that people forget is actually on this album: “Yellow Submarine”

Song that I find myself singing not infrequently: “Taxman”

Song that is perfect: “Eleanor Rigby”

Overall review: Sonically intimidating, melodies miles ahead of (almost) anybody else, sexy in unexpected ways. Gotta respect.

Image: 5 August 1966 on EMI

New Habits from Pandemic Me

Or, a year and a half in additions, subtractions, and alterations

  • Sending messages just to say hi when I think of people, with no expectation of a reply
  • Writing things down immediately when they cross my mind, meaning there are post-its all over my room & I sometimes wake up to a Notes app full of seemingly nonsensical phrases or a very strange voice memo
  • Using the royal ‘we’ (we love to see it)
  • Going on long walks, like an hour and a half to two hours at a time
  • Stopping myself, literally, from boarding a self-hating train of thought
  • Scheduling one thing I really want to do/treating myself to one activity I love every day
  • Wearing sunglasses anyplace that feels too bright, indoors included
  • Revisiting stories I wrote in my teens (the favorite so far features one character yelling to another in a crowded bar, and I quote, “now gimme some lip action!”)
  • Telling people when I need space
  • Experimenting with self-portraits
  • Creating songs by drawing on influences I didn’t realize were so important to me
  • Sleeping whenever I need to (a freelancer’s perks, I’ll admit)
  • Actually replying on Twitter when I feel I have something meaningful to contribute (‘meaningful’ can also mean ‘hilarious’)
  • Speaking of Twitter, reading threads that interest me all the way to the end, because I never know where the most pertinent or resonant information is going to be
  • Rebalancing, and overall reducing, my social media time
  • Journaling—not even about my feelings, usually just scenes, doodles, & disjointed thoughts
  • Indulging in small luxuries (lavender lotion, cucumber water)
  • Reminding myself that everyone is going through their own stuff and I have very little, if any, control over it
  • Drawing up the definitive master list of people I would invite to my celebrity dinner party
  • Organizing photos into archives of personal and family history
  • Reading aloud to myself
  • Letting hurtful stuff go, because I don’t have time or space for that
  • Quoting Vines I haven’t seen in years
  • Mailing physical letters & postcards
  • Deliberately and consciously saying thank you to a compliment or apology instead of deflecting (harder than you might expect—or maybe not)
  • Delivering stand-up routines in the mirror
  • Trying to be more spontaneous (is there anything less spontaneous than working on being spontaneous)
  • Playing dress-up
  • Just sitting in silence sometimes honestly

Happy birthday, Jerry!

Or, an honorary transitive commemoration

Jerry Garcia would have turned 79 today. Eight days from now, 9 August, will mark the 26th anniversary of his death.

This span of time is a sacred period for certain people in my life, so I didn’t want to let the day go by without acknowledging it. I myself know alarmingly little about the Grateful Dead—maybe I wasn’t inclined to invest the effort in such long songs, which would be somewhat hypocritical of me, although I do believe everyone has their limits—anyway, the point is that I can appreciate genius and the unifying power of music even without being versed in the particulars.

Not too long ago, a childhood friend of mine lost her mother to illness. This woman was the biggest Deadhead I knew, and as she was such a fixture in the community I’m sure the biggest Deadhead most of our friends and classmates and parents and coworkers knew. She was famous, if you will, among other things, for loving them. Hardly coincidentally, her family were one of the most open, helpful, and dedicated I had the privilege to see in action. They gave freely of themselves. They were devoted to our school, especially its arts programs, and our city. I loved being around them, all of them.

My friend is now pastor of a church, because she’s gifted like that. In this week’s sermon she made sure her congregation knew how significant this early-August period is to her and how bound up it is in her memories of her mother. She also drew extremely effective parallels between the experience of listening to or seeing the Dead and coming together in worship. The principles are the same, she argued, even if the details differ.

So here is to Jerry. He’s obviously meant so much to so many over the course of generations. Someday I might be more familiar with his artistic gift to the world. Until then, he means a lot to people who mean a lot to me, and for that I’ve got to celebrate him.

Dedicated to Liz and Gail.

Image: Atlanta, GA, 1977

From Köln Cathedral

I nearly set fire to something

yesterday out of laziness

lying on the floor in the little room I’d rented

on the outskirts of a city even stranger

than the one I was trying to call home.

Even the word home

carries a note of strangeness now,

as if I am only just discovering

that I never knew what it meant to begin with.

And here I hover on the edge of the almighty,

the hundred years’ divine presence

at the axis of the city,

trying to make sense of the flames

licking the periphery of my eyesight,

knowing nothing,

not even home,

is for long.

22 February 2020