Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Reason I Jump

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I bought this book myself because I love anything to which David Mitchell contributes his beautiful, beautiful words.)

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida
Read: 22 to 28 October 2013  

4 / 5 stars


For a book that comprises less than 200 pages and can be read in a single sitting, The Reason I Jump is deceptive in its brevity. Using a computer and an alphabet grid to form and "anchor" words "that would otherwise flutter away," it is the first real chance that then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida had to share his rich but silent inner world and explain the impulses that drive his seemingly erratic behaviors, as autism had prevented him from responding to the volley of questions and years of unwanted stares his condition has prompted from others.

The book itself is nearly a decade old but was only recently published in English, as British writer David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida translated Naoki's painstakingly chosen words from their original Japanese. While Naoki's own jovial warmth and tactful sincerity deserve much of the credit for the charm within these pages, the couple adds a palpable sensitivity to the task of bringing this big-hearted book to a new audience with their unique combination of struggles, as their son has autism and Mitchell himself is a stammerer; while a stammer may not be as debilitating and imprisoning as autism, it does lend the afflicted a keen understanding of what it's like to be rendered speechless and to have one's intelligence doubted by a wanting verbal fluency, never mind the capacity for eloquence that waits in frustrated silence.

Both Mitchell in his introduction and Naoki in the Q&A portion that comprises the bulk of The Reason I Jump emphasize that autism is by no means a disorder of universal constants, though it does feature a handful of commonalities--enough commonalities, in fact, that Mitchell said this book allowed him to "round a corner" in his relationship with his son. While Naoki tends to speak in the first-person plural when he talks about autism, he does so usually with a preface that he's basing his explanations on his own experiences and most often as a plea for understanding. Early in the book, he answers the question "Do you prefer to be on your own?" first as a person and then tinged with the communicative defeat faced by a person with autism: "I can't believe that anyone born as a human being wants to be left on their own ... The truth is, we'd love to be with people. But because things never, ever go right, we end up getting used to being alone."

Naoki fields a battery of questions with a combination of maturity, grace, honesty and willingness to admit when he just doesn't know how to answer a question that is remarkable for a teenage boy. He effectively dismantles the longstanding presumptions society has assumed about people with autism, such as a lack of empathy or that there can be blanket catch-all descriptions for the way autism manifests itself in each individual, the latter being a point that Mitchell, too, makes by pointing out that "[e]very autistic person exhibits his or her own variation of the condition--autism is more like a retina pattern than measles."

Of all the autism myths that are effectively, beautifully obliterated in The Reason I Jump, it is that supposed dearth of empathy that is most enthusiastically debunked. Naoki acutely feels the stress he places on his caretakers and the frustration they feel over his powerlessness to resist the impulses that keep him jumping, spinning, running, repeating, organizing and wandering. He gently reminds his audience that while the caretaker's exasperation is fleeting, he is the one who will always feel like a captive in a body he can't control. But Naoki also says that he no longer would trade being autistic for being "normal," as his autism has helped him see the beauty in little things while offering him comfort in realizing that he's a part of something much bigger that connects us all.

Tucked in amidst Naoki's thoughtful explanations are short stories that read like more ethereal Aesop's fables, demonstrative of Naoki's active imagination, knack for parable, and desire to emphasize a thought or feeling he finds worthy of extra mention. He revisits the Tortoise and Hare theme to illustrate the necessity of kindness; another metaphorical tale shows that even those we envy are always searching for happiness and self-fulfillment. The final section of the book is a longer, emotionally ripe allegory for what it's like to live with autism, which would read as an apology for the stress he has caused his parents if it weren't so girded with hope: "If this story connects with your heart in some way," Naoki's foreword to the short tale says, "then I believe you'll be able to connect back to the hearts of people with autism too."

One of the most remarkable features of this book is not even that is was laboriously created with an alphabet grid or that Naoki displays nearly tireless optimism but rather the slow dawning of empathy it quietly draws from its reader. He explains what it's like to live inside autism using "normal" examples that betray an outsider's wistful observation, such as likening his inability to move forward in certain actions without a verbal prompt to a pedestrian waiting for the "Walk" signal, as well as explaining his interests in terms of exaggerated reactions to routine stimuli, like his love of nature offering comfort in its sense of belonging to something so big it reduces a person to the tiny speck in the universe that so many of us try to forget that we really are.

Naoki's inventive approach to writing a memoir offers an enlightening look at a still-misunderstood disorder while embracing the beauty in imperfection and proving that one person's normal is another's mystery. It doesn't provide all the answers, which isn't a reasonable request from any one person anyway, but it begins an invaluable dialogue by approaching all the right questions.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Vineland

Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 15 to 26 May 2012
5 / 5 stars    


I don’t usually finish a book and start a review in the same breath. But I also don’t usually allow myself to read more than one of an author’s works within a calendar year (many books, little time--though of course Stephen King would be this year’s other exception because the Tower, all things yield to it): T. Ruggs, you magnificent bastard, I hope you know how many personal rules I’m violating because you’re the first time since auspiciously picking up my first collection of Bukowski poems that I’ve been able to add a This Writer Changed My Life For Always notch to my literary bedpost. Reading Vineland confirmed what Gravity’s Rainbow left me suspecting: I bloody love Thomas Pynchon. Rilly.

Finishing Gravity’s Rainbow left me with an almost obscene urge to help myself to another serving of Pynchon, which is an urge I’ve been fighting for months now. I finally caved, intending to take on V. but settling for Vineland because part of the joy of Pynchon is the inherent madness, and I just can’t handle another meaty tome yet (the latter weighs in at a few pages shy of 400; the former.... uh, does most assuredly not). And because I haven’t talked about GR enough, I am still a little battered from that experience (my opinion on bananas might be forever changed, too). I needed something a little less daunting first. Enter: Vineland.

This book was so good. Now being able to pinpoint a Pynchonian pattern--a few: musical outbursts, sleuthing plots, oddball character names, stunning tangents that really aren’t that tangential after all, a natural vocabulary only found in the most ruthless of Scrabble opponents--helped me identify what I adore most about Pynchon’s prose. It’s his ability to concoct some of the most overtly zany scenes in literature, to confront the reader with these in-your-face storms of hilarity for the sake of maximizing the subtle tragedies he gently lets the story consider, leaving the reader to marinate in sadness. It’s an effect that would be any mixture of sloppy, condescending, formulaic or tedious if attempted by anyone else but Pynchon makes it work. The real success is that his characters who need be sympathetic are so when someone realizes that her best days are behind her or comes to the dawning realization that he’s being used by an entire government or has an ugly epiphany about the mother she never knew, it is the most heartbreaking scene in the world.

As for the effort involved in decoding the obscure references that are sprinkled throughout Pynchon’s books as liberally as the Bacon Bits on any salad worth eating, I was deeply grateful that T. Ruggs's novel begins the same year as I did, which meant I caught waywayWAAAAY more cultural allusions this time. The narrative flows better when I’m not running to a secondary source every three lines and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy this book less haltingly, which isn't to say that I didn't need to have a few reference materials handy. There were enough hazy hippie memories to keep me on my toes, though I caught a number of those as often as I had a flutter of joyful recognition every time The Doors or Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or some other People's Republic of Rock and Roll favorite got a shout-out.

I feel a reread of The Crying of Lot 49 and maybe Inherent Vice in my future. Color me fucking amped.

American Decameron

American Decameron, Mark Dunn
Read: 4 October to 12 November 2012
4 / 5 stars    


2012
Creatively constipated in New Jersey


Maddie stares at her work monitor--the third machine on which she's attempted to write her American Decameron review, a review that has hit more brick walls than a driving-school vehicle--with her fingers poised over the keyboard and ready for speedy transcription of all the ways she wants to gush about Mark Dunn's newest gift to the world, a gesture as fruitless as her fervent hopes that staring at a computer screen long enough will magically produce words.

"Fitting," she grumbles to herself, only half caring that her officemate (who's well-versed in her special breed of crazy) might overhear, "that a book comprising 100 stories would take 100 attempts to write about."

The joy of finally finishing a book in the face of natural disasters, a thankless job's busy season and other, more pleasant assorted things that prevent her from falling into what would be her ideal natural state of existence (i.e.: bookworm hermitage) waned considerably as the frustration of reviewing being a use-it-or-lose-it skill grew like... like.... like what, Maddie?

"Fucking similes," she mutters with an inappropriate degree of hatred, for Maddie is nothing if not a classy lady as her fondness for expletives shows. "Fucking stupid review. Why can't you just write yourself?"

She sighs as if the world were ending, then rereads the paltry dross she's managed thus far:

Mixed emotions always accompany the news that Mark Dunn is publishing a new book. On one hand, it's always a cause for celebration when one of my favorite living writers blesses the literary world with a new work; on the other, it's impossible to predict how much of an optimistic cock tease the initial expected publication date is versus the harsh reality of the much more distant one. Fortunately, this is one of those times I was rewarded for not being a technological curmudgeon: While the hardcover's expected publication date has jumped around the 2012 calendar like an overzealous child playing hopscotch, the Kindle edition was there to ease the terminally delayed gratification that's so inherently intertwined with the advent of a new Dunn offering.

"Too boring," Maddie says to herself while shaking her head in self-disgust and not caring that she probably looks like Tippi Hedren to anyone neither inside her head nor in front of her computer screen.

Still, experience has taught her that nothing plows through writer's block quite like hammering out whatever comes to mind so she continues with the unsatisfying direction her review has taken:

I'm never really sure what to expect from Dunn as a writer so I suppose the surprise release dates are rather fitting for a scribe whose playwright and novelist hats both suit him to equal success. As far as Dunn goes, this ambitious book is markedly lacking a kooky hook: It's not an epistolary novel that takes increasing liberties with spelling as the available alphabet diminishes, it's not a biography rendered entirely in footnotes, it's not the tale of a modern-day Dickensian society sequestered in Pennsylvania or extraterrestrial-fearing neighbors sequestered in each other's homes. What it is is 100 individual stories that serve as a better American history lesson than any American history textbook not written by Howard Zinn (though it's definitely more life-affirming than Zinn's fare).

On a totally superficial level, one could erroneously call this a short-story collection but it really isn't (much to the relief of my indomitable but ill-founded bias against short stories). Even if the bookending chapters didn't tie everything together by showing how many of the characters populating Dunn's 100 American tales have crossed paths to (mostly positively) results, the overriding theme of each story being part of something bigger is present without being intrusive. And it's the way that the macro- and microcosms play against each other that highlight my favorite thing about Dunn's writing, which isn't his snazzy word play and his clever presentation--it's the palpable humanity and innate goodness he infuses into the staggering majority of his characters. More on that in a sec because, really, who needs to organize their thoughts?


This is where Maddie lets loose an unladylike but totally characteristic snort over her own blatant cop-out. The thing is, she doesn't want this review to become a gush-fest about how the characters in this book, the forward of which betrays the non-fictitious nature of much of the cast parading through this book's 700-some pages, give her hope for humanity, just as Dunn's books and plays usually do. But Maddie is also deeply cynical about the goodness of people, despite her desperate (and, admittedly, more successful than she had anticipated) efforts to change her own mind. And she doesn't want anyone to know that her soft heart has been bleeding more than usual lately.

Dunn covers a lot of ground, both in terms of time (all of the 20th century, occasionally punctuated by lapses into the past and flash-forwards to the future) and geography (50 states, one district, various airspaces and bodies of water--including at least two oceans--and Botswana). This is a day in the life of an American year as seen by seemingly inconsequential, everyday folks. Some of the personal stories collide with the bigger front-page stories (like journalists investigating the plausibility that the Wright brothers' incredible flying machine is a credible, airborne success), some are outright influenced by them (like Lusitania survivors bonding over an accidental encounter) but most illustrate how history affects people and how people affect history incidentally. Humanity and history are the main characters here, and Dunn breathes life into both intangibles with great deals of sympathetic realism.

"But.... but... there's so much more to it than that!" Maddie almost exclaims, forgetting where she is in the throes of her needlessly intense internal battle. She sighs again, is briefly rocked back to reality as her coworker asks if she's okay, and finally concedes that she can't do in a Goodreads review what Mark Dunn's achieved with his daunting accomplishment of a far-reaching, far-sighted tome.

And she also admits that, like every other book she's read, this one was all about how she related to it, a justification she makes by telling herself that books do not exist in a vacuum and serve to delight, entertain, challenge and otherwise move readers. And what better way than by finding the human connection in a book that is, at its core, all about human connections.

She gets teary-eyed as she grapples with recounting the specific ways that the 1988 installment--"Stouthearted in Florida," in which a teenage girl goes against her mother's wishes to sneak her ailing grandmother's lesbian lover into the hospital--absolutely tore her up inside but abandons the effort, knowing that no one can express the gamut of inherent goodness and love of which people are capable as well as Dunn illustrated with this and all of his other works.

"Fuck this," Maddie proclaims, wiping at her eyes as surreptitiously as possible before emerging from the safe blockade that the monitor allows her. "I'm going to lunch."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. Again, I preordered this bad boy well before I knew I'd be writing about it for anyone other than myself and GR.)


The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
Read: 11 to 19 October 2013 
4 / 5 stars   


In the long-running tradition of so-bad-it's-good entertainment, 2003's The Room is a fairly recent but impressively groan-worthy addition. Its low-budget approach to visual effects, a script held together by non sequiturs and the wealth of glaring continuity errors make it either instantly derided or ironically charming, depending on the viewer's stomach for shoddy craftsmanship and clueless defiance of cinematic etiquette.

For the enviably/unfortunately uninitiated, The Room is yet another take on the love-triangle template, offering up one more tale of a fellow whose quietly mundane existence will be predictably turned upside down by the barely concealed affair between his fiancée and best friend, the latter played by Greg Sestero, who also served as the flick's line producer. What sets The Room apart is its enthusiastic departure from the conventions that make a movie watchable. The acting is uneven, as even the more talented cast members could only do so much with the ridiculous script and inept director. Dramatis personae inexplicably come and go with all the finesse of a drunken hippopotamus, and they cling to and then disregard their motives with similarly contrary abandon. The dialogue is wooden at best and hilariously incoherent at worst. Plot lines are introduced, run with and cast off without resolution. In short, this is the very stuff that cult followings are made to immortalize, and the audience participation that screenings both public and private invite help to reshape this train wreck into sublime chaos.

While this book heralds itself as being Sestero's life inside The Room, The Disaster Artist reads more as Sestero's attempt to make sense of both writer/producer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau, depicted as an independently wealthy manchild who houses more insecurities than does a comprehensive guide to mental maladies, and his self-funded, self-promoted and self-delusional labor of love. Sestero, with enough writing assistance from journalist Tom Bissell to warrant a co-authorship, explores the torturous trajectory of The Room from nascence to its opening night, as well as the strained but symbiotic friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Sestero's own faltering forays into Hollywood are chronicled as a sort of apologetic explanation for why he stuck with a project he clearly expected to fizzle into obscurity and stuck by a man who gave him both a place to live and an opportunity for work in exchange for the mind-bogglingly creepy way that Wiseau leeched off Sestero--the more successful actor and infinitely more attractive and youthful of the two--as if Sestero's good looks and acting chops were things he could possess for himself via sheer proximity.

Much of the book is devoted to recounting Wiseau's especially memorable bouts of weirdness, jealousies and general inability to function as an adult: Goading Sestero into nearly abandoning him just to prove that he has the power to offend; producing a demo reel fashioned nearly blow-for-blow from a scene in one of Sestero's other movies; spectacularly failing to remember the very lines he wrote; subjecting the whole of The Room's creative team to his unnecessary and gratuitously filmed nudity; spending extravagantly on the film when he feels it's in the best interest of his vision but skimping on paychecks and other details he arbitrarily dismisses as minor.

To me, if not for a friend's firsthand assurance that Sestero is a genuinely likable guy who regards his accidental ascent to pseudo-fame with equal parts wry humor and gratitude, the book's tone--that of a young actor desperate to make it in L.A., whose naivete, curiosity and willingness to look beyond his vampiric guardian angel's downright hostile quirks all work together to cement an uneasy friendship that barely survives a disastrous attempt at living together--would be off-puttingly glib. Wiseau is painted as the perennial (though unintentional) sad clown who would be a tragic figure if not for his nigh unflappable hubris. But Sestero does, to his credit, try to soften his description of a man who has clearly suffered some obsessively guarded psychological setback that has seemingly forever grounded him in the defensive, combative mindset of a newly minted teenager. An example: All attempts to inject a hint of unscripted coherence in Wiseau's film are met with such disproportionate resistance and unfounded accusations that it's unsurprising the film went through several incarnations of its cast and crew; Sestero attempts to explain that, to the best of his understanding, Wiseau sees all attempts at changing his project for the better as mutinous trespasses, a threat to the tenuous authority he has purchased with his self-propelled picture. Even in the instances where Sestero seems inexplicably passive in his inability to assume control when Wiseau has lost all touch with reality, there is a strong undercurrent of desperately gleaned sympathy that keep his remembered interactions buoyantly surreal rather than needlessly cruel.

Still, the bulk of the book's humor is at Wiseau's expense, as it is impossible to read about his diva-sized antics, tantrums, paranoia and obstinate refusal to divulge personal details without cackling the nervous guffaws of tension-eroding disbelief because Wiseau's fiery outbursts are in no way proportional to their triggers. The Sunset Boulevard and Talented Mr. Ripley quotes that begin each chapter and, later, the copious nods to both films just may be the most perfect encapsulation of Wiseau within these pages. This is a man who is painted as sleepwalking through life, who literally cannot help how bizarre he is, who rewrites his own personal history as he sees beneficial.

The lingering effects of The Disaster Artist are an increased sense of respect for the hapless players at the mercy of Wiseau's deranged puppet master as well as a nagging suspicion that $6 million can't quite buy talent but it sure can stack the odds in one's favor if one is hellbent on crafting a blockbuster from incoherence and birthing a star from a woeful dearth of thespian proficiency, reality be damned.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Being Dead

Being Dead, Jim Crace
Read: 24 March 2009
4 / 5 stars  


This is such a gracefully, unflinchingly graphic tale following two main paths. The death of a middle-aged married couple -- which is told initially in reverse from the moment of their murder before it hurtles through the present, detailing the bodies' six days of exposure, discovery, and clinically detached removal and processing (which plays well against their ever-evolving daughter's reactions) -- collides with the simultaneously celebratory and tragic story of how the two first met.

The character development is mostly approached in retrospect and makes for one of the richest cast of literary players I've seen in a while. Celice's awkward and naively confident blossoming into a ripe young lady clashes well with the more reserved woman she became in her 50s, admitting that she has never been fully satisfied in her marriage; the small gestures of touching affection she allows her husband, however, speak volumes about her capacity for love. Joseph's nearly 30 years of tender loyalty -- from the first gesture of shyly calculated courtship to his dying show of devotion -- contrasts achingly with his initial coldness. It is through their conflicted daughter, who adds just enough raw humanity to the present after the two bodies have been discovered, that their presence lingers palpably on.


Mr. Crace's gift for both language and storytelling added to the morbidly voyeuristic pleasure of this book. As bleak as the story is, it does capture the beauty of a love that has had decades of lessons in learning how to suit both partners. The small splashes of careful detail, the finely constructed pace at which the plot unravels and spins, the stunning language.... it all made for a delightfully jarring contrast to the perceptively ugly (though wholly natural and inevitable) act of dying.
At 196 pages, it almost seems natural to say that I could have happily lapped up 100 more (this is the first time since reading The Gunslinger that I've started and finished a book on the same day), especially since the pacing of the plot and progression of the story makes the short novel so wonderfully compelling.
 
When the book comes to a close with Celice and Joseph's killer nowhere to be found, it's really not that important. Closure isn't the aim of the narrative because this book isn't about solving a murder: It's about the six days of "grace" that Celice and Joseph's bodies spend together as nature goes to work indiscriminately returning two dead things to the earth and its elements.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

'Tis the season


It is a beautiful thing when citrus and chocolate realize that they are two great tastes that taste great together.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Out of Print

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I bought this book with my own hard-won dollars as soon as I heard about it.)

Out of Print, George Brock
Read: 24 to 26 November 2013 
4.5 / 5 stars  


"The future business of journalism will resemble the past and will also be unlike it," proclaims journalist-cum-professor George Brock as he begins the final chapter of Out of Print, an enlightening and engaging exploration of how journalism got to be what it is through trial and error that also calls upon the industry to maintain its spirit of flexible experimentation if it wishes to thrive in the 21st century. It's a line that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of a book that is part history/part dissection/part prescriptive measure for the current state of journalism, an industry in upheaval that has been struggling with outdated business models in this hyper-personalized, swiftly moving era that bears little resemblance to the world a decade prior, to say nothing of the centuries before when the only available medium, still in its fledgling state, was adapting to the needs and wants of an increasingly informed public.

I've officially been out of print journalism longer than I was in it but, hey: You can take the girl out of the newsroom but you can't take the newsroom out of the girl. Especially when she fled job satisfaction for job security and resents the decision on a fairly regular basis. At the time, anything was preferable to fearing for my job every three months and not being able to hear myself think over what sounded suspiciously like the death rattle of an industry I arrived at just in time to watch it crumble around me. In hindsight, I do wish I'd stuck around a little longer to administer palliative care to something I truly loved being a part of, though I think I got out just in time to be able to justify recalling my newspaper days with perhaps a tad too much nostalgia rather than the exhausted, overworked frustration that punctuated those last months.

So when I heard about Out of Print--which examines the interlocking past, present and uncertain future of journalism with a focus on newspapers--I felt like it was one of those rare times when I was actually part of the target audience. Perhaps for that reason, or because the book maintains an unflinching but rationally optimistic attitude about what's in store for journalism, I found it to be the perfect example of the educated tome one needs to read in order to form both a credible, well-informed opinion on the state of journalism today and an idea of what it will take to ensure that we'll one day look back on these times as a turning point rather than a terminus.

With his book, Brock effectively dismantles the myths born of lazily connected, coincidental cause and effect, presenting a much-needed reminder that what a thing is and how it looks are rarely the same. Two easy examples: One, the dawn of the internet didn't really strike the death blows to more traditional media, especially print, so much as it merely exposed their long-festering issues, like how advertising dollars have been on the decline since the '80s but were easily mitigated by cinching editorial budgets, a decline in competition, and predominantly stable developed-world economic conditions; two, hindsight offers us the luxury of looking at the whole in retrospect to create a history by linking media milestones but actually living in the middle of one--without the comfort of flipping to the end of the chapter to see how the turbulent present fits with the paradigm-shifting moments of the past that led to this current transition--feels more like standing on unstable ground than witnessing another historical epoch from the inside. As someone who used to vehemently, bitterly complain how those damnably stubborn dinosaurs before me destroyed print journalism with their refusal to either adapt to newer models or embrace the internet as a supplement to rather than replacement of the newspaper, it was strangely comforting to see the extent of just how wrong I was in that regard, to finally understand that it's not easy to consider the implications of new technology when the daily, immediate demands of having a job to do often demand one's full attention.

Furthermore, Brock points out that every sudden expansion of information has ripple effects that are both long-lasting and often delayed. When the rise of the internet's accessibility didn't have immediate effects, it was hard to anticipate either the full impact or the personal and practical application of these modern connections that have rapidly decreased the size of world while mind-bogglingly increasing every individual's opportunity to access information both ancient and up-to-the-second current. As someone who has been using the internet since elementary school, it's easy to forget that such far-reaching connectivity was daunting in its scope to anyone not looking at it for the first time with an adult perspective rather than a child's easy acceptance of new discoveries.

I can't speak for someone who never experienced that odd combination of personal excitement and deadline-driven occupational pressure that comes with watching historical events unfold from the strange vantage point of a newsroom, surrounded by likeminded people in that surreal suspension of time between waiting for results and scrambling in unison to create a product that not only passes along but elaborates on such information for public consumption, but as a former journalist with an admittedly romantic notion of what the industry can accomplish (with a shameless bias for newspapers, whatever the lacking regard many seem to have for them), Out of Print offers plenty of rational reassurance that we're not facing the death of something but rather its rebirth--should it choose to adapt rather than stagnate. The book is optimistic without being sentimental, thought-provoking without being pretentious and realistic without being harsh, which makes it comforting for someone with a keen interest in seeing journalism prevail and hopefully eye-opening for those who wish to better understand it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jesus Was a Time Traveler

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I procured this novel on my own, possibly motivated by the offer of a free download from Amazon, if my memory is to be trusted.)

Jesus Was a Time Traveler, D.J. Gelner
Read: 3 to 4 November 2013 
3.5/ 5 stars   
  

I can't say that I was disappointed in this bizarro-flavored take on time travel--it is more or less impossible to have lukewarm feelings about a book that unabashedly references the likes of Quantum Leap, the Back to the Future trilogy and Star Trek when it's not dropping lines like "Take that you Nazi assmonsters!"--but for a novel that presents some questions about the true chronological home of Our Lord and Savior directly in its title, Jesus Was a Time Traveler doesn't spend as much time with the eponymous Son of God as my predilection for purposeful irreverence had hoped. Though I suppose positing that Jesus of Nazareth was really a privileged hippie stoner from the future (albeit one with good intentions) could perhaps strike others as adequately blasphemous.

Instead of the organized-religion skewering I had expected, D.J. Gelner's novel offers up a time-hopping romp that dumps its hero, Dr. Phineas "Finn" Templeton, in a scattershot selection of eras ranging from the reign of dinosaurs to Maryland of 2042--the location, time and purpose of each jump having been predetermined by the mysterious Benefactor whose financial backing helped Finn build his time machine--to piece together its surprisingly zen-like observations about fate's role in shaping the events that shaped the world, both in the larger all-encompassing historical sense and the much smaller individual basis, while also serving up such decidedly un-scientist-like behaviors as casual drug use, one-night stands and what comes across as almost medically necessary alcoholism.

Finn is an affable enough fellow who's far less bitter than I would be when he discovers that the history books have attributed his time-travel breakthroughs to the dashing Commander Ricky Corcoran, with whom Finn spends a considerable chunk of the story and, despite an admirably controlled initial impulse to sock the usurper of his glory right in his heroically chiseled jawline, comes to begrudgingly tolerate the company of both the Commander and his comrade, Steve Bloomington, as the trio leapfrog their way back and forth across time with occasional help (and hindrance) from fellow time travelers, all of whom identify themselves with the Vulcan salute.

Finn's encounters with great men and minor players of the past offer a warning against turning fallible humans into historical legend, that perhaps letting the pretty lie that has been polished to an irresistible shine over millennia might just be better left as a widely accepted if unproven truth. The discovery that Jesus's miracles are nothing more than the work of hyper-modern science that baffle and astound an audience unfamiliar with such marvels comes early in the book, so each subsequent upheaval of longstanding regard for the past is a little less shocking. As it turns out, the inception of time travel works its way backward through time, allowing travelers to leave their unseen "I was here" marks all over history, such as the debt-plagued teacher who escapes his modern woes by tutoring (and mildly terrorizing) the seemingly hopeless Isaac Newton during his academically formative years.

Aided by the frequently uttered mantra of "Whatever happened, happened" acknowledging the Universe's way of righting itself and eliminating the paradoxes that could muck up the ways that certain events are meant to play out, and the quick-moving plot not allowing its protagonist much time to mull over his failures or close calls, Jesus Was a Time Traveler makes some surprisingly astute observations about the starring role that fate plays in assuring that history remains unmolested so the future plays out the only way it was ever meant to. The book's world embraces something of an amalgamation of the "canonical" time-travel theories put forth by other media that have tackled the hypothetical accomplishment's science and philosophy, though ultimately favors a Terminatoresque school of thought--that is, the immutability of what is destined to unfold--as the truth of time travel, rather than the more variable-dependent model that so many movies, shows and books have hinged their outcomes upon.

While the role and power of fate are explored quite extensively in these frantically paced pages, the inherent "goodness" or "evil" of technological breakthroughs gets quite a bit of attention, too. The time-traveling cosmonauts comprising this book's fictional personae speak of time travel being deregulated, meaning that almost anyone can experience the past for themselves. While some of these characters use these advances for good, such as seizing the opportunity to serve as battlefield nurses in past wars, others simply want to use their access to superior gadgetry to take advantage of their "inferior" predecessors. The same technology is available to the good guys and the baddies, offering a subtle but successful explanation that it's not the technology that's evil but the hands in which it falls, and that even then, mere perspective affects the perceived motivation of the technology's use: Weighing the good of the many against the good of the few looks a lot less admirable to those unlucky enough to be the few cut worms who must forgive the plough in the name of progress.

Like any off-kilter premise that uses wacky antics to underscore a moral imperative or three, Jesus Was a Time Traveler deftly sidesteps the dangers of sermonizing with its copious adventure, a healthy offering of humor and mostly likable characters whose depths aren't apparent until the big reveal turns everything that the audience--and Finn--think they know on its ear.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bleeding Edge

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I paid for and preordered this book back in March? April?, which was months before I knew I'd be writing for CCLaP.)
 
Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 16 September to 5 October 2013 
4 / 5 stars  


It is all too easy to dismiss Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel as another one for the "Pynchon Lite" pile, which is by no means fair to a book that can't help counting the likes of such heavyweights (both in the literary and literal senses) as Against the Day, Mason & Dixon and the undeservedly Pulitzer-snubbed Gravity's Rainbow among its older, beefier brothers. Bleeding Edge takes place in a world immediately surrounding September 11, meaning that it is finally a Pynchon book set in a time period with which all of its readers, especially its American audience, are familiar (this is, of course, assuming that there aren't any post-millennium-born kids out there surreptitiously paging through their parents' copies of a tantalizingly shiny-covered tome), thus minimizing the frantic research that usually punctuates a Pynchon novel's obscure cultural allusions and mathematical formulae rendered in high-minded gibberish, allowing for an appearance of simplicity and uninterrupted reading that may lull one into a false sense of knowing which way's up when Tommy P. is navigating the screaming that comes across the sky.

No, this is not a postmodern labyrinth housing a lunatic beast that is just itching to pummel the unsuspecting and unprepared with tricksy words and engineering metaphors. This is a love letter to New York City that knows all too well how the Big Apple can be a finicky--but ultimately rewarding--mistress. This is a September 11 story that does not cash in on a day burned into a nation's collective conscience. This is, quite possibly, the most from-the-heart novel Pynchon has written since Vineland--though it's still peppered with paranoid brilliance and an understanding of early-aught pop culture and tech savvy that most septuagenarians simply can't summon.

Bleeding Edge follows Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked fraud investigator and mostly divorced mother of two elementary-school-aged boys, on a madcap rush that scrambles atop NYC rooftops and dives to the depths of the as-of-yet unexplored nether regions of an internet the public was just beginning to embrace en masse. It is the standard Pynchonian detective fare in that it derives its own flavor from a cast of characters bearing Muppetesque monikers, a balance of humor and heartache that is nothing short of scientifically calibrated for maximum effect, a tangled web of paranoia surrounding a shady computer-security firm that only works itself into a tighter knot the more Maxine prods at it, and a healthy dose of parental concerns augmented by a Jewish mother's terminal worry.

While Pynchon's previous works had a tendency to spiral off into myriad directions, Bleeding Edge seemed more streamlined than its predecessors. An old acquaintance brings the questionable finances of an as-of-yet defunct dotcom to Maxine's investigatory attention before the pages even reach the double digits and the plot tirelessly tears ahead from there. Each question posed by our unflinching protagonist does, unsurprisingly, bring three more questions to the surface but there is a sense of overall connectedness and bigger-picture relevance threading its way through each new twist and turn that Maxine & Co. face.

Allowing the plot to remain unusually unfettered by carefully choreographed chaos and divergences, along with wrangling a comparatively small cast, allows Pynchon's writing to take center stage in Bleeding Edge. For all his ability to weave masterfully complex scenarios into a rich tapestry of life-imitating, intricately layered storytelling, Pynchon cannot ever get enough credit for simply being one hell of a writer. The man knows his way around the English language like few others do, deploying ten-dollar words just as easily as he plays casual comedy against understated devastation.

The events of September 11 occur more than halfway through the book, and the day itself is relegated to roughly three pages. It is tempting to submit to the urge that allows that day to dominate whatever it touches; however, Pynchon's deliberately tactful approach to encapsulating the day allows for its aftermath to come to the forefront, as its lasting effects and the inevitable changes it brought--especially to New York City and the areas close enough to both it and Washington, D.C. to feel the ripple effects for years to come--were the true test of a population's endurance. This is where so much of the book's heart comes into play, as September 11 and parenthood become inextricably linked: As we cannot protect our children from the unpleasant truths of life, we could not protect ourselves from one Tuesday in September that rocked everything we thought to be true more than a decade ago. For all of her professional acumen, Maxine is, at her very core, a loving Jewish mother who wants to give her boys the world and can't shake the guilt over such a world being a dangerous place that, like the parade of girlfriends they'll one day bring home to her, will never be good enough for them.

The point is, one has to adapt to and learn from life after trauma, as one can't become stronger without facing an event that demands personal growth and paradigm-shifting perspective tweaks to overcome it. Which is as close to a resolution as Bleeding Edge really has. Because sometimes things aren't neatly settled. People die but the world marches forward and will not stop as a courtesy to all the survivors who are left shaken and grieving. Unplanned growth is the universe's way of pushing us beyond our comfort zones to become the best version of ourselves. Admittedly, it is initially frustrating to come to an end of the book that leaves a trail of loose threads in its wake but the questions that this novel asks still don't have answers. And the questions aren't nearly as important as the discoveries made while searching for a solution, anyway.

The season's first Gobbler bowl


Behold, Wawa's Gobbler, one of the truly great things about autumn. There is no better way to enjoy turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cannonball

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site, though I purchased the book well before I knew CCLaP was hiring--which is to say that absolutely no one bribed me for a good review with free books.)

Cannonball, Joseph McElroy
Read: 29 August to 16 September 2013
5 / 5 stars 


While waiting for my white whale of novel--Joseph McElroy's Women and Men--to emerge from the murky depths of the internet with something akin to a realistic price tag in tow, I've settled for introducing myself to the writer's more readily available works the way one "settles" for Guinness when the bartender has never even heard of Three Philosophers. I finished McElroy's debut novel, A Smuggler's Bible, nearly a month before picking up Cannonball, his ninth and most recent offering: Reading two bookending extremes of a writing career in quick succession produced the effect of watching a new acquaintance transform into an old friend as endearing quirks became welcome habits, as a whisper of what will come crescendoes to a thundering boom of masterful storytelling.

Discernible plots emerge like a developing photograph's slow cohesion: a young man forges a symbiotic friendship with a younger immigrant of incredible talent before enlisting in the Iraq war, only for their paths to cross one more fateful time in that Fertile Crescent; recently discovered scrolls that may or may not be genuine accounts of Jesus from a contemporary's vantage point are revealed to posses great religious or political significance; familial ties are questioned, strengthened and redefined, especially in terms of when a friend becomes a brother, a father becomes a foil and a sister becomes an object of desire.

Cannonball is not written in the most invitingly accessible of styles--the plot is rendered in a first-person narration that initially feels like a shuffling slideshow of non-sequential images and impressions--but it is by no means impenetrable. This is a book that divulges its secrets in ravenous gulps rather than ladylike sips: Patience and greedily lapping up the book in 50-page guzzles are rewarded with a better sense of its pace and disjointed recollection.

McElroy is a writer whose plots and characters exist to move a thesis toward its inevitable elucidation. His books are not simply vehicles transporting his characters in linear, predictable joyrides through personal growth as they hurdle toward the happily-ever-after finish line. That's not to say that this novel is populated by uninspired archetypes who mechanically convey the writer's agenda, because that would be a lie; in fact, McElroy's minimalist approach to exposition proves that a deft hand can show so much by telling so little, as I left this book with a complete image of everyone who lived and died within its pages.

Several of the characters who play significant roles in Zach's life possess the kinds of talents that tend to forgive--nay, willfully gloss over--the perfectly natural failures of character that aren't exactly negated by finely honed skills. It is that mental difficulty in reconciling extremes and other seemingly at-odds elements that is the force propelling Cannonball: This is a book about dualities, how easily they come into existence and how unavoidable they are when no two people can ever see any one thing identically. Once the novel begins to grab hold of and run with this theme, every action becomes more significant, every word is made richer with layered precision, every character develops into something more believably human. We know that Zach is not a perfectly reliable narrator, that he possesses great abilities as well as a great capacity for lapses in judgment, but he is also a magnetically empathetic soul who puts the world together in such a familiar, non-academic way--as if he, too, were groping in the dark without the hand of an omniscient writer guiding him as both the bigger picture and his part in it come into focus--that such flaws make him companionable to a degree that sheer, awesome talent alone cannot.

This is a novel told in symbolic metaphor stemming from Zach himself: He is a gifted swimmer and diver, but it is photography that drives him, and, as the novel barrels ahead, it becomes more and more evident that the commonalities between these two pursuits hold the key to the heart of the story. Which is this: Universal understanding is a myth. No two things look the same to two people, much like a photo and its negative, like a concrete entity and its pallid, rippling reflection on water. Zach, who never had the crucial thing separates a competitive diver from an Olympian, who sees photography more as a mode of artistic expression than factual representation, stands at square opposition to his father, who seeks a champion in the water and a documentarian behind the lens, neither of which Zach is destined to be.

For all its frenetic pacing, Cannonball never feels rushed; there is no hurry to get to the next stop but there are a controlled urgency for understanding and a need for some sense of correlation between seemingly unrelated events that drive the narration. A scene of great chaos and destruction occurs about halfway through the novel that arrives so quickly and is such a turning point for the story that it takes Zach and the reader alike a few seconds to realize what's happening, as is often the case with those moments that change everything. It offers a slow dawning of realization that echoes how such moments of upheaval are processed and later recalled in the real world.

True to the dualities it encompasses, Cannonball is at once hotly emotional and coolly rational, capable of blending everyday humor with routine human tragedy, celebrating true talent and the virtues of incredible heart. Its curiosity is honest without being mawkishly earnest, its questions are sincere without erring toward saccharine sentiment. McElroy challenges his audience with unconventional narration and the occasional up-close look at some uncomfortable realities but he more than generously rewards his readers with a thought-provoking examination of how one things can have so many varied appearances from different angles, with a clearer understanding and through the increasing distance created by the onward march of time.

World War Z

World War Z, Max Brooks
Read: 5 to 8 October 2011
4.5 / 5 stars 


Like The Road, I bought World War Z so people would stop recommending it to me; also like The Road, a few years passed between purchasing and finally reading the book, the latter effort being choked with innumerable moments of vivid déjà vu wherein I wondered why the hell it took me so long to delve into such a disturbingly awesome novel (and so indulging myself in Halloween-appropriate reads already proves to be a brilliant move).

The most immediate success of WWZ is Brooks's ability to write believably in dozens of unique voices. No two survivors -- not even the military personnel -- have the same story, so it stands to reason that none of them should sound the same in their interviews: The only commonality in the various personal accounts is their palpable humanity. Each survivor's pre-war life and wartime experiences shape their narratives, and it's impressive how one character's ongoing internal battles can be so well hidden while others still are visibly dealing with their own psychological demons. Taking on the international element and offering the reader a global perspective only makes the zombie scourge more believable.

It is the worldwide perspective that makes WWZ an ambitious undertaking. Seeing each country's response, how national identities affected individual responses and how global relations played a role in every stage of the war offered an unsettlingly realistic look at a hypothetical tragedy.

Brooks really doesn't leave a stone unturned, and his impeccable attention to detail is another one of the book's strongest assets. He addresses everything from seeking refuge in a nuclear sub to some nations' return to isolation tactics to the environmental devastation of attempting to blast the undead back to the hell from whence they shuffled (OH HAI NUCLEAR AUTUMN) to the failure of standard wartime tactics in the face of an unconventional enemy to even the biologic composition of zombies, which becomes creepily relevant upon revealing the "quisling" phenomenon. Though, given that a staggering number of survivors AND undead have taken to the oceans, I'm kind of curious about the possibility of zombie sharks. Yeah, it sucks that the whale population is a notch below extinction by the end of the book but.... c'mon. Zombie sharks. Let's entertain that doubly insatiable flight of fancy, please.

The scariest part of this novel? How much it assured me that neither my country's government nor its people are even close to being adequately prepared for anything more traumatizing than a really bad week at work. The events that unfolded in these 342 pages had me wondering if the rise of the undead might be the bite in the ass that society needs to get its priorities in order. My fellow Americans worry me more than zombies do (but that's no recent development), which was more than enough inspiration to make sure that the zombie-apocalypse go-bag is up-to-date before heading to the range for target practice.

In the end, I came for the zombies; I stayed for the authenticity of the book's various human reactions.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Not even I could ruin pumpkin soup


I am pretty vocal in my dislike of both fall and cooking; however, pumpkin soup just might make me a little more tolerant of both.

Oh, you wanted a recipe? From the best of my recollection (because I started with instructions and deviated from them preeeeeetty quickly): 6 1/2 cups of pureed pumpkin; one quart of vegetable stock; roughly a cup of heavy cream; maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg to taste; mix together on simmer 'til smooth, or until you're powerless to resist the smell of cooking pumpkin; serve with a drizzle of cream and a dash of nutmeg. I'd say that this yields about 10 servings but I have no idea how to translate my monster portions into those preferred by more polite company.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Man Who Watched the World End

(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.) 

The Man Who Watched the World End, Chris Dietzel
Read: 31 August to 5 September 2013
3.5 / 5 stars 


If you're looking for a breezy, feel-good tale, The Man Who Watched the World End is probably not for you, nor will it be your kind of novel if you prefer endings that are neatly packaged with bright, optimistic bows that herald the joys awaiting a story's characters beyond the last page; however, if you like your fiction to be character-driven and insightful even as it teeters on the brink of society's obsolescence, then Chris Dietzel has written the book for you.

The novel begins as humanity's reign is ending. The children comprising mankind's final generation are alive only in the biological sense. They grow older but are human marionettes: silent, immobile, helpless to care for themselves, kept alive by the loving kin or kindhearted strangers upon whom they are wholly dependent. Decades later, these Blocks (so named "because it was as if their condition obstructed them from the world") and their siblings are the last proof of man's existence, reduced to pockets of senior citizens cohabiting in group settlements (though, if our narrator is indicative of the outliers, a handful are watching their and society's clocks run down in the familiar imprisonment of crumbling homes in derelict neighborhoods) as nature reclaims all that the elderly remnants of a once thriving species no longer have the youthful vigor to defend.

We see very little of this, as the reader's glimpse into the quieting world is a three-month period captured within one lonely old man's lovingly, diligently maintained diary. It is through the eyes of this man -- who, along with his Block brother, is the last human occupant of the otherwise abandoned and symbolically named neighborhood of Camelot -- that the audience bears witness to the conclusion of our earthly chapter. Since the world is ending not with a bang, not even with a whimper but a slow exhalation, there really isn't a whole lot to see other than one man's daily ritual of tending to the brother for whom his love becomes increasingly unyielding, hoping for a southward ride from a passing convoy on its way to one of the communal-living sites, and watching the local flora and fauna take back what man has only temporarily claimed. But this is not a story of man vs. nature, man vs. self or even man vs. improbable odds: It is, simply, an account of one man's life that turns flashbacks into a supporting cast and exposition into thoughtful narration.

The elderly gentleman tasked with narrating the end of society as he witnesses it carries the story almost entirely on his own: his brother is in a waking coma, his last remaining neighbors fled right before the novel's beginning, and the animals surrounding his house are more interested in his future carcass than his breathing companionship -- including the wild dogs and feral cats born of domestic pets so many litters ago. All he has are his memories, which are equally parts familiar and tinged with a foreign sorrow, as he was among the last wave of normally functioning children and grew up knowing that most babies born after him, like his brother, would never be shaken from their unresponsive silences.

As he reveals more of his past self and present worries, he paints a picture of a bygone era that is just recognizable enough to be eerie: His memories are just like any of ours, composites of his internal and external memories with a few of his parents' own that have stuck with him over the years, but interspersed with the sense that doors previously unknown to mankind were suddenly slamming shut forever as he and the rapidly diminishing number of "normal" children became the last to tackle the once-joyous milestones of growing up.

It is in showcasing such memories that Dietzel's attention to detail may shine the brightest, as the far-reaching impact of a species poignantly aware that it has no future was something he obviously (and successfully) considered from all sides. From baby items suddenly becoming a defunct business to the government finally summoning the foresight to ensure the last hiccup of humanity will at least be provided for in what should have been its grandchild-rich golden years, the international ripple effect of newborns lacking discernible brain functions is terrifying in both its implications and the ways in which Dietzel summarily dismantled familiar infrastructure. The secondhand glimpses of a world that has seen the last Hollywood film, the final World Series, the disbanding of governments, the emotional ramifications of tracking the youngest "normal" person, and the annihilation of the hope that keeps us moving forward are hard to watch even as past events, but Dietzel writes so matter-of-factly and compellingly that each memory becomes the ultimate example of how our very human curiosity forces us to ogle unfolding tragedy. 
 
There are a few weak spots in what is an otherwise impressive debut novel. The greengrocer's apostrophe -- my sworn enemy -- popped in to say hullo a few times ("Dalmatians and Rottweiler's united"; "if the Johnson's just now decided...") and there were a few homophone issues, like "feint breaths," "slightly older then myself" and "faired better," that drove me a little batty. Less frequent were simple editing issues, such as "the last four decades years" and "He couldn't help but be letdown." Aside from a comparatively few lapses in mechanics, the biggest problem I had with the story itself was the government's Survival Bill, which "provided the last generation of functioning adults with resources to take care of themselves and their Block relatives." As a reader, it sometimes seemed like an easy way to sidestep the survival issues a vulnerable society would face in a more brutally overt end-world scenario; as a writer, though, I understood that tacking on the additional responsibility of a people left to fend for themselves without food, electricity and a reliable internet connection in increasingly hostile terrain would only detract from story Dietzel wanted to tell.

But for every one pitfall, The Man Who Watched the World End had a dozen more successes. It shows an incredible awareness of the human condition, of how loneliness and constant reminders of our fading presence in a world we once lorded over can affect everything from a single man to an entire desperate, dying species. The metaphors were resoundingly spot-on: I couldn't help but read the Block phenomenon as a cautionary tale foretelling the long-term dangers of what happens when children of Helicopter Parents grow up without any idea of how to function outside their protective bubbles, and having the narrator reside in Camelot -- a name nearly synonymous with so much promise and so much lost -- was a subtle yet effective touch. 

The Man Who Watched the World End is a tribute to humanity's prodigious knack for optimistic denial and its inability to believe that its end is not only possible but also inevitable. It is fraught with hopefulness and helplessness, a celebration of how the past and present can be powerful motivators in the absence of a future, and a touching example of how the strength of family in all its incarnations can often be enough to keep an individual going against the harshest of odds.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Out with It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice

Out with It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice, Katherine Preston
Read: 31 August 2013
4 / 5 stars


I've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they've never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, making acceptance the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.

Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school's speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn't need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn't let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come -- which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn't see the worth in pressing on.

The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school's specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn't have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.

I doubt I'll ever work with someone to "fix" the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I've sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about this book, I had two immediate reactions: "I absolutely need to read this" and "I absolutely should have written this." (Later, "Why wasn't I interviewed for this?" would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I've been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it's like to live with an invisible hand at one's throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.

Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author's nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston's debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer's memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood's blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence's almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.

It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: "Statistics will later break us into two groups," Katherine writes. "Those who "recover" and those who don't."

Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word -- her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman -- from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.

For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer's memoir, Katherine's is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find "success" in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let's not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can't help but believe are common to all stutterers' experiences.

The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I've come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn't but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.

It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents' unflagging support and willingness to help her "get better" without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn't help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can't help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.

The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.

It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one's own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one's professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. "It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters," she writes as an introduction:

Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. ... Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn't a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn't stutter obviously. ...

If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.


Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer's vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer's impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.

Out With It is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author's curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it's obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one's imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine's book "is not one of deliverance" nor does it have that moment where she is "magically fixed as the curtain drops" -- and it's all the better for delivering one of the book's unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.

Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in The King's Speech, and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some some of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that's less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can't help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself.

Two breakfasts in one


The only way crepes can possibly be improved upon is by stuffing them with pumpkin pancakes.
(Amy's Omelette House, Burlington, NJ)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. IV: Sodom and Gomorrah

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. IV: Sodom and Gomorrah, Marcel Proust
Read: 1 July to 30 August 2013
4 / 5 stars 

As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unraveling of ignorance and inequality in mine.

For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.

This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.

Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?

I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.

Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Electric Aphorisms

Electric Aphorisms, John Roderick 
Read: 22 to 23 December 2011
4 / 5 stars


One of the few reasons I bother (albeit rarely) with Twitter is that John Roderick, the sasquatchian mastermind behind one of my all-time favorite bands, has an account there. I can read his 140-characters-or-fewer bursts of dry wit for free, aye, but he can't very well autograph my computer screen when I see him next month, can he? (Though the internet doesn't get ink from its cover all over my hands and its pages dont't start falling out halfway through the reading experience, so score one for gadgets.) To appease the unbridled fangirl in me, I ordered this book, which arrived the same day as the tickets to John's January solo show. Is that the hand of Fate scrawling out a message for me? Of course. Duh. What, the universe doesn't rearrange itself for you?

I gleaned some crucial information from this collection of amusing assertions. Like me, John talks to machines in the hopes that the human behind the curtain hears him. He, like me, has a soft spot for songs in 3/4 time. He clearly enjoys dropping allusions to Idiocracy, "Kashmir," Janis Joplin tunes, MST3K and Gabo, much like I do. He scoffs at folks who make responsible life choices, uses "sarcasm to soften [his] fury and use[s] over-formal politeness to soften [his] sarcasm," looks for grammatical errors everywhere, knows that Sarah Palin is evil, appreciates aging technologies, hovers somewhere left of center (unless the punchline calls for an exaggeration of political ideals), feels like his nature alienates him from modern society, likes watching fat animals be fatties, stays inside for days, and facetiously revels in his complete lack of interest in other people (including his future self), all of which sound just like me.

All of this leads me to believe that JoRod and I should be the bestest of buddies, complete with those plastic heart necklaces everyone rocked like they was pimpin' in the early '90s. I'm sure he'd appreciate my hilariously ironic fake-racisim just as much as I'm tickled by his -- even if I can't play guitar like a middle-aged prodigy or cover 80% of my face with a beard that would make everyone in ZZ Top drip with envy.

I'm also now armed with the knowledge that Mr. Roderick, like my darling husband, is a left-wing gun nut who embodies many bearlike qualities, which will be quite useful in convincing my beloved that I'm not really dragging him to a show he's guaranteed to be lukewarm about.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Look at Me

Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Read: 15 July to 3 August 2013
4 / 5 stars


I am surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional boundaries I've established long ago to keep my job's ruinous hands off the things that make life enjoyable almost always spells disaster for whatever unfortunate book is the victim of bad timing (and often absolutely no free time at all), as late nights and occupational frustration leave little brainpower and less desire to read things I'm not paid to attack with a red pen.

Furthermore, this book smelled of what I suspected to be, despite Jennifer Egan's decidedly admirable reputation, the much-maligned chick lit, a genre in which I have little interest and with which I have virtually no experience. A former model meets with a fiery car accident, with the resulting surgery transforming her into a still-beautiful but unrecognizable creature? A teenage girl is staring down the very experience that will finally propel her from childhood's idyllic innocence into the harsh realities of introductory adulthood? The onetime high-school football star who has embraced his natural place on the fringes of academia? A charmingly damaged private detective? The perennial exotic, mysterious stranger? I was prepared for the marathon eye-rolling sure to follow along with whatever parade of self-fulfilling fantasies was poised to shuffle across more than 400 pages of predictability and pageantry.

And then the book began with a quote from Ulysses, which threw me off entirely (spoiler alert: yeah, pretty sure it's not chick lit). And these characters almost immediately emerged as richly imagined, intricately complex and cautiously likable personalities illustrating a panoply of well-executed themes and generously supported messages that, as demonstrated by this cast embodying a dizzying range of temperaments and impulses, prove the commonality of the human condition, right on down to how closely we guard the private motivations that, were we to give voice to them, would draw us closer to one another in an understanding of recognition. This book, it turns out, has things to say. That are worth saying. And are said well.

It is often the case with nonexistent reading time, which means long lags between putting a book down and picking it up again, that I lose both details and interest that would otherwise be present in a more ideal reading pace, ultimately casting an unearned fog of forgetful disinterest over a story that sputteringly emerges in fits and irregular bursts. While this book is rather chock-full of tiny details that merge to form multidimensional characters at oddly familiar crossroads that result in even more recognizable moments of clarity, they're so well connected that it was difficult to lose track of who did what, what happened to whom, and how some subtle detail presented pages and weeks ago had propelled the story along its only logical trajectory. What's more, each long-overdue return to this book felt less like a desperate flurry of forced refamiliarization and more like being welcomed by patient acquaintances who knew exactly where we left off and resumed their narrative threads without either the confusion or faltering steps of gap-marked memory that so often happen when a book can start to feel abandoned.

There are times when characters seem to exist merely as vehicles for the plot, and there are times when plot exists simply to give the characters a reason to be written: This is the perfect middle ground between such off-putting extremes. Each of the main characters (and most of the supporting ones) continue to be fleshed out as the novel forges ahead, and each of their stories gradually interlock or refasten after being pulled apart long ago or make their way to a crescendo of connection. The parallels of growth and discovery in both the players and their plays create a not unpleasant sense of being overwhelmed by the places life takes us and the ups and downs of getting there, serving as a keen reminder that the destination is not a full stop but rather a shift in existence that needs to be taken into account and calls for an adjustment if it is to be allowed the awesome force of realization it is intended to be. Personal evolution doesn't just happen: It is the correct response to those predetermined moments that can either bring the needed change to thrive or swallow a person whole because they'd rather stand in place than take a chance on self-discovery.

It's not like change is easy, especially when it's a necessity of circumstance rather than a luxury of choice. Like bucking up and moving on from a tragedy, be it a self-contained one demanding physical recovery or the universally understood ache of young love (or soul-baring infatuation, as it so often truly is) that flees just as quickly as it descends, leaving behind a newly guarded heart sore with the implicit realization that things will never be the same again. The changes this novel's characters undergo highlight the ongoing battle of minimizing the divide between the Old Self and New Self, how every newly shed identity must find its place among all the outdated incarnations of the self to comprise a single ghost, how difficult it can be to honor the past without living in it so as not to stunt the growth of the present, and eventually future, self. The present is destined to join the composite of the past, which exists alongside every new self, and it is a thing we can never truly shed or hide because it is apparent in the memories that shape our resolute cores of being, regardless of whether we choose to embrace or deny the selves that were.

Most of all, as suggested by such an imploringly imperative title, this is a book about recognition. Whether a character's metamorphosis is sudden, violent, inevitable, an acceptance of maturity or a refusal to exist within the confines of one identity for too long, validation through another's affirmation is the only real measurement of a transformation's success. We can always recognize ourselves, even though we are the only ones aware of our most infinitesimal changes: It is through others that we see where and how well we fit, if at all, into the cogs of greater existence.