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
“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.”
You 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.