Humorist David Sedaris is back in fine form in this collection of personal essays and short fiction pieces. If you're a Sedaris fan, you'll find much...moreHumorist David Sedaris is back in fine form in this collection of personal essays and short fiction pieces. If you're a Sedaris fan, you'll find much to like here, including his trademark neuroticism, more tales of his nutty family, and his observations being an American abroad, now based in England rather than France.
Interspersed between these essays are also a few fiction pieces written from the first person perspective. The voice of these characters is close enough to Sedaris' own that it can take a few beats to know whether the piece you are reading is essay or fiction. I found this somewhat distracting, though once I was on firm enough footing, I tended to enjoy these pieces as well.
The most interesting selection for me was an essay near the end in which he discusses his life-long compulsive diary habit. Sedaris has a very strange mind, and I was quite fascinated to hear him talk about the process through which he decides which of his many recorded observations get expanded into pieces for public consumption.
If you're not familiar with Sedaris, I'd probably not start with this book, but those already fans of his work will likely find it a comforting continuation of his approachable brand of bizarreness.(less)
It's very hard to describe this collection of Guardian and GQ columns written by the author of Men Who Stare at Goats. On the surface, the topics soun...moreIt's very hard to describe this collection of Guardian and GQ columns written by the author of Men Who Stare at Goats. On the surface, the topics sound decidedly dark - a high-school murder plot in North Pole, Alaska, the suspected cover up of the disappearance of a Disney cruise employee who went missing off a ship, the trial of an '80s pop star accused of pedophilia. But Ronson is the kind of narrator who has the gift of making all these stories accessibly human, truly fascinating, and weirdly entertaining.
His opening piece on the revelation that the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse has secretly been hardcore Christian all these years was a small piece of essay perfection. Amber Waves of Green, in which he interviews Americans from 6 different layers of the income strata, provides real insight into how we mentally cope with money no matter how much of it we do or don't have.
Ronson is a character himself his pieces, a highly neurotic, cynical one, but also one who also brings the perfect blend of insight and wryness to his personally felt observations.
This does occasionally compromise his objectivity, as when he finds himself incurring the ire of the leader of a controversial group called the Jesus Christians who had invited him to report on their plan to donate kidneys to strangers. But Ronson's description of his own muddled feelings towards this leader does perhaps a better job of portraying the problematic dynamics one inevitably finds in groups like this than any objective reporter ever could.
Not all of the essays were winners - a longer piece on early attempts at artificial intelligence dragged a bit, and I didn't share Ronson's fascination with Stanley Kubrick's obsessively collected archives. But most all of the rest of the pieces left me with a surprising amount to think about. His investigation of the suicide of a British man who fell victim to predatory lenders and the techniques those lenders used to find that man is critical reading for understanding the financial crisis; anyone interested in cruise vacations would do well to read his piece about just how many people go missing from those ships ever year, and how little is done about it because of the fuzzy jurisdiction of convenience-flagged ships in international waters and the desire of the cruise industry to suppress any story that interferes with their happy-go-party image.
Though not all the topics were easy to read about, it's one of the first books in a while that I wanted to continue, so I will definitely be checking out his other collections.(less)
Whatever one's opinion on Christopher Hitchens' religious views, it's indisputable that the man can write. This collection of essays was penned after...moreWhatever one's opinion on Christopher Hitchens' religious views, it's indisputable that the man can write. This collection of essays was penned after his diagnosis of terminal esophageal cancer and before his untimely death.
The focus of this book is more about his experience of dying of cancer than anything else, but his chapter on the varying responses of Christians to his diagnosis is among the richest in the book. The contrast between those who gleefully indulged in their belief that this was God's revenge against a blasphemer and the patient and generous assistance noted Christian Francis Collins gave to Hitchens as he navigated the complexities of his treatment offers a striking lesson in true humanity.
Primarily, though, this is a guidebook through a land nobody really wants to visit. Hitchens looks at many facets of the cancer landscape, from the difficulty of communication between those with and those without, the struggle with conscious loss of taken-for-granted faculties, and an eloquent piece pointing out that, in cancer land, there are plenty of things that do not kill you, but absolutely do not make you stronger.
Though Hitchens retains his trademark dry wit throughout the book, I found my reading of it shadowed with sadness. The last chapter in particular, which consists of a number of idea fragments he'd written but had not yet fleshed out before an unexpected turn for the worse silenced his keyboard forever, was a particularly poignant reminder of how terribly tenuous a grip we all have on this miracle called life.(less)
In thinking about why Liz Gilbert's memoir, Eat Pray Love, was so successful, I suspect that it's because it's the ultimate escapist fantasy. Gilbert...moreIn thinking about why Liz Gilbert's memoir, Eat Pray Love, was so successful, I suspect that it's because it's the ultimate escapist fantasy. Gilbert flees a bad marriage and a bitter divorce and miraculously receives a large enough book advance to spend the next year traveling the world in search of pleasure, spirituality, and love. That her dream journey results in her finding healing and rebirth, not to mention a passionate new Brazilian lover, gives her story the perfect fairy tale ending.
The problem with happily ever after, of course, is that the "ever after" part of that phrase is usually a lot more complicated than your average fairy tale would imply. Gilbert's new story picks up two years after the first one left off, when her Brazilian lover Felipe has been banned from returning the States unless the two of them get married. Still bearing scars from her first marriage, Gilbert is not at all happy about this, but decides to forge ahead out of her desire to be with Felipe. Committed details her attempts to make peace with this decision.
Unlike EPL, Committed is less a memoir and more of a very long personal essay. Gilbert does relay some aspects of her own story, but the book spends more time on discussions about her research into the history and sociology of marriage in Western society. Though other reviewers have mentioned Gilbert does not cover any new ground here, I was unfamiliar with most of this research, so I did find this aspect of the book interesting.
Gilbert is a writer of both strong opinions and strong feminist inclinations, however, and these tendencies likely combined with her personal scars to create a tone that was often preachy and oddly paternalistic as she discussed what a raw deal she thinks marriage has historically been for most women. Though there were places in the book when the witty and unselfconscious voice that made her so charming in EPL resurfaced, I found the overall tone of this book to be much more reserved and decidedly less engaging. I can imagine it's much harder to write openly about intensely personal issues once you know that millions and millions of people will read what you wrote, but those few moments in the book when the less guarded Gilbert did shine through made this loss seem even more pronounced.
Still, I don't regret having read this book. Gilbert is nothing if not intelligent, and her meandering exploration raised a number of interesting points that caused me to think about my own marriage in new ways. Her status as an affluent and childless woman may make her positions less accessible to those in more typical family circumstances, but for those wishing to participate in a thoughtful and at times entertaining discussion of marriage, there is value to be gained here. (less)
This collection of essays contains the two pieces that David Foster Wallace is probably best known for: "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much A...moreThis collection of essays contains the two pieces that David Foster Wallace is probably best known for: "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All," his observations on attending the Illinois State Fair, and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," his musings on a week-long Caribbean cruise. Both pieces are truly fantastic reading, entertaining, educational and brilliant all in the same breath.
Since I've often suspected that a mass market cruise would mirror my own personal version of Hell, I related particularly well to his commentary on the emotional underbelly that lurks beneath the shiny surface of the "managed fun" the cruise ship staff does its best to inflict upon its passengers. In the wake of the author's recent suicide, it was terribly sad to read some of his thoughts on the despair this situation inspired in him. At the time he wrote it, however, that despair was balanced out by an astounding sense of humor, and I am still laughing as I reflect upon sections such as the fear he inspired in innocent bystanders during his first skeet shooting attempts and the footnote in which he detailed the numerous breaches of etiquette he managed to make during Elegant Tea Time.
Other topics addressed in this collection include the impact of television on his generation of fiction writers (written long before reality television burst on the scene, leaving me wistfully wondering if he had written anything on that topic before his untimely death—if anyone knows of anything, I'd appreciate being pointed to it), observations on director David Lynch and why his films are so creepily disturbing, commentary on certain points of literary theory that was so far beyond me it came close to making my head explode (fortunately, this piece was short) and a surprisingly fascinating look at the "minor leagues" of professional tennis, those players whose names we never hear but who are the foundation upon which the TV-friendly greats all stand.
My favorite piece in this book, however, is the first one, "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley." It is a meditation on his own early tennis ambitions and how his understanding of math and intuitive sense of Midwestern weather allowed him to progress farther in his playing than his mediocre talent alone would have allowed. There is something so profound about the bittersweet tone of this piece and the intensity of its ending that I suspect it will stay with me for a long, long time.
I didn't know much about David Foster Wallace when I cracked open this collection of his essays, so the first piece on the Adult Video News Awards cau...moreI didn't know much about David Foster Wallace when I cracked open this collection of his essays, so the first piece on the Adult Video News Awards caught me rather by surprise. Within just a few paragraphs, however, the sheer and utter brilliance of this fascinating and yet also erudite and intellectual examination of the porn industry left me with little doubt that DFW's reputation as one of the smartest and funniest writers of my lifetime is well-deserved.
Prior to this book, if you had told me that I would soon find myself reading—and enjoying—a sixty-two page essay that is at its heart a review of a dictionary, I would not have believed you. But like the other essays in this book, that piece is about so much more than just its surface topic. I walked away from it with insight and understanding into issues of language usage I had never troubled myself to think about before.
There is no question that DFW's style is on the unconventional side; while it's not always easy on the eyes to follow the two-page footnotes with footnotes of their own, or the tangent boxes that decorate his piece on a right-wing radio talk show host, it is usually worth the effort.
I will confess, however, that I did skip one piece in this collection. Despite my newfound appreciation for the author's talents, I simply haven't yet sufficiently recovered from the trauma of the recent election season to spend seventy-nine pages with him as he recounts his time following John McCain's failed 2000 bid for the Republican nomination. So I shall have to save that one for another day.
It's a terribly bittersweet experience to fall in love with an author you learned about only because of his tragic suicide. But as I mourn Wallace's untimely passing, I am grateful to know he has left behind so much work for me to discover and explore. (less)
This collection of essays from George Saunders covers a wide range of territory, discussing everything from the author’s experiences visiting the Budd...moreThis collection of essays from George Saunders covers a wide range of territory, discussing everything from the author’s experiences visiting the Buddha Boy of Nepal to an analysis of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Saunders sharp eye and even sharper wit come across in most all of these essays, though I think his talent is best displayed in the longer travel pieces. His humor is balanced with a good deal of heartfelt emotion when he writes about watching Arab children see snow for the first time in the surreal fairy tale of modern Dubai, and his travels along the US-Mexico border in search of greater understanding of the immigration issue reveal a world far too complex to be explained in a sound bite. The title essay, about the decline of intelligent content in mass media, is particularly spot on. Overall, a very worthwhile and entertaining read. (less)
Mark Carwardine was a zoologist working for the World Wildlife Fund when he was hired by a magazine to take Douglas Adams to see the world’s rarest no...moreMark Carwardine was a zoologist working for the World Wildlife Fund when he was hired by a magazine to take Douglas Adams to see the world’s rarest nocturnal lemur, the Madagascar aye-aye. The trip was enough of a success that they decided having Adams write funny things about his attempt to visit endangered species was a good way to raise awareness about animal conservation, so they reunited a few years later to track down some other animals whose numbers have fallen into the double digits. The resulting collection of ecology/travel essays is hands down one of my all time favorite books.
During the course of their travels, Carwardine and Adams go to Indonesia to visit the Komodo dragon, Zaire to see the Northern White rhinoceros, New Zealand to see the Kakapo parrot, China to see the Yangtzee River dolphin and Mauritius to see the Rodrigues fruit bat. Adams’ style of absurdist humor is particularly well-suited to detailing the problems involved in merely getting to the places where these animals are supposed to be, since they are frequently located rather inconveniently in remote areas of third world countries. His front line reports set the stage by being laugh out loud funny, keeping us so entertained and open that by the time we finally do get to meet these precarious creatures, we have no choice but to care about them and their fates as much as our intrepid reporters do. (less)