Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Do you guys know who Jenny Lawson is?

I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Jenny Lawson until a few weeks ago when my friend Austin told me to read her book “Furiously Happy“. I sometimes find my inability to keep up with culture funny; usually I just beat myself up about it. That actually makes me a perfect audience for Jenny Lawson.

Well… That and one more thing…

I’m a guy who’s life is made much better by the miracle of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. It may be thanks to Jenny Lawson that I can even tell you that. I don’t know. I definitely know that my issues have about a millionth the impact on my life that Jenny’s have on hers. I also know that she is at least a million times better than I at turning those issues into both insanely funny stories and extraordinarily poignant lessons in dealing with mental illness. Well actually not just mental illness; Lawson’s lessons are really life lessons for all of us. This is partly because, as she reminds us, every one of us falls somewhere on the spectrum of mental illness. But, even if you don’t believe that there is much to learn from Jenny Lawson.

Basically, as for “Furiously Happy“, you all just have to read it. Is an amazing book. I have done one better in listening to the audio book which is read by the author. But, whatever. Experience this book!!! Trust me. One way or other, someday you’ll be tested on it.

Now… There is a certain class of people who will say that this is really a girl book, the textual version of a “chick flick”. I beg to differ. I am definitely a dude and I most definitely dig Jenny.

I don’t know why anyone would say a guy would not get this book. Jenny talks a lot about vaginas. But we guys like vaginas.

Maybe we are not supposed to understand Voodoo Vaginas but, even then, I don’t know why not. A Voodoo Vagina is what happens when you take a fake stuffed vagina with a little baby inside (just a teaching tool for God’s sake!) and you put real human pubic hair on it and it turns into a sort of voodoo doll. Makes sense to me.

So, I think it’s a perfectly awesome book for guys.

Another possibility is that we won’t find all of the stories as funny as women do because we have different experiences as guys. I don’t buy that either. I laughed my ass off… Continually going “hahahahahaha that’s just like MY  wife”. 🙂 See… It works fine for us Jenn. Sell more books to dudes!

Okay I gave away the Voodoo Vaginas. I won’t spoil any more of the book. I won’t go on about taxidermy, cat mittens, packing material, therapy, child rearing, hair pulling, cutting, giraffe heads,  pool possums, tax-deductible costumes, travel fears, um….oops… Shit.

Those are only a tiny fraction of the themes so I really did not damage your experience. Besides, her stories are what’s funniest and at least I didn’t tell you any of them. Except the… <kidding>

Look…. Seriously… This is an amazing book and Jenny is a hilarious reader. Please take time to check out “Furiously Happy“. Even if you don’t like her “potty mouth” you can’t possibly avoid laughing. More importantly you will learn a lot from the “serious” parts. Perhaps most important of all, this is a rare chance to experience someone who struggles with mental illness but who, unlike most of us, has the guts to admit it, to ask for help, and to use her amazing sense of humor to help the rest of us to strengthen our ability to deal with our demons.

This ain’t a chick book. It’s a human one.

I’m sitting here completely stunned; overwhelmed by an extraordinary piece of writing. This is not a happy book. This is not an inspiring book. This is a horrifying book; and one of the most profoundly sad stories I have ever read. Yet, this is also one of the most beautiful 700+ pages of prose I have ever encountered.

You know those books about the old college friends who get together after a long time apart and reestablish their close relationships? Well this ain’t one of those.

You know those stories about the guys who were treated horribly as children but grow to adulthood and finally become well-adjusted adults? Nope. This isn’t that either.

You know those BDSM stories that make it seem like the person being beaten or tortured actually enjoys is the pain? This is not that story.

How about the newspaper articles about the abusive priests? Nope, not that.

The Stephen King horror novels? Nope.

The stories with the many plot threads that continually intertwine until you realize they are a work of craftsmanship of the highest order? Now we are getting closer. But this is not that either.

Is this a novel of horror? Maybe. Love? Maybe. The terrors of a horrible childhood? Perhaps. Compassion? Friendship? Adversity? Sexual identity? Child abuse? Genius? Adult adoption? I don’t know.

I am not exactly sure what this book is. What I know is that it is so intense, so horrifying, and written with such extraordinarily beautiful craft that I could not possibly read it. Thank God for audible.com.

Hanya Yanagihara has written one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Her second novel, “A Little Life”, tells the horrifying story of Jude St. Francis, A man whose life is so sad and terrible that it is difficult to imagine anyone being treated in a more disgusting and terrifying way then he as a child.

One of the most amazing things about this novel, however, is that this immensely horrifying story is told in such extraordinarily beautiful language that it is almost impossible to believe it is a story of a man’s sexual abuse and the result of that abuse on that man’s life. It is a sickening story written in one of the most beautiful ways I have ever seen.

I was not joking when I said I could not read this book. Every page would give me nightmares. Fortunately I have been able to listen to the book read by a remarkably astute performer. The Audible Studios production is really wonderful. It is well read, or I really should say well acted, and that is what allowed me to get through it without having to stop every page or two.

Honestly, you can read a lot about the book simply by reading other reviews. I do not know how to draw a line between what I should describe and what I must leave to your imagination. So, it is best that you get your summary from another source. All I would like to do here is to encourage you to look into this truly amazing novel and to consider checking it out. For some of you it may not be as emotionally difficult to read as it was for me. But, whether you read it or listen to it, I strongly encourage you to experience this book.

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Decades ago, for a short period of time, I dated an African-American girl named Terry who lived in a part of Los Angeles where white guys were not often seen. I always thought she was cute. Then she was treated for Leukemia with chemo and she lost her hair. Interestingly, after that I thought she was really cute. Maybe I had an Annie Lennox fetish or something. Who knows. But, enough with introductory babbling, here’s my point…

More than once, as I was getting into or out of my car – or walking down the street – someone would honk at me. I always wondered if I knew anyone else in town.

One day, as I was walking down the street with Terry, I asked her if she knew the people who were honking – or if she knew why they were honking.

She said: “Are you sure you want to know?

I said: “Of course, why wouldn’t I?”

She said: “Those guys are honking at you because you are white – You’re a HONKY”.

I have always been proud of myself for my willingness to walk around a neighborhood where I really did not belong. But, I have to admit, I probably wasn’t very bright. The point is that I knew far less about LA African-American culture than I thought.

This brings me to my primary point. I thought I understood a culture of which I knew very little. I thought that my Jewish culture, also being one that had to deal with a history of racism through many centuries, made my culture similar to theirs. I thought I understood their culture. I understood nothing.

If you have a read my writing over the past few years then you realize that I believe myself to be one of the least racist, most culturally embracing, people around.  In fact, I believe that I am often most critical of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the people who think they are white”. I generally like people of color more than those who “think they are white”. Yet, be that as it may,  I have come to realize that I still know very little.

Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Mr. Coates newest book “Between the World and Me” has blown my mind. I still know that I don’t understand African-American culture. But I also know that its cultural uniqueness really is (still) rooted in its history of slavery and discrimination. Gang culture, gun culture, fear of law enforcement officers, crack addiction, and a very deep sense of familial love are part of a culture rooted in constant threats to the ownership of ones own body.

Here are a few sentences that blew me away:

“Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.”

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”

“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not a religious man. He is not a Muslim or a Christian. He is a pragmatist. Coates views his body, his physical existence, as an end in and of itself. This allows him to to speak to us, through letters to his son, of a need to both take responsibility and to hold our government accountable for 2 centuries of treating African-American men and women as less human than their white-wannabe counterparts.

This is not just some excuse; it’s not something to be set aside as “changed long ago”. Just like my Jewish identity has roots in Egypt and I honor those roots beginning on Erev Passover tomorrow night, their African identity has roots in the slave trade and they have every right to say “no!” to setting those roots aside.

So, here’s the deal: Before reading this book I would not have agreed that the injustice of American slavery is still alive today. Now I do. I do because from Ta-Nhisi Coates I have learned the same thing I learned from wandering around the wrong ‘hood in Los Angeles nearly 4 decades ago. When it comes to the deeply rooted injustices that form the African-American cultural mind….

I knew nothing.

This is a book that we who are white, or who “think we are white”, simply must read.

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

 

 

I just finished reading the first novel by Iraq war veteran Michael Petre. It is the fictional story of a combat engineering group of US Marines in the Iraq war: Their leader, a young medic, a bad-ass but very competent female sergeant, and an extremely well spoke bilingual Iraqi interpreter (or “terp”) who works alongside them. It’s a truly fine first novel that touches into the souls of all involved. I want to share a few thoughts and to urge you to read it.

I have never been in the military. I’ve never been in a combat zone. But after reading this book I feel like I could have been. If you have ever tried to understand why an Iraq war vet doesn’t think you’ll understand how she or he feels; if you’ve ever met a vet who acts differently than you’d expect, if you’ve ever questioned whether a woman can hold her own in combat, if you’ve ever thought that only the American side of the Iraq war story is the one you care about, if you’ve ever felt good about saving American lives while killing Iraqis, if you’ve ever though that the war in Iraq was easy to understand, then for these and many more reason’s you MUST read this book.

Fives and Twenty-Fives is not a perfectly written novel. It has a relatively simple structure and sometimes a lack of sophistication and nuance. But it is an extremely strong first novel. More importantly, any tinge of immaturity in the writing is far and away offset by the extraordinary story, the emotional impact of every single character, and the deep truths the book reveals.I was stunned and overwhelmed by the stories of the diverse characters. Each has a finely honed backstory as well as a surprising depth of emotional life.

One thing that I loved about this book is that, although it’s written from a very American perspective, it is pretty unbiased. It does not try to simplify or “play down” the effect of the war on Iraqi men, women, and children. Even those who are our enemies are portrayed with real human emotion, compassion, and respect. As for those Iraqi’s who worked side-by-side the Americans, this book candidly portrays their conflicts and struggles.

This may not be one of those books that our successors will read 100 years from now. But for we who watched a 13 year war against an unpredictable enemy from the sidelines, the book is a must read..

Imagine what would happen if World War I had ended, a great peace had been brokered, and then because of a mass loss of memory no one remembered why they had fought or what anger and hatred remained.

Imagine what would happen if, after the American Civil War, no one remembered their lives in the antebellum South or their fight against slavery in the north. What if a great peace were negotiated, the north and south became friends, and then all memories of hatred were lost in a strange fog that occluded all memory?

What if a husband and wife were deeply in love, even after growing to an old age, despite some very difficult events in their past. What if they could not remember that past because of the same mysterious memory loss I just twice mentioned.

Would the loss of these memories be good because they fostered peace?

Would they be bad because the past was forgotten?

And… What would happen when these memories were restored? Should they be? Who would want them to be? Who would not? 

These are the questions that we are forced to ponder when an elderly Briton couple named Axl and Beatrice leave the comfort of their Villiage on a quest to find their son. En route to his Villiage they take custody of a Saxon child and befriend a Saxon warrior on a mission from his king. Thus begins the tale recounted in the long awaited novel The Buried Giant, the 7th by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Buried Giant was published in March 2015 after Mr. Ishiguro’s long absence from the world of fiction. It is too early in the year to know what is to come. But, it would not surprise me if this book stands as one of 2015’s best.

I’ve yet to find a method to summarize the plot that avoids spoilers. So, I won’t say more about the travels of Axl and Beatrice. What I will say is that, details aside, this book is chock full of metaphor and stands as an extraordinary study of the power and peril of memory. 

I’m a vocal proponent of never forgetting the horrors of the past. I’m a believer in the notion that history is destined to repeat itself. This book did not change my mind and I don’t think that such is its intention. But, one of the powers of the book is that it made me consider the alternative. And… I love stories that make me think!

Kazuo Ishiguro is a master writer. He has well honed his craft. He is a storyteller of great accomplishment who has crafted a beautiful lesson in memory, couched in the guise of an equally beautiful quest.

Any more and I’ll spoil the story. But I will say that it’s a great tale of quest, a finely crafted work of fiction, and a masterful application of allegorical storytelling. 

Enough said, now go and read. Feel free to share you thoughts here because I want to hear them. Is it worth risking the need to confront the past by opening the door to memory? Or is the bliss of forgetfulness a hidden blessing?

You tell me.


Here is what you need to know about bread:

Basic Topics

FLOUR – Without flour your bread will be too wet.

WATER – Without water your bread will be too dry.

SALT – Without salt your bread will rise too fast.

YEAST – Without yeast your bread will rise too slow.

Advanced Topics

PRE-FERMENTING – Preferments make your bread’s flavor more complex by extending ferment time.

POOLISH – Mellow preferment

BIGA – Rustic preferment

Graduate Studies

LEVAIN – Makes your flavor most complex (see also “Mr. Blob”)

Appendix: Electives

PIZZA – Make your bread flat, put stuff on it, bake really, really hot

FOCACCIA – Make your bread flat, work in a ton of olive oil, put stuff on it, bake not quite as hot. (see also, Pizza)

Coda

COOKIES – For the hell of it bake some cookies.

THE END

References

Needless to say “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast” by Ken Forkish is my favorite baking book. Read it.

Anais Hendricks has an astonishing vocabulary. In the space of a single thought she can use both the “F word” and the “C word” more times than most drunken sailors will in a week. In Scotland, where Anais has been in and out of foster homes and countless “care units”, it seem that the “C word” is even commonly applied to men. Anais has an amazingly broad application for these to words, along with the ever provocative word “shite”. But that’s not why Anais’ vocabulary is amazing.

Anais Hendricks dreams of living in Paris, owning a little dog, drinking café au lait, and reading everything in the National Library (including the reference books). She is different from most 15 year olds who share her blend of drug use, sexual promiscuity, violent crime, and other illicit behaviors. Unlike other kids, she is REALLY smart. Anais is well read (named after her prostitute-adopted-mother’s favorite author, even), knowledgeable, and surprisingly worldly for a kid who has been bounced around within a Scottish child care system that seems to have given up on her, is just waiting for the right reason to place her in a “secure unit”, and expects nothing for her but an eventual life in prison. So, Anais basically has nothing going for her and nothing to which she may look ahead.

But, it’s not simply that she seems to have no future; Anais also has no real past. You see, Anais Hendricks does not know her birth mother who died in a mental institution. An elderly gentleman in the institution is certain he saw Anais when she was born. He says that her mother flew in the window on a flying cat and gave birth in the institution. That is not the most credible supposition, though. So, Anais often passes time playing “the birthday game”, trying to invent, for herself, a credible backstory,

Anais Hendrick is the protagonist of the new novel “The Panpoticon”; the first novel by Scottish author Jenni Fagan. As the book begins, Anais is being sent to a newly designed institution for juveniles, The facility is called “The Panopticon” after the prison design of Jeremy Bentham; which I actually discussed in a different context, on this blog, in October 2012 (http://wp.me/p1I5vv-9H);  for putting a policewoman in a coma. Anais remembers nothing of the night because she was so stoned. That is… except for trying to save a half-dead squirrel (and I won’t spoil anything by saying more).

Within the dark world of the Panopticon are a variety of adults who, not surprisingly, constantly let the young residents down, Anais, though, builds powerful friendships with her fellow residents. These include two girls: Isla, an anorexic, self-mutilating, HIV-positive teenage mother of twins, and Tash (Isla’s supposed lover), who’s big dream is to raise enough money to rent a flat by working as a prostitute. Both of these girls are far more troubled than the Panopticon can deal with. Both are contributors to the novel’s deep embodiment of tragedy; yet, both, in their own unique ways embody a deep beauty as they strive for meaning. Then, of course, there are the equally pitiful young men of the Panopticon. One is a prostitute himself. Another (perhaps the books most debased character – but perhaps not!) is shunned by everyone because his big crime is that he raped a dog. Let’s just say there is no shortage of emotional derangement among the residents here.

Anais thinks continually about her ‘bio-mum’, Helen; her relatively useless social worker; and her imprisoned boyfriend who (again without spoiling things) turns out to be the cause of one of the most terrifying and powerful scenes of deceit in any book I’ve ever read.

As I said already, Anais does not really know her past. But, she is quite confident that she’s part of something she calls “the Experiment”.

She says:

“In all actuality they grew me—from a bit of bacteria in a petri dish. An experiment, created and raised just to see exactly how much fuck-you a nobody from nowhere can take.”

But, you see, Anais Hendricks is not the product of an experiment at all. And THAT is one of the books main points: She is the product of all the adults who have abused her, lied to her, taken advantage of her, disrespected her, used her for their own fulfillment, provided her with every manner of narcotic, and then locked her up for following the path that they themselves have enabled.

Throughout the majority of this book, I struggled with my feeling that this should be one of those nihilistic, existential, postmodern stories of futility that I should hate. I could not really figure out why I liked it until it ended and it continued to stick with me and disturb me for days. Finally, I came to realize why I did not hate it; why I love this book. Anais Hendricks is a HERO. She is not the kind of role model hero in whose footsteps you want your children to follow. Certainly not. But Anais is a fighter and that’s not necessarily bad. Criminal or not, Anais is compassionate enough to grieve over a squirrel and sums herself up like this:

“I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.”

I’m sorry, but if there was ever the use of the work “fuck” that you can call beautiful, there it is.

In the end, my assessment of The Panopticon is that this book a gripping, powerful, deeply disturbing book. But it is also the story of a 15-year-old compassionate, honorable, young woman who refuses to forsake her individuality,  to give up on finding her personal story, or to continue to seek a path to meaning in a disaster-filled life in which “the system” provides no hope. Did Anais put a cop in a coma? Was Anais the product of an evil experiment? Is a dog and a cafe in Paris even a possibility? Well… if I told you what I know I’d kill the book for you; so I won’t. What I will say is that you should read it, and in among the wretchedness and the angst, look for hope.  l Could not put the book down for the last few chapters and it is in my thought now long after those last chapters.

Personally, I see hope amid terror; and that’s a good thing.