Ella Enchanted

There are some books from your childhood that you can re-read as an adult and nothing quite seems the same... and then there are books like Ella Enchanted, where it feels as though you've only set it down a few days before, all the details are still so clear. The same charm and intelligence of the heroine, the same frustrating situation of her curse, the same thought of "I know he's the prince, but couldn't Ella do just a little bit better?"

Ella Enchanted is Gail Carson Levine's empowered spin on the classic Cinderella story, though readers who don't know this might not figure that bit out until quite close to the end of the book. Rather than simply talking about some girl who's happy to let an evil stepfamily walk all over her for no reason, Levine makes the story her own and gives a great deal of background to the young woman with a fairy godmother who's destined to somehow wear glass sippers and ride in a pumpkin to a ball.

The basic premis is this: as a baby, Ella was "blessed" with a gift that really turned out to be a curse. A fairy (though not her fairly godmother, it turns out) gave her the gift of obedience, which translates into the fact that Ella has to do anything that she's commanded to do. She can hold out for a little bit, but her limbs strain to obey and her head begins to hurt until she yields to the command. Over the years, she's learned the loopholes and figured out ways to do as she's told without actually submitting to an order, but it still qualifies as the world's worst "blessing" in her book. With a loving mother and mother-figure in the family's cook, Ella manages for herself a bit... until her mother dies and her father (who wasn't ever in the running for world's best dad) sends her off to finishing school with two dreadful girls who are clearly destined to be her step-sisters as soon as their mother gets their hooks into Ella's father. Ella finds a friend at school -- only to be ordered to give her up -- and runs away in pursuit of the fairy who cursed her, hoping that she'll take back her "gift" so Ella can have her free will. In the course of this trip, she is nearly eaten by ogres, saves herself from their clutches (with just a little help from Char and his knights), and shows off her knack for learning languages before the story twists to give her even more stumbling blocks before what you know simply must be a happy ending.

Prior to being shipped off to school, Ella befriends the Prince (Char) and while the reader can clearly see that Char is becoming more and more smitten with his friend as they get a bit older, Ella remains unaware of his affections. When he ultimately confesses his feelings, though, she realizes that she's never before realized just how cursed she is, for she can be nothing but a danger to the prince if others manipulate her with commands. Char clearly has a good head on his shoulders and is not one of those gad-about princes, but even though he's steady and kind, one does find him to be just a touch dull. He can, at least, appreciate humor and their letters show that there's a deeper connection than a few storybook balls might provide. The only frustrating bit about the romance is that it all really does come down to Ella's love for Char that will be responsible for breaking the curse. One might prefer it to be more about her own self, but at least what breaks the curse is her desire for what's best for Char as opposed to an insistence on having him for herself.

Levine's twist on the Cinderella story takes a classic fairy tale and injects it with life and female empowerment. True, Ella's in a terribly awkward situation, but our determined and independent heroine never lacks for intelligence and wit while she seeks to end her predicament. Actually, every one of the female characters in the book is strong in her own way, from Ella's meek school friend that insists upon correcting any errors of belief about Ella to the evil stepsisters who focus on what they want for themselves (whether it's misguided or not). One wishes Mandy (the cook who turns out to be Ella's real fairy godmother, but who insists on only doing small magic) were inclined to take a few more risks for her goddaughter, but all turns out well, so it's hard to fault her.

If you're worried that your daughters might be getting the wrong messages about heroines in fairy tales and the all-consuming need to win a prince, you should certainly have them read Ella Enchanted, as it's a great gateway book to all kinds of other fairy-tale-based novels for girls where the heroines are a bit stronger than the stories would otherwise suggest. (If you need a movie counterpart, direct your girls to Ever After as opposed to the movie version of Ella, because while it might be fun to revitalize Queen's "Somebody to Love," the movie's way off-base on the book and the heroine's strength.) In the end, I still found Ella to be an enchanting read as an adult and would heartily recommend it to any young heroine in the making.

Anne of Green Gables

I would venture to say that for young girls of an imaginative nature (who hit their pre-teen/early teen years from 1910 through the end of the 1900s), there is no book more influential to their romantic notions than L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. And when that young girl is a redhead? Well, let's just say that we all knew that this was going to be one of the most significant books of my youth before I even opened its pages. (Quite frankly, only the Tamora Pierce series about redheaded Alanna could rival it.) I can't say much about girls that have reached those critical years post-2000, but I certainly hope that a large number of them are still being charmed by this series. While visiting my parents, my bedroom stuffed with the books of my childhood (despite the fact that it's not my childhood bedroom, but my parents could never throw away my library), I decided it was time to visit Green Gables once more, at the beginning of the long series that features one of the most beloved heroines of children's literature.

Anne 's arrival at Green Gables was a complete mistake. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, siblings, live on Prince Edward Island and had decided that they were going to adopt a boy of ten or eleven so that he might grow up and be of help to Matthew, in exchange for providing the boy with a comfortable home and an education. However, when Matthew Cuthbert arrives at the train station to pick up the child, he finds a red-haired, freckled, slip of a girl by the name of Anne Shirley and she will not stop talking. Matthew is already terrified of women, no matter their age or size, but as he drives the girl back to Green Gables (so Marilla can decide what to do), he finds himself listening with pleasure at the girl's chatter. Marilla is less enthused at first, but even she comes to find something charming in the girl and the prospect of sending her back becomes slimmer with every passing moment until finally the decision is made to keep the child. Anne has many faults, but she becomes the focus and pride of their lives as they decide to keep and raise the young orphan with the wild imagination and boundless energy. She finds a "bosom friend" in neighbor Diana Barry and settles herself upon a life-long hatred of Gilbert Blythe after he calls her carrots and humiliates her in class (though fans of the series know that "lifelong" lasted approximately five-six years and her emotions toward this handsome young man became very different with time). She re-names most every location in town to suit her fantastic notions and enlists her friends in writing wild stories. Incredibly bucollic worries (will Anne be allowed to attend the picnic or drive to the exhibition?) mingle with more serious issues (like Marilla's missing brooch and the ill Barry baby) and ridiculous mix-ups (Anne's attempt to dye her hair and Diana getting drunk on wine mistaken for cordial). The substantial middle of the book follows several scenes of adolescence, which simply contribute to the heroine's development, even if they don't necessarily prop up an overarching storyline. As a result, I always thought this would be an excellent book to read aloud to one's child. Anne of Green Gables follows its titular heroine for something like six years, watching her make both good and bad decisions, almost all of which have amusing consequences. With an imagination that far outstrips everyone in Avonlea, she captivates the entire town, whether they'd admit it or not, and this is just the first in a long series of books about the vivacious redhead.

I cannot remember how many times I've read this book, but last count probably hovers around at least nine or ten. It had been years since I'd picked it up, but everything rushed back with fond familiarity. Anne is so bold and romantic, but the book feels a little dated in how quaint and idyllic the town seems. Perhaps it's just that I live in New York City, where kids seem to grow up long before they should, but I was incredibly worried that this might no longer be the same kind of childhood classic for this generation. Will it be added to the list of books that mothers beg their children to read, ultimately abandoning the effort and simply forcing them to watch the filmed series? I went to dinner with a few college friends and even the young men in the group could remember watching it (only one admitted to reading the book, but played the "I have sisters" card). I just don't know if it's something that children today (particularly city kids) can relate to without drawing conclusions about "the good old days" and "what life would be like if we moved to a farm and I was home schooled."

The only bad moment that I experienced came with the ending of the book, when I remembered my own significant criticism that, even as a child, I had to make of this first book (spoiler alert!) -- Anne's choice to give up her scholarship and stay home to care for Marillia was something that never sat well with me. One of the best things about Anne is the fact that she is incredibly intelligent. Geometry might be her Achilles heel, but every other subject would see Anne fighting with Gilbert to come out at the head of the class. Not only is she smart, but she's diligent about studying and set on doing her absolute best with her schoolwork, which makes her final decision all the most frustrating. Yes, Anne mentioned taking courses to ultimately get her college degree, but I remembered thinking to myself that no good parent (or pseudo-parent like Marilla) would allow her child to abandon her education in favor of staying home to care for the parent. My mother would have plucked out her own eyes to hasten the whole going blind thing rather than let me give up on such a significant opportunity. Chalk it up to the era, perhaps, but I still dislike the message that it sends with the ending of the book. Everyone understands *why* Anne does it, but it still doesn't make it the right decision.

Anne of Green Gables is, however, a major classic and despite this final flawed message about higher education, I will always love it. It inspires loyalty and dedication, so the next generation of girls better hope that it cane still appreciate Anne, or they're in for some long, frustrated hours, as I find it unlikely that their mothers will let this one go. I know families that have gone on Anne-inspired trips to Prince Edward Island. I know women who attribute their dyed auburn hair to the desire to be Anne. And I myself was always a little miffed that I could never pull off pigtail braids. Indeed, Anne Shirley is firmly rooted in even my generation's cultural consciousness and I hope that she retains such a place of honor with the generations to come.


Catwings & Catwings Return

After recently reading what I at first considered to be my first Ursula K. Le Guin work, I was reminded of the fact that I was quite wrong... and that as a child, I had actually loved two Le Guin books, though that may have been because they included the young-Alana prerequisite for any good book: cats.

Catwings focuses on the Tabby family, or rather, the four children of Mrs. Jane Tabby. Without a father and with their home in a neighborhood that was growing worse, Mrs. Jane Tabby has her paws full and so there was no real time to worry much about the fact that her children had wings. There comes a point when Mrs. Tabby believes that her children need to leave and find a better life for themselves, and so she insists that they use their wings to fly away and do just that. She is left behind, newly engaged to a good tomcat, and while her words are a bit brusque, no one doubts that all Mrs. Tabby wants is the best life possible for her children. So Thelma, Roger, James, and Harriet fly into the country, where they make a life for themselves, but learn that life can be just as dangerous there as it was in the city. Ultimately, they befriend two human children who understand that they can never tell anyone about the flying cats or everyone would try to trap them. Instead, they give the cats a home in the top of their family's barn and the story ends happily with the semi-domestication of the flying cats.

Catwings Return focuses primarily on James and Harriet, who decide that they wish to visit their mother in the old neighborhood, and so they leave their siblings in the country for what is supposed to be a simple visit. (Roger and Thelma believe the children they have befriended would be far too worried if everyone left, so they stay behind.) Of course, when James and Harrier arrive, they find that construction crews are demolishing the neighborhood, their mother is nowhere to be found, and their attention is caught by a mewing sound -- which turns out to be a black winged kitten in a condemned building. With patience, they befriend the kitten (who clearly must be their mother's kitten, they believe, given the wings) and manage to save him in the knick of time from the encroaching bulldozers. They find Mrs. Jane Tabby in a rooftop garden, their mother having recently been taken in by an old woman after the first bulldozers drove her from the neighborhood. Her husband was away on business (and she seems little concerned with his loss) and she cannot get down from the rooftop garden, but now that she knows her kitten is safe, Mrs. Jane Tabby is perfectly content to stay right where she is -- provided James and Harriet take her kitten with them to the country. They do so and the kitten is named Jane, happy in her new country surroundings with her older siblings.

There were two other books in the Catwings Collection -- named Marvelous Alexander and the Catwings and Jane on her Own -- but they never really captured me the way the first two did. At the time, I was charmed by the drawings and, let's face it, any story that featured kitties. Now that I'm older and know a bit more about Le Guin's work, I find them to be embedded with deeper concepts about parenthood, survival, independence, and trust. With Le Guin's interest in gender roles, it's unsurprising that we have a strong single mother and a similarly strong female leader in Thelma. The dangers of the world are quite present, both in the city and the country, and Le Guin is not afraid to make those manifest in attacks on the individuals and long-term repercussions.

I hadn't been that keen on picking up another Le Guin book after reading a series of her stories for adults, but this re-read of Catwings may have actually won her another chance. It's all a bit deeper than the simple story of flying cats and touches upon ideas of growing up and finding one's own way in the world (though there's still a healthy reliance on family). Catwings: not just for kitty-obsessed kids anymore. Though if you have one of those, then you should definitely introduce them to Mrs. Tabby and her children.


The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

If you are a parent looking to expand your young daughter's horizons, teaching her that she can do anything that boys can do, but need some good heroines to convey that message, then I might be inclined to recommend The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. It is, essentially, the girl's guide to being a cabin boy. There are diagrams with vocabulary and everything. So many classics might write of young men on ships, but I look to Avi's Charlotte Doyle as the girl who taught me that rebellious young ladies could also partake of such adventure, sailing the high seas and learning a great deal about herself.

The year is 1832. Charlotte Doyle is the daughter of an American businessman, but has lived in England with her family since she was six. Now that her father's work is returning them all to their home in Rhode Island, Charlotte is to finish out her school year and journey to America on her own. She will keep a journal of her experience that her father is to read upon her return home and he will pay particular attention to her spelling. Lest you think her parents are complete idiots, let me assure you that they arranged for Charlotte to be accompanied on her voyage by two upstanding families that her parents know and trust, but even Charlotte is aware that with a long journey ahead of them, this is a bit of an adventure. She has no idea.

The first surprise comes when Charlotte arrives on the ship and learns that the families will not be joining them. Assuming this will delay her voyage, she's further shocked to learn that the little man in her father's employ who is responsible for making sure she reaches the ship sees absolutely nothing improper or wrong about leaving Charlotte totally alone as the only female passenger on a ship full of rugged sailors. Even the mate who receives Charlotte tells the man that he would be better off finding another ship for the girl, but Charlotte is left to her minuscule cabin and feelings of helplessness. By the time she works up the courage to tell the captain that she wants to be put ashore, the ship has left port and nothing but the vast ocean stretches in front of them. If you thought all this was bad for a proper young lady, then just imagine how she'll deal with the fact that the ship's Captain Jaggery has a terribly villainous reputation and the sailors might have all joined up exclusively for the prospect of mutinous revenge.

Indeed, Charlotte has to cope with quite a lot on her voyage, but perhaps the worst of it comes when she realizes she has placed her trust in the wrong person and her actions have severe repercussions for herself and others. Having fallen for Captain Jaggery's genteel manners and status, she realizes that by providing him information about the crew, she has sabotaged their mutiny. This might not be so terrible except one man dies and, in punishment for their actions, Captain Jaggery singles out Charlotte's closest friend on the crew, the elderly black Zachariah, and flogs him to death. Believing that her wrong has cost her friend his life, Charlotte seeks to make amends by joining the crew (now a man short) and becoming a sailor to endure hard labor alongside everyone else. But now with Captain Jaggery turned against her, Charlotte cannot make a single wrong move or her own life might be forfeit.

Ultimately, an adult can look on this book and note that Charlotte is ridiculously lucky in her tenure on the ship, though her courage and determination go a long way, too. Captain Jaggery is a bit one-note in his villainy, though some effort is made to explain his reasoning. Perhaps the most surprising thing is how terribly kind most of the crew is to a young girl seeking to prove herself. This might be the gateway book for parents looking to have their daughters love Treasure Island and other similar seafaring books... or simply those who wish to inspire an interest in sailing. (I picture this as an excellent book to read prior to a visit to Mystic Seaport.) Charlotte's attention to detail on the ship is educational -- indeed, in this re-reading, I found myself clearly remembering the plot but I had forgotten just how much one learns about ships from the text. Charlotte, herself, is a winning heroine -- despite her faults, she always means well and her sense of honor is what drives her to do what some might see as an extreme action. Her subtle struggles with navigating class boundaries and gender/racial issues would make for an interesting discussion with a young person learning about history.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a Newbery Honor book from the early 1990s and it's easy to see why. Young women in a historical setting that defy the socially accepted norm to do something right and honorable. Not a bad message for any time period, though, so I still believe the girls of today might find something of value within. And if nothing else, they'll learn a whole lot of vocabulary about ships.

Post-script! After writing the above, I did a bit of Googling and discovered that there are, indeed, plans to make this into a movie. Buzz seems to suggest that a lawsuit against Danny DiVito (listed as writer/director for the film) held it up, but it could be in theaters in 2011, starring Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte, Morgan Freeman as her friend Zachariah, and Pierce Brosnan as Captain Jaggery. Any film that promotes strong young women is a-okay in my book, so let's hope it turns out well.


The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott, and a class on memoir

In late January of 2010, I attended a function at 826NYC in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Stephen Elliott's book, The Adderall Diaries had been published in September and this would be part reading, part memoir workshop. It was held on a Wednesday night in the back room at 826, behind the darkened Superhero Supply Store and in the brighter light of the tutoring center. I confess that I had no memoir-writing aspirations; I went mostly because Steve is a friend of mine. I try to attend his New York readings whenever I can, the way most of us with writer-friends do. We met when I volunteered for LitPAC, a literary political action committee that Steve started in early 2006 to get authors more involved in the political process. I helped run the NYC reading events, spurred to volunteer by a sense of uselessness which came with the knowledge that I'd been out of college for a year and hadn't done much outside of my regular job. The novelty of freedom from reading lists and being able to pick up whatever fiction I wanted had worn off (a bit), so I started a book club and helped promote progressive congressional candidates. Naturally. Only one of the candidates that we supported actually won her race, but it got a lot of people involved in the political process and I wound up with Steve as a friend, so I considered it a decent success. When LitPAC ended, Steve founded and still runs The Rumpus, a website with literary leanings that "focuses on culture as opposed to 'pop culture.'"

We keep in touch vaguely (mostly through the illusion of keeping in touch that is Twitter) and occasionally grab coffee or a drink when he visits New York. We made out once, in a friendly, nothing-else-need-come-of-this kind of way. I had officially ended a significant relationship the day before and was scheduled to meet Steve for a drink that night -- he had told me that there would be several people and I needed to get out of my apartment. When I realized that he wasn't expecting anyone but me, I took the chance to relish my new-found singledom and as a result of this encounter, I popped up in one of this stories. I tend to remember my presence as occupying a single sentence, but I'm actually the subject of a whole paragraph. It begins with my red hair, as descriptions of me usually do, and our encounter sparks a deeper musing on the part of the author about his own sexuality. When I joke about my brief appearance in Steve's work and refer to it as my "sentence of fame," Steve will insist, "It's a very crucial sentence!" I told a few friends about this shortly before Steve released My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, a book of short stories with a cover featuring a redheaded dominatrix in leather. My friends knew it was coincidental ("Um... it is, right?") but when Steve gave me a warm welcome at a Strand reading to promote the book, the whole audience kept shifting their eyes back to me. At the time, I tried to sink into my seat, but now I rather wished that I had a whip to crack them back to attention.

I arrived a bit early for the 826NYC event and got to chat with Steve... mostly about his latest DIY book-tour that he wrote about for the New York Times, where readings were held in the living rooms of people who could promise at least twenty attendees. He presents a very unassuming and compact figure, with a pleasant smile and look to his eye that suggests he's always thinking. I don't think I've ever seen him in clothing where at least one article doesn't have a tear in it. It makes me want to buy him new shirts, but sometimes I suspect the rips might be intentional. His cuticles are always ripped, too, and their bloodiness always seems rather seemed apt, given his stripped down writing style and how he must pick at his own self to achieve such honesty in his work. It must be strange to meet people who already know so much about you... not the way movie stars' fans know details pried from their lives by gossip columnists and paparazzi. People who write memoirs offer their experiences up for dissection an discussion; they invite others in to share intimate and personal scenes. I'm never surprised that his events feature a largely female audience. Whether it's just that more women attend literary functions or that women are drawn to him like moths to an honest and communicative flame with a damaged past... well, perhaps it's both.

Soon, the real attendees of the memoir workshop arrived and we settled in for the session. Steve told us that this particular two-hour memoir class was distilled down from a longer workshop that he'd been giving, so this would feature some key points, using his latest memoir as a touchstone. The book came free with the price of a ticket for the session, or Steve would let you trade it in for two paperbacks of his other work. He kept them all in a rolling suitcase and I had a feeling that if he had any other clothes for this trip beyond the ones he was wearing, they were stuffed in his backpack.

Stephen Elliott has some very definite ideas about writing from personal experience. There might be other authors out there that are just as synonymous with the protagonist-author novel, but if there are, I don't know them. I have never found a writer to be so unflinchingly honest in his writing and still wind up on the fiction shelf. His childhood, group homes, drug use, politics, sexual proclivities... Steve offers them up to the reader in an effort to communicate and connect. He writes almost exclusively about things that have happened to him, and whether that gets labeled as fiction or memoir, you're aware that it's all pretty close to the bone. Consequently, he's had some time to develop opinions on this topic.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the session is an obvious one, but one worth stressing, and it has to do with honesty. Where writing rules are concerned, Steve insists upon what he calls "radical honesty" in one's memoir. The main thing is to never intentionally lie to the reader. They'll figure it out and will not forgive you. Though if there's anything he's learned from his writing, it's that truth is a tricky thing. There's no such thing as one truth when it comes to memories. As an example, he spoke about his father and their very tumultuous relationship. They both remember specific events very differently, which led Steve to note that his father's "truth and memories were valid, even though they directly contradicted [Steve's] memories." (There was also an important reminder to everyone about keeping one's success in perspective, as the memoir genre isn't generally a best-seller game and being a success consists of making maybe $20k a year. As a 38-year old man with two roommates in a one bedroom apartment and seven books to his credit, I hope they understood that he speaks from experience.)

Within The Adderall Diaries, questioning the nature of memories is an overarching theme. There are multiple storylines at play in this memoir, connected to each other by their relevance to Steve and some other surprising links. Struggling with writer's block and an Adderall addiction, Steve started following a court case that involves a man accused of murdering his wife. Hans Resier was an American computer entrepreneur, lacking certain social graces and the ability to connect to many people. We all know a computer geek that merits this description, though few go on to murder their wives. While working in Russia, Hans met Nina through a dating company that bears a resemblance to mail-order bride systems. They had two children and then separated, when Nina supposedly left Reiser for his best friend, Sean Sturgeon. That relationship also ended and Nina began another, but her divorce to Reiser was never finalized. In September of 2006, Nina went missing after dropping off her children with Hans and he was the last person known to have seen her alive.

The Reiser case provides the framework for the book, but this is not a true-crime novel. Not every storyline has to do with murder, but they all have to do with guilt and the loss of innocence. For most of us, murder is shocking enough, but in this story, there are far worse things that people can do to others. The Adderall Diaries is about the pain we inflict on ourselves and each other, addiction to more things than drugs, and the potentially futile struggle to ever know what someone else might be thinking. The tenuous link that the case has to Steve comes through Sean Sturgeon, with whom Steve shared a few girlfriends along with a similar presence in the bondage and sado-masochism sexual scene in San Francisco. Sturgeon purportedly confessed to eight and a half murders, but never gave any names and was never charged. When it comes to the question of why one confesses to a murder that one may or may not have committed... well, that gets us a bit closer to the crux of The Adderall Diaries, for Steve's father also may have committed a murder, though Steve can find no evidence of it. Did I mention that this novel is also about the scars our fathers leave on us by what they did or did not do? There's a lot going on here.

People can recall events in different ways and come to different conclusions after reading the same book. This is a memoir told from a single perspective, but that just seems to make it all the more prone to leave people with separate insights. Stephen Elliott has been telling his story for a long time, but in this, his seventh book, I found a level of communication and conversation that has never before been reached. His writing style here echoes the Adderall: straightforward, focused, and quick... with jittery moments of introspective questions that come with the crash. Just as he is left gasping for breath, so are we -- not because of plot twists or action scenes, but because of the unflinching reality of his story and its confessional fragility, which makes for something that is heartbreaking, haunting, and lovely. Simply put, this is Stephen Elliott's best book to date and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If you haven't read any Stephen Elliott before, you're in for a very eclectic treat as you start through his wide-ranging list of titles. If you're in San Francisco or New York, you have a better chance of learning about memoir from the man himself if you're interested, or even just seeing a Rumpus function. Check out TheRumpus.net or his twitter feed (@S___Elliott) for amusing updates and to see if he ever offers this class again. Clearly, it contains a great deal more insight about the art of writing from one's life experiences. Otherwise, be sure to catch a reading of his, or a Rumpus event, as they're always entertaining. In the spring, Steve was back in New York to preside over a function at the Highline, something The Rumpus was hosting with Flavorpill that featured authors, comedians, and performers. When I arrived, he gave me a large hug and didn't set me down for a while, finally moving back to give me his somewhat sly and boyish grin that's never too far from his lips at events like this. He's in his element when he promotes communities of writers and artists. Steve started the evening off by reading, not from The Adderall Diaries, but a shorter and sexy piece before turning the stage over to Lorelei Lee and others, including Jeffrey Lewis and Michael Showalter. It all seemed a far cry from The Adderall Diaries, which I had only recently finished reading prior to the Highline event, and yet similar elements were there (though no Russian mail-order brides that I could spy).

I did, however, feel like The Adderall Diaries had emphasized to me an important fact of the creative world, which still seemed embodied by several readings and performances from the evening. "Radical honesty" applies to more things than just memoir; it's at the heart of creative expression in most any medium. It's that kind of open communication that fosters interaction and leads to passions that stretch beyond ourselves while diving deep into ourselves. It takes one's story from being a monologue to a back-and-forth discussion, something worth sharing with others. And it's books like The Adderall Diaries and sites like The Rumpus that remind me I'll always find an enlivened and enlightening discussion when Stephen Elliott is as the helm. So check out The Adderall Diaries and let me know what you think. And if you keep reading his other work, I think you're smart enough to not assume every half-naked redhead is me. Just the one.


Venice Observed

'I envy you, writing about Venice,' says the newcomer. 'I pity you,' says the old hand. One thing is certain. Sophistication, that modern kind of sophistication that begs to differ, to be paradoxical, to invert, is not a possible attitude in Venice. In time, this becomes the beauty of the place. Once gives up the struggle and submits to a classic experience. Once accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before by Goethe or Musset but is on the tip of the tongue of the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her furpiece and jeweled pin. Those Others, the existential enemy, are here identical with oneself. After a time in Venice, one comes to look with pity on the efforts of the newcomer to disassociate himself from the crowd. He has found a 'little' church - has he? - quite off the beaten track, a real gem, with inlaid coloured marbles on a soft dove grey, like a jewel box. He means Santa Maria dei Miracoli. As you name it, his face falls. It is so well known, then? Or has he the notion of counting the lions that look down from the window ledges of the palazzi? They remind him of cats. Has anybody ever noticed how many cats there are in Venice or compared them to the lions? On my table two books lie open with chapters on the Cats of Venice. My face had fallen too when I came upon them in the house of an old bookseller, for I too had dared think that I had hold of an original perception.
-- Mary McCarthy, from "Venice Preserved" in Venice Observed

Despite the fact that her first chapter is an insistence that nothing original can be said of Venice anymore, I always find myself looking to Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed as one of the great volumes on Venice. It's a lovely dip into the history and atmosphere of the world's most fascinating city. I've read this before, so this time, everything had a familiar feel to it... perhaps like a lot of Venice (or any city) when you make a return trip... and since I'm planning to go back to Venice next month, it seemed like a good thing to re-read.

The book is divided into small, self-contained chapters that focus on different elements of Venice's history or the author's experience with the city, always focused on the city and the people within it. McCarthy has a lovely way of strolling through the lessons in an effortless fashion, a font of Venetian wisdom. Even if she might have some small criticisms, she is always aware of the magic of the city, the thing that enchants us all, even if it's just a construct for tourists. The city has been a touristic location for four hundred years, after all. Its very existence is improbable and yet it continues to delight, spinning a history of the fantastic and surprising. Many of her observations, indeed, took root in my mind and stick with me as I think of Venice. In particular, her descriptions of qualities that took root in Venetian character, such as the Venetian's inventive and clever nature (the result of a city "with nothing of its own," and so it had "to steal and improvise"), or their complicated relationship with Rome on a political and religious level ("The pope was in Rome, and God was in heaven, but they were in Venice."), and that Venetians focus on "applied reason" (there are no real Venetian writers or philosophers -- "Venetians printed books but seldom wrote them"). She discusses the fairy tale nature of the city (and how people tend to be surprised that Venetians were so money-oriented, but what are fairy tales except stories filled with treasure and gold?) and spends a great deal of time on the many people who have painted the city.

McCarthy's prose is beautiful and detailed. Despite its short length, this really isn't a book one can gobble down with speed -- or at least one should not. It should be savored and the reader should take time to think about each chapter, lest they blend together and the nuggets of illumination be forgotten. Ideally, one might be the perfect companion to a drink while sitting in a Venetian square... because when one looks up from this book, that is the only view one wishes to look upon. One yearns for Venice after reading this book, and while the longing for Venice might always accompany those who have visited that magnificent city, there's something rather painfully delicious about piquing that hunger with books like this that make the city come alive in one's mind.


Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl

Well, there's no subtle twist to this book; it's exactly what it promises to be: Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl offers a glimpse at a year in the life of a high-class London working girl, though as far as "unlikely" goes, it might be up for debate... perhaps just pleasantly atypical. The original title (or at least the British title) is Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl and that seems a bit more apt. Thankfully, it is not the kind of diary kept by those who feel the need to document every moment of their day, but rather, Belle writes down snippets -- interesting encounters, conversations, or lists that pop into her head, which are somehow related to her profession or sex in general. While she does go into detail on occasion, I honestly didn't find the sex to be particularly salacious. (Though this book was recommended to me by my very sweet and ladylike roommate, which surprised me a bit.) Perhaps it's the mark of a good sex worker that she can be both detailed and detached. One didn't feel like there was a total lack of intimacy; if anything, her enthusiasm for her work means that she's certainly in the moment, yet Belle is still an intelligent, thinking woman who can step back and assess a situation. When done for the book (and originally, her blog), this means that she can see the truly funny facts of many situations, even if you know she probably didn't laugh at the time. Belle does seem to be a consummate professional.

Quite honestly, I found her life outside of her profession to be the even more fascinating tale. After all, for Belle, prostitution is just a job... though granted, it's a job that frequently impacts her ability to go out with friends on a Saturday night... and her ability to tell the whole truth about her days at work to family or friends, but it is just a job. The thing that makes this particular tale of prostitution unique is the fact that no one is forcing Belle into some kind of sordid lifestyle, fueled by drugs and pimps. After failing to find a decent/interesting job after attending University, she needed to pay rent and almost inadvertently stumbled upon this option, thus allowing her to make a good amount of money doing something she enjoys. Quite frankly, it makes the whole scene practically appealing, particularly as this volume doesn't contain any violent or unpleasant encounters with clients (which would certainly toss in a more somber note to the diary). The worst that happens in Belle's professional life, really, is that she's given a bit of the cold shoulder by her madam after Belle takes an extended holiday and turns down a few client meetings.

So really, work is simple; it's her personal life that can be a bit complicated. Belle tends to not have female friends, but rather, she has a collection of male friends (a group of them are identified as A1, A2, and so on, then collectively referred to as the As), including particular friend, N, who is a bit of a closer friend (and a somewhat stronger personality/presence) as opposed to the As. When the diary begins, Belle also has a boyfriend (referred to as The Boy) who is aware of her chosen profession, but the relationship ends and Belle embarks upon dating (though The Boy does pop back into the narrative once in a while, as exes tend to do). It's Belle's relationships with her male friends that really make the book interesting, for most of the relationships have, at one time, had a sexual element to them. That everyone remains friends and civil is the impressive feature, but it also puts an interesting twist in the dynamics between them, particularly when Belle brings potential suitors along, as these fellows often feel a little possessive and protective of their Belle.

As far as the writing goes, Belle is smart and has an amusing perspective on her industry. It's the insider's look that most people will want and this certainly provides it, though one has to wonder if darker elements were edited out, thus allowing the book to be a sexier read, or if there really weren't any nasty encounters. Honestly, if Belle's experience of the sex industry was the norm, then the world would have much less of a problem with the industry in general, though unfortunately it's just not the case. Belle generally has respectful clients simply looking to satisfy sexual cravings and Belle enjoys sex. She gives the impression of being a generally happy person, pleased with her professional career (though aware that it is a young woman's game) yet not terribly pleased at the secrecy surrounding her life that makes her unable to share certain things with loved ones for a multitude of reasons. When considering the perspective of her friends, it's hard to find fault with her choices. Certain people can be judgmental and naturally, they can be concerned for her safety, but most of the guys in her life seem supportive and Belle herself seems quite level-headed. The book itself doesn't have much of a trajectory, but then, it is a diary. Things just kind of fizzle out and one can hardly insist that there be major plot points and revelations to produce some kind of coherent closure to the year. Reading this on my nook, I was a bit surprised at the abrupt ending, though I'm not sure what else I might demand to make it more satisfying. Some of her encounters with clients are amusing, though on the whole I found myself wishing that I had the income to support Belle's lingerie habit.

Clearly, Belle de Jour is a pseudonym and the book was originally published with the author listed as Anonymous. Originally, there was a blog (http://belledejour-uk.blogspot.com/) kept by an anonymous London call girl and that was the basis for the book. Two "further adventures" sequels were published, too (though only the second one is listed officially as memoir and the third is deemed a fiction even if it was based on real events). Showtime bought the rights and ran a series that lasted two seasons called Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starring Billie Piper. In late 2009, Dr. Brooke Magnanti came forward as the author after reportedly being threatened with exposure by an ex. At the time, people called the anonymity of the author to be one of the great literary questions of the time, with speculation rampant over who might be the real author. It was around the time that Dr. Magnanti stepped forward that I remembered hearing about the book (and, more specifically, remembered the sexy ads for the Showtime series), so I rented the series and then read this at the recommendation of my roommate. Even though the world now knows the name of the woman behind the lingerie, I still think of the writer as Belle.

Ultimately, if you think that reading a short and mildly clever take on being a London call girl is something that might interest you, I think you'll be pleased with the result. I did, however, feel like I was left wanting more and that's not quite the mark of a good call girl (after all, shouldn't she leave you feeling satisfied and, if anything, wanting a repeat performance in the future?), but there's always the sequels. Perhaps I would have been happier with the book if I hadn't seen the Showtime series first, which (obviously) provides more narrative structure and sexier visuals (though the second season features the introduction of another call girl to serve as a friend of Belle's and she's a bit annoying). Still, it was an amusing enough read, even if I was constantly reminding myself that this isn't a typical prostitution story. If nothing else, it's refreshing to see a smart woman writing about sex without an emphasis on eventually getting married and settling down. She's clearly a strong and independent person who's taken control of her life and is making decisions that might not be mainstream, but they seem to have paid off in the end. (Is it possible to use any turn of phrase in writing about prostitution without feeling the need to say "no pun intended"?) I don't feel any real need to read the sequels, but the writing is quick and smart while the book in general is fun and easy (see what I mean?).