Don’t worry people, I’m still reading lit fic. But sometimes you just need to sit down and hear Bruce Campbell tell a bunch of stories about the ridiculous shit he’s been involved in, because that’s fun. And Campbell has the kind of voice that I don’t mind being around for a few hours. Sure’ you’re not going to get any insights into the nature of humanity, but you’re going to learn some cool shit about mildly interesting things.
I’m a latecomer to the cult movies of Raimi and his ilk, but I certainly enjoy their brand of camp. Campbell’s close association and involvement with the brothers means that this book offers an enjoyable perspective on another kind of good-time media. It’s not the kind of books I want to read all the time, but it’s a fun reprieve from the heavier shit.
Recommendation: Need a palate cleanser? Yeah? Then, yeah.
Given recent electoral outcomes, reading essays about American political history probably doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but I found going into This American Life regular Sarah Vowell’s back catalog to be very refreshing. She writes with a casual persona, a conversational tone that communicates her obsessiveness and fascination with both self-awareness and contagious enthusiasm.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a celebration of nerdishness, written at a time before that kind of thing had been so widely co-opted to pander and to sell sitcoms and t-shirts. There’s a sense of guilty revelry at play -the delight Vowell clearly feels in immersing herself in the historical remnants of upsetting episodes in history are contextualized but never dismissed. The essays are informative, but couched in a sense of personal experience that keeps them from getting overly dry. I’m a big fan of this particular strategy in nonfiction, especially in travel writing.
I’ve got some conflicting thoughts on the place of essay collections in 2016, in the world of aggregated longform essays and creative nonfiction. One one hand, I feel like my time is better spent casting a wide net, reading a diverse selection of authors writing on a diverse selection of topics. But, for the same reason I like short story collections, I like getting inside and inhabiting one specific writer’s brain over the course of a few small pieces. I’m not sure how much of that is coming from my own writerly inclinations to observe other writers’ voices in depth and how much it has to do with simply valuing an accurate and close reading of somebody else’s lived experience, but there you go.
Lorrie Moore is good at writing short stories. This surprises no one, I assume. I had read one or two of her stories in anthologies, but never took the time to sit down with an entire book. Some short story writers seem to come across better in small doses, but many of the best (Carver, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones spring to my mind) seem to offer the most to the reader when their collections are read all at once. There’s some kind of cumulative effect, a thing that no doubt relates to thematic or narrative connections present within a collection, but which owes even more to the experience of spending more time within that writer’s own aesthetic universe, familiarizing oneself with a certain pacing or sense of humor or dramatic sentimentality, or whatever specific intangible it may be. Moore is definitely included here. I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I kept reading, and I don’t think it was because the stories themselves were getting better -I was getting better at reading them.
These stories are not often particularly engaging if read strictly on the level of plot, although there are certain exceptions to this. They are engaging mostly out of their wildly different and always enjoyable senses of voice. There are all kinds of people in Birds of America and they all have different ways of getting their identities out there. Even characters who might seem superficially similar when viewed from a strictly plot-looking synopsis cut markedly different lines in prose.
While the characters who inhabit this book each inform their stories with variance in a free indirect narrative sort of thing, there is something distinctly universal to the author in the descriptive prose, a way with metaphor and simile that is very hard to define, and is probably the single most important factor in the quality of Moore’s prose. She has a way of writing something novel that communicates an idea as effectively and as universally as a cliche would. I still can’t figure out the exact mechanics, or any kind of worthwhile definition, but, damn. It’s impressive both when you notice it and when you don’t.
Recommendation: Read it! Don’t sell yourself short by reading her work in isolation.
Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City has a lot stacked against it. It’s not only a very “New York” story, it’s about a sensitive and artistic yet somehow tragically misunderstood straight white male in the eighties, who behaves badly. It’s a novel about a writer written entirely in the second person present tense. Massive and frenetically flapping red flags abound. These disclaimers aside, Bright Lights is a damn good book.
The humor in this book is it’s single strongest redeeming feature. It’s the kind of humor that produces involuntary and audible laughter, and I had to stop reading in certain situations on account of my inability to contain laughter in a place whose social norms preclude that sort of thing. It’s dark and hyper-critical, but the criticism inherent in the humor is nonselective, meaning that our protagonist is catching more of it than anyone else. This is certainly earned criticism, and it’s the other major redeeming factor -this guy would be completely insufferable, completely miserable to be around if he weren’t so hard on himself for all of his own bullshit. Not to say that he isn’t dishonest and self-deceptive, even patently unlikable at times, but one even feels empathy and connection to a character who, handled less skillfully, would be nothing but an exercises in patience.
The rather novel point of view would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a gimmick, but it all flows together so well that one doesn’t really notice it beyond itself or think of it as an externally forced device. Again, had the writing been handled with any less care, this would be a major irritant, but everything feels so smooth that I can’t imagine this book written any other way. It’s a testament to McInerney’s chops that he is able to pull together so many concerning and often-done-badly elements and produce something that’s not just aesthetically well-done, but compelling in narrative, empathetic, and fun to read.
Recommendation: Give it a go. You’ll find out by the end of the first chapter if this book isn’t for you.
Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.
As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.
The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.
Tina Fey’s wonderful show 30 Rock is one of my favorite TV comedies of all time, and her work on Weekend Update is also a favorite. Since her writing chops seem to have a pretty solid connection with my sense of humor, I was pleased to discover that they essay/memoir/nonfiction side of things is also an area she operates well in. Her book Bossypants has been on my radar for a bit, but I hadn’t owned a copy until recently, when it became a featured deal on Kindle. My Kindle gets heavier rotation when I’m doing a lot of backpacking on account of its literal lightness, so I’ve been reading with it a fair bit of late (hopefully I’m not going over-much into the minutia of how the sausage gets made).
Fey’s book is loosely autobiographical, with plenty of worthwhile side trails that grow out of the larger narrative. She plays with form, using lists and other devices to break things up, to keep everything fresh. Her life story is interesting enough, but her framing is the real point to all this. Her observations are well presented and suffused with the kind of humor that made me love 30 Rock so much. Fey does prose well, but again, it’s the funny side of things that makes it all go.
Having read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please within the year, (and not enjoyed it -more details here: https://seanvansickel.com/2015/02/16/reading-log-audiobook-listening-log-amy-poehlers-yes-please/)I’m struck by how similar the two books are. I understand that being offered a book deal as a comedian and a comedy writer is a big deal -these kinds of books have a massive mainstream audience, and need to follow a particular mold, at least to a certain extent. But in spite of Bossypants having come out three years prior, and seeming to have been a model for Poehler’s book, it seems to be not only more novel and unexpected, but just better comedy.
Recommendation: Read it! Lots of funnies, some solid insight.
I got blurbed by Book Fight! And it’s a good one: (more info about Book Fight and their relationship with book blurbs here- https://bookfightpod.com/blurbs/)
“Sean VanSickel is like Roadhouse meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where Dalton is played by Channing Tatum and Dalton’s love interest is played by a pair of nun-chucks, and the blind bluesman is Pitbull, and all the bad guys are actual pit bulls, and there’s no bar and no town and really it’s just a story about the world’s most famous bouncer wandering through a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and fending off packs of pit bulls with grumbling stomachs and a taste for human flesh, and also Pitbull is there, and he sings some stuff, but his autotune machine is broken, and also it’s never entirely clear if he exists or if he’s just a figment of Channing Tatum’s imagination, so that’s sort of a subplot, but mostly the movie is just Channing Tatum fighting a bunch of badass pit bulls, and his catchphrase is ‘let’s find out if all dogs do go to heaven’.”