Yup, I Read Now

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman
November 1, 2009, 3:54 pm
Filed under: Reviews and Final Opinions | Tags: ,

x23325Chuck Klosterman is responsible for validating my debilitating pop culture habit. After reading Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, I started to see entertainment journalism as a viable career option (for better or worse).

His essays are droll and chock-a-block full of curious interpretations of everyday objects and cultural phenomena; he’s amusing even when he’s criticizing something that I—unhip lady that I am—enjoy; and he’s insightful but not intimidatingly so—all of his books are conversational, sprinkled with slang and mild profanity, addressing issues that are accessible to the PhD-less.

Klosterman, I think, embodies a different kind of intellectualism, a more relatable kind. Armchair intellectualism. His essays impose a deeply philosophical, scholarly, and often, historical context upon banalities sans irony. We aren’t meant to laugh at an elaborate analysis of ABBA, we’re meant to laugh at how legitimate that analysis is—the It’s-funny-‘cause-it’s-true paradigm.

Since the release of his definitive work, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs in 2003, Klosterman has become a bit of a celebrity—ostensibly a part of all that pop culture debris he’s so apt to critique. In Eating the Dinosaur, his latest collection, he overtly addresses that issue in the book’s opening essay, “Something Instead of Nothing,” which is essentially meditation on the art and practice of interviewing and being interviewed.

In the essay, Klosterman who has contributed to Spin, The Washington Post, and Esquire, writes, “For the past five years, I’ve spent more time being interviewed than conducting interviews with other people. I am not complaining about this, nor am I proud of it—it’s just the way things worked out, mostly by chance. But the experience has been confusing.”

Eating the Dinosaur feels like Klosterman’s attempt to replicate the content, style, and success of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. But this isn’t something that he’s able to do. I’m not criticizing him, I’m just saying that his psychic distance has changed. He very literally cannot write the same way that he wrote back in 2003 for all of the reasons that none of us can write or think or behave the way we did in 2003, but also because he is, whether he wants to admit it or not, a celebrity. So while reading this book, there’s this mildly uncomfortable tension sort of haunting the margins. Despite my love for pop culture reportage—I almost would have preferred to read something completely devoted to his transformation into a public figure.

Although, there were a few things that weren’t working for me in Eating the Dinosaur—the discussion of sports, the rehashing of issues discussed in previous work, how meta the whole thing is—I did enjoy the book overall and would recommend it, especially to people who haven’t read Klosterman. There is an articulate, satisfyingly geeky dissection of time travel called “Tomorrow Never Knows” that should go down in history as the authoritative text on the subject.

When Klosterman is good, he’s really good.





The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

9780345452009-lAs I’ve mentioned before, I purchased The Accidental Tourist because Nick Hornby said that Anne Tyler was the author who made him want to write; and because Nick Hornby’s work has had a similar impact on me, I thought it crucial to read something she’d written. At the risk of sounding completely ignorant and in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to not knowing who Tyler was before Hornby brought her up at his book signing. This is especially embarrassing when you consider that she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner (she’s been nominated 3 times!). But you know, you live, you learn, you read The Accidental Tourist. That’s the circle of life. And it moves us all. Through despair and hope. Through faith and love, etc.

Last week, I plucked The Accidental Tourist out from my Stack O’ Books because I thought it would be fitting—I’m in Las Vegas at the moment—but I had no idea how fitting it would actually turn out to be. Macon Leary, the novel’s protagonist, is an anal-retentive travel guide writer—his books are all about low-impact travelling, showing business-types how to go on their business trips without having to engage with the cities they’re visiting. As it turned out, I spent the second day of this “vacation” in the hotel, never leaving, not even for food—I had a couple of Lunchables in the refrigerator.

(For some poorly thought out reason, I decided to tag along with my mother and grandmother on this Vegas trip; they came for an AARP convention. Being twenty-five years old, I do not meet the primary admission requirement for the American Association of Retired Persons, so I couldn’t go to any of their little events—not that I would have wanted to, anyway. And because we’re staying at an isolated resort, miles and miles away from the strip, I’ve been alternating between hotel confinement and doing granny things like eating at all you can eat buffets and sitting for hours at 1¢ slot machines.)

Though the days here have been lame for sure, the up-side is that I was able to finish the book without any distractions; and I’m glad that I read it (!) Tyler’s prose is unadorned but poignant, proof that plain language can be emotionally affecting (and win Pulitzer Prizes). There was a time when I thought that good writing was heavily poetic, sprinkled with bizarre metaphors and full of big, eruditey words. So in that way, there’s something refreshing about the book.

I’ve been waiting for a while to feel some investment, to actually care about a novel’s characters (!), and this is the first book that I’ve finished this past month that’s accomplished that. Macon begins an odd sort of relationship with this flighty, inarticulate dog trainer named Muriel—a character who was able to crawl so thoroughly under my skin that I really have to applaud Tyler’s skill.

The Accidental Tourist is about life, or I guess what it means to really live—as hackneyed as that sounds—and when a novel’s protagonist is a reserved man who cuts himself off from the outside world, you sort of expect him to find his redemption in some quirky woman with frizzy hair. But Tyler is able to create this very complicated and realistic internal life for Macon; there isn’t anything easy about his journey.

If I’d read this book ten years ago I don’t think that I would have said, “A-ha! Now I know what I’ll do with my life. I’ll become a writer!” But I can definitely see myself reading more of Tyler’s work.

The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme
October 21, 2009, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Reviews and Final Opinions | Tags: ,

51MSYMSE4WLThe Dead Father is dead. I killed it. I don’t know how I did it, but I did, it’s done, I read Barthelme and won (<—unintentional rhyme). In The Dead Father—the most complicated book that I’ve read in the past two months, quite possibly the most complicated that I’ve read since becoming literate—a group of people drag the immense, somewhat dead, somewhat living body of a man known as the Dead Father across the countryside.

D.F. is a pitiful figure despite his apparent size—I don’t think any concrete measurements are ever given but we’re led to believe he’s rather huge, though not too huge—and is often berated by members of his travelling party. Why are they doing this, you ask. Well, it’s all very mystical and, at the same time, not mystical at all. Confusing? Yup! And then you get paragraphs that start like this:

The Dead Father was slaying in a grove of music and musicians. First he slew a harpist and then a performer upon the serpent and also a banger upon the rattle and also a blower of the Persian trumpet and one upon the Indian trumpet and one upon the Hebrew trumpet and one upon the Roman trumpet and one upon the Chinese trumpet of copper-covered wood.

I should have hated this book. But I didn’t. Though, the narrative is untraditional, to say the least—it’s digressive, surreal, and confusing, confusing, confusing—I loved The Dead Father and was actually moved by it. I think, in order to read and enjoy it, you have to be open to what Barthelme’s done and try to look at the book as an experience—an experience that’s going to be pretty rough and uncomfortable for a while.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

wardancesSherman Alexie’s classic short story, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” makes you feel as though someone has Kung-Fu gripped your heart, just really squeezed the hell out of the thing. In the immortal words of John Mellencamp during his prolific “John Cougar” phase, Alexie’s writing hurts so good. War Dances, Alexie’s latest collection of short fiction, poetry, autobiography, and genre defying acrobatics, is no exception.

In “On Airplanes” one of War Dances longer poems, the speaker complains about couples who ask him to give up his aisle seat for a middle seat, so that they can sit together. “How dare you/Ask me to change/My life for you/How imperial/How colonial.” But then something peculiar happens. The comedy gives way to an entirely different sort of experience. “But, ah, here is/The strange truth/Whenever I’m asked/ To trade seats/For somebody else’s love/I do, I always do.” There’s a twist at the end, a unexpected shift in tone that undercuts (or perhaps underscores) everything that has preceded it. That last stanza, for me, as sweet as it is, is like a sucker punch to the gut. Reading Alexie is like having someone caress you with one hand and wail on you with the other.

Alexie is the preeminent American Indian writer—quite possibly the world’s most famous living Indian—and as cool and grand as all of that sounds, it short-changes him; those sorts of qualifiers are unnecessary for genius of this order. Though his heritage has obviously shaped his world-view and politics, though his protagonists are primarily Indians, his talent is ferocious and his themes are universal.

And boy does Alexie loves his themes.

Whether it’s a cute but poignant poem about building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star with his sons or a somber short story about a Republican senator’s son who places his father’s political career in jeopardy by committing a hate crime, the pieces in War Dances are primarily about four things: fatherhood, the responsibility we have to our parents, disillusionment, and memory. So this would be my only criticism of the book: I understand the need for a thematically cohesive collection but for any Alexie fan this is well-worn territory. It would be intriguing, if nothing else, to see him tackle a few new themes. Notwithstanding this, War Dances is utterly readable (I finished it in just a couple of hours) and several of the stories are actually too funny. While I can waste hours watching trashy basic cable reality shows with the best of them, this is the kind of book that makes happy to be literate.

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

130194Bertie Wooster, narrator and oddly loveable upper-class twit, is deliciously idle and pals around with other hoighty-toighty wealthy folk who privilege decorum to such an outrageous extent that they inevitably wind up in the goofiest, most trifling predicaments. It’s up to intuitive, imperturbable Jeeves, Bertie’s valet (or “manservant” if you want to be creepy about it) to sort them all out.

On the face of it, The Code of the Woosters is 286 pages of unbridled hullabaloo (the bulk of the conflict revolves around a cow-creamer that several of the older, haughtier players of this farce covet for indiscernible yet clearly trivial reasons). But dismissing the book as insignificant fluff is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Oh, so dreadfully wrong. P.G. Wodehouse’s intentions may not have been as lofty as those of some of the writers that we so nerdily dub “literary,” but there is still something special about this book, something special about Wodehouse. I’ve always felt that it is far more difficult to tickle the funny bone than tug at the heartstrings (though I will waffle a bit here and say that it takes a considerable amount of talent to do either effectively). Page for page, I don’t believe that I’ve ever read a book quite as quippy as The Code of the Woosters; it’s just brimming with wit. And while every gag may not be a howler, there’s no denying Wodehouse’s comedic artistry.

The humor is thoroughly British—often very reserved and satirical but also very, very silly. The dialogue has this enjoyable rapid-fire quality, and even though I, of course, believe that literature has its own inherent worth and books are perfectly fine in their God-given form, The Code of the Woosters just lends itself to cinematic/theatrical adaptation (I’m currently watching the third season of Jeeves and Wooster on DVD).

And the language, ah, the language! There is a terrific rhythm to Bertie’s narration and the diction, well, I suppose it’s 1930s English slang, and I loved it. Some of the Bertie words and phrases that I marked include:

“Five hundred’s pretty good sugar, if you ask me.”

“But that’s just what I’m driving at. That’s just where you’re making your bloomer.”

“The gravity of the situash had at last impressed itself upon her. She uttered a squeak of dismay, and her eyes became a bit soup-platey.”

“He opened the small suitcase, and I lit a cigarette and proceeded to stress the moral lesson to be learned from all this rannygazoo.”

On the front cover of my edition, there is a quote that reads:

“Wodehouse is the funniest writer—that is, the most resourceful and unflagging deliverer of fun—that the human race a glum crowd, has yet produced.”

Another critic says:

“He who has not met Wodehouse has not lived a full life.”

There is a heap of praise that I would like to heave onto the pile—The Code of the Woosters is a fantastic bit of social commentary, the characters are exquisitely rendered, etc.—but I don’t think that I would be able to articulate it any better than this, so I’m going to stop right here. What I will say is that I’m glad to have finally read a little Wodehouse.

(for anyone who cares, here is a great interview Wodehouse did for the Paris Review, published in 1975)