Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Woman First: First Woman (2019) by Selina Meyer

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus as President Selina Meyer on VEEP, the television show.
Book Review
Woman First: First Woman (2019)
 by Selina Meyer

   I've been a huge fan of the television show VEEP from Day one, was already a fan of Armando Iannucci via his work in The Thick of It.  I was also a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Post-VEEP,  Louis-Dreyfus is set to make history as the most Emmy winning Actress of all time.  VEEP survived the departure of Iannucci half-way through the show, and prospered even after he left.   Surely Louis-Dreyfus was key to this longer-term success, though I thought she was matched by other members of the cast, especially Tony Hale- who joins Meyer/Louis-Dreyfus on the Audiobook, reprising his role as "body man" Gary Walsh.

  Fans of the show are sure to love the Audiobook, which is as funny as the writing for the show, and adds some depth to the Selina Meyer biography, including her sexual obsession with her own father, her fondness for fox hunting and blood-sport of all types and manages to leave out any mention of the time she freed Tibet.  Like Meyer herself, you get a lot of her back story, childhood and college years- which Meyer's herself thinks should have been the focus of Woman First- and very little actual politics.  It is, of course, because Meyer, who emerges as a near sociopathic personality by the end of Woman First, is motivated by nothing but an unquenchable thirst for "more," and a total lack of commitment to any ideology or even single idea.

  One part of Woman First that adds to the show is Meyer's account of her rise through the house and Senate, which was almost never discussed on the show.  Meyer displays contempt for both institutions, hilariously, in what is some of the best material in Woman First.  Meyer is also forthright about her contempt for, you know, voters, portraying the act of campaigning and even just talking to your constituents as an onerous chore.

   The whole book was hilarious- specifically AS an Audiobook, I don't think it would be nearly as funny without it being read by Meyer herself (since most of the humor of the book revolves around the fact that she didn't write the book herself, and is therefore unfamiliar with the details of her own auto-biography, amplified by her reading the book herself for the Audiobook, seemingly for the first time. 

Wit's End: What Wit Is, How Wit Works & Why We Need It by James Geary

Book Review
Wit's End: What Wit Is, How Wit Works & Why We Need It
by James Geary

   Wit's End came out at the end of last year, I finally got around to checking out the Ebook from the library, in keeping with a comes-and-goes interest in philosophy and rhetoric.  The loss of rhetoric as a subject for contemporary education is understandable if regrettable.  It still has a way of popping up in creative non fiction via a variety of routes.   A major popular route is in books related to speaking and speech, and speechmaking, and all aspects of speaking, including humor, which is where you locate Wit's End: What Wit Is, How Wit Works & Why We Need It.  An sub-title might be, "Why puns are funnier than you think," because puns play a major part in the text of the book. 

  Geary also quotes liberally from sources extending back centuries in time- the story of wit is rooted in ancient Greece and Rome, and Geary also finds a way to fold in Buddhist, Jewish and Chinese holy men to make his conception of wit as nearly universal as the existence of humor.  Aside from his broad case for the universality of wit to written/spoken human discourse, he also delves into the mechanics of wit, see puns, above, but he also spends pages on the importance of ambiguity, including lofty claims about the preferences of large groups of human beings for "ambiguous" painting styles over realistic painting styles that I'm still thinking about.

  Geary doesn't talk about timing very much, which seems like a clear element of spoken wit, and also the distinction between spoken and written wit is obscured, or maybe just left unexplained.

The Gallows Pole (2017) by Benjamin Myers

Book Review
The Gallows Pole (2017)
by Benjamin Myers

    I actually heard about The Gallows Pole from my girlfriend, who is friends with the Author's wife.  Before I bought it I heard that Third Man books would be issuing an American edition...someday, but in the meantime I picked up the UK paperback edition (was there even a hardback edition?) in December when I was last there.

    Let me tell you, if the idea of  a band of 18th century counterfeiters, (or "clippers") in the parlance of the day, operating in 18th century Yorkshire excites you, then The Gallows Pole is the book for you!   Less so for fans of English literary fiction and historical literary fiction, and maybe not at all for your average American reader of literary fiction- the jury is still out on that question!

  I found The Gallows Pole delightful- it is apparently based on real events, and the experience of people from Yorkshire at this particular time is scarce enough that The Gallows Pole can serve as a rough history of the same subject. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Eileen (2015) by Otessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh in New York. ‘I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism.’
Author Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review
Eileen (2015)
 by Ottessa Moshfegh

  If you want to find commercial/literary cross-over success, head to your local major metropolitan airport- New York, Los Angeles, and look at the display for the airport bookstore.  If a work of literary fiction is getting major shelve space, as is the case for Moshfegh's latest book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I saw it myself at JFK airport in New York three weeks ago, Boston two weeks ago and Los Angeles this week.   Surely, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a good prize for the major book awards- maybe not the Pulitzer, but a Booker Prize or the National Book Award would seem to be in reach.

  It's also a pretty good sign that after I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation I ran out and BOUGHT paperback copies of her first two books, the novella McGlue and her debut novel, the sleek n' nasty Eileen, about Eileen Dunlop, who narrates the events as a much older woman a la Titanic.  The events take place in a small town in Massacusets in the mid 1960's.  Eileen Dunlop works at a local juvenile prison and lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father, still a semi-respected figure in the town even though he has completely lost his mind and spends his days tormenting Eileen, drinking himself into a stupor, and pointing his gun at local school children who happen to walk past his house on their way to and from school.

   Eileen and her Dad live in a squalor familiar to watchers of TLC style reality shows like Hoarders and 600 LB Life.  Neither one cooks or cleans, Eileen also drinks and suffers from a variety of physical and mental maladies ranging from constipation to severe anxiety and depression.  She is, in other words, a classic Moshfegh narrator/protagonist.   I found it a compelling read, like all of her books.  I'm a believer! The cross-over success of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no fluke!

  It's also worth noting that Eileen made it to the Booker Prize shortlist in 2015, the first year American published books were eligible, losing out to The Sellout by Paul Beatty.   That automatically makes her a contender for the Booker Prize this year.  The commercial/critical success makes her a good candidate for the National Book Award. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Vineland (1990) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Vineland (1990)
by Thomas Pynchon

 I've owned a hardcover first edition of Vineland for over a decade- a remaindered first edition and I've never read it- never really even thought about reading it, even as it became one of the last 50 books from the original 1001 Books list I hadn't read, and even as I profess Thomas Pynchon as one of my favorite twentieth century writers.  Even after Vineland I've got one more Pynchon title from the original 1001 Books list- Mason & Dixon- which is a re-read for me.

  Vineland has a reputation as the least of Pynchon's novels- there are probably people who would argue that Bleeding Edge is worse than Vineland, but I'm more of a Bleeding Edge fan.    Trying to explain the plot of Vineland is a typically Pynchonian chore, but the elements involve the consequences of the 1960's, rogue federal prosecutors, northern California hippies, drugs, the Reagan era, etc.  Pynchon doing Pynchon stuff.  I found myself yearning for the Audiobook- which appears to be an Amazon/Audible exclusive, published late last year.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Vernon Subutex One (2017) by Virgine Depentes

Book Review
Vernon Subutex 1(2017)
 by Virgine Depentes

   Vernon Subutex 1 is one of the last titles from the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, alongside the winner, Flight by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, The White Book by Han Kang,  Like a Fading Shadow by Anotnio Munoz Molina, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai.  That last one is the only book on the shortlist I haven't read.    I thought Vernon Subutex 1 would get a United States release in the aftermath of the shortlist, but I was mistaken.  Eventually I tracked down the UK published English translation in London over Christmas.

  Flash forward to summer vacation, and I actually pulled it off the book shelf and read the darn thing.  I figured the lack of US publication put an end to any possible English language audience made available by the Booker International shortlist.  I suppose it's possible that the US publication rights are held by the UK publisher- that would account for a delay or absence.

 Her Wikipedia lists volumes 2 and 3 of Vernon Subutex- I don't think either book has been translated into English yet- volume 3 was published two years ago.  Subutex is the protagonist, though he shares narrating duties with varieties of friend and enemies.  Comfortable in his role as the proprietor of a Parisian record store specializing in vinyl, in the opening page he is hit with a triple whammy: the death of his Kurt Cobain-like pop star friend, the loss of his record store and eviction from his long time apartment.

  The eviction puts him on the road to homelessness, though not without a half dozen rest stops at the apartment and homes of friends from his past, each of whom gets their own narrated chapter.  Depentes tells her story mater-of-factly, there is nothing maudlin about Subutex and his descent.   He's arguably unsympathetic, since he does nothing to try to stop his fall.

  Also there are terrible decisions along the way: stealing from a wealthy divorcee who takes a shine to him, banging the tranny love interest of another temporary landlord.  Again, I'm surprised there was no American release. Hell, I'd put it out.  There is an audience among the urban hipster-lit crowd, particularly among vinyl nostaligists and/or people who 'love Paris' any of whom might be inclined to pick this up in a local indie bookstore.

The Farm (2019) by Joanne Ramos

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Novelist and journalist Joanne Ramos, author of The Farm.
Book Review
The Farm (2019)
by Joanne Ramos

   One of the interesting aspects of the entertainment-industrial complex is watching the process by which a debut novel by a previously unknown author is introduced to the critical and general public.  Joanne Ramos is a very interesting example of this process, being with her pedigree: Daughter of Filipino immigrants, raised in Wisconsin, educated at Princeton, worked on Wall Street, became a journalist, has a position at the Economist.   Next you've got the announced pre publication value a "six figure" sale for the publication rights.

  Then you've got the pre-publication role out, gathering up the book jacket quotes, early reviews and whatever public appearances a multi national publishing corporation can arrange for a first time author with no pre-existing celebrity.   I listened to The Farm Audiobook after fully witnessing that process for Ramos and her debut novel, about a shadowy, but very well-heeled surrogacy operation running in upstate New York.  The narrators include Jane, a failed Filipino-immigrant baby nurse, looking for a way to secure a future for her father-less daughter;  Ake, the Grandmotherly cousin of Jane who plays a vital role in the local (Manhattan) immigrant community, connecting new arrivals with families needing child care solutions;  Mae, the half-white, half-Chinese corporate executive, running the business for her billionaire boss; and Raegan, the privileged, white fellow "host" who becomes central to the narrative.

   There is a definite "thriller" feel to the later parts of the plot that preclude any kind of detailed description.  I would also dissent for the more hyperbolic prose which compares The Farm to The Handmaid's Tale and other works of feminist-dystopian fiction.   Whether situations such as those described by The Farm actually exist in America, they certainly exist in other parts of the world.  The issues around surrogacy are incredibly complex, but turning it into a market transaction takes away much of that complexity.  If the host and the client agree on the terms of the transaction, that's great.  If the host fails to understand the full meaning of the contract because of her status as a non-high school graduating immigrant to America, that's not great, but hardly unusual in this (or other) countries.

  I didn't love The Farm, but I liked it.  Ramos lands halfway between writing a standard-issue thriller type book and something more complicated.  I guess the year end Awards will provide the first verdict.  It doesn't look like it's been a huge sales success- it looks like the press exceeded the sales, but a run on the year end prize lists/best of lists would likely elevate those numbers.

  The Farm is a great Audiobook- another example where the accents make all the difference.  I don't think I could have put on the female, Filipino accent which describes the speech of several of the main characters in my own head, they would, at best, not sound like Filipina's.

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