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Pop Culture of My Life: Maria Semple on Nancy Drew, 'Color Me Beautiful,' and 'Smash'

The ‘Today Will Be Different’ author fills EW in on the pop culture that inspired her

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Maria Semple, the author of Today Will Be Different and former writer for Arrested Development, adores costumed babies, cries over The Call of the Wild, and subjects potential BFFs to the “color talk.” Below, Maria Semple breaks down the pop culture of her life.

A book that really cemented me as a writer 

Ulysses by James Joyce. The complexity of language, the audacity of form, the compassion Joyce brings to his working class heroes. It felt like a gauntlet.

A book I’ve pretended to have read

OK fine. Ulysses by James Joyce. I couldn’t make it past page five of that gibberish. 

The book that people might be surprised to learn that I loved

Color Me Beautiful by Carole Jackson. Twenty years ago, I was at dinner with a friend who interrupted me mid-story and said, “I’ve held my tongue long enough. You dress like an autumn when you’re really a summer.” Thus began my continuing obsession with Color Me Beautiful. Nobody makes it into my inner circle without getting the “color talk.”

The last book that made me laugh out loud, and the last one that made me cry

Before a long flight, I pick out a classic in the airport bookstore. Something I feel I should have read but have resisted. A while back I chose Call of the Wild by Jack London. It weirdly had me in tears from the first page though the last. 

I’m a hard laugh. So the last book that made me laugh was a while back. The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey.  It’s a relentless barrage of side-splitters that will get anyone kicked out of bed.

My literary crush

The entire Goldman family in Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack. Father, sons: they’re all brilliantly funny and sexy. And Barbara Trapido, for that matter, for dreaming them up. 

The TV show I think doesn’t get its due

Smash, Season One. In my mind, perfection. I didn’t watch Smash until recently, but they must have gotten serious grief for Season One because they tried a desperate revamp in Season Two. It ruined the show’s corny charms. I’m imagining there’s a Smash Season One cult out there. If so, please may I join?

The last book I gave as a gift

Baby! by Avinassh V and Sirish Rao. My go-to baby present. It’s a bunch of images of Indian babies dressed as politicians, scientists, revolutionaries and such. The introduction claims they’re street posters ubiquitous throughout India. I recently traveled to India and didn’t see one. My Indian friends claim they’ve never seen one either. No matter, these darling images are an endless source of joy to adults and babies alike.

The song that always makes me feel better

“River” by Joni Mitchell.  Sung from the point of view of a troublemaking, self-pitying nutjob.  I can’t help it, it always makes me feel connected to anyone who’s deep-down broken, aka all of humanity.

The fictional group of pals I’ve always felt I belonged in

Nancy Drew’s posse. Or I should say, I thought so until I sat down to read my daughter The Secret of the Old Clock. What I had fuzzily remembered as being full of girl power and adventure was in fact lots of mind-numbing talk of wills and codicils.  Perhaps a new literary dream team is in order. 

What I’m reading right now

Things I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I have a twelve year old daughter whose quality of reading I’m attempting to kick up a notch. (No offense, Pretty Little Liars series.) I’m picking books I genuinely want to read that we can read together. Next up, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. It’s never too early to get ‘em started on books they will one day admit they only pretend to read! 

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