I bet that Thomas Pynchon read this book, and LURVED it. Angry-young-man slapstick, grumpy satire of all crustiness, it took me a while to get into it...moreI bet that Thomas Pynchon read this book, and LURVED it. Angry-young-man slapstick, grumpy satire of all crustiness, it took me a while to get into it, but won me over in the end.
Did you ever see that movie 'Withnail and I'? While reading Lucky Jim, I kept feeling like I was reading Withnail and I (The Book). Different characters, same attitude. The Young Ones from TV, too, kind of. It's like the British have a tradition of hapless (& dark & funny) young-man-hood that we Americans just don't, quite. Do we? Are there any American books like this???(less)
When I was trying to sell my my nonfiction book proposal, the agent I was working with had a policy of forwarding me all the email she got from editor...moreWhen I was trying to sell my my nonfiction book proposal, the agent I was working with had a policy of forwarding me all the email she got from editors she'd shopped it to. Most said some politely-disingenuous version of 'Gee, it's so great, just not for us!,' but a few got into substantive criticism, including the one that haunts me, from an editor who called my writing "serviceable." At the time, it felt much worse than being called terrible or execrable. Terrible is stirring in some way, at least. Serviceable—yecch. I don't think the editor meant to be mean (though maybe she totally did), but the word still rings in my ears.
Well, I hate to say it, but some of the writing in Goodbye to All That is just that way, serviceable. None of it's bad, and some of it's really enjoyable, and the many-variations-on-a-theme nature of the essays, the way they start to wash over you after a while, totally works for people who have partaken in the experience under consideration. A lot of the essays have a first draft-y quality, are blow-by-blows: I wanted to move there, I moved there, some stuff happened, then I got out. The similarity of structure makes it easy to compare the personal stories side by side, which is part of the fun (how was her story similar to mine? how was it different?), but some of my favorite essays in the collection were the ones that were tied together more tightly by a theme or point, like Emily Carter Roiphe's, about the subway, or Rebecca Wolff's plea for young artists to quit moving to New York City for god's sake, or Meghan Daum's 1999 essay, reprinted here, about going into financial debt to live out her New York dream.
Reading an anthology is also a good way to discover new writers, and in addition to the above favorites, I was happy to be introduced to Ruth Curry, Marcy Dermansky, Elisa Albert, and no doubt a few others I'm forgetting.
I wish they'd been able to reprint the original Joan Didion essay along with the rest.(less)
A bunch of line drawings mostly of people, with brief handwritten anecdotes, which are supposedly true and taken from interviews, about people's exes,...moreA bunch of line drawings mostly of people, with brief handwritten anecdotes, which are supposedly true and taken from interviews, about people's exes, with a really great introductory riff that then turns out to be by Kierkegaard.
Leanne Shapton herself complained, in her meatier and textier book, Swimming Studies, that she can't draw; I thought she was being modest, but it's kinda true. Still, this is a fun book to read (read? flip through?), a meditation on the idea that we all live with the ghosts of our lovers' exes, that we are all, thus, haunted.(less)
I just finished (re)reading this book moments ago—it's been ten years since the first time—and though I'd been going to give it three stars, it got me...moreI just finished (re)reading this book moments ago—it's been ten years since the first time—and though I'd been going to give it three stars, it got me in the ending, and I'm going to assign four.
It is a coming-of-age story about a girl who grows up in an emotionally stifled, middle-class home in the north of England. As she grows up, Clara turns out to be both smart, sexy, and sensual; she also has good instincts about people. Because of these qualities, she's able to leave her depressing town and family, and move to London, where she attends college. Feeling her way, and relying on those instincts, she meets a Royal Tenenbaums-like family, first befriending the artsy, charming, and precocious daughter, Clelia, who is just a few years older than herself. Clara's friendship with the Denhams opens up a new world to her, a world of taste and beauty and kindness and quirky aristocratic ways and intellectual excitement and most of all, love: they're the family she never had, the family she always wanted for herself, the kind of people she hardly dared to dream might really exist.
The reader keeps expecting something to go terribly wrong for Clara, but the truth (I hope this isn't too much of a spoiler) is that nothing truly does. She keeps on feeling her way, acting with more and more integrity and daring, and life keeps rewarding her for it. Toward the end of the book, she returns to her hometown and has a kind of reconciliation/grieving moment for her past, particularly her mother, whose extreme bitterness with life is the fate that Clara seems, as the book ends, to have been both shrewd and lucky enough to avoid. I found the lack of catastrophe in the book charming and unexpected and moving. It's nice to read about a strong woman who doesn't get punished for her strength, and it's even nicer to read about a woman who develops strength; it's a process I don't think gets written about too much, at least not when it comes to young ladies. (If I'm wrong, please suggest me relevant titles to read, because I like this plot.)
The moments when I was thinking 'three stars!' mostly concern lengthy descriptions of interior décor, with attendant aristocratic fawning; moments of datedness; and a seventy-page flashback after the first chapter, which tells the entirety of Clara's life story up to the point when the action of the book occurs. It's clear much later why it had to be told, but when I was in it I kept flipping forward and thinking, 'Really? Seventy pages before we can get back to the story?' There is also something about the Denhams' wonderfulness that, like the wonderfulness of the Tenenbaums themselves, initially charms but then begins to grate. But it doesn't grate too much; all in all, Jerusalem the Golden is a tightly focused, classic version of the young-person-goes-to-the-big-city-to-make-good story, one that's permitted to have a very happy, even inspiring ending.
And though I had moments of doubt, I now applaud myself for wishing to re-read it. (less)
I tore through this book in about two and a half days, and found it an enjoyable read that went down easy. I guess you'd say it's chick lit (of the de...moreI tore through this book in about two and a half days, and found it an enjoyable read that went down easy. I guess you'd say it's chick lit (of the deliberately smart variety), and also satire, a little bit? It's funny. I laughed out loud a number of times. I liked that it lampoons the NYC media world — that was my world for a while, so I had a soft spot for those descriptions, and also the way that the descriptions of the main character's new Midwestern home, "Prairie City," are filtered through her New York-centric point of view; everything is compared to the way it is, or would be, in New York. I do that, even though it's silly and a little obnoxious, and this book may appeal to any New Yorker or former New Yorker who's had the same tic.
This book has gotten a hard rap from the Goodreads community. I agree with a lot of the criticisms that have been made, but somehow those same things didn't bother me. For example, I'm not sure that creating a totally realistic character was job #1 for the author; writing a book with a certain somewhat formulaic kind of structure, limning that structure with real-life details and points (exaggerated at times for effect), and making the whole thing funny seem to me to have been the goal here—and on those scores, the book is pretty much a success.
What makes The Quality of Life Report charming is that it's a collection of keen observations, woven into a story that isn't ashamed to be just that: a tale, an entertainment, not the baring of somebody's soul. The focus is on these funny people and places the main character encounters, and the musings about place that they inspire. Even if those musings don't ultimately add up to anything incredibly profound, The Quality of Life Report is a fun ride and a humorous but largely accurate (in that broad-strokes, satirical kind of way) portrait of some American anxieties about 'lifestyle' around the turn of the millennium.
I've read Daum in the past, and I will read more Daum in the future!(less)
This is a very good book, yet I disagree with those who've fallen all over themselves to call it perfect. The biggest imperfection is the character of...moreThis is a very good book, yet I disagree with those who've fallen all over themselves to call it perfect. The biggest imperfection is the character of the wife, who is such a harpy it's impossible to believe. The second-biggest imperfection is the character of the other professor who has it in for the main character, William Stoner, because he makes Stoner's life miserable for years, but his motivations are totally opaque. (I guess you could make the argument that life is actually like that: people make people miserable for inscrutable reasons. But still, it was a little hard for me to swallow.) It is really good, though, and it's neat how the author is able to make an engaging story out of such a small circle of characters and a limited palette of places and things, and a totally even, earnest tone throughout. It's not just that not that much happens; it's that the narrator isn't permitted to be witty or arch, yet somehow, it works like that, just going along at the phlegmatic pace of a farm boy-turned-English teacher. The intrusion of world events into the main character's life gives the book a slight Forrest Gump overtone at times. It's not distracting unless you are a total jerk, like I am.(less)
I bought this book on the spur of the moment at a used bookstore. Many months later, in need of something engaging but light to read, I picked it up....moreI bought this book on the spur of the moment at a used bookstore. Many months later, in need of something engaging but light to read, I picked it up. It's the Little Things purports to be an intimate look at how white people and black people in the United States perceive each other—and, so often, rub each another the wrong way—in everyday social interactions. And while race relations in this country could hardly be considered a light topic, something about the way the book was packaged, from the front cover, to the author's adorable wide grin in her author photo, to the slightly subversive implication that the reader is about to be let in on secrets, seemed to hint at the promise of a good time.
And it turns out that the book IS fun to read. The author, Lena Williams, is a longtime reporter for the New York TImes. She writes like a newspaper reporter: short paragraphs, lots of dialogue, and zingers aplenty. She manages to be both serious and funny. It's the Little Things is not heavy analysis, but a collection of thematically-grouped observations (many of them drawn from round table-like focus groups that the author conducted in a number of American cities), with more of an emphasis on the black experience than the white. (In an afterword, the author explains that getting white people to speak candidly about their impressions of black people is really, really difficult—even with the promise of anonymity.) Brave in its intention, it is completely unique; and while not perfect, it made an impression on me that will last for a long time.
For the record (because they are missing from the Goodreads entry at this time), the original subtitle of this book was "The Everyday Interactions That Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites," and the subtitle of the version that I read was "Everyday Interactions that Anger, Annoy, and Divide the Races."
Weird detail: the book wasn't copy-edited very well, which is obviously the publisher's fault and not the author's, but is always a little bit distracting. (less)
An enticing package of a book, every aspect visually thought out down to the last detail—to the extent that when you hold the book sideways, you see t...moreAn enticing package of a book, every aspect visually thought out down to the last detail—to the extent that when you hold the book sideways, you see two dark 'lane markers' in the page ends.
A mix of prose and art, not always very well integrated. (Though on the plus side, rather original in its blend.) I enjoyed it and liked the personal memoir about what it was like to be a pre-Olympic-caliber swimmer and what it was like to leave that behind. Shapton, trained in art and employed as an art director in New York, can also really write.
When I ordered the book, I was expecting it to be more about swimming in general (I'd probably heard it described as 'a meditation,' or something), but it stays fairly personal. There are a few too many reminders throughout the text of all the fabulous places the author has been and all the fabulous things she owns (the twenty-or-so-page visual litany of vintage swimsuits was too much for me). I'm all for fabulous, but I came to this book for the swimming, damn it.(less)
Scattered impressions: This book is beautifully written and meticulously researched. At first, it seemed to take on a lot of themes that would have be...moreScattered impressions: This book is beautifully written and meticulously researched. At first, it seemed to take on a lot of themes that would have been of interest to me, like what it means to be a tough woman, or a tough but sensitive woman, or a young woman who is primarily driven by some kind of personal career or artistic or even spiritual ambition, rather than a romantic one, though boyfriends are, obviously, part of the story too.
Before long, though, I became frustrated with the narrator of the book, the young woman known as Reno. Despite the fact that she was talking to me in her own voice, and despite the fact that she was doing unusual, kick-ass things like wrecking an Italian motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats, I felt that I didn't really understand her, and that she was even, in a weird way, boring. Her hot Italian artist boyfriend Sandro is even more of a cardboard cut-out. And I kept waiting for the interspersed sections, which are shown through the eyes of Sandro's grandfather, who founded a motorcycle company in Italy, to line up better with the rest of the plot. Is there some kind of bond or parallel between Reno and old man Valera? If so, it is lost on me.
The best thing about this book is letting it just wash over you. The prose is beautiful and very visual, and the scenes of 1970s New York art world life and the general crappitude of New York City itself at that time (those counterculture guys in the Lower East Side!) are great. It only starts rubbing you the wrong way when you ask it to make sense. There are a lot of visuals about women being brutalized, but what do they mean? How come Reno, the product of a hardscrabble upbringing in Nevada, speaks in such a genteel inner voice? What's all the imagery of the people vs. The Man trying to get across? I wanted someone to sit me down and try to tie it all together.
The other thing I noticed about this book was how Pynchonesque it is. Like it's kind of about people, but also about history, and machines, and exploitation—and it's like we're supposed to infer some kind of heavy parallels between machines and sex and class struggle and art (there's a lot of film in here, which reminded me of Gravity's Rainbow). Also, characters sometimes have very silly names. I wonder whether this debt was intentional. To me it seems too pronounced not to be.
Ultimately, reading The Flamethrowers reminded me of reading The Tiger's Wife, one of the last much-hyped books I attempted. I think this book is better than The Tiger's Wife, but they both combined lush and impressive writing with what felt to me (am I missing something?) like important deficits in the good-old-fashioned-storytelling department.(less)
This book called to me from the shelves of my local library, so I checked it out and read it on a whim. It's an easy, quick read. This book buttressed...moreThis book called to me from the shelves of my local library, so I checked it out and read it on a whim. It's an easy, quick read. This book buttressed my sense that research psychology is all about using elaborate and perhaps contrived experiments to 'support' conclusions that your own common sense would have supported in the first place.
One of the reasons I kept reading (besides apparently being in the mood for a light read) is that the author offers an explanation of what the 'Big Five' personality dimensions are. The Big Five is a concept from psychology I'd run across many times before, but never gone to the trouble to look up, so I was happy to have someone walk me through it.
All in all, the premise that someone's office or bedroom can tell you something important about them is a charming one, and Sam Gosling sounds like he'd probably be a pretty fun guy to hang out with for an evening. As far as the actual science goes, I'm not sure it proves that someone's room can tell you a whole lot about them, though it can tell you certain things, like how 'conscientious' they are (not surprisingly, since this trait maps closely onto neat-and-tidiness), and probably how 'open' they are ('openness' = intellectual and emotional curiosity, and is signified by a wide-ranging book collection, the presence of art, evidence of exotic travels, and the like). Speaking of exotic travels, the book concerns itself pretty exclusively with people who are financially well-off: white-collar workers and students at elite colleges, mostly. I wonder what poor people's stuff says about them? Other important traits, like neuroticism and agreeableness and extraversion, don't correlate very well with interior decor, except neuroticism in bedrooms and extraversion in offices. There's a discussion of how it's hard to mask the traces of personality that one leaves in one's space, i.e. to 'fake it.' I wonder how many people have tried.
Certain parts of the book felt a little dated already. (If you would like to read a lot about iPod playlists, look no further.)
I sound more grumpy than I really was. This was a breezy and sometimes fun read. It just didn't reform my views on social psychology.
This book was, as others have noted, a fast read. I breezed through it, and even at the moments when I paused to say aloud, 'This isn't a great book,'...moreThis book was, as others have noted, a fast read. I breezed through it, and even at the moments when I paused to say aloud, 'This isn't a great book,' I kept the pages turning. Which says something for it.
It is a blend of the history of the fitness movement, the author's personal involvement in fitness activities, and scientific inquiry into fitness (What's the most effective way to train? Does exercise really make you healthier?) These kinds of weavings can be hard to pull off (I should know; I tried to write one). Sometimes it feels as if the strands are being fused because none of them, on their own, are quite compelling enough to carry a whole book. But what's the rationale for mixing them together? Maybe a book all about the best way to train would have been too wonky. Maybe a book all about the history of fitness would have been too academic. Surely a book all about Ms. Kolata's devotion to Spinning classes and weight rooms would not have worked, though I find her sometimes-a-tad-robotic account of her obsession with exercise amusing. I'm not totally convinced they add up to a whole that is more than the sum of their parts.
Maybe the problem with trying to tell a story about exercise is that it's hard to find the plot. It's like telling a story about eating (though, come to think of it, a lot of authors have managed to do that). Exercise is a routine; it feels good, to a lot of people; it is probably good for you; etc. There isn't a lot of conflict there. People don't live and die by it (at least, not very quickly). Interestingly to me, the most engaging part of the book was the near-to-last chapter about the business of the fitness industry, a Jessica Mitford-like piece of muckraking that shed light on the seamy, unregulated world of commercialized fitness regimens and the people who profit from them. Finally, a little controversy, a little human drama.
In truth, I sought out and read this book because I've thought about trying to write something about exercise myself, and I wanted to see how someone else had approached it. I don't think it answered my biggest question, which was something like, 'How do you make going to the gym interesting to read about?' There were a few strands in the book that might have led somewhere interesting if they'd been teased out. At one point, Kolata raised the question of why regular, adult people—people who like to exercise but will never be athletes—are willing to expend so much time, effort, and money to have quasi-athlete-like experiences? (She devotes a lot of time to a four-hour Spinning ride.) That's kind of an interesting question. There's also some class and gender stuff involved in the history of it all. Kolata touched on the fact that weightlifting, in its origins, was a working-class activity, but has become less so over time, but she didn't go into the class dimensions of exercise today. And just yesterday, when I was outside and everyone around me was running in their special Lululemon outfits, I remembered how Kolata quoted a running enthusiast from the '60s who was arrested by the cops on an early-morning jog—because in their 1960s minds, the only reason a grown man would be running down the street would be if he'd stolen something.
Maybe I read this book because it's January and I'm in the post-holiday, it's-still-winter exercise doldrums, and I wanted something that could reenergize me about the idea of doing hard workouts again (without making me go out in the dark and the cold and actually, you know, exercise). And, come to think of it, that little hit of sporty-person identity affirmation is probably the main reason why anyone would pick up a book about fitness. Which, if I keep on thinking about it, might provide some clue as to how to write effectively about exercising?(less)
I got this novel out of the library because, on my first trip to the Oakland Museum of California, I became enchanted with a small exhibit about a Dep...moreI got this novel out of the library because, on my first trip to the Oakland Museum of California, I became enchanted with a small exhibit about a Depression-era homeless camp in Oakland that was called Pipe City. (It consisted of a whole bunch of sections of large-diameter concrete pipe, down by the rail yard.) I Googled Pipe City after getting home, and came across mention of the fact that Upton Sinclair had written a novel about it. Charmz! I went to the U.C. Berkeley library straightaway. They had a copy, published in 1936. I brought it home and started to read.
The story does begin in Pipe City, but it quickly spreads rather far south, down to San Sebastian. (Why? I guess the author wanted to put the super-poor and the super-rich into the same frame.) I have to confess that I gave up on this book after about 120 pages, only about a quarter of the way in. It's tiresome propaganda, each of the characters a cardboard cut-out of a type. The good are good! The bad are bad! The book is...boring!
It might be interesting for a historian or someone interested in the rhetoric of the time (for example, a lot of the book is given over to having the members of the eventual co-op prove to the other characters and the reader himself that they are not communists, but good Americans. And there's some Communist-bashing, just to drive the point home. It gives a window into what socialist Americans at the time were up against). But it wasn't enough to engage the attention of someone who just wanted a window into what things really sounded, felt, and smelled like in the real Pipe City, Oakland.(less)
I'm with everyone: there is so much remarkable writing here, but also some rather striking weaknesses in terms of plot, character, and even theme. I w...moreI'm with everyone: there is so much remarkable writing here, but also some rather striking weaknesses in terms of plot, character, and even theme. I was seduced by the hype around the book—they hype wasn't the author's fault, and it would have been hard for any book to live up to it. I was impressed by Obreht's handling of detail, and the way she convincingly evokes the several disparate worlds she describes. I imagine a lot of impressive research must have gone into this book, and then some cool feats of imagination applied to that research. The storytelling and the prose itself is self-assured, and the images the author creates are often quite beautiful. In principle, I like the unabashed attempt by a young person to write a big, serious, beautiful book.
In the 'conversation with the author' that's printed in the back of my edition, Jennifer Egan compliments Obreht on her 'willingness to leave things unsaid,' which is the absolute most charitable possible spin on this book's greatest weakness, namely the under-development of the characters to the point where it's often hard to tell what the book is even about. The Tiger's Wife is a collection of dazzling tall tales, rich in animal motifs, and the author has a way with grisly medical/visceral imagery. But because there's barely a narrative through-line, I found myself growing bored even amid all the razzle-dazzle, and I considered not finishing the book. I'm kind of glad I pressed on, because my favorite scene—where the grandfather remembers his final meal at an old hotel in a town that is about to get blown to smithereens—came near the end of the book, and it was a really good scene. But I can't say that late developments tied everything together in a way that made the novel satisfying as a whole. The two main characters stayed inscrutable, and while I don't think every novel has to boil down to a pat little message, it does have to yield to interpretation a little bit, which The Tiger's Wife doesn't, at least not for me.(less)