Mr. Peanut is a weird, brilliant, unnerving novel. Hypermasculine in its point of view, there are times when it reads like John Cheever on steroids, wMr. Peanut is a weird, brilliant, unnerving novel. Hypermasculine in its point of view, there are times when it reads like John Cheever on steroids, with passages so confident and seamless that you’re astonished to be reading a debut. The replication of M.C. Escher's "Encounter" as the book's frontispiece is clue #1 that the arc of Mr. Peanut--while abundant with long stretches of straightforward narrative about the dark side of marriage--is actually filled with complex interlocking question marks. Often, it gets downright bizarre. The passages of David and Alice in Hawaii and the many pages that unveil the marriage of Sam and Marilyn Sheppard (prior to Marilyn's murder) are indisputably great and easy to get swept up in. It’s when the novel veers into Mobius strip/hall of mirrors mode that you’re thrust out of any comfort zone you might have been in. Did Alice Pepin really commit suicide by ingesting peanuts, or is what we’re reading really a novel by David--in which, by imagining the real-life Sheppard case, he creates a vessel for all the difficulty and pain and aggression in his marriage to Alice? As many reviews have pointed out, the thread that ties the novel together is a truly compelling question, one that makes Mr. Peanut a dark pool worth jumping into: Is it possible, even in a union as symbolic and weighted as a marriage, to know your significant other fully and completely?...more
"A novel in stories" is the term often thrown around to describe this kind of book (Olive Kitteridge and The Imperfectionists both come to mind) but t"A novel in stories" is the term often thrown around to describe this kind of book (Olive Kitteridge and The Imperfectionists both come to mind) but the unconventional patchwork of A Visit from the Good Squad gets sweeter by the page. I've seen some people complain that Egan's characters aren't sympathetic or likable enough (fine, though how boring would fiction be if we could relate to every character?) but to watch her connect them together and impress on them the scars of passing time (the 'goon' from the title) is, for lack of a better word, simply awesome. With its multiple narrators and points of view, there's a surprisingly huge sweep to the novel, yet it's made up of storylines that run the gamut from intimate and haunting to hilarious and downright weird. I can't wait to see what Egan does next--I'm sure no one will be able to predict it....more
Everyone knows the American occupation of Iraq has been anything but a success, but if you really want to know how and why it spiraled into a free-falEveryone knows the American occupation of Iraq has been anything but a success, but if you really want to know how and why it spiraled into a free-fall, read Imperial Life in the Emerald City. It’s an enraging document of spectacular failure--about how, during the first year of the occupation, virtually every effort to restore food rationing, medical care, electricity, factory production, traffic law, the university system, the police force, the Iraqi news media, and the writing of a new constitution was hobbled by the American authorities’ “It’s my way or the highway” attitude towards decision-making--not to mention the infighting between the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department.
What hurt the U.S. most, thought, was a mix of stubborn allegiance to rewarding recruits’ political (Republican) loyalties and the government’s willingness, for the sake of saving time, to seek out people who had little to no experience in the problems they were sent to Iraq to fix. (The phrase “no previous experience” appears in just about every chapter). A candidate applying for a staffing job in the Green Zone could be considered “ideal” simply because he'd worked for the Republican Party in Florida during the presidential election recount, or was a prominent Republican National Committee contributor, or simply responded that he opposed abortion and supported capital punishment when asked in a Pentagon interview.
The biggest takeaway from Imperial Life in the Emerald City is that, in the end, the war in Iraq is the Iraqis’ war, not America’s, and that perhaps our biggest failure was to think that democracy can be replicated on a one-size-fits-all basis. For his epigraph, Chandrasekaran chose a 1917 quote from T.E. Lawrence: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” ...more
I really wanted to like this. On paper, I usually love this kind of book: a big dysfunction family, a blurb claiming it holds court with The CorrectioI really wanted to like this. On paper, I usually love this kind of book: a big dysfunction family, a blurb claiming it holds court with The Corrections and Middlesex (an unreasonable comparison, it turns out), a comedy/drama about a corner of American life that hasn't really been writ large before. The Lonely Polygamist definitely has a big heart--Udall cares deeply about his characters--and to his credit, this is a humanizing portrait of a way of life a lot of Americans are quick to scorn, or to at least marvel at the taboo of it. But the novel can really be a slog, and there's only so many pages of character development one can take. And even when plot does manage to raise its head, every chapter essentially reiterates: "Yep, Golden Richards is still having this huge crisis, and everything's chaotic and crazy!" Plus, there's a really compelling revelation around page 300 that is revisited only fleetingly in the end, which itself seems to wallow in reluctant and perhaps pessimistic uncertainty about the future of the Richards clan. By that point I was hoping the novel would break out of itself, but it never really manages to....more
If you’ve only read Roth’s fiction, like I have, it’s worth checking out this moving tribute to his father Herman, who at 86 finally began to suffer fIf you’ve only read Roth’s fiction, like I have, it’s worth checking out this moving tribute to his father Herman, who at 86 finally began to suffer from a benign brain tumor he’d been developing for years. Stylistically straightforward and pragmatically told, it’s also a portrait of Roth as a middle-aged son confronting a lifetime of feelings for a father who was charmingly cantankerous, relentlessly self-disciplined, and deeply rooted in a bygone Newark, the city his parents emigrated to from Polish Galicia. It's also a memoir of transversing the “mental divide that had been growing wider and wider” between Roth and his father since Roth prematurely entered high school at age 12. Herman himself dropped out of school at age 13 to take a job in a factory, and eventually worked his way up to the top of the Met Life insurance company. He was a living symbol of a life built from the ground-up, and his rough-hewn origins forged an inability to “experience powerlessness the usual way,” Roth writes, “making for terrific insensitivity but terrific guts.” Roth tells the story of how Herman was once approached by a kid with a gun and told him that he didn’t need “that piece” to rob him, and gave the kid his wallet. “How much did you get?” he asks the kid, who counts and replied it was $23. “Good,” Herman says. “Now don’t go out and spend it on crap.” You can’t help but love the guy.
It’s memories like these that beg a childlike question Roth asks himself in anguish: why does a man have to die? As he spends sleepless nights and seeks counsel from doctors and friends on the risks of operating on Herman’s tumor (when all Herman really wants is to have a cataract removed) he realizes that the only thing he really understands is that he doesn’t understand anything. Nothing could prepare him, not even generations’ worth of family deaths. “Certainly nothing could have been clearer to me than how little I knew. It wasn’t that I hadn’t understood that the connection to him was convoluted and deep--what I hadn’t known was how deep deep can be.” It’s only through memories--and this sad, wonderful book is filled with them--that he can arrive at understanding. “You mustn’t forget anything--that’s the inscription on my father’s coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory--to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.” ...more
Naomi Wolf has already called Denial "one of the most important books I have read in a decade," and it's easy to see why. At the age of 15, Jessica StNaomi Wolf has already called Denial "one of the most important books I have read in a decade," and it's easy to see why. At the age of 15, Jessica Stern (and her sister, 14) were raped in the safe suburban town of Concord, Massachusetts. Decades later, Stern embarks on the emotionally harrowing journey to uncover the truth about her rapist. Writing with deep honesty and unflinching prose, she discovers that her trauma--and the terror her rape invokes--is also enmeshed with the death of her young mother; her womanizing grandfather, a doctor who was indirectly involved in her mother's death; her twice-divorced father (who narrowly escaped the Holocaust as a child, and who, upon hearing of his daughters' rapes while on a business trip in Norway, did not return home for three days); and the shame and trauma of the people who knew her rapist--who themselves were victims of other crimes and abuses.
The brilliant turn in Denial is that Stern, one of the world's foremost experts on terrorism, telescopes out from her own memories to reveal a critical link between sexual humiliation (and trauma at large) and the terror that is born out of such trauma. The violence of terrorism, she believes, grows from the seeds of shame and humiliation that are planted after an traumatic act; the individual undergoes "lasting, haunting changes in the body and the mind." (Stern herself has witnessed this, from her hundreds of interviews with terrorists.) While terrorists--or rapists--should never be shown sympathy or excused for their acts, Stern argues that it's critical to understand the psychological roots of their violence. Otherwise, in the long run, our own denial of these truths will "corrode integrity--both of individuals and of society."...more
Jonathan Weiner is one of those stealthily brilliant science writers--he doesn't publish that often, but when he does, it's a big deal. There is a senJonathan Weiner is one of those stealthily brilliant science writers--he doesn't publish that often, but when he does, it's a big deal. There is a sense of wonder at the heart of a lot of what he writes--with The Beak of the Finch, which won the Pulitzer Prize, it was that evolution could be documented in virtual real-time on a small crater island in the Galapagos. With Long for this World, it's that a small cross-section of science is actually attempting to elongate the human life span. Of course, the implications are less than simple.
"When we consider the problem of aging," Weiner writes, "and imagine that we might be able to cure it, that alternating current we feel consists of longings and dread. We are afraid of what we wish for; and most of our fears, like our hopes, have always cycled in us." This is the heart of the drama in Long for this World: it may be true that with better medicine and technology, our lifespans have evolved exponentially over only a matter of centuries, and that for every day we live now, we add five hours onto our own time on earth--but would we really want to live forever? As it stands, evolution doesn't have much use for us once we've matured and passed our genes on to the next generation.
The main character that Weiner follows is Aubrey de Grey, an exceptionally quirky, long-bearded and gifted gerontologist in Cambridge, England who believes fiercely that humans will--and should--eventually be able to live a thousand years and more. In a nutshell, his argument is that if we can just figure out a way to clean up the cellular garbage that metabolism creates, (specifically, the "seven deadly things," which include free radicals that antioxidants fight) we'll be able to clear the path for immortality. Of course, the biggest catch is that we'd need to cure every kind of cancer imaginable. There are plenty of scientists in these "Methuselah wars" who believe that our constantly mutating cells will make this impossible. And there are some who think it's downright baffling that people would actually want to live for 500 years or more. Wouldn't we get incredibly bored if we actually lived forever? Would anyone want to have children? Would we become so aware of the possibility of death that crossing the street or driving in traffic or potentially suffering some other kind of random accident would render us so hypersensitive as to be practically immobile? Says biologist Martin Raff, "I mean, if you ask people, most people are not afraid of death. Most people are afraid of dying--of terrible dying. That's what they're afraid of."
The answer to the question of eventual immortality is pretty clear when Weiner writes that "We are performers of the self, we are playwrights of our lives, and we need death to bring down the curtain, or the play will go on too long; the story will lose all shape and cease to be a story at all." But we are lucky to have a writer like him show us--intimately, humanely, and always with a sense of wonder--a possibility that concerns every single one of us.
Don’t get me wrong—-there’s a lot to like here. I myself like a good dysfunctional family story as much as the next reader, and a strong-voiced, firstDon’t get me wrong—-there’s a lot to like here. I myself like a good dysfunctional family story as much as the next reader, and a strong-voiced, first-person, often hilarious narrator, which this novel definitely has (in addition to a healthy dose of testosterone coursing through it, which is, for lack of a better word, refreshing to see these days). But by page 200, I started to lose patience.
For narrator and thirty-something Judd Foxman, whose wife Jen has been sleeping with his radio shock-jock boss Wade and is now pregnant (it doesn’t help that she miscarried with Judd once before), a typical day in the observance of shiva for his recently deceased father, Mort, goes like this:
1. Wake up after having nightmare, which usually involves his father and feelings of guilt over how much he misses him. 2. Deal with members of family (two brothers, one sister, their significant others, prurient sextagenarian/self-help guru mother) and/or friends and the varying dramas, often sexual, of their lives. 3. Leave the ensuing craziness and arguments on a mission to reflect on the past, on memories of Mort, on how badly life is going; encounter old flames, regret his cuckolded and sexless state of life, and suppress or indulge violent tendencies upon his ex-boss. 4. Come home virtually unhinged and, in a tender scene meant to further garner your sympathy, fall asleep in the basement.
This is all entertaining enough-—and occasionally moving-—for awhile, but it’s not long before it takes on the feeling of lather, rinse, repeat. At one point Judd comments, “You’d need a GPS to keep track of the sex lives of this family,” so much so that you wonder if This Is Where I Leave You should’ve been called This Is Where I F*** You.
Moreover, after I read some reviews here that complained the novel felt like it was really intended to be a movie(tons of dialogue and barbed one-liners, out-sized reactions to situations that span pretty much every screenworthy emotional/physical state, a large cast of characters who are often misguided but ultimately mean well) I realized that this is entirely true. You can just see Paul Rudd playing Judd, with another Judd (Apatow) producing and directing--perhaps trying to chart more upmarket waters than Knocked Up, but still with plenty of sex jokes. The film, in fact, is in development, and I’m sure it’ll be perfectly entertaining. But I’ll probably wait for the DVD. ...more
There's a great evocation of time and place here. But ultimately A Common Pornography is a self-billed "memory experiment," and for me, the fragmentedThere's a great evocation of time and place here. But ultimately A Common Pornography is a self-billed "memory experiment," and for me, the fragmented stories of the book weren't enough to deliver the true emotional gut-punch you'd expect from a memoir about a family with a history of "incest, madness, and betrayal." Meh....more
I'll admit it--I'm not much of a foodie, and I've never been a close follower of Anthony Bourdain. I've seen a few great episodes of "No Reservations,I'll admit it--I'm not much of a foodie, and I've never been a close follower of Anthony Bourdain. I've seen a few great episodes of "No Reservations," but I've never gotten around to reading Kitchen Confidential. There's no doubt, however, that the man can write. Fans will undoubtedly salivate over Medium Raw, a book that is less a linear narrative and more a series of essays, some of them personal (about his new family life, for instance) but most of them taking aim at the modern food world: the double-edged sword that is Alice Waters; a look inside the ever complex mind of chef David Chang, which almost reads like a New Yorker profile; the precariousness of the restaurant business in post-meltdown America; the highs and lows of the Top Chef winners and losers; a chapter of Bourdain's favorite meals that he's had around the world--truly some of the most fantastic food porn penned in recent memory; and a chapter called "Alan Richman is a Douchebag," a spectacular takedown of the food writer and critic. Of course, there's plenty of scathing prose throughout, and enough jabs to delight even the most seasoned Bourdain fans. But each chapter is part of a larger conversation Bourdain's having with himself, and he always returns to the implication of the question that ties the book together: Why, today, does it matter to cook well?