July: Eat, Watch, Read
Some - but not too many - recommendations.
Eat: It’s the summer of hot dogs. I’m ready to go all in on their superiority to burgers. I’m showing up to your backyard barbecue with my own dogs, buns, and a batch of Betty Crocker box brownies. If I’m feeling elegant, I’m bringing fresh fava beans to snack on (blanched, peeled, olive oil, flakey salt, shreds of parmesan), and an intensely lemony arugula salad. If I’m extremely elegant, I’m bringing Cheetos. Please serve me tiny sippy cups of tequila shaken with ice and lots of lime. My kids are going to melt down because I’ve kept them up too late – and yours will probably also melt because I fed them hot dogs and brownies. May Summer Last Forever.
Watch: Jeremy Irons. I admit he’s been on my mind because I listen to “Be Prepared” from The Lion King almost every day. But Irons has always been it for me. During a stretch where I was alone and writing, I made a plan to watch movies that were “related” to my book. I started with Reversal of Fortune, based on the famous Claus Von Bülow murder trial (linking to Dominick Dunne’s wickedly gossip-filled Vanity Fair piece). Then came Damage. Then came The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And finally, Adrian Lyne’s much-derided Lolita. I’ve seen it more than once but for various reasons couldn’t stomach it. I do appreciate how pathetic and plainly sociopathic Irons’ Humbert is. Also, it’s shot so gorgeously, it looks like it’s printed on silk.
At that point I was far away from my book. I wanted anything with Jeremy Irons as romantic lead. Sinister, lusty, erudite, dishonest. I wanted his face to take up the whole screen, his voice to narrate my dreams. In college, my boyfriend acted in a school production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a classic adultery story told in a formally inventive way. The boyfriend and I used to stay up late eating Papa John’s pizza and reading the play out loud. I’m no kind of actor, but I knew Emma’s part by heart. We went to the library and rented a VHS of the film version with Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley. We then rented a VHS player (I’m not that old). Irons plays Jerry, the weakest of the three parts in my opinion, but he was irresistible, a lanky, rakish foil to Kingsley’s compact power. Maybe Irons’ long-standing relationship with Pinter - a playwright I read over and over - adds to his allure for me. I recommend it, both reading the play and the film, though I have no idea where you can watch it.
All of these Irons movies are adaptations of excellent books. I’m not going to rank them . But if you haven’t seen Damage, it’s a pleasantly strange and sensual way to spend two hours. The much-hyped sex scenes are a bit flat but watching Jeremy Irons go crazy-in-lust over his son’s fiancé (peak Juliette Binoche) is just the right amount of twisted. Plus, pitch-perfect cottagecore set design. For what it’s worth, I’ve been hearing for years that the book is even better than the film.
Watch: I loved this wholesome twitter thread on lake house movies. I just rented a lake house and it came with shelves of VHS tapes. My children were enthralled by them. Is it a book? A toy? Julian fell asleep staring at the Jurassic Park video cassette, studying the back cover like it was a hieroglyph. My ideal lake house pick? True Lies, baby!
Read/Watch: Something is happening between me and “the West,” and it’s confusing. I confess a previous distaste for its reductive narratives: cowboys and Indians, the untamed frontier. But this recent confusion began with Susanna Moore’s The Lost Wife, the story of a white woman abducted by Sioux during the Sioux Uprising of 1862. I was so engrossed I read at stoplights. The experience sparked a dormant fascination with a certain kind of American mythology. What was a “pioneer?” The “frontier?” What did slogans like Manifest Destiny or terra nullius accomplish, given what happened to the Native Americans at the end of the nineteenth century?
Cities repulsed my father. He was infatuated with all the libertarian ideals that the West promised to a serious hunter, gun owner, and outdoorsman. Other than The Wall Street Journal, he read Louis L’Amour westerns exclusively. Living with him in semi-rural Colorado only made me more skeptical of nationalism and stories men have created in its service. (I’ve always been suspicious of men in general.) I have tried to watch Deadwood a handful of times but never could summon a genuine interest. The same with Cormac McCarthy. I’ve never visited a ghost town. Recently, while on a writing retreat in Santa Ynez (an area of rural ranchland in Santa Barbara county), I walked into a restaurant and saw men dressed like cowboys at the bar, hats tipped down towards their drinks. When I got home, I told my husband that it creeped me out. How could people wear those clothes, how could they signal like that? In his usual straightforward manner, he reminded me that those clothes aren’t a costume for those men. That’s just what they wear to work.
During the writing retreat, my friend, novelist Edan Lepucki, was reading Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers. I was surprised. Knowing her work, it didn’t feel like a natural fit. But over dinner it seemed many of my writer friends are devoted McMurtry fans. I suppose I am too if you count the film The Last Picture Show. But can you count that? I bought Lonesome Dove, and it arrived looking like a doorstopper full of dudes not talking about feelings. I thought, This better be on par with Steinbeck or I’ll never read it. (It was more than on par. I’m not ready to talk about it. My most recent text to Edan was: Will I ever read a book this good again? She responded: No. But Leaving Cheyanne is perfect.)
I’ve been reading about Los Angeles for years. I call it research, but honestly, it’s a plain old obsession. Unsurprisingly, there are whole swaths of California history that I somehow missed. (I say somehow, knowing full well there are no accidental omissions in American history). A few years ago, when I read C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Are Gold—I love that book, and if you’re looking for immersive, literary historical fiction, I think you will too—I realized I knew very little about Northern California. During this year of writing my novel, which has demanded its own research, California history has been a not totally irrelevant side project. I love these few episodes of Citations Needed, especially the one featuring Benjamin Madley, who talks about his book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. I have admittedly not read it all the way through, but the heart of the matter is chilling: from 1846 to 1873, California’s Native population went from 150,000 to 30,000. It wasn’t disease (or it wasn’t just disease). It was slaughter. The violence against Native Americans, the justifications given, the way dehumanization was written by newspapers, by governments at local and federal levels - it’s unconscionable. I realized that my lean into Joy Harjo the past six months is connected to a desire to read other histories. I’m also rereading Natalie Diaz (I’m partial to When My Brother Was An Aztec, as it involves addiction, a perennial favorite topic), and Layli Long Solider’s Whereas.
On a recent flight back to Los Angeles, I tranquilized my kids with their tablets and tried to write. I could not write. I scrolled through the in-flight entertainment options. There was Yellowstone, a show I had heard so much about, all of it excessively polarized. It was the worst, and it was amazing. The most-watched show on television is one that almost no one in the industry watches. So I put on the pilot. It was great—old-fashioned, compelling drama. A true soap opera, emphasis on the opera. Sure, there are weak spots. Lots. The plotlines are bonkers. A lot of the dialogue is tough. If I turned in a script with the line, “All the angels are gone, son. There’s only devils left,” I would be embarrassed. But if Kevin motherfucking Costner delivered the line, then I would think I’m Shakespeare. Also: Cole Hauser’s hot cowboy Rip Wheeler? Are there really men like that out there? I spent a month hiding Yellowstone from my friends—even the two friends who had admitted to me their love for it—wondering what was wrong with me.
It seems clear the sentimentality and sweep of Lonesome Dove is seeping into my viewing of the show. But we know better: these heroes are the villains. How does one empathize with a nineteenth century Texas Ranger (in the case of Lonesome Dove) whose life’s purpose is ridding the continent of indigenous people? McMurtry himself struggled with this:
I’ve tried as hard as I could to demythologize the West. Can’t do it. It’s impossible. I wrote a book called Lonesome Dove, which I thought was a long critique of western mythology. It is now the chief source of western mythology. I didn’t shake it up at all. I actually think of Lonesome Dove as the Gone With the Wind of the West.
I’m still in the process of working this out for myself.
We recently drove through the foothills of the western Sierra Nevada, which is one of the places my husband grew up. The landscape gave us cause to explain to the kids why California is called the “Golden State:” brittle, sepia-steeped hills punctuated by stands of oaks; surging ice-cold rivers; swaying, rolling views. As we passed through the gold towns of Sonora, Auburn, and Placerville, and went by Tuolumne Rancheria (a Native American reservation), I asked Matt: “How are we going to explain this place to our children?” We kept looking out the window at California.
For a start, I’ll have them read. What would you have me add to their lists, and mine?
from “Whereas” by Layli Long Solider:
WHEREAS the word whereas means it being the case that, or considering that, or while on the contrary; is a qualifying or introductory statement, a conjunction, a connector. Whereas sets the table. The cloth. The saltshakers and plates. Whereas calls me to the table. Whereas precedes in invites. I have come now. I'm seated across from a Whereas smile. Under pressure of formalities, I fidget I shake my legs. I'm not one for these smiles. Whereas I have spent my life in unholding. What do you mean by unholding? Whereas asks and since Whereas rarely asks, I am moved to respond, Whereas, I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates, cloth. Without the slightest conjunctions to connect me. Without an exchange of questions, without the courtesy of answers. It is mine, this unholding, so that with or without the setup, I can see the dish being served. Whereas let us bow our heads in prayer now, just enough to eat;
Books mentioned are always available at my author bookshelf.