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.

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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.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #21: You’re Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death and Other Humiliations by Michael Ian Black

This is my first memory of Michael Ian Black.

240 Dollars Worth of Pudding

You may be more familiar with his work as one of the funnier talking heads in the VH1 “I Love the” series of shows.

Based on my love of his work on The State and his aforementioned VH1 run, I thought I would check out the audio version of his book “You’re Not Doing It Right.” I was not aware he had written other books until referenced one, but based on this work I might check one out of the library to read.

This particular book was not engrossing, although I don’t think that it’s because it wasn’t well-written. I think I would have enjoyed it more as a written book, where I could read a full chapter at a time when I had the chance, instead of listening in chunks a few days apart. The book jumps around quite a bit, and while that worked for me in other similar books, for some reason I wasn’t feeling it in this one.

As I mentioned, Mr. Black has written other books, and I’m not sure what was included in those. This one focuses a lot on how he met his wife, what their courtship was like, their marriage, and their intense fights. It’d be really interesting to get her perspective on some of his characterizations of their marriage. He is not necessarily kind to himself (he seems pretty aware of his shortcomings) but still – I wonder how she feels about this.

Some chapters were just sort of meh, but many did really touch me, either with a lot of laughter or some pretty serious shit. His take on his dad’s death when he was a young boy was really interesting, sad and sweet, while his frankness about dealing with a colicky infant was refreshing, funny, and a little heartbreaking. And, as expected, the death of a family pet was enough to rouse some tears.

So what is it that kept me from fully connecting? Perhaps I’m just distracted. Perhaps the way I listened to it didn’t do it justice. I can’t give it the higher ratings but I definitely think it is worth a read. And even though his delivery is fantastic, unless you’re going to be strict about stopping after a chapter and not in the middle, I’d say read the book instead of listening to it.

Kash’s #CBR5 Review #14: Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex by Erica Jong

When I read about this book in an issue of Bust magazine, I was very excited. I bought it immediately but it took me at least a year to sit down and read it. The pretext of this collection of essays is about the best sex you’ve ever had. Whether fictional or non-fictional. Each author was asked to write about sex, and there were various various differences from author to author.

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geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #3: Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?

–David Foster Wallace, “Consider The Lobster”
 
NATURAL TALENT
 

There is a point near the end of David Foster Wallace’s essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” where DFW speculates that the platitudes and cliches that spout endlessly from the mouths of athletes do so because the athletes themselves actually experience reality in the simplistic manner these catchphrases attest. Perhaps Natural Athletic Talents are just that because, in the moment of trial, what goes through their heads is quite literally nothing at all. They tell us “You just gotta take it one ball at a time,” because that’s the true and exhaustive explanation of events as they see them.

It’s fair to assume that a major league scout or a coach selects a NAT because he understands that their specific outlook is devoid of distraction and singular of focus, and that this precision is exactly what is needed on the field. The truly great athletes, that is, the NATs, do what they do because they experience the doing simply and effortlessly and without question or distraction.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN A GENIUS AND A NATURAL
 
From the representation of his work offered by the collection Consider The Lobster, it seems to me that magazine editors tapped David Foster Wallace again and again because his is a mind that functions in exactly the opposite way in which he describes the mind of a NAT. Looked at from the perspective of their likely original pitches many of these pieces possess a similarly mundane and thankless starting point. “Review this dictionary.” “Review this biography on Dostoevsky.” “Go to the Maine Lobster Festival.” “Go to the AVN Awards.”
DFW is not a NAT because he is incapable of simply doing what is asked of him in a way that is effortless and free of distraction. DFW may, however, be a genius because he can be distracted and can be willing to follow that distraction well past the original assignment.  Many of the pieces in Consider The Lobster are the result of a man who, when given a simple path to follow, had a remarkable ability to turn a corner and start sprinting in a different direction. A direction that usually ended in profundity.
SHOWING INSTEAD OF SAYING
 
When tasked with reviewing a remarkable biography of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, DFW discovered in the writing of FMD a certain bravery and reality that he felt much of the writing of modernity lacks.  Dostoevsky wrote believable 3-D characters who lived in complex, interesting, and engrossing plots. Unsatisfied with just these twin achievements in literature, FMD also wrote about the most important themes in human life: love, death, war, suffering et al.
Wallace was not content to simply explain the greatness of FDM, or even that of his biographer. (See already how far from our initial premise we’ve come?) He instead felt it important to contrast the fact that FMD wrote brilliantly and with importance while modern writers would be inclined to use sarcasm or ironic distance or even tricks of formatting to allow themselves to touch on such themes without having to, gasp, address them with honesty and sincerity.  What DFW decides, instead, to do, is contrast the import of Dostoevsky with the inconsequence and insufferability that results when a writer tries to poke heavy themes with a stick from a distance. And he does this by touching these themes in just the way he’s decrying: “sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”
CONSIDER CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
 
Ultimately it is the title essay that most aptly displays for the reader the greatness of David Foster Wallace. No less a publication than Gourmet Magazine commissioned our author to travel to the storied Maine Lobster Festival. The MLF has a storied existence, both in the pages of Food & Wine and in the B-roll of Red Lobster commercials. The affair itself, however, seems unfortunately a bit more like something from the latter.
After learning from natives that they don’t really attend and seeing for himself that the place is crass and disgusting and commercialized and bloated, DFW simply begins to run out of story. With more column inches to fill than he has so far, but likely fewer to fill than he would ultimately require, DFW turns his corner. The piece devolves into a brutal and stomach-churning examination of the creature at the very heart of the matter. Is it all right that we boil these creatures alive? They seem not to like it.
You need not care much for the lobster, but you will be forced to consider him. Homarus americanus. All evidence seems to lead us irreconcilable to the fact that the lobster feels pain despite the fact that it would be much more expedient and convenient if it did not.
Likewise, all evidence seems to lead us to the fact that an expedient completion of a simple assignment was beyond the reach of David Foster Wallace, and we are much the better for it.
2013

MartinJ’s #CBR5 review #1: Mythologies by Roland Barthes

roland

Barthes’ collection of essays exploring the mythology in popular culture is his most famous work. Written each month from 1954 to 1956, the collection was a best seller in France in 1957 and has become one of the most well known works of semiotics (for instance, although only a few of the essays deal with the cinema, my film theory lecturer insisted it was the one book we should all read). The essays themselves differ in length (12 pages is devoted to wrestling as a spectacle of suffering; soap powders and detergents get 2) but the variety and humor make it a quick read. While the insights into society are perhaps less valuable to someone not living in 1950s Paris, and some of the contemporary references are dated, surprisingly little has changed, especially when it comes to advertising, and as an approach to decoding modern life Barthes’ examination of the signs and symbols all around us are still useful.

It is hard to choose a favorite. ‘The Romans in Films’ deals with fringes and sweaty faces as signs for Roman-ness in cinema. ‘Wine and Milk’ and ‘Steak and Chips’ examine the importance and significations of these foods to the French. ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’ and ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’ are essential reading for all critics, dealing with common faults even the best suffer from constantly (that the subject of criticism is ineffable; the critic confesses they are too stupid to understand something philosophical; that criticism has to walk a middle line politically). Most of these are only a few pages long yet they identify so well and succinctly these problems that I’ve felt but would struggle to articulate myself. Barthes’ analysis will also start you questioning what you see around you.

Paris_Match_-_child_soldier_cover

It is the concluding segment, ‘Myth Today’, that binds the book together into a coherent theory. While it uses far more technical terms and so might be more difficult for a lay reader to follow, it is valuable because it shows how these simple signs become signifiers themselves and attain the status of ‘myth’. For example, in the picture above the saluting black soldier is a signifier of many concepts (French, military, ethnicity), and through these concepts becomes myth, chosen by the magazine to show

that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors

The ideology perpetuated by this image is not ‘present’, explicit, and so it is a modern ‘myth’. While I would have liked Barthes to have written more about the cinema before his untimely death in 1980, he did publish a collection about photography, Camera Lucida, that, after revisiting Sontag’s On Photography, I’ll tackle sometime this year.