Flash Fiction International by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World
Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill
W. W. Norton & Company, 2015
click to buy on Amazon

Flash Fiction International

The author E.L. Doctorow once said that “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” This came to mind as I flew through the 86 stories collected in Flash Fiction International, each by a different author and each only a few paragraphs long.

“Really?” a friend asked when I explained the anthology’s concept. “Isn’t that too short to have characters and a plot and everything?”

Maybe, but it’s long enough to really rain upon the reader. The sensations packed in microstories are remarkably vivid. And as far as characters and plot? You might be surprised how much meaning crams into a page or two when the writing is rich and the editing is sharp.

If necessity is the mother of invention, strict word count limits are the mother of artful diction. As writer Choire Sicha observes in an interview for (ironically) Longform, “The best job I ever had was writing listings. You had to get them so tight and so small and so vivid it was like a writing workshop every week.”

The storytellers selected for Flash have mastered their workshops. Each piece is utterly distinct; the best are startlingly intimate, thrusting us into unknown and often unnamed characters’ most intense moments within several lines.

My personal favorite? “The Gospel of Guy No-Horse” by Natalie Diaz, whose opening line itself reads like a micro-microstory. “At the Injun That Could, a jalopy bar drooping and lopsided on the bank of the Colorado River—a once mighty red body now dammed and tamed blue—Guy No-Horse was glistening drunk and dancing fancy with two white gals—both yellow-haired tourists still in bikini tops, freckled skins blistered pink by the savage Mohave Desert sun.”

Nuala Ní Chonchúir uses a more straight-forward hook in “The Egg Pyramid.” “There are things you can do when your husband sleeps with your sister.”

On the other hand, some stories draw strength not from deep human drama but from stunning depictions of the mundane. James Norcliffe somehow wrings dark beauty from “Squeegee,” a one-paragraph narrative about mopping. On the next page, Qiu Xiaolong knocks us breathless with an episode told “From the Roaches’ Perspective.”

I’d argue these microstories have more in common with poetry than with novels. Like poets, flash fiction writers must weigh the value of every word, slashing and rearranging to achieve a powerful effect in just a few lines. Their structures vary wildly, but many of these stories could be compared to the classic sonnet, which introduces an idea only to “turn” two-thirds in and spin the reader in an unexpected direction.

Whether you’re a poetry fan or more of a mainstream book-reader, please, take a taste of flash fiction with this collection. After all, while many novels achieve a powerful effect, this book achieves 86. 

Day, Fey, and Poehler: A Celebrity 3-in-1 by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Tina Fey
Reagan Arthur Books, 2011
click to buy on Amazon 

Fey, Bossypants

Yes Please
Amy Poehler
Harper Collins, 2014
click to buy on Amazon 

Poehler, Yes Please

Youre Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)
Felicia Day
Touchstone, 2015
click to buy on Amazon

Day, You're Never Weird

The front table of any Barnes and Nobles is invariably stacked with glossy samples of a genre I’ll call the Celebrity Book Deal (CBD). I tend to breeze past this table with a snobbish eye-roll: what do these stars have to say outside their shows? Surely these memoirs are all name-dropping and navel-gazing, the printed-and-bound version of reality television. I have limited reading time and real authors who’ve earned it, thank you.

Recently, though, a few CBDs were recommended to me and I decided with a shrug to give them a try. After all, these particular stars aren’t just pretty faces and voices. They’re hilarious, creative women who trail-blazed their way to success in notoriously competitive and female-unfriendly branches of the entertainment industry. And, crucially, they did so by writing their own material. Their preexisting popularity may have given them a fast-pass to a publishing contract, but they probably had the chops to follow through.

The first CBD: Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Followed by: Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

Concluding with: Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).

As expected (and noted in the recommendations), all three are fast, funny reads. All three string together self-mocking anecdotes and old photos. All three reveal how much their authors struggled and worked to advance their careers in comedy, acting, and writing. 

That much I expected from the creators of “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “The Guild.”

Here’s what surprised me: the writers whose work I’ve most enjoyed in other media—Fey and Poehler—produced the books that least impressed me. Their chapters are a bit disjointed and their sidebar content tends to try too hard. On more than one occasion in both books I stopped to ask myself why I cared how these strangers spent their twenties, then remembered that I admired their accomplishments and might as well know their backstories.

Ah, the curse of the CBD: most authors need to win over their audience with craft, with character development, with careful editing. Celebrities can count on a preexisting fan base to buy the hardcover and may or may not bother with the rest. I’d say Fey and Poehler… well, they’re on the spectrum between those author/celebrity extremes.

Day, however, does not disappoint. Perhaps she had more time to devote to developing her drafts—Poehler notes that she typed chunks frantically during thirty-minute breaks on set, and both Poehler and Fey discuss the demands of parenting alongside their careers. Day is a decade younger and responsible only for herself. Which includes working as CFO of her own start-up, and producing endless projects, and promoting them through various online channels. Hmm, she seems just as busy as Fey and Poehler.

Ah, the other curse of the CBD: to discuss a star’s memoir is not to analyze the literary merits of a written narrative, it’s to engage in gossip about an individual. An individual who presents herself like a friend but who actually exists behind a veneer that’s regularly polished by PR professionals. I’ve read what Fey, Poehler, and Day chose to reveal about themselves, but I can’t possibly understand them as flesh-and-blood people. To believe otherwise is to buy into an illusion. Like I said—reality shows in book form.

Getting back to Day’s memoir, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her story is well-structured from start to finish; her voice is charming and brilliant and neurotic. My interest never waned, and by the book’s midpoint I was aching with empathy for this narrator as she finds her way in life. This is where I originally intended to list off Day’s résumé, the typical justification for reading anyone’s autobiographical writing. Instead, I’ll compliment her by ignoring her many other creative accomplishments. You can read Fey’s book to learn insider secrets about SNL’s politics, or Poehler’s for the scoop on the drug culture of Second City. But you can read Day’s book because it’s wonderfully, entertainingly, self-containedly human. Enjoy. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Karie Luidens

Haddon, The Curious Incident

My review of...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon
Vintage, 2004
click to buy on Amazon

Only after finishing this novel did I realize that it never uses the word “autism.” Neither the author Mark Haddon, via cover copy, nor the narrator Christopher Boone, in his own self-depiction, ever specify in what way he is diagnosably different.

He is, though, clearly different. The fifteen-year-old attends an alternate school in his little English hometown, where the occasional “black day” obliges him to kneel in the corner of the classroom and groan for hours, or a disturbance to his routine leads him to wet his pants. He interprets everyone’s words literally, rendering idioms meaningless and jokes disorienting, and he never allows others to touch him or make eye contact. In brief, when I dove in I felt I was in a fictionalized episode in the adolescence of Daniel Tammet, whose memoir I devoured last year—Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant.

Tammet’s memoir is remarkable in that it welcomes the average reader into the mind of someone on the autistic spectrum when those minds are typically, almost by definition, closed off to communication. He depicts a world in which most human interactions are overwhelmingly indecipherable, and the patterns of mathematics offer respite and pleasure. Tammet renders seemingly odd or antisocial behavior relatable by revealing his inner motives; Haddon accomplishes the same feat in the character of Christopher.

Christopher, too, excels at math(s). He also loves his routines and the logic of Sherlock Holmes, around which this story revolves. The Curious Incident opens on the mysterious murder of the neighbor’s dog Wellington, a disruption to Christopher’s daily life that prompts him to take on the case as an amateur detective. Although he emulates Holmes in his methods, he fixates entirely on the most literal of clues without any regard for the subtle hints that swirl in the human encounters all around him. Most readers will piece characters’ glances and tongue-slips into a narrative of personal dramas long before Christopher has looked up from his list of black-and-white facts.

To him, people do not compute. As he notes at one point, when he’s forced to engage with too many it’s as if he’s flooded with more data than he can process. His head feels “like a computer crashing, and I have to close my eyes and put my hands over my ears and groan, which is like pressing control-alt-delete and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting.”

Thus most of the relationships and motives in The Curious Incident are revealed through details that Christopher mentions but fails to interpret. Still, it would be far too simple to say that this is a drama told unwittingly by an unreliable narrator. There are two layers to Christopher’s account: the layer of human interactions, to which he is blind; and the layer of earthly beauty and logic and objective reality, which it seems Christopher is constantly experiencing while others obliviously fixate on their personal problems.

He continues from the above, “that’s why I’m good at chess and maths and logic. Because most people are almost blind, and they don’t see most things, and there’s lots of spare capacity in their heads, and it’s filled with things which aren’t connected and are silly.”

He makes an excellent point. We block most of what our senses convey and lose ourselves in thoughts, selectively focusing on what seems significant. But who’s to say what’s significant? Most of us ignore the colors around us, the numerical quirks in our days, the feel of the wind or the texture of a train on its tracks, the scale of our bodies to the stars above. Not Christopher. Perhaps he has a better sense of what matters, and it isn’t the petty quarrels that drive people to lash out at innocent dogs.

Or, not a better sense, but a different sense. We each see the world in our own ways, Christopher included, and why should we put a label on that? “Autism” is too easy. A single word can’t capture or convey how it feels to be a given individual; a whole book can barely begin to do that.

I’d already written the above review before I did any research into Haddon’s writing process, and I was gratified to find that he himself addresses this idea on his blog. I’ll leave you with his words:  

curious incident is not a book about asperger’s. it’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. indeed he never uses the words ‘asperger’s’ or ‘autism’ (i slightly regret that fact that the word ‘asperger’s’ was used on the cover). if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.

labels say nothing about a person. they say only how the rest of us categorise that person. good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off.

We're All Journalists Now by Karie Luidens

My review of...

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age
Scott Gant
Free Press, 2007
click to buy on Amazon

Gant, We're All Journalists Now.jpg

Scott Gant wants you to know that you’re a journalist. Or at least, you’re free to become one at any time—not by earning a certain degree or securing a job at the right institution, but by engaging in journalistic activities. Simple as that.

Well, it’s never that simple for lawyers, is it? And Gant is a practicing attorney who graduated from Harvard Law, so he’s going to explore the issue with two hundred pages of case studies if you don’t mind.

Along the way he makes some excellent points about the problematically vague legal definitions, judicial interpretations, and de facto treatment of would-be journalists in the U.S. over the last century. Does the First Amendment’s “freedom of the press” clause apply to all citizens or to a professional class? Does government distribution of press passes in certain contexts amount to the sort of exclusive licensing that the Founding Fathers sought to avoid? How will the mishmash of local, state, and federal definitions of “journalist” cope with the surge of amateur and freelance reporters springing up online in the 21st century? In Gant’s opinion, these questions need contemporary Supreme Court attention and a clear federal shield law that defines journalism not as a profession but as a practice.

Unfortunately for most of us and our post-blogosphere attention spans, his gem insights are scattered in an extensive rough of dry technical analysis. The book reads more like a secondary source for a Law 101 student’s term paper than the broadly relatable writing of authors like Malcolm Gladwell. I find the issues at hand inherently interesting, and even so I found myself falling asleep mid-chapter several nights in the week I read it.

The other drawback for casually curious readers: Gant published in 2007, and while the principles are timeless, many details are already hopelessly dated by 2015. Did you know that MySpace’s “head-spinning popularity makes it clear the Web has transformed consumers into producers,” or that Google recently negotiated the purchase of YouTube? Crucially, you would not know from this text that Twitter was about to arrive on the scene and shatter the news cycle.

If you’re wondering how state and federal governments protect or restrict various types of journalistic activity, Gant offers a good introduction. Yes, at times it’s dry. But if you skim the case descriptions and skip the out-of-date material, you’ll find fascinating arguments on the nature of “news” as well as still-relevant speculation about where it’s headed. It’s good to be informed now that you know you’re practically already a journalist yourself. 

Three Kinds of Motion by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways
Riley Hanick
Sarabande Books, 2015
click to buy on Amazon

Hadick, Three Kinds of Motion

At first glance Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion appears to promise a history. “Kerouac, Pollock, and the making of American highways.” Huh, you think to yourself as you read the cover, were those three things connected? I guess they overlapped—the U.S., the twentieth century, modernization—but what did they have to do with each other? You pick up the book expecting its pages to serve as your map, a travel guide that will lead you on a clear journey with chapter titles as signposts along the way and citations pointing down side roads if you decide to take a personal detour. By the time you’ve followed Hanick’s logic step by step from front to back, you’ll have a clearer understanding of his subjects.


Not exactly.

If you flip to the back cover, you’ll find hints that Three Kinds is something other than history, or maybe something more than history: it’s a “book-length essay” of “breathtaking ingenuity,” a “powerful meditation” and “a heady experience.” Perhaps most significantly, although the 250 pages of material conclude with another ten pages of densely-printed bibliography—Hanick did his research—the genre marked on the back is not NONFICTION but LITERATURE.

Speaking as someone who’s spent her share of years studying literature: yes, this book is more literary than documentary. So richly so that I could understand if an uneasy reader threw it down after about twenty pages and ranted that it was a waste of time to read Hanick’s rambling, unedited notebooks. His text reads like the stream of consciousness of someone who has researched the lives of Kerouac, Pollock, and Eisenhower, but who is still mulling things over without forcing his ideas to conform to a narrative framework. And to that frustrated reader I would say that this disorienting presentation is not evidence of a lack of editing but of a very conscientious kind of editing. Hanick deliberately rejects the hallmarks of standard histories—clear introductions and thesis statements, the chronological presentation of anecdotes, clean segues that delineate the connections between topics. 

What would prompt Hanick to defy the conventions of a tried-and-true genre this way? Perhaps he was rankled by the artificiality of tidy historical accounts. Humans tend to write our histories the way we draw constellations in the stars: faced with overwhelming chaos, we apply artificial order. We can’t help it—we’re storytelling animals whose minds automatically understand events in terms of narrative arc, even if this means retrospectively conjuring motives from thin air and mentally bolstering the most tenuous connections. In our own lives this allows us to maintain relationships and function with an unbroken sense of self. But when society collectively forces this on broad networks of people who came before us, we do them an injustice by distorting their reality. Individuals who were once living flesh with real agency and inner dissonances become cardboard characters expected simply to advance the plots we already know to their anticipated conclusions.

Thus in our textbooks Dwight Eisenhower was the man destined to create an American interstate highway system that crisscrossed the nation. Jack Kerouac was the man destined to travel those roads and write a great American novel as a result. Jackson Pollock was the man destined to paint canvases with aggressive abstractions that reflected America’s modernization back unto itself.

By that logic Riley Hanick was the man destined to research these three and write about how their paths ran parallel or intersected. Except none of these individuals was destined to do any such thing, least of all Hanick.  

Three Kind’s title and summaries claim that the book has just three themes, but a fourth is interwoven as well: Hanick’s own maturation from a lonely Iowan adolescent obsessed with Kerouac’s writing to an alienated twenty-something confronted with Pollock’s Mural. His passages on the development of the interstate highway system (and its main proponent, Eisenhower) seem to connect these disparate figures across time much the way “ribbons of pavement” physically link far-flung regions: these figures and regions have no obvious reason to engage with each other, but humans have forged paths for them to do so anyway. Whatever the significance of it all, if any, everything seems to come together in the loamy topsoil around Iowa City and finally to meet at the local art museum.

That back-cover blurb was right to say that “reading Riley Hanick’s account […] is a heady experience.” Hanick conveys history to us as if it’s still happening in the present, undetermined and non-linear. Unlike typical histories, this book is not a map; in fact, to map the terrain of this book would be as difficult as mapping one’s own thoughts in real time. An attempt at analysis is dizzying, but if you make it past those first twenty pages and surrender to its flow, it becomes hypnotically easy to read. So what if you don’t know where the road will lead? Neither did the first highway planners, the first drip-painters, the first cross-country hitch-hikers—and that didn’t keep them from forging ahead (or at least going along for the ride). 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
Hunter S. Thompson
Vintage Books, 1998 (first published 1971)
click to buy on Amazon

The monstrous lizards appear about twenty pages in, ordering drinks in a hotel bar, ankle-deep in blood and gnawing each other’s necks. That was when I flipped to the book’s back cover for a quick double-check: yup, “NONFICTION/JOURNALISM” was printed in the corner. Fair enough, I suppose; acid-induced hallucinations are real in their own way. Carry on.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an unfathomably loopy account of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-addled five days in Sin City. Thompson (or rather, his alias Raoul Duke) is high from the first page to the last on a cocktail of uppers, downers, psychedelics, and alcohol, a cocktail that continuously kaleidoscopes through symptoms as his body reels and sweats through each substance in turn. Duke and his companion Dr. Gonzo roar around the city terrorizing hotel maids and destroying rental cars in the throes of, variously, paranoia, ecstasy, nausea, and violent enthusiasm. There’s not much clear motivation from moment to moment. Wielding .356 Magnums and haggling for apes—that’s just what you do. At least, it is if you spent the last decade “riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave,” which is to say the drugged-up countercultures of the 1960s.

Now, though, it’s 1971, and that wave has broken and washed out. Even in the blur of pills, tabs, and huffs, Thompson has moments of startling clarity about the shifting political and social tides. He comments on the significance of Tim Leary’s ideas on consciousness expansion, the Beatles’ commitment to the Maharishi, the Hell’s Angels’ connection to student movements in Berkeley. “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning,” but within a few years that energy was “aggressively dissipated by the rush to self-preservation.” The nation stumbled from heady idealism down into “this doomstruck era of Nixon.”

If by his own account the visions of 60s countercultures has failed, why are Duke and Gonzo subjecting themselves to a suitcase full of mind-altering substances? Because they can; because it doesn’t occur to them not to; because despite the trembling and vomiting and paranoia their cocktail induces, they have no other concept of how to exist. These are my theories, at least. They’re certainly not politically minded or socially conscious, nor do they espouse any particular philosophies about a purpose to life, not even simple pleasure. They just crash unthinkingly from one intoxicant to the next: “It made no sense at all,” Duke muses, “but I knew it was true. Drug reasoning.”

It’s inherently fascinating to read the stream of consciousness of a man who’s out of his mind on mescaline, acid, cocaine, ether, and amyls, but I found it particularly interesting having just finished astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir: no one could possibly be more clear-headed, goal-oriented, and hard-working than Hadfield, and the contrast is stark. There were moments I just had to laugh at the wild diversity of lives humans manage to lead, even within the smallest confines of time, space, language, and culture. Hadfield was born 22 years after Thompson, a mere 6-hour drive north via I-71 and I-75. These individuals grew up in such similar circumstances—two white men, anglophone, healthy, middle class, highly educated—and yet their adult lives couldn’t have been more different. 

I suppose both Hadfield and Thompson sought a sort of transcendence: the opportunity to rise above the familiarity of Earth’s atmosphere and experience weightlessness. Hadfield, for one, focused his consciousness on studying external reality and submitting himself to its physics. That combination of cosmic respect and personal humility empowered him to take charge of his trajectory and contribute to marvelous construction projects in microgravity. He achieved great things, objectively; no one would double-check the back of his book for the stamp of NONFICTION. Meanwhile, Thompson’s impressions of his own altered consciousness are perhaps JOURNALISM, but they don’t reflect any lasting accomplishment or broader reality. In the life he depicts leading up to this episode in Las Vegas, the only transcendence he achieved was brief bouts of hallucination from which he inevitably crashed down time and time again. 

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Karie Luidens

My review of...

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
Chris Hadfield
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
click to buy on Amazon

Colonel Chris Hadfield is the sort of guy who makes you proud of the human race, and slightly ashamed of yourself as an individual. As he recounts in this memoir, at age nine he independently chose to eat his vegetables because he realized he wanted to become an astronaut, and he figured that’s what an astronaut would do. From that point forward, year after year without pause, it seems not an hour passed that wasn’t spent in pursuit of that goal. What a Boy Scout… turned cadet turned fighter pilot, test pilot, and ultimately one of five founding astronauts in the Canadian Space Agency. Along the way he also managed to father a picturesque family, not to mention grow a killer mustache. Good for him! Good for humanity! Excuse me while I eat a package of Oreos and binge-watch some Netflix.

Part of what’s remarkable about Hadfield’s story is how humble he remains throughout. He acknowledges that he wasn’t naturally the best in each class, nor did he need to prove that he was. Instead he focused on developing his technical skills with endless practice and an eagerness to learn from whoever was around in whatever situation. In the words of Randall Munroe, “You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.” That captures the practical attitude that fueled Hadfield’s impressive career.

As the title implies, the anecdotes in this memoir frame morsels of advice for the rest of us Earth-bound mortals. It consequently reads like a self-help book at times, outlining career advice. If anyone’s qualified to give career advice, it’s a man whose nonstop dedication earned him titles like “NASA’s Director of Operations in Star City” or “Chief of International Space Station Operations”—and those are just positions he held on Earth. Things get even more interesting once he launches into orbit. But that’s the point I would make to Hadfield if I were his editor: what makes this book worth the read isn’t so much the (valid and valuable) advice but the descriptions of getting to, from, and around space.

If you’re interested in hearing how driven and disciplined an individual can be for decades on end, by all means, read away. There’s no shortage of accomplishments and insights in the pages of this book. If, on the other hand, you mostly just want to know how it feels to brush your teeth in microgravity or crash-land your Soyuz in the Kazakh desert, you can always click over from Netflix to Hadfield’s YouTube channel and be entertained without the advice. Enjoy your Oreos. 

Screw Everyone by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy
Ophira Eisenberg
Seal Press, 2013
click to buy on Amazon

If I told you I was reading a memoir by an NPR personality who hosts a tame gameshow, and I asked you to guess the book’s title, you’d probably venture suggestions like, I don’t know... The Road to Character, This I Believe, or Life Among the Lutherans. But no. Ophira Eisenberg may have a prototypical NPR name, but she hardly has the stereotypical NPR personal history, as evidenced by her memoir’s actual title, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy.

It’s not as hyperbolic as it seems. I tried tracking how many sexual interludes Eisenberg has over the course of the book, but I lost count after a dozen—and that only includes the men she describes sleeping with. It leaves out a couple half-hearted trysts with women; it ignores her trips to first, second, or third base, counting only the homeruns. And it bypasses hints that there are many one-night-stands with men who didn’t even warrant a pseudonym.

In other words, if I were the sort of person to pass judgment on others’ sex lives, the verdict would be pretty clear here. Eisenberg’s “offenses” are many; her acts are premeditated and she shows no remorse.

The narrative is chronological, and it starts early in her life: halfway through high school she successfully plots to lose her virginity, though the success is anticlimactic in every sense. She keeps up the pace from there, taking whatever action she can get both in and out of relationships as she heads to college and gets her first few jobs. But what starts out as an adventure, a light-hearted quest for pleasure, takes on a new tone through her twenties. By the time she hits thirty, her modus operandi is to assuage boredom and loneliness by scoping out men in bars, and the excitement of sex warps into something ominous: “I was desperate for connection, even if it was fraying, tenuous, or located in Queens. Like a junkie, when my narcotic of choice wasn’t available, I took what I could get” (204).

No, I don’t judge adults who engage in consensual sex, whatever the form or frequency. But by the book’s midpoint I was downright anxious for Eisenberg’s well-being, cringing every time her distaste for the word “no” leads her not just back to the bedroom but to bathrooms to drop acid or to lounges to smoke gravity bongs. The drugs aren’t typically to her liking, but alcohol certainly is; sexual conquest and substance abuse eventually go hand-in-hand. 

In case this sounds like a book’s worth of tabloid-level drama—scandalous misbehavior and its consequences, recounted to satisfy a taste for schadenfreude—let me assure you: Screw Everyone is not just a list of raunchy encounters and naughty behavior. It’s not even titillating. Funny as it is (and her voice is bitingly funny throughout), the humor is aware of its own growing darkness. What else would we expect from someone whose background is in stand-up comedy? This memoir isn’t exactly about sex, it’s about Eisenberg’s halting development into a self-respecting adult over the years. Like any memoir, it’s an examination of the self. Eisenberg just happens to examine herself through the lens of her extensive sexual history.

When it comes to recounting that history, she doesn’t brag and she doesn’t apologize. It is what it is, dear reader—sometimes thrilling, sometimes depressing, take it or leave it. But even if you’re more judgmental then I am, or as distressed by the arc of her alcoholism as I was, do still allow yourself to laugh along the way. Eisenberg is terribly witty. And clearly she writes this book with the intention not to bring us down but to entertain us. Are we not entertained? 

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
David Lipsky
Broadway, 2010
click to buy on Amazon

I recently spent about fifteen hours tightly packed between two men’s warm shoulders, that is, in the middle seat of cross-country flights. Flying is an odd experience: the plane’s too-small frame holds us in place with strange neighbors. We can’t escape each other’s presence, but aside from the quick polite smile following knee-bumps, we tend to pretend that we don’t notice each other.

It was in these circumstanced that I joined David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky on their five-day journey from Bloomington-Normal to Chicago to Minneapolis and back again. The year is 1996; Wallace is riding a disorienting wave of celebrity following the success of his novel Infinite Jest, and Lipsky is a Rolling Stone journalist assigned to cover the last leg of his book tour. At 34 and 30 respectively, the two men are close in age as well as in career ambitions—both are aspiring novelists who wrestle with how to navigate the literary scene, manage their egos and insecurities, and define success for themselves. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a largely unedited transcript of their conversations in rental cars, taxis, and—of course—planes.

Lipsky describes the book’s tone best in his introduction: “It has the feeling of a highway conversation. Late at night, the only car in the world, on icy morning roads, yelling at other drivers. It has the rhythms of the road: grouchiness, indefensible meals, and the sudden, front-seat connections—reciting high points from movies, the right song and a good view sending the radio into soundtrack, a statement that gives you the bright, runway lift of knowing that another person has experienced life the way you do—that are the stuff you go on trips for.” (x-xi)

My in-flight circumstances were thus perfect. As I read their back-and-forth, the anonymous elbows negotiating the armrests on either side of me took on their voices (Lipsky to my left, Wallace to my right). The three of us were on this journey together.

If that sounds a bit off, let me point out that Lipsky himself would probably understand how I felt about their pseudo-presence: “Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you’d like to hang out with.” (xx) And it’s Wallace who concludes that the purpose of books is to combat loneliness, a theme that recurs throughout Although of Course: books are a conversation between writer and reader; reading allows us to know that we’re not alone, to recognize our own experiences in others’ descriptions. Is it so crazy to say these two men were keeping me company through these pages?

As an aspiring young writer, I felt particularly drawn into their discussions of authors, editors, and publishers, but they talk about much more than the literary world, delving into everything from Wallace’s pet dogs to the spread at Denny’s to the seriousness of substance abuse and depression. There’s something here for everyone, and whatever the topic, their dialogue is engaging, intelligent, and earthy.

The next time you’re about to embark on a solo trip (or wish you were), take Lipsky and Wallace along for the ride. This book is so readable you’ll forget the feel of the paperback in your hands and sense that they’re your travel companions, pressing their shoulders into yours and debating life’s intricacies in real time. 

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
Rhoda Janzen
Henry Holt and Co., 2009
click to buy on Amazon

Rhoda Janzen’s childhood was no picnic, and her marriage was no walk in the park, but somehow her account of them makes for excellent beach reading. I suppose that’s because she narrates her hardships in the sassy, light-hearted style of banter between friends; even the darkest of events are described with scraps of sarcastic humor.

Although Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is billed as a memoir, its scope is so broad that it veers into the territory of autobiography. Janzen oscillates between the two main phases of her life: first, her old-fashioned Mennonite upbringing and subsequent shift away from faith into a secular academic career. Second, her fifteen-year marriage to an emotionally abusive man named Nick, whose untreated mental illness fueled the flames of a raging temper. These two distinct phases are presented in a scattered, anachronistic series of short episodes that gradually form a patchwork picture of Janzen’s first 43 years of life.

Accounts of Nick are consistently disturbing—horrific verbal assaults, violent bouts of property destruction, suicide attempts. Janzen recounts long periods of paralyzing misery early in their marriage but notes that, perhaps owing in part to her sheltered upbringing, it never occurred to her to leave him. Instead she dismissed his tirades and learned to live with his controlling behavior for most of her adult life.

Just as the reader feels gut-punched by the raw emotional honesty of an episode about Nick, however, a snarky turn of phrase leaps in to lighten the mood. Time to laugh at the smell of borscht or the geekiness of her modest schoolgirl skirts! Forget the horrors of a cruel husband—isn’t it funny how Mennonites like to have singalongs in German?

Janzen is genuinely funny, but it’s difficult not to read her humor as a survival mechanism in the face of so much pain. This topic-hopping seems like the literary equivalent of thick skin and cheerful denial, the tools that enabled her to endure a decade and a half of constant abuse.

In fact, I’d venture that the many, many anecdotes from her Mennonite youth are woven into this memoir as a defense against focusing solely on the divorce. Janzen wrote this book in the year following Nick’s abandonment; it’s easy to imagine that it could’ve become a serious examination of their disastrous relationship and the psychology behind it. Instead, like a friend who wants to unburden herself without being too much of a downer, she touches on her present crisis again and again, then deftly steps away each time to spin hilarious scenes of her family’s quirks and foibles. In effect, from cover to cover her awkward childhood serves as comic relief for what is at its core a study of her fraught adulthood.

If the book were edited down to this core, it could perhaps be retitled Divorcée in a Retrospective Midlife Crisis. This, of course, would make for a much darker memoir—hardly the sort of hardcover you’d toss in your beach bag with sunscreen and a towel. Janzen’s witty forays into the less depressing phase of her life may or may not shed light on the heavier relationship issues at hand, but they certainly make for a lighter read. Bring on the sun, sand, and sarcasm! 

Treasure Island!!! by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Treasure Island!!!
Sara Levine
Europa Editions, 2011
click to buy on Amazon

It’s difficult to say whether the hero of Treasure Island!!! is the unnamed narrator or her pet parrot Richard. Both are colorful, plucky, and entertaining in their obnoxiousness; both are prone to blurting inappropriate remarks at untimely moments. And both are clueless about how to escape their respective cages.

Our narrator is a modern-day 25-year-old white middle-class suburban American woman. She’s [shudder] a millennial—you know, that generation of “self-absorbed little monsters who expect the world to come to them and for their parents to clean up their rooms well into their 20s” (Time). Sure enough, by the book’s midpoint she’s jobless and moves back into her childhood bedroom to live rent-free and take advantage of her mother’s cooking and cleaning. Not that she expresses any gratitude; to move home is to “slide backwards,” to “sacrifice the INDEPENDENCE she had earned by agreeing to not only eat meals with [her] parents, but to share the same bathroom!” (82).

INDEPENDENCE is the third of four Core Values that she has recently adopted upon reading an overdue library copy of Treasure Island. The book’s swashbuckling rhetoric and adventures galvanize her to take charge of her life:

When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of getting my hunk of gold? I, a person unable to decide what to do with my broken mini-blinds, let alone with the rest of my life, lay on my bed, while in the book’s open air, people chased assholes out of pubs and trampled blind beggars with their horses. (14-5)

As a first step toward a new life (of what, it’s unclear—asshole-chasing and beggar-trampling?), she begins devoting her time to endlessly rereading Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, keeping meticulous notes on index cards as she goes. She soon concludes that her role model, Hawkins, lives according to four Core Values that she must emulate.

Disaster ensues. Her chronically rude attitude could pass for (1) BOLDNESS, and her stubborn refusal to find employment is a sort of (2) RESOLUTION. Penniless and back with her parents, she has clearly missed the mark with (3) INDEPENDENCE. Her greatest success is found in Value (4) HORN-BLOWING: despite her failure to pursue any meaningful activity in life (“I did not scan the horizon for volunteer opportunities; […] I ran from anyone stinking of need” [82]), she’s unwaveringly confident about her own likability (“I could lose a limb and, with the right wardrobe, still come off as sexy” [169]).

But rather than acknowledge that she has fallen short in living in accordance with her Core Values, she copies the book by purchasing herself a parrot named Richard and calls it even.

Our narrator’s blind self-absorption is the book’s main source of comedy. She’s a prototypical unreliable narrator, so immersed in her own delusions that she cannot come up for a fresh breath of perspective and recognize how brazenly she’s sabotaging her relationships and herself. When her boss fires her for negligence and stealing, she scoffs and expects an apology; when her boyfriend tearfully breaks up with her for clearly, callously using him, she can only insist that she dumped him and criticize his nose hairs. We readers roll our eyes every time her friend pays for her coffee or her mother does her laundry. Her attitude is absurd, her behavior is appalling—her Values-espousing hypocrisy is just the cherry on top. We judge her where she is too blind to judge herself, and we laugh in the process.

But this same blind self-absorption is also the book’s main source of tragedy. She wants to grow, but she has no idea how to proceed, and she is too paralyzed by fear to engage in actual introspection or take on adult responsibilities. Simple challenges like driving at night trigger panic; her depression induces day-time naps while Xanax allows her to sleep at night. Of course, our unreliable narrator does not describe herself so explicitly. We catch glimpses of her true character indirectly, mirrored back at us when she interacts with others. And ultimately Richard the parrot is her most accurate mirror when he literally parrots her:

…another sound came from his beak. At first it seemed like a laugh. Then the laugh sort of fell down the stairs and became a wail. That intractable bird, that bird in whom I could barely wedge a useful phrase, had been studying my misery when I’d thought he was asleep. I threw the cloth over his cage and my hands began to tremble. The sound was terrible: defeated, despairing, almost crazy. Shut up, shut up, but he carried on sobbing, relentless as a wave. (116)

Richard was meant to bring her strength, and instead he only reminds her of her own weakness. “I loathe you,” she tells him afterward, and “your paltry, coarse, double-crossing soul” (117).

The idea of a parrot as a partner in boldness, resolution, and independence may have seemed exciting in the pages of Treasure Island, but from the moment she brings the fantasy to life he becomes just another terrifying specter. “It was larger and more alive than I had expected,” she says upon first facing him (30). Too frightened to let him fly freely about the apartment, she nervously concludes that “A cage is a bird’s home. It safeguards him from the overwhelming complexity of the world” (47).

Instead of fortifying her against her fears, Richard comes to embody them. She’s as helpless in caring for him as she is in nurturing her own dreams: eventually she stops uncovering his cage in the morning (84). Her mother chides her for not feeding him daily (102) and her sister protests that she hasn’t bothered to research his basic needs (146). Richard’s original magnificence molts into a lackluster sickliness and eventually, rather than muster the courage to care for him, she medicates and suffocates him out of existence.

It’s only when her (and her parrot’s) crisis approaches its climax that she identifies with her chosen hero:

I began to feel just a bit more like Jim Hawkins. Not the Jim Hawkins I had long admired—the boy who sails off to seek treasure, and upon discovering the crew is a murderous gang of pirates, grabs a gun and heads east to the shoreline, careless, clear-headed, and brave. I was more like the Jim Hawkins when absolute blackness settles on the island, and adrift in a coracle, he is unable to pinpoint the position of the anchored ship. (130-1)

Perhaps she should’ve known from the start that it would be unwise to model her life on a book that had been abandoned on her futon by a third-grade teacher who said it was “all action and no feeling” and “that her hand would force no nine-year-old girl to read it” (13). Shortly after she adopts it as her guide to life, her boyfriend suggests that she join an adult book club instead, but she objects, apparently preferring a regression into children’s fantasies over age-appropriate progression with her peers. Later she notes that “There's not much about love in Treasure Island,” (104) but she doesn’t take the next logical step and conclude that Treasure Island was an inappropriate source of role models and Core Values for a young adult “unable to decide what to do with […] the rest of my life” (15).

To return to my opening line, it’s absurd of me to suggest that Richard the parrot could be the book’s hero. He is little more than our nameless narrator’s failed Jungian animus, a simplified Dark Materials dæmon that allows her (and us) to treat her paralyzing fear of adult responsibility as a tangible entity. She wants to confront it; reading Treasure Island of all things prompts her to muster her courage; once faced with its overwhelming power and complexity, however, she feels threatened. She continues to make sweeping claims about her personal growth, but they ring more and more false as she neglects it, hidden in the dark of her childhood room. Finally, too tortured by its presence and her own failure, she smothers the problem back into oblivion.

Treasure Island!!! is quick-witted, fast-paced, and wickedly funny. Sara Levine intelligently crafts the book’s structure from start to finish and very cleverly weaves Stevenson’s language, imagery, and characters into a contemporary setting. My only complaint is that this narrator of ours never evolves, and it’s for this reason that I opened by questioning her role as hero. At the book’s close she has swept through a flurry of personal dramas, but for all that plot there is no progress. Yes, in the concluding chapter she finally takes the driver’s seat (in her father’s car) and learns to read a map (drawn by her mother), but the red X does not mark some new treasure worthy of an adult—it takes her right back home, reinforcing the millennial’s boomerang back to the childhood bedroom. The overdue library book has been returned, the bird has died; have her fears and dreams fallen back into their original state of paralysis? No alternative adventure has come to light. It seems that her quest for INDEPENDENCE is ending as she drops anchor once more in her family’s safe harbor of a suburban home. 

Where I Was From by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Where I Was From
Joan Didion
Knopf, 2003
click to buy on Amazon

Where I Was From defies genre and structural expectations. Its central theme is Joan Didion’s discomfort with the mythology of California, supposedly the Golden State with a Golden Age, site of the great Gold Rush of the 1840s and 50s and host to great ranches and fields of golden grain. Beneath all this glitter, Didion suggests—beneath boasts of pioneer courage and self-sufficiency and love of the land—there lies a much more complex story.

Or rather, many stories. Each chapter is part historical reporting, part memoir, part political commentary, part literary analysis. Didion references historical events, news reports, speeches, letters, personal memories, novels—even her own first novel from forty years prior—in what seems at first to be a disorientingly disordered fashion. By the book’s midpoint so many subjects have woven in and out of the text that one wonders whether Didion has a cohesive point to make. Only then does she begin to loop back, picking up dropped threads and tying together her many thoughts with delicate connections.

The result is not a cohesive narrative about California. In fact, it’s the opposite: the book demonstrates that there can be no cohesive narrative. Every character in the motley cast has his or her own version of a “true” California, whether it’s found in a romanticized past or an alluring future. There can be no “true” history, only what Didion describes as a shifting hologram of diverse perceptions layered onto the land itself.

In entering and exploring this hologram, Didion takes us beyond the state’s golden mythological self-image. Per her experience and reporting, Californians claim to be fiercely self-sufficient, yet their existence has always relied heavily on federal money (waterworks funding, agricultural subsidies, Department of Defense contracts). Californians pine for some long-faded “authentic” version of the land that has been spoilt by newcomers, failing to note that essentially everyone is a newcomer and everyone has played a role in pushing the region to change beyond recognition from one generation to the next. Californians are hypocritical, even delusional, taken in by narratives that gild over society’s past and present profiteering. (Didion’s “Californians” are apparently only European-Americans; virtually no mention is made of Native Americans or of immigrants of Chinese or Hispanic origin, let alone their experiences and identities within the state.)

In my reading of it, Didion’s dizzying account of California’s evolution reveals universal elements of human nature throughout history. We as a species are wandering, yearning, confused; we are also tough and ruthless. We are interested in survival above all else, and when that is secured then profit above all else. Despite our claims to value community bonds, when faced with difficult times we’re quickly willing to sacrifice each other to save ourselves. This is illustrated by pioneers who abandoned fellow travelers when their wagons failed, or ate them when snowed in at Donner Pass. If that seems too distant, it’s also on display when we institutionalize the mentally ill like prisoners rather than provide treatment, or when we turn petty criminals into lifelong prisoners in the world’s largest private (profitable) prison system. 

Didion draws few explicit conclusions in Where I Was From, but her concluding note is one of loss: ultimately we lose everything in life. Landscapes are flooded and razed and developed, traditions evolve out of existence, loved ones pass away. None of this is news to us, of course, nor is it particularly tied to California. But in entering the hologram that is her state’s history, Didion loses her own illusions about her heritage. Over the course of the book’s meandering weave, we witness this loss as if in real time. And by the last page it seems certain that this loss-of-illusions is unavoidable for all of us—another inevitable life loss to add to the list. 

Into Thin Air by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer
Anchor, 1997
click to buy on Amazon

If you ever harbored a vague dream of summiting Mount Everest someday, Into Thin Air will cause you to reconsider. Jon Krakauer is no killer of dreams, but the Himalayan peaks are—blinding blizzards and freezing temperatures are. The hypoxia induced by high altitudes disorients and disables even the best of mountaineers, which explains how a dozen individuals died climbing the world’s tallest peak with Krakauer in 1996.

At least, that partially explains the disaster that ravaged his team. As Krakauer makes clear throughout his retelling, nothing can ever be made entirely clear: too much of what happened is lost to the mountain, frozen over and buried in snow like the bodies of the dead. He nevertheless does his damnedest to piece together the tragedy’s chronology, supplementing his own recollections and notes with camp records and a slew of interviews. His high-caliber reporting combines with his characteristic lyricism to produce a marvelous, fascinating page-turner of a book.

Into Thin Air is gut-wrenching, cringe-inducing, and heartbreaking. Lose yourself in its pages—but please, please, do not lose yourself climbing Mount Everest. I’ve had all I can take of such needless tragedy.   

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories
Karen Russell
Knopf, 2013
click to buy on Amazon

Reality is sometimes seen most clearly through the lens of absurdity, a curious truth that’s brilliantly demonstrated by Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. In each of her stories, characters scraping by in our workaday world are subjected to some bizarre twist: enslaved sweatshop laborers devolve into human silkworms, taunted schoolboys haunt their bullies in scarecrow form, memories are tattooed to one’s skin and then massaged from the mind. At a glance such surrealism may seem like the stuff of fantasy or science fiction, but Russell’s vignettes are all too down-to-earth. Her absurdities only warp our world in order to bring life’s harshness into focus.

In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” former U.S. presidents are put out to pasture in horse-bodies, reduced to eating hay and drawing carriages. Are their new circumstances a degrading hell or a paradise of simple comforts and natural beauty? They’re too busy vying for positions of power within the farmyard to agree. Ultimately it seems they’re fenced in only by their obsession with power and legacy or, in Rutherford’s case, his longing for that which is hopelessly lost. They can only fly free in the world’s beauty if they accept at last that they’re just animals, silly animals confined within a larger system, pointlessly making up rules to which nature is indifferent—rather like humanity itself when we step back and consider our place in the cosmos. 

The Nebraska homesteaders in “Proving Up” are similarly blinded by short-sighted obsessions, in their case a land deed that is symbolically important to their sense of self-worth but effectively inconsequential. Its artificial prestige has no bearing on the questions of life, death, and family that actually dominate their days. In theory the cluster of households on the frontier support each other in their shared survival, but as soon as they learn a government certificate is at stake, their lust for it drives them to steal, lie, and kill. Their only crop in that drought of comprehension is a field of bones. 

I could go on—there are eight such stories in the collection. But I’ll cut myself short and just say that each one is brilliant in its own way; read them for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

One last note on Russell’s writing: I can’t help but compare Vampires to the other short story collections I’ve read recently. Tim Horvath’s Understories is pure fancy and wordplay; Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange is earnest dirt and suffering. Russell strikes a delicate balance between these poles and holds it throughout this collection, taking a dance step in either direction from one story to the next but always swinging back to center. The result is rich and readable and frankly delicious, but never saccharine... as disconcertingly tantalizing, perhaps, as the eponymous lemons. Again, I have to say: read them for yourself. 

Kafka on the Shore by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami
Vintage, 2006
click to buy on Amazon

Kafka on the Shore has only existed in English for ten years, so it’s probably too soon to declare it a classic. Still, it’s received all sorts of critical accolades and sits atop The New York Times “10 Best Books of 2005” list, so I essentially assumed it would be one when I pulled it off the shelf. I dont believe I was mistaken, but by the time I reshelved it I’d shifted my reasons for identifying it as such. To quote Mark Twain, “it meets [the] definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

That summarizes my month-long struggle to get through Haruki Murakami’s novel. I quickly found I did not want to be reading it, I just wanted to be done.

The book’s failure to engage me is all the more disappointing given its promising premise. The cast of characters is fascinating: a teen runaway who converses with his alterego, a mysterious family history, a musician whose first heartbreak drove her to decades of reclusion, a fastidious gay transgender librarian, an illiterate retiree who talks to cats, a trucker with a love of big breasts and Beethoven. Plus the cats. Plus a few “concepts” personified as modern brand mascots.

Their plots initially run parallel but are gradually, irresistibly drawn together by—by what? By an Oedipal prophecy? By Johnnie Walker’s amoral rules for roles and behavior in the universe? Themes of fate and free will course through the book, pulsing in and out of focus with each chapter. Questions abound: what is the nature of time? What is the relationship of the mind to the body, or of gender to sexuality? What’s with all the falling fish and cawing crows? Sprinkled in for extra flavor are countless references to other works of art, literature, music, and philosophy.

In other words, there is plenty to entertain the self-satisfied intellectual who reads “insistently metaphysical” novels for fun in the twenty-first century.

Yes, I probably fall into that category. But no, I did not have fun with Kafka.

The stories are good, but the storytelling is unbearably tedious. Narrative exposition prattles on in scene after scene, boring the reader with details about the brands of all shirts and sunglasses, the order of exercises in training routines, and the ingredients in each meal. Every character’s backstory is explained in detail, as are the thoughts of even minor characters who appear for a page or two. So much for the declaration that “Artists are those who can evade the verbose” (chapter 25).

All the excessive information is sometimes also excessively crude. I tallied over two dozen descriptions of the protagonist’s “nice cock” relaxing, hardening again, glistening, hurting, stinging, or slapping. Don’t worry, the protagonist does “a good job of washing my cock, not too many years out of its foreskin, and under my arms, balls, and butt” (chapter 7)—in other words, he takes baths. There are also a dozen uses of the phrase “take a dump” and such wonderful exchanges as this:

“Are you really Colonel Sanders?”
Colonel Sanders cleared his throat. “Not really. I’m just taking on his appearance for a time.”
“That’s what I figured,” Hoshino said. “So what are you really?”
“I don’t have a name.”
“How do you get along without one?”
“No problem. Originally I don’t have a name or a shape.”
“So you’re kind of like a fart.”
“You could say that.” (Chapter 30)

Indeed, the novel is “insistently metaphysical,” full of things that are intangible yet realyou know, like a fart. This is just one instance in which all those lovely themes listed earlier just stumble over themselves into what feels disappointingly like nonsense. Here’s another: “The Earth, time, concepts, love, life, faith, justice, evil—they’re all fluid and in transition. They don’t stay in one form or in one place forever. The whole universe is like some big FedEx box.” Wait, what? (Chapter 30.)

To be fair to Murakami, a portion of the blame for my irritation can be cast on Philip Gabriel, whose translation from the original Japanese is often grating. Slang, idioms, and casual contractions abound, as do descriptions that are just plain awkward or confusing. “She’s hidden, asleep, like a 3-D painting in the forest of her heart” he/they write, to which I can only say again: what? (Chapter 25.)

Much as I wanted to, I could not like Kafka on the Shore. It was too much—not too rich or too subtle or too absurd, as some have complained, just too tedious. If only it had been edited down by a third and translated with more music and nuance, it could’ve won me over.

Murakami writes on his website that

the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy—and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it—but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus. Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.

To be frank, I can barely justify reading that meandering paragraph a second time, let alone the entire novel. There are far too many books that I want to read to devote more energy to one I merely wanted to have read. 

The Science of Interstellar by Karie Luidens

My review of...

The Science of Interstellar
Kip Thorne
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014
click to buy on Amazon

To clarify, this is a book review, not a movie review. I was quite vocal about my concerns with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in the lobby of the Cinemark where I saw it last December, but I won’t rehash them again here.

(Okay, but why would they need Cooper to pilot the Endurance at the last minute? We’ve seen him fly precisely one time, and he crashed, and since then he’s been a farmer who suffers from PTSD-style nightmares about said plane crash. Are you sure he’s the best choice? Are there truly no competent experienced pilots to be found? No? So you were just going to send up a crew you didn’t have faith in? Even if Cooper’s piloting skills are actually as sharp as his cheekbones, he did not know that NASA still exists until thirty minutes ago. He is so out of the loop that his fellow astronauts have to spend their first few hours in space explaining the mission’s basic parameters to him. I’ve heard enough Chris Hadfield talks to know this would never fly, surely not even at a post-apocalyptic NASA. And they’re trusting Cooper to pilot the ship into a wormhole when he doesn’t even know what a wormhole is? Seriously, they’re not gonna tell him what a wormhole is until after he’s in space? Seriously, they’re gonna reuse Dennis Quaid’s wormhole demonstration from Event Horizon?? The movie’s barely started, and I can’t even—no—)

Sorry, I said I wouldn’t do this.

Long story short, I left wishing the movie’s 169 minutes were all just Double Negative’s visual effects. Forget all these dumb characters and their personal problems. More wormhole! More black hole! Give me long sweeping glamour shots of a faraway galaxy being gravitationally lensed by spinning singularities!

And keep the deafening organ soundtrack.

Well, as long as you provide your own music for dramatic effect, Kip Thorne’s book satisfies this yen. Its substance and logic are gratifying to the frustrated soul, and it’s every bit as breathtaking as the movie could’ve been without the plot issues.

Thorne is a theoretical physicist known for his work with astrophysics and gravitational physics. He works at Caltech and didn’t have any significant Hollywood affiliations until he was drafted by producer and long-time friend Lynda Obst to work as the scientific consultant for the project that would become Interstellar. His book’s selling point is of course its tie-in with the film, and it opens with an interesting account of how the concept and the team came together. But its real value lies in Thorne’s intelligible explanations of nearly incomprehensible cosmological concepts.

The Science of Interstellar discusses it all, from black holes’ spinning and vibrating to the dynamics of gravitational slingshots and tidal waves to the reasoning behind the theoretical fifth dimension. Prepare for some whimsy as well, my favorite phrase being a subtitle on page 200: “DANGER: The Sandwich Is Unstable.” I was particularly fascinated by demonstrations of how light is intricately redirected by the warped space around singularities, resulting in layers of iterative images whose patterns defy intuition—and yet make perfect sense when explained.

Rare is the individual who can thrive in the field of astrophysics. Rarer still is the astrophysicist who can write about the field in prose so crystal clear that the rest of us not only understand it, but enjoy it. Kip Thorne is one such individual. If you like reading Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, or Brian Greene—if you like watching Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox—add Thorne to your reading list.

And if you’re still in the mood to watch Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway bicker, sweat, and panic in spacesuits, by all means rent the movie. But first pop some Redenbacher, put on some Hans Zimmer, and enjoy Thorne’s book for an evening. It’ll help you appreciate those gorgeous mathematically accurate special effects (and wish all the more that they were the film’s real focus). 

Born Standing Up by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Born Standing Up
Steve Martin
Scribner, 2007
click to buy on Amazon

Aside from his sappy-slapstick acting in Father of the Bride, I knew next to nothing about Steve Martin before reading this memoir. My expectations were fairly low—perhaps another name-dropping celebrity got a book deal on name alone and threw something together with a ghostwriter.

How wrong I was. Martin’s writing quickly impressed me: he’s a skillful raconteur whose accounts are refreshingly honest and insightful. He relives his years of stand-up through anecdotes that are at once intimate and entertaining, as well as informative with regards to the history of modern comedy more broadly.

I was also surprised to learn how remarkably sober and intelligent Martin’s career was from the start. Luck is always a factor in the making of stars, yes, but it’s clear that his rise was driven by a ferocious dedication to developing his craft. He describes hours of conscious honing that contributed magnificently to the comedy revolution of the 1960s and 70s. And there’s plenty of wit for readers to enjoy along the way.

It’s tempting to say that this memoir is a lovely read but contains nothing life-changing. That, however, seems comparable to suggesting that Saturday Night Live is good fun but a minor footnote in the American entertainment industry. The truth is both Martin and SNL have probably influenced me far more than I’ve realized—the movies I watch, the jokes I share, the culture I absorb and respond to each day of my life. So thank you, Martin, for sharing your talents with us, both throughout your comedy career and in this enlightening little book. 

Without You, There Is No Us by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Suki Kim
Crown Publishers, 2014
click to buy on Amazon

North Korea is a land where words are monitored, censored, and punished, so in her time there as an English teacher in 2011, Suki Kim knew there were few questions she could pose openly. There were still fewer answers those around her could give. Expressing the simplest of divergent ideas is forbidden, so North Koreans don’t trade in actual questions and answers. They trade in empty pre-approved aphorisms. Much of what her students, her guides, and her ever-present minders said each day was a repetitive swirl of lies, witting and unwitting, personal and political, all in praise of the motherland and the Great Leader.

Kim, however, wasn’t just an English teacher, she was an undercover journalist. She wanted to dig beneath the lies and explore what life is really like there.

In a world of bald-faced falsehoods, many truths can only be gleaned by observing the finest details. Kim was thus sensitive to minutia: gestures and glances, presences and absences, patterns and their occasional exceptions. Each night she took careful notes that she then wiped from her laptop in case guards searched her dorm room, saving them instead on a series of hidden thumb drives. The risks she ran were real—arrest, imprisonment, labor camps. Her courage and dedication are impressive in their own right.

But Kim’s accomplishments go beyond her actions while in Pyongyang. Once safely home in New York, she transformed her secret notes into beautiful prose. It seems the same vigilance that allowed her to survive two semesters under constant surveillance carried over into her writing, which is sensitive and precise. This memoir is stunning.

It is also enormously valuable. North Korea is known for being unknown, the world’s most isolated and hidden society. Foreign reporters who manage to arrange a brief visit are tightly controlled by their hosts and shown only narrow slivers of the country—those, of course, that cast the regime in a positive light. By securing a longer teaching post, Kim sidestepped this charade and explored the shadows behind the curtains. Against all odds, the reader is now privy to the everyday lives of North Korea’s elite.

Kim describes twenty-year-old boys who are the sons of the wealthy and the powerful and who have the boasting good humor to match. Yet she notes that they haul buckets of water at home rather than rely on plumbing. Electricity comes and goes where it’s wired at all. Although they’re students of Information Technology, they’ve never heard of the Internet and barely know how to type at a computer. Between classes they engage in mandatory physical labor at construction sites and communal farms. And they constantly spout unfounded claims about the rest of the worlds inferiority, oblivious to their regime’s dramatic shortcomings. At the slightest hint that other countries may have greater privileges or accomplishments, they avert their eyes and change the subject.

Even so, over the course of her account Kim manages to connect with these boys. She shoots hoops with them, eats meals with them, and arranges surprises to brighten their dreary days: chocolates, DVDs, a new soccer ball. They’re aggravatingly uninformed, misinformed, and prone to lying, but she develops a deep parental affection for them. And they express their love for her in return—in English when permissible, and through body language when not.

This powerful bond throbs like an ache by the end of the book. As much as Kim cares for her students, she is powerless to offer any lessons beyond grammar and vocabulary. She has the knowledge they need about political and social liberties, but discussing taboo topics is as dangerous for them as it is for her. No matter how terribly she wants to free them from the prison that is their regime and their mindset, she cannot.

She can only write about them.

As I sit here typing these words, it’s easy for me to feel that writing is a simple, casual act. I write every day, for pleasure and to relieve pain, and never do I consider this to be subversive. Rarely do I worry that my words will attract repercussions; to the contrary, my biggest worry is usually that they won’t attract any attention at all. My goal is the privilege of being read, but Kim’s book is a reminder of how lucky I am even to be ignored. I can learn, think, say, and write whatever I damn well please… but only because I don’t live in a land where words are monitored, censored, and punished. 

Julie and Julia by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Julie and Julia
Julie Powell
Little Brown & Company, 2005
click to buy on Amazon

The premise of Julie and Julia is appealing: a year of elaborate French cooking in a little apartment in Queens. What a worthy challenge both personal and cultural! What can we 21st-century workaday Americans learn by reliving the culinary adventures of an expat in France?

Well, if you’re Julie Powell, not much. The author isn’t exactly prone to critical thinking or worthwhile insights. In fact, I spent most of my time reading Julie and Julia actively disliking her. Powell is the definition of self-centered: she’s utterly obsessed with her own suffering (a tedious job! a commute! an overprotective mother! the horror!), and indifferent to the sufferings of others (she constantly picks fights with her loving husband; she encourages a friend to start an extramarital affair for the fun of it). She smokes, she drinks to excess, she cusses people out. If there’s a hero to be found it’s her ever-supportive husband, who’s generally either lending a hand with dishes or slinking away to avoid her unwarranted verbal abuse.

Powell’s personality is so detestable that it distracted me from her writing for a while. Oh, the writing.

Truthfully, she can write well enough on a sentence-by-sentence level. Some of her lines are real gems; some paragraphs are downright hilarious. Still, that’s nowhere near enough to redeem the book overall—she needs to be able to edit, too. It’s all well and good that her blog was popular, but bloggers can hop about from topic to topic each day according to their moods. That unpredictability is part of the medium’s appeal. Not so in a book. Powell doesn’t even maintain consistent verb tenses within scenes, let alone find some larger sense of structure. Each of her chapters wanders anachronistically from anecdote to anecdote and leaves loose ends everywhere to trip up the reader. The book as a whole has no sense of character development or narrative arc.

The plea for her to edit applies to her voice as well. Could you edit your tone into something a bit more pleasant to read, perhaps? Good lord, the whining. I lost count of how many times she rhetorically wailed some variation of “Why am I doing this?!” It wasn’t long before I wanted to yell back “Yes, why? Just stop cooking if it’s making you so miserable, and spare us all your misery by extension.” The wails were accompanied by just as many all-out conniptions in the kitchen—pans flung, profanities hurled, tears wept, selves thrown to the sticky floor.

And, oh yes, the floor is sticky, because her entire apartment sounds like a HazMat zone. Grease, cat hair, dust, and black plumbing-related ooze are all ever-present features, not to mention the writhing maggot sludge discovered toward the end of the year. It’s not that I can’t handle an ick factor in a memoir. But honestly, in a memoir about food preparation? It feels like a health concern.

Speaking of food preparation, I did enjoy Powell’s descriptions of Julia Child’s recipes. However, the recipe she references most frequently by far is the vodka gimlet, a favorite in the Powell household. Really this is just a fancy way of saying that most nights out of the week she sipped lime-tinged vodka until she sank into a drunken stupor on the cat-hair-coated couch and awoke unbathed the next morning with her contact lenses glued to her eyes. The Powell household special, I’ll call that. So all in all, I much preferred the descriptions of Julia Child’s recipes that were provided by Julia herself in her own far-superior memoir My Life in France. Just read that instead. 

Dora: A Headcase by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Dora: A Headcase
Lidia Yuknavitch
Hawthorne Books, 2012
click to buy on Amazon

Yuknavitch, Dora a Headcase.jpg

Dora is an utterly remarkable headcase of a book. 

Our narrator is a thieving, drug-abusing, partying, art-making, sexually confused punk seventeen-year-old. Her voice is a caricature of teen slang and attitude in the digital age. She cuts herself, graffitis her bedroom wall with purple ink, and refuses to do any schoolwork. When her desperate parents dump her in a psychiatrist’s office, she spikes his tea with a cocktail of drugs that sends him fleeing to the emergency room, then records his ordeal for an art project. 

And yet… somehow we sympathize with Dora as the protagonist. 

Truly, it’s remarkable that Yuknavitch accomplishes this. But she does. Even through a thick screen of sarcasm we sense that Dora is a well-meaning kid who just wants to be loved by her parents, and was abused and neglected instead. Her story simply aches with all the ways adults screw up children. 

Especially old white men with their heteronormative power structures. 

Enter Dr. Sigmund Freud, who through a stroke of… magical realism? …is practicing psychiatry in Seattle in 2012. Rather than attempting to understand Dora as a young woman, he skims her therapy sessions for sexual symbolism and evidence of oedipal dynamics, then preaches his interpretations back to her. Understandably, this irritates Dora to no end. It is both painful and satisfying to watch as she takes her revenge on his phallic obsessions by creatively taking aim at his phallus. 

If Yuknavitch’s first stroke of genius is Dora’s vivid characterization, her second is Freud’s. The old doctor comes to life beautifully. He is, of course, a symbol of outdated patriarchal worldviews. But he is so much more than that. He suffers, he strives, and he forms a strange bond with Dora that needs to be read to be believed. 

Throw in a band of complex colorful friends, a few problematic parents and parent figures, an elaborate art project, money-hungry media moguls, some run-ins with the law, and even a brief appearance by a modern-day Jung, and you’ve got Dora: A Headcase. The plot races along as if high on blow, which it kind of is about half the time. It really is a page-turner by the end—a psychological thriller in a very unique sense of the term.