Lexical Undertakings - # 7
Books read in December 2018:
How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell - read it if you want a book that says something (accidentally) about how we lived in the decade drawing closer to a close
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood by Karina Longworth - read it if you love the podcast (you should) and if you want a book that comes close enough to saying something about how powerful men control women for you to draw your own conclusions.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard - read this if you are extremely interested in historiography and archaeology and aren't
Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Cat Marnell is one of the mid 2000s New York women that I consider a celebrity and that no one else I know has ever heard of. She was a beauty editor at Lucky magazine in 2007, which I had no idea about, and then a beauty editor at xoJane in 2011, which I was obsessed with. XoJane was a beauty/lifestyle website for young women in the mid 2000s -- basically a cross between Vice and Glamour that I read constantly. I liked the It Happened to Me personal essays way more than I liked the beauty advice sections she actually edited, mostly because I was a nosy teenager who longed to write for people on the internet and couldn’t afford any beauty recommendations anyway.
Marnell’s drug of choice is Adderall, sprinkled with anything else she can get her hands on -- she snorts coke and smokes heroin and ingests molly and does Angel Dust all over the city of New York. But Adderall is her favorite drug, the one she is on staggering amounts of, constantly. How to Murder Your Life is a very millennial memoir, coming from a razor thin beauty who likes leopard print and has teeny eyebrows. Her addictions and her ambitions battle it out on each and every page. Sometimes the fight is fascinating even when you know the winner. As a reader, I oscillated between wondering how she could do these jobs on all these drugs and wondering how anyone could do these jobs without some stimulants. Which is why her addiction memoir doesn’t quite read like all the other addiction memoirs I have been reading lately (female writers with substance problems, I love you dearly) -- in the end, she isn’t sober. How could she, how could anyone write a whole book without their trusty Vyvanse bottle by their side? Full disclosure, my brother was diagnosed with ADD when we were kids. I was not. But we both were kids a few years after Marnell was and grew up in a busy, brightly lit world where our attention itself is a commodity. And I’ve often wondered whether stimulants are the key to surviving the 21st century or if taking them is like playing with a fire that will eventually consume your entire world. Marnell’s memoir is interesting because it alternately supports both ideas, as if she also hasn’t quite made up her mind yet. Her fixation on stimulants, on success, and her lack of friends make this a memoir I would recommend to anyone who says that the oughts and the twenty-teens weren’t a “real” decade.
That’s a conclusion that people come to perhaps because of our fixation on the decades of the 1900s.Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood by Karina Longworth is look at how eleven different women’s lives tangled with Howard Hughes while he was active in Hollywood -- so, between the 1920s and the 1950s. If you are famliar with Karina Longworth, it is likely through her podcast You Must Remember This which purports to tell listeners a story every week from the secret and/or forgotten stories from Hollywood’s first century. The podcast is incredible -- her voice is amazing and the stories simply drape over you, like a silk dress. But I didn’t like the book quite as much as I thought I would. It didn’t seem apparent to me why this needed to be a book and not another season of the podcast. And I desperately wanted more Longworth, more of her voice, her analysis, her criticism. But instead the reader is just left with Hughes.
Howard Hughes was a wealthy megalomaniac. I think it is easy for someone who has never lived in these storied decades to imagine that the rampant sexism, racism, homophobia etc were the worst parts. And don’t get me wrong -- the structural flaws sound terrible and the sexism in 1930s Hollywood is horrifying. But what kept striking me reading about Hughes was how money and power allowed his mind itself to run rampant. He paid people, so they never said no to him. He controlled gossip columns, so there was never any negative press about him. He had power, so women went out with him. He could easily conjure the illusion of power, so women were forced into giving him control. It is impossible to read this book without comparing and wondering where Howard Hughes would be if he had been born when I was (or even when Elon Musk was). And there aren’t easy conclusions to jump to. Even though I didn’t like the book as much as I thought I would, I still loved it and would recommend to anyone who wants to spend some time thinking about sex, lies, and seduction.
Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome could have used some more sex, a few lies, and a hell of a lot more seduction. Beard is a classics professor at Cambridge University and SPQR is a New York Times bestseller. I read about 160 pages and didn’t dislike it but was easily distracted into reading other things. A stronger narrative thread, maybe even akin to how Neil Gaiman writes in Norse Mythology would improve this book. I can’t quite put my finger on anything I learned, other than that Romans didn’t have a clear understanding of themselves either. Although reviews praised this as highly informative and highly readable, I found it to be neither.
Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae is what I got distracted with. Issa Rae is known for her YouTube series of the same name and for HBO series Insecure. I have never seen either. But I did find Issa Rae herself interesting. Her show is often held up as an example of good representation on television. And it is! It’s a show about two black women and they are allowed to be both strong and make stupid decisions, as the plot requires. Or so I’m told form the rather astonishing amounts of TV reviews that I read. But what struck me from her book of essays was one in particular, where she described her parent’s divorce. Her and her siblings thought everything in their parent’s marriage was fine. And then one day, out of the blue, they were informed that it was very much not.
That is how my brother and I found out my parents were getting divorced. And it is something I genuinely have never heard another person explain or discuss, ever. I have never seen it on television. I have never realized it on a date with someone. I’ve never been quite naive enough to believe that my brother and I were the only people in the whole world that had had this experience. But it was nice to hear that this one weird thing had happened to Issa Rae to. And it was nice to be reminded of why representation matters, why it can and in fact should stretch beyond the obvious.