Friday, September 19, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014)

          My husband Dickson belongs to a book club, and last week we hosted his group’s bi-monthly meeting, when six or eight or sometimes ten literary men gather to drink beer, discuss books and eat whatever snacks the host has kindly provided. For this meeting they had read, at my suggestion, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, because the club is mostly made up of runners and Rabbit Angstrom’s story has a decidedly athletic feel. Even though I didn’t attend the meeting (it’s a boys’ club, so I stayed upstairs), when I came down after they were done, the conversation had turned to the newest Murakami – a far cry from Rabbit and his troubled relationship with Janice – and the excitement many club members had about reading his new work.
            I had already finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage three days after I bought the book, and the members of Dickson’s club asked me what I thought. Was it as much of a slog as 1Q84? Was it as otherworldly as A Wild Sheep Chase or Kafka on the Shore? Or was it quieter, like Norwegian Wood, or Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. So much of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is like much of Murakami’s other writing, thick with descriptions of simple meals and lonely men and strange, often very strange, sex – yet other parts of it also felt fresh and new. In sum, it was a decent new book from a man who has perfected his own subtle style. Colorless won’t make anyone turn away from Murakami, even if they’ve never read him before, and it’s engaging enough for his diehard fans. I don’t consider the three days I read it misspent.
As we sat in my living room discussing Murakami, we realized that, between us, we had read almost all of his work, and there were things we could all recite as commonalities between his books. In an interview from 2011, Murakami told a Spanish audience that he was a lonely child, and the three things that filled his quiet hours were “cats, books and music.” You can see the vapor trails of each of these things in the work Murakami has since produced, as each is filled with those reoccurring themes playing distinct roles in his characters’ lives.
In this sense, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is no different. There are mentions of cats and their tiny, silent feet, and music, particularly the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s piano solo “Le mal du pays.” Books, whether the characters are active readers or not, also merit mention time and time again, whether in descriptions of people’s bookshelves or as ways to pass the time. And, as usual, there are descriptions of the other things that constantly fill Murakami’s world: of simple meals stirfried with whatever is in the fridge, of physical deformities (six fingers on each hand, like in Wind Up Bird), and of physical activity, this time spent in the pool. There are the now-customary discussions of sexual proclivities that border on the phantasmagoric, but are always told in Murakami’s simple, matter-of-fact voice. And, like Tengo in 1Q84, Tsukuru’s sexual dreams merge frighteningly into reality, blurring the lines (and the effects) between what happens in bed, awake or asleep.
It is, like much of his work, the story of a single man, one searching for something he doesn’t understand, and who may find love or may screw it up. (My bet is usually that he’ll screw it up.) But Tsukuru Tazaki is more lonely than most, and that’s what makes Colorless a remarkable book.
Tsukuru Tazaki lives alone in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but you’d hardly know it from Murakami’s descriptions of the place. Except for the train stations where Tsukuru spends most of his time (he’s an engineer working to make stations more streamlined and accessible), Tsukuru rarely participates in social life and other people rarely infiltrate his world.
Tsukuru seems to prefer it that way. Save for a friend named Haida and a slowly-blossoming romance with a woman named Sara (who may or may not also be dating an older, mustachioed gentleman), Tsukuru lives, sleeps, eats and exercises alone. And, alone, his life is no big party either. He spent the bulk of his time in college contemplating death, not eating, barely drinking, attending classes to pass the time. Now, at age 36, he’s thin and stark. He eats like a bird and never finishes an entire beer. He knows what he is but can’t seem to change it: the man is boring even to himself.
What could have caused such a sad, desolate life? Herein lies this book’s charm: no one becomes a Tsukuru Tazaki unless something truly traumatic has happened, and Tsukuru’s trauma is dramatic indeed. After his first year of college in Tokyo, Tsukuru is abandoned by his high school friends, all four of whom remained in Tsukuru’s hometown Nagoya after graduation. This group, which had originally numbered five, was once so close they saw themselves as fingers on a single hand. So it came as an abrupt shock when they summarily dismissed Tsukuru with a single phone call, telling him that they never wanted to see or hear from him again, with no explanation as to how or why. And Tsukuru being Tsukuru, he didn’t feel the need to ask.
The title’s reference to Tsukuru being “colorless” comes from the nicknames of these four friends. The two men in the group were nicknamed Red and Blue (or Aka and Ao in Japanese), while the two women were nicknamed White and Black (Shiro and Kuro), with all of the colors culled from their family names. Tsukuru, whose name is a homophone for the Japanese word meaning “to build or make,” has no color; he is colorless, though his engineering degree makes a kind of onomastic sense.
The “pilgrimage” of the title is also apt, since Tsukuru goes on one of these as well. It’s Sara who pushes Tsukuru to contact his old friends (would a guy like Tsukuru ever do that on his own?) when she realizes that there’s something stuck in him that cannot be undone until Tsukuru has learned why he was dismissed. So on this pilgrimage he goes, first back to Nagoya, and then on, surprisingly, to Finland. He contacts each of his old friends in turn to learn why and how, years ago, they could so quickly and completely abandon one of their own.
I won’t reveal the outcomes of Tsukuru’s pilgrimage since that would defeat the purpose of reading Murakami’s book, but I will suggest that, as Murakami ages, we see him treading on familiar ground while, at the same time, invoking something relatively new. Reading Colorless will feel familiar, like reading Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 or Kafka or Norwegian Wood. But parts of it will also feel thrillingly unique, fresh in the increasing span of his decades-long oeuvre. For example, Murakami has never written so movingly about friendship, especially since so many of his protagonists are often alone, and, despite her possible ongoing affair with another man, Sara is one of Murakami’s most competent and least-batshit-crazy female characters yet. It would be lovely to see more of this real emotion explored, especially for the women who are still a minority in Murakami’s world.
But Colorless may also be a sign of the times, or at least a sign of Murakami’s ever-increasing age (he turned 65 earlier this year). In Running, Murakami described the “wells” in his mind, and how a new one must be tapped for each book to emerge. He feared, in his 2008 memoir, that his reserves would eventually run dry, and that at some desperate point the drilling would cease and his career as a writer would dry up as well. The good news is that this clearly hasn’t happened yet. The bad news, however, is that many of the same wells are being used, often at the expense of his writing anything completely exciting or new.
Like Kurt Vonnegut (blessings upon his name), Murakami is getting repetitive with age. (Did A Man Without a Country contain anything we hadn’t read before?) The direct lines between Murakami’s life and fiction are clearer now than they used to be, and themes forming between books (cats, books, music, sex, stir fry, physical deformities, dreams-with-real-consequences, men stuck in wells) are getting easier to track. Aomame, the assassin-protagonist of 1Q84, is clearly based off of Murakami’s own physical therapist, whom he described at length in Running. (A tiny woman who stretches stiff gym-going men? Who uses surprising levels of force to bend and pull stubborn muscles into submission? Who toils and works until both the masseuse and the massaged are drenched in sweat from exertion? Wait a second, we’ve seen this before!) We can see Running’s real gym masseuse in Tokyo transform into Aomame in 1Q84 in the same way we can see a woman with six fingers pop up in Wind-Up Bird and again in Colorless, or in the same way Tengo’s orgasm with Fuka-Eri in 1Q84 results in Aomame getting pregnant while Tsukuru’s dream of sex with Shiro may have resulted in something strangely tragic happening to her in real life (it’s a spoiler alert if I say what this is). In Murakami’s world, the same weird story often gets told, but each time it’s revealed in a markedly different way.
Like the bulk of his characters, Murakami feels most comfortable when treading regular ground, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading it every time. Ultimately, what I liked the most about Colorless was how it showed Murakami evolving as a person. Colorless was clearly written by a middle-aged man who has his own struggles with aging and death, and who understands that the past, no matter how painful, can never be completely changed. His characters are getting deeper too: Tsukuru is a thoughtful guy, whose pilgrimage (even if it wasn’t initially his idea) is done with a sense of purpose and commitment. He’s less swept along by the winds of fate, as so many of Murakami’s characters have been before, than he is actively trying to understand his own past, and his confrontations with his former friends are deliberate and calm.
Perhaps this is suggestive of Murakami’s own more purposeful track in life, or at least of the maturity that comes with advancing age. Would a younger Murakami have written a character like Tsukuru, who willingly confronts those who unceremoniously dismissed him years before? Would anyone under the age of 65 be comfortable doing such a thing? For me, at less than half of Murakami’s age, the idea of confronting those who hurt me in the past is terrifying, but perhaps I’m still too young to be judicious about such things. I’d rather lick my wounds than have the cojones to understand why people were once dicks, and this could be the difference between a novel from a 31-year-old versus an aging baby boomer like Murakami. Despite the book returning to his ever-present themes, a younger Murakami could never have written Tsukuru. He could only appear from a more mature, evolved voice.
Ultimately, despite treading this familiar ground, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will hardly disappoint any Murakami devotee. You can’t separate a writer from his or her themes, and why would you want to? After all, there are probably a dozen literature Ph.D.s whose degrees wouldn’t exist if Murakami didn’t write the way he does. And the world Murakami has created is a good one, a place that millions of readers regularly like to call home. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the things we see can expect to see, Murakami has created a pleasant, often exciting and certainly always perplexing place, where readers can walk on cat-like feet, alone in moments of quiet contemplation, while cooking a simple meal out of whatever they can find in the fridge.
-Emily Dufton

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The November Man - Dir. Roger Donaldson (2014)

Sometimes I get manic and I get crazy ideas that sound brilliant at the time.  Then later I go back on another bipolar cycle and I don't think doing anything is a good idea.  The request that led to this post is a result of the former state.  
I thank Jay Maronde for spending his $5 to see this movie and write this review for me without any offer of monetary compensation.  However, it is with a sense of unfortunate timing that Richard Kiel (a.k.a. Jaws) passed away today.  Maybe as an homage, the next James Bond film after the one scheduled for production (Bond #25) should involve a plot eerily similar to 9/11.  I digress--I only saw Kiel in Moonraker, but it is easy to see there why he is such an important part of the James Bond Canon.  He effortlessly played a very likable villain that seemed like he could be your friend, to the point that he does become Bond's friend.  I am glad that I can mark his passing with this Bond-related post (and expect it to get more hits than any obituaries posted here previously).   

The November Man (2014)
Dir. Roger Donaldson

Pierce Brosnan Executive-Produced His Own Funeral
by Jay Maronde

About 2 weeks ago, I received an e-mail from my editor with the subject “November Man.” He implied that he would like a review of the movie (yes my turn around time is slow).  I Googled this film, and found that it was all new in theaters and starred Pierce Brosnan (one of my favorite Bonds) as a spy. Not wanting to know another thing I went to the theater the next Tuesday and the best thing I can say about this film is that I’m so glad I waited till $5 movie night.
                Let me start with Pierce Brosnan, who, as executive producer, deserves at least his fair share of blame for this stunning atrocity. (I would like to note that I mean atrocity because this movie is very difficult to watch, and not in some sort campy cult following way either.) I will admit I love Pierce, I really do, I liked him a lot as a washed up drunk spy in The Matador, The Thomas Crown Affair was a tasteful remake, he was classic as Remington Steele, and one of the few actors lucky enough ever to portray James Bond.  However, it appears as though Pierce wasn’t satisfied with his current body of spy/action work and decided to executive produce his own funeral in the genre.
His hair still looks great, he doesn't seem winded or tired, but he’s not in his most prime physical shape. There’s at least one scene later on in the movie where it’s quite obvious that the director instructed him to hold his arm across his body as the best method for distracting one’s eye to the fact that apparently all the James Bond money has Pierce eating pretty good.  Brosnan isn't the only villain here though so let me spread the blame around.
                There must have been a really good harvest of medical marijuana in California during the period of time in which all creative meetings for this film took place. I’m not kidding or being hyperbolic in any way: thinking back on this film it truly seems as if a bunch of stoners sat around smoking some great weed and said:
                “Hey man let’s make another Pierce Brosnan spy movie.”
To wit a fellow stoned movie executive set down his bong and retorted:
“Awwww man he’s so old.”
And the first chimed back:
“So we’ll make him a retired spy!”
And the second said:
                “See man, we’re geniuses, this shit writes itself.”
Because that’s exactly what the writing is in the movie: Hollywood drug-fueled schlock. The story is extremely convoluted and requires the viewer to make such logical LEAPS that sitting there you feel like you are the CIA agent, investigating what the hell is going on in this movie.  The movie drags so bad the viewer knows what a dolphin feels like caught in a tuna net.  Before checking my watch I would have sworn it ran over an hour longer than it was. A major part of this dragging feeling is that no person a party to this film seemed to have any idea whether they were making a buddy picture, a spy movie, or some sort of variant of the Liam Neeson Taken film series—not the actors, not the directors, not the producers, not this critic.
                Let me get to some of the better parts of this film. I will give some credit to the director that while the film drags, using the magic of very good music and pretty good cinematography the viewer definitely finds themselves perpetually on the edge of their seat. The eye candy is good-to-better also: Olga Kurylenko (another James Bond connection) is, as always, stunning in her beauty and her acting is better than most women that beautiful. The male lead besides Brosnan—relative newcomer Luke Bracey, playing Brosnan’s protégé in the CIA—does a decent job of playing a young confused agent while providing eye candy. The action sequences are good-to-better, and at no point did I get that weird CGI magic feeling so common in modern action movies.  The problem with some of the action is quite the same as the rest of the movie: you feel like the whole situation has grown entirely convoluted for no reason, but as a fan of action films, I can agree that the sequences were well-filmed and convincing. 

I've seen much worse, but in truth, I’m really glad I went on $5 movie night. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Fighting Chance - Elizabeth Warren (2014)

I don't know where to start with this review.  I was thinking maybe when I first became aware of Elizabeth Warren.  I was thinking maybe a warning that if you are a conservative, you should avoid reading so as to not give yourself a headache and start a thankless debate with me on some social media platform.  I was thinking maybe an actual quote from the text:

"Near the end of the line was a young man: early twenties, medium height, sandy-brown short hair.  When I reached him, he stepped forward and, with no preliminaries, blurted out that he had done everything he was supposed to do.  Counting on his fingers, he punched out the list.  Worked hard in high school.  Went to a good university.  Got good grades.  Graduated on time.  Everything--check, check, check.
And then...nothing.  No job.  No new apartment.  No bright future.  He'd been looking for work for more than a year, and still nothing.
Actually, it was worse than nothing.  Every day he fell a little further behind.  His student loan debt got a little bigger.  His stretch of unemployment got a little longer.  His fear that he would never build a secure, independent life cut a little deeper.
Now he had moved back in with his parents--and he had no idea when he would move out or how he would get his own life under way.
I met him in Worcester.  But I heard the same story in Falmouth and Dorchester.  In Marlborough, Marshfield, and Methuen.  In Weymouth and Westport and Ware.
I heard the story over and over and over, until I wanted to shout to the rooftops on behalf of these young men and women.  They were trying so hard, but they felt like their futures had broken apart before they had even begun." (274)

Everyone else reviewed this book when it came out--about three or four months ago (I put it on hold at the CPL and just got it now).  And they all pretty much started the same way: Elizabeth Warren says she is not running for President, but maybe, oh pretty please, she might!  And after this summer, and the multiple times she has reaffirmed that she has absolutely no intention of running, and after reading this book (which provides a pretty thorough treatment of the extraordinary anxiety she endured while mounting her senatorial campaign), I believe her, and I don't blame her.


The quote from above illustrates why I care enough about Elizabeth Warren to read her book.  All too often in this world it seems like nobody really looks out for you except for your family and friends.  It's passages like this in her book that reveal why Elizabeth Warren has become one of the most important political figures in the 21st century.  She really does care about serving the public.

A Fighting Chance is broken up into a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue.  The prologue is her thesis statement, so to speak, in which she explains how she was able to build a life decidedly worth living from the foundation of a lower-middle class background.  And how it probably couldn't happen today:

"Here's the hard truth: America isn't building that kind of future any longer.
Today the game is rigged--rigged to work for those who have money and power.  Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to supports laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor.  Meanwhile, hardworking families are told that they'll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children." (2)

The first chapter, "Choosing Battles," is 42 pages long and is basically the purest "autobiography" in the book.  It tells her story from her childhood in the early 1960's through her second marriage and professorship at Harvard Law in the early 1990's.  It's pretty concise and appropriately details all of the sometimes idiosyncratic changes she made over the course of thirty years.  It will again prove to anyone that life is not always a straight path with obvious signposts along the way to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

The second chapter, "The Bankruptcy Wars," is 34 pages long and is probably my favorite section.  I am sure plenty of people expect that reading about her efforts to maintain actual consumer protections in the law that would come to be known as the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (or BAPCPA) will be boring--unless they happened to study it, and realize how fascinating it can be.  To those unfamiliar with BAPCPA, the first thing to note is that its title is extremely misleading.  The banking industry began lobbying for changes in the Bankruptcy Code sometime in the late 1990's, and Elizabeth Warren served on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.  I won't talk about the changes--I am sure you can look it up on wikipedia.  But I was particularly surprised to see how the number of bankruptcy filings fluctuated over the years.  In 1980, there were 287,570 non-business bankruptcy filings.  In 1990, there were  718,107.  In 2004, there were 1,563,145 filings (however I think this figure includes business bankruptcies).  In 2005, before BAPCPA kicked in, the number hit 2,039,214.  The next year, it dropped down 597,965.  Just reading Warren try to explain these figures is illuminating.

The third chapter, "Bailing Out the Wrong People," is 54 pages long and primarily about the 2008 financial crisis and her role on the Congressional Oversight Panel (or COP, which she loves the idea of being).

The fourth chapter, "What $1 Million a Day Can Buy," is 43 pages long and reads like an extension of the previous chapter.  There doesn't appear to be much appreciable difference about the content or tone.

The fifth chapter, "An Agency for the People," is 44 pages long and details her efforts at starting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  While I laud the CFPB, it seems pretty much impossible for me to get a job there, so reading this chapter made me feel slightly depressed.

The sixth chapter, "The Battle for the Senate," is 65 pages long and will probably be the highlight for most readers.  I had followed Warren's campaign in 2012 pretty closely and I remembered a lot of the events she described, so it was very fun to read about her private thoughts on formerly public matters.

The epilogue briefly mentions her bill to cap student loan interest rates.  Like most of the legislation she has tried to affect, her dreams did not completely come true--compromises were made, but a few more people would be helped:

"And student loans?  No, I didn't get the Bank on Students Act passed.  But at least the final deal on student loan interest rates was better than where it started: $15 billion better for students over the next ten years.  An, in the end, I wasn't alone.  More than a dozen senators from around the country stood up with me to say no to any deal in which the government makes a profit off the backs of our students.  That's not a bad place to begin the next round in this battle--and believe me, we will come back to this issue again." (275-276)

That may be cold comfort to people with 6.8% and 7.8% interest rates on debt with a principal of $95,000, especially since the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act was blocked (thank you, Mitch McConnell).  Nevertheless, after reading A Fighting Chance, I am confident that Warren is not going to stop until she secures another victory--even if it is only a partial one.

To be honest this feels like kind of a toothless review.  I like the way Warren breaks up each chapter into mini-chapters.  The book is very reader-friendly.  It's very detailed, and I enjoyed reading it.  I am a huge fan of Senator Warren so obviously my review is going to be a bit biased.  I must admit that sometimes the book feels repetitive--in particular it seems like she mentions the support of the Firefighters in Boston twice, where the second time is a more detailed account (and includes the only f-bomb, expurgated, in the text--earlier on Warren spells out "Bullshit Whistle" and apologizes for the dirty word).  Sometimes certain turns of phrase show up several more times than seems necessary.  But I suppose this is all part-and-parcel of writing a "political" book.

One of the most annoying things to me in the world is reading internet comments after news stories.  I have to admit that it is a guilty pleasure of mine, and an interesting way that the "marketplace of ideas" from the First Amendment plays out.  I do it, but I hate myself for doing it.  Some stories on Warren are filled with comments that say how wonderful she is and proclaim that they will write her name in at the next Presidential election; others snipe that she lied about being Native American so that she could get treated favorably for a job at Harvard.  It's a pretty pathetic attempt to attack her, considering it seems like it's just been made out of thin air from the paranoid fantasies of privileged white conservative pundits, but Warren's description shows just how crass they can be:

"Right-wing blogs took to calling me 'Fauxcahontas.'  Someone took out a billboard with a picture of me in a Native American headdress, declaring, 'Elizabeth Warren is a joke.'  One sunny afternoon, as I marched in a parade and shook hands and waved at people, a group of guys standing together on a corner started making Indian war whoops--patting their mouths as if they were some kind of cartoon braves.  It was appalling." (240-241)

Warren is salient on the details of bankruptcy, TARP funds, and consumer protection.  Plenty of lay readers will have a good start at exploring more complex areas of financial regulation with this book.  It doesn't really talk about the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, but Warren does mention that after BAPCPA passed, third-party debt collectors were telling the people they called that the new law made it illegal to file for bankruptcy, or so difficult to qualify that they would never be eligible.  No doubt some details will bore a fair number of readers, but Warren is great at practically explaining what complex changes to the law mean in real-life terms.

She also writes extensively about her family, and her series of dogs in very loving terms.  And then some moments of the book are downright hilarious:

"Vicki Kennedy called with thoughtful advice borne of years of campaigning across the state.  Former governor Mike Dukakis, who was now in his late seventies, took Bruce out to show him the finer points of knocking on doors, setting a blistering pace that kept them half-running from house to house.  At one home, no one answered the front door, but the governor thought perhaps someone was in the backyard.  While Bruce was thinking about the laws of trespass--he's a professor of property law and takes this sort of thing pretty seriously--the governor bounded to the side of the house and began fiddling with the gate to the backyard.  Just as he got it open, a big dog came racing around the corner, barking wildly, slobber flying everywhere.  The governor never missed a step.  After jumping onto a small side porch, he called over his shoulder to Bruce with the first lesson of political door knocking: 'Ignore the dog.  You won't change his mind anyway.'" (242)

At another point, a couple of supporters wave and shout at her from across the street, and she waves back and walks straight into a telephone pole.

This is about as good of a political autobiography as you can do while you are still in office.  I am not sure exactly what the reason is for it--Warren also writes about earlier books (the influential but policy-oriented The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke and its more utilitarian follow-up All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan) and they seem to deliver the same kind of information she researched in her bankruptcy studies.  This may be a way to bring more attention to the legislation she supports, rather than an effort to publicize herself for the presidency.  It seems she is happy with what she can do as a senator, and is aware of the parameters in which the President must operate.  It may also be a way to help other Democratic hopefuls in this election year--by publicizing herself, when candidates drop her name, more voters will know what kind of issues they support.

In summary, A Fighting Chance is similar to My Beloved World.  They're both very compelling, but I'm tempted to say I like My Beloved World better.  That is just a matter of preference.  Justice Sotomayor seemed a little more unpredictable and allowed her narrative to unfold in ways that sometimes felt more like literary fiction.  By contrast Warren is very business-like in her prose.  Regardless, the book is a pleasure and I am very grateful that Senator Warren has sacrificed herself in a way (certainly opened herself up to many painful attacks) on behalf of struggling Americans.  I have yet to feel any relief on my own putrid financial state, but I am optimistic that something positive may happen in the next few years.  In short, this book can give you hope.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense - Tim Kinsella (2011)

Flashback 14 years to Fall 2000, my senior year in high school, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with a friend I had gotten to know the previous year in an English class.  He was pretentious.  Definitely not popular but so weird and laconic and humorous that he carried his own cultural cache which others had to respect.  We started by giving feedback on college essays we were writing.  We wrote short stories and sent them back and forth (his were much better, or at least seemed to be written by a much older and more intelligent person) and he contributed a couple iconic lines to a play I was writing.  Five years later we'd stop speaking, and I wrote my first novel as a kind of response to that rejection.  He'd later describe the event as an "epic falling out" to a mutual friend, though it seemed anything but that to me (swift, no words, little explanation).

However, back in those idyllic late high school times, I was very into three bands, in this order: Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and Rage Against the Machine.  The Beastie Boys and Foo Fighters, among others, took up lesser spots, but these three comprised the majority of my listening.  My friend saw a problem with this, and he did me the favor of lending dozens of CDs to me over the next few months.  Some of these bands would go on to become my favorites: Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Fugazi, and the Velvet Underground, to name a few.  But more interesting was a sub-set of music that shocked: emo.  It shocked because it did not fit in with this refined adult taste.  He was weirdly looking forward to the new Weezer album, which would be their follow-up to Pinkerton (which I never heard until I got to college).  He said Sunny Day Real Estate was emo.  He said Cap'n Jazz was emo.

I was surprised I liked Cap'n Jazz because they were so obscure.  By that point in my life honestly I had never really made the effort to give "underground" music a chance.  My friend had told me, "Just play the first track and wait til the end."  I did that, and to say it changed my life would be an overstatement, but it sort of changed my life.  Cap'n Jazz was not necessarily "underground," but I am pretty sure you could go out on the street and ask a bunch of people in Chicago (their hometown) who they were and 95-99% would profess ignorance.  So while my friend and I may be "separated," and while I was pretty mad at him for a while, I will always be grateful for making me his "project" and turning me on to indie rock, because it's been one of the few enjoyable pursuits afforded me in this miserable life.

Fast-forward to July 2010 when a re-formed Cap'n Jazz played the Wicker Park Festival and I promptly lost my shit for an hour.  Flashback to April 2002 when I went on what I considered a very romantic date to an Owls concert at North Six in Brooklyn and sat on the bleachers and watched the members of Cap'n Jazz play weirder songs, but still catchier ones than Joan of Arc put out.  Fast-forward to December 2005 when I went alone to see Make Believe play with Islands at Beat Kitchen.  Fast-forward to some other time in 2006 or 2007 when I saw Make Believe at the Wicker Park Festival.  Fast-forward to July 2014 when I saw Owls play at the Wicker Park Festival on the heels of their well-received 2nd album, 13 years in gestation.

It's possible you're reading this and wondering what the hell this has to do with a book--but more likely, if you know the name of the author, you know why I started the review off this way.  Tim Kinsella's reputation precedes him, and with his recent literary output as well as the new seemingly more mainstream Owls record, it may appear he is in the process of shaking that off.  However, if the Owls performance three weeks ago is any indication, he will never stop being obtuse, inscrutable, and defiantly anti-establishment.

As previously mentioned here, I saw him read at the Printer's Row Lit Fest (more than 2 months ago already - sad that the summer is wearing out).  He read from his second novel, Let Go and Go on and on, and I approached him afterwards and told him I didn't have the money to buy a book, but would he sign my journal?  He graciously complied and I told him I would be reading "the Karaoke Singer" soon and I review every book I read and would he like to see the review?  "No...I don't really try to pay attention to reviews."  I wouldn't pay attention to reviews either with the way he has been skewered by Pitchfork in the past (The Gap at 1.9, How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More EP at 2.2, So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness at a nearly-favorable 4.2, In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust improving to a 5.0, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain... at an almost-respectable 5.3, Joan of Arc: Presents: Guitar Duets at a near-median 3.5), but it seems like he knows how to get better reviews when he's not trying to be experimental or engaging in the practice of obfuscation (Owls' S/T record came in at 7.0 and Two got a 7.3 and the two Make Believe albums that were reviewed came in between Joan of Arc and Owls, generally).  Pitchfork never reviewed Analphabetapolothology but there is no way they could give it anything less than an 8.7, if not a 10.  It's just ridiculously inspired and influential and if you haven't heard it already and are even the slightest bit aware of "emo" as a genre (even if you hate what it represents), you owe it to yourself to at least listen to "Little League" (and especially the end of it).

So Tim Kinsella is carrying a lot of baggage going into publishing his first novel, and it seems like his fans will stick with him no matter how far out into left-field he wants to stray.  But books and music are two different mediums, and I am happy to report that The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense is "more mainstream" Kinsella, and that people who might be completely unaware of his indie icon status over the past 20 years will probably find this book intriguing--if not exactly a masterpiece--provided they can get past page 100.
This is because up until page 100 the reader may find themselves lost, and unable to figure out just where the narrative is heading.  However, around that point it all begins to make sense.  Then the book shifts to "Part 2" and some confusion is likely there as well.  But I will try to sum it up for you without spoiling too much.

This book is probably 45% about a family, 35% about a bar, and 20% about two random characters.  The family is comprised of Mel, Will and Kent, three siblings who have come back together for their Nana's funeral.  Ronnie is their mother, Dell is their estranged father, and Joe is Ronnie's new boyfriend.  Kent works at a toothpaste factory and is married with kids.  Will is the youngest of the three and has had problems in the past with fighting.  Basically, he went through rehab because he got into fights as his hobby.  Mel works as a bartender at The Shhh...

The Shhh... is a bar owned by Norman, who inherited it from his father Rich.  Norman is the closest thing this book has to a villain, and a certain proposal made towards the end of the book is the closest it comes to reaching a "climax":

"Mel understood.  She would tell Will everything if Kent weren't around.  How she hid the pregnancy at first so she could keep dancing.  How she could've had the baby if she could have kept dancing but couldn't keep dancing if she had the baby--Goddamn it, maybe she probably should've had the kid.  How Norman had been squeezing her and couldn't Will maybe do something, even just scare him, just this once?
But Kent was talking about his remortgaged subprime tax break insurance kid's sports team past glory with a snappy comeback Florida getaway I prefer a bargain or something.  It was getting late.  Will lit a cigarette." (248-249)

A side note: the book starts at a scene at The Shhh... and is also the closest the book comes to being about emo or punk rock because Cap'n Jazz has a song titled "Planet Shhh..."  So what I'm trying to say is, you're not getting a traditional novel here, nor some kind of thinly-veiled autobiography about life as a relatively obscure indie rock icon (which would be awesome).  However, there is a fair amount of material on the art of karaoke (mostly from Norman, who specializes in it) and there is this passage about another character, Gus.  Gus runs the kitchen at The Shhh... and he is also Mel's roommate and a poet:

"Too old to have really been a punk, Gus turned thirty in 1978, but loved Public Image so much that he began every karaoke session of his life with the same disappointment, looking up 'Public Image' by Public Image Limited.  No karaoke place ever had it.  Though its two note riff with no surprises was perfection itself to Gus, it would, he had to admit, be a very tough song to sing karaoke.  The 'melody' was all in the sneering attitude.  Except for the repetition of the words 'public image,' few lyrics were comprehensible after the opening line, 'You never listen to a word I'm saying.'" (74)

Side note: this is the 2nd review on Flying Houses in recent months to reference PiL.  I liked 85A, but I don't want to compare the two.  While they were both debuts and published not too far apart from one another, they're completely different books.  However I would have liked this book better if it had taken place in Chicago.  I do not know why Kinsella set the story in Stone Claw Grove, MI rather than Chicago, but apparently Stone Claw Grove is a fictional town.

But maybe the setting is why I liked this book in the first place: it is not a sugar-coated version of reality like so many other novels.  The characters are distinctly working class, and the disappointments in their lives are palpable and ring true.  In other words, reading the book as an underemployed attorney with a debt well on its way to six figures, I felt less alone.

Kinsella recently taught a class in experimental fiction at the University of Chicago, and that appointment was probably based on the strength of this novel.  It is "experimental," but it's straightforward enough that I could see it making a cool movie.  It's experimental in the sense that the action is constantly flipping backwards and forwards in time.  Primarily it takes place before and after Nana's funeral, but it jumps back to 9 months before the funeral (i.e. around the time Mel got pregnant) and other earlier points in time as well.

Another "experimental" aspect is the way Kinsella writes in the third person, but manages to imbue the narration with the personality of the character that is the focus of a particular section.  This is also a confusing trope at first, but by page 100, the reader should be able to figure out what is happening.  As mentioned, most of the characters are working class and the narration is appropriately down-to-earth, but Sarah Ann has a more intellectual inner monologue that makes her a very interesting but underused character.

The same can be said for the other two random characters, Wallace and Jesse.  I haven't read any other reviews of this book so I may be alone on this, but to me the chapters about Wallace and Jesse are the strongest in the book.  I'm just not sure they fit in all that well with the rest of the story.  Regardless, they are compelling.  They are not totally horrifying, but they are disturbing and sometimes deeply so.  Oddly enough, they are the most topical parts of the book, as the last few years have seen several young adults in the news break free from their captors who basically tortured them by forcing them to be their companions.  Wallace eventually does the "right thing" but the wrong way, and the depiction of Jesse's reaction almost made me want to break out in tears.

All throughout, the writing is strong, and I may have only picked up one typo.  Kinsella read from Let Go and Go on and on at the Lit Fest this year.  He sat in front of me with his mom, and then he got up to read and nobody seemed to laugh or "get it."  He was reading something about cockfighting and people living out of their car.  It didn't seem as "mainstream" as this book, but I am really glad I read this and may read that in the future.  Nobody may ever "get" Kinsella, but I feel like I understand where he's coming from a little better after reading this book.  I don't think I'm alone in hoping that Cap'n Jazz reforms yet again (I read one shocking interview where he said Owls' Two was almost released as the 2nd Cap'n Jazz album--which seriously would have fucked with everyone), but so long as Kinsella remains a stalwart on the indie publishing scene in Chicago, I can deal (fingers crossed that I get a copy of S/M out to him and that he's tickled by the fact that a scene in the novel takes place at a Make Believe concert and consequently considers me worthy of Featherproof's support).

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to be Alone - Jonathan Franzen (2002)

I picked up How to be Alone at the Printer's Row Lit Fest, so it shares the dubious honor of being the second book after Rick Moody's Purple America to be purchased there and reviewed here.  I liked Purple America and I liked How to be Alone but for different reasons.  How to be Alone is a book of essays, and I don't know, I just kind of like reading essays.  Let me put it this way: I prefer to read "essays" over "articles," and I hope that my posts on Flying Houses are considered "essay-like reviews" rather than "article-like reviews."  But I digress - we must discuss the author.

The only time I read anything by Jonathan Franzen before was when I read a chapter from The Corrections that was re-printed in an anthology released for the 50th anniversary of The Paris Review (ironically, also purchased at the Printer's Row Lit Fest(!) - a decade ago when it was called the Printer's Row Book Fair).  I didn't really get into it.  So I never checked out that novel, or anything else by him.  But he seemed like the real deal after Freedom got so much attention so I figured I should give him a chance when I saw this book for $5.00.  And after reading it I will definitely check out more of his work.

But I can't go on without mentioning that I was put off by him before because he seemed like a kind of vanilla great writer--doing everything right, but lacking the ability to really engage the reader--from that little excerpt I read in that Paris Review anthology.  Mainly I compared that with "Little Expressionless Animals," a short story by David Foster Wallace that was also in there and is probably the best (and only) thing I have finished by him, and decided that Franzen just wrote pretentiously.
The book starts off on an almost impossibly high note with "My Father's Brain."  This is a remarkable essay that should be anthologized for any collection of 20th or 21st century writers studied by high school students (it could almost be an essay by Richard Selzer).  Franzen ties together autobiography and science to produce an extraordinary tribute to his father that is highly emotional as well as educational.  Having lost a grandmother to Alzheimer's disease, it was especially poignant for me when he mentioned how his father could still recognize the people around him as familiar, but could not identify their relationship to him.  To be clear, the last time I saw her before she went to a nursing home, she referred to her son and his wife (who had moved in with her to care for her) as two nice people who were letting her stay with them for some unknown reason.  Franzen's father similarly retained familiarity with his family members, but probably only thanked them for coming to visit in the nursing home because (apparently) Alzheimer's patients retain their manners and politeness, and other learned, ingrained social pleasantries.  This, along with several other observations and scientific hypotheses, tells the reader everything they need to know about Alzheimer's.  But what makes this essay even more amazing is the way Franzen branches off to discuss the nature of memory, and how writers employ it:
Before I go on, a confession: it has taken me a very long time to write this review.  Not because I have complicated feelings about it, but because I've been lazy.  Also I couldn't find a good quote from the first essay, so we move on.

"Imperial Bedroom" comes next and at this point I need to say several things: (1) that is the title of an Elvis Costello album; (2) that is almost the title of a Bret Easton Ellis novel; (3) a few days after starting this book on June 30, 2014, Bret Easton Ellis linked to an old interview he did on Facebook which referenced the most infamous essay in this book and also commented on Donna Tartt in June 1999; (4) this essay is about the Starr Report and was published in 1998; (5) this essay references the "zone of privacy" codified by the Supreme Court in the late 1800's, (6) this essay feels dated in a very charming way, like many of the other pieces in this book.  I will get more into this later.  But basically, this essay was o.k.:

"Walking up Third Avenue on a Saturday night, I feel bereft.  All around me, attractive young people are hunched over their StarTacs [!] and Nokias with preoccupied expressions, as if probing a sore tooth, or adjusting a hearing aid, or squeezing a pulled muscle; personal technology has begun to look like a personal handicap.  All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy.  They say things like 'Should we have couscous with that?' and 'I'm on my way to Blockbuster.'  They aren't breaking any law by broadcasting these breakfast-nook conversations.  There's no PublicityGuard that I can buy, no expensive preserve of public life to which I can flee.  Seclusion, whether in a suite at the Plaza or in a cabin in the Catskills, is comparatively effortless to achieve.  Privacy is protected as both commodity and right; public forums are protected as neither.  Like old-growth forests, they're few and irreplaceable and should be held in trust by everyone.  The work of maintaining them gets only harder as the private sector grows ever more demanding, distracting, and disheartening.  Who has the time and energy to stand up for the public sphere?  What rhetoric can possibly compete with the American love of 'privacy?'" (53)

Okay, I'll admit sometimes I don't get exactly what point Franzen is trying to make, but let's just say he sounds like a curmudgeon in 1998 and he must totally want to kill himself with the state of things in 2014, as do I.  So I make this offer to him: the next time he is in Chicago, he should contact me and we should take the El together and yell at everyone staring down at their phones.  [Note: I have absolutely no problem with people reading Flying Houses on personal electronic devices].

The aforementioned infamous essay comes next.  "Why Bother? (The Harper's Essay)" is one of the main attractions of this book, but not for the right reasons.  I am sure there are plenty of people that would defend this essay as a "tour de force" and one of the finest essays about literature in the 1990's, but most people (and Franzen himself) probably consider it embarrassing and pretentious.  Originally titled "Perchance to Dream" and published in April 1996, Franzen writes that when he actually opened up the magazine to read it, "I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand-word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn't quite follow it." (4) He "cut the essay by a quarter" and retitled it, and hoped "it's less taxing to read now, more straightforward in its movement." (5) It is 43 pages long and only wasn't taxing for me to read because I was stuck on an airline commute from hell that majorly comprised a 15 hour travel day. Also, it was not taxing because I kept waiting to see what ridiculous thing Franzen was going to write next.  It is a gold mine for ridiculousness, but some valid points are made along the way.

As is the case for most of the essays here, it is spurred by something Franzen recently read.  In this case it is the short novel Desperate Characters by Paula Fox published in 1970. (As a side note, Franzen name-checks many, many writers throughout this book, most of them a bit more obscure than the usual names mentioned.  So it can be helpful also in terms of discovering new writers.) He writes a lot about how simple and beautiful this novel is and how symbolic it all is.  He also writes about his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City and how his ideas of what literature should be shifted throughout the years.  Now, I kind of want to read his first novel now, and I kind of get where he's coming from, even though I don't agree entirely with his stance.  But maybe I'm confusing this with the later essay "Mr. Difficult," which I think is probably the strongest essay in this book ("Why Bother?" done right).

He writes a lot about Shirley Brice Heath and the observations she made about the reading public.  He basically complains that nobody reads anymore.  There's a lot of confessional stuff about his own writing, and he is usually pretty funny and occasionally lands solid moments of truth:

"Unfortunately, there's also evidence that young writers today feel imprisoned by their ethnic or gender identities--discouraged from speaking across boundaries by a culture in which television has conditioned us to accept only the literal testimony of the Self.  And the problem is aggravated when fiction writers take refuge in university creative-writing programs.  Any given issue of the typical small literary magazine, edited by MFA candidates aware that the MFA candidates submitting manuscripts need to publish in order to obtain or hold on to teaching jobs, reliably contains variations on three generic short stories: 'My Interesting Childhood,' 'My Interesting Life in a College Town,' and 'My Interesting Year Abroad.'  Fiction writers in the Academy do serve the important function of teaching literature for its own sake, and some of them also produce strong work teaching, but as a reader I miss the days when more novelists lived and worked in big cities.  I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel for the same reason I mourn the rise of suburbs: I like maximum diversity and contrast packed into a single exciting experience.  Even though social reportage is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental by-product--Shirley Heath's observations confirm that serious readers aren't reading for instruction--I still like a novel that's alive and multivalent like a city." (80)

I can see what he's saying about the MFA contingent (and I've complained about them several times over the years here), but I have to admit that, even though I can't consider myself part of that group (because I didn't get in to one of those programs, I'm more of the novelist that lives and works in a big city), I feel like I have to retreat into the Self, at least for the first couple major works.  I feel like you can't truly understand the world until you've thoroughly examined yourself, and to give an idea of your perspective, you should publish at least a couple books that present it.    

I seriously could write an entire blog post about each essay--and this one is a doozy for sure.  But I have to move on as I'm doing the entire book and I think I've given an idea about the notoriety of this essay.  Bret Easton Ellis said it wasn't a good essay in its original form, and I'm not sure if he thinks it's any better in its revised form, but it's certainly worth reading because you can't help but have strong feelings about it.

"Lost in the Mail" is an essay about the decline of the U.S. Post Office in Chicago in 1994.  I loved it because so much of it is about Chicago, but as I was reading it I was paranoid that my city sticker wouldn't arrive that day in the mail, and that I'd get penalized for not having a new one on my windshield on July 1, but in reality they didn't start enforcing that until July 17th this year (and ironically, my city sticker arrived right after I finished the essay).  As is the case for most of the essays here, it feels dated, but then again I don't live on the South Side.  I feel like the Post Office has cleaned up its act over the past 20 years, but this is still an entertaining read because it is the first "live reportage" type essay here and feels like it's "from the front lines" and "an insider's look."

"Erika Imports" is probably the strangest thing in the book, but it's nice.  It's like four pages long and is a brief nostalgia trip about the first summer job Franzen ever had, working for his neighbors.  Maybe I only thought it was nice because it was so short though, and was such a counterpoint to the 30 page essay I was expecting.

"Sifting the Ashes" is a great essay about cigarettes.  However, I was confused at the beginning as to whether Franzen had actually quit at the time he was writing it.  Again, he references a recent book he read, Smoke Screen by Philip J. Hilts.  Though this essay was published in 1996, it doesn't feel that dated.  The only thing that's changed is that cigarettes have become subject to much higher taxation and have been banned from most indoor establishments across the country.  I feel like somebody needs to write an essay about marijuana right now so that in 18 years we can consider whether it feels dated.

"The Reader in Exile" is the 2nd example of the "quintessential Franzen essay" in this book, after "Why Bother?"  You can guess what it is about.  He references A is for Ox by Barry Sanders, but mostly talks about Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte.  I mainly remember this essay for Negroponte's relentless positivity about the rise of technology, and Franzen's skepticism.  It makes me feel like Negroponte was an early proponent of the robo basilisk paranoia, but I digress.

"First City" is an essay about New York City.  It is also about the nature of cities, and how they differ in Europe from the U.S.  Some interesting comments are made about urban planning.  He references Witold Rybczysnki's book City Life.  Further comments are made about The Encyclopedia of New York City, which are entertaining.  In general, this is a paean to New York as the most European city in the U.S. and it makes me want to write an essay titled "Second City."

"Scavenging" is probably the 2nd strangest thing in the book.  He also gripes about new technology here, waxing nostalgic about his rotary phone.  He kind of jumps all over the place in this essay, but he mostly writes about using outdated technology.  And it is here that we reach a milestone.  For I read this essay right before I accidentally destroyed my old laptop's screen, and felt very sad, but then felt very proud like I would blog on a semi-broken machine.  And I did that for a while, but at this moment, this post is the first post being written on my new laptop.

"Control Units" is about super maximum security prisons, and is a really great essay, actually.  It's not quite on the level of "My Father's Brain," but it's like a more compelling "Lost in the Mail."  Basically, Franzen is in full-on journalist mode here again, and he makes some great comments about the prison system in a particular Colorado town, and though it was published in 1995, this is another essay that has only grown more true as time has gone on.

"Mr. Difficult" is my favorite essay in this book.  It is mainly about William Gaddis.  I have never read anything by Gaddis but it made me want to--sort of.  Franzen gives Gaddis the highest compliments imaginable, but also openly admits that some of his later work is a mess.  This is one of the most fascinating essays in the book because Franzen seems openly enthusiastic about the material, and his opportunity to make a statement about it.  There is also the interesting revelation that the title of The Corrections is meant as a nod to The Recognitions.  Franzen also writes about his failed attempt to write a screenplay, because somebody told him that his movie seemed to plagiarize Fun with Dick and Jane (which seems weird for some reason).  He also talks about books that he couldn't finish.  He references The Sot-Weed Factor, and that is another notable example of a book that I tried to read while starting this blog, but failed to review as "incomplete." I guess this is about a certain period of American authors.  Franzen says he didn't particularly like any of them that much except for Don DeLillo and Gaddis.  Generally, I liked what he did with this essay.  Franzen seems to have a deep understanding of Gaddis's oeuvre, and I can appreciate an essay on this sort of subject matter.

"Books in Bed" is another essay that is kind of like "Imperial Bedroom" but is mostly about sex rather privacy.  It is also about watching CNN in airports.  He again references recent books he has read  This time it is The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, which is a compilation of sex scenes in literature.  Franzen seems to view the culture's obsession with sex, and literary sex scenes, as another indication of the sad state of the modern world.  But along the way, as usual, he is entertaining:

"Until the Rules become universal, though, such comfort as can be found in the market economy comes principally from norms.  Are you worried about the size of your penis?  According to Sex: A Man's Guide, most men's erections are between five and seven inches long.  Worried about the architecture of your clitoris?  According to Betty Dodson, in the revised edition of her Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, the variations are 'astounding.'  Worried about frequency?  'Americans do not have a secret life of abundant sex,' the researchers in Sex in America concluded.  Worried about how long it takes you to come?  On average, says Sydney Barrows, it takes a woman eighteen minutes, a man just three."  (273)

"Meet Me in St. Louis" is the last longer essay in the book, and is about Franzen's experience becoming a member of "Oprah's Book Club" and how a promotional movie was shot in St. Louis about his life.  It's awkward and is one of the other major highlights of this book.  In a way, it is similar to "My Father's Brain" because it delves into personal details about his life and his parents.  It's entertaining and emotionally engaging to see how a bigger promotional machine can twist the meaning of a work of art into something different than its meant to be in search of a bigger return.

The collection ends with a trip that Franzen took to see the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001.  It's breezy and short--only "Erika Imports" is shorter.  But it makes a stronger impression than that essay.  It reads like a combination of "Journalist Franzen" and "Skeptical Franzen."  It seems like a reactionary piece to the Bush v. Gore decision, and it feels very raw and angry.  Obviously your political views may tint how you view this essay, but it seems like the vast majority of Frazen's fans will not take issue.

On the whole, How to be Alone is a nice collection, and was worth buying for $5.  I'm not sure I'll revisit it anytime soon (maybe in a decade, who knows), but it was a thoroughly entertaining collection that made me feel very literary for reading.  Anybody that wants to be a well-respected author that sells a lot of copies should read this to see inside the mind of one of them.  Franzen is generous in that regard.  Still, I can't help but feel that 50% or more of modern-day writers may claim he is full of it and you don't need to live the way he does to write great books.  I'm not sure how I'll review his fiction, but I hope to have the chance soon.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman (2013)

I was on a doc review project in the Willis Tower for about six weeks in May and June of 2014. Now we are always told by doc review agencies never to browse the web while we are working. I find it hard to believe that anyone actually follows this rule. On a previous project I was paid $16.50 an hour, and for that, I felt it was my duty to browse as often as possible. This recent one paid a fair rate of $25.00 (some still believe that fair is $30) so I was more wary of that rule. I indulged in reading a fair number of book reviews, among other things (but this post isn't a special comment about the vaguely disregarded notion of web browsing at work), and found the book reviews done by Entertainment Weekly to be fun, because they give everything a grade. The reviews themselves cannot hold a candle to what I do here (they are too short and limited in scope) but they seem to have a unified concept of what makes for good literature. (The only “A+” review I saw was for Building Stories by Chris Ware, and truly that looks like an A+ “book.”) 

Naturally, I wanted to see if I had "gotten in right” with The Circle. They gave it a B+, which is about what I would give it, and they said it was “about fifty pages too long,” which I basically implied. Intriguingly, they gave The Goldfinch a B-, which heartened me some, though now I feel obligated to read it. I kept looking through 2013 reviews, vaguely hoping that I would find the book I was currently reading. And there it was! Apparently The Love of Affairs of Nathaniel P. was a big enough deal at the time of publication that EW ran a review of it. Almost a year ago, they gave it a B-. Strangely, they seem to indicate that it’s pretty well-written, but there’s nothing revelatory about it. While I agree to a certain extent, I would have to say it is better than a B-. I would give it a B+. I would say it is not quite as good as Taipei, but was a good “companion piece” to it, as my review of that book led to this recommendation.

Before I get into the plot (which is super easy to tell), I considered this book something of a challenge. I have had a problem in finding female writers that I enjoy. Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorites, but there just haven’t been many others that have moved me. I can’t pin this down because I don’t want to sound like a misogynist, but I’m afraid it’s inevitable. The challenge for me was to read this book and see if I called “bullshit” on it with regard to the depiction of how men view relationships. I could not do that. This book is better than that. I am sure that there is plenty of “chick-lit” that could get me really pissed off, but this book did not make me throw it down in anger and shout, “You’re wrong about us!”

Nathaniel P., always referred to as Nate, is a writer in Brooklyn who has just gotten an advance for his first book, which is loosely based on his parents’ experience of living as immigrants in the U.S. We first see him run into an ex-girlfriend, Juliet, on the street. She had needed to get an abortion and Nate paid for it. He never really talked to her again after he paid for it, and she is clearly upset over this. He then goes to a party at the home of another ex-girlfriend, Elisa. There he meets Hannah, whom he will eventually date. Their relationship comprises the bulk of the novel’s 242 pages. Along the way, Nate circles back to reflect on growing up, and the girls he liked in high school and college. He eventually gets “serious” with Kristen in college, and lives with her for three years. However that ends because they began “drifting apart” while she went to med school. Eventually, he moves to New York and somehow makes a living as a writer. This is the first and only part that I call “bullshit” on. Ostensibly Nate works a temp job that becomes full-time, indefinitely termed, to pay the rent before any income from his writing emerges. Honestly I do not believe this is realistic. Or rather, while I do think that type of job could cover a person’s costs in NYC, the next paragraph is what I find unrealistic:

“Looking back, he was proud that he’d ‘persevered,’ by which he meant that he hadn't gone to law school. He’d moved to a cheaper apartment, which allowed him to quit the private equity job in favor of shorter bouts of temp work and freelance proofreading for a law firm. He worked on fiction and pitched articles and book reviews, getting assignments here and there. His critical voice improved. He began to get more assignments. Toward the end of his twenties, it became evident that he’d managed to cobble together an actual career as a freelance writer. The achievement was capped off when a major online magazine offered him a position as its regular book reviewer.” (34)

Now, I am sure some people can make it work as a freelancer, but can they afford an apartment they do not share? I doubt it. Hannah is also a freelancer and similarly lives alone in a pretty nice area in Brooklyn (Prospect Heights?). I never tried to be a freelancer and maybe I regret it after reading this book? I didn’t persevere. Aside from my nit-picky demand for “economic reality,” I can’t complain about much else. This book is very well-written, and it’s just subtle enough to appear true-to-life. I remember one particular observation about intellectual tastes at Harvard that seemed so obscure that it had to be true:

 “Growing up, Nate discussed current events at the dinner table; as a family, they watched 60 Minutes and Jeopardy! Apparently, though, some parents read the New York Review of Books and drank martinis. In time, Nate would learn to make finer distinctions between the homes of his most sophisticated classmates—the old-school WASPs versus the academic intellectuals (Jew or gentile)—but in the first weeks of college it seemed to him that all of them, from the children of well-known leftist firebrands to the spawn of union-busting industrial titans, spoke the same language. It seemed that way because they did. (Many of them had gone to the same prep schools.) When it came right down to it, these groups were like the Capulets and the Montagues. Whatever their differences, they were both wealthy Veronese families. Nate’s family was from Romania.” (24)

Maybe that wasn’t the exact quote I was looking for, but it’s close enough and illustrates the point: Waldman is very articulate when it comes to the characteristics of the people she writes about, skirting a fine line between stereotype and fully-realized human being. That is to say, these characters are not stereotypes, and though sometimes they come very close to looking like one, Waldman is effectively writing about a stereotypical cadre of artists in Brooklyn. Nate himself is certainly given a thorough psychological profile. Most of the time it seems like he is the type of guy that most girls would call an “asshole,” but he doesn't come across as a bad guy in the typical sense of boyfriend-material. He is just passive aggressive and doesn't always say what’s on his mind, and Hannah notices this, and calls him out on it. Some of these scenes are great in their intensity—but on the other hand, the actual “incidents” that lead to a fight are petty. This is really where the novel hits hardest. Dating is all about trying to find “the one” that you can share the rest of your life with, and the process of figuring out what you want out of life. Hannah knows this, and she teaches Nate to understand that.

The other characters are a lot more interesting than Nate or Hannah. Nate and Hannah are both perfectly likable but almost stock characters. Aurit, to name the most obvious example, is probably the most interesting character in the book, with Jason taking second. Apparently Waldman wrote an “addendum short story” to this novel that is written from the perspective of Aurit. She is Nate’s closest female friend—pretty much a hardcore feminist, but again, not in the stereotypical sense—and he places much of his intellectual faith in her. Jason is like the character the reader may imagine Nate to be after looking at the cover of the book and reading the jacket description. Okay, maybe both Nate and Jason are assholes, but I think it’s clear that Jason is the more offensive of the two—and again, not stereotypically. Some of his philosophical pronouncements are insane, but I find value in at least some of them:

“Nate pressed his palms against the tabletop.
‘You aren’t arguing that the problem is that we don’t really have one—but that meritocracy itself is bad?’ Jason nodded enthusiastically. ‘Fairness in a meritocracy is just homage to exceptional talent. For the unexceptional—by definition, the bulk of people—meritocracy is a crueler system than what it replaced.’ ‘Than slavery? Feudalism?’
‘For every Jude the Obscure,’ Jason continued over him, ‘prevented by a hereditary class system from going to Oxford, there are a thousand other stonemasons who lack Jude’s intelligence. Meritocracy is great for guys like Jude, who had talent. For the others, it’s bad news.’
‘Wait,’ Nate said. ‘How are the other masons injured if Jude gets to go to Oxford? Is this like how straight marriage is injured by allowing gay marriage? Because I don’t get that either.’
‘They’re exposed as lacking. Duh.’ Jason shook his head. ‘If everyone remains in the station he’s born to, there’s no shame in it, but if it’s in one’s power to rise, the failure to do so becomes a personal failure.’” (213)

One other criticism I wanted to make, and this one will probably be insane, but I have to say it: the novel lacks any sort of struggle with sexuality. Clearly a person like Nate, who knows he is straight and who has slept with his fair number of women but has trouble building lasting relationships with them, would at least wonder if he might be gay or bi. This would have made the novel a lot more interesting, but unfortunately it is unpalatable for people to believe that people are not just born gay or straight. It wouldn't even need to be a whole chapter in the novel—a few paragraphs would do. To be a complete and true psychological profile, at least a cursory reference to this issue should be made.

While we are on the topic of other things this book should have done, it also appears unrealistic in that Nate does not really even consider online dating. At one point there is a brief narrative involving girls he met when he first moved to New York, that he would meet in public places (like subway trains). However he decides that the easiest way to meet them is through publishing parties. Maybe there are lots of attractive single women in the publishing industry, but I don’t think so. The “reality” of my experience has shown that once you hit your thirties, it is really hard to meet someone that isn't damaged goods or way younger. I think with guys it is different, but I know very few girls my age that are not yet engaged or married or living with their significant other, their careers in a good place and a plan for a bouncing baby a few years down the line already in place. Of course, such a cynical book might become tiresome, and while I do believe that great literature should reflect "reality," any book that is almost exclusively about “the dating scene” (as this one is) should probably be a little bit romantic, if only to give the inevitable lonely reader hope that they will not be doomed to a loveless existence. I've kind of gone on a tangent here, but what I mean is, Nate doesn't seem like the most outgoing guy in the world, and would ostensibly at least dabble, or go on one date with a girl he met online. But to return to the tangent, there are at least signs that Waldman acknowledges “reality” as I know it:

“When he was twenty-five, everywhere he turned he saw a woman who already had, or else didn’t want, a boyfriend. Some were taking breaks from men to give women or celibacy a try. Others were busy applying to grad school, or planning yearlong trips to Indian ashrams, or touring the country with their all-girl rock bands. The ones who had boyfriends were careless about the relationships and seemed to cheat frequently (which occasionally worked in his favor). But in his thirties everything was different. The world seemed populated, to an alarming degree, by women whose careers, whether soaring or sputtering along, no longer preoccupied them. No matter what they claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships.” (40-41)

One of the blurbs on the back of the book compares this book to High Fidelity, and I have to agree that they are quite similar. However, High Fidelity is also about music and I found it to be a much better book overall. Maybe my opinion of that book is colored by my feelings on the film, which I think is one of the most successful adaptations I’ve seen (I saw the movie first—didn’t like it that much when I was 17—liked it much better after reading the book). So I can’t give this book an “A.” Still, for a first novel, it is quite good. The writing is sharp, and a lot of readers will be able to identify with the depictions of the psychological warfare that longer-term relationships almost always engender. Minor quibbles to the side, I would recommend this book and thank the anonymous reader that suggested it to me. I do think a better book on the subject could be written, but it would also be difficult to craft something as satisfying.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at the Printer's Row Lit Fest yesterday (June 7, 2014) but I could not get a ticket.  So instead I went to the God, Sex and Death Variety Hour, which included a reading by Tim Kinsella, who has just published his second book.  I have just put a hold on his first book from the library, so I will review it soon, and I tried to talk to Tim Kinsella afterwards and he said he didn't really like to read reviews, so I didn't need to let him know when I published my review.  Of course, part of me wanted to see Ehrenreich and ask a pointless question during the Q & A (presuming there was one) and film it with my camera and post it here.  Because it is quite ironic that I could have seen her while I had been putting off reviewing Nickel and Dimed for about a week--this gave me a purpose!  But it was not to be.  Such as it is with this review.  It could have been great--with multimedia and almost real-time updating, on an extremely pertinent issue--but I didn't doggedly pursue a spot at the reading, when I probably could have gotten in if I really tried.  No, I wanted to see Tim Kinsella (and actually all of the performers at the GSDVH were wonderful), and since they were both at the same time, I easily deferred to my back up plan.

My first exposure to Nickel and Dimed came in a law school clinic, the Consumer Counseling and Bankruptcy clinic.  We had to work an internship at a placement (which was easy because they basically found the job for you) and go to a seminar once a week.  We had some readings to discuss at the seminars, and our professor had given us a couple chapters photocopied out of Nickel and Dimed.  She briefly mentioned it in going through the syllabus and I looked forward to it as more enjoyable reading material than one usually encounters there.  I am pretty sure we read the final chapter, "Evaluation," and maybe one other chapter that I can't remember.

I wanted to take this book out of the library because I've been obsessed with keeping track of my monthly expenses--particularly when I was doing my post-graduate fellowship at the CTA.  That paid a stipend of $1000 a month.  I would only be disbursed $1000 after four weeks as the school only authorized 20 hours per week.  This worked out to a wage of $12.50 an hour.  I was obsessed with figuring out if I could live on $460 a month, because that was what was left over after paying the rent.  I am sure a lot of people would say they could live on that amount without a problem, but I wasn't sure.  I usually spend about $300 a month on food ($301.46, in December 2013).  I had a bad cell phone deal and was paying $63.86 a month for that.  It was another $64.57 for utilities, which leaves about $40 for everything else (and this isn't even mentioning alcohol).  Commuting alone - $45.00 for ten days of round trips to CTA Headquarters - put me in the hole.  Of course, that they did not give me free riding privileges, like they did for all the other law school externs, stung.

If I had been working 40 hours per week, there wouldn't have been a problem in covering those costs.  But people tell me I should consider myself lucky--I am not working at Wal-Mart or a fast food restaurant for $7.75 an hour.

Nickel and Dimed has a simple premise: Barbara Ehrenreich goes out to lunch with an editor at Harper's to discuss future articles she might write for the magazine and they start talking about how difficult it is to live on the minimum wage and Ehrenreich says somebody ought to go out there and try it for themselves as a sort of old-school journalism project.  The editor tells her she is just the one to do it.  The year is 1998.  From there, she travels to Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN to work as a waitress, maid, and Wal-Mart associate, respectively.


For anyone who has worked these jobs, moments of this book will seem instantly familiar.  Personally I think the strongest chapter in the book is "Selling in Minnesota," because it delves deeply into the culture of Wal-Mart and gives Ehrenreich the occasion to unleash her most sardonic barbs.  I was under the impression that it was the longest chapter, but at 72 pages, it barely edges out "Scrubbing in Maine"'s 70 ("Serving in Florida" is only 40 pages).  However, this entire book is a pleasure to read.  It does feel a bit dated at times, but I have to say that rent is not obscenely higher than it was in 1998.  Nor is the minimum wage--but it seems inevitable that will not be true much longer.  While it is at $7.25 presently, when Ms. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress at "Hearthside" in Key West, it was $5.15.  It looks like it will change to $10.10 soon, and then maybe $15.00 in certain states.  The jump to $15 is unprecedented and could dramatically shift the landscape of the low-wage workforce.  And while Ehrenreich may not be directly cited as an influence on this positive trend, this book has gotten major attention over the past 15 years, and through a kind of cultural osmosis, the sad reality that life on minimum wage is unsustainable has seeped into the public consciousness.  The only criticism I can make is that the book is not pure reality.  It is a great social experiment, but Ehrenreich's desperation is only temporary.  Because she does not need to try and figure out some way to get out of the mess she's in, or resign to struggle throughout the rest of her life, the book is less valuable than the genuine article could be.

Perhaps that gives some of Ehrenreich's observations an air of hyperbole.  While she is looking for a place before craigslist, she does not come across any shared apartments, so naturally any apartment she keeps to herself will be more expensive.  But she writes often about staying in dirty motels:

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.  If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week.  If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead.  You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store." (27)


While going back through the book to try and find passages, I found too many.  I didn't want this review to just be a huge collection of quotes.  But it made me realize that, when I did the same thing for The Circle, I had a lot of difficulty finding good examples.  At a very basic level then, this book is better than The Circle, but it's less surprising and more depressing because it's real.

Ehrenreich does a wonderful job portraying the life of a server--and I say that as a former server of 18 months at 2 restaurants.  She works at two restaurants concurrently to make ends meet, and she provides a fantastic account of a sensation every server must have felt at least once in their past:

"Ideally, at some point you enter what servers call a 'rhythm' and psychologists term a 'flow state,' where signals pass from the sense organs directly to the muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in.  I'm on a 2:00-10:00 PM shift now, and a male server from the morning shift tells me about the time he 'pulled a triple'--three shifts in a row, all the way around the clock--and then got off and had a drink and met this girl, and maybe he shouldn't tell me this, but they had sex right then and there and it was like beautiful." (33)

A personal favorite part of the book for me is Ehrenreich's experience flushing out her system to take a drug test for Wal-Mart:

"If it weren't for the drug test, I might have stopped looking right then and there, but there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks and I'm not at all sure I can pass.  A poster in the room where Roberta interviewed me warns jobs applicants not to 'waste your time or ours' if you've taken drugs within the last six weeks.  If I had used cocaine or heroin there would be no problem, since these are water-soluble and wash out of the body in a couple days.  (LSD isn't even tested for.) But my indiscretion involved the only drug usually detected by testing, marijuana, which is fat-soluble and, I have read, can linger in the body for months.  And what about the prescription drugs I've been taking for a chronic nasal congestion problem?  What if Claritin-D, which gives you a nice little bounce, shows up as crystal meth?" (125)

Her tales of life as a "Wal-Martian" belong in any anthology of literature or essays on corporate culture.  As I've said, this is the highlight of the book, but I don't want this entire post to be about Wal-Mart either.  Because this book is not about that store--but the way it allows its employees to remain in poverty.

Ehrenreich gets hung up on a few topics: housing, transportation, health care, and food (a dearth of each).  I found her comments about housing surprising, because, while it is understandably difficult to get started on a new apartment on a limited budget and without a job, I still thought the rents would be cheaper in the places she lived.  I say this as a former resident of New York and Los Angeles and current resident of Chicago.  I know rents are cheaper elsewhere, and I am currently paying roughly what the "deals" were for a one bedroom or studio apartment per month, if you added up the weekly rates.

The food issue of note is the lack of nutritional value in the meals the poor can afford to eat.  One footnote, an example of the foodstuffs obtained through a pantry, seems almost too ridiculous to believe, but obviously is true:

"Middle class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on 'empty calories.'  The complete inventory of the box of free food I received is as follows: 21 ounces of General Mills Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Post Grape-Nuts cereal; 20 ounces of Mississippi Barbecue Sauce; several small plastic bags of candy, including Tootsie Rolls, Smarties fruit snacks, Sweet Tarts, and two bars of Ghirardelli chocolate; one bubble gum; a 13-ounce package of iced sugar cookies; hamburger buns; six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers; one loaf of Vienna bread; Star Wars fruit snacks; one loaf of cinnamon bread; 18 ounces of peanut butter; 18 ounces of jojoba shampoo; 16 ounces of canned ham; one bar of Dial soap; four Kellogg Rice Krispies Treats bars; two Ritz cracker packages; one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast; 2 ounces of a Kool Aid-like drink mix; two Lady Speed Stick deodorants." (174, n.8)

The best is saved for last, when Ehrenreich steps back from being the fearless hero of low-wage adventures (which gives this book an appeal similar to Dishwasher) and puts on her Ph.D garb and analyzes the situation.  She makes some wonderful points, and writes powerfully about her subject matter:

"It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition--austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don't they?  They are 'always with us.'  What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift.  The 'home' that is also a car or a van.  The illness or injury that must be 'worked through,' with gritted teeth, because there's no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day's pay will mean no groceries for the next.  These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment.  They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations.  And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans--as a state of emergency." (214)

I've said about all I can.  Please note that I did not  read the 10 year anniversary edition, released in 2011, as I did not know it existed until now.  Obviously, after the financial meltdown of 2008, Ehrenreich was going to have more to say.  She wrote a long essay that is posted here and is definitely worth checking out:

I could go off about the minimum wage, and the debate that the cost of goods will go up if it is increased, but I am glad it is happening.  I could also go off about my options as a law grad, and how they barely pay more, but I will desist for another day.  I am just glad that a small victory seems likely, and hope that other bigger ones will follow.