15 Years Late, I’ve Joined the Neil Gaiman Fan Club

25 Sep

neverwhereFor 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.

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Night Film is Two Parts Hitchcock, One Part Stephen King

16 Sep

18770398When 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

2 Great Cynical Rants From The Goldfinch

10 Sep

>The Imperfectionists: An FAQ“But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding into the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and traveled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point-five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home.”

“And, increasingly, I find myself fixing on that refusal to pull back. Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me — and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly until I did, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool.”

On The Goldfinch, Dickens and Haters

4 Sep

527141df7cd2b.preview-300You know that uniquely torturous last week of work before you go on vacation, when you’re obsessively checking weather reports and find yourself spacing out to to thoughts of fudge and salt-water taffy? That’s me right now, just four days shy of my annual sojourn to the peaceful post-Labor Day rhythms of Ocean City, New Jersey. My bag is half-packed and I’ve got my reading list sorted (new Tana French, new-ish Marisha Pessl, new-adjacent Karen Joy Fowler); all I need is to survive the next 93 hours. It’s exactly like that James Franco movie, except less time and I’m not trapped and at the end of everything I anticipate still having both arms.

Little has been able to hold my attention since the 10-day New Jersey forecast became relevant, with the exception of The Goldfinch, the much-discussed winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Donna Tartt’s first novel since The Little Friend in 2002 (and before that, The Secret History in 1992). I’d been delaying starting The Goldfinch for months, both because it’s exceedingly long (around 800 pages) and because people have Opinions about The Goldfinch, and sometimes it’s hard to get objectively invested in a book when one is aware, however vaguely, of the existence of Opinions. But surely, I thought as I searched for the door-stopper of a galley copy I’d plopped onto my bookshelf six months ago (ultimately traded for the e-book within 10 pages), surely a Pulitzer Prize winner can’t be bad. Surely I couldn’t hate it. And so with some trepidation, and a quiet symphony of Atlantic Ocean waves playing at the edge of my subconscious, I dove in.

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I Want To Get Drunk With Scott McClanahan

28 Aug

scott-mcclanahan-collected-worksThe table of contents for Scott McClanahan’s The Collected Works Vol. 1 reads like a set list for a night of boozy storytelling. There’s “The Homeless Guy,” “The Chainsaw Guy” and “My Dad and the Cop.” There’s “Kidney Stones” and “Hernia Dog” and “The Prettiest Girl in Texas.” Truly, even before you read the first line of the first entry in this slim collection of stories, you have a sense of McClanahan the guy, and a sense of his work: These are tales like those we tell in person, over beers and among friends. They’re sometimes funny and sometimes bleak, and they reveal as much about ourselves as they do about anyone else in them.

I stumbled onto The Collected Works because of its cover (adages be damned), which is a cute (and legally ballsy?) imitation of a Penguin Classic, noticeably irreverent only on second glance. None of the 28 stories in the collection is more than a few pages, and most end in pseudo-philosophical punchlines that sometimes make you want to laugh and shed a tear at the same time. As author Sam Pink writes in the afterword:

“[McClanahan] writes in a way that is conscious of both his own absurdity and that of others, without overdoing either. He makes it really easy to like the narrator and to learn from the narrator’s experiences. Scott also knows how to balance humor and sadness.”

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Put Down Your McNuggets And Read The Meat Racket

21 Aug

bwoutlook0302011393112821On the long list of careers at which I know I would fail miserably, farmer is near the top, right next to schoolteacher, personal trainer and anything involving dead bodies. Farming requires more than an extraordinary work ethic, a high tolerance for early-morning hours and physical exertion, and a certain resilience when it comes to the smell of poop. It calls for a stoic acquiescence to the whims of the universe, which has the power to make or break a farmer’s very livelihood with one infestation, one storm or one drought. Certainly everyone contends with the uncontrollable—to do so is in some way to be human—but farmers do it more than most. Their business is with the planet, and their job is to impose ritual on its otherwise unfettered chaos.

To cede control to the capricious nature of…nature is an inevitable facet of agricultural life, up there with muddy boots and waking up before bars have even closed in New York. But the sacrifice is, theoretically, in pursuit of a greater good, of an American dream that has less to do with big houses and nice things and more to do with living off the land, with owning something and using that something to generate something, not just wealth.

America has a long history of attempting to level the playing field for farmers, with subsidies and regulations intended to limit the volatility wrought by both mother earth and the free market, equally fickle bitches. But perils persist: In 2012, the median farm income was negative $1,453. You read that right: Half of farmers are losing more than $1,453 a year. It’s no wonder that they commit suicide at a rate just under two times that of the general population. One need look no further than the produce—and now meat—sections at Walmart to understand that food has become Big Food, and where Big ___ goes, the slow suffocation of the average employee follows.

Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket is concerned with only a microcosm of a microcosm of the food business as a whole: The book focuses on the genesis of the now-ubiquitous Tyson Foods, a company that currently raises 1 of every 5 chickens eaten in the United States. But while Tyson is just one company, and chicken (plus, as Tyson expands, beef and pork) are just one agricultural sector, the Tyson story could and does easily stand in for the plight of farmers as a whole. TMR is a maddening, soul-sucking tour through the influence of big business, and the bumbling complicity of government and regulators in the endless conglomeration of the American private sector.

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Dear Anthony Kiedis: Because of Scar Tissue, I Forgive You For “Otherside”

15 Aug

ScartissuebookThe overwhelming first impression one gets of Anthony Kiedis’s autobiography is: Drug Memoir. Released in 2004, Scar Tissue (co-written with Larry Sloman, who also co-wrote Howard Stern’s Private Parts) did well sales-wise, ultimately hitting No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. There’s even an audio version read by Rider Strong (I repeat, Rider Strong). But Kiedis’s whopper of a memoir (~500 pages), was ultimately boiled down into a handful of talking points: band drama, women, drugs. Especially drugs.

That connotation has stayed with STish in the intervening decade, and so what I expected when I first bought my now-battered paperback edition for $1 at Strand circa 2010 was to get mired in a haze of substance abuse, to be taken through a Kerouacian whirlwind of gigs and girls and superstardom. At the very least, I kind of expected Kiedis to be a dick, an “author” because he was convinced of his own magnetism, not because he felt compelled to reflect.

Don’t get me wrong, Scar Tissue is about drugs. Kieidis has at one point or another been a frequent if not daily user of all the usual suspects (marijuana, cocaine, heroin) and, when using, will go for pretty much anything else in a pinch. He smokes his first joint at 11 years old; decades later, his tolerance for opiates is so high that ER doctors have to give him seven shots of morphine, a hospital record. Kiedis’s drug use is hard to read about, and to picture. It’s sad and desperate and nearly destroys his relationships, his career and his life many times. At its heart, Scar Tissue is indeed a drug book. Continue reading


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