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


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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Notes from Underground

Dostoevsky was a total drama queen.
Also, apparently, he wasn’t the life of the party. The afterword of my collection states, “He was spiteful, intolerant, [and] irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met” (227). Great epithet idea for his tombstone.  

I recently finished a collection that includes four of his fictional works: White Nights (1848), The House of the Death (1860), Notes from Underground (1864), and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877). The dates of publication are important because Dostoevsky evolved in his views about religion and the human condition, which heavily influenced his writing.

White Nights is my favorite, probably because it’s a less dejected Fyodor Dostoevsky. He still believed that humans could overcome their suffering. IRL, his dad was murdered by their peasant workers and Fyodor/his mom continued to live with the killer peasants because their dad was such a dick that he kind of deserved it. Fyodor was affected by the plight of the poor masses, so he rooted for them in his writing.  

The House of the Death (how is it that Russian authors are so pleasant??) was written during a dark period of Fyodor’s life. He was imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp for meeting in a progressive literary group, so he wrote fiction based on the cruelty that he saw there. It is not uplifting, but it is good writing. He also makes thought-provoking philosophical claims about capital punishment.

Notes from Underground shows a full 180° from White Nights. The narrator is not a pleasant person. He rejects some of the trends of the time (nihilism and rational egoism). At this point, Dostoevsky believed that humans were not good or rational, and he was all like, “Y’all need Jesus.”

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man takes a lighter tone; it feels a little silly because it mostly describes a dream. It’s a different iteration of “Yall need Jesus.”

My collection is a great start if you want a taste of Dostoevsky without getting knee-deep in angsty Russian literature. I previously wrote about his longer works, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. I reviewed both in the beginning stages of my blog-- in fact, Crime and Punishment was my very first review four and a half years ago! I’ve read a lot. I’ve gabbed a lot. These beginning reviews are entirely too lengthy, but I was just really amped about reading and writing. Check out those reviews if you want: further explanation of Dostoevsky's fraught past, a deep-dive into his religious and political sentiments, a story about me stealing things in Australia.

Back to my collection, which goes by the title Notes from Underground* because that is his most successful short story of the bunch. I have to be in the mood for Dostoevsky. He is not someone I pick up when I want a casual, easy read. He is someone I pick up when I want existential exploration. Unlike other authors of his time period, he tells a pretty straightforward story. I understand the story, I understand the character’s positions, but I do not always understand the philosophical arguments. He creates a balance between accessibility and challenge, which I appreciate. Notes from Underground receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. Trans. Andrew H MacAndrew. New York: NAL Penguin Inc., 1961. Print.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Goldfinch

     It's very important to me that I don't spoil any part of The Goldfinch* for you because the twists and turns of the novel's plot were such a treat for me. I'll simply, lamely say that the main character, Theo Decker, became my friend. Humblebrag-- the book is long (771 pages, big ones), which allows us to grow attached to Theo as we thoroughly follow his transition from boyhood to manhood. Some people complain that it is too long, but that's showbiz baby. Seriously, I liked its length-- it made me privy to the particulars of Theo and invested in his day to day life.

     I thought about this book constantly, even when I wasn't reading it, which is partially attributable to Tartt's magnetic writing. Additionally, there are elements to the story that make it feel true, so I consumed it as I would an urgent news piece. Most of the novel is set in New York City, where I lived for ~5 years, so the contemporary references she makes grounded me in a realistic setting. Also, the novel centers around an actual painting: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. He is not cute.
     So, if you're looking for a book to get totally lost in--this is it. When I had to put it down for the night, I worried about Theo and his troubles crept into my dreams. When I picked it up in the morning, I tried to guess what would happen next (inevitably, I was wrong-- Tartt's imagination is endless). Every time I picked it up for "just a little", I was unable to put it down. Maybe this book is as excellent as I think it is, or maybe I just need to chill. Either way, this is an easy recommendation: read it if you want to get sucked into a compelling fictional maze. The Goldfinch receives 5 out of 5 camel humps. PS: It won the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

*Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2013. Print.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle* is a memoir, but it reads more like a novel because of the ABSOLUTELY BANANAS shenanigans it contains (bananigans?). Jeannette Walls tells the story of her turbulent upbringing. As a reader, I feel unsettled with how entertained I am by Jeannette’s real-life struggles; however, her parents are like mythical creatures. Terribly negligent, selfish mythical creatures, like if Sasquatch had little zucchini kids but he made them fend for themselves while he drank and gambled. Maybe that’s the premise of the new Smallfoot film?

I am entertained because Jeannette’s parents are entertaining, in spite of their many flaws but also because of them. Her dad is manic, intelligent, and impulsive, which allows him to fiercely love AND severely traumatize his family. Her mom is bohemian, optimistic, and self-absorbed, so she’s capable of inspiring positive values in her children, as long as it benefits herself. Jeanette tells many distinct stories as they bopped around America and had different experiences, but there is a similar theme: her parent's vacillation between negligence and passion. Strap in for an emotional rollercoaster.

Some Goodreads reviewers describe Jeannette’s tone as too clinical---that she is descriptive without being emotional. I love that about this book! She tells harrowing stories of the resilience of her and her siblings without nagging us every five seconds to feel bad for her. She gives her parents grace when they don’t deserve it, and it’s impressive that she’s created a healthy life where she doesn’t feel the need to reject and bury her past, but rather acknowledge how it has shaped her as a person. Thank you, next.

I also appreciate the unremitting love and protectiveness of her and her siblings. She has one older sister, one younger brother, and one younger sister. The way that they care for each other is so admirable. They were forced to become self-sufficient at such a young age and they still chose to put each other before themselves--surprising, considering their adult models for behavior mostly did the exact opposite. The sibling loyalty reminded me of another stellar memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Additionally, Jeannette’s parents’ preference for homelessness reminds me of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Just do yourself a favor and read all three. The Glass Castle receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.