Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Ubiquitous Book Deal

I took The Bambina for a walk today and ended up at a bookstore where we picked out some new books for her. As we walked to the back of the store where they keep the kids' stuff, I noticed that EVERY G-D*MN PERSON ON THE PLANET HAS WRITTEN A BOOK! Were you aware that Dr. Phil's SON wrote a book? That The Runaway Bride has a hefty book deal? That no-name people who were nonsense federal jargon workers such as "Deputy Undersecretaries for the Executive Branch's Judicial Legislative Committee of the Whole" [I'm making that up] have written numerous books on their experiences in the current and former administrations? They are all piled in the Politics and Government section--and I'm standing there thinking, "Who ARE these people and how did they get book deals?"

So I was thinking that I should get on the bookwriting bandwagon, and then realized that I can't for the following reasons:

1) My dad is not Dr. Phil.

2) I'm not sure how to get on the Oprah Book Club long list, never mind her short list.

3) I have no good recipes that I could share while wearing a wee skimpy apron on the book cover or while yelling contrived catch phrases about garlic and rosemary.

4) I have not beaten testicular cancer.

5) I have not been a former groupie to today's biggest rap stars.

6) I have never left a man at the altar.

7) I have not played any major or minor roles in the JonBenet Ramsey, OJ Simpson, Elizabeth Smart or Natallee Holloway investigations.

8) I haven't yet had time to come up with my "100 Conservatives Who are Ruining America" list. Been too busy being a Liberal Who Is Ruining America...

9) I have no desire to encourage others to take The Road Less Traveled, find out The Color of their Parachute, become Highly Effective or Achieve Unlimited Power.

10) I have not served in any presidential administrations, either by drafting famous speeches like "Ask not.." or "Axis of Evil"...or by performing fellatio on the Commander in Chief.

So, as you can see, I'm out of luck. Although I do wonder what is going on with book publishing today, where the biggest books (excluding Harry Potter) are all crap. All the self-help books about how to Get Thin, Be Gorgeous, Manage Your Time, Get Smarter. It's kind of sad in a way that only I can articulate since I have purchased most of them! The truth is that the answers to the questions that had prompted me to buy those books were found only by reading more Dickens, more Vonnegut, more Willa Cather--and hell, even more 'Nick and Nora' books {Dashiell Hammett}. Only by reading something and having lightbulbs go off from the inside/out, did I get the answers I was seeking. By trying to force the lightbulbs from outside/in, all I got was a shelf of now-totally embarrassing pablum that I have to hide before company visits, or pretend that it was here when we bought the house...

I wish we could get to a place where "good stories, well told" whether fiction or non, was the standard for excellence; where reading the book is transformative in some way that does not include a seven day/four step/three agreements plan for exorcising those parts of us we dislike. The best example I can think of is Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.

It tells the story of the author's childhood in Ireland. I feel a certain kinship with Irish people because their parents' upbringings in "the old country" tend to mirror that of my parents in Scotland. The values are the same. The history of being screwed over by the English is similar. The grinding poverty was similar. I blithely picked up the book and started reading it, not knowing that it would take me to places I hadn't really wanted to go.

In short, I damn near cried through most of the book because it quite accurately describes my mother's childhood circumstances in Scotland, the poverty of which made me ache for her, all these years later. I had known, in general, that she was poor, had one pair of shoes and one dress that she wore every day and one other dress for church {which even for a poor city like Glasgow was considered to be what Barbara Bush would call "underprivileged"}, lived in a rougher area of the city with a father who drank his paycheck and a mother who had to work nights at a fish market to compensate, etc etc. But until I read Angela's Ashes, I never really allowed myself to feel it as a daughter should.

As I read his book, I felt myself understanding my mother better than I ever had. Why she is so stoic, why she says "what a terrible waste of money to buy me a birthday gift!" {which always annoyed me but now makes me want to hug her}, why we were never allowed to have "I'm sorry" make everything okay; we always had to make some kind of amends to someone we'd wronged, be it financial or social or whatever. "I"m sorry" was not good enough, because in the end it was just an "easy way out" without the action or commitment to back it up. I understand why she and my dad worked several jobs to put us through college so that we'd never have to be so poor. I also understand why they also have not paid for a single day of higher education after undergrad (besides being tapped out!), since they wanted to teach us to depend on ourselves, live within our means, and gain the understanding that something worth paying for has to be worth working for, and if we weren't willing to work and sacrifice and make hard choices in order to have it, then surely we couldn't credibly say that it was worth having.

I could go on and on about the doors that Frank McCourt opened between me and my mom, but they would all mirror the same thought: Frank McCourt told the story for my mother that she could not bring herself to tell, and in doing so, he gave me a window into her life I would never have had otherwise (she admits to not reading past Chapter Two). Yes, things in reality are still very much the way they were pre-Frank: She still doesn't say too much about her childhood, still doesn't think we should spend money on her, still doesn't emote too much about anything. But I "get" her. I feel her. I know her in a way that I would never have known her if I had not read that book. His book was transformative in the most pure, non-forced, non-Anthony Robbins/Deepak Chopra way. It changed me from the inside/out, which then changed my ways of interacting with my mom, which then changed everything in all the ways that matter.

Thank you Frank McCourt. Thank YOU, Simon & Schuster. Now if only Frank McCourt would leave Dr. Phil's son at the altar in order to become a groupie for P. Diddy while he battles testicular THAT would be a bestseller!!


Joe Tornatore said...

ironic post. i just got invited to do the Oprah Winfrey show. I am going to be subject matter in a book written by somebody ELSE. I, the writer, am not that accomplished.

Vigilante said...

What a stunning idea.

I never knew my father as an adult. I mean, when I was adult. If I could only find a book or two which I could imagine he might have written... I mean, if he were given to writing - he was a mathematician (given to solving equations, as opposed to life)... Then I could know more of him, instead of just about him.

Anonymous said...

Much like Angela's Ashes made you cry, this post made me cry. I realize how little I really know my parents, and what a sad thing that is.

You are closer to Frank McCourt territory than you think, E.