Stuff I’ve Been Reading

Wonderful article by my friend Farran for Film Comment on Tim Holt, who has appeared in a couple of masterpieces, as well as a steady career in B-Westerns (one of my favorite kinds of careers). I love him in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (and Farran pulls out a moment I love too, with the gila monster), and The Magnificent Ambersons but I didn’t know that much about him. Thank you, Farran!

— Almost done with The Familiar, Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain, the third of Mark Danielewski’s series, which I cannot put down. Volume 4 is supposed to come out in Winter 2017. I dread the wait. The book is eerie, complex and, in typical Mark D. style, sometimes you have to turn it upside down to follow the print and sometimes you honestly need a magnifying glass. It’s a multi-voiced book, with narration switching off. Who knew that an 11-year-old girl getting a cat could spawn three volumes (so far)? (But consider the title. And consider cats.) MD is a hell of a writer and a hell of a mimic. The voice of the Los Angeles gang member/drug dealer, the voice of the addict in Singapore, the voice of the troubled PhD candidate, the voice of the tough LA cop of Turkish origin, the voice of the 11-year-old girl … all of them distinct (each with their own font), and all of them pushing the story along. I’m sure he drives some people crazy as a writer but I find him fascinating as well as totally sincere (the font-changing and upside-down-writing and all the rest – present in his other books too – are not just clever tics, or gimmicks: This is how his brain works.) The Familiar doesn’t hold a candle to his House of Leaves – but then again, what does? The Familiar, so far, is a gigantic accomplishment. Each volume is about 700, 800 pages long. But they zip by (also considering the fact that he uses all of these different fonts, and sometimes there are only one or two words on a page.) He’s so inventive. Seriously, it’s intimidating.

— Articles like this make me laugh. And there are so MANY of them. And bookshelves filled with books agonizing over this all-important conundrum. And whenever I see a new article on the subject, I have to read it, I can’t help it. (Some people say that something “makes them laugh” when what they really mean is “This enrages me.” I am actually saying that articles like this actually make me laugh.) People make CAREERS studying this (good on them!). People spend their LIVES devoted to studying this topic because it is SUCH A HUGE MYSTERY and NOBODY CAN FIGURE IT OUT. Scientists in their labs around the world fall to their knees in defeat, howling to the full moon, “But WHYYYYYYYYYYYYY?” Meanwhile, people keep going along, enjoying the fruits of evolution, and we don’t give a shit why, and take Ben Franklin’s attitude towards beer about it: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. It’s fun being part of a gigantic evolutionary mystery and honestly, I don’t CARE why, but it does make me happy/amused/etc. that the answer has baffled generations of scientists for centuries. It makes me feel … proud? Listen, I’ll take any evolutionary advantage I can get. Not that the “why” wouldn’t be interesting, and not like I think they shouldn’t be studying it, but the QUOTES are so funny, people basically throwing up their hands for 600 years, going, “Damned if I know.”

— Confession: I have not read any of Jonathan Franzen’s books. For no particular reason. However, I find him so fascinating as a public figure, starting from his “Thanks, but no thanks” to Oprah, lo, those many years ago. (The guy I was dating at the time was a writer. I asked him what he would do in Franzen’s situation. “I’d fucking take her up on her offer. Are you kidding me? I’ll tell you one thing: That douchebag’s got BALLS.”) And he’s so bizarre in print, and foot-in-mouth, and he drives people INSANE and then people LOVE him and maybe people like talking about him more than they like reading him. I don’t go in for schaudenfraude – like, at all – so that’s not what this is about. I feel like I’ve missed the boat with Franzen, and I get the sense that HE feels (on occasion) that he’s missed the boat. He wants to be like Norman Mailer or Philip Roth and doesn’t understand why he isn’t considered that way, not realizing the world has changed. He’s young, too, to feel that way. He’s a premature fuddy-duddy. And then there’s the David Foster Wallace thing, who was a legitimate genius, and tapped into a zeitgeist (sorry) that Franzen tries but didn’t seem to be able to do. Like a Salieri/Mozart thing. (Again: I haven’t read any of his books. I am not weighing in on something I have not read. But the conversation AROUND Franzen is what intrigues me.) I have good friends who read whatever he writes, and it’s interesting to get their take on what’s good, and what’s not good. What Franzen does that they like, what he does that drives them insane. That being said, I read interviews with Franzen (there aren’t that many). I read his articles. Any time the man opens his mouth, he appears to make headlines. SO. If you’ve been paying attention over the last couple of days, Franzen just gave an interview where he made some unbelievably tone-deaf (not surprising; he is tone-deaf in general) comments on race. Like: NO, JONATHAN. DON’T SPEAK! STOP! Because I find Franzen a fascinating figure, I clicked around reading responses, trying to get off Twitter where the general feeling is Gawker is obsessed with Franzen, but I don’t read Gawker anymore after they “outed” that random man. I know. Gawker has done all kinds of sketchy shit over their long history but that was my line, apparently. Someone somewhere mentioned a piece on Grantland that expressed exactly how they felt about Franzen’s writing, so I went and found it. (I miss Grantland.) This may all seem rather bizarre since I haven’t read any of his novels. I love literary dust-ups. I’ve written about this before. And hoo boy, the piece on Grantland is a hell of a piece of writing by Brian Phillips. The Franzen of It All: ‘Purity’ and the Great American Novelist. Wow. (Also, it’s hilarious.) But then totally profound too at what Franzen (apparently) is trying to do in his work, and what – in our contemporary world – he is attempting (and failing, according to Phillips) to do in his novels.

— Tearing through The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan. I don’t want it to end. I feel like I have been waiting for this collection to be published since I was in middle-school and first watched East of Eden. He – more than anyone else – was my “way in.” Being introduced to him – and his films – have helped make me the person I am today. I made CHOICES in my life, and followed a certain path, beCAUSE I was exposed to his work. Hell, I ended up at the Actors Studio, which he helped start. And – full circle – I still can’t believe it happened – I got to meet him one snowy night at the premiere of an Actors Studio production of Awake and Sing where I was the stage manager, and general helpmeet and line-runner for Anne Jackson. (Incidentally, Elia Kazan used to be the stage manager for the earliest Group Theatre productions in the 1930s, as well as acting – most historically in Waiting for Lefty where his final shout to the audience “STRIKE!” almost literally brought the house – and balcony – down.) I met him right after he won the Lifetime Achievement Oscar and all of those idiotic actors who were soooo morally superior – who I am SURE would have behaved IMPECCABLY during the McCarthy hearings! – refused to stand up for him. Good for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for ushering him onto the stage. And good for Meryl Streep for standing in the midst of her scowling cohorts. So then, at our premiere of Awake and Sing – Clifford Odets’ Depression-era play – put on by the Group Theatre in the 1930s – with Elia Kazan backstage helping out, just as I was backstage helping out (the coincidences were too much for my brain to handle) – he showed up. I did my best in the situation and fell apart later. Reading these unbelievable letters is a revelation because even though I know it all happened – I forget sometimes just how MUCH he did, and how MANY legendary projects he helmed. Back and forth from stage to screen and back. He was a voluminous and emotional letter-writer (and if you’ve read his autobiography, or his director’s notebooks, or his novels, then you know the dude can WRITE.) I am so glad that finally we get Kazan’s correspondence, quoted everywhere else in biographies of his colleagues, tantalizing glimpses – but here, the full letters, all in one place. It’s a treasure trove. A very very complex man.


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11 Responses to Stuff I’ve Been Reading

  1. Elliott says:

    That Grantland essay was really good. Thank you for recommending it.

    I read “The Corrections,” and I’ve had flashes of similar feelings to those expressed at Grantland: that the sum of all those astute observations was conventional and empty.

    In my mind, Franzen is Pearl Jam to Foster Wallace’s Nirvana. There is a moment, maybe 3/4 through, when “The Corrections” becomes basic, and all the storylines turn toward the barn and saunter home. The moment is like when you realize the Pearl Jam song is Duran Duran tricked out with fuzz.

    • sheila says:

      Elliott – I love the Pearl Jam analogy!

      There’s a funny quote from Bing Crosby, something like: “A singer like Frank Sinatra comes along once in a lifetime. But why did he have to come along in mine?”


      It’s weird when something “hits” – a wave of something new – and stars rise – and then when the dust settles – you see who’s still standing. It takes a while but sometimes it takes so long that – you know – I won’t be alive to see how stuff all plays out. It’s sometimes fun to speculate – like, what movie that came out today will still get play or be regarded as a classic 50 years from now? I’m sure there will be some surprises.

      It took me a while to “get to” David Foster Wallace, too. And I still haven’t tackled Infinite Jest – although that’s on my “some day” list. I love his essays so much.

    • Jeff Gee says:

      I’ve never had any use for Pearl Jam but if somebody is going to trick out Duran Duran with fuzz, point me to the pre-order button.

  2. Jeff Gee says:

    The Tim Holt piece. What a remarkable career path– B westerns or nothing! There’s a great anecdote on his Wikipedia page: ‘One of his [military school] classmates was [future director] Budd Boetticher who recalled Holt ““used to walk around in our suite of rooms there…and he often had on his ’38 revolvers and holster. He’d walk up and down the hall in his bathrobe and practice drawing his guns. He’d say, ‘I’m going to be a western star some day’.” As a kid I used to think that the horror movie stars I idealized made a conscious decision specialize in playing werewolves and monsters because they wanted to be in those movies (well, who wouldn’t?), but Holt really seems to have made a decision like that. What would be the equivalent today? Bryan Cranston wrapping up Breaking Bad and then signing on for 5 seasons as a nutty uncle on Big Bang Theory?

    It also reminded me how much I miss the days when Self Styled Siren was posting great essays every few hours (or so it seemed) .

    • sheila says:

      // signing on for 5 seasons as a nutty uncle on Big Bang Theory? //


      I know, right? I also loved the revelation of how conscious Holt’s choices were. And how well it all worked out, in terms of material. So much of an acting career is luck and “you take what you can get”.

      I also like how grateful he seemed to be – to be in Westerns, to be able to get the opportunity to do the job at all. It’s a rare quality, especially in show biz!

      and agreed, in re: Farran! Her Film Comment column is a regular thing so that makes me happy but I miss her regular posts too. I get so excited when she publishes something new. Have you read her novel?

      • Jeff Gee says:

        I did read it. I also bought it. She set it in my old neighborhood, albeit 10 years after I left, so I sort of had to.

        I also checked the imdb to see if there was a movie of “Mysteries of Udolpho,” partly because I really wanted there to be, partly because of the being-an-idiot thing.

        • sheila says:

          // I also checked the imdb to see if there was a movie of “Mysteries of Udolpho,” partly because I really wanted there to be, partly because of the being-an-idiot thing. //

          Ha!! I so wished that movie was real too.

  3. Dg says:

    Um… You should just read Freedom and enjoy the shit out of it. Drown out all the other stuff.

    • sheila says:

      Dg – I know myself well, and I know that I probably will read Franzen eventually – The Corrections came out and it was one of those things where the world went crazy for it, but I was busy reading something else – and then I missed the moment and so far have never caught up. But I can’t promise to enjoy anything before I read it. He really got my attention with the Oprah brouhaha and I have been paying attention to him that way ever since.

      // Drown out all the other stuff. //

      Why on earth would I do that when I find it – and him – and the cultural conversation he provokes – so interesting?

      • Dg says:

        Hah … Yea I know… I was just remembering when I read Freedom there was quite a bit of Franzen buzz going around but I just got wrapped up in the novel itself and really enjoyed it.

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