Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “amurph11”

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #52, The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

“It was not worth it.” -Mary, Mother of Jesus

My relationship with the Virgin Mary has always been a little complicated.

I grew up in a religious household, so I was of course introduced to her at an early age. Every year, she was trotted out in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, where they would tell her story––the angel, the donkey ride to Bethlehem, the virgin birth in a dirty barn––and then put her away with the rest of the Nativity set, not to be seen or heard from until next Christmas.

This was fine with me, because as Biblical figures go, aside from being my introduction to the term “virgin,” Mary never held much interest for me. We had nothing in common, I felt, and yet as I grew older she was constantly thrust in front of me as the ultimate role model for women. You can see the value a character like Mary would have as a tool for reinforcing traditional gender roles, given that her defining characteristics are virginity, motherhood, and submissiveness to God. But traditional gender roles didn’t appeal to me, so I just found her boring. She had no thoughts or opinions of her own, she was simply a means to an end, a side note in a larger story.

It’s fitting then, that in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary it is her interpretation of the events surrounding her sons life that takes precedence. Though the narrative itself does not stray much from its source material, the Mary Tóibín imagines is completely her own, a full-fledged character worlds away from the shallow, one-dimensional figure we’ve come to revere from Renaissance paintings. This Mary does not believe her son was the Son of God. She can’t stand his followers, does not approve of their mission to evangelize the world on his behalf, and though she acknowledges the existence of his miracles, she finds their effect dubious at best.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the example of Lazarus. Lazarus, for those of you who did not go to Bible school, is a man that Jesus raised from the dead. After his death and resurrection, not much is said about Lazarus. Like Mary, he fades into the background after he has played his part in the narrative. As a child, I used to wonder what happened to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead, and the picture Tóibín paints is not pretty: having experienced death, Lazarus finds himself removed from the world. He does not speak, he can barely eat. And through his example, Mary begins to question the value of the work her son is doing.

This is what differentiates Tóibín’s Mary with the Mary most of us are used to. Unlike the serenely knowing, quietly submissive Mary we are so used to seeing, this Mary does not understand who her son is or what he’s trying to do. In fact, she tries actively to prevent him from doing it. Much of The Testament of Mary details her struggles to reconcile the son she loves with the Son that is headed willfully to his own death, and to do what she can to stop it. At the wedding in Cana (which Biblical scholars will recognize as both the site of the water into wine miracle and one of the only other times Mary is mentioned in the New Testament), she confronts him, attempting to get him to see the danger his life is in and agree to come home with her. He responds by saying (as he does in the Bible), “Woman, what have I to do with you?” At this moment, she knows that he is lost. And yet up until the end, she continues to ask whether there is something that can be done, whether his death can be prevented.

Colm Tóibín is a master of detail, and this is seen nowhere so much as the climax of the book, Jesus’ crucifixion. Unable to process the horror of what is happening, Mary finds herself focusing on details of the scene around her: the way the thorns embed into her son’s forehead, pushing themselves deeper as he tries to pry them out; the way the crosses keep tilting over when they are being put into the ground, the people nearby, playing dice, or in one memorable case, a man feeding rabbits to a live hawk in a cage (this image, incidentally, calls to mind a painting that Tóibín credits for giving him the inspiration for the book). After hours of bearing witness to her son’s suffering, afraid for her own safety, she flees before he’s even dead.

It is her decision to flee that most haunts her, in her old age. She constantly searches for gaps in her memory, places in the narrative where by acting differently she may have been able to save her son. Even as she finds none, even as she knows there are none to find, she continues to look for them, to the point where her memory becomes confused. First she dreams that she saw her son alive, then she dreams that she was with him when he died, and she starts to think that maybe she did stay, maybe she cried over his broken body and washed it in preparation for burial. These false memories have a dreamlike, Titian quality to them, a genius stroke of authorial subtlety, comparing the reality Tóibín imagines to the myth we’ve all accepted. In the end, reality wins out. At night, she still dreams of her son alive and well, of herself as a dutiful mother, but in the harsh light of day, she is forced to reckon with the truth: she had a son, and now her son is dead, she could not save him and no protestations about eternal life from his disciples will bring him back.

There’s a verse in Luke 2:19 about Mary, that takes place soon after Christ’s birth: “And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” My mother always loved that verse for what it said about Mary’s character, but it made me want to scream. If she was meant to be a role model for all women, I thought, it stood to reason that she should have more to say about what happened to her, about what happened to her son. It never occurred to me that maybe Mary never wanted to be a role model. I think I would have liked her more if it had. 

At the end of the novel, Jesus’ unnamed disciples, Mary’s protectors and bane of her fragile existence, attempt to make her understand the value of her son’s death. It was all part of the plan, they say, to redeem the world, to which she responds:

“I was there. I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses than I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #50, Bunnicula Series by James (and Deborah) Howe

This is a review of a children’s series, so childless adults or those who do not have an overdeveloped sense of nostalgia for children’s literature may feel free to look away.

For those of you that are still here, let me refer you to what is perhaps the most enjoyable children’s book series ever, of all time. The Bunnicula series is named for a vampire bunny who relieves vegetables of their juices, leaving them white and withered, a mystery to the owners of the refrigerators they formerly inhabited. The books are narrated by a large sheepdog named Harold, who enjoys many dog-like activities such as lying by the fire, chewing on running shoes, and eating snacks meant for humans, including chocolate cupcakes (NOTE: do not feed your dog chocolate cupcakes. It will die). Harold’s companion Chester is an uncommonly intelligent housecat, who reads philosophy and classical literature in his spare time, and whose early brush with Edgar Allen Poe has given him an unhealthy obsession with mystery. Harold and Chester live with the Monroes, a typical suburban family made up of a college professor father, a lawyer mother, and two rambunctious sons.

In Bunnicula, the first book of the series, Harold and Chester’s relatively idyllic existence is threatened by newcomer Bunnicula, a rabbit found abandoned in a revival movie theatre that just happened to be playing Dracula when he was found by the Monroe family. At Bunnicula’s entry to the household, white vegetables start showing up, sucked dry of their juices and pigment (best not to think about the biological implications, here). Chester leads the reluctant Harold on a maniacal quest to catch Bunnicula at his own game, and alert the Monroe family to his dastardly deeds. The results are mixed, but the sheer fun of the journey can’t be overstated. Harold is an endearingly reliable narrator, and the beleaguered relationship between him and Chester is reason alone to pick up the series for any kids of your acquaintance. Bunnicula was written by James Howe and his wife Deborah, and after her early death, James continued the series on his own.

Howliday Inn is the follow up to Bunnicula, and my personal favorite of the series. To be honest, I was always much more interested in Harold and Chester’s dynamics than the vampire bunny convention, even as a kid. Bunnicula doesn’t speak, much less make jokes, which made him much less interesting to childhood me (and adult me, for that matter). Howliday Inn dispatches with Bunnicula and the Monroe family, setting its plot at Chateau Bow-Wow, a kennel cutesily marketed as the Waldorf-Astoria for house-pets. Chateau Bow-Wow turns out to be much more along the lines of an Econo Lodge off the freeway, as Harold and Chester find out when they stay there while the Monroe family is on vacation. Replete with a sinister doctor, two incompetent staff hands, and a cast of fellow guests that range from a lunatic cat, a dachshund couple who may or may not be werewolves, and a love triangle made up of an English bulldog and two poodles: one French, and the other a Southern Belle. Howliday Inn is an old-school murder mystery. As the pets staying at the Chateau Bow-Wow disappear one by one, it puts on in mind as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, except funnier. As usual, Chester leads the crime-solving endeavor, until unthinkable disaster strikes and Harold is forced to take a reluctant leading role.

The Celery Stalks at Midnight reintroduces the titular Bunnicula, as the tiny vampire rabbit goes missing, leaving a string of whitened, dried up vegetables on his trail. This book marks the introduction of Howie, newest member of the Monroe family, a somewhat dimwitted dachshund with a propensity to howl. The Celery Stalks At Midnight was the first book I ever read of the series. It was loaned to me by my old babysitter, Heather Allison, and I was immediately hooked. Besides the first three, there are four other books in the Bunnicula series: Nighty Nightmare, A Return to Howliday Inn, Bunnicula Strikes Again! and Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow (why yes, that is another reference to Edgar Allan Poe). All are witty and wildly enjoyable, and a great choice for either a) reading to your kids, especially if you’ve already mowed through all the Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and J.K. Rowling, and b) reading yourself, in a fit of nostalgia, while Hurricane Sandy rages through your backyard (I’m way too much of a wimp for most scary books, so it was that or Sherlock Holmes).

I bought these for my nephew’s sixth birthday this year and “read them to him,” by which I mean I read him a chapter and then, after he fell asleep, sneaked them out of his room and devoured them all in one go. I highly recommend you do the same.

Recommended for: bored parents and their brainy children.

Read when: the electricity has just gone out during a thunderstorm.

Listen with: rain, wind, and the occasional burst of thunder.

#CBR4 Holiday Gift Guide: Your Precocious Nephew/Niece (Review #46, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein)

Let me say this right upfront: I am not a Tolkienophile. I read the Lord of the Rings three times: once as a tween, again as a teenager, and once more as a young adult, and every time I found it for the most part yawn-inducing. Bloated fantasy fiction is not my thing. If I had been J.R.R. Tolkien’s editor, I would have told him to cut it down by at least a third.

Nevertheless, The Hobbit holds a special place in my heart and on my reading list. It is one of two books I believe should be read aloud to every kid (the other one is The Phantom Tollbooth, and if you haven’t read that or had it read to you, I’ll let Michael Chabon tell you why you should). My brother read The Hobbit to me as a young child, and it’s a memory I associate with so many good things in life—comfort, safety, and descriptions of delicious-sounding food. Mostly though, I remember it (and The Phantom Tollbooth) as the first books that didn’t make me feel condescended to. As a child, I was always mildly suspicious that people were talking down to me. I hated that in adults, but I hated it even more in books. It felt like the ultimate betrayal—for books, in which one is supposed to find an escape from reality, to contain the same thinly-veiled condescension that exists in the real world was unthinkable. I loved Roald Dahl for this reason; I also loved The Hobbit. Despite its winks and humorous asides, it never took its characters or its audience less than completely seriously. This is shown nowhere so much as the scope of the novel, and the world Tolkien created for it. Say what you want about Tolkien, but his ability to create a fictional world so vivid that it allows one to forget the world in which they’re actually living is unparalleled. It is this, more than anything else, that makes The Hobbit such a delightful read.

Surely, you’ve heard the plot or at least managed to glean a few details from the relentless trailers for the adaptation playing before every single movie (including, probably, The Hobbit itself). In case you haven’t, the plot centers around the titular hobbit himself, Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo is a homebody classic to his species, except for a bit of inconvenient, adventure-hungry Took blood. It is this little-explored side of him that prompts him to accept, if somewhat reluctantly, an invocation to a quest, put forth to him by the friendly wizard Gandalf the Grey. Bilbo goes on an adventure with a tribe of dwarfs to retake the treasure of their former home, the Lonely Mountain, from the dragon, Smaug (a more perfect name for a dragon villain there has never been). From there, the plot bounces along through myriad scrapes and close calls, including the most memorable scene of the book, Bilbo’s introduction to Gollum and his most prized possession, the titular ring of Tolkien’s later trilogy. Even as a child, without having read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I had an accurate sense that the ring’s importance superseded the story in front of me; it was details like that, left out for the reader but not fully explained, that made me feel like I was reading a grown-up book, a book that took me as seriously as I took it.

For this reason, The Hobbit is the book you should get for your precocious niece or nephew—especially if it is their first introduction to chapter books. I would give it to my own precocious nephew if it weren’t for the fact that his parents, both huge Tolkien nerds, have probably already read it to him several times by now. My nephew Timothy is precocious mostly because my sister treats him as if he is; he learned to read at such a young age because she encouraged him to; he speaks like a tiny adult because she treats him with the seriousness of one. Being an introverted middle child, she is very conscious about making her own children feel paid attention to, and treating their thoughts as important ones. Perhaps because of this, Timothy has grown up to be a very serious thinker, and a serious reader. He started reading chapter books at the age of 5, a development which thrilled me, because I had been waiting impatiently for my nephews and nieces to reach the age where we could share books.

Timothy is the perfect candidate for The Hobbit. He loves adventure—Star Wars is his favorite movie—but loves asking questions. He loves it even more if he asks a question that can’t immediately be answered, because it means he can look for it himself. This makes The Hobbit a perfect read for him; self-contained enough to make a satisfying read, but leaving a breadcrumb trail of hints and questions to tantalize the minds of the young and curious. Someday, no doubt, he’ll be old enough to read The Lord of the Rings, which, bloated though it is, will lead him into a world where curiosity and imagination are paramount, and where one can completely lose themselves for as long as they want. He’ll take that message with  him when he grows up, so that if he’s having a rough year, or if it’s getting close to Christmas and he’s feeling old and unspirited, he can pick up The Hobbit and read it again, remember all the things he felt when he first read it. Maybe he’ll buy it for his own niece or nephew, or his own kid, and the joy he gets from seeing them introduced to this world will make him feel young again.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #45, A World Made of Blood by Sebastian Junger

“What’s more frightening at age thirty: a rebel checkpoint or a job interview for a life you don’t want?” -Sebastian Junger

A World Made of Blood is Sebastian Junger’s first stab of fiction, in the form of a short e-book based on an event that happened in his young journalistic career. I would probably have been able to guess that this was a) his first fictional piece, and b) based on a true-life event had I not already been made aware of these facts. This is not necessarily because the piece itself is bad, but because it falls prey to a lot of common habits of first-time fiction writers who are used to staying firmly in the realm of fact.

A World Made of Blood is the story of Daniel, a young journalist (and stand-in for Junger) and his more seasoned photographer, Andre. Daniel and Andre find themselves in the middle of Sierra Leone with a militia unit who are, to put it lightly, ambivalent about the presence of journalists in their ranks. The story takes place within the span of twenty-four hours, and reads like a day-in-the-life of a relatively green foreign war correspondent with the addition of a devastating (and quite literary) conclusion. This is good and bad: good, because Junger uses his well-honed journalistic prose skills to evoke an almost frighteningly vivid sense of place; bad, because in doing so, he manages to leave out quite a bit of narrative detail. Junger manages to simultaneously explain too much and too little. The story is peppered with generally unnecessary journalistic asides (“Andre’s the photographer” is a prime example of the kind of just-the-facts-please sentences that populate it), while neglecting to develop its characters in any meaningful way. Junger, so good at writing for characters that exist in real-life, seems to shy away from applying the same deep insight his fictional characters. This is probably because the main character is based on himself. It’s a great tool for beginning fiction writers, basing a main character on oneself, but it tends to lead one to take all sorts of things for granted. A lot of the relatively short span of the story seems like it is spent setting the stage; we get a great sense of where Daniel and Andre are, but not why they’re there, and who they are, and what they want. This is a shame, because main characters don’t get much more interesting than conflict-seeking journalists, but for some reason Junger stops short of fully exploring the ethos’ of his main characters the way he would of his non-fiction subjects.

The source of this, as with the story’s other, smaller problems, is likely Junger’s self-consciousness. Putting yourself out there in fictional form is always intimidating, but it’s especially intimidating if you are known for non-fiction. When you’re used to journalism, fiction feels like cheating. All the weird, godlike positions fiction writers have to take, like assigning motivations and physicality to their characters, shifting around timelines and flat-out inventing facts, do not come naturally to writers used to maintaining the hard line of journalistic ethics. This becomes even more complicated when you’re writing about an event that had a profound effect on your own life, as Junger is here. You can feel his self-consciousness in his resistance to plumb too deeply into his characters, and his prose, which wavers between his own elegiac, descriptive quality and a strange, formless staccato that seems meant to evoke Hemingway. A lot of writers want to write like Hemingway, and it’s no wonder—his spare, mournfully stoic prose is a thing of beauty. But just like you can’t paint like Picasso until you’ve learned to draw a proportionate human face, you can’t write like Hemingway until you’ve splayed out your characters like cadavers, taken them apart and put them back together, spraying a lot of blood on the table in the process. Eventually, you can clean it up into clean, workmanlike sentences. But you can’t do that until you get a little messy. Here, it seems Junger was afraid to get to messy. It’s no wonder: this is a story based on a complicated, traumatic incident. It’s not easy to revisit those, fictionally or non-fictionally, and the effort Junger makes to do it here is admirable. Still, in the end the story reads less like a fully-formed narrative and more like a race to the finish line of catharsis.

Fittingly then, it’s at the end where he finally finds his writerly feet. The lead-up to the climax and conclusions feels a bit like a hastily constructed tent, but once we get under it there is something well worth seeing:

“Scattered in the packed red dirt, their belongings looked pathetic, almost embarrassing. Dead bodies look pathetic in the same way, Daniel thinks. HE hasn’t seen very many, but on some level there’s always the smug thought, ‘I’m alive, you’re dead.'” There’s no greater gulf between two people, no greater inequality.”

“The killers would move on up the road toward the rest of their brutal little lives while the three of them stayed where they were, unrecognizable in their last agony, forever unconcerned with the affairs of men. The shadows would lengthen and it wouldn’t matter and the sun would set and it wouldn’t matter and finally dusk would creep in—the birdcalls, the sudden agitation of the forest—and still it wouldn’t matter.”

This kind of beautiful prose, occupying the fraught tension point between grief and fear, made it well worth reading A World Made of Blood until the end. I just wish he would have taken his time getting there.

Amurph11’s #CB4 Holiday Gift Guide – Your Idealistic College-Aged Sister (Review #44, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo)

You know that scene in High Fidelity where Barry and Dick are standing around listening to this album that turns out to be by the little skate punks that constantly shoplift from their store, and Jack Black admits, with a weary sigh, that their music is really fucking good? Here, let me just show you:

That expression on Jack Black’s face? Is how I felt the whole time I was reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

I really wanted to hate this book. First of all, it’s the darling of every white person East of the Mississippi, which always gets my contrarian hackles up. Secondly, and more importantly, it belongs to a brand of non-fiction that I cannot stand, a form of writing that is popular in college freshman seminars and sociology 101 classes the world over. I don’t know if there is an accepted name for this type of writing, but let’s call it Poverty Travel Lit, wherein an author—usually Western, and white—undertakes a book about a poor, non-white community. The protagonist is almost always a white Westerner, and plays the Savior role to the lucky poor, brown community. The best/worst example that typifies everything I hate about this kind of writing is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. It is, and I mean this sincerely, the worst book ever, a compendium of paternalistic concern-trolling, a White Savior Complex textbook that worships the white Savior (Greg Mortensen) and is only interested in the members of the community themselves only insofar as they affect our hero. Color me unsurprised to find out years later that Greg Mortensen was mostly full of bullshit, his organization a hive of non-profit corruption.

This is more or less what I was expecting from Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: a glossily written “isn’t it just so sad” pictorial of a white woman’s journey through the slums. Instead, I found the opposite: Boo does not capitulate to the temptation to make oneself a character; in fact, she does not show up at all in this book, except in a brief afterword. The entire book focuses on Annawadi, a slum outside the international airport of Mumbai, and the residents therein. These residents are not pitied, and they are written not with the dissociative alienation of most white writers visiting poor communities, but with an intimate insight into their lives, motivations, and feelings—indeed, the access with which Boo wrote about the internal lives of Annawadians sometimes made me uncomfortable. I assumed she was taking creative liberties, until I read the afterword and realized that Boo reported on this community for five years. Her dedication to her subjects and her awareness of the tight rope she was treading in choosing to tell their stories reminds one of nothing so much as an embed in a military unit. She reports on their lives dispassionately and without judgment, plumbing their motivations without a single condescending aside.

I would be remiss to write about this book without mentioning its flat-out outstanding prose. Boo is a ridiculously good writer, vivid and lyrical, but with a constant, unwavering undertone of realism. In this way, though their subjects differ, she’s actually quite a bit like Sebastian Junger. She writes with both empathy and a distinct lack of emotion—a difficult combination to pull off, to be sure, but one shouldn’t really write about an oppressed community without it. Most of all, she writes with a deep but non-presumptuous knowledge of the subjects on which she is reporting.

The narrative of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is split between the perspectives of several stand-out residents of Annawadi: Abdul, the stalwart teenage owner of his family’s garbage collecting business; Fatima, his one-legged, embittered next door neighbor; Asha, Annawadi’s first female slumlord aspirant; Sunil, an resourceful orphaned scavenger; and Manju, Asha’s daughter, the only female in Annawadi to be attending college. The narrative flows between these characters, tying together two overriding themes: lack of social safety nets, and rampant corruption.

The first theme is the thread the ties all of the narratives in the book together. Abdul’s business is successful, making enough to potentially move his family out of the slums and onto their own property, until the jealous act of one of his neighbors jeopardizes it. This is the hinge on which most of the story turns, and it emphasizes the fact that communities like Annawadi are tightropes without a net beneath them. There are no second chances in places such as these; there is barely a first chance. This is also emphasized by the frequent, pointless deaths that hover around the narrative like fruit flies. At Partners In Health, an organization I used to work for, we used to call these stupid deaths: easily preventable with a bare minimum of resources, and therefore grievously pointless when they occur. Lots of stupid deaths happen in Annawadi. Its residents live under the constant knowledge that death and complete poverty are just around the corner, so easily achievable that they’re almost inevitable.

What this does to the community is without a doubt the most interesting aspect of the book. One might assume, if one had never lived in a beleaguered community, that the single characteristic most affected by constant oppression would be hope. But such is not the case. All the residents of Annawadi have personal hopes and dreams, meager as some of them may seem to our “dreams come true if you only believe in yourself” culture. Instead, it is the capacity for human empathy that seems most ravaged by living under these circumstances. Humans are very resilient; it takes a lot for us to lose hope in ourselves but not as much, it turns out, to lose hope for the people around us. In one memorable scene in a book, a man gets hit by a car and lies in the street moaning as almost every single resident of Annawadi passes him by, each with a reason not to take time out of their day to live in the hospital. He dies by the end of the day, and it’s probably for the best, because with an injury like that he wouldn’t have been able to make a living anyhow.

Corruption, then, seems an inevitable byproduct of a community with so little opportunity. This lack of empathy, brought on by the harsh realities of slum life, makes progress into kind of a competition, and like in most competitions, corruption abounds. It’s difficult to write about corruption in a country that isn’t your own without coming off as smug and holier-than-thou. Boo manages it unflinchingly by actually questioning the origins of that corruption. It was particularly refreshing to get such a dispassionate view of how corrupt not just the government is, but also the non-profits who operate within communities like Annawadi and Mumbai. Asha, for instance, makes a significant percentage of her money from operating a network of schools to empower girls. These schools do not actually exist, except for one small one that Asha’s daugher Manju continues to teach, to Asha’s annoyance. She simply gets a heads-up whenever contingents of (usually white, usually wealthy) donors and managers of the non-profit are visiting, and bribes locals to come pretend they are being taught. This is what happens when non-profits enter a community they have no knowledge of, set up shop without the input or investment of locals, and start pouring money into it, and Boo makes no bones of pointing this out. The genius of her writing, however, is that she points it out not via editorial aside, but by presenting the facts as they stand and letting the reader come to their own conclusions.

This kind of reporting is rarer and rarer, because of the significant investment it takes. Boo spent five years reporting from Annawadi, an investment most of us would balk at. This doesn’t make her a hero by any stretch—it’s that kind of thinking that gets us the Greg Mortensens of the world—it just makes her a really good reporter. And that in and of itself deserves to be celebrated, in an age where the standards of journalism have sunk to depths unimaginable by our predecessors.

The best part of this book, however, isn’t the stellar reporting or the beautiful prose. It’s that, unlike Three Cups of Tea (and even Mountains Beyond Mountains the somewhat less offensive tome about the founder of my former place of employment), this book is unlikely to convince any college-aged kids that they need to visit India, right now, to help all those poor people. There is almost nothing more useless than an idealistic college kid in a community in which she doesn’t speak the language, has no insight into the culture and no skills that would be at all useful to the residents therein. That’s why you should get this book for your little sister. Chances are, she’s already planning to spend her summer break from college abroad somewhere with an organization whose references and credibility are sketchy, but includes room and board in the slum of her choice if she can pay for the plane ticket over there. She’ll spend two weeks there, build half a house, and claim it changed her entire life. For the rest of her life, she’ll speak of that community with the smug knowledge of someone who spent less than a half-season of a TV show there. So unless you want to be subjected to sentences that begin with “Well, in India…” for the rest of your life, buy her this book. It won’t change her life. But it might change her perspective.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Holiday Gift Guide: Your Wonkish Republican Brother-in Law (Review #43, Why Romney Lost by David Frum)

Everyone has at least one in the family; that Republican in-law who thinks William F. Buckley was the second coming, adores the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, and who during the 2012 election, despite waning polling numbers, continued to claim that Romney would somehow come out on top.

That guy’s having a rough year. The best course might be to buy him a nice bottle of Scotch this holiday season, but you should definitely sneak a copy of David Frum’s Why Romney Lost in there as well.

Despite its title, the e-book Frum released soon after the conclusion of the 2012 election is not simply a treatise on the failure of Romney’s candidacy. Instead, it’s a treatise on the failure of the party itself, and an outline for its future. The short book is split into three alliterative sections: Defeat, Delusion and Deliverance. In parsing Romney’s defeat, he lays little blame on Romney himself, and places the whole of it on the Republican party as a whole. Most of the positions Romney took that proved ultimately unacceptable to the American people, he claims, were those demanded of him by the current Republican party. Frum gives Romney more credit for moderation than I do, but he’s not wrong when he points out that Romney was a more credible candidate before he started listening to his party. Moderate Mitt showed up only late in the game, when his team hastily constructed a front of more moderate-sounding policies to trot out during the first debate. This worked only momentarily; proving the edict that debates don’t change votes, Romney had already gone way too far down the Republican rabbit hole for the majority of voters.

So how did this happen? As Frum explains in the second part of the book, the Republican party has been stuck in a morass of delusion since the 2008 economic crash. His explanation is convincing; Republicans, he argues, hit just as hard by the recession as their Democratic friends and colleagues, were not able to tolerate admitting that some of the economic policies closest to their heart may have contributed to the crash, never mind that the leader of their party and Commander in Chief had presided over it. Desperate to apportion blame, they searched for an aspect of Bush’s presidency to differentiate themselves from, and they came up with the deficit. In an altogether stunning move, the Republican party managed to shift the conversation from the recession to the deficit in what seemed like a matter of minutes, steering every economic conversation back, as ships born ceaselessly into the past, to the deficit. Never mind that drastic spending cuts are a universally terrible idea during a recession. Never mind that the similar British push for austerity was having terrible results. For the past two years, the GOP have had two talking points: cutting spending, and refusing higher tax rates.

The cognitive dissonance associated with this view––that the deficit is the most important priority, but that we have to pay it down without bringing in higher tax revenues––has been fascinating to watch. When the Bowles-Simpson act was brought forward, a plan for reducing the deficit involving a moderate combination of reduced spending and higher revenues, many moderates (myself included) were shocked at the GOP’s refusal to consider it. Congressman and future VP candidate Paul Ryan voted against it in favor of his own budget, a plan whose extreme tax cuts would have prevented the deficit from coming under 1% of the GDP for forty years, as opposed to the decade it would take Bowles-Simpson. Frum points to this move as the pinnacle of GOP delusion, an all-cards-on-the-table act of intellectual suicide. How to explain citing the deficit as the #1 priority only to vote against a bill that would reduce the deficit in a decade in favor of one that would take four to do the same? How to justify calling for massive, across-the-board spending cuts without touching defense or Medicare, two of our biggest costs? And how does one move forward from such feats of delusion?

To hear Frum tell it, the first step is a harsh dose of self-awareness. The party has put itself in an intractable position, as he points out. They have gambled all their credibility on one base: that of white, mostly old, people. Economically, they’ve bet it all on two issues that can’t live in tandem: massive tax cuts, and paying down the deficit without touching the entitlement most dear to their constituents. This is not a position that allows for progress, so Frum advocates an abrupt turn of pace, in the form of four priorities: economic inclusion, environmental responsibility, cultural modernity, and intellectual credibility.

For the GOP to survive, he argues, it must become more flexible on the issue of the economy, accepting thoughtful compromise in the form of sensible spending cuts with moderate revenue increase. They must accept the problem of the environment, and choose to pursue a solution in line with Republican ideals (it is on this issue that Frum is the weakest; his recommendations on environmental are ambiguous at best, advocating solutions that involve increased environmental responsibility that does not infringe on free enterprise, without ever stipulating what those solutions might be). They must stop trying to turn back the cultural clock, and accept that women are equal, physically and reproductively autonomous members of the workforce, that gays are able to live openly with their families, and that non-whites are, to put it simply, here to stay. Lastly, they must stop trying to form their own alternate realities, wherein climate change does not exist, the deficit caused the recession, tax cuts are all that is necessary to promote job growth, and pregnancy from rape is an impossibility not worth discussing. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying and as Frum repeats here, “you are entitled to your own beliefs, but not your own facts.” Instead of living in our own realities, we must use facts as the foundation for our ideas. Instead of living in an idealogical bubble, we must try to convince others of the merit of those ideas.

It’s a good road map for the party’s future, one we should all root for, even the Democrats among us (it is never good for one party to hold a monopoly over public opinion; tension between two opposing views is good for democracy). If only Republicans would listen. After a few half-hearted excuses mostly having to do with Hurricane Sandy, the GOP punditry turned its back on Romney with mind-blowing speed, and went back to doing what they do best: blaming the GOP’s failures on anyone and anything but themselves. Those guys need to read this book, and so do the people who are listening to them; namely, your Republican brother-in-law. Buy him this book, and after he finishes it (it’s a delightfully quick read), have a reasonable, respectful discussion about it over that bottle of Scotch.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Holiday Gift Guide: Your Loveable Asshole of an Ex-Boyfriend (Review #41, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby)

*For those that missed it, I will be reviewing books for the month of December as part of a holiday gift guide series. Please enjoy my recommendation for the most recent entry: that endearing douchebag you used to date and still hang out with sometimes. 

I have this friend that I’ve known since college. You might call him an ex, if it weren’t for the fact that we were both too immature to actually date, preferring instead to vest all kinds of quasi-romantic indignities on each other under the auspices of friendship. Having put all that behind us, now we’re just buds who just tell each other about the romantic indignities we vest on other people. And in that spirit, we have this tradition: every once in a while, I get a text message from him comprised simply of a quote from High Fidelity, something like this:

“It would be nice to think that as I’ve got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that evening in everything that happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one.”

This usually serves as a sign that either he’s just broken up with someone, or that a break-up is in the offing. This was particularly fun when he dated a girl named Laura (whose name is shared by the main ex-girlfriend of High Fidelity’s Rob), but that’s beside the point. The point is High Fidelity the movie is his coping method—and mine, for that matter. This is because, in a pinch, High Fidelity the movie is the best cure for broken hearts, battered pride, and bruised ego. If you’ve got some time to mope, though, the book is even better. Rob Fleming is the voice of a generation, a Gen-X misanthrope who bumbled his way into a deadbeat career and a series of nowhere relationships. Rob has no idea what he wants from his own life or from the women around him.

High Fidelity is a book comprised about lists, which makes it very accessible for the endearing asshole in your life. Rob Fleming’s organizes his life by lists: lists of favorite side one track ones, lists of top five jobs if money and time were no object, and of course, the list of all time, top five break-ups: Alison Ashmore, Penny Hardwick, Sara Kendrew, Jackie Alden, and Charlie Nicholson. And, lest we forget, the late-breaking number one with a bullet (though he doesn’t admit it until halfway through the book, just out of spite): his most recent girlfriend, Laura.

After his breakup with Laura and the end of what was his most grown-up relationship yet, Rob spirals into the detritus of his past break-ups. Spurred on by a profoundly selfish desire to plumb the depths of his disappointment with women, he contacts each of his old girlfriends to figure out why they left him. The answer, in most cases, is that Rob usually had it coming. In three examples, it was a simple matter of his expectations not coming anywhere close to reality (think Tom in 500 Days of Summer). In the other two, he was just acting like an dick. And yet somehow, he sees himself as an innocent victim in every single one. His conversations with his past girlfriends do little to rectify this; in the case of Penny Hardwick, who reminds him that he dumped her because she wouldn’t sleep with him, his response is not remorse but barely disguised glee that he was the one that did the dumping. See, he had forgotten this, because Rob uses his breakups not as a way to take stock of himself and what he wants out of life, but instead to putter around in the House That Self-Pity Built until someone pays adequate attention to him. If this makes him sound annoying or unlikable, the reality is quite the opposite; Rob Fleming is incredibly likable, mostly because he is so recognizable. Sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s a self-aware asshole with semi-decent intentions. Don’t we all have one of those in our lives?

Eventually, Rob’s self-absorption is interrupted by tragedy—not his own, of course. There are very few opportunities for true hardship in Rob’s life, because he rarely risks himself enough to connect to anything or anybody that has the capacity to love him back. Nonetheless, tragedy strikes close enough to home to make him question his lifestyle choices, and he responds by attempting, in fits and starts, to grow up a little. Perhaps the most refreshingly authentic part of High Fidelity, however, is that Nick Hornby refuses to take the easy way out and redeem him completely. Though Rob does eventually grow up, the problems that beset him never really go away: he still finds himself attracted to the new, mysterious girl; he still occasionally regresses into whiny jerkdom; he still self-sabotages his career. But he learns—as we all do, if we’re lucky—to work around these things.

There is a blurb from Details that sums the book’s value up perfectly: “Keep this book away from your girlfriend—it contains too many of your secrets to let it fall into the wrong hands.” Even if the book weren’t such a damn joy to read, the insights on the male psyche contained in Rob’s slow, begrudging journey toward self-realization would be well worth the price of admission. But the best use of the $12 it costs in paperback would be to buy it for your ex-boyfriend. You know the one I’m talking about: the one who didn’t quite make it out of adolescence unscathed, who is convinced that he’s one of the Nice Guys even when he’s acting like an asshole, the one who is profoundly sensitive when it comes to slights against his person and profoundly insensitive when it comes to absolutely anyone else, but above all the one who in spite of everything else is a genuinely good-hearted dude in need of a little guidance. Buy him this book. And when he inevitably calls you to whine over another break-up, buy him the movie, too.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Holiday Gift Guide: Secret Santa (Review #40, Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris)

Holidays On Ice, by David Sedaris

Well, the holiday season has officially begun, which means it’s time for the giving of gifts to friends, family, and obligatory acquaintances. And I’m here to help. Over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing books for everyone on your shopping list. Today, we start with that most insidiuous of obligatory Christmas purchases: the office Secret Santa.

Listen, we’ve all been through it and we all hate it, but there’s no use complaining because you can’t get out of it, not unless you’d like to be known as the office Grinch. So there you are, an underpaid office worker who just got assigned to Cathy, the passive-aggressive accounts manager who works two cubicles over and is constantly sending you emails that begin with “Just FYI…”

In this most chilling of holiday situations, you have one of several options:

1) something thoughtful yet moderately priced, tailored to the recipient’s likes and interests;
2) something passive-aggressive, like fruitcake or highlighters;
3) something in between.

Enter David Sedaris. For those of you who don’t know it, David Sedaris first became known through his story “SantaLand Diaries,” about his experiences as a Macy’s store elf. “SantaLand Diaries” is, to put it lightly, the most fucking hilarious thing I’ve ever read. It is a paean to every member of the service industry that has ever dealt with raucous toddlers and their prickish parents. If you’ve never read “Santa Land Diaries,” you should do yourself a favor and listen to it first. Sedaris’ deadpan delivery of the various indignities vested on a Macy’s elf—from his elf name, Crumpet, to the teasing flirtations of young and fickle fellow elves, to the machinations of the various Santas to the detritus of humanity who wait in line for two hours to visit him. Somehow, even while dwelling in the cesspool of consumer behavior, the story even manages to include a cheery holiday ending (I mean, insofar as you regard the phrase a store manager calling a customer a fucking bitch the stuff of holiday cheer, which, if you’ve ever worked in retail, you probably do) .

The rest of the stories in the book are less pleasant. Other than “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” which is as heartwarming a family tale as I’ve ever read, the rest of the Christmas tales trade in the more morbid fare where Sedaris seems most comfortable. Included in the mix is a Christmas letter from a housewife charged with infanticide and awaiting trial, the crabby mutterings of a burnt-out theatre critic about the state of grade school Christmas pageants (“in the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin.”), and a Hollywood producer trying to convince a backwoods congregation to sell the rights to a rather gruesome local holiday miracle.

It’s this combination that makes Holidays On Ice such a perfect coworker gift, especially for those on whom your feelings lean toward dislike. Sedaris is a recognizable enough author and the cover artwork is cheery enough to seem, at first, like a considerate yet appropriately generic holiday gift for one’s colleagues. The first story is funny and spirited, which will leave them feeling heartened by the thoughtfulness of their gift. Then, when they get to the more disturbing stories, they’ll start to question it. By the time they get to the last story—a disturbing keeping-up-with-the-Joneses tale with a grisly ending—they’ll start giving everyone around them the side-eye, wondering what exactly who gave it to them and just what exactly their intentions were.

At this point, you will look at them, give them a long, creepy smile and say: “Did you enjoy the book?” Hold eye contact for just a few seconds too long.

And that is how you keep your coworkers on their toes.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Reviews #38 and #39 – A Tale of Two Sedarises

“Sometimes the sins you haven’t committed are all you have left to hold onto.” ― David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames
“Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”― David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

Well, it’s December, and the holiday season has officially begun. In the Murphy household (read: the household in which I am the only resident), this means it’s time to start reading one of two things: Harry Potter or David Sedaris.

Yes, December is a time for tradition, and my tradition is to read about socially awkward young men with hidden talents (in the case of Harry Potter, magic, in the case of David Sedaris, witty self-deprecation). Which one I choose greatly depends on the outlook with which I have chosen to greet the holiday season. This year has found me in more of a Sedaris mood – make of that what you will.

I find David Sedaris to be one of the world’s most comforting writers, and these two collections are without a doubt my favorite of his entire catalogue. They both show off his greatest talent to its best possible effect: the rare ability to both attract and repel simultaneously. Sedaris has an unapologetic fascination with things that repulse ordinary people, and for that alone he is worthy of praise. For instance, one of the stories I have found myself returning to again and again involves the head of a guinea worm poking out of his mother-in-law’s leg (“It’s Catching”) – it’s a disgusting story, but for some reason it fills me with a reassurance that most people find from their actual mother. Another one finds him enlisting his longtime boyfriend’s help in lancing a boil just to the left of his crack, and it is, no kidding, one of the great love stories of our time.

Sedaris made his name off of the dysfunctional stories of his childhood and for good reason, but my favorites are always the stories that deal with the daily pratfalls of his current life. One of my all-time favorites, from When You Are Engulfed In Flames, involves a process that should be familiar to anyone who is the less functional member of a couple (incidentally, if you are reading this wondering which person in your relationship is less functional, it’s probably you). He decides, in a fit of pique, that he is done with his long-term relationship, and rehearses in his mind the speech with which he will break it off before realizing that his boyfriend is the one that does absolutely everything:

“Hugh takes care of all that. And when he’s out of town I eat like a wild animal, the meat still pink with hair or feathers clinging to it. So is it any wonder that he runs from me? No matter how angry I get, it always comes down to this: I am going to leave, and then what? Move in with my dad? Thirty minutes of pure rage, and when I finally spot him I realize that I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life.”

Another place Sedaris shines is when he’s attempting to learn a language – by “shines” I am of course referring to his writing about the experience, and not his mastery of the languages themselves. Both of these books involve stories about Sedaris’ travails with foreign languages; the inspiration for the title of Me Talk Pretty One Day  was the series of fruitless attempts Sedaris made to learn French, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames involves a fantastic story about the time he moved to Japan to quit smoking and subsequently enrolled in Japanese class. Spoiler alert: he succeeds at quitting, and fails miserably at mastering anything beyond “konichiwa.”

Possibly the only thing better than when Sedaris is learning a language is when he’s offending random strangers. And my god, are there ever examples to choose from. The best is probably “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle,” the tale of the epic battle between Sedaris and his seatmate on a flight to Raleigh. I’m not even going to explain it further, except to say that it involves, among other things, a misplaced lozenge.

Reading all of Sedaris’ books in a row gives a great overview of what an amazingly accomplished writer he is. Part of the beauty of shorter pieces, whether it be essay or short story, is that they give you more opportunities to hone your work. Personal essays seem deceptively easy when you’re not the one writing them; it’s only be seeing Sedaris’ progression from his first collection to his most recent that one can fully appreciate his mastery of the form. His stories become progressively shorter, tighter, and cleaner, without ever losing the pure infusion of personality, the honest assessment of his character deficiencies, and his brilliant sense of the absurd and the macabre.

But I digress. Chances are, you know all this already because you read one David Sedaris book and then immediately went out and read the rest. If you haven’t, then why are you even still reading this? Go fix it.

Recommended for: Weirdos

Read When: You’re begrudgingly entering a season dedicated to religious observance and familial tradition

Listen With: the audiobook versions of all his books.

 

 
 
 
 

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #37, End of Men by Hanna Rosin

“This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient.” -Simone de Beauvoir

Like many who grew up in the girl-power nineties, it took me awhile to notice that gender had anything to do with professional success. For my sisters and me, our ambitions were treated as achievable with hard work – up to and including my sister’s ambition to become the President of the United States. It wasn’t until she passed on to me the harsh education in sexism she received working as an intern on Capitol Hill that it occurred to me that gender had any affect on professional success. It certainly had nothing to do with academic success; the valedictorian of practically every class I can remember had been female. Up until that point, my sex had never affected my success in the slightest; the fact that it might be a barrier to my career came as quite a shock.

To hear Hanna Rosin tell it, that barrier has just about been breached. In her book The End of Men, an expansion of her Atlantic article of the same name, she argues that women are outperforming men by just about every metric. Economies around the world increasingly depend on women’s involvement to succeed. Here in the US, the recession hit men much harder than women, with traditionally male dominated jobs disappearing and female dominated industries recovering much  more quickly. The rate of women rising to executive level positions is skyrocketing, even despite the persistent dearth of women occupying positions in the highest echelons of society, which according to Rosin can be explained away not as evidence of a permanent fixture, but of the last gasps of a dying empire unwilling to relinquish their grasp on power.

It’s a persuasive argument. As women continue to make inroads into areas traditionally dominated by men, there is no equivalent move by men to traditionally feminine spheres. Rosin credits this phenomenon to the inherent adaptability of women. She describes the 21st century gender archetypes as “Plastic Woman” and “Cardboard Man,” the former able to more easily fit into shifting economic and social demands than the latter. Certainly, the date bears her out: industries that were male-dominated such as pharmaceuticals have ceded to women, and yet there are almost no examples of industries going the opposite ways. To simplify: women are becoming doctors, but no men are becoming nurses.

And what of the domestic sphere? Well, turns out we haven’t exactly ceded dominance there, either. Instead of men and women switching places, with men carrying the bulk of child-raising and domestic duties, or sharing duties, with both sexes working and sharing domestic duties equally, it seems that women are just working twice as hard in both arenas. Many of the women Rosin interviewed described the men in their lives as “just another mouth to feed” – jobless, broke, and completely useless in the domestic sphere. As a result, women are delaying marriage or, particularly in the case of lower income women, forgoing it all together.

Any temptation to react to the title of this book with “Ha! We’re winning!” is quickly shut out by situations like the above. The truth is, none us are winning. Not low-income women, who are managing education, motherhood, and multiple  jobs often without any help. Not low and middle income men, who are increasingly at loose ends as traditionally male-dominated industries like manufacturing continue to have an almost non-existent recovery (though recent signs are tentatively increasingly positive that some of those jobs may return). And not society, which seems increasingly confused at how to operate in this new frontier. It’s no wonder; transitional periods are always confusing as hell, and this one has been particularly jarring. It’s confusing to women who are becoming more and more successful but starting to question the terms of those success.  It’s confusing to men, who are starting to sense that traditional modes of masculinity might not fit in a 21st century world, but haven’t yet received an alternative model.

Appropriately, reading this book was a confusing process for me. I found myself outraged at certain arguments only to reluctantly cede the point a page later. Which isn’t to say I was completely uncritical: Rosin occasionally speaks in broad strokes, summarily dismissing whole groups in one pithy sentence. Her use of data was also spotty in areas; some chapters, particularly those focusing on the US, were backed up by significant statistical evidence. Others were by and large anecdotal. On the whole, however, the combination painted a picture of society in flux that is very hard to argue with.

The exercise of reading this book made me ask a lot of tough questions of myself: I realized that I occupy a relatively privileged spot in this gender transition when it comes to relationships. I live with a man who was brought up in a household that equitably shared household tasks. We both make roughly the same amount, but throughout our relationship there have been times that one of us has made significantly more than the other. We trade off career moves for each other, and we don’t want children. In this way, I  match up pretty closely to the ideal Rosin paints of the new upper middle income couple, which caused me no small amount of smugness, I can tell you.

When it comes to work, however, I face the same pitfalls as many women at my same level: constantly questioning whether my professional ambitions are worth the trade-offs I’d have to make to achieve them. Is professional success worth the loss of time, flexibility, and a personality that is my own vs. the manufactured persona that most women have to invent in order to be successful? In a two-income age, asking this questions at all seems pointless: like most women my age, work is not an option but a necessity. But it’s still worth thinking about. Women are making inroads into every power structure in the United States, so it’s high time we sat down and thought about what we’re going to do with that power once we get it. As Rosin mentions, the ascendance of women has not always necessarily led to female-friendly policies; instead, with the exception of a few creative industries (Silicon Valley being the most notable example), we all seem to be repeating the same script, a script which is serving no one particularly well. It’s hard to tell a woman who is still juggling work, domestic obligations, and day-to-day sexism “Hey, things have gotten better for you, so now it’s time for you to start thinking about how to make things better for the rest of us.” And yet, that is exactly what we must do. Like it or not, women are at the forefront of 21st century society. Increasingly, we are finding ourselves in leadership positions. We owe it to ourselves to have a conversation about how our leadership will differentiate itself from male-dominated models of the past.

When you consider how long men have held dominance over women, it’s astonishing how much has changed in just the last forty years, and yet rarely is this new reality addressed. Hanna Rosin’s book offers us the rare opportunity to take a long, hard look at where we were, where we are, and where we want to go from here.

Recommended for: professional men and women. Polemical title notwithstanding, this book is the beginning of a conversation that we need to have with each other.

Read When: if you’re a woman, right after your boss says something hideously condescending to you. If you’re a man, right after you have doubts about your performance, whether it be professional, domestic, or hell, sexual.

Listen With: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

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