Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)

Oeuvre alert: Amy Schumer has no other books, but she is apparently going to follow this up with one called NOTHING (the answer to the question of what is better than pigs in a blanket) and another called Juggling Dicks (which she and Vanessa Bayer were not doing).  But she also said her next book would be called The New Guy Told Me the News While His Fingers Were Inside Me and My Ovaries Were Being Squished so who knows for sure.  I watched Trainwreck a few months ago on HBO Now and I saw one sketch off of "Inside Amy Schumer," which was very funny.  So my exposure to her is somewhat limited, though it seems like she is in the spotlight every day.  Just this morning she comes up in the news for getting "slammed" for a "Beyonce parody." The week before people walked out of her show in Florida because she was ripping on Trump too much (note: it boggles the mind that there is any overlap between hers and Trump's fans).

I do want to say one thing about how she came to prominence, because I think it is unique.  Her popularity came about rather abruptly sometime in 2014.  She had actually been trying to make a name for herself for the previous 7-8 years.  She was nowhere, and then suddenly she was everywhere.  I am most happy for her because she is the type of stand-up comic that I would be: all I would do is make fun of myself.  I learned that lesson sometime in 2000 or 2001.  It is not good to make fun of other people during a stand up act; it is best to make fun of yourself.  I saw too many comedy shows in New York that never seemed to grasp this, and I thought they were stupid.  One thing Schumer does not write about is the practice of making fun of people in the audience.  I'm sure she's done it, but in a way that wasn't mean.

There are a couple things that everyone is going to mention about this book.  First, the footnoted journal entries.  These are some of the funnier chapters in the book, but really, almost every chapter is funny.  These chapters--four of them, at ages 13, 18, 20 and 22--more than anything else, show that young people interested in the arts should keep a journal.  There is no more valuable tool in reconstructing past events.

Second, this is a feminist text.  Feminism is the major theme of the book.  Oftentimes, as it must, it goes dark places.  Fortunately, Schumer does not come off as heavy-handed.  The two most harrowing chapters detail how Schumer lost her virginity via "grape" (gray-area rape) and how she survived (and later briefly re-entered) an abusive relationship.  Both of these chapters still manage to be funny, and Schumer is fairly generous with these two particular exes.  Certainly, she condemns their behavior, but she also seems to understand why they acted that way, and how their underlying problems made them believe that what they were doing was "okay."  As if it needs to be repeated again, the stories in this book are rallying cries to women to claim ownership of their bodies.  But it is also a good book for men to read, to understand how to treat women better.  There is also a story about a really huge cock.

Now perhaps in the really huge cock story, Schumer hits a nerve center.  It's not so much the events of the story (which comes at the end of a chapter detailing some random celebrities and athletes she dated), but the conceit of it.  In a certain sense, a major theme of Schumer's career has been body-shaming.  Few topics loom larger.  I would never say she is "fat" or even "overweight," but rather "average" and just not anorexic, which yes, all models must be, unless they are plus-size models, which need to be identified as such, and that's a problem.  And she does make a poignant observation near the end of the book about how women's bodies have been scrutinized and analyzed in ways that men have never known--but which we may soon:

"The nickname 'Pancakes' (and also sometimes 'Silver Dollars') stuck around long enough that its life span and evolution could have been slowly, carefully chronicled in a Ken Burns-length documentary.  At least that's how it felt.  But really it was just the remainder of the summer.  I was HUMILIATED and didn't think I'd ever live it down.  Of course, by now I've been around a lot of different women and watched a lot of porn, and I know that our body parts come in all shapes and sizes.  (Men's too!  Did you know their body parts also come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but strangely, the media almost never discusses it?) At the time, I was stunned to learn that my silver dollars were not the norm." (312)

So what does this huge cock story have to do with anything?  I don't know, but Schumer spends a fair amount of time writing about her vagina and how bad it smells.  Imagine a man, writing about his own huge cock.  It would come off as bragging; the reader would not like them.  Imagine a man, writing about his own small cock.  It would come off as pathetic; the reader would feel bad for them.  I feel like the conceit itself is trying to tell the reader something.  Like, it's so shocking to read about because it seems so embarrassing.  Not for her, though not many female celebrities have written about such encounters in the past, but for the man.  She later acknowledges that calling the situation "sad" is completely ridiculous, but I feel like, in this story, she is trying to get at something deeper, like, this is the only way you can body-shame men, the only you can give them a taste of the anxieties of womanhood.

The idea of this book is that you need to love yourself.  It's a very positive message and I laughed a lot while I read this book and I definitely will recommend it (would even rate it on equal footing with Bossypants, if not higher) but there are also problems with this book.  First, Schumer brags too much about being rich.  Of course, she tempers this by also describing how poor she had been for many years, before she could even consider herself a "struggling comic," but it feels kind of empty.  Like, she does mention how she got paid $800 for 1 hour of comedy at a college, when she was just starting out, but she doesn't say how much she makes from hosting "SNL," for example.  If you are going to write about money or being rich, you might as well be as transparent about that as you are about everything else in the book.

Which is one of the things I love very much about this book!  The brutal honesty.  Like for example the story about blacking out and waking up to getting head.  This, it seemed, was fine, was not "grape," as in the earlier scene--just a misunderstanding on the guy's part that she was brain-dead when she put him into a sexual situation.  She does not consider herself an alcoholic, and she has not stopped.  She says that she doesn't like to get really drunk anymore, just a bit tipsy, but then admits she blacked out just a few weeks earlier.  So yes, one of the things I like a lot about this book are its messy contradictions.  Nobody is perfect or can live up to a code that is completely stainless.

Second, sometimes the book feels "padded" with lists or, to borrow a criticism from one Amazon reviewer, biographies of stuffed animals.  I actually sort of like the stuffed animal chapter because it's short and it's a nostalgia trip--anyone could write a similar chapter if they remember those things they held dear as a child.  Really, there is a ton of nostalgia in this book, and one of Schumer's descriptions of her own personal appearance cracked me up:

"Here's to the old man who was still living in my apartment on the day I moved in.  My roommate and I had to pack all of his clothing and box up his huge collection of vintage nudie magazines.  One of them featured a girl wearing a varsity sweater, and she looked so much like me.  The magazine was called Babyface.  I was flattered there was a market for girls like me, who resemble that eighties doll Kid Sister or one of the Garbage Pail Kids." (246)

Finally, there is the writing itself, which is not always very even.  Sometimes, she actually writes quite beautifully.  That almost sounds like a joke but I'm serious.  There are some truly beautiful, sad and funny moments, all at once, in this book:

"We both went through security, shoes on--the good 'ol days--and started walking down the long hall to my gate.  That particular terminal was under heavy construction at the time, so we had to be careful where we walked.  We still had a ways to go when my dad took a sharp right turn and beelined it to the side of the hall.  I stopped walking and turned to see what he was doing.  He shot me a pained look, pulled his pants down, and peed shit out of his ass for about thirty seconds.  Thirty seconds is an eternity, by the way, when you're watching your dad volcanically erupt from his behind.  Think about it now.  One Mississippi.  That's just one.
People quickly walked past, horrified.  One woman shielded her child's eyes.  They stared.  I yelled at one chick passing by, 'WHAT?! Keep it moving!'
After he had finished, my dad stood up straight and said, 'Aim, do you have any shorts in your bag?'
I opened my suitcase and grabbed a pair of lacrosse shorts.  I handed them over, thinking, Damn, those were my favorite.  He threw his pants in the trash and put the shorts on.  I went in for a top-body hug good-bye.  I didn't cry, I didn't laugh, I just smiled and said, 'I love you, Dad.  I won't tell Mom.'
I started to walk away from the whole scene when I heard, 'I said I'd walk you to the gate!'
I turned around to see if he was joking; he was not.  To the gate we walked.  I was mouth breathing and shooting dirty looks at anyone who dared to stare at him.  Once we got to the very last gate in the goddamn terminal, at the end of a very long hall, he kissed me goodbye and left." (54-55)

Other times, she seems to just kind of free-associate with her writing and it meanders.  Sometimes it's really funny too, though, so I can't even call this a complete criticism.

Really, the overwhelming point I wanted to make about this book, is that it is critic-proof, sort of like Schumer's brand of comedy.  You cannot hate this book and you cannot hate this woman.  To do so would put you in the same boat as all the internet trolls that comment on any story about her and call her fat or ugly or unfunny.  Honestly, I don't even think she's that funny in this book.  I thought the first 30 minutes of Trainwreck were hilarious but this book is nearly as educational as it is funny.  There is no more educational chapter than "How to Become a Stand-up Comedian." This is probably the most "epic" chapter in the collection and reveals a handful of truths that one could expect to encounter in trying to start a career in that field.

To sum it up, it is likely this book will make you laugh and provide a modest dose of entertainment.  I'm not sure I would tell you to buy it, but it is definitely worth reading if you're looking for something light, or trying to figure out what to do with your life.  It was worthwhile for me, at least.

Friday, October 7, 2016

White Teeth - Zadie Smith (2000)

On August 17, 2016, a little over a month ago, I posted my "15 authors" list on Facebook.  The first comment was, "This is a lot of dudes."  And yeah, right after I posted, I noticed to my horror that all 15 authors were male, and perhaps even worse, all were white.  Apparently my worldview is extremely limited and I can only appreciate authors that reflect my privilege.  But let's put all that to the side, because the real point of sharing such a list was to find out other writers I should be reading.  My friend Melissa suggested about a dozen other authors, most of them female, most or all of them non-white.  From that, I asked her which books she would recommend the most highly.  This was not an easy decision, but she settled on White Teeth and Americanah.  Well Americanah will be picked up from the library shortly, and White Teeth was a good read.  Will it be named to the "best books" list?  No, but I would still highly recommend it.

Here is the plot: as the novel opens, Archie Jones, 47, white English male, is attempting suicide by asphyxiation in his car.  He is depressed over the departure of his wife.  On a side note this was a very good way to open up a novel.  A list of "compelling opening scenes" should be compiled at some point.  In short it was immediately engaging.  Anyways, his attempt is thwarted, and he goes to a kind of hippie commune that same day and meets Clara, the 19-year-old daughter of a Caribbean immigrant.  This takes place in roughly 1975.

The novel then jumps to the perspective of Samad Iqbal, Archie's friend of 30 years.  They first meet while serving together in World War II.  Samad is originally from Bangladesh, and also marries a much younger woman around 1975, Alsana.  Both women become pregnant around the same time: Clara with a girl, and Alsana with twin boys.  These children--Irie, Millat and Magid--eventually drive the narrative to its climax.

And that's kind of my problem with the novel.  It's not that the material with Irie, Millat and Magid is inferior to the rest of the novel; it just feels like it was written to have a "real plot."  The "real plot" of the novel does not get introduced until page 343 (out of 448).  I'm not saying the last 100 pages are bad, I'm just saying they are not as good.  Regardless, many may actually find the ending to be the best part, because it does pose some interesting questions, and there is a delightful twist of sorts at the very end.  But I say this for my own personal feelings on the novel.  It is at its best when it is examining and developing the interior lives of its characters.

I read in City Lit bookstore in my neighborhood that Smith received an advance of 350,000 pounds for the novel at age 24.  To me, it feels like she got the advance, and still had to write the last 100 pages.  I am probably completely wrong with this, but that's what it felt like.  Certainly, she makes a good case that she deserved an advance of that size, but for me personally, it felt like the end of the novel feels padded.  Particularly when, for example, in the final denouement, characters make commentary on the way other characters talk:

"...Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them.  'Science,' Archie repeats, handling it more firmly, 'is a different kettle of fish.'
Mickey nods at this, seriously considering the proposition, trying to decide how much weight he should allow this counterargument Science, with all its connotations of expertise and higher planes, of places in thought that neither Mickey nor Archie has ever visited (answer: none), how much respect he should give it in light of these connotations (answer: fuck all. University of Life, innit?), and how many seconds he should leave before tearing it apart (answer: three).
'On the contrary, Archibald, on the bloody contrary.  Speeshuss argument, that is.  Common fucking mistake, that is.  Science ain't no different from nuffink else, is it?  I mean, when you get down to it.  At the end of the day, it's got to please the people, you know what I mean?'
Archie nods.  He knows what Mickey means.  (Some people--Samad for example--will tell you not to trust people who overuse the phrase at the end of the day--football managers, estate agents, salesmen of all kinds--but Archie's never felt that way about it.  Prudent use of said phrase never failed to convince him that his interlocutor was getting to the bottom of things, to the fundamentals.) " (432-433)

Within that example of what I consider "padded writing," there are some alluring turns of phrase, so even though I may accuse Smith of tacking on a few words, there is no doubt that she is an extremely talented writer.


Sometimes when I'm struggling to figure out what to say about a book, I go on the Wikipedia page.  There I found that White Teeth was apparently named one of the 100 best books from 1923 - 2005 by Time Magazine.  It seemed like an alluring list, so I tried to check it out, but it's in one of those annoying slideshow formats where you have to click every time you want to see the next novel.  I thought I'd make a list of the things I hadn't read, but there were already many in the A-B section (The Adventures of Augie March, Appointment at Samarra, An American Tragedy, Animal Farm, Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret, The Assistant....) and then upon revisiting it, realized you may view it by simply clicking "view all."

I'm not sure how I feel about this, but I guess people feel this book is pretty special.  I mean, I'm certainly open to the idea of reading more of Zadie Smith (I think she has a new book coming out very soon--Swing Time, due out November 16, 2016, upon investigation).  But I feel like none of her books after this have really made as big a splash.  I mean, she is like, eight years older than me, and she published this sixteen years ago!  It's kind of an old school preternatural literary debut.  Who knows, her best work may still be ahead.  (Of special note, this list does also include Watchmen in the W section so we agree at least on one book, and a few others it seems--I didn't formally name American Pastoral to the list, but I feel it belongs there.  So maybe that's a project for another day, updating that list--it's on my Profile to the right if you don't know what I'm talking about.  I haven't added anything to that list since January--but let me put it this way: I really liked this book, but I also really liked The Goldfinch and I think that book moved me more deeply.  And on that so-called "second tier" I would still place higher Then We Came to the End.)


In a way I read this book to try to understand my own privilege as I have lately been accused of being blind to it.  Once I was attacked upon an argument involving the issue, and directed to read an article online that someone had written, a white girl who had every conceivable woe foisted upon her, including a particular poverty-stricken childhood, and who had doubted her own privilege until she made a certain realization.  One of them was seeing a person of your own race on the front of the newspaper.  The most poignant passage on the topic comes on the heels of a brief conversation about Salman Rushdie, though he is not mentioned by name (it has to be Rushdie, right?):

"'You read it? asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.
There was a general pause.
Millat said, 'I haven't exackly read it exackly--but I know all about that shit, yeah?'
To be more precise Millat hadn't read it.  Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not pick out the writer in a lineup of other writers (irresistible, this lineup of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb).  But he knew other things.  He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshiped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered.  In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in this country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands." (194)

I am still not adequately convinced.  At least by the character of Millat.  There are a couple elements to the book that I find uneven, and one of them is Millat and his embrace of KEVIN.  I mean, I've just got to say, Millat to me, as a character, does not scream "underprivileged."  Much is made of his attractiveness, and how he sleeps with tons of girls starting when he is like 13.  He is one of the most popular kids in his class.  Ultimately his character flaws show by how sarcastic and casually disrespectful he is towards seemingly everyone, but that does not mean one would not want to have his life (or think he had any less options than them).  He seems to have it pretty good--so why would he join KEVIN?  I think if this book were written today, he would not be nearly as popular at school.


This review has taken a long time to write because a lot of things happened during the month of September.  I feel that I've said enough, but a quick summary, as I read through the plot summary on Wikipedia:

(1) Yes, the book starts on a high note--and opening up a book with a major character's attempted suicide seems like it was pulled out of The Crafty Author's Bag o' Tricks (not a real book).

(2) The scene set in World War II is particularly memorable, and the "twist" at the end (despite my general misgivings about the "plot") is almost masterful, one of the highlights of the novel.

(3) All of the stuff about Mangal Pande is boring, to me at least.  I think it's funny how the other characters are also bored by it, and the novel seems to keep putting off telling his story, even seeming to refer to it in one of the "years" that the chapters of the novel are organized by, only to skirt over the story briefly, which turns it into an intriguing delusive move.

(4) The Chalfens are an interesting curveball to throw into the novel, to set the plot in action, and actually the last "set" of chapters before the "plot" commences at page 343 is probably my favorite part of the book.

(5) Irie is the one character that rings most true in the novel.

(6) I do not believe that Samad would get away with sending Magid to Bangladesh.  That is another major element of the novel that I just do not find realistic, I'm sorry.  Not that he would go, but that he would go in the manner he does.

Now I've also found that a television adaption of the novel was made for Channel 4 in 2002.  Perhaps I'll seek that out.  Even though I am kind of drawn to the idea of reading and watching The Girl on the Train, in the same way that I did with Gone Girl, that movie isn't getting very good reviews and I feel like this would be a more interesting adaptation to see.