I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.
This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?
I mean, the solitude of being an immigrant, the solitude of having to learn a language and a culture from scrap, led me to the need for some sort of explanation, the need for answers, the need for something that would give me – that would in some ways shelter me, led me to books, man. I was trying – as a kid I was very, very curious, kind of smart, and I was trying to answer the question, first of all, what is the United States, and how do I get along in this culture, this strange place, better? And also, who am I and how did I get here? And the way I was doing it was through books, man. You know, I just – I found books – when they’d showed me the library when I was a kid, a light went off at me in every cell of my body. Books became the map with which I navigated this new world.
When I was little, mystery books were my favorite. I read the Boxcar Children, the Bobbsey Twins and the Happy Hollisters. In school, there was Cam Jansen, Sammy Keyes and Harriet the Spy. When I visited my grandparents, I read my mom’s childhood books: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden. My mom gives my grandfather the latest Mary Higgins Clark release every Christmas.
In high school and college I abandoned mystery novels and turned to spooky TV shows instead. My family was “Monk”-obsessed; when “Monk”ended, we watched “Psych.” I threw myself into “Lost”during finals and “Criminal Minds” on school breaks. Post-college, I binged “Fringe,” “The X-Files,” “The Killing,” “The Fall,” “Miss Fisher’s Mysteries”—the list goes on. Now that I work in a bookstore, I’ve started to read mystery novels again. To celebrate, here’s a reading list about fictional detectives and the authors who mastermind their literary crime-solving, as well as real-life detectives searching for the truth. Read more…
This fall, Gross marks her 40th anniversary hosting “Fresh Air.” At 64, she is “the most effective and beautiful interviewer of people on the planet,” as Marc Maron said recently, while introducing an episode of his podcast, “WTF,” that featured a conversation with Gross. She’s deft on news and subtle on history, sixth-sensey in probing personal biography and expert at examining the intricacies of artistic process. She is acutely attuned to the twin pulls of disclosure and privacy. “You started writing memoirs before our culture got as confessional as it’s become, before the word ‘oversharing’ was coined,” Gross said to the writer Mary Karr last month. “So has that affected your standards of what is meant to be written about and what is meant to maintain silence about?” (“That’s such a smart question,” Karr responded. “Damn it, now I’m going to have to think.”)
Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy. In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.
Berkeley Breathed is responsible for one of the more delightful things to happen to my Facebook feed in some time: The Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, who created “Bloom County” and characters like Opus the penguin, has revived his beloved comic strip after a 25-year hiatus, posting new installments on his Facebook page.
In a new interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Breathed says he has author Harper Lee to thank for the decision. He was stunned when Lee’s supposed second novel was published earlier this year as Go Set a Watchman:
BERKELEY BREATHED: I watched slack-jawed in horror as they threw one of the 20th century’s most iconic fictional heroes, Atticus Finch, under the bus. At the time — and this was a couple of months ago — it made me think that there would have been no “Bloom County” without “Mockingbird” because I was 12 I read it, and the book’s fictional Southern small town of Maycomb had settled deep into my graphic imagination and informed it forever. If you look at any of my art for the past 30 years, there’s always a small-town flavor to it.
So this summer, just a couple months ago when “Go Set A Watchman” was causing an uproar, I went back to my files and I pulled an old fan letter from years ago. It says (reading), “Dear Mr. Breathed, this is a plea from a dotty old lady and from others not dotty at all. Please don’t shut down Opus. Can’t you at least give him a reprieve? Opus is simply the best comic strip there is and depriving him of life is murder – a hard word to describe an obliteration of your creation. But Opus is real. He lives. -Harper Lee, Monroeville, Ala.”
In fact, perhaps ironically, if you doubt for a moment that there is still a cultural class distinction between television and film or television and novels, look to the eagerness of people who are enthusiastic about television to compare it to film or novels. It’s the new cinema! It’s the new novel! Is TV better than movies? Are movies better than television? Is this show so lovingly made that it can be called … cinematic?
If you ask these questions, let me ask you these questions: Is an avocado better than a hammer? Is a fish better than a skateboard? Who cares? Things are different from each other. Ranking a television comedy against a television drama is bogus enough without dragging movies and books into it. And yet: here we are. Not because these distinctions are particularly well supported by evidence, but because they are expedient, and because they help people organize their cultural worlds – which is a very understandable impulse growing out of the sad, beautiful fact that we’re all going to miss almost everything.
— NPR’s Linda Holmes, in one of a week-long series of essays on the state of television in 2015, on whether pooh-poohing television makes any sense in a changing digital media landscape.
To try to figure out what exactly that story is and why we still have it, we have to separate out the folk tale that is Cinderella, though, from the turn of phrase that is “Cinderella story.” Americans will call almost anything a Cinderella story that involves a good thing happening to someone nice. We slap that title on movies and books, but also on basketball games won by tiny schools full of scrawny nerds, small businesses that thrive and even political ascendancies that upend established powers.
The actual Cinderella tale, while a nebulous thing that can be hard to pin down with precision, is more than that. There’s very little that’s common to every variant of the story, but in general, you have a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person, so she has to get the man who may marry her to recognize her in her low-status form, which often happens either via a shoe that fits or some kind of food that she prepares.
I had a beautiful childhood and a lovely childhood. I just didn’t like being a child. I didn’t like the rank injustice of not being listened to. I didn’t like the lack of autonomy. I didn’t like my chubby little hands that couldn’t manipulate the world of objects in the way that I wanted them to. Being a child for me was an exercise in impotent powerlessness. I just wasn’t—and I was never terribly good at that kind of no-holds-barred fun. I mean, you know, I’ve essentially made a career on not being good at no-holds-barred fun.
But, you know, I was just never sort of like, hey, yes, let’s go play. I was always more sort of like, does everybody know where the fire exit is and let’s make sure there’s enough oxygen in this elevator.
I’m not here to defend “We Built This City,” though I hardly think it’s the worst song of all time. Instead, I’m here to urge every music fan to dig deeper and interrogate his or her own definition of what makes a song terrible. I feel like we pile on “We Built This City” because it’s too feeble to fight back; because we as a community of music-lovers accept that it’s the worst song ever the way we accept that Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper or A Love Supreme or Blue or Blood on the Tracks is the best album ever. That is to say, we accept these opinions as truth because they’ve been accepted that way before most of us even got here.