Book Review: March (Book One)

marchThis review was first posted on my Goodreads account over here.

It can be hard to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement. I think that, because we’ve all seen pictures and heard Dr. King’s Dream Speech, been told the broad strokes like, “The Freedom Riders did ______” and “The Montgomery Bus Boycott was _____,” it’s easy to think that it’s a story that you know. It’s kind of like the Holocaust–it’s a story that’s so huge, and been told so many times, that we forget that it took place on a small human scale, not not just a big social upheaval scale.

Congressman John Lewis’ memoir, written in the form of a graphic novel (also written by staffer Andrew Aydin, and drawn by artist Nate Powell), has been a pretty good antidote to that skittering, shallow version of history for me.

Book One starts with Congressman Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama; his early experiences on his family’s farm, his early call to ministry and social justice, his college years in Nashville, TN and the first sit ins and protests he participated in. The framing device of the story is Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, so we sort of switch back and forth between 1960-62 and 2009. Book One ends in the middle of the Nashville lunch counter sit in protests. (Book Two covers the remainder of the sit ins, Congressman Lewis’ experiences as a Freedom Rider, his elevation to SNCC chairman, and his speech at the 1962 March on Washington.)

Gone are the days when a couple hundred African-Americans can bring downtown Nashville to a standstill simply by taking up space at lunch counters, when just 80 people could fill a county jail and max out the criminal justice system for that day. We’ve expanded the criminal justice system exponentially, and become accustomed to criminalizing an enormous percentage of our populace in the process. How many people are arrested and processed every single day in mid-sized American cities?

What shocked me (it shouldn’t have shocked me, but kind of did) was not the behavior of the white people in the story, but the way that the police and white civilians worked together to attack, undermine, and refuse to work with the black people. The perpetuation of segregation in the South was truly the job of every white citizen, policeman, lawmaker, or shopowner. White businessmen closed their stores and left black customers sitting at lunch counters in the dark, undermining their own ability to earn money rather than give in to the demands for desegregated lunch counters. White police departments delayed responding to black protestors’ calls reporting violence and asking for protection, and let white vigilantes attack black people with impunity. White police officers, of course, arrested black protestors, and Bull Connor turned dogs and firehouses onto them. White people destroyed property rather than share space. I wonder how far they would have gone to protect their racist interests and power, if the federal government hadn’t stepped in. The mayor of Nashville crumbled when challenged; but Bull Connor and the mayor of Birmingham, it seems, would have happily burned down the entire South rather than give in.

The other thing that this book made me think of is that systems–whether racist or not–exist because the populace tacitly allow them to exist. We give systems power by complying with them. When you take away that compliance–when you refuse to ride the bus, when you sit at the lunch counter, when you register to vote, when you try to buy a ticket to the movies–you are upending the system’s ability to continue operating as it has. And that is the real power of nonviolence.

That’s a lot of rambling for a short book, I suppose. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Aydin, who wrote the text, have done something powerful, in spite of the relatively few words they used to do it; helped in no small part by Mr. Powell’s drawings that accompany. It’s a quick read–I got through it in about a day–but is not shallow. Quite the opposite. This is a massively important book that should be read. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I think, and I hope, that it will be read by people who might not normally pick up a memoir or a biography. If I was a middle or a high school teacher, I would be handing out copies to all of my students.

So good. So so so good. So glad this book exists.

Book Review: Stiff

stiffThis review was first posted to my Goodreads account over here.

“What happens after you die?” is probably one of the oldest questions humanity has ever asked itself (along with “What will I eat in two hours?”). For a long time, it occupied our attention strictly in a metaphysical sense, wondering about souls and the afterlife, because we knew what happened to bodies: they decayed. Our ancestors had ample opportunity to observe this process, on everything from people to cattle to any number of wild animals. The Egyptians did their best to put a stop to it, but time marches over all things.

Our cultural distance from dead bodies has been steadily growing, though. Some cultures or faiths still sit with a departed loved one for a day or several days, in vigil, but in due time the body is buried or burned or whatever, and we don’t witness what happens in the long term. This distance has grown ever larger as our culture becomes more industrialized, more man-made, and natural processes happen ever-farther away from our eyes. In some ways, we don’t know any more than our most primitive ancestors about what happens after you die. In other ways, we know considerably less. Stiff is Mary Roach’s attempt to answer the more literal interpretation of the question of what happens after death, specifically: What happens to our bodies these days? And how is that different from what used to happen hundreds of years ago?

Well, first: everything that happens to your body is gross and disturbing. It doesn’t matter if you’re buried or cremated or donated to science or crashed in a plane or donated to a body farm. It’s gross. There is just no escaping the gross. To Mary Roach’s credit, however, she also manages to find it funny (and, even more to her credit, directs her humor primarily at herself and her reactions, and not to the defenseless corpses on the table in front of her). On the surface, then, Roach is witty and irreverent (prior to writing books, she wrote magazine articles for publications including Reader’s Digest, NY Times Magazine, GQ, and more; so fast-paced and witty is right in her wheelhouse). Underneath that, though, she has a pragmatism about death that I appreciated. The combination of humor, pragmatism, and just the sheer fascination of the subject matter makes this book engaging and interesting. And it did make me think, well, what do I want to happen with my body when I’m done with it? Its ultimate fate is inevitable, of course, but there’s also time in between my death and my decomposition that’s sort of vaguely under my control, or at least subject to my preference. And that’s…oddly reassuring, in a macabre sort of way.

Unexpectedly engrossing, too, were Roach’s profiles of the professionals who work with dead bodies every day. I mean, let’s face it: it’s a pretty poor author who can’t make an interesting, readable piece out of material learned at a body farm. But Roach also talks about the people who work at these places–the body farms and the anatomy classes and the mortuaries and airplane crash sites–and how they cope with their gruesome jobs (and not just how they cope with it, but why they enjoy it, and why their work is important). They’re a surprisingly diverse crew of people. If you donate your body to science, a quirky, learned person will be using you for…something. Mary Roach does a pretty good job of taking a subject that is profoundly uncomfortable for a lot of people and making it, if not enjoyable (the book is enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but thinking about my death still is not), at least accessible.

This book may not be for the profoundly squeamish, but honestly, I think the humor leavens the grossness a great deal. And if it is too gross, you’ll know by chapter three, which is the body farm chapter. And it reads pretty quickly. And is more entertaining than David Sedaris’ essay about his weekend spent in a medical examiner’s office.

Book Review: Inside Scientology

scientologyI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

This review is going to be necessarily short–a reflection of the amount of passion I felt for the book while reading it (and also a reflection of the fact that I finished it a month ago, and my memory is fading fast). So I apologize for the disjointedness of this review.

First, I knew nothing about Scientology going into this book besides it’s Tom Cruise’s thing. I’m pretty sure I may have been mixing it up or conflating it with Church of Christ Scientists, a group that I know even less about. I still feel like I don’t know a lot, but I know more than I did, and probably considerably more than the leaders of Scientology would like me to. This book’s original incarnation was as an article for Rolling Stone, and sometimes it shows, in its brevity over certain aspects, and skipping around in time (this could also be a reflection of gaps in the author’s research, Scientology being notoriously secretive). I could have done with a large-scale portrait of the Church’s structure much earlier than I actually got it, for example. And it’s not until the very end of the book that Reitman talks to Scientologists who are still part of the organization, rather than ex-Scientologists, providing (or attempting to provide) some balance to the narrative. So beware of bias. But that said: Reitman is a credible, established journalist; and Scientology is a notoriously lawsuit-happy organization. So I believe that what she says are facts. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I read the book, because some of the events she describes are disturbing, to say the least. The question of “What the hell is going on?!” keeps you reading–but unfortunately, what’s going on is so troublesome that you never feel like you have a good handle on it. You are uncomfortably aware, throughout the whole book, that however many sources Reitman had, she is now your one source on this organization, and I desperately want corroboration on some things. So I’ll be reading more.

Worth reading? Yes. Satisfying? Not so much, though I don’t think that’s Reitman’s fault.

Book Review: Leaves of Grass

stiffI first posted this review at my Goodreads account over here.

When I decided to read a poetry book to review, I decided to go for a book that I’ve been meaning to read but was pretty sure that, absent external incentive, I never would never actually get around do: Walt Whitman’s epic* Leaves of Grass. Two friends of mine set one of Whitman’s poems to music years ago, and I’ve picked up little tidbits about him here and there, all of which increased my level of interest in the man. So–onward into the world of epic prose-poetry!

A word about me and the books I like: I’m a pretty impatient person, and when I’m reading a book or watching a movie or a TV show, I definitely tend towards works that are direct and straightforward. I get bored with a piece fairly quickly if I don’t feel like I know where the story is going (this works to my disadvantage: I almost put down Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn the first time I read it, though I’m so glad that I didn’t). I don’t like stories that are predictable, but I want the characters’ goals to be clearly defined. As you might guess, I do not read a lot of poetry.

I decided to listen to the audiobook, because it helps if I can listen to something and do stuff at the same time, and because I knew if I tried to read the book on paper it would take me at least a month to get through. I resigned myself to the fact that my attention was going to drift sometimes. Because of that, my ability to assess this work critically is fairly limited (and even if I’d taken in every word, it probably still would be: Leaves of Grass is the sort of thing that English professors spend entire careers breaking down and analyzing). But I enjoyed it. Even when I wasn’t consciously taking in the meaning of all the words, the rhythm of the text (performed by Noah Waterman) was like listening to a lullaby, or sitting next to a river. It was comforting even when it was a more or less meaningless hum in my head.

Leaves of Grass, taken as a whole, is a lot of things. And I can’t think of anything like it in all of English literature. It’s not strictly a collection of poems.** It’s not a single story. It’s part travelogue, part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, part love story (to humanity, to America, to individual people). It’s completely overwhelming and staggering. Walt Whitman, how did you do this. (I mean, I know he did it over the course of forty years, but even so…). If I was going on an around-the-world trip that was going to take me six months and I could only bring one book, this is definitely in the running as one of the books. Because you can read it over and over and never get everything out of it that’s in there.

There are two parts that stood out to me (and neither of them are the sexy poems that always get everyone else’s attention): one part is a sort of tour of America, which takes a perspective that is both broad and global and utterly specific to such small individuals. It’s a mural, really. A painting with words. The other part was his recounting of his days as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. I know that his poem “O Captain My Captain” is the one we all read in high school, but “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “The Centenarian’s Story,” about the young men who march off to war and the people they leave behind, and “The Wound-Dresser,”*** told from the point of view of an Army nurse trying to soothe fallen soldiers, are as haunting and as timeless as anything else ever written about war.

The deeper I got into Leaves of Grass, the more I wish I could’ve known Walt Whitman, or just followed him around for a few days. I have no idea what sort of outward person he was like–if he was grouchy and crotchety, if he was friendly, if he was talkative and outgoing or a silent observer. But I don’t think you can spend 40+ years on a work of art and not put yourself in the pages. And Whitman seemed to be, to the end, a man who believed in the fundamental goodness of humanity. A person who was interested in meeting people and telling their stories, and fitting them into this tapestry of America that he’d woven in his head. He reminded me of Mark Twain in some ways, who I’ve always thought of as a cynical optimist (though Whitman is less funny than Twain).

So yeah. Especially if you find yourself ever faced with a long road trip, or you’re the sort that goes on extended backpacking trips through the backcountry. This is most definitely a road trip sort of book. Possibly an existential crisis sort of book. My friend Eleanor, who got lost in the Mexican mountains for two weeks with no food or water, had this book with her. She said it was one of the things that kept her sane. So yes, this book can also save your life.

*Epic here meant in the “WHOOAAAAAA” sense, not in the “epic poetry like Homer’s Odyssey” sense.
**Wikipedia refers to it as a collection, but because the individual poems don’t have titles, and because I listened to it on audiobook, I definitely experienced it as one long work. It doesn’t tell a continuous narrative by any means, but it is cohesive. If something can be cohesive without being continuous.
***I looked these titles up in a book edition after listening to the audio.

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

fiftyshadesI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I try to be fair with reviews. I really do. If I don’t like something, I tell you why I don’t like it, and/or what I typically DO like, so that you (Gentle Reader) can evaluate my judgments, and decide for yourself if the things that bother me about a book are also likely to bother you. I’m not the arbiter of taste. I understand that.

And it’s not like I have super high standards. I don’t need my books (or any of my entertainment, really) to be High Art. I don’t hold a lot of truck with high falootin’ lit’ry achievements. I’ve given positive reviews to Stephen King. I find Tom Clancy and John Grisham entertaining. I enjoy Jodi Picoult. I watch more CSI and Law and Order than any self-respecting human should. I don’t need my stories to change my world. I don’t need them to be soaring artistic achievements. I just need solid tales, decently told.

All that said: I cannot even with this book. 50 Shades of Grey is bad, Gentle Readers. Infuriatingly bad. I know it’s popular (it’s outsold Harry Potter in the UK), but if ever there was an exemplar for the idea that popularity and quality do not necessarily overlap, this is it. I’m sorry if you like it. Not just sorry that I’m about to spend the next 2000 words offending and angering you (though I am), but also sorry that you apparently haven’t been exposed to more good stories, the better to compare this to. I suggest you branch out and read other things and expand your tastes, because this is bad.

As I read the book, I was so annoyed and frustrated that I started taking notes on the things that annoyed me. To whit:

  • It’s in present tense. Gah.(This actually works in the book’s favor during the sexy scenes, but for the rest of the time, it’s just jarring and annoying. There’s a reason why 98% of novels are written in the past tense).
  • In the opening scene, Ana is preparing to interview some tycoon (Christian Grey, who becomes her sexual partner) for the school paper because her roommate, the newspaper’s editor, can’t make it. I can tell you as a veteran of a school newspaper: This would not happen. First of all, in an interview as important as this one, more than one student reporter would go (and the photographer would go as well, making the whole scene in the other chapter with the photographer moot). If Kate (the roommate) couldn’t go, she’d call another editor on the paper (there are likely several), not rope her roommate into pinch hitting. Second of all, the interview is apparently a three hour drive away. Does this school not have Internet access? Skype is not a thing? Phone calls? The interview has to be in person?
  • Ana describes an elevator as “whisk[ing her] at terminal velocity.” Elevators do not do that, not even super fancy modern ones.You would be dead. The elevator would stop at the top floor and your body would continue to fly upward and would splatter you into pieces against the elevator ceiling.
  • A conference room in the office is described as having “at least 20 chairs.” Seriously? Pick a number. She’s sitting there waiting for her interviewee to become available, it’s entirely plausible for her to count them. Also, it’s a work of fiction, there’s no reason to be vague about the number of chairs.
  • In the interview, Christian Grey says he employs over 40,000 people. That makes his company twice as big as Enron. And he seems to have founded the company, not inherited it (though EL James is not specific on this point). This makes the company maybe five years old at the outside. Enron existed for 15 years before it folded. I’ve heard of fast growing companies and all, but this stretches credulity.
  • During the farcical school newspaper interview, Ana asks Christian if he’s gay. She, at least, is horrified and embarrassed (as she should be), but this comes out of nowhere, with no lead in, and at no time is Ana’s roommate (who came up with the question) challenged on her ridiculous premise that Christian must be gay because he’s never photographed in the society pages with a woman. (He’s spent the last five years building a company that’s become twice as big as Enron. I think a much more logical assumption is he’s never photographed with women because HE’S WORKING.)
  • Christian Grey is the CEO of his company, but he says he doesn’t have a board. Now, apparently, this is not a contradiction: The only companies that must have boards are ones that are publicly traded (something I’m sure Grey, control freak that he is, wouldn’t do). Most companies past a certain size have boards whether they’re publicly traded or not, but they don’t have to. And while a CEO is a common board position, there’s nothing that says that a company can’t have a CEO on his own. But still: It took me like fifteen minutes and asking four people about this before I came to the conclusion that EL James wasn’t actually wrong about this. 15 minutes that I could’ve spent reading the book. Fiction isn’t supposed to send you on fact-checking hunts, especially not this early in the game. I already distrust this author and that’s not a good sign.
  • Ana drives three hours, asks seven questions that were written for her and maybe another seven that she thought up herself in the moment. That is an extremely crappy interview, maybe half an hour long (I would read the conversation out loud to see, but I can’t bear to open the book again). It took 9 months to convince Grey to schedule the interview, and this is supposed to be an in-depth profile, and you ask seven questions? I’ve had interviews over an hour long for a 500 word article. I couldn’t even tell you how many questions I asked–I started out with a list that was maybe a page long, that I used as a guide when the conversation needed steering. Also, Christian Grey asks Ana if she wants to be shown around, and she says no. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. YOU ALWAYS SAY YES TO THAT. Even somebody with no journalistic instincts whatsoever says yes to that. Again with the “Why is Kate sending her roommate on these shenanigans and not calling another editor on the newspaper staff, especially since this is so important, and Ana is so clearly bad at it.”
  • EL James explains characters’ jokes for us after they say them: “Obviously, he’s referring to my earlier less-than-elegant entry into his office.” Yes. Obviously. So obviously you don’t need to tell us that, Ms James. Your readership is not stupid.
  • Ana goes home and offers to make her roommate a sandwich, and her roommate accepts. Even though she just had the flu a few hours ago. If the roommate–driven, tenacious roommate–was too sick to do the interview, she’s too sick to be eating a sandwich now. And yet here she is, eating a sandwich.

And that’s just Chapter One, Gentle Readers. It goes on like this. I tried to stop taking notes, I really did, but I couldn’t because this nonsense is just so frustrating:

  • Everyone mind’s everyone else’s business whether it’s needed or wanted. At a bar, Ana’s roommate Kate is about to leave the bar with a guy she just met. Ana tries to follow her on the grounds that she needs to give Kate “a safe sex lecture.” Kate is 22, and Ana is not her mother. I really hope that Kate’s learned about safe sex by now. Also, Ana is drunk, making her impulse to be the responsible mom figure somewhat laughable. Leave Kate alone, Ana. (This is outweighed by my total annoyance at Kate generally, who keeps going out of her way to make Christian angry/jealous on purpose. Interference of Roommate into Ana’s relationship aside, playing stupid high school games with guys is just….stupid, immature, and high school.)
  • At some point, Christian scolds Ana about her hair being damp. Of course it is. She just got out of the shower, Christian. Which you know because she’s in your hotel room. And you’re the one who told her to take the shower. Shut up.
  • Ana has apparently gotten through four years of college, from 2007-2011, without an email account. I refuse to believe that a middle class American girl born in 1989 did not have an email account before now. (On the other hand, I was so relieved when they started emailing each other, because James included header and signature text from all the emails, which made turning the pages that much faster.)
  • Christian has told her to start her BDSM research on Wikipedia. Sigh.
  • The narrative voice is inconsistent. Ana is the narrator, yet halfway through the book I still don’t feel like I know her. At the beginning of one chapter, she takes a moment to “admire the pretty” that is Christian standing in front of her. Later on, she says,”His gaze is impassive; his eyes cold shards of smoky glass.” It’s jarring to just switch tone and mood this way. Either Ana is Hannah Montana, or she is Jane Eyre. She cannot be both.
  • For someone who says she’s never been drunk before, she drinks a lot of wine, with almost every meal, whether she’s with Christian or not. She also never eats.
  • And this is without even getting into the assumption, which goes completely unchallenged here, that everyone who gets into BDSM is messed up or damaged. Or Ana’s assumption, also completely unchallenged, that Christian just needs to be shown what true love and acceptance are to mend his ways, and thinks that that fixer mission makes it okay to completely disrespect his needs and desires–which he went out of his way to state to her, clearly and honestly.

A few chapters into the book, I started thinking of John Laroquette’s rant from his appearance on the West Wing about hitting people with cricket bats, and couldn’t stop. And I hadn’t even gotten to the sexy tying up parts yet. (I also started sending angry texts to my friend Skippy, who doesn’t want to read this book, and didn’t want to hear about it, and now knows more about it than he ever wanted to. But he didn’t tell me to shut up once. Patient man, is Skippy.)

And yes. Most of these are petty details that I should overlook. I know. People read this book because they want to read the sexy tying up parts. They don’t care about Ana’s graduation ceremony, or the length of the interview with Christian, or the fact that EL James doesn’t seem to know that “army” should be capitalized when you are referring to someone’s employer or profession, ie, “ex-Army.” But you know what? The little details irk me. They pull me out of the story. By the time I get to the sexy tying up parts, I’m angry and frustrated and I don’t care anymore. And frankly, it’s insulting. Because if EL James doesn’t have the barest minimum of respect for me as a reader–if she did, she’d notice that she said “besieged” twice in two sentences, or think for three seconds about whether Ana can see Christian’s feet and tell us about the shoes he’s wearing when there’s a desk between them–she’d care enough to get this stuff right. I can’t tell you how aggravating it is when I just want to fall into a story, but I keep getting knocked out of it by these stupid little details. I respect you enough as an author that I spent a week reading your story. The least you can do is not treat me like I’m stupid.

We deserve better than this, Gentle Readers. We deserve solid tales decently told. Even if all you want is a story that, in the words of James, “makes desire pool in your belly,” you can do better than this (or you can search on the internet for files put together by helpful people who excerpted all the sexy bits of the 50 Shades series and put them in a single document, so you don’t even have to bother with the story). The internet has entire terabytes of bandwidth devoted to better erotic and/or BDSM tales than this. (And if this book has made you curious about BDSM and/or you want to try this with your partner, for the love of god, use something besides this book and ever-loving Wikipedia as sources/inspiration/guides.)

To make matter worse, (though it was, in retrospect, a really useful juxtaposition for reviewing purposes), I read 50 Shades of Grey the same week that I listened to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on audiobook, specifically the part where Whitman is recounting his experiences as a nurse in a Union Army hospital, dressing the wounds of injured Civil War soldiers. One is a story about a silly girl whose biggest problem is that there’s a disconnect between what her brain is telling her she should want and what is actually giving her orgasms. The other is about the indomitable human spirit and the sacrifices that men make, about pain and courage and friendship and humanity. I don’t understand half of what Whitman wrote, but I feel like a better person for having read it. 50 Shades just made me want to hit things, and not in a fun sexy way, either.

I think if I was offered a choice between reading this book again, watching The Human Centipede (a movie which is, I’m pretty sure, the absolute nadir of creative human output), or getting punched in the face, I’d have to think about it. And then I’d probably choose getting punched in the face. Immediately after reading this book, I started listening to the audiobook for Stiff by Mary Roach, about human decomposition and what cadavers donated to science are subjected to. It’s gooey and mushy and contains phrases like “intracranial steam,” which is what happens when the inside of your skull gets so hot that your brains literally melt out of your ears (don’t worry, you’re dead by the time this happens)–and it’s so much more entertaining and less disturbing than 50 Shades of Grey.

Approach this book with extreme caution, Gentle Readers. I wouldn’t have given it even one star but the computer didn’t give me the option of negative numbers.

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

sedarisI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here
As I have previously noted (in my review of Bossypants), I have an unfortunate inability to connect with a lot of comedy. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s true of most comedy media, whether books or movies or stand up or sitcoms.

I do, however, like David Sedaris, at least when he has contributed material to This American Life, which I listen to entirely too much. He’s clever and funny, and knows how to exaggerate events in order to capture their true essence. For example, in Sedaris’ classic essay about being a Santa Elf, “The Santaland Diaries,” which was originally recorded and broadcast for NPR’s Morning Edition, I believe, and re-broadcast several times on This American Life, as well as being reprinted in two of Sedaris’ books and various magazines, Sedaris has this interaction with a mother and son:

The woman grabbed my arm and said, ‘You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn’t start behaving immediately, then Santa is going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.’ I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn’t behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. “All your appliances, Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

The woman got a worried look on her face and said, ‘All right. That’s enough.’ I said, ‘He’s going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.’ The mother said, ‘No, that’s enough. Really.’

Now, obviously, I don’t know if Sedaris said all this to a child. It seems a bit much to me. But I would not be at all surprised if he said at least some of it. The rest is exaggeration for effect. But I’ve been a Christmas elf. I worked in retail for a lot of years. And a little part of me just wants that story to be true so badly. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, but you know what? He got it exactly right. At his best, that’s what makes Sedaris so great: he makes these caricatures that are obviously caricatures, but are also exactly right.

When it came to When You Are Engulfed in Flames, though, my reaction was a bit mixed. Flames is a collection of essays, most of which have been pre-published in periodicals, and most of which pertain to Sedaris’ life as an American living in France with his boyfriend Hugh. What I realized, reading this book rather than listening to Sedaris perform it, is that Sedaris’ caricature humor really works best when he’s writing about people other than himself. When he turns his pen in his direction, it sometimes creates this weird self-conscious meta thing where Real David is writing about Caricature David and Real David knows that Caricature David is being ridiculous/isn’t really like that, but is writing it that way anyway. For the writing to be both self-aware and self-oblivious is a distracting, at least to me. When he’s writing about a third party, this works, because he has no access to (and doesn’t have any reason to talk about) how the person in question sees themselves, or their own internal contradictions. But when writing about himself, it’s a little problematic.

The other, much more minor, irksome detail is that he provides very little contextual explanation for even the simplest things. For example, Hugh is only introduced in the beginning as “Hugh,” not “my boyfriend Hugh,” or any other relationship signifier, and if I didn’t know who he was from listening to This American Life I probably would’ve been confused through the first two essays before I finally picked up on the context. And he never, ever, explains why he and Hugh moved to France to begin with, or why they lived in both Paris and Normandy. Did they just feel like it? Did one of them have a job? Is Hugh actually French? Were I reading just a single essay, I wouldn’t necessarily need all the background, but over the course of a book-length collection of essays, I miss it. And it wouldn’t have been that hard, either. Two sentences added in to one of the essays. A short introduction. Something.

On the other hand, Sedaris is enormously successful at bringing me along with him, and having me believe in his actions. Sedaris is a very different person than me–I can tell he expresses emotions differently, he’s looking for different sorts of relationships, he has wildly different interests, and a different temperament. He’s more cynical than me. He keeps pet spiders, for crying out loud. I do not read a lot of books where the narrator and myself are so disparate. I’m even less likely to connect with, believe in, or like such a narrator. But Sedaris pulls me in, even while I’m disagreeing with everything he’s doing, I understand why he’s doing it.

All in all, Sedaris is a talented guy. I have no idea where this book ranks amongst his others, or how it compares. I’m guessing Flames isn’t his best, but I don’t know. If you like him, it’s worth reading. If you like wry, self-deprecating humor based out of insecurity and perceptiveness, Sedaris is worth trying (and if you don’t like it, hey, it’s a collection of essays–you don’t have to read them all). I don’t know if I recommend reading this book, but I do recommend checking out the material he’s released on This American Life.

And the Santaland essay. Listen to the extended version on This American Life. Totally worth it.

Book Review: The Big Sleep

bigsleepI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

“It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.” –Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Another building block in my recent exploration of gritty, noir-y fiction (I have been reading Elmore Leonard, and wanting to re-read some Dashiell Hammett), Raymond Chandler was recommended to me by a coworker. I chose The Big Sleep because it’s the one that I’d heard of.

Many people know the general plot, The Big Sleep being both a classic book and a classic movie, but for those who don’t: It is the late 1930s in Los Angeles. Phillip Marlowe is a private detective, hired by a local millionaire to take care of a problem he’s having with one of his daughters being blackmailed. He barely starts investigating that when he stumbles on a murder, and the millionaire’s other daughter’s involvement in dangerous and/or scandalous activities. “Extortion, kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in,” as the book jacket says. The local police force is also sniffing around the case and complicating matters.

Chandler is one of those authors who–like Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett–doesn’t feel the need to tell you what Marlowe is thinking or feeling, even though the novel is told in the first person. Marlowe tells you what he does, all nice and in order, and reports to you what other characters say to him. He lets you draw all the necessary conclusions as to the facts. The only time that explanations are forthcoming is when they are within dialogue. You can read it and try to stay one step ahead of Marlowe, and figure out what’s going on; or you can read it tagging along at his heels, not needing to anticipate. It’s fun both ways. And it’s a really refreshing way to read a novel written this way, one that’s straightforward and doesn’t expound. (Compare Chandler to something like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, one half of which is almost exclusively about one character’s state of mind, rather than her actions.)

Marlowe is funny, too. A mostly decent guy, not any more dishonest than he has to be, with a wry sense of humor you can almost miss and way too much alcohol in his system, but smart enough to take care of himself in the trade he’s chosen. He’s a character you enjoy following, a more comfortable companion than Sam Spade, at any rate.

So yes. Classic. And for good reason.