Once again I am guilty of loving a book for what are probably all the wrong reasons. The jacket description of Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude menti...moreOnce again I am guilty of loving a book for what are probably all the wrong reasons. The jacket description of Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude mentions an oppression brought on by World War II, a population redistribution into the rooming houses of London’s suburbs (to escape the Blitz, among other things), and a feeling of claustrophobia that results from this migratory shift, bringing strangers from different backgrounds into close proximity but without the sense of relief that a larger city (like London) would otherwise afford its inhabitants. [There were at most one or two “public houses” in these suburban settings. If you needed to get away from your roommate for a few hours you could enter into one of these establishments but there was a good chance your roommate would end up in the same place.] The premise of Slaves takes its cue from this description of wartime Britain and brings us a character whose own stifling experience living in an English boarding house is one we become intimately acquainted with. Except instead of the book being about these English boarding houses or about wartime oppression in suburban London, and even while it mentions these things repeatedly, for me this book was a voyeuristic peep show into the dramatic tribulations of a single middle-aged woman over the course of a two-month period in late 1943.
And it was fantastic.
It is hard to articulate what it is about a book that qualifies it for me as a “page turner”—whether it’s plot pacing or humor or internal musings that somehow hits the nail right jolly square on the head, I don’t know. But this book has all of those things. It has a slow but steady build to a glorious showdown that left me shaking in empathetic rage and excitement. When Miss Roach wants to punch something (or someone), SO THE FUCK DID I! And when her stomach gets caught in her throat for injustices that she cannnot believe are happening to her, I also could feel my pulse racing, the heat of fury rising to my cheeks. The gall of these people with whom Miss Roach has the unfortunate luck to become associated. Who do they think they are? Their impudence, their self-righteousness, their utter impropriety. We identify with Miss Roach so deeply that we feel each of these outrages personally, acutely. That is the nature of this book that spoke to me. That, along with Roachy’s own sense of self-awareness—she is honest with herself and open to the possibilities of her own faults even while most of us would have difficulty being that way under similar circumstances. Whether the book embraces any larger, overarching context, I have no idea. Nor do I even care! And I do not mean that flippantly; I’m just saying that this book worked well enough for me on a personal level that it could have happened anytime or anywhere—the “wartime-in-Britain’s-suburban-boarding-houses” thing was just a vehicle for the magnificent drama within.(less)
If I didn’t have some weird neurotic rule against short stories and novellas qualifying for space on my “thrill me chill me fulfill me” shelf, this bo...moreIf I didn’t have some weird neurotic rule against short stories and novellas qualifying for space on my “thrill me chill me fulfill me” shelf, this book would have totally gotten five stars from me. It really is that good.
Last week I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel and even though I was majorly disappointed, there was a blurb at the end about how the movie was based on the writings of Stefan Zweig, whom I had heard of but didn’t know a great deal about. Then someone (I forget who) told me that Wes Anderson is a fan of Zweig in general, and that many of his works have been influenced by him in some way—not just Grand Budapest.
So I read Chess Story, because...Amazon sale! And I thought it was great. It begins with an idiot savant named Czentovic who becomes a world chess champion despite his inability to maintain a grade school–level conversation with anyone. Czentovic is on a cruise ship to Brazil for reasons I don’t remember exactly but while he’s there he makes the acquaintance of a presumed “layman” who demonstrates surprising chess skill against him. Upon further inquiry by another passenger on the ship (who also happens to be the story’s narrator), the layman reveals his background, which is both fascinating and highly disturbing. This revelation sets the stage for a glorious mental breakdown that had me riveted which if I have to remind you again that this is a story about chess and how can that possibly be riveting, well that just speaks to the vibrancy of Zweig’s writing.
After having read Chess Story, I can’t say that I see any obvious connection to Wes Anderson’s characters, nor is any Wes Anderson plotline recognizable in it, but maybe such a connection can be found in other Zweig novels. HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW? But irrespective of this, Chess Story is a perfect little piece of literature.(less)
This Is Water is kind of like a modern version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. With the exception, of course, that This Is Water is n...moreThis Is Water is kind of like a modern version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. With the exception, of course, that This Is Water is not a collection of letters, does not discuss poetry or writing, and is not addressed to a single individual but to a college’s entire student body. Other than that, though, they’re pretty much the same thing.
What I mean is that there’s something very inspirational (for lack of a better word) in these texts whose words seem to have been composed on-the-fly, were not intended for publication, and are delivered to a person (or to a group of persons) in a manner that is simple and direct, essentially conversational, but which have the unintended consequence of breaking out beyond the scope of the limited audience for which they were intended. Others discover these “gems of life” (ugh, I sound like Mitch Albom now) and they become words of wisdom for the masses.
Spoken as the Kenyon College commencement address in 2005, This Is Water is about David Foster Wallace’s assertion that perspective, a necessary absolute in the life of the well-adjusted individual, is a conscious choice (albeit not always an easy one to make), and that the greatest thing we can do for ourselves as humans is to forcibly extricate ourselves from the natural thought-path of viewing every situation as inherently ABOUT MEEE!, which is natural only by the fact that we exist in a perpetual state of self-centric experience—everything that happens to us happens, of course, to us—but which subsequently limits our ability to be happy. I mean there’s something rather lonesome about the “me” perspective, isn’t there?
Well, DFW’s argument here is that the ultimate goal of higher education is less about learning how to think than it is about learning the value of the thought process itself, realizing the importance of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes, acquiring an empathetic point-of-view, not just for the benefit of any kind of global betterment (though I suppose that could be a nice secondary effect) but for the benefit of each of us living our mundane, daily lives. Waiting in a excruciatingly slow checkout line, for example, and concluding that the “this sucks FOR ME” attitude, while understandably the default attitude most people would assume in such a circumstance, isn’t the only attitude, and is certainly not the best attitude for maintaining a happy internal disposition. Maybe the line is slow because someone is holding it up with all her coupon scanning, coupons she has been saving out of desperation to make ends meet after the loss of her husband’s job, and maybe if you knew this you’d understand that things are possibly worse off for her than they are for you, and maybe it will seem less of an annoyance that you’ll be home seven minutes later than you had planned to be.
I mean it’s also possible the line is slow because the checkout guy is being a complete dumbfuck, but the point is that it is not going to help you by getting upset at how the situation is inconveniencing you. Your overall and long-term happiness depends more on scrambling out of that depressing “it’s all about me” trap which, admittedly is not always possible to do, than it does on satisfying your immediate need to get out of the checkout line as soon as possible.(less)
It is just a coincidence that the last three books I’ve read in a row have been about space travel. I am not a space nerd! And yet maybe I am becoming...moreIt is just a coincidence that the last three books I’ve read in a row have been about space travel. I am not a space nerd! And yet maybe I am becoming one because after reading this book I want as much of this centripetal gravity, atmospheric pressure regulating bullshit as I can get.
Weir’s book is about a Mars reconnaissance mission gone wrong, a mission for which a two-month visit could turn into two years for crewmember Mark Watney. Watney is inadvertently abandoned by his team during a dust storm that forces them to abort their mission early. Survival skills come into play here, as well as science and engineering—MacGyver on Mars! And the science is great. It is a reminder that there is more to it than undatable dudes in orthodontic headgear blowing shit up in erlenmeyer flasks (though it certainly can be that if that’s your thing). There is a logistical nature to the science that just warms my cockles: how to recreate a growing environment for crop sustainability, how to manipulate atmospheric gases for water reclamation. AND MUCH, MUCH MORE.
Andy Weir is a scientist. Actually I don’t know what he does, nor do I know a single thing about him, but he has to be. It is impossible for someone to have written this book and not be a scientist. The only thing I know about him is that he self-published this book two years ago and on account of some great success he had on Amazon, his book was picked up earlier this year by a subsidiary of Random House, the biggest publisher on Earth. So that’s cool.
And it’s also understandable. This book combines all of the technical details needed to explain Watney’s attempts to survive on Mars until rescue with the kind of humor that somehow grounds it all, allowing us to relate to Watney—irrespective of our never having had to fight for our lives on an abandoned planet—with a huggable sense of humanity. Because yes, I often did want to hug Watney. At one point, after NASA tells him he can begin drilling (in an attempt to modify a rover for long-range transport), he replies: “That’s what she said.” Seriously, who says something like that to NASA? You can picture them all back at Ground Control tapping their pens against their orthodontic headgear in nervousness, completely at a loss as to how to respond. If I am ever facing a situation I have little chance of surviving, I hope that I too would have enough perspective to whip out an LGM joke here and there. Because why not?
I learned recently that Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame will be directing a movie adaptation of this book starring Matt Damon, scheduled for release next year. This is a good thing because if done right, a film of The Martian could very well be out of this world.
I don’t normally review books of poetry because, if I’m going to be honest, poetry has never been something I’ve traditionally gotten very excited abo...moreI don’t normally review books of poetry because, if I’m going to be honest, poetry has never been something I’ve traditionally gotten very excited about. However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t bumped into poems here or there that have affected me somehow, and it is usually (which is the thing about poetry, I think) not what the poem is about per se so much as it is about how it makes you feel. Which then circles back to my point about not being overwhelmed by it in general because that part of me that is supposed to be susceptible to the feeeeeeling of poetry is, clinically speaking, 90% necrotic.
But as I said there are exceptions. One of my favorite poems, for example, is T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which even to this day I quote sections of to myself from time to time because it really is just that awesome. Of course, admitting that may out me as a mere commoner—“Prufrock” is a highly popular poem, after all. So next I’ll mention a more obscure poem, something I read once in high school and I loved it so much (for whatever reason) that I memorized it, which maybe isn’t that big of a deal because it’s a short poem, but it was a big deal to me because, remember? Necrosis.
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare Through the hollow of an ear; Wings beating about the room; The terror of all terrors that I bore The Heavens in my womb. Had I not found content among the shows Every common woman knows, Chimney corner, garden walk, Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes And gather all the talk? What is this flesh I purchased with my pains, This fallen star my milk sustains, This love that makes my heart's blood stop Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones And bids my hair stand up? —W. B. Yeats, “The Mother of God”
I actually read a lot of Yeats poetry during that time of my life and I even went to check out his grave in Sligo when I lived in Ireland, which I realize sounds rather morbid but I swear it’s a thing and people really do it.
Sorry for that long intro, but the reason I’m writing this review is because Love & Misadventure, a book of poetry by someone named Lang Leav, has been popping up on my feed a lot lately. It is one of the highest user-rated books of poetry on all of Goodreads, right up there alongside Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare (whose poems I’ve also enjoyed, by the way) and so I thought maybe I should check it out.
I played it smart, though, by searching online for her material which, thank god I did because I would have been massively irritated if I had wasted $7.69 on this crap (the price of a Kindle edition), let alone on one of the first-edition signed copies which are going for over $300 on Amazon.
So here’s some Lang Leav for ya...decide for yourself if you think I’m being unfair:
There is a love I reminisce, like a seed I’ve never sown. Of lips that I am yet to kiss, and eyes not met my own. Hands that wrap around my wrists, and arms that feel like home. I wonder how it is I miss these things I’ve never known. —Lang Leav, “A Stranger”
Ack! But oh good lord there’s more:
Before I fell in love with words; with setting skies and singing birds— it was you I fell in love with first. —Lang Leav, “First Love”
If I wasn’t necrotic before, somebody please begin the amputation before I so septic on your asses. Here’s another:
There was a time I told you, of all that ached inside; the things I held so sacred, to all the world I’d hide. But they became your weapons, and slowly I have learnt, the less that is said the better, the lesser I’ll be hurt. Of all you’ve used against me, the worse has been my words. There are things I’ll never tell you, and it is sad to think it so; the more you come to know me— the lesser you will know. —Lang Leav, “Poker Face”
I feel like she spends more time working on her margins and tabs than she does on the poetry. Didn’t Lady Gaga do a way better job with this material?
So then I was wondering how something that to me seems so transparently saccharine could be so highly regarded. And that is when I came across this:
That is a screenshot of Lang Leav’s personal tumblr blog, and if you have trouble reading the text there, this is what it says: “Competition time! WIN a Kindle and First Edition hand signed copy of Love & Misadventure! To enter, simply click a like on this lovely Goodreads review by Lara ♥ Winner will be drawn randomly from the list of likes and announced this Wednesday. So hurry and get liking. :)”
Wow. So not only do we have a woman who struggles to write decent poetry but she actually has to fiscally reward readers for promoting her work which, while perhaps not being an illegal practice, certainly raises ethical concerns given the nature of a website whose ratings system is supposed to be based on the opinion of actual, unbiased readers. Given these alarming shenanigans, in addition to the quality of the writing itself, I’d steer clear of this one.(less)
I tend to stay away from humoristic memoirs because some of the ones I’ve read in the past have let me down. A lot of them rely too heavily on shock v...moreI tend to stay away from humoristic memoirs because some of the ones I’ve read in the past have let me down. A lot of them rely too heavily on shock value as their primary source for humor and that’s a strategy that wears thin rather quickly. This book is different. In fact this book is actually kind of phenomenal.
Put together by an artist who has made a career out of blog postings containing crude graphical representations of her life, this book sources its laughs from a magnifying-glass perspective of her own deadpan reality. A true comedian doesn’t need shock value, because she knows that mundane daily life is filled with comedic potential and she conjures it all up with (somehow) a masterful sense of timing. Her observations are spot on so even while you’re laughing—which I did many times, in the cafeteria, at the gym, at home, in waiting rooms—you’re also realizing how real it is, how accurately it tackles our shortfalls and insecurities, our selfishness, our sadness, our unexplainable attachment to our pets. It isn’t even just one thing; it’s the whole package—the writing as well as the drawings. The drawings themselves are purposefully simple yet brilliant in their depiction of emotion, and the narrative often reaches some surprising depth. One of my favorite sketches is one in which the author describes how pitifully dumb her dog is, and yet she couples this narrative to a series of drawings that show how lovingly she considers him. Another sketch details her descent into and subsequent recovery from episodes of severe depression and it is an amazing thing to be treated to such remarkable insight alongside a healthy dose of wild laughter.
All in all, I think you’ll find that this book is a real winner.
I liked this book so much it pissed me off. Rebecca Lee is a fantastic writer, her talent seeping through these pages like grease through a bag of Chi...moreI liked this book so much it pissed me off. Rebecca Lee is a fantastic writer, her talent seeping through these pages like grease through a bag of Chinese takeout. Her stories are perfectly paced, perfectly structured. Every story pulls you into it quickly, effortlessly, strongly. Descriptors are succinct yet commanding, characters pop with dimension, internal dialogue is authentically human—she nails it all. Long story short, this book is a grand slam.
Except it still pissed me off. This is the thing about short stories, especially ones as well-written as this. You get to the end and you’re all, “Fuck NO!! I can’t believe it ends here!” Grossly unsatisfying. You want more, you need more. There’s so much potential in these stories, in these characters, and all you get are teases—perfectly constructed teases, but still teases nonetheless.
I’m not generally in the habit of reading books written by people I’m friendly with, because then I’m always afraid the book is going to suck and I’ll...moreI’m not generally in the habit of reading books written by people I’m friendly with, because then I’m always afraid the book is going to suck and I’ll be forced to either lie to the friend about what I think of his book, or worse, tell him the truth and then feel horribly guilty about it afterwards. And plus, if the book is going to suck (which it invariably will if one of my dumb friends wrote it), then there’s also the added issue of me spending my time reading something I doubt I’ll even like. I mean, it isn’t as though I have all the free time in the world, right? Can’t I at least spend that time reading books that I think will be interesting?
Well, a few months ago Curnutt wrote a short biographical fiction piece called “I, Jozan” for Map Literary, a contemporary writing journal published by William Paterson University. It’s about—and if you know Kirk you won’t be remotely surprised—F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (He’s sort of a Fitzgerald junkie, to put it mildly.) (To put it non-mildly, he’s vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.) (Yeah, I know, seriously.) Anyway, the story caught my attention, not just for its subject matter, which has to do with an affair Zelda allegedly has with a French pilot named Edouard Jozan during her marriage to Fitzgerald, but also for its writing quality. I was delighted! Curnutt struck a remarkable balance, painting Fitzgerald in somewhat of a negative light (for the purpose of the story) while still allowing the awe he has for the Fitzgerald family to shine through. Here’s the story, by the way, in case you want to read it.
And that’s when I decided to take a chance with one of the guy’s novels. I picked Dixie Noir, probably because it was on sale and I’m a total cheapskate, and do you know what I discovered? This book is great! It is essentially a Southern crime novel and though it does start off with a bit of a hardboiled edge, it finds its groove as more of a crime thriller, I think, in the form of someone like Tom Franklin. But I say “essentially,” because it also has some literary elements and, of course, an intertextual tribute to Zelda Fitzgerald’s own writings. (I’m not even kidding. This guy needs, like, serious help.) Curnutt, a Montgomery resident, bases his story there and, just as he does with Scotty Fitz in “I, Jozan,” effectively unites the flaws he sees in his city with a competing amount of admiration that he can’t help but have for it, as well.
“I love this city. I believe that Montgomery’s contribution to America lies in its complexity, the fact that this is the birthplace of both the Civil War and of Civil Rights. Everybody wants to resolve the opposing forces that those two things represent, but they can’t be resolved, and they shouldn’t be, because they’re the yin and yang of America.”
I drove through Montgomery once, about twelve years ago, and while the particulars of it escape me, I recall feeling as though I were passing through the epitomical center of the nation’s Deep South. Which I suppose in a way I was. And now that I’ve read this book, I wonder if I might not have a better appreciation for a city that is home to such a dizzying array of American history, dizzying not just by the volume of its history but by the sometimes dualistic nature of it.(less)