Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Jitterbug Perfume

A friend mentioned that she doesn’t enjoy reading and I responded, “Saying you don’t enjoy reading is like saying you don’t enjoy watching movies. You just haven’t found the right ones.” And then I immediately stitched that on a pillow because honestly…profound. Let’s take a moment.

If you take it a step further and say you don’t like fiction, well, you’re wrong, but you’re also not going to like Tom Robbins. He is the funkiest. His stuff is very made-up. He always has several parallel and interweaving storylines, each one with its own oddities. He’s always some combination of philosophy, feminism, wit, sexuality, and outlandishness without making me gag. I’ve talked at length about his writing style, so I won’t waste our time here. If you want examples of the kind of crazy characters he uses and a pic of Uma Thurman playing one of his lead characters, peep my review of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. If you want a detailed comparison of Robbins to Vonnegut, peep my review of Still Life with Woodpecker. If you want to see a picture of my penis bookmark, peep my review of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.

Robbins is just so fun. He’s like a breath of fresh air. His work is meandering and silly and it reminds you to not take everything so seriously (but also to take the important things kind of seriously, sometimes). If I was a doctor, I’d prescribe Robbins once a year. And then I’d do surgery on a grape (If you know, you know).


I gave Even Cowgirls Get the Blues a 5/5, Still Life with Woodpecker a 3/5, and Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas a 2/5. How fitting that I give Jitterbug Perfume a 4/5. He continues to be that loveable weirdo; however, the plot gets a little helter-skelter at times due to overcrowding. 

*Robbins, Tim. Jitterbug Perfume. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. Print.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Consider the Lobster

Some days my favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut and some days my favorite author is David Foster Wallace. Someone told me at a party that Infinite Jest is overrated and I was SHOOK. I reacted dramatically, obviously, but it was self-defense because not appreciating Infinite Jest feels like a personal attack. Okay wowow, now I’m worked up.

Consider the Lobster* is a collection of essays that DFW previously published in various magazines. I shall break it down:

-Big Red Son (published in Premier): Wallace’s reporting on the AVN awards, which is the Academy Awards of pornography. I love this clever piece; per usual, he simultaneously teaches and entertains me. He has a unique twist on gonzo journalism.
-Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think (New York Observer): A review of a John Updike novel, which I have not read. I think I hate John Updike now?
-Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed (Harper’s Magazine): A speech about Kafka, whose work I have not read. I think I love Kafka now?
-Authority and American Usage (Harper’s Magazine): An overly-deep-divey review of a dictionary. I couldn’t get through this one-- sorry, David. It's a dictionary.
-The View from Mrs. Thompson’s (Rolling Stone): A raw portrayal of how he experienced the 9/11 attacks. He’s really not afraid to be vulnerable/honest and it’s awesome.
-Up, Simba (Rolling Stone): He reports on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I had no idea that he did this, and it was a very pleasant surprise. DFW’s reporting is brilliant--his attention to detail is unmatched and he talks about politics in a uniquely non-partisan way.
-Consider the Lobster (Gourmet): His commission to write about a Maine Lobster Festival turns into a thought-provoking (and somehow non-judgemental) discussion of the ethical concerns of boiling lobsters.
-Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky (The Village Voice): A review of a review of Dostoevsky. I like Dostoevsky, but not this much.
-Host (The Atlantic): A profile on an LA talk show host, which feeds into larger commentary about conservative talk radio. I learned a ton about the mechanics of radio and remained interested.

So, my impression is mixed. I do not like his book reviews very much but I absolutely love his reporting. I wish so badly that he was still alive to report on Trump. His political reporting strikes some magical pose where he acknowledges his own views + remains balanced + criticizes all sides without succumbing to false equivalency. I’m going to always come back to his work because he is so obviously incredibly intelligent. He never misses a detail and he shows you that seemingly meaningless details are actually important. He never misses nuance and he always follows a thought, making tangential arguments through footnotes when necessary. He really poured himself into every single piece he wrote. There will never be anyone else like him and no one at a party can tell me otherwise (If you’re reading this, sorry that I’m throwing so much shade). If you're curious about his fiction-- I previously reviewed his short story collection, Girl with Curious Hair. Consider the Lobster receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Lincoln in the Bardo

GEORGE SAUNDERS BABY, you did it again! Saunders is the king of short stories. His short story collection, Tenth of December, won a bunch of awards because it’s fabulous. He has made many contributions to magazines, which land him in short story collections like The Best American Short Stories 2013. In 2017, he debuted his novel Lincoln in the Bardo* and it did not disappoint.

Don’t listen to me-- listen to the Guy from High Maintenance. I’ve tweeted before and I’ll inevitably tweet it again: High Maintenance is the best show currently on television. Ben Sinclair has to have excellent taste in books and he’s reading Lincoln in the Bardo in season 2 episode 10. This is why we stan.

Back to Saunders, whom we also stan. Lincoln in the Bardo is an incredibly inventive undertaking. I normally avoid reading the back of books because I don’t want to go into a novel with set expectations; however, this novel is an exception. I think that it requires context to grasp and get on board. Without spoiling anything (again, this is all on the spine): Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, dies during the Civil War (This is a historical fact that I never learned because I was really only taught Texas history #LoneStar). Lincoln is very upset by his loss, and he visits his son’s grave to mourn. Saunders takes the fictional reins here, incorporating 50+ perspectives of all of the different ghosts in the grave. The story is told by everyone, not just a single person, and this style wins mega creativity points.

Lincoln in the Bardo manages to hit all my existential hot spots (What is the meaning of life? How do the ghosts acknowledge their death? How do the ghosts deny their death? How does Lincoln keep living?) AND it’s entertaining. I laughed a lot. I enjoyed all of the characters’ backstories. I appreciated Saunders’ spin on the historical context. Please keep giving us more content, Saunders, because you know what you’re doing. Lincoln in the Bardo receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.


*Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo. New York: Random House, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York

I started my blog five years ago (!), and I sometimes look back on my reviews, thankful that I can relive both the book and the time period in which I read it. There are plenty of reviews that embarrass me-- the writing is clunky, I come across as too try-hard, my jokes don’t land, etc. Whatever. I’m just trying to do the damn thing without taking the plunge into an overly self-critical headspace, ya know?


One post that gives me pride rather than embarrassment is my review of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. I read the book and wrote the review when I was moving from NYC after 4.5 years. Many of the reasons why I wanted to leave matched with sentiments expressed by writers in the collection. So, it felt fitting that on my first real trip back to visit the city precisely a year after my departure, I read Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York*.

After publishing Goodbye to All That in 2013, Sari Botton got complaints from whiny NYC die-hards. Her response: publish a collection of stories by writers who love New York and want to stay. The result: a fairly redundant set of less interesting stories. Most of the writing in Never Can Say Goodbye is still heavily anti-NYC. So much for “unshakable love”. It also comes across as formulaic: [insert bit about how NYC is so expensive], [insert bit about how it’s hard to find love in NYC], [insert bit about how I have these beautiful, exciting, specifically New York nights that make me stay despite the aforementioned expenses and lack of connection], [insert bit about how, through some lucky break, I finally stumble upon reasonable rent and a stable relationship]. All in all, it is boring, which is a pitiful depiction of a very non-boring city.

To my surprise, the only piece I really love in the collection is Elizabeth Gilbert’s. I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love, but the judgmental streak in me assumes it is very cheesy. Turns out, she has some serious edge. Never Can Say Goodbye details her time working as a bartender for the Coyote Ugly Saloon-- as in, the one that inspired the movie. Her piece is unique and well-written amidst the cookie-cutter blandness. Other contributors that slightly pique my interest include Whoopi Goldberg and Nick Flynn, whose memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, still haunts me on a regular basis (in a good way).

Overall, I’m disappointed in Never Can Say Goodbye, especially given how much I love Goodbye to All That. It comes across as forced, and I think the collection should have been more carefully curated considering the fact that a few of the writers did, in fact, love and leave New York. New York will always feel a little bit like home to me and I’m happy that I too can love and leave. Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Botton, Sarah. Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. New York: Gallery Books, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Norwegian Wood

It’s official: Murakami’s novels don’t do it for me. Goodbye dude, we’re done. I can’t take it anymore. I read his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and it got me fired up to be healthy, balanced, creative, and awesome. Then, I read his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and thought he had booby-trapped me into a colossal waste of time. Then, I read his short story collection, Men Without Women, and he sucked me back in his favor with a little tease--some stories were bad, but some stories were excellent. Then, I read one of his fan-favorites, Norwegian Wood*, and now I realize we should part ways.

Norwegian Wood is about death and sex. That's it! I’m no lit-prude, but the sex scenes were gratuitous. Let’s eat dinner -- okay, insert sex scene....let’s go to school -- okay, insert sex scene...let’s have an intense talk about suicide -- okay, insert sex scene. It took me so long to finish (wink, wink) the book because I knew it would just continue to recycle through the same old same old.

The dialogue does not feel natural to me and his similies continue to be hit or miss. He either completely and totally nails a feeling or he fumbles it entirely, leaving you more confused. In every Murakami fiction I've reviewed, I’ve called out a terrible simile. In Murakami fashion, I’ll continue the tradition here. One character says, “I’m just kinda tired. Like a monkey in the rain” (Murakami, 58). I like monkeys as much as the rest of you, but I don’t think people talk like this in casual conversation. I also don’t think that comparison is useful. It does have some nice imagery, but I’d be much more accepting if he was remotely selective. Instead, he’s like YOU GET A SIMILIE...AND YOU GET A SIMILIE! It’s extra.

I’ve decided that Murakami shoots his shot a little too much. He’s written so many books, and because most of them are lengthy, I’m scared to trust another one now. He has name recognition going for him for a reason. He can do some things very well. For example, he rocks at giving plainness a little vibration; as in, I enjoy the subtle life he injects into descriptions of ordinary feelings and actions. He’s skilled at making simplicity beautiful. Unfortunately, he throws a lot of trash in there with the beauty. Norwegian Wood* receives 2 out of 5 camel humps -- don’t @ me.

*Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

I “borrowed” When You Are Engulfed in Flames* by David Sedaris from a popsicle stand Airbnb about a year ago. I realize that’s not a cool move and I’m a hypocrite because I would be sad if someone took one of my books without telling me. But we learn from our mistakes and I have learned that I just don’t belong in Airbnbs then! Also, yes-- it was a tiny home that used to be a popsicle stand. It was an awesome work of art that gave me grotesque, popsicly nightmares at night. No wonder I took the book.


The book sat on my shelf for a year and then I read it a couple of weeks ago while vacationing in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (am I coming across as well traveled???). I don’t like to label books as “beach reads” because I feel like it’s code for “this was a dumb book that I perceived as less dumb than usual because I was getting a tan”; however When You Are Engulfed in Flames was very nice to read on the beach.


I was not a big David Sedaris fan at first. Two years ago, I reviewed Me Talk Pretty One Day and didn’t find it very funny. Sedaris tells stories about his life (perhaps embellishing a little) and, as in life, some things are funny/worth telling and other things are better kept to yourself. I should take this to heart with my own Twitter, but I prefer telling other people what they should and should not write.

In my opinion, the stories in When You Are Engulfed in Flames are inherently funny and Sedaris’ writing chops improved from his Me Talk Pretty debut eight years prior. When You Are Engulfed in Flames is still a collection of essays and most of the book is about his experiences while quitting smoking. His method of quitting was to move to Tokyo and distract himself by learning Japanese. Dude, just take Chantix like Ray Liotta and get a commercial deal out of it.

Again, maybe I was blinded by the beauty of the Playa del Carmen sun, but I’ll give When You Are Engulfed in Flames 4 out of 5 camel humps.


*Sedaris, Dave. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. New York: Back Bay Books, 2008. Print.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

I just got back from a resort in Playa del Carmen, which had a beautiful beach, plenty of food/booze, and a ton of old people. I was surrounded by James Patterson novels and cataracts. Meanwhile, I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life* and took the snide looks in stride, not giving a single f*ck.

I am wary of self-help books, especially ones with bright orange covers that claim to be super chill. I’m happy to say that while this book is self-helpy, it’s not the insufferable kind. Mark Manson, the author, poses some questions that I had never before asked myself. He had me doing a mental health double-take. There are some “duh” moments, but he adds twists that make self-improvement more accessible and navigable.

Last year, I read The Power of Habit and, while I respect the book’s well-researched theories about forming and breaking habits, it all sounded like a ton of work. You know when you want to change some things but you only want to put in minimal effort? I’m lazy! And I’m not sure I want to change that just yet.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is less scientific and more opinionated, but I still find Mark Manson's advice helpful and applicable. Like… I’ve actually been trying some of his approaches. Here’s a lil taste of his perspective: Everyone is wrong all of the time--growth is about becoming a little less wrong. Give fewer f*cks. We are responsible for every single thing in our lives-- the good and the bad. Commitment paradoxically gives you freedom.

I can't help but wonder-- what makes him qualified to talk about any of this? I mean, the guy is 35; it's not like he’s drawing from a well of experience. But whatever, who cares? He has opinions on how to live a meaningful life and it seems to work for him. What’s the worse that can happen-- I take his advice and spend some time reflecting on my values? The horror!

We're all just trying out best out here, right? Manson (no relation to Charles... I think) provides a new lens with which to try your best. And he's funny at times. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Manson, Mark. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeNew York: HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Native Son

Native Son* by Richard Wright is a challenge. Wright challenges your sense of right/wrong, he challenges your understanding of race in America, and he challenges your attention span, because his book is too long and overly repetitive.


Wright’s main character, Bigger Thomas, commits a crime; the novel goes on to indirectly excuse the crime, arguing that the systemic racism of Chicago in the 1930's made the offense inevitable. Wright’s painting of a racist, segregated Chicago is valid and powerful. The idea that Thomas is not entirely responsible for his crime is hard to swallow. Like when you accidentally swallow a full ice cube and your throat feels like a cavernous abyss that just betrayed you and you turn to your mom and cry because you don’t think you’ll ever be able to swallow properly again. Kinda like that.


Truly, Bigger Thomas is an unlikeable narrator. I really, really did not like him. But I appreciate why Wright wrote him that way (lol *wright wrote*). If a likeable character commits a crime, we might try and exempt him. If an unlikeable character commits a crime, it’s easy for us to label him as guilty-- he’s a criminal and he sucks. Wright shows us: Bigger Thomas is unlikeable, he’s guilty, and he’s a victim. As readers, we’re forced to confront the subtle reasons for why we might not like him/not have empathy for him.


Native Son asks important questions but that does not mean it is a good read. The first portion is riveting; it has crime, drama, suspense, and horror. The second half is subdued and tedious; it belabors the point. I can’t in good faith strongly recommend a book that I believe is 150 pages too long, even if the content is historically (and presently) significant and necessary. So, Native Son receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.


*Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: HarperCollins, 1940. Print.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years

I found Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years* on the sidewalk of the East Village in the spring of 2018. I’m thankful for whoever left it for me; I feel connected to him/her because I got a glimpse into their life. On the inside cover, there’s an innocent to-do list: Pick up sunscreen, lip balm, allergy pills. Sounds like a joyous day at a beach surrounded by tree pollen. Then there’s a quaint line: “Buy paper at great little paper shop”. Maybe they were tired of using the inside of books for note-taking.


I’m a liberal snowflake, so the title spoke to me for obvious reasons. The memoir is by David Litt, a young Obama-era speechwriter. He is currently the head writer/producer of Funny or Die and he’s well-respected within the comedy community, evidenced by his impressive back cover endorsements. I’ll include John Mulaney’s since John Mulaney is perfect: “An outstanding, hilarious, and precise memoir, and an excellent account of what it felt like the work for the second to last president of the United States.”


As much as I love a good Trump jab, especially by horse-in-the-hospital Mulaney, I did worry the book would overflow with anti-Trumpisms. I mean-- I don’t like Trump, duh, but I can only handle so much not-hot-take political whining. I turn to Twitter if I want to be sad about policy. In a book, I want anti-Trump rhetoric to be funny or not there at all. Litt does in fact skillfully slide in the Trump comparisons without overstating the obvious.


While Litt wrote many types of speeches for Obama, he was considered the “funny guy” on the speech-writing team. I am surprised at how pertinent “joke writers” were throughout Obama’s presidency. I figured it might only be necessary for the White House correspondents’ dinner, but turns out there were plenty of opportunities where Obama wanted to bring comedy into his speeches. I enjoyed learning about how the speech-writing network operated and Litt explains the power structure well. There are many references to fellow speechwriters, like the Pod Save America dudes. To be honest, I’m a little sick of those guys yapping, but I listen to them anyway because what are podcasts for if not to cram information in your head that you don’t necessarily want or need?


A big perk of Litt’s memoir is insider info. It doesn’t shy away from controversy-- it talks about the problems within the administration, like when the initial roll-out of Obamacare was a disaster, and how the speech-writing team worked to respond. But it also reminds us of all the good things about Obama and I like the glimpse into his interpersonal life.


On the other hand, I think that the memoir is too long and Litt squeezes the juice out of every single possible interaction he had with the president. His writing is relatively down to earth (given that he worked for the most powerful man in the world) and I am interested in most of the stories he tells, but some of it is clearly padding. Overall, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Litt, David, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Gorilla and the Bird

Zack McDermott was a public defender in NYC when he had his first psychotic break. Convinced that he was being filmed à la Truman Show, he waltzed out of his East Village apartment and put on a show. He got a bipolar diagnosis instead of a Golden Globe.

At first, I was nervous to review Zack’s memoir, Gorilla and the Bird*. My lovely friend Sarah Keenan recommended it to me because she and her husband Mike are friends with Zack. Zack and Mike went to UVA law school together (swag). In fact, Sarah designed the dope original cover for Little, Brown & Company:
Also, Sarah and Mike get a shout out on the memoir’s acknowledgments page--before Channing Tatum, who optioned the book. A limited series based on the book will be released by HBO and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (the dude behind Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects). What I'm saying is-- I'm famous and talented by association.
With my nepotistic ties, I feared that I wouldn’t like Gorilla and the Bird but that I’d have to lie and fake-rave about its merits. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that, because Gorilla and the Bird is very, very good. I truly didn’t want to put it down because I had to know how he'd end up and how the people he represented as a lawyer would fare. He explains the complexities of our messed up legal system well and the backgrounds of the people he defends are humbling. Zack speaks with genuine empathy; he sees the parallels between his own tumultuous upbringing + newfound mental disorders and the systemic struggles that vulnerable, imprisoned populations constantly face. Perhaps he would be in their shoes if he didn’t have the fierce love and guidance of his mother (“the Bird”) to swoop in and assist.


I’m not bipolar, but there’s something about books like Gorilla and the Bird and Brain on Fire that feels uncomfortably close to home and thus even more horrifying. Both authors were just trying to kick it in their 20s, balancing relatively new jobs with their social lives, when illness abruptly struck them and invasively attacked their world. Zack uses levity to cope, which makes for strong, relatable writing. As he says, “Shit got better because hard shit usually does” (McDermott, 50).


Big sigh of relief that I actually loved the book and can return it to my friend without feigning a book-orgasm! Gorilla and the Bird receives 5 out of 5 camel humps. Zack will be appearing at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March (more deets here). You can also find out more about his GorillaBird foundation, which seeks to end the “mental illness-to-prison pipeline”.  


*McDermott, Zack.  Gorilla and the Bird. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Siddhartha

I read Siddhartha* while at a meditation retreat in Virginia a few weeks ago. I get that that makes me sound like a basic white girl BUT I think that meditation is a rewarding practice and I want to get better at it. The retreat was helpful and Siddhartha was the perfect supplement.


Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 and he published Siddhartha seven years later. Despite his award-winning status, the novel did not receive popularity in America until the 1960s, as all the hippies stopped showering and started seeking enlightenment. It’s one or the other, folks.

The novel follows Siddhartha, a fictional contemporary of Buddha, who wants to find the meaning of life. He tries many routes: asceticism, materialism, nature stuff, etc. His conclusion is different than the Buddha’s, but he does not advocate for any singular path.

There are three things I really like about this novel:

1. Siddhartha does not shun experience. He embraces his past experiences, not as regrets, but as stepping stones; therefore, he is self-affirming. So much of religion is “fix this, do that” (atone for sins, pray this prayer, make this sacrifice), but Siddhartha’s point of view is less about what you should and should not do and more about finding your own way.

2. The writing is simple. Others do not appreciate this (in which case, Siddhartha would say *that is your prerogative...bitch*). The novel is split into tiny chapters that are almost like parables, and there are aphorisms throughout worth underlining (and then probably forgetting about later unless you tape them on your wall). There is not a whole bunch of inaccessible jargon.

3. The book is positive towards women. I repeat: this is a spiritual book that is relatively positive towards women. It’s the four-leaf clover of spiritual books! There’s a woman who teaches Siddhartha some things and then she has her own ethereal awakening. She's a strong, independent woman-- Beyonce before Beyonce.


Siddhartha is not a holy book. It’s also not a guide book nor a transcendence how-to. It’s just a fictional tale of someone’s spiritual process and a pretty good one at that. Siddhartha receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Trans. Hilda Rosner. New York: MJF Books, 1951. Print.