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The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

3 May

I’m happy to present another post by Sam Glass, on a book that, though I may never have heard of it, it has since won a spot on my ever growing summer reading list.

A few weeks ago, I realized that all of my favorite writers were men. This was pretty embarrassing. After soliciting recommendations via Facebook status update, I’m equipped with a comprehensive and rather intimidating list of female authors to explore. It’s important for everyone, but particularly heterosexual men in their early 20’s (yours truly), to be cognizant of how gender is privileged in the literary canon. To that end, I’ve begun an eight-week regimen in which my reading will be limited to books and short stories authored by women. The Dud Avocado was first.


The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Quick Read: Yes.

Difficulty: Not difficult, very funny!

Synopsis: Sally Jay Gorce, fresh out of Sweet Briar College, is living in Paris with the intent to see new things, meet new people, and have new experiences—“hell-bent on living” is her phrase. The first chapter introduces her with pink hair, an evening dress (her other clothing is at the cleaners), a luxurious Italian lover, and a sharp, intelligent voice. Living on money from a wealthy Uncle who’s decided to give her two years of no-strings-attached adventure, Sally Jay careens about France like some sassy knight-errant—there’s little rhyme or reason to her actions beyond the aforementioned desire to “live.” She makes some sensible decisions but many foolish ones, and her native intelligence and charm is often put at odds against the typical foibles of the young: naiveté, credulousness, irritability, and ennui. Sally’s story dips and crescendos with a rotating cast of characters, and eventually culminates in rather beautiful realization from which the novel derives its title. It is a very good story.

What makes this book awesome? 

The voice. Seriously. Sally Jay’s narration is the lynchpin of the novel, and it transmutes the interesting-but-not-incredible events of the story in pure gold. Wry observations are peppered throughout but the tone is never strained; Elaine Dundy’s command is pretty impressive for a first-time novelist. Comparisons to Salinger and Mary McCarthy spring to mind. There’s the same assuredness in her prose, and the same delightful abnegation of post-modern conventions in favor of telling a damn good story—reading The Dud Avocado feels like spending an afternoon in the presence of a particularly magnetic stranger. This isn’t to say The Dud Avocado never delves into deeper territory: amid the jokes, many considerations of what it means to be a young girl in a strange land evolve against the events that play out in the story. One of my favorite lines is spoken by Sally Jay after she realizes her Italian lover is only after her family’s money. Laughing, she says, “Oh thank you, Teddy. Thank you for restoring my cynicism. I was far too young to lose it!” The Dud Avocado is a good book in any case, but it’s especially pertinent to the young, smart, and unwise.

Elaine Dundy, seen here looking as though maybe she's got a good joke for Groucho Marx.

Some neat-o facts:

  • Groucho Marx loved the book so much he wrote Elaine Dundy a letter: “I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you’re the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado. It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).”
  • The Dud Avocado is semi-autobiographical. Dundy once said of Sally Jay: “”all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up.
  • The rest of Dundy’s life was pretty crazy as well. She married a British dramatist and began to hang out with Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Laurence Olivier. She also wrote a biography of Elvis Presley that Kirkus Reviews called “the most fine-grained Elvis bio ever.”

If you like this, try: The Group, Mary McCarthy; Bonjour Tristise, Francoise Sagan; Daisy Miller, Henry James



When They Turn a Classic Book into a Movie and Other Dilemmas

13 Mar

I’m several days behind on this piece of news, but on the off-chance you haven’t heard, the classic beat generation book On the Road is being turned into a movie and the trailer has been released:

Now, I’ve never read Jack Kerouac, but any lit nerd worth their salt knows someone who toted this book around with them in high school or early college (or maybe even beyond), and the idea of it being a movie now might be a reason for them to go into a period of mourning. This period of mourning might also be in part because Kristen Stewart, the highly emotive actress, is in it, but I digress.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Kerouac, I think we can all relate to the strange sensation of seeing a favorite book adapted to the big screen and thinking to ourselves, “My God, why the awful special effects? Why such dreadful casting? Why did they cut that wonderful scene in that wonderful part of the book that was so wonderful for me to read that first time around?” It’s always a shock, and it’s rarely done faithfully to the work itself. As obvious as it might be to point out, one of the few times Hollywood did try to make a movie that was completely faithful to the book was the seventh Harry Potter movie, and they cut that into two parts. There are also BBC versions of Jane Austen works that follow the text so closely they are nearly four hours long.

What say you, Better Know a Book-ers? Do you have a favorite book-turned-movie? Least favorite? What makes a good, faithful version that isn’t a million hours long?

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

4 Jul

Happy 4th of July everyone! Though the day is nearing its end, I thought I’d highlight an author who I think is a sure-fire All-American: Flannery O’Connor. I’ve read about 2/3 of her short stories featured in The Complete Stories (there are so many! 32 of them, I believe), and while they have a true Southern twang to them, they also encapsulate the American voice, in all its hope and anxiety and desperation. Though O’Connor only lived to be 39, her influence on American writing today is a large and looming presence, even if she is sometimes forgotten about outside of high school or college English classes.

And hey…if you’re looking for a good beach read, what better than short stories that you can read as many or as little of as you want? You don’t have to find a convenient chapter or paragraph break to stop, and you’ll never forget a plot point. It’s always a great choice.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

Published: 1971 as a complete collection–the stories themselves were published in smaller volumes from 1955 till her death in 1964.

Genre: short fiction, in American/South Gothic style, dark humor, sometimes satire.

Difficulty: Not at all difficult.

Quick Read: The book as a whole, not really. The stories individually? Yes!

Synopsis: Now clearly no one wants to read my summarization of a bajillion short stories, so I can maybe highlight a few interesting ones for now. Arguably her most famous one, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a real classic–the story of a family whose supposedly feebleminded grandmother fears a faraway serial killer she hears about, and when no one takes her seriously, they realize she may have had reason to be afraid. The other most famous one is “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the story of a disgruntled son whose naive but well-meaning mother forces him to ride the bus with her. When his mother accidentally gets in trouble, his struggle against her worsens until it is just too late. Some other great ones that don’t often get mentioned include “The Displaced Person” (for fans of political incorrectness and post-WWII stories), “The Heart of the Park” (if you ever wonder about homeless folks), “The River” (not for anyone who is easily saddened), and “Good Country People” (for all you fellow literary feminists out there, chew on this one).

If a large book of stories intimidates you, try her smaller collections of short stories, named after the first two stories I profiled and go from there. No way you’ll be disappointed. No way.

What makes this book awesome: No, O’Connor isn’t Twain or Faulkner or Morrison or any of those super legendary Southern American writers, but she is important. A lot of contemporary fiction writers have been inspired by her sense of realism, her use of Southern dialect, and her character’s vivid voices.

You will feel as though these are characters you’ve met before–the homeless man in your park, the elusive neighbor down the street, the woman living in a house out on a dusty nameless road in East Bumblefudge, Georgia that you ran into once on a road trip (not a place you’ll find on a map, don’t try it, or maybe do?). Her characters are incredibly Southern, but never flat or boring.

And while pretty much every story of hers has a similar plot structure–a slow build-up of tension that finishes with a twist and a shocking yet satisfying ending–it always feels new, feels right, and leaves the reader with a sense of closure. Now, depending on the story, sometimes it’s tragic closure, sometimes it’s redemptive…but it is certainly never what you thought you saw coming.

Flannery may have been ill, but the birds she bred were sick. And not in the going-to-die-sort-of-way.

Some neat-o things to know (brace yourself, I do love Flannery):

  • According to the introduction of this book, Flannery’s southern accent was so strong when she came to the infamous University of Iowa writing workshop to ask to be allowed to enroll that she had to write down anything she wanted to say to them. Read one story, you can totally see her having an accent like that.
  • She bred peacocks. Hell yeah she did. Why? Because she could. See photo.
  • Rumor has it she wrote her stories straight as they were and, in her words, “never edited.” That’s either the cockiest lie ever told or the most badass truth I personally have ever been told.
  • Flannery was quite the Christian, and claims all of her stories are about Christianity, though many have trouble seeing religion in a flattering light throughout her works. What say you, intelligent commenters?

If you like this, try: any short stories by George Saunders, The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, anything by Mark Twain

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

27 Jun

So chances are almost everyone had to read The Catcher in the Rye. And most everyone loves it. It baffles me that more people haven’t read Franny and Zooey–it’s angsty and awesome and existential, even more so than Catcher.

Published:1961. “Franny” was published as a short story in 1955, “Zooey” as a novella in 1957.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Genre: Fiction

Difficulty: Not difficult.

Quick Read?: Fairly. I read this on a commuter train over 2 days.

Synopsis: In “Franny,” the first part of the book, we see young Franny arrive at an Ivy League college to attend a football game with her beau, Lane. She brought with her a book she has been reading for a religion class called The Way of the Pilgrim, which inspires her to repeat prayer over and over until it becomes like a “heartbeat.” This focus on her prayer, and her inattention to both her date and the upcoming football game, cause her to collapse.

The second part of the book, “Zooey,” tells the story of Franny’s older brother as he discusses the nature of life, prayer, and religion with her. Her collapse when she was with Lane has meant she needed to come home, where she sleeps on the couch and does little else. Though we first meet Zooey (an aspiring actor) smoking in the bathtub, he is eventually able to calm her down and give her closure by sharing with her a secret from their past.

Day-umm. Don't let anyone tell you Salinger wasn't sexy.

What makes this book awesome?: I mostly answered this above, but, it seemed to me like a more existential, older version of what we see in the unforgettable Holden Caulfield: angst, growing up, corruption, and authenticity. This felt like a more “grown-up” kind of work, like the next step for any Salinger-lover (or curious reader, for that matter). The amount of wonderful language and existential reach in such short works is astonishing as well.

If you like this, you might like: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Frank O’Hara’s poetry, Howl by Ginsberg, anything by Nabokov, The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, Nine Stories by Salinger