A life more ordinary

Last night Chris and I watched a Netflixed DVD of the 1980 film Ordinary People. I’ve been on something of a mission to find and watch movies that I watched repeatedly on cable during my childhood, movies that imprinted on me for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s a movie like The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, where you feel compelled to simply confirm that yes, there really was a disco sports movie about a basketball team that harnessed the power of astrology to win the championship (also they rode in a sparkly hot air balloon). And sometimes it’s a movie like Ordinary People, which is one of those dysfunctional-families-of-the-80s award-winning things. As a kid it fascinated me because it was set on the North Shore of the Chicago area and portrayed an affluent lifestyle that I both resented and envied. Somehow I couldn’t get enough of the Ordinary People family, with their golf games and Nordic sweaters and their many, many psychodramatic tics.

Donald Sutherland plays the most sensitive and kindhearted tax lawyer ever in the history of the North Shore, and he lives in a big white house with his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, and his son, Timothy Hutton. Mary Tyler Moore puts silver napkin rings on napkins and lines them up just so in the buffet drawer, which is how you know she’s an asshole. Timothy Hutton has a bad haircut that he gave himself in the mental hospital and he spends the first half hour or so looking (and kind of acting) like he’s been punched in the face. They’re all trying get past the boating-accident-death of the oldest son, “Buck,” who appears in flashbacks as the only one in the family who isn’t brittle and awkward. Timothy Hutton is so guilt-wracked as the surviving brother that he attempted suicide, and now he’s trying to get his life back together and date a very young, baby-faced Elizabeth McGovern. Judd Hirsch is his outpatient therapist; he smokes and swears and wears ribbed cardigans and has a dingy shitburger office. I know it sounds like I’m making fun of this movie, but it’s honestly good. You can laugh at the on-the-nose portrayals of classic dysfunction even as you admire the performances.

I am kind of sad Mary Tyler Moore didn’t spin off this role into a TV show called Brittle, Privileged Mother, where every week a guest star tries and fails to emotionally connect with her. It would be a sitcom, because apparently I am at an age where I find that premise hilarious.

But I also find myself remembering my younger self when I watch this movie, and how I gazed at the autumnal landscape of Lake Forest and the preppy outfits and the tidy homes. Much of the setting resembled Oak Park, where I grew up, but with the patrician affluence cranked up an extra few notches. The Ordinary People family didn’t resemble mine at all, but whenever I saw the movie I liked to imagine I was looking into my future, when would wear tartan skirts to choir practice and come home to a beautiful and oppressive household and run upstairs to my room in anguish. I liked to think that by watching I was getting ready for all that.

I am not terribly disappointed that my life turned out differently. Except, I guess, for the part where Judd Hirsch was supposed to be my therapist.


The wind blows like crazy against my office window whenever the seasons are in transition or the temperature changes quickly. Wind Of Change, why must you be so literal as you rattle the stupid windows?

But I guess there is a corresponding truth, because stuff is starting to happen, especially with the book. For the past twenty months The Wilder Life’s life has progressed at the glacial pace of my writing, so it’s a little stunning to have things going so quickly now over the past few weeks: copyedits, design, page proofs, the metadata going out into the universe and getting sucked up into the pneumatic tubes of all the retail websites. And even though I spend every day at work bringing books into existence, this whole process still feels mystifying from the other end. Like I’ve found myself looking at the line on the Amazon page that says “Shipping Weight: 1 pounds” and wonder how anyone could know that at this point. Even when I know perfectly well how it’s possible, because I know there are production managers and purchase orders and specs and templates and cartons and I have to sit in meetings about this stuff every day, but never mind, it’s still sort of magic when it’s your book.

So now there it is—the book writing part was so huge and lonely, it’s hard to get used to the way things are now, with the book stuff just bubbling along on its own in one corner of my life.  Between now and the pub date in April things will be intermittently frenzied: for two weekends in October I’ll be flying out to bookseller trade shows where I’ll meet a whole lot of indie bookstore folks at these speed-date-type dinner events. I still can’t believe that I get to think about other things.

Such as: remember how Chris and I decided that in exchange for his accompanying me to LauraPalooza I would go with him to see all the movies in the Cremaster Cycle? I mean I knew I would do it, but I guess I was counting on being able to make a funny-cute joke about the whole thing for a while before the films showed up at an art house somewhere. But ha, only six weeks after our return from Mankato, there they were at the Music Box! It turns out it’s really hard to casually describe the Cremaster films to people. You tell them that it’s an eight-hour conceptual epic made by Björk’s husband, and it’s about Masons and Mormons and Houdini and the Chrysler Building and bees, and that it has Norman Mailer and opera and the drummer from Slayer and a lot of things made from Vaseline in it, but when you get started trying to explain nobody really wants to meet you halfway. But for three nights straight we went to the theater, and it was fun (in its way). It was also by far the least Laura-Ingalls-Wilder thing I’ve ever done.

But you probably want to see another picture of me with a Little House on the Prairie TV show cast member, don’t you? Well, here you go:

That is none other than Alison Arngrim, aka NELLIE OLESON!!!, who did her one-woman show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, at Davenport’s last weekend. And if it wasn’t obvious from this review I wrote, I thought her book was great even by non-celebrity-memoir standards.  Her show was full of anecdotes about playing Nellie but also about growing up in Hollywood in the 60s and 70s. The audience was invited to write questions on index cards for her to answer at the end, and SOMEONE, I’m not saying who, asked her if the guy who played Doc Baker was as sexy in real life as he was on the small screen. (Answer: yes, but apparently a lot more people are still hot for Albert after all these years.) Anyway, If she comes to LauraPalooza 2012 they’ll really need to leave room in the schedule for her to discuss things like Dance Fever and Eartha Kitt. Also, she was very cool in person, and I hope that after all those camera flashes she didn’t wind up like Mary Ingalls.

While I do not have awesome stories about Deney Terrio, I will nonetheless be reading funny stuff here in Chicago next week, at Funny Ha-Ha at the Hideout on the 28th, and next month, at Witty Women Writers at the Book Cellar on October 29th. I’ll probably be trying out some stuff from the book, but hey, if you have any requests, let me know. (As long as you come to the show, too.)

Happy first day of fall! When will it be corduroy weather? Come on!

(cross-posted at wendymcclure.net, just to be redundant.)

Til you get enough summer

I was away for half the weekend, but I got back in time to catch a little of this weird and totally-awkward-to-watch author meltdown on Twitter yesterday.  I can’t say I know what Alice Hoffman was thinking (did she just not get that people read Twitter?), but I feel bad for her, that whatever kind of writerly wretchedness she was experiencing happened to be broadcast all over the internet. Oh well, when all the newspaper book reviews go away, maybe she’ll want advice for dealing with crappy online reviews, and then perhaps she can read this Buzz, Balls, & Hype blog post that Jami and I contributed to back in January (and somehow I never managed to link to it before now) about how not to let Amazon reviews get to you.  I don’t know, I guess writers had somewhat different coping skills before the internet, back when you didn’t get to see reviews in other city newspapers until your publisher found them and clipped them and sent them to you via stagecoach* mail delivery. Now it’s all so much more immediate, and the immediacy goes both ways.

(*Can you tell I’m watching a lot of Little House on the Prairie lately? Remember when Laura won some big writing contest and went to Minneapolis and her publisher wanted her to completely rewrite her books, so they stuck her in a hotel and made her work there because FedEx hadn’t been invented yet?  That’s totally how publishing worked in those days! And then authors were sent off to live in sod shanties for three months while the reviews came out so that they couldn’t recklessly telegraph their vitriolic responses! Really.)

As long as we’re talking about books, you should check out my friend Dave Reidy’s story collection, Captive Audience, which is his first book, and he is just now embarking on a grueling schedule of readings and Quimby’s karaoke parties and no doubt would love any support you can give (i.e., buying the book, coming to the reading, signing up to sing “9 to 5,” etc.).

I can’t believe it’s the middle of summer already. Because of all the work I have to do in my home office this summer, I broke down and got an air conditioner for that room. I tend to hate window air conditioners for the way they make noise, ruin a perfectly good view outside, and just sit there on the windowsill threatening to tip out and kill pedestrians on the sidewalk below. But somehow this year I really love this damn thing; I love that slightly musty air-conditioner scent that it has, because it comes with all kinds of sense memories of grade-school summer vacation. Basically my home office smells like NO SCHOOL FOR THREE MONTHS. I don’t know how that’s going to affect my work ethic, but I am digging it.

Finally, I’m totally late to the elegy party, but here’s how I’ve been breaking my own heart for the past four days…

…by watching all of Michael Jackson’s early low-tech videos. Like the one above and this one.  There’s no John Landis, no gazillion-dollar budget, no fourteen-minute prologue, but holy Jacko, look how exuberant he looks. And look at how funky his moves were! I know everyone loved his moonwalk, but I’m pretty wistful for this era when he was decidedly more earthbound.

Author talks, Bloggangangers and little houses

Old post office

Alert! I’m doing an author talk at StoryStudio Chicago on Saturday, May 30th, along with Stephanie Kuehnert and Simone Elkeles, and we’ll be talking about living the literary life, Chicago-style (because that’s what the program says), which lately for me involves whole days spent indoors eating nothing but pitas from the Al-Khayyam bakery on Kedzie and watching all kinds of unspeakable stuff that I’ve Tivoed from the Hallmark Channel. (For research!) Anyway, both Stephanie and Simone write young adult novels, and seeing as how I write for an adult market and edit for a children’s one, it sort of balances out to YA, right?  I think between the three of us we’ll be able to help you. And I promise that if you come to this it will way be better than if you’d just written me an email asking whatever it is you want to know about writing and publishing, because when you email me it puts off the completion and subsequent publication of my next book by at least forty-five minutes. I’m almost serious here. Really, just come to this thing on the 30th.

It’s great to be writing a book and working on it every day, and yet there are so many things I would rather be doing than writing a book. For instance I wish to high heaven that I could take part in this VC Andrews Reading Challenge (see also here!) because for the past two years or so Chris and I have been going through the books in the original Dollanganger series, wherein I read them aloud to Chris while we’re on long car trips (he drives, I read) and then we thoughtfully discuss the various motifs that appear throughout the series, such as The Lifestyles of the Rich and Dismal (Do the Foxworths always have to go with the heavy draperies and crystal goblets and extremely long dining tables? With all that money, couldn’t they could figure out how to be less creepy?) and Extreme Ballet (Cathy’s pirouette-and-slap fighting technique is unstoppable!).  We are on Garden of Shadows now, which is way much better than the horribly-paced soapy fizzle of Seeds of Yesterday; so much better, in fact, that I’m pretty sure the ghostwriter studied the proto-feminist themes of Daphne du Maurier in grad school, because it is kind of loaded!  I wish I had time to write a paper on it or something!  But read this excellent recap of Flowers in the Attic instead. You will not be sorry.

Oh, and GUESS WHERE I WAS LAST WEEK.  And I was here, too. That’s practically all I can tell you right now, but I will say that when I was in Missouri I met the awesome Catherine Pond, who saw some of the same stuff I did and became my friend. It made me very pleased to know that another writer could tell I was a writer, because, like I said, when you spend half the week at home eating pitas and rearranging sentences and being stuck for hours at a time in the chewy pita pocket of your own mind, you can kind of forget what you are, and sometimes you just need to get out and see little houses.

(Incidentally, I’m interested in hearing from people who have intriguing or hilarious anecdotes about visiting any of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, so drop me a line if you have something to share.)

Chris and I are off to New York this weekend, but more when I get back. See you on the 3oth, too.

Books, beans & barrels of FUN

Lampo #1

You guys, please buy books for Christmas. I know times are tough and the economy is horrible and soon we’re all going to be going around wearing barrels with suspenders, but that’s all the more reason to buy books, so you should buy books.

(Though, just to digress for a moment, how did wearing a BARREL come to be the classic visual shorthand for being destitute anyway? What is the origin of that exactly? Chris and I keep discussing it, and really I would’ve looked it up on the internet by now if I didn’t also suspect that the actual history of barrel-wearin’ involves some icky tar-and-featherish kind of tradition that’s just unpleasant enough to ruin the cartoon fun. Chris did submit the question to “Ask Dr. Maddow,” though, and I’m sure Rachel could relate the gruesome truth quite adorably, because that’s her job.)

(Edited to add: while I was working on this entry, I went over to read Comics Curmudgeon, and Josh is wondering the same thing! Ha.)

But anyway, about the books: buy them. You need to buy them. Even if there’s only one book on your holiday shopping list, buy it new, and even better, buy it from a brick-and-mortar bookseller that you’d miss if it weren’t around, because it’s been coming to that lately for a lot of places. Booksellers might have to wear barrels, people! You don’t want to see that, not even on Barnes & Noble, who would need a very big barrel indeed and massive suspenders to hold it up. So buy books. If you can’t think of any books to buy, I’ve got some that I contributed to recently, and for each one of those books you’ll notice there are links to a whole slew of places where you can buy them, or buy other people’s books; really, I don’t care whose books you buy as long as they’re books and as long as they’re new (as in “not used”). Maybe the book thing is on my mind more these days because my job involves books, but really, people need to buy more books, okay? Thank you.

Like everyone else, I am pretty underwhelmed at how this America’s Next Top Model cycle turned out, even though McKey seems perfectly nice and frankly more modelesque than most of the contestants on that show. The best thing about her is her boxing skills and the fact that she likes to grab people and pick them up like the Hulk, so Chris and I are very much hoping that all her My Life as A Cover Girl commercials next cycle will involve punching and feats of strength, i.e., lifting entire pallets of lip gloss product; holding up runways; etc. We’re going to need something to look forward to in Cycle 12.

In other news, it was cool to get mentioned (on page 3)  in this Onion A/V Club article on blog books. (Buy those books, too! Well, maybe you don’t need to buy Tucker Max’s, not now at least, because if the publishing and book retail industry falls the hell apart and becomes one creepy company, you can definitely count on being able to buy a Tucker Max book with extra big Helvetica print at the Tucker & Max Bookstore in every airport terminal in America WOO HOO AWESOME and then you can prop up your copy on the edge of your barrel and read to your heart’s content. I’m just saying! Buy BOOKS.)

Finally, I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year. Does anybody have a good green bean recipe? The fried onions are standing by…

Lamest girl in blogland breaks unexplained hiatus just to plug some stuff & then leaves on vacation

It is what it is, people.

First there is this, and you should come:


If you show up at the Hideout on Wednesday night at 7pm you’ll see me and the other funny ladies read wacky stories about female stuff like housework and ovaries and how chocolate is better than husbands. Or… something. Just be there!

Also the new BUST is out, where you can read my PopTart column on Miley Cyrus, poor little flutterbudget that she is. I just turned in the next issue’s column on Monday, which is one of the 1,472 reasons why I haven’t been able to update.


(I am rereading all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books right now, which is why I am saying a word like “flutterbudget.” I will tell you more about it when I get back.)

Oh, and I ran a 5K somehow. I have to tell you about that when I get back, too. NEXT WEEK I PROMISE, and look, here’s some ice cream and a five dollar bill, go buy yourself anything you want in the Walgreen’s toy aisle and DON’T GIVE ME THAT SAD FACE OKAY? Okay.