Saturday, June 16, 2018

Unwifeable - Mandy Stadtmiller (2018)

Unwifeable is a memoir by Mandy Stadtmiller.  Stadtmiller was a recent guest on the WTF podcast.  I probably would not have read the book if I had not heard the episode. The episode effectively functions as a preview of all the most shocking moments in the book, and is a tour de force.  I highly recommend either listening to that episode or reading this book.

I would describe Unwifeable as post-chick lit.  It's still chick-lit, but with an edge of insanity.  It's about basically trying to find Mr. Right at age 30 and beyond, post-divorce.  Stadtmiller cuts a striking figure, and achieves a sort of grandeur in her commitment to fearlessly revealing all of the sketchy details of her romantic life.  She made her living as the weekly writer of a column about dating in the New York Post.  She writes of how she learned to develop boundaries in who she wrote about--her family didn't like when she wrote about them.  The only part of this book that feels a little underdeveloped is the story of what happened in her marriage, which is perhaps out of respect for her ex-husband.

There is a ton of gossip in this book that will satiate basically anyone, though it takes a certain person to want to read it.  There has always been a literary tradition of writing about one's romantic life, but few will do it without the disguise of fiction.  There is something pure and beautiful about writing truthfully on the subject of how fucked up of a person you are, and how you have tried to be better, and Stadtmiller deserves praise for many sections of the book.  She is, however, shameless about name-dropping, and sometimes her funny secret stories about celebrities tend to cheapen the proceedings.  Still it's very amusing to read about her dates with Aaron Sorkin and Keith Olbermann and her pseudo-romances with Moby and Hannibal Buress.  Perhaps the book will be adapted and Andy Dick, Gerard Butler, Courtney Love, Marc Maron, Joy Behar, and John Mayer can all play themselves in Player-like cameos.

There was, however, one glaring typo:

"'Mandy, you are a Kashmir Sapphire,' he writes, 'The famous sapphires of Kashmir are mined from a remote region high in the Great Himalayan mountains of northwestern India.  Lying at an elevation of approximately 150,000 feet.  These sapphires are so beautiful and rare.  Today with the exception of estate sales, fine Kashmir sapphires are virtually unobtainable, mute testimony of the degree to which they are coveted.  They are often categorized as a conundrum gem.  They form an exclusive class of its own.  And once they are cut, they make a beautiful jewel.'" (187)

Perhaps because this is such a beautiful passage, the typo feels more unforgivable.  I did look it up because I started to doubt my knowledge that the highest point on earth is Mt. Everest and that is somewhere just over 27,000 feet.  There is no place at 150,000 feet but the ionosphere.  It should be 15,000.  This, however, is an e-mail from a friend of hers, so perhaps the mistake was preserved.

Around halfway through the book, she references a movement preaching brutal honesty as its core, after being assigned a story on it:

"The piece is ostensibly about a new TV show centered around the concept, and will include an interview with the founder of the movement, Brad Blanton, and then a first-person documentation of my attempts to be 'radically honest.'
But it is Brad Blanton who blows my mind.
I talk to him on the phone, and he is unlike anyone I've ever interviewed.  He will literally tell you anything you want to know--including if he wants to have sex with your sister, the fact that he's let a dog lick peanut butter off his balls, even how much money he makes.  This is the theory of radical honesty.  He calls 'withholding' the most pernicious form of lying.  That is when you try to abide by the mores of polite society by not saying things like that you want to fuck someone's sister.
'Whenever something occurs in the world, there's always what occurred and then there is the story about what occurred, and then there is the meaning made out of the story about what occurred,' he tells me in explaining why most communication--filled with all of its half-truths, twisted perceptions, and withholdings--is so problematic. 'Most people stay lost in the meaning made out of the story.'
It's true.
I don't think about reality: 'I got divorced.' I think about the story I tell about it: 'My ex-husband betrayed me.'  And the meaning I attach to that: 'I am unlovable.  I am unwifeable.  I am a failure.  I am not worth it.'
Brad also forced me to look at some painful truths about my own anger and discomfort.  He tells me that you should just say what you are thinking about someone.  I tell him that I hate when strangers start talking to me about my height.
'So if someone says, "God, you look tall," do you get offended by it still?' he asks me.
'I don't get annoyed,' I say, 'It's just boring.'
'Well, boredom is anger and you haven't expressed your anger sufficiently to all those people who ask you about being tall,' he says.  'You still have a lot of resentment about people--and probably some resentment about being tall.  So when someone says, 'What's it like being so tall?' just say, 'Fuck you!  Eat shit and die!  And I resent you for saying I'm so tall."'
I crack up.  'Then I would appear like this easily hurt social leper,' I say.
Then he reveals the real key, the real magic of what he is preaching.
'You're worried about how you would appear, see?' he says.  'That's what you think your identity is.  It doesn't matter how you appear.  You'll appear differently in another half a minute anyway because people's registry of how you appear changes very dynamically.  For a while, you appear to be a leper of some sort, and a little while later you'll appear to be someone who's very brave and willing to talk about things honestly.  Later on, you'll appear as a kind of person to be trusted because you're not going to be withholding.'" (150-151)

This story most likely informs Stadtmiller's r'aison d'etre, which is, reveal everything in the hopes of helping others with what you've learned along the way.  In this case, she goes on to freak out at a department store clerk for her "shitty attitude."  Apart from this immediate implementation of radical honesty, the entirety of the book is an exercise in the practice, and is all the more worthwhile because of it.

Now only because we've also recently reviewed a memoir that included a Courtney Love anecdote, some excerpt must be included from the section detailing Stadtmiller's friendship with Love, and the ultimate redemption she appears to be experiencing in the culture.  As a student of bankruptcy law, however, I must include what I consider another typo:

"'I'm broke, Courtney,' I say. 'That's why I'm basically stuck at the Post, even if I wanted to leave.  Because I need the paycheck.  I'm barely surviving in New York.  I'm even thinking about doing bankruptcy.'
'Do Chapter 7 if you do it,' she says, without missing a beat.  'Chapter 11 is so pedestrian.'
I have no idea what this means, but she's got a bunch of gold records on the wall, so I'll take her word for it.
'You know, I used to be really broke when I was young,' she says.  'But then I started chanting 'Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,' and within two months I had two million dollars.  I'm serious.  Don't fuck around.  It's the only thing that really works.  Here, let's chant.'" (244-245)

Now it's possible that Courtney Love is referring to actual Chapter 11 business reorganization bankruptcy as pedestrian, but I believe she meant to say Chapter 13.  Granted she does have substantial business holdings but I would not characterize Chapter 11 as pedestrian.

There is not much else I think I can say about this book.  I wrote a note to myself to find an excerpt about "crazy impulses" but that is basically what this entire book is about, also: going through crazy impulses in your 30's and trying to find a piece of stability in this life.  In this case the story has a happy ending, and Stadtmiller appears to have moved her life in a more positive direction.  Yet how can we end reviews of memoirs?  The story is not over and life continues after the memoir.  The book is written in a very conversational tone and its 300 pages flow swiftly.  It will not necessarily go down in history as a classic of the genre but I have to believe that most people will find the majority of it entertaining, and perhaps even eye-opening.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The House of Broken Angels - Luis Alberto Urrea (2018)

The House of Broken Angels is another one of the last several books to be recommended via the New York Times Book Review podcast.  One week, they discussed the novel in the segment about what they were currently reading.  The next week, they had Urrea on as a guest.  The novel sounded intriguing enough so I decided to check it out.  Was it good?  Yes.  Will it make the Best Books list?  No.  Would I recommend it?  Yes.  I have to say yes.  I was about to say "sort of" or "maybe" but I remembered how I was going to compare it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao favorably.  It is somewhere between that and One Hundred Years of SolitudeIt is not as stylish as either, but it is more reader-friendly than both.

After the book, Urrea adds an author's note which says that while this story is not 100% true, perhaps 95% is true.  There are no Angels, but it does appear to be based off the occasion of his mother's funeral and the last birthday of his dying brother.  It would seem like Little Angel is his stand-in, and Big Angel is his older brother.  

Big Angel and Little Angel are actually named Miguel and Gabriel, I think, but they also say that their father forgot that he had already used the name.  In any case, Big Angel is about 70 or so and dying of cancer.  He is certainly the main character along with Little Angel.  

There is also Perla (his wife), Minnie (his daughter), Cesar (his brother), Lalo (his son), and to an extent other family members La Gloriosa (sister-in-law, mother to Guillermo, who was killed alongside Braulio), Braulio (oldest son, who has a ghostly presence in the novel), Don Antonio (father, who appears as an actual ghost near the beginning of the novel), Marco (Cesar's son), Giovanni (Lalo's son), Ookie (neighbor, who appears to be developmentally disabled), Mama America (mother), Mary-Lu (sister-in-law) and other husbands and wives.  At times it feels like every character has to have "their section" and the novel lapses into a sort of mock-ironic limited third-person perspective.  While the reader is reminded of certain details at several different points, it is still difficult to summarize the overall thrust of the characters' arcs.  Suffice to say, it is about Big Angel gathering everybody together at his house for his birthday party.  Even though it feels a little contrived, there is a great climax at the end of the novel, and there are other shorter, wittier parts, such as the jokes Big Angel tells to his grand-kids.  

The strongest element of the novel are the phrases in italics, sprinkled seemingly randomly throughout, meant to itemize his gratitudes:

"rain" (85)
cilantro" (64)
"Blade Runner
more time
more time
more" (231)

This is also probably the first book to reference Guardians of the Galaxy and the deaths of Bowie and Prince.  It is very "of the moment" and its legacy value is, therefore, diminished.  This is not always the case, at least in the example of the output of "the brat pack." Yet they wrote about what was young and hip in a way that Urrea only seems to caricature.  While this is a very good book, it is by no means perfect.  The writing is good and solid, even while the dialogue tends to feel padded, or like it doesn't tend to advance character or plot.  In this case the sin is forgivable.

There is a lot of sexual material in the book, yet most of it seems rather plain and hackneyed, and alternative lifestyles tend to be dispatched for shock value and knee-jerk disgust.  Then again this is a novel about a patriarch and a family that tends to start birthing children at a young age.  One vague plot hole that seems inadequately explored is daughter Minnie's status as a grandmother.  I could be totally wrong about this but I swear it was mentioned just once and never exactly spelled out.  I did find this:

"Minnie's oldest son was a sailor and told her that in Portland there was some kind of voodoo donut shop.  Like, you could bu a coffin full of donuts.  Crazy hippies.  The boys on his ship were all tweaked about bacon-wrapped maple bars.  She wished she could get some of those.  Her man would love them."  (106-107)

Other criticisms may be leveled at this novel, and while it is far from perfect, it is beautifully orchestrated, and crystallizes a narrative structure that feels unique.  Surely something similar to the "party novel" has been done, yet I cannot recall any at the moment.  In this case, a big family reunion, with the narrator flitting between characters like a butterfly.  Aside from that, it is often profound, concerned as it is with the Important subject matter that is death and dying:

 "Big Angel was turning seventy.  It seemed very old to him.  At the same time, it felt far too young.  He had not intended to leave the party so soon.  'I have tried to be good,' he told his invisible interviewer.
His mother had made it to the edge of one hundred.  He had thought he'd at least make it that far.  In his mind, he was still a kid, yearning for laughter and a good book, adventures and one more albondigas soup cooked by Perla.  He wished he had gone to college.  He wished he had seen Paris.  He wished he had taken the time for a Caribbean cruise, because he secretly wanted to snorkel, and once he got well, he would go do that.  He was still planning to go see Seattle.  See what kind of life his baby brother had.  He suddenly realized he hadn't even gone to the north side of San Diego, to La Jolla, where all the rich gringos went to get suntans and diamonds.  He wished he had walked on the beach.  Why did he not have sand dollars and shells?  A sand dollar suddenly seemed like a very fine thing to have.  And he had forgotten to go to Disneyland.  He sat back in shock: he had been too busy to even go to the zoo.  He could have smacked his own forehead.  He didn't care about lions, tigers.  He wanted to see a rhinoceros.  He resolved to ask Minnie to buy him a good rhino figure.  Then wondered where he should put it.  By the bed.  Damned right.  He was a rhino.  He'd charge at death and knock the hell out of it.  Lalo had tattoos--maybe he'd get one too.  When he got better." (61-62)

Meditations on death tend to remind one not to take life for granted.  Certainly, it is often a miserable ride.  Yet there are also good parts and things to be thankful to have experienced.  It seems like most of the bad stuff happened to Big Angel in the early part of his life, and once he became a father, and lived with Perla as husband and wife, it was overwhelmingly a very happy one.  It could have been a better novel, I think, but he seemed to have lived his life well, if his goal was to heavily populate his birthday death party with family.  Not all of us would like to have the same life as Big Angel, yet few of us could hope to have so much to look back and smile upon.