As a woman and/or literate person, it’s difficult to finish Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel without wanting to throw it across a room. Without scoffing audibly while reading on a packed subway car. Without texting your friends context-less lines from the novel’s more ludicrous moments, linguistic gems like “blazing dildos shrieked across the sky” and “‘Hear me, my sister women! You must quit abusing your loins.'” As a woman and/or literate person, it’s difficult to read Beautiful You without having to willfully remind yourself that it’s all satire.
At Comic-Con, Palahniuk told an interviewer that Beautiful You—whose working title was “Fifty Shades of the Twilight Cave Bear Wears Prada”—is “kind of a mash-up of the most popular chick lit novels….comparable to something the Marquis de Sade would have written.” In an interview with Curious Animal, Palahniuk said he’s “hybridized the ultimate chick-lit novel” and wanted to pack BY “with as many tropes as possible, from the ‘almost-as-pretty’ best friend, who’s always a person of color, to the designer label fashions, the quest for a primitive mentor and, finally, a big wedding scene.”
Beautiful You has all of those chick lit tropes, as well as some, well, rarer ones, like the aforementioned flying dildos, and a 200-year-old sex mystic who lives at the top of Mount Everest. The novel—to the extent that I can summarize it without a) giving away spoilers or b) laughing—centers on Penny Harrigan, the kind of spineless female lead that does feel at home in books like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Devil Wears Prada. Penny is your typical errand girl at a high-profile law firm, and is on the hunt for meeting chairs one day when she stumbles across C. Linus Maxwell—quite literally; she falls through a doorway and lands at his feet. A billionaire with a reputation for courting soon-to-be powerful women (see: the first female president of the United States, a young queen, an Oscar-winning actress), Maxwell strikes up an affair with Penny, which consists primarily of his taking dutiful notes while giving her mind-blowing orgasms with an endless procession of proprietary sex toys. Penny soon discovers that she is the guinea pig for Maxwell’s forthcoming line of “feminine products”—named Beautiful You—and when said products are released, finds herself to be almost the only woman alive capable of resisting the compulsion to abandon her life for 24/7 “me time.” And I mean literally: Women stop leaving their bedrooms; husbands are ignored; children left motherless. Meanwhile, Maxwell’s intentions with respect to the Beautiful You empire are revealed to be far more sinister than previously imagined—this is a spoiler but I’m sorry I just can’t resist: NANOBOTS ARE INVOLVED.
I generally try not to review two lady memoirs in a row (for variety’s sake, if not to avoid alienating my strong contingent of ultramasculine readers) but when an advance copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please falls into one’s lap, one does not let opportunity pass them by. One does spend all of Sunday eating mozzarella sticks in bed while laugh/cry/nodding at Poehler’s engaging, insightful and overall A+ addition to the Lady Library, whose other contributors (Fey, Kaling, Silverman, Griffin, Dunham) have graced Sorry Television in the past. One does, after spilling marinara sauce on one’s pillow and accidentally eating a mozzarella stick the cat licked, ruminate on whether one is in fact living her life to the fullest—engaging in behavior likely to engender the sort of chance encounters, dedicated friendships and hard-won professional achievements Poehler documents in her book. One does, briefly, regret not having been a teenager in the 80s, for the #tbt photo possibilities alone. One does, not briefly, feel proud to be a woman.
It would be wrong to try and rank the titles in the Lady Library from best to worst, or funniest to least funny, or most predictable to most surprising. It feels barely not wrong to call it the Lady Library, and I only do so because those books above are in many ways about being female, in a male-dominated world (comedy, Hollywood, America, Earth), and with all the assumptions and expectations womanhood implies. So if I had to rank the ladybooks, like if someone put a gun to my head and said “Quick! What’s your favorite female comedian’s memoir?”—I dunno, it could happen—I’d have to call it a tie: Between, naturally, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
A few weeks ago, after handmade pasta and a few too many specialty cocktails, my friends and I got into it over Lena Dunham. Empowered by that special brand of self-righteousness unique to personal opinions about popular things, we loudly and enthusiastically debated the merits of the Dunham Phenomenon—two of us against and one (me) in favor, with a fourth maintaining a wishy-washy neutrality that belied the definitive nature of Dunham’s fame. Indeed, if we’ve learned anything from the post-Girls age, it’s that one is either pro-Lena or against, impressed by her or annoyed, on the same page or reading a different book entirely. There is no Switzerland when it comes to Dunham.
Without even touching on the specifics of her body of work—wry stories of self-involved 20-somethings fumbling their way through adulthood—it would be hard to overstate the size of Lena Dunham’s zeitgeist footprint. She became a household name seemingly overnight, at first because of the critical reception to Girls—both good and bad—and later because of the critical reception to Lena herself: Why so whiny? Why so frequently naked? When clothed, why so much like a toddler? Over time, Dunham’s fame became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and talking about being so over talking about Lena Dunham morphed into the cultural high ground, like hating Uggs or giving up on post-1990 Saturday Night Live.
In a cosmic sense, I think it’s fair to blame Jack Kerouac for the glorification of Leaving New York. Ever since On The Road “defined a generation” in 1957, people exhausted by the hardscrabble urine-scented life of an NYC resident can feel validated, self-righteous even, over their decision to pack up and Go West, to set down new roots in the sunny climes of San Francisco and LA, or the laid-back liberal enclaves of Denver and Portland.
As Kerouac did (under the guise of “Sal” in On The Road) people who leave New York seem almost immediately overcome by the compulsion to write about their departure, and for all the other things OTR has become since its publication—an American classic, the signature novel of a social movement, a favorite book of recreational drug users everywhere—it is also the OG of “Why I Left New York” rants. In his rambling and disorganized account of several years road-tripping back and forth across the country with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in OTR) and a rotating cast of other since-canonized Beatniks (also represented by fictional alter egos), Kerouac beautifully romanticizes trading in his New York life (technically Paterson, NJ, but still) for a whirlwind and often penniless tour to and from and across the western half of the country, a tour filled with charismatic hitchhikers and negligent gas station attendants and drugs and alcohol and women and old friends whose wives are never happy to see Sal and Dean show up on their doorsteps.
On the Road has a reputation, as many books of this genre do, of being exhausting to read, or at least difficult to engage with. Kerouac wrote the novel as if writing a letter to a friend, and it feels like it: sentences run on and seem unedited, punctuation is sparse, characters are introduced with a presumed familiarity that makes the reader feel like they’ve stumbled across a stranger’s journal, not a book written for public consumption. But once acclimated to the format—sort of drug memoir meets travel diary—I found OTR engaging enough, like listening to a friend who’s had a few too many Red Bull/vodkas tell you about their European backpacking trip, or finding yourself on a long cab ride with a chatty driver who has a soothing voice and an interesting life story. While Kerouac wastes little energy on the character development of anyone except Dean (who is, more than anyone, the novel’s main character and most vibrant “creation”), it is the style and feel of On the Road that allows the reader to understand Sal, and in turn Kerouac, and to appreciate the former’s fictional insights as the latter’s real ones.
If there’s anything to be said for going into a book completely clueless, it should be said about Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I didn’t go into it clueless (as I am categorically incapable of not reading back-cover blurbs) but a friend of mine did, and I’ve spent the better part of my standard review prep period (read: eating cashews and staring out the window) thinking about how different my experience with WAACBO would have been if I didn’t know from the very first page that Fern, the absentee sister about whom narrator Rosemary Cooke is writing, is [SPOILER] a chimp.
This information, while crucial to the novel’s plot—WAACBO is, in fact, Rosemary’s adult reflection on growing up with, and then without, Fern—isn’t officially revealed until page 77, which is a hell of a long time to leave the species of a main character intentionally ambiguous. And yet, whether by accident or tacit agreement among everyone involved with the publishing and promotion of this book, it is a hard spoiler to avoid: WAACBO’s cover (my version, at least) has a chimp on it, and Rosemary’s most pertinent quote on the matter—”I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister”—is included in the plot summary on the back cover. Somewhat less egregiously, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has since its publication attained a reputation as an “animal rights novel,” which to the uninformed reader certainly begs the question: Wait, there’s an animal?
It is this facet of WAACBO, its unique presentation of the moral questions surrounding the scientific use of animals, that makes it impossible for me to review the novel without mentioning that Fern is indeed a chimpanzee. Apologies if you feel slighted by my decision, but let me assure you: This is a book whose spoilers are incidental, a beautifully written and impactful thought experiment that deserves every accolade it has already received, plus many more. Nuanced and engrossing and extremely relevant, WAACBO may be the best book I’ve read this year. Continue reading
For even for the most casual observer of book publishing today, Neil Gaiman is something of a household name. He’s an author that seems almost serendipitously ubiquitous–one morning there’s an interview in the New York Times, a week later your friend mentions she loved Smoke and Mirrors, four days after that you scroll past a Facebook status praising American Gods. Nearly a decade ago now, those types of impromptu nudges finally drove me to pick up a paperback copy of Neverwhere at The Strand, and it’s languished on various bookshelves in my apartment ever since.
See, I am, for reasons that elude even me, oddly wary of fantasy books. If I had to guess, I would say it stems from some childhood fear of being nerdier than I already was—for most of my formative years I was rocking glasses, braces and a head of hair that went from bowl cut to rat’s nest before I caught on to conditioner somewhere in middle school. Indeed, those torturous limbo grades can be an unfortunate time for the acquisition of new interests, as one is misguidedly forming Opinions about things just a few years shy of the momentous realization that other people’s Opinions about things matter way less than they seem to. Perhaps I saw a foray into fantasy books—and all the cultishness and costumes and collectibles my 10-year-old self thought that implied—as a bridge too far, a surefire way to limit my romantic prospects to boys with Star Trek t-shirts and Magic: The Gathering cards. Little did I know those boys would grow up to be hipsters and I’d end up dating them anyway.
When 24-year-old Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse, veteran journalist Scott McGrath is determined to get to the bottom of it, even though all signs point to suicide. McGrath, a once celebrated investigative reporter, is still reeling from his public fall from grace years earlier, a discrediting prompted by his repeating an anonymous and disparaging tip about Ashley’s father, Stanislav Cordova, a fastidiously reclusive horror film director, who sued McGrath for slander over the remark.
Intrigued by Ashley’s death, and still hung up on the story that sunk his career, McGrath finds himself teaming up with an unlikely duo of “meddling kids“—Hopper, a drug dealer whom Ashley contacted shortly before her death, and Nora, an coat-check girl/aspiring actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. The group’s research takes them deep into the world of Stanislav Cordova, an investigation Pessl relays through both narrative and a series of photos, screen grabs of online news stories and pages from Cordova-themed message boards. The man that emerges is a Hitchcock-meets-Eli-Roth eccentric whose brief but impactful career left a trail of scarred employees and rabid fans in its wake. Continue reading