Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #36 Naked by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is obviously a great writer. I have a few friends who swear by him, so I figured I’d jump back in to see what all the hubbub was about. I previously read “Holidays on Ice” but it didn’t make much of a lasting impression.

The realism in this memoir is larger than life. Sedaris has composed a series of essays that skip around in his life, though there is a thin thread of forward motion as it traces moments in rough historical continuity. It is almost too bright in detail because the stories trotted out from Sedaris’ life are not inherently funny. They are hard stories, and awkward stories, but his usage of language and vantage point manage to take a sad or poignant moment and give it the edge it needs to make it palatable to the reader. What someone else would milk for sympathy he just states in a matter of fact way. Before you realize it, you are laughing at something that if told to you by a different person, might make you cry.

The absurdity of his life is striking, and I can see why it is so popular, though it’s not really my cup of joe. If you enjoy squirmy absurdist comedy, than give it a look. But if like me, you are the kind of person that strongly sympathizes with others you may like it, but it may be a hard read.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #76: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

sedarisIt’s been a couple of years since I read my last Sedaris, so I was about due. I picked up his latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls from the library as an audiobook. It was a good decision. (As a point of interest, one of the essays does have owls in it, but nowhere, at least that I could find, does it contain the word ‘diabetes.’ The title is somewhat of a mystery to me.) I’ve also never read a Sedaris by audiobook, and it was delightful. He’s a scamp, Sedaris is, and he doesn’t fail to entertain.

Highlights include: European dental care, Sedaris’s hilarious (and weirdly understandable) obsession with picking up litter along the English countryside where he owns a home, multiple stories with Pater Sedaris walking around in nothing but his underwear, some wonderful anecdotes about his always amusing family, the story of his first colonoscopy, and the titular essay, in which Sedaris struggles to find a stuffed owl to give to his long-suffering partner, Hugh.

This wasn’t my favorite Sedaris, however, for a couple of reasons. There were a couple of essays that made me feel weird. I can’t remember the first one, but there was this story with baby turtles that made me sick to my stomach (it was well-written, I just couldn’t handle what happened). The other reason is that there were several shorter essays at the back of the book that Sedaris wrote specifically to be read aloud by others. He did this when he learned that children have been reading his stories aloud in competitions and wanted to be helpful. I think this is a funny idea, but the problem with it is that I didn’t actually care for any of the stories. I much prefer his non-fiction, I think.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #38: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe

I was not aware of Mr. Kluwe (punter, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, currently of the Oakland Raiders) until he wrote his now famous letter, posted on Deadspin, ripping a Maryland elected official a new one for suggesting that football players should not be able to speak out in favor of civil rights. In fact, an attempt to replace the vulgarity in that letter (lustful cockmonster) resulted in the title of the book (Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies).

The book is not a memoir; it is a collection of essays – some previously printed, some new for the book. It’s Mr. Kluwe’s way of sharing his thoughts about life. Some chapters focus on football (though not all, nor even most); most focus on his ideas about how we can improve society. He suggests that the things he values most in life are empathy, justice and truth, and spends time discussing his support for equal rights for gay and lesbian people.

I really wanted to like this book. Like, kind of desperately. I follow Mr. Kluwe on Twitter (@ChrisWarcraft), and have enjoyed his 140-character comments. I also fully agree that just because people are in a position such as he is (celebrity, well-known football player, generally famous person) they don’t forfeit their rights to have an opinion. He seems to be a progressive libertarian, although I’m not sure he’d agree with that, because from reading the book (especially the entertaining chapter ‘Who is John Galt”) I get the idea that he is not a big fan of libertarians. However, possibly accidentally, much of what he says shows a distinct lack of empathy in areas, and a few of his statements read like they came right out of the straight white libertarian bro guidebook.

Perhaps I’m judging him unfairly; I had admittedly high expectations, and since he has cleared the bar of basic human decency of recognizing that gay and lesbian people are, you know, people, I think I was looking for him to hold similarly progressive views in other areas. Perhaps he does, but doesn’t realize how his words come across. Let me share some examples (jotted down into Evernote when I was listening to the book, so I won’t have exact quotes):

– The way he characterizes welfare came across as at least partially buying in to the bullshit ‘welfare queen’ concept. Mr. Kluwe seems to fully recognize that people do need help from others (see the aforementioned John Galt essay), but his words suggest that there’s a short window there, and that if someone is on it longer than his pre-determined length of time, then they are just milking the system. Eh. Really? That’s not a nuanced view.

– One section gave me the impression that he thinks unions are bad, and that union workers are lazy people who have no incentive to work hard. That was definitely off-putting and disappointing.

– He made a prison rape joke (of the ‘don’t drop the soap’ variety). Really? That’s empathy?

– He’s super self-righteous when it comes to atheism. He appeared to willfully misinterpret the definition so that he could claim that he’s morally superior because he calls himself ‘agnostic.’ I’d like to point out to Mr. Kluwe that the majority of atheists out there would certainly believe in god if there were actual evidence; their stance is that CURRENT evidence is insufficient. They aren’t claiming to know definitively that there is not a god, so the argument that they are just as irrational as religious people is not only super old, but super incorrect.

– His go-to voice (I got the audio-book) when he wants the person speaking to sound unintelligent is a southern accent. That’s regionalist and not cool.

– Finally, he REALLY dropped the ball in understanding domestic violence. He essentially assumes people stay in those situations because they think things will get better, and they are just liars lying to themselves. Read up on domestic violence. Learn about it. DO NOT call the survivors who stay ‘liars.’ That’s insulting and shows an utter lack of the real issues around being able to leave. For example, one might certainly know things aren’t going to get better, but fear the whole BEING KILLED BY THEIR PARTNER WHEN THEY LEAVE thing. Not empathetic.

I can’t recommend the book. It’s fine, there are definitely some really good parts, and as I said, the writing is not bad.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #48: The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross

013After reading 5 essay collections more or less in a clip, I figured I’d suck it up and go hard on the form. The OBE is 680 pages of pure essaying goodness in the English language, so no Montaigne, though his shadow obviously lingers over the result. Kicking off in 1625 with Francis Bacon chewing over the truth, and winding up rather oddly with Clive James in 1980 snarking about Judith Krantz. I read them side by side, deciding to take a double-pronged approach to the book (see illustration), flicking between the back and front. This made for some odd combinations, like Bacon’s essay deflating the snarky jibes of James – I guess the latter had to be included, given his reputation at the time, but he hardly shines having a go at a pulpy author. In my mind I edited it out, choosing as a better addition this delightful recent piece by Tim Krieder as a better finale, or the second to last work, Joseph Epstein’s wonderful About Face.

Henry Fielding and James Baldwin, Jan Morris and Charles Lamb, Lewis Thomas and Lord Macaulay – it made for entertaining combinations. Subjects veer all over the place, though it’s unsurprisingly dominated by old white dudes, there’s a mutual disdain for sentiment and love of language throughout. All the best display a commitment to specificity and generosity of mind, though I found the most joy in strange places: the natural history coverage (especially Loren Eiseley’s The Snout), Reyner Bayham on the potato chip (or crisp for the limeys), Macaulay on Clive, and the grace and wit of authors in places I wouldn’t expect. Some of my favourites  I relished and saved up as reward for getting through a particularly tough bit of Victorian theology – MFK Fisher on Young Hunger, Joseph Addison’s Sir Roger, Pauline Kael on Movies on Television. I read a lot of people I’d never dared try before – William James wasn’t as scary as I thought he’d be, neither was John Stuart Mill or George Santayana. Two selections defeated me – David Hume and James Anthony Froude. The Froude bit was on the philosophy of Christianity, and there seemed to be a lot of God in the selections, even the second Mencken essay chosen was a weak one dealing with archaic gods. I know religion is a Big Deal and all, but I did allow myself a cheer when I got to Twain having a go at the All-Powerful Creator for inventing the fly.

Some of the pieces have dated badly – Elizabeth Hardwick’s The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King made me cringe, and throwing in Baldwin’s sublime Stranger in the Village doesn’t do enough to make up for the overall disinterest in racial politics. Snark and pessimism ages badly (James Stephen on Joyce: “the English language doesn’t permit more than a spoonful of pessimism – to be well shaken before taken – for it isn’t built that way”), and Hazlitt’s On the Pleasures of Hating testifies to that: ultimately the old curmudgeon doesn’t convince, even though he was one of the finest writers ever, he’s writing himself in to a corner.

Looking at the whole thing from a distance, there’s a lot of theology and ethics, a smattering of theatre/arts writing, a bit of politics (loved Walter Bagehot’s Dull Government), absolutely no sports, which I was surprised by, and much on human weaknesses. I finagled the reading so that I’d end with T.S. Eliot, represented by his oddity of self-projection on Marie Lloyd and working class art (and how the mechanical age and movies are killing us with boredom. LOLarious). But it was Katherine Anne Porter’s The Necessary Enemy that I’ve dwelt on, the same way I lingered over Chesterton’s Sandals & Simplicity, or Beerbohm’s A Clergyman. The best essays pack a punch, but also a perfume, to mix metaphors flagrantly. There’s the initial impact, once you’ve wrinkled out the meaning, and then there’s the unexpected gift you take with you unawares.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #42: My Planet by Mary Roach

My PlanetI went on Amazon while writing my review for Gulp, and that’s when I discovered yet another book by Mary Roach that I needed to read. My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places (2013). By now, I’ve read all of Roach’s books, so there was no question about me picking up this one. I’d never heard of it before, but apparently it was a collection of articles that Roach had written for Reader’s Digest. I wasn’t sure what these would be like, but I was certainly willing to find out.

Click here for the rest of this review.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #45: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

9781408842393I think the publisher is trying to flog this as Patchett’s memoir, which it ain’t. It’s a collection of her non-fiction, stuff she cheerfully points out in the intro was mostly written to pay the rent while she worked on her novels. Which fits in to my current thirst for essays very well. I have read some of Patchett’s fiction, and loved it, but the book of hers that walloped me was Truth & Beauty. The story of her friendship with author Lucy Grealy, I read it in my early twenties and had never encountered such a deep examination of female friendship. It’s still a personal touchstone for me, one of those books that reached me just when I needed it.

She touches on the legacy of that book twice in this collection, in two works that confront the attempted banning of Truth & Beauty when it was assigned as college reading. Her tone is a little shrill when dealing with it, but then, if someone dismissed my work as Satan-loving pornography, I’d be shoving a pitchfork in their nethers, not demonstrating nearly as much good grace.

There is a lot of biography in here: her parent’s miserable marriage, her own joyful one – despite the title, this is not a smug couple fest, it’s genuine and astonished, her writing on writing, and her dog, Rose. I will ‘fess up: I skipped the chapter about her bookstore, not because I don’t trust her opinion, I just cannot deal with any kind of commentary on the publishing/bookselling industry’s future anymore. I have reached my absolute limit and get slightly ill even thinking about it.

The rest of this collection I hoovered up, with tremendous joy. She is self-effacing about this work in her introduction, but there’s no need: it’s a first rate set of writing.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #44: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

imagesBest known for his GQ profiles, which take on popular culture from very idiosyncratic perspectives characterised by a ‘John Jeremiah Sullivan’ savant-doofus character bumbling around in them, I was a bit wary of this collection. I stumbled on the opening essay, Upon this Rock, which opens seemingly hellbent on banishing straight journalistic standards of brevity and objectivity to whimsy along with this Sullivan character making a dick of himself en route to his subject matter – a Christian Rock festival. Better seen almost as a travelogue-meets-memoir, over 40 pages it gets down into sociological insight, theological meandering, and memoir: rewarding, once you’re tuned in to his frequency. But a little too clever for his own good, maybe. Easy to worry over the idea that he’s repping the only worldview that allows this kind of indulgence. Just imagine a similar essay written from a female or minority perspective: it would be dismissed as “too personal”, I bet. (Relevant).

Still, that’s not JJS’s fault, and Jeebus knows, the guy can write. I’d already read his nigh-legendary Axl Rose profile, which riffs on the Gale Talese ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’ no-contact-with-the-primary-subject format, and does so brilliantly. I re-read it for probably the third time in this collection, and enjoyed it even more. His Michael Jackson profile ‘Back in the Day‘ is the stand out from all his popular culture analysis bits, hell it’s the best Jackson piece I’ve ever read and had me on the verge of tears.

But where he really surprised me was his reportage of more esoteric subjects. The pieces on Native American cave art, eccentric naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, and the weird insular world of early blues record collecting, which spins into a discourse on American heritage and memory, are jaw-droppingly good. He gets out of his own way in this work, and gives the subjects more foreground.

Not that I’d want to have missed his description of renting his house out to a TV company as a set for One Tree Hill, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I finished this collection feeling a little more in awe of the world, and more than a little stupid in comparison.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #38: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Diabetes With OwlsI’ve read most of David Sedaris’s books and enjoyed them, so it was a no-brainer to pick up his latest, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, Essays, Etc. (2013) as soon as I could get my hands on it. The “etc.” part of the title consists of six, short fictional stories. But for the most part, this book is very similar to his previous ones, with original and humorous stories about his life. If you liked his previous books, you should like this one as well.

It’s been awhile since I last read Sedaris, so I’m not sure if it’s just this book, but I seem to be able to appreciate his writing more now. I especially noticed his descriptions and unique ways of coming at his stories. Sedaris doesn’t start an essay about his first colonoscopy with arriving at the doctor’s office. Instead it begins at a dinner party in Amsterdam, and then jumps to a discussion of his relationship with his father before he finally settles in to his topic. This somewhat meandering style is very entertaining and still easy to follow. Most of the stories in this book stem from Sedaris’s talent in finding the absurd humor in our everyday lives, much of it self-deprecating and refreshingly honest–although (I’ve heard) perhaps exaggerated.

Click here for more.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #43: Distrust That Particular Flavour by William Gibson

I’d remembered the review of an essay collection by Douglas Coupland. It had been in the Saturday Guardian book section. Or the Observer; whatever, the placement of the article on the page was fixed in my mind, along with the sensation of attraction and interest. I’d bookmarked it in my head. I could comfortably know it would be there – ‘there’ being wherever I chose to look for it, in a bookshop or library or on record on a catalogue or the Guardian website or Google.

Except it wasn’t. I looked it up a couple of times, trying to get the name right, and it maddeningly refused to show up. I whacked the enter key over and over again: Coupland, nonfiction. I looked at his Wiki page enough to have that now fixed in my mind’s eye. The only nonfiction work he’d produced had been on architecture or something, and the dates were wrong. How could he have done this to me? Was it some sort of postmodern stunt?

Then I was looking for something else at the bookshop, and there it was: a collection of essays from the career of William Gibson.

You and I have a vague idea of how computer memory, or a tape recording, or a video clip, works. But the human memory does things we’ve come to recognise and adapt with, but that are still strange and wondrous things emerging from a far more complex creation. Gibson is a science fiction writer – and bless him for always referring to himself as such – who has a good handle on just how weird our own wiring is.

We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run.

– Dead Man Sings

I read this book out of embarrassment at getting it wrong. Sorry, Gibbo. But I’m very glad I did. Back in the days just beyond cave painting and wax cylinders when I was getting half of a degree in media studies (whatever the hell that is), I had to trudge through all this New Media Theory verbiage that was very big just then. Cyborg theory and the posthuman era and network society and Marshall bleeding McLuhan and his dated aphorisms all got weary glances from me. I’m never very interested in predictions for the future, because I’m mostly a coward and a slothful one. Change is scary and disorientating and I don’t long to know just how unprepared I am for the world of tomorrow.

Gibson is very good at nailing the glazed-eye visions of the future trotted out by professional predictors. While he’s benefited from stumbling over ideas of future technology – he is humble about coining the term ‘cyberspace’ and downplays any hand he had in ‘predicting’ it – as the title says, he distrusts those who claim to see exactly what’s coming.

It’s this critical distance, as well as his sense of irony, and matchless curiosity, that make him so good at writing about technology and society. Not that there’s anything as simple as one theme in this book, though if it is, it’s not that; it’s really about psychology. But it goes to some interesting places

It swings around from Singapore’s totalitarian Disneyland chic to early eBay adventures in the vintage timepiece category, to his Steely Dan fandom, to introductions to some of his foundational ideas – autobiographical sketches snuck in to discussions of tech and lit. A beautifully-designed collection, most of the essays or speeches are a few pages long, but they’re all interesting and I found them compulsive reading. How much of it I’ll remember afterwards will be another adventure.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #38: Why I Write & Books vs. Cigarettes by George Orwell/Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy read at an event I went to recently, and maybe it was the gin in my system, the London night air, or her Marianne Faithful-esque sultry voice, but I fell head over heels for her. I’ve got a copy of Black Vodka, her short stories, but I’ve only dipped in to them for short sybaritic bursts. When I saw that Notting Hill‘s posho essay series had released her response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’, called ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’, I figured I’d rip through the Orwell before getting stuck into Levy’s (handsomely presented in a royal blue mini-hardback).

But the thing about George Orwell is, you can’t just read a single essay. It’s like a bag of chips; who can stop at the first one? I couldn’t get a paperback of Shooting the Elephant so I rampaged, pachyderm-like, through these two samplers from Penguin’s (somewhat cringe-worthy) ‘Great Ideas’ series. All of Orwell’s essays are available online, not that I ever have to fill up a tiresome work hour. No siree bob.

Thing is, if you’re going to listen to someone’s views on Orwell, it’s just as easy to read him directly – he comes from that part of history just slipping from living memory, and has left such a huge legacy. It’s all too revealing to discuss him and really just reveal your own shortcomings and predjudices. His great mission, to make political argument that was both objectively truthful and beautiful, is still a much-needed and worthy one, and his gift of showing that politics and philosophy and literature are for (and should be for) everyone, and not just the domain of a privileged few, is really displayed in these short works. There’s a quote in the Wikipedia entry for him by historian John Rodden: “John Podhoretz did claim that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time?”

It’s clear from reading these essays that Orwell would think it batty to judge a writer outside of his own social context, and also clear that he wouldn’t think much of the Tory buffoons currently dismantling the NHS – nor the pitiful Labour party opposing them. Instead, he’d criticize both sides, well aware that the problems were far more systematic than a simple right/left split.

Another eyebrow raiser from Rodden (via Wiki):

Rodden goes on to explain how, during the McCarthy era, the introduction to the Signet edition of Animal Farm, which sold more than 20 million copies, makes use of “the politics of ellipsis”:

If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay Why I Write: ‘Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism … dot, dot, dot, dot.’ “For Democratic Socialism” is vaporised, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened at the beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted.

Why I Write does outline his commitment to Democratic Socialism. The longer work, The Lion and the Unicorn, written during bomb raids in London, outlines the need for a social revolt against capitalism as the only way for England to win WWII. If bombs were falling on my head, I wouldn’t be able to write-think-anything coherently, let alone produce a reasonable call for massive social upheaval, and it brought home to me the sheer extremes of the pressure of the time.

Deborah Levy’s essay – about 100 pages long – opens up with her crying on elevators. While Orwell uses his own history in ‘Why I Write’, his chronology is more straight-forward. Levy goes back and forth in her personal experience, using illuminating quotes from female writers like Duras, Sand, and Woolf, to bring out the story of her own voice.

I read it breathlessly. The prose is so beautiful, the way she tilts mundane issues (the motherhood/identity/domesticity grind, the labour of writing, the tedium of the suburbs, the confines of politics on children, and the stickiness of nationality) detonated in my little brain. I haven’t got it to hand – it was a borrowed copy! – and I’m feeling too dunderheaded to condense her brilliance with my thick fingered typing. But I think Orwell would approve of her response, which is the best compliment I can think of.