Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Notes from a Reading Slacker

My reading has been slacking off lately. Seriously. I would normally tell you, “Summer is the BEST time for reading! Pools and beaches…I read so much in the summer!” But that, I am discovering, is a lie. A dirty lie.

My year goes like this:
  • January–March: It’s so cold. I hate the cold. I hate New York. I hate the Northeast. I hate life. Why is it so cold?
  • April–May: It should be getting warmer. Why isn’t it getting warmer? It would be warm by now in Nashville.
  • June–August: I LOVE LIFE.
  • September: Oh god, it’s almost over. Summer, don’t leave!
  • October: Oh no, it’s coming…
  • November–December: How much longer til June?
During those nine months waiting for the warmth, I distract myself with books. But during those three glorious summer months, I can barely sit still long enough to open one. Yet, my office desk is filled with STACKS of books just waiting to be read. And I do want to read them…really, I do.
Therefore, I think I’m going to have to do that thing one does when chaos rules and you don’t know where to start tackling a project: make a list. If I can just figure out where to start, maybe it will seem a little more manageable.
  • Currently Reading: The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. This should’ve been read in about a day, but my slackertude has dragged it out to about a week. Therefore, before I can comment on it, I will have to go back and skim the whole thing again.
  • Next Up: Betsy-Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace. I’ve been meaning to read the Betsy-Tacy series because I never knew of it as a child. But because they’re so short, I feel I need to read a few before I can write anything about them.
  • Sometime After That: Finny by Justin Kramon, Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky, Everything is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert, War Memorials by Clint McCown, the rest of Betsy-Tacy
  • And, Thanks To Reviews I Just Read, Added These To the List At High Priority: The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley, 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton, I Know I Am But What Are You? by Samantha Bee
  • And I STILL Need To Read: New York by Edward Rutherfurd
And since I can barely sit still to read, I surely don’t feel like sitting still long enough to blog about it. I am going home next week for a full 9 days (!!) with few definitive plans, which may give me a chance to catch up on some reading. Or, I may forget about reading and spend my time cruising around Nashville in the car I so love and never get to drive. My money’s going on the latter.
Maybe you’ll just hear from me in September.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June is Audiobook Month

I’ve been meaning to write about audiobooks and audiobook month for a while now, but as it’s still June I guess it’s still appropriate. (The World Cup is quite the distraction.)

Until very recently I’ve had no use for audiobooks. I enjoy reading in my bed, I enjoy reading on the train. If there’s background noise, it’s probably coming from my iTunes or my new television. The only time I could tune into a narrative was when I was actually concentrating on the page before me. I once tried to listen to Nabokov’s Lolita, which is even read by Jeremy Irons, but I could never stay still long enough; I was always distracted, wanting to pick up the text instead.

That of course changed when I got displaced from my apartment. Currently I have to drive to the train station in order to take a train down into the city. It’s an obnoxiously long time to commute; however, as you can well imagine, it allows for a lot of sitting time, potential reading time. Three hours a day are open in such a way. So I figured that at the very least I could try listening to books, at least during the car ride to the train station.

And what an experience it has been. In the right hands, with fantastic voice actors and talented engineers, the excitement of reading comes alive. In many ways, it’s much more thrilling than hearing an author read from his or her own work, as generally the people who are reading for an audiobook are trained professionals, have directors who are able to assist on cadence and emphasis. It’s like being a kid all over again, having a librarian or a parent read a bedtime story to you; you get involved, you laugh along. It’s brilliant. You just have to make sure you select a narrative that is perhaps more effective when it’s heard, not seen and read.

The first audiobook I was able to get through was Bram Stocker’s Dracula, as read by Robert Whitfield. Whitfield was able to do each voice (it’s quite the polyphonic novel, with multiple narrators/letter writers) with a different lilt so that you knew immediately who was speaking without having to backtrack. It also doesn’t hurt that Dracula itself unravels in such a thrilling and mysterious way. Highly recommended for people starting out in the audiobook world.

I moved on to Ernest Hemingway. I thought back to my high school and early college days, and I recalled that The Sun Also Rises was my favourite of his. So I gave it a go. Hemingway’s first novel was read by William Hurt, who was the perfect choice. His deep voice, his emphasis on the full stop – he made Hemingway’s masterwork sound like a prose poem, gave it a life that I had hitherto not heard. Very highly recommended to anyone, especially those enamoured by Hemingway’s staccato style. I followed this up with A Farewell to Arms, read by John Slattery, which was also a good listen; but I found the narrative to drag along. Slattery makes Lt Henry feel quite strong, against all odds.

This morning I finished the novelisation of Despicable Me: The Junior Novel. Now, you may be worried about that decision, as all novelisations of film fall flat; however, this is read by Tim Curry, which was the obvious draw. It’s hysterical. He handles quite the myriad of voices. All with a grand sense of humour. Especially against the American voices – for some reason they sound more like caricatures than real people. Listening to him is like watching someone perform slapstick.
All in all, I have to say I’m hooked on audiobooks right now. That, or I’ve just been very lucky in my selections. If you have any recommendations, I’d be happy to take them.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Party: Communist Cuba

Finally…I fiiiiiinally read a book for the World Party Reading Challenge. The country assignment for May was a choice: any one with a Communist history, past or present. Well, I wasn’t about to devote months of my time to old Russian literature, so I opted for Cuba with Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. I don’t know much about Cuba beyond Castro, so, why not?

When I opened the book and saw a family tree before the first chapter even began, I knew I was in for some trouble. Oh god, how many people am I going to have to keep track of? Well the answer to that is about 5. No, include spouses; make that 9. No, 10. And include children. 15. 14? I lost count.
There’s not much plot, just a set-up of the characters: Celia and Jorge are the head of the family tree. They have three kids—2 girls and a boy, but the boy we don’t really hear from so much (unless I totally missed it). The two girls, Lourdes and Felicia, have their own husbands and kids and their own mess of issues. Sometime in the 1960s (I think?), Lourdes left Cuba for Brooklyn, NY, and Jorge eventually followed because of illness. So only Celia and Felicia (and the absent Javier) are left in Cuba. And Felicia is pretty crazy. Certifiably. Crazy as in, she sets fire to her first husband’s face, burns a woman’s scalp at a hairdresser, and throws another husband off a rollercoaster. She practices black magic; her kids think she’s crazy and seek out their dad. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Lourdes runs a bakery; her daughter Pilar is mostly Americanized and completely late-70s punk; and the two fight all the time.
The meat of the book lies in all these characters and their differences in relation to their homeland of Cuba…mostly their feelings toward the revolution. Celia is very pro-revolution; Lourdes is very anti-; Pilar just kinda rolls her eyes at the whole thing since she never had to live amidst it, and she’d rather just get back to Cuba to visit her grandmother. Aside from the key phrases about the Cuban revolution like “Castro” and “Communism” and “Cuban Missile Crisis,” I don’t know very much about it. In fact, Castro is never referred to by name—simply as “El Lidar”—and it took me a bit to realize that’s who Garcia was referring to. While reading this, I felt like a needed a whole 20th century history lesson so I could understand the full social, political, economic context of it all (that’s what Wikipedia is for). While Celia and Lourdes’ characters focus a lot of Cuba’s politics, Felicia’s illustrates more of Cuba’s culture—the religion, the spirituality, the relationship between men and women.
Celia is obviously the rock of this novel—rock in the sense that everything kinda radiates out from her. We learn the most about her through her present-day perspectives and a series of letters she wrote for decades to her lover of young adulthood. Between Celia and Pilar, we see two completely opposite representations of what it means to be Cuban from different generations and different lifestyles; every drop of Celia’s blood is Cuban, while Pilar lives in American and can’t figure out where she belongs.
Each section of the book contains a narrative focused on each family member—Celia, Felicia, Lourdes, Pilar—but sometimes they’re told in first person by the character, sometimes told in third person from an omniscient voice. It takes a while to get a grasp on each individual, and I was well into the story before I could focus on what was happening, rather than the structure. I think if I read it again, I’d get more out of it.
I’m often intrigued by stories of multi-generational families, some of who immigrate. My story is pretty boring in comparison…generations of my family have been in one city and are still in one city (not that that’s bad…I’m the lone drifter and sometimes I wish I was in that city). I don’t have a very colorful palate of experience when it comes to culture shock. So to me, it’s interesting to read about the differences between the generations of a family who has come from the same place, because the differences are based on their own experiences. It makes me feel all warm and worldly inside, which may just be the point of this reading challenge.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Vanity in Atlanta

After taking a look at The Bonfire of the Vanities, I decided that it was time to attack Tom Wolfe’s follow up novel A Man in Full, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for over six years now. So it was about time for the task to be undertaken.

A Man in Full is very similar to The Bonfire of the Vanities, except that it takes place in Atlanta instead of New York. There’s a discussion of the absurdity of the self-made man who indulges in his wealth. High society is placed against the struggling society. Race and gender play a role in the way characters think, perhaps even more so as race divisions and potential riots hang over the novel like a spectre.

Charlie Croker owns Turpmtime (spelt as such), a quail-shooting plantation just outside of Atlanta. He’s going bankrupt and the banks that loaned him the money are on his case, looking for him to make his assets liquid. They want his planes (he has more than one!), they want his artwork, they want his horses, they want his plantation. But he won’t give it up. He doesn’t want to lose face.

Enter Roger ‘Too’ White, a lawyer who wants Croker to give a press conference for a star football player from the ghetto of Atlanta, Fareek Fanon (is this a nod to Frantz Fanon?), who has just been accused of rape by one of Atlanta’s most prominent families. Roger has been asked to defend Fanon. With the mayor of Atlanta, who is afraid that racial division might erupt in violence due to this accusation, Roger tries to get Charlie to give a press conference to talk about the upstanding elements of Fanon. The problem is Charlie doesn’t see such elements. In short, Fanon is a punk, doesn’t respect anyone, and there’s no semblance of good within him.

Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, a 23-year-old worker who is a part of Charlie’s food empire as a freezer worker, gets fired when Charlie decides to cut 15% of his staff. Obviously Conrad doesn’t take this well, and ends up in prison for assault after his car is towed. In prison, he finds the philosophy of the Stoics, which is kind of like finding an existential god, and begins practising their edicts. An earthquake destroys the foundation of said prison, and Charlie gets free, finding himself in the Asian underworld, which eventually leads him to the doorstep of Charlie Croker.

Like Bonfire, there’s tons going on. A lot of chance events that are all moving towards some sort of explosive conclusion that becomes deflated. With a title like A Man in Full, all types of ‘manhood’ are discussed. People are judged by their own personal axioms and how they uphold them in the public sphere. When Conrad talks to Charlie about his stoicism, he says:

‘the only real possession you’ll ever have is your character and your ‘scheme of
life’. . . . Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no
one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark comes your
character. Everything else is temprorary and worthless in the long run, your
body included. . . . You know what [Epictetus, the stoice] calls the human body?
‘A vessel of clay containing a quarter of blood.’ If you understand that, you
won’t moan and groan, you won’t complain, you won’t blame others for your
troubles, and you won’t go around flattering people.’

This is just one of the many thoughts thrown at the reader in this novel. Although A Man in Full may not be as fast-paced as Bonfire, it may not have as many exclamation points (although the ellipses are probably on par), it may not have the energy, but I chalked all of that up to the fact that perhaps he’s just describing Atlanta aptly, that it’s not New York, that there’s something else to be appreciated here. Though I’ve never been to Atlanta so I couldn’t say. But overall, it was a hefty, interesting read.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

In Conclusion: Another graphic journey to France

I say “another” because I just read French Milk.

Craig Thompson warns the reader that Carnet de Voyage is not his “next book.” Following the successful Blankets, Carnet de Voyage is mostly just a travelogue during Craig’s 2-month visit to France and Morocco—a trip that was part pleasure, part publicity tour, and part research for his “next book” Habibi (due out…sometime).

What I couldn’t stand about Blankets was how whiney the main character was (and since it’s pretty much a memoir, that means it was Thompson that was whiney). Initially, this really turned me off of Carnet de Voyage as well, because now Craig was moping about the girlfriend from Blankets that had dumped him (or as I should accurately title her as he did, his “lover”). Here he was across the world seeing lots of exciting things…but he just complained about how miserable his life was, how he’d rather be in Portland, Oregon, than Morocco, and how ill he felt (because he didn’t sleep, because he staying up moping, because he was depressed).
Oy yoy. I’m hitting the battery-operated doorbell we have in our office right now that makes a big “wahhhh wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” sound.
So, initially, I was just as annoyed at the voice behind these drawings. But then I thought back to my visit to Spain in 2006, and I recalled how absolutely miserable I was on that trip as well. And it didn’t even have anything to do with the trip (except for that whole getting robbed on the first day thing). It had everything to do with Life and all its little details. And when other things are on your mind, it’s really hard to completely let them go and enjoy your time in a foreign place; it’s easy to wish for comforts of home. I remember walking on the outskirts of Madrid and seeing some hills, thinking the landscape reminded me of California, and wishing I was in California instead of Spain. Now, I yell at that past version of myself and say, “You were in SPAIN! Shutup!”
And then Thompson did this amazing thing where he became really self-aware that he was moping and being a Debbie-downer. Though his brooding was still irritating, at least he recognized he was doing it. And was ridiculous for doing so.
Another reason I’d rate this one higher than Blankets is the art. Thompson’s art in this is AMAAAAZING. Because it’s just a freestyle sketchbook, he explores a range of styles (probably because of variety of drawing utensils)—from self-aware caricature, to loose sketching of landscape, to detailed brushstroke portraits. His dedication of individual pages to individual experiences added a lot of personalization; otherwise a travelogue of places seen can be nearly the same for everyone who has visited them. His self-mockery while riding a camel, a spontaneous game of laser tag, and a journey down a mountain on a snowboard were some of my favorites.
In this collection of sketches, Thompson had a wonderful eye on the people around him. In my opinion, people are, hands down, the best thing about visiting a foreign place. To see another person in their element, to wonder how they live their life day-to-day, to know that their belief system and value set may be completely different than your own or what you are accustomed to—it’s both humbling and fascinating. His drawings of locals, friends, and travel acquaintances provide a much closer look at his experiences abroad. And because he always tried to discover the story behind the person, his experiences seemed more…poetic, or worthwhile, or fulfilling, or [insert descriptive yet subtle adjective here].
According to Thompson’s blog, Habibi is on schedule to be completed this summer. I’m anxious to see more of his art, but a little hesitant to read more whining. So hopefully this one won’t include the memoir bits about his ex-“lover.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reading Notes: When Everything Changed, Part 3

Like I mentioned about Part Two of Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed, any movement of social change can generally be described as backlash against backlash against backlash. And the first chapter of the final Part Three—”Following Through”—is aptly titled…”Backlash.”

All the extreme feminism you think of about the 1960s—the hairy armpits, protests, and free love—stayed in the 1960s. The 1970s were a lot more realistic. Remember that Equal Rights Amendment? Well, it still hadn’t been passed and ratified by the early seventies, because people were turned off by the extremism the feminist movement seemed to have taken. And unfortunately for women’s liberation, the ERA got tied to a whole lot of other controversial social movements at the time…such as abortion and gay rights. The ERA kind of became a symbol of a new liberal society and lifestyle, and there was strong backlash from the traditional side. [A note from the future: The ERA was never ratified. It was granted an extension until 1982 but the movement lost steam in that time. As Collins states, “…it was apparent that anxiety was triumphing over hope.”]

Despite a backlash from traditionalists, the women’s movement was still going strong in the 1970s. One woman symbolizes this decade perfectly, and that woman is Mary Richards. Yes, Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In the 1970s, the American economy TANKED, so women had to go to work. Yes, an increasing number had joined the workforce by choice (or to maintain a higher standard of living) ever since the early sixties, but now it was economic necessity as women brought in an estimated 40% of a family’s income. Suddenly, housewife was something almost looked down upon. Where women of the 1960s said, “Woohoo, I made it to the working world,” women of the 1970s said, “Well, of course I’m here, dammit. Why wouldn’t I be?” Women had gained a lot in the sixties, and now they were figuring out how to use all this new power to “set off on a new course.” And this was Mary Richards. They became career-driven, rather than just aiming for a day job; they sought other personal goals before tying the knot; they dressed in heels and mini-skirts for themselves, not to impress men.
But the gains from the sixties still made way for reform in the seventies. It’s as if women became a part of a much bigger world and then realized things weren’t really fair for them. So, lots of legislation was passed in the seventies. Title IX banned discrimination on the basis of gender in schools that receive federal funds; Congress banned sex discrimination in lending (as in bank loans); and hello, Roe vs. Wade, the still-to-this-day controversial Supreme Court case ruling abortion legal. Another big one: the adoption of “Ms.” as a universal title for women. And that wasn’t even adopted until the 1980s! The discrimination against women wasn’t so blatant as it had been 10-20 years prior…but it still presented itself in subtle ways.

By the 1980s, career-driven women were a standard in society. In 1960, 62% of American households consisted of a working dad and stay-at-home mom, a figure that dropped to only 10% in the mid-eighties. Further, women married later, divorce counts and unwed mothers skyrocketed, and more people started living together without being married. With liberal divorce laws, women prepared to take care of themselves. A fascinating observation: “The women who pioneered the American suburbs in the 1950s had often completed their childbearing before they were 30. Now, 30 seemed more like the starting gun than the finish line.” Women had fewer children, and more children ended up in childcare.

But you know, despite women working just as long and hard in careers as their husbands, somehow the domestic duties still befell them. [The other day, I just happened to flip onto 1987’s Baby Boom starring Diane Keaton, which is textbook example of the eighties and a working mother! How does she manage a high-ranking corporate position and motherhood? What timing!]

In fact, when working women did decide to get pregnant and have children, they weren’t even guaranteed job security throughout maternity leave until a 1987 Supreme Court case. There was no such thing as a nationalized daycare system like the public school system. A bill (the Comprehensive Child Development Act) passed both the Senate and House in 1971 that would make childcare available to every family who wanted it, but amidst Watergate and Vietnam, Nixon vetoed it, stating it undermined the family-centered approach. And later, in 1975, when it was reborn under the more neutral name of the Child and Family Services Bill, people actually feared it would given children power over their parents and “breakdown family order [and] increase delinquency.” [Silly! That is still why there is no universal childcare system!] And did you know that equal-pay legislation wasn’t even signed into law until 2009? Yes, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the very first bill signed by President Obama!

In the new millennium, Betty Freidan said on the women’s movement:

“There’s a lot of silly talk that the women’s movement is dead. Well it’s not dead; it’s alive in society! The way women look at themselves, the way other people look at women, is completely different, completely different than it was thirty years ago…Our daughters grow up with the same possibilities as our sons.”

In fifty years, women went from housewife to productive, and equal, member of the workforce. The eighties brought the first woman on the Vice Presidential ballot (Geraldine Ferraro) and the first woman on the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor). The elections of 1992 put a record number of women into the House and Senate. And the election of 2008 put two women running for office in the political spotlight: Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—two women on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum (ho ho!). But, the headlines were on political differences, not the fact that women were in politics. They perfectly illustrate the progress of women, the changing norms of society in the past fifty years, in particular, how society views women.

I’ve grown up as a product of early feminism, and society is constantly finding new ways to get the “I am Woman, hear me roar” message of the early seventies to younger generations. I encountered Girl Power with the Spice Girls as a kid; strong, kick-ass females characters like Buffy in my teens; and girl groups like Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda in young adulthood, that tell me men will come and go, but girlfriends are forever. Women of my generation take for granted that things weren’t always the way they are now. The life I live was the life that the early feminists envisioned for future generations. While the balance between work and men and children is still never an easy one, women can at least have both.

I don’t know whose kids these are. I Google Image-searched ‘girl power’ and this came up.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Road trip with artist

Daniel Kehlmann’s Me and Kaminski, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway, is an amusing and humorous story about its narrator, Sebastian Zollner – a man who’s confident in himself, though it appears that no one around him cares about him or what he’s doing – who wants to write a biography of the eccentric, legendary painter Manuel Kaminski – a man who, though being a painter, is going blind and lives with his overprotective daughter. The question is whether Kaminski is working on his next masterpiece or has he given up. Has the new wave of artists taken away people’s interest in Kaminski? And is Zollner too late in writing this biography of Kaminski – for Kaminski’s sake or for Zollner’s own?

Zollner is someone who is overly nervous about his own career, which seems to be waning, even though he’s young. He’s terribly conscious over his appearance, over his stories. And yet he’s not aware enough to notice that his girlfriend has moved on from him, that his colleagues don’t trust him to get his job done. We’re in the hands of an untrustworthy narrator, and it seems that Kaminski’s daughter knows that too. She won’t allow Zollner to interview her father without her being in their presence. Therein lies the rub: how to get Kaminski away from her daughter so that Zollner can get a free and uninhibited interview with this artist. It involves a slight break-in and discussion of where the only woman Kaminski ever loved is. She’s alive, she’s nearby, and this may be the last chance that Kaminski will get to ‘see’ her. And with Zollner, he’s able to take advantage of this opportunity. Quickly we realize that Kaminski is not going to be the passive man that we take him for, that he’s going to get what he wants, when he wants it.
The novel bumbles along and Zollner and Kaminski make a decent odd couple, although the development of who they are seems like it skims along without diving too deep. As it’s a short book, there’s not too much to account for – it’s more about their banter and our interest in seeing the characters attain their goals in what seems to be the twilight of their lives and careers. It’s certainly a more comic look at a biographer and his invasiveness into an artist’s life, a complement to Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, but overall it’s a novel where the reader will feel there was too much of a whirlwind and not enough calm, not enough time to contemplate the characters, feel for their plight. As it stands, it’s a stock story filled with stock characters, but definitely a page turner.
Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Review: “A Family Tragicomic”

I am becoming such a fan of graphic novels, specifically memoirs or journals because I really don’t like sci-fi or dystopian stories and they seem to fill a lot of the graphic category. I think graphica is such a refreshing, creative medium to tell a story. I love discovering the styles of new artists and reading a story as illustrated through their eyes.

So, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was the latest stop on my graphica train. Alison and her two brothers grew up in an….eccentric household. Her house was one of past Victorian grandeur, and her dad worked diligently to restore it to its former glory by constantly painting, cleaning, arranging, adding new antiques here and there. I’m pretty sure he knew his house better than his own kids. Outside of his penchant for interior decorating, he was a high school English teacher (along with Alison’s mother, also a teacher) and the director of the family-owned funeral home (aka, the “Fun Home”). And beyond all of that, he was also a closeted homosexual who was involved with students and baby-sitters, which contributed to his general aura of iciness and conflict. But Alison doesn’t find that out until much later.
The backbone of Fun Home is Bechdel coming to terms with her relationship with her father and his secret life after his accidental death by semi-truck. She finds parallels between his life and her own as she begins to define herself as a lesbian—lots of those “Aha!” moments when she reflects on her dad in retrospect.
The story is told like this: Bechdel provides an overarching narrative and the individual comic panels serve to illustrate her point, usually by showing a memory or event that she deems significant. There’s a lot of hopping around in time, a lot of events revisited once the author has gained new information to shape the memory differently. If that sounds confusing, I promise it’s more confusing to explain than it is to read. It actually flowed really well and kinda helped give the feeling that we as the reader were having “Aha!” moments alongside the author.
There’s a lot to these 240 pages. Bechdel worked hard to put you in a specific time and place, illustrating details like company logos and specific television programs drawn on the TV. She tied in pop culture and current events during her quest to find meaning in it all. Sometimes her phrasing while theorizing was so academic and philosophically poetic that I begged for simple English (ie: “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian, modern to his Victorian, Butch to his Nelly, utilitarian to his aesthete.”), but in the end, I think that’s what gave the story some of its charm. Bechdel’s story has so many layers that are exciting to discover. It was kind of a reminder that people, as well, have layers, and what lies beneath the surface may be surprising.
In terms of content and analysis, symbolism ABOUNDS!!!! but if you want to study all of that, just head over to Goodreads, because I am not about to get into all of that after first reading. Bottom line, I loooooooved this. I wish it had been an epic graphic novel and at least double the size. Easily my favorite graphic novel so far.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: The new gilded age

I picked up Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities because a client and a friend had suggested it, especially because of the New York City location, and because I also thought it could be used for the Chunkster Challenge. It comes about 60 pages short for the latter, but I’m glad that it was a book I embarked on. Bonfire had a ridiculous sense of energy, an insane cast of characters that could rival a novel by Dickens or Pynchon, and an overabundant use of exclamation points and ellipses – though when Wolfe toned them down, they were kind of missed.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the story of how a fictional 1980s court case comes together. Sherman McCoy is a Yale-educated (and -chinned) investment banker whose speciality is bonds. He considers himself a Master of the Universe because of this, his $3.5 million apartment that has been featured in an architectural magazine, his interior decorator wife and private school educated daughter. And because of his southern mistress, Maria Ruskin. When picking Maria up from the airport, he can’t move far enough over on the highway and ends up in the Bronx, what Sherman and Maria later refer to as the jungle. Fear and a sense of being lost ensues, and when they are approached by two young Bronx projects locals, something goes amiss. Maria, when she grabs the wheel, ends up knocking one of the kids down with the car. The kid, Henry Lamb, an honors student, goes into a serious coma, but not before he can say that he was hit by a white couple in a black Mercedes.
The rest of the novel is about how detectives find out about this case due to the investigative work by a expat British journalist, Peter Fallow, who breaks the story through hints from Reverend Bacon, a religious and political leader much like Al Sharpton, a man who incites the Bronx community to rise up and get the court system to find the hit-and-runners and bring justice to Henry Lamb and the poor neighborhoods of New York City. The novel becomes an excited meditation on politics, justice, soullessness, race, class, and lies.
And it speeds along with Wolfe’s estranged sense of humor and keen insight into New York City culture of the disgusting 1980s. The frightening thing is that the New York of then sounds very much like the New York of today: bankers thinking they’re at the top of society, abstract money being moved around to create more money, characters like Reverend Bacon still exist, wealth is at the forefront, everyone’s in it to sue someone else, a class system can be apparent in a world where class systems shouldn’t be. The novel certainly still resonates, which I found shocking as it was written over 20 years ago, a time when New York City was supposed to be much more shady and frightening. And though it may have been cleaned up a bit since then, I could see this story happening today. It probably is. Which makes this a worthy read.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: The Dark Side of Hollywood

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe may be Jenny Hollowell’s debut novel, but the precision and grace with which she tells the story of Birdie Baker, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, makes Hollowell seem like a veteran.

When we first meet Birdie, she’s growing up in small-town Virginia, the only daughter of evangelical parents. On the outside, Birdie is following the path to a religious life, but for as long as she can remember, Birdie has dreamed of becoming someone else. At age 20, she marries a young elder brought home by her father, but two years later, she walks out on her pastor husband and her parents and hops on a bus to Los Angeles.

Now, nine years later, Birdie’s life in Hollywood isn’t exactly as she had hoped it would be. Her resume lists a handful of unmemorable roles in films and commercials, and her steadiest gig is as a body double for a spoiled, frivolous actress. Everyone in the industry tells Birdie that she’s got something—that she’s real. But Birdie has been pretending for so long that even she doesn’t know what’s real anymore. She’s trapped in a place somewhere between the life she abandoned and the life she desires, and the city of glitz and glam isn’t as magical as she had hoped.

Using detailed prose and short, anecdotal chapters, the author has created a psychological portrait of both an individual and a city. While Birdie is waging her own war against personal demons, Hollowell illustrates that Birdie is only one of the thousands of individuals who come to Hollywood with a dream and get torn apart trying to reach it. At once witty, comic and tragic, Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe throws the reader into the unglamorous side of Tinseltown for an engrossing read on the obsessive nature of celebrity.

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe was released today by Holt Paperbacks.

Review as originally featured in
BookPage. Review copy provided by publication.

Friday, June 4, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: Kosher Pornography?

I really like books with creative characters and/or situations—ones that make me say, “Huh…I would’ve never thought of that”—with a way of life I’d never considered existing. Joshua Braff’s Peep Show is one of those.

It takes place in New York City in the 70s—a seedy, seedy time in the city’s history. And Braff throws us right into the middle of that seediness, into Times Square. A little history lesson: Times Square wasn’t always the bright, Broadway tourist destination it is today. Until Giuliani cleaned it up in the mid-90s, it was home to strip joints, porno theaters, and drug dealers. Peep Show‘s main character is David Arbus, a high school senior living in a conflicted household. His father owns and runs a burlesque theater which, though he tries to keep it “clean” and free of downright pornographic ties, does not please David’s mother, a newly converted Hasidic Jew. Though David’s parents are formally separated, tensions remain strong from a tug-of-war over David’s younger sister, Debra, and her impending way of life—freedom or Hasidism?
The synopsis states:

“As David peeps through the spaces in the screen that divides the men and the women in Hasidic homes, we can’t help but think of his father’s Imperial Theatre, where other men are looking at other women through the peepholes. As entertaining as it is moving, Peep Show looks at the elaborate ensembles, rituals, assumed names, and fierce loyalties of two secret worlds, stripping away the curtains of both.”

I guess I can’t really say it any better, because the subtext of these two completely contrasting worlds is pretty obvious. But boy, is it an entertaining subtext to read.

What I loved about this book was how Braff took the reader into two worlds that are kinda behind closed curtains, yet he seemed to know everything about each. I was instantly jolted into the norms of both worlds, and, because neither is usually perceived as a customary way to live by most readers, you don’t really side with either; you feel the conflict that David must feel as both of his parents follow ways of life that he neither wants nor supports. As I read, I kept pausing to chuckle, “Man, this kid is gonna be messed up someday!” And you want to keep reading just to find out how which direction he goes and how the hell he turns out in the end.
If you can’t handle mention of explicit…erm….sex, then you might be a bit turned off by this one. But I found it so captivating and amusing…and left me wanting to have a drink with the fictional David and hear some crazy anecdotes from his adolescence.
Peep Show was released by Algonquin Books on June 1st.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

JUNE Book Events: New York

6/1, Tuesday

  • “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” Oscar Hijuelos, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “My Name is Memory” Ann Brashares, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
  • “Peep Show” Joshua Braff, “This is Where I Leave You” Jonathan Tropper, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
6/2, Wednesday
  • “Elliot Allagash” Simon Rich, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm

6/3, Thursday

  • “Anthropology of an American Girl” Hilary Thayer Hamann, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Dear Money” Martha McPhee, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm

6/7, Monday

  • “Matterhorn” Karl Marlantes, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm

6/8, Tuesday

  • “Medium Raw” Anthony Bourdain, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Unfinished Business” Lee Kravtiz, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm

6/9, Wednesday

  • “The Lion” Nelson DeMille, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “The Madonnas of Echo Park” Brando Skyhorse, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for “Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe” Jenny Hollowell, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm

6/10, Thursday

  • “Insignificant Others” Stephen McCauley, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm
  • “Welcome to Utopia” Karen Valby, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm

6/11, Friday

  • “Color Me Grey” Michelle Janine Robinson, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm

6/14, Monday

  • “Between a Heart and a Rock Place” Pat Benatar, B&N Fifth Ave, 12:30 pm
  • “Scott, Atticus, and Boo” Mary Murphy, Wally Lamb, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “American Music” Jane Mendelsohn, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm

6/16, Wednesday

  • “The Nobodies Album” Carolyn Parkhurst, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments” Brooke Berman, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm

6/17, Thursday

  • “Little Stranger” Sarah Waters, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm

6/21, Monday

  • “Mattaponi Queen” Belle Boggs, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Leaving the World” Douglas Kennedy, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm

6/22, Tuesday

  • “Imperial Bedrooms” Bret Easton Ellis, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Promises to Keep” Jane Green, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “The Boozy Baker” Lucy Baker, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
6/24, Thursday
  • “Light Boxes” Shane Jones, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
6/28, Monday
  • “How Did You Get This Number” Sloane Crosley, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
6/29, Tuesday
  • “This is Where We Live” Janelle Brown, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm