Finally, an argument in favor of being forced to read books! I hated the beginning of this and fell asleep twice during the first chapter, so I never...moreFinally, an argument in favor of being forced to read books! I hated the beginning of this and fell asleep twice during the first chapter, so I never would've kept on going if I hadn't had to for school. But The Periodic Table got progressively better then finally peaked at the end, as is my personal preference for books. I cried for like twenty minutes after I finished this, though I'm not sure if that had to do more with Primo Levi or with my own lady hormones.
In any case, though it took me awhile to get into it, I did really like this book and recommend it, especially if you're interested in chemicals. Levi insists that it's fiction, not autobiography, but it feels very true, whether it all is or not. Each chapter is structured around an element from the periodic table, and tells the life story of an Italian Jewish chemist who grows up under Fascism, survives the Holocaust, and then works -- among other things -- as a varnish manufacturer. I haven't read Levi's Holocaust stuff, but the way that experience is handled here is unexpected and moving -- there is a little bit about it, but basically he's like, "I already wrote that book" and elides most of it, so the story is more about how his life continues on after that. Again, slow start for me but ultimately got into the Big Shit in a strikingly human, profound, and lovely way.(less)
Holy hell, Death in Venice is fucking amazing. If, like me, you somehow just never got around to reading it, pull yourself together and do something a...moreHoly hell, Death in Venice is fucking amazing. If, like me, you somehow just never got around to reading it, pull yourself together and do something about that now.(less)
So I'm back in school now, and for the first time in ages am being made to read books. Now I don't have any personal experience with desperately tryin...moreSo I'm back in school now, and for the first time in ages am being made to read books. Now I don't have any personal experience with desperately trying to get pregnant, but reading novels for school reminds me of that: there's this activity that I'm used to doing purely for fun when I feel like it, that I'm now grimly pushing through on an inflexibly dictated schedule, whether I'm in the mood or not, with this intense sense of purpose that seems to poison the whole event. The result is that I'm not really enjoying any of the books I read these days -- I feel so oppressed powering through 700 pages in a week under the threat of a syllabus that it's impossible for me to tell whether I'd like the books I'm reading in more organic conditions. So I guess if my star-rating average drops a lot, that'd be why.
This is my first Faulkner, and I didn't hate it or anything, but it may well be my last. I'm glad I read it, because never having read him was always more than a little embarrassing, but now I get the gist of what his deal is, and it's basically more or less what I thought: lovely and often startling language, legions of poetically insane and religiously fanatic and sexually rampant violent southerners, and frequency of n-word drops that'd make a rap star turn green with envy. It was less formally innovative than I imagine his other stuff being, I guess, so maybe I'll try one of those someday to see. There were some great things in this book -- mostly language, and the evocation of mood, power relations and place -- but I thought it was overly long and fell apart at the end into some sloppy-seeming bloatedness and kind of Hollywoodish whatever. I read this for a class the same week that we also did The Power and the Glory, and this made for an interesting comparison with its thoroughly created and self-contained nightmare world of terrorism and fear (though I liked the Graham Greene a whole lot more).
I dunno, it was fine, and it did have its moments, but I really suffered through the last 150 pages. Admittedly this was because I had to finish it by the next day for class, but nonetheless that was my experience, and it was pretty brutal and bad.(less)
Thank heavens for this website's "to-read" function, since I've proven unable to remember this rather generic title for more than two and a half secon...moreThank heavens for this website's "to-read" function, since I've proven unable to remember this rather generic title for more than two and a half seconds. Also, after now having seen this book's cover (a house of cards? Seriously?) I'm not quite so gung-ho...
Times made it sound awesome, though, and the cover's probably not the author's fault. Plus you're not supposed to judge books that way, right? Man, I wish somebody'd send me a free copy of this one in the MAIL!(less)
I am a big blubbery crybaby when I'm reading a book, but I'm gonna have to get over that if I'm going to get through The Emperor of All Maladies. I al...moreI am a big blubbery crybaby when I'm reading a book, but I'm gonna have to get over that if I'm going to get through The Emperor of All Maladies. I almost bailed at page five because it was obvious that reading this would involve an intolerable amount of weeping on public transit, but then I realized that what I must do is master myself.
I'm too old to be crying all the time! It's ridiculous! I'm going to read this book and I'm going to put a wrench to the waterworks! I'm gonna save my tears for sentimental nineteenth-century fiction! I hope this doesn't give me tear-duct cancer or something. It's probably dangerous, but it's what I must do.(less)
Made it to page 236. Thought I was a huge enough Amis fangirl to be crazy about this, but after a promising beginning it wound up making me adore him...moreMade it to page 236. Thought I was a huge enough Amis fangirl to be crazy about this, but after a promising beginning it wound up making me adore him less. At the end of the day, I just don't find Martin Amis's life as fascinating as Martin Amis does, and I definitely am not as interested in his relationship with his father. Don't get me wrong, there's some amazing stuff in here, but the book as a whole reminded me of personal essays I see students write for grad school admission: most people have no insight, in writing about their own lives, into what material will be interesting to other people and what will not. So there is some incredible writing and good anecdotes and analysis and fun literary name-dropping, but there are also portions that just didn't feel print-worthy to me, and there are too many points where Martin gifts us with some breaking news -- e.g. both the Amises and Nabokov agree that Shakespeare was a great writer! (p. 117) -- that don't seem that urgent and sort of made me roll my eyes. He also seemed not to be getting around to many of the subjects that would have interested me most, which made his focus on things I didn't care about even harder to bear.
Part of my problem with this was doubtless based in my personal suspicion of and discomfort with the genre of memoir. If you love Martin Amis and memoir, you'll probably love this. I got increasingly bored, then stalled out, and when I read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home somehow being so invested in another author's relationship-with-my-father memoir gave me permission to throw in the towel on this.(less)
Here's another piece about that chick who's dying in her bookstore because, according to the NYRB, she's allergic to Martin Amis. Poor girl... Well, I...moreHere's another piece about that chick who's dying in her bookstore because, according to the NYRB, she's allergic to Martin Amis. Poor girl... Well, I have my problems too, sister, but I don't have yours. I'm not allergic to Martin Amis. I am addicted to Martin Amis.
Those of my Booksters who have known me too long now are aware that I have a very serious and embarrassing Martin Amis Problem. It reminds one of youthful compulsions towards hedonism, vice, wildly inappropriate men, and all those thrilling pursuits that ultimately made one feel sick and terrible about oneself, yet remained too alluring to avoid for long, resulting in a torturous and conflicted cycle of repelled abstinence followed by glorious, shaming relapse... Of course, this particular cliche would be more comforting had I actually given up everything harmful and remained addicted now only to Martin Amis's writing. But it's more that I've resigned myself to my countless other moral shortcomings and failures of will, and this is simply the only one that still seems worthy of note.
I've never read Amis's criticism before, and by the second page of the Foreword, I was grateful for that. As noted elsewhere, I've found all his novels that I've read to be deeply flawed. Here, though, I felt like I was mainlining shit so good it might have killed me if I'd started on it too soon, before I'd worked my way up on the more adulterated, low-grade stuff. I'm aware this guy's style hasn't done it for a lot of people (including, famously, his own father!), but I love the way he writes so much that I swear it gets me high. I actually wish I owned this book so I could underline my favorite sentences -- and I am NOT the type of girl who does that, I HATE book vandalism! See what Martin Amis does to me? I'm a mess!
Uh, this is a lot of gushing considering that I just started this thing. We'll see how far I get and whether I retain my susceptibility or develop a tolerance soon and start totally hating him.
In any case, if The War Against Cliche's publication didn't predate this website, I might have thought Amis had somehow encountered my own work:
A brief consultation of the Internet will show that... everyone has become a literary critic -- or at least a book-reviewer. Democratization has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody's feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else's. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book-review, whether on the Web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.
Probably some readers are getting the impression that I think these developments are to be deplored. Not so. It is the summit of idleness to deplore the present, to deplore actuality...
Wait, am I just slavishly transcribing the Foreword to this book like some kind of mindless fangirl? Yes. I am.
Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone twenty-four hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies with their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, nowadays, then he's likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its ohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions. The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care.
I want to copulate and reproduce myself with this man's brain. I'm sorry if that's gross, but it's really how I feel.
The Actual Review (such as it is)
While reading this, I kept wondering how Martin Amis feels when impressed-but-speed-dialing blurbists laud his "mastery of language." It should in theory turn his stomach, but does hearing stuff like that about yourself ever get old? I would personally welcome any such compliments, no matter how shopworn, but then, not being Martin Amis, I gotta take what I can get.
Naturally I feel an "overpowering urge" to review this solely in the language of cliche, but I don't have the energy tonight for a high concept and this book's got to go back to the library. I haven't freaked out about a book this way in a pretty long time, though, and I want to record some thoughts so that I remember why, because I've realized that if I don't write something about a book then two weeks later it's like I never read it.
The War Against Cliché is one of the greatest titles, and ideas, that I've ever heard. It actually makes me freak out and want to start screaming just from how great it is. As my own previous comments below suggest, this was my response to a number of Martin Amis's lines: they sent me into some apoplectic shock where I was so overwhelmed with joy and awe that my brain shut down non-essential functions and all I could do was repeat the words to myself and go, "Aaaaghh! AAAGHH!" I can't think of many other writers who have provoked this in me, and I'm not sure if the guy's stuff has this effect on other people.
The War Against Cliché made me feel like an illiterate loser, but I kept reminding myself that this shit is Martin Amis's job. He reads and writes books for a living, it's, like, his thing. When I chilled out and stopped being so intimidated, I settled into enjoying the plump fruits of someone else's well-read labo(u)rs. Honestly I have read very few professional book reviews in my time, and almost certainly none that I enjoyed this much. It made me want to become a better book reporter -- sort of. Well, it made me want to be more responsible about quoting from what I read, instead of always returning the book to the library or leaving it at work and then banging something out later based on my half-drunk recollections.
Well, unfortunately I am tired from three hours at the gym tonight, and I am not going to write a competent review of this book. But I AM going to quote Amis, and then sit here and freak out. He's at his best when he's hanging off the side of the platform, acting goofy and obnoxious and showing off his mad skillz; the more straightforward and admiring pieces in here were predictably more dull, and I enjoyed the Michael Crichton end of the spectrum far more than his paeans to Nabokov. Amis's own high style often shines brightest while he's reviewing the mass-market books that most people actually read. He writes that the author of Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris, "has done what all popular writers hope to do: he has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent."
AARRGHH!!! See, somehow that sentence there just makes me FREAK OUT. There is just something about the choice of words there and their arrangement which makes me fall into a paralytic swoon. It's not really that Amis makes me want to be a better reviewer -- note I'm typing a long, rambly, unreadable response to his work here that no one sane would ever be expected to get through -- but more accurately that he makes me want to become a better reader.
Amis is a great reader, and that's why this is a joy. The guy fucking loves to read, and he's great at it, and his response to literature is itself art, perhaps better art than his actual art (the novels), which maybe sucks for him. Reading this made me briefly ponder questions that I know lots of other people have already spent too much time asking, questions like, "What exactly is the difference between book reviews and criticism?" Amis actually refers to this distinction in a discussion of Updike, whose reviewing he calls "high-powered enough to win the name of literary criticism -- which is to say, it constantly raises the question (a question more interesting than it at first sounds), 'What is literature?'"
What, indeed, is literature? I have no clue and zero interest in trying to field that one. What this book made me wonder about instead was: "What we are to do with it?" -- literature, that is, being it (I've lost my basic language skills; Martin's shamed them into slinking off, they're in hiding somewhere living strenuously banal new lives under an assumed name). Let's say we know it when we see it, we know what we like, etc. etc., when it comes to literature, so then what comes next? Once we've got our grubby mitts on some, what then do we do with it?
One of the reasons these perhaps cliched questions feel new to me is that I haven't historically found them interesting. Despite their being the sole arena in my life where I ever performed well, I hated English classes. Okay, I did like writing those papers, but only because it was easy and often felt satisfying in the same way as the crossword puzzle, but I didn't believe in it: excavating symbols and themes, arguing some esoteric claim about an underlying secret message purportedly buried in a canonized text... That was bullshit, a parlor trick, that could be fun or annoying. Most literary criticism and a lot of English majors frustrated me because I didn't understand why they were taking it all so seriously. Why build up these complex theories and earnestly strain yourself trying to interpret a work of fiction, when there is so much in the real world demanding more practical exegesis? It seemed dumb. It seemed superfluous. I really didn't get it. Yeah, it could be entertaining, but it was an activity (unlike books themselves) that was essentially without any real meaning or importance.
And that's why this website, for a long time, was like hard drugs for me. I've always loved to read but there was never anything to do with it: once I'd finished a book, my work there was done. The things I knew people did -- endless dissertations on that strangely neglected topic; book club musings about which plucky character we identified with the best -- were repellent. But the Goodreads book report was, for a time, the perfect form for me. I loved book reporting, reading other people's book reports, freaking out about books on threads with nerdy strangers with whom I shared this woozy passion... Amis mocks it above, but it was the affective and personalized quality of the Goodreads book report that I loved the most. I'd review a book to let people know if I recommended it or not, but the more important thing was its purely subjective aspect: this book made me cry, this one reminded me of an annoying ex-coworker who suddenly died... I read this book during a sixteen-hour layover in the Istanbul airport, while suffering from a dose of the clap... For a few years the Goodreads book report felt so important and true to me. I know that this site made me a better reader; I hope it made me a better writer, though sometimes I wonder if the opposite is true... Okay, there's a digression... Anyway. Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy, and I've grown pretty tired of them by now. So it was nice to read some stuff for once by a professional, no offense guys, but, like, no one on here's written this, from a 1976 review of Who's Who in Twentieth Century Literature:
Quotations so exotic that you can't imagine anyone human holding them are frequently made to sound banal and secondhand by the World-weary Seymour-Smith. 'It is now fashionable,' for instance, 'to dismiss his poetry while acknowledging his enormous influence.' Who might this be? Rubén Dario, the Nicaraguan poet who died in 1916. Well, if it is fashionable, I shall start dismissing Dario's poetry at once, while naturally acknowledging his enormous influence. How, you wonder, can Seymour-Smith keep in touch with so many cultures? Do people ring him up from time to time and say, 'Someone else has learnt to read and write down here?'
AARGHHHHH!!!! See but, okay, and now here's the thing: if you are involved in some sort of study testing the effects of a safer alternative to Ritalin and Adderall and have therefore made it this far through my rambling boringness, chances are good that the above quotation didn't make you shriek so loud you woke the neighbors and then sink limply down in your seat with an idiot smile playing upon your tired lips. The biggest surprise lesson this website held for me was that taste remains shockingly subjective, and honestly that's what I don't quite get about all the book reviewing or criticism or whatever it is.
Trying to assign the little book report star ratings has always been hard but recently has become so agonizing that I might have to stop doing it. I've always had a very firm rule that my stars are nakedly subjective and based on how my I personally enjoyed a book and not how "good" I think it is. I mean, I gave Valley of the Dolls five stars, and I couldn't make it through Moby Dick. Does this mean that I think Valley of the Dolls is a finer piece of literature than Moby Dick? No, it just means that I'm a semi-literate troglodyte. Maybe the point is that society must maintain a stable of professional-class book reviewers who are not semi-literate troglodytes and who thus can competently evaluate the merits of various works of literature. But reading just seems like such a wildly intimate and personal experience, and I'm still confused about how reviews and criticism deal with that.
Because my own answer to the question of what it is that we are to do with literature is: "Read it. Cry about it. Laugh at it. And then...?" Well, then I'm not sure, but I loved this book because Amis clearly does know what to do. He engages with the books and with authors and with their subject: the world. He responds. He ties it to other things. He makes something great out of it. Gore Vidal "gives the impression of believing that the entire heterosexual edifice -- registry offices, Romeo and Juliet, the disposable diaper -- is just a sorry story of self-hypnosis and mass hysteria"; Lee Harvey Oswald "made only one notch on the calendar. It was meaningless; he just renamed an airport, violently."
So like, yeah, I really gotta go to bed now. I loved this book and I love the image of The War Against Cliché. I love picturing Amis as a general enlisting hapless burnouts like myself and turning us into fierce Berserker-style warriors, taking on reading and writing as a martial -- a violent -- activity.
In closing, I just realized something about Martin Amis which maybe explains why it's been so hard for me to describe my response to him without resorting to stretched and worn-out sexual cliche: In addition to being hilarious, Martin Amis makes reading and writing seem cool. He makes it high-stakes and thrilling, and not a little fucked-up. I love him and I'd definitely join his military. I'm sure he wouldn't have me, unless of course The War Against Cliche winds up dragging on a lot longer than he'd initially hoped, and he exhausts all the fit volunteers and is forced to lower his standards for enlistment.
Okay, off to bed with a gorgeous picture in my mind of Martin Amis screaming at me through basic training, forcing me to do pushups and teaching me to fire a submachine gun.
There was an ineffable quality to the way light filtered, aquarium-like, through the lofty trelliswork of the concourse, something irreplaceable for w...moreThere was an ineffable quality to the way light filtered, aquarium-like, through the lofty trelliswork of the concourse, something irreplaceable for which a generation of New Yorkers too young to have experienced can only yearn. Moore's photographs capture the transcendent quality of the light in the station; in one image from 10 August 1963 and another from 24 November 1963, we can almost touch the shafts of light streaming in through the windows. (Nash, p. 21)
The loss of Penn Station obviously can't be equated with human suffering and death, or with irreversible environmental damage. But the visceral grief I feel while looking at these pictures doesn't feel too many orders removed from my response to more objectively serious tragedies. Photographs of Penn Station's interior space knock the emotional wind out of me. I almost can't breathe when I let myself feel what it is to know that this building existed, then was destroyed by greed and some apparent sixties-era mass psychosis, and replaced by the hands-down most hideous public space in New York City.
When I can't stand to think anymore about humanity's cruelty to itself and to the planet, I seek refuge in cultural achievements such as great books, music, or hey, sometimes architecture. I really do believe that art in its broad sense is what justifies our existence, or at least makes it bearable. In light of this, the mythic story of Penn Station is almost unbearably poignant and tragic. Peter Moore's photographs (I don't know why Eric Peter Nash is listed as the author here; he just has an essay, and there's an introduction by Moore's wife Barbara) documents the dismantling of the station between the years 1963 and 1966. Apparently Moore is best known for his pictures of avant-garde performances, but he lived near Penn Station while they were knocking it down, and hung around taking pictures which were published fairly recently, after his death. I don't know a thing about photography, but they seem like pretty good pictures to me, giving a sense of the station's breathtaking SPACE and grandeur, and showing its ugly, ruthless killing, which invites all sorts of the most unforgivably melodramatic metaphors: beautiful woman ravaged by disease, &c.... ugh.
I'm moving away from New York this summer after having lived here for the past eight years. When I start feeling nostalgic about leaving, I remind myself that some of the most vital parts of the city were gone already, long before I got here. I'm a ridiculously nostalgic person and Luddite who's pathetically resistant to change, but obviously I know that time passes, things change, and it's not only impractical but impossible to keep everything just 'cause it looks cool. Still, some things are unquestionably worth saving. I'm glad that losing Penn Station helped people to see this and led to stronger interest in and will for preservation in the future, but the fact that we had to lose this to get there provokes a sense of loss so intense that it resembles physical pain.(less)
I hate these fucking stars. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I just get so stressed-out trying to quantify that. These stories were about boxers (men an...moreI hate these fucking stars. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I just get so stressed-out trying to quantify that. These stories were about boxers (men and dogs), marines, sex, gender, and traumatic brain injury. What's not to like? Good question: the philosophy stuff. Sometimes all the philosophers and manliness tropes made me feel annoyed and bored, and this book reminded me of that tiresome guy on a motorcycle with a pack of Camel straights in his shirtsleeve, who's just trying way too painfully hard. But then the cool thing was that this book actually seemed to know that about itself. I really like books that are self-consciously about masculinity, and The Pugilist at Rest was nothing if not one of those. But I kind of feel like I can't rate it higher than the Mary Gaitskill I just read, because her sentences were so beautiful and the prose here was just really... er, yeah, sorry: prosaic.
What this book reminds me of is a journeyman boxer who will never be the greatest, but who puts up a good fight and is consistently fun to watch. His punches aren't magical, but he can land them solid, and he's got a limited number of patented combinations (e.g., Vietnam, boxing, epilepsy; alcoholism, boxing, Nietzsche), which he delivers with panache.
Ultimately this book didn't knock me out or anything, but two thirds of me was really into it so I'm giving it four stars (split decision).(less)
This is one of the places where the star system breaks down, because I loved -- five-star loved -- some of these stories so much that I became obsesse...moreThis is one of the places where the star system breaks down, because I loved -- five-star loved -- some of these stories so much that I became obsessed and thought about them all the time. But then I liked the ones towards the end less and less, and wound up really feeling repelled (in a bad way) by the last two stories, so.... rating books with stars is so stupid anyway. This is all ridiculously subjective and shouldn't be quantified like that, right? I looked at some reviews on here of people who felt the opposite way I did about which stories were good, which I'd guess could have to do with how the reader feels about Gaitskill's take on sex.
As it happens, Gaitskill and I seem to be pretty much on the same page about sex, specifically about (mostly straight) female sexuality, and I loved most of the first half of this book so much because of that. She leads with the forgettable and harmless jab "College Town, 1980," then delivers a crushing right hand with "Folk Song," which knocked the wind out of me. "Folk Song" was my favorite story in here, even though in theory it seems like some dumb intro-fiction exercise: a woman's response to three articles that happen to be on the same page in the newspaper. But this story made me freak out from how good it was and how shatteringly it cut through to all this really intense stuff about sex and being female I almost know and almost think about but haven't ever even considered trying to put into words myself. I felt similarly about "The Agonized Face," a narrator's response to a suspiciously familiar "feminist author" who "had apparently been a prostitute at some point in her colorful youth, and who had gone on record describing prostitutes as fighters against the patriarchy. She would say stupid things like that, but then she would write some good sentences that would make people say, 'Wow, she's kind of intelligent!'"
There are some extremely good sentences in Don't Cry, and I'd venture to say that Mary Gaitskill is a bit more than kind of intelligent. I've read her stuff before, but for whatever reason some of stories in this collection affected me in a way that most of her other work hasn't. I do see where people are coming from when they get annoyed with all the sex and masochism and what have you, because that kind of thing is annoying and seems gratuitous when it doesn't come off like it's supposed to, and I've read Gaitskill's eighties-hooker stories in the past and just been like, "Whatever." But sometimes -- here -- when she writes about sex and sexual violence and what it's like having a vagina and being a woman around here, she really nails it and pushes through deep into some very dark and out-of-the-way places. And not to get all gross or cheesy anything -- heaven forbid! -- but a few of these stories touched me in a way that left me feeling really almost violated, but also quite moved.
These stories had another effect on me too, that I think's maybe worth noting. In the most general sense I read fiction to escape from the banal and stupid shitshow that's my life, and successful fiction rescues me from my surroundings in two ways. It either takes me outside of my world, as the sleazy crime fiction I've been reading does, by essentially constructing painted cardboard panels all around me then projecting characters onto them, so I'll be distracted and amused and shielded from the mundane reality still going on, hidden behind the screens. Alternatively -- and okay, this maybe is too silly or snotty a leap, but it might point to a distinction between simple fiction and capital-L-Literature -- books can also bleed out of themselves and wind up coloring the way that I experience my life, so that I'm seeing my same world but in a completely new way. While I was reading this book I was no longer stuck in Jessicaland, and instead found myself living in a Mary Gaitskill story. It's different from the cardboard magic-lantern thing, though, because instead of hiding my real life, the stories left me in it, only the way that I experienced that life had changed. Like I'd be riding the subway or looking around at people on the street, or thinking of people I know (perhaps even in the Biblical sense!) and suddenly they'd all be Mary Gaitskill characters too. Which like, might not seem like a purely good thing, but I appreciate that kind of novelty. I can't just live in my own crappy fiction all the time, and having someone more gifted come along and rewrite things can be refreshing. The stories in here made me think about everything differently, which means they're good, or at least that they were good for me. Although I can see how someone else might just make fun of it, "Mirror Ball" was another one I particularly enjoyed that I think changed how I see things somehow; not just human relationships, but possibilities for how to tell a story. I also really liked "Today I'm Yours" a lot, though as with "Folk Song" if someone had described it to me, I wouldn't have wanted to read it.
I did not like the stories towards the end of the book, which are less explicitly about sex and more about boring short-story people whom I didn't like or care about, only not in a fun way. But even writing about this collection -- especially after reading Greg's take on it, which is the exact opposite of mine -- makes me wonder what the point of any of this Bookfacing is. My response to this book felt very, very personal, and seems irrelevant to anyone considering whether or not to read it.
God, you know, I don't even remember why I used to review books on here all the time, what I thought the compelling reason for doing that was. I do like having a record for myself of books and what I thought at the time, because otherwise three weeks on I have no memory of having read them. What I thought of while reading this book was a time that my friend Kristi's family took me with them on their vacation when I was fifteen. We were someplace, who knows where, and I guess there was a fountain or something that looked kind of like a slit in the concrete. And Kristi and I discovered that while we well knew -- and liberally used -- the word "phallic," we had absolutely no idea what the female equivalent was. At this point Kathy, Kristi's stepmom, helpfully interjected and told us that the word we wanted was "yonic." Which it turns out is not in a lot of dictionaries, but that is in fact what it means.
Anyway, the lady can write, and I hugely admired Gaitskill's use of language even in the stories I didn't like. I bet most people could get into some of these stories, though maybe not too many people would love all of them. I would recommend the first half Don't Cry to men who are curious about what it's like to have a vagina, except that (as noted elsewhere) I've noticed a lot of them would rather not know.(less)
Okay, so I loved this, but I can't decide whether to give it three or four stars. It lost some steam towards the end, and also I felt like a book that...moreOkay, so I loved this, but I can't decide whether to give it three or four stars. It lost some steam towards the end, and also I felt like a book that's told from the perspective of four different people needs to make a stronger and more successful effort to differentiate their voices.... BUT, this ruled and I really did enjoy reading it. For some reason it reminded me of Jacqueline Susann, but for/about men instead of women, and set in the seventies.
I recently got into a really embarrassing fight with a stranger on facebook when I overreacted to moralizing about my refined sugar consumption and other vices; I count books like this among the things I love that are shameful and likely giving me cancer. Recently I've stalled out on books with any nutritional value or moral virtue, and The Shark Infested Custard was the perfect antidote to that, basically a KFC Double Down topped with whipped cream and washed down with scotch. If you've recently quit smoking, drinking, sex, pills, or pretty much anything else fun, this might be a good read because a) it feels deliciously bad for you and b) it makes all those things I just listed seem totally gross.
In case you did not, as I didn't, "get" the title, The Shark Infested Custard takes its title from what Willeford calls an "old Miami riddle": "What is sweet, bright yellow, and extremely dangerous?" Apparently there is also a British kiddie TV show called this, after the same joke, which seems odd considering how well the title worked to convey the lethal sleaze of 1970s Miami.
Aw, hell, I'm giving this thing another star because I really did enjoy it. The best thing about the book is that it's from the point of view of these completely screwed up, horrible, unsympathetic guys, but it never breaks character or winks or gets meta for even a moment, and so you really do see things from their perspective. I would guess that most of the people whom I like and respect would really hate this book and, by extension, would hate me for liking it, so I don't recommend it unless you're a bad person or have at least got a wide unsavory streak.
I'm only on page thirty, but this is one of the most fucked-up books I've started in kind of a long time.
In other words, so far it's pretty awesome. I've already learned a new (to me) term, "strange," my new favorite-ever slang for pussy, and one of the main characters' outfits was described like this:
Hank came into the living room, looking and smelling like a jai-alai player on his night off. He wore white shoes with leather tassels, and a magenta slack suit with a silk blue-and-red paisley scarf tucked in around the collar. Hank had three other tailored suits like the magenta -- wheat, blue, and chocolate -- but I hadn't seen the magenta before. The high-waisted pants, with an uncuffed flare, were double-knits, and so tight in front his equipment looked like a money bag. The short-sleeved jacket was a beltless, modified version of a bush jacket, with huge bellows side pockets.
Don was the only one of us with long hair, that is, long enough, the way we all wanted to wear it. Because of our jobs, we couldn't get away with hair as long as Don's. Hank had fluffed his hair with an air-comb, and it looked much fuller than it did when he slicked it down with spray to call on doctors.
"Isn't that a new outfit?" Eddie said.
"I've had it awhile," Hank said, going to the table to build a drink. "It's the first time I've worn it, is all. I ordered the suit from a small swatch of material. Then when it was made into a suit, I saw that it was a little too much." He shrugged. "But it'll do for a drive-in, I think."
"There's nothing wrong with that color, Hank," Don said. "I like it."
Hank added two more ice cubes to his Scotch and soda. "It makes my face look red, is all."
"Your face is red," I said.
"But not as red as this magenta makes it look."
"When you pay us off tonight," Eddie said, "it'll match perfectly."
Unfortunately, I can't tell you the really fucked-up stuff, because that would be spoiling. But hopefully you've gotten a taste of its obvious awesome.