Jonathan Franzen Is a Basic Bitch, But I’m OK With It

1 Oct

Book Review-Purity

Like most great controversies, it all started with Oprah.

Back in 2001, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, at a time when OBC was nirvana for publishers—an immediate launching pad to record-breaking sales and endless press. Franzen shot some b-roll with O, but his invitation for an official sit-down was rescinded after a series of interviews in which he expressed reservations about the pick. “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick,”’ Franzen told NPR at the time. “Those are male readers speaking.”

Oprah and Franzen eventually made up—ever a badass, in 2010 she selected his novel Freedom for her book club and the duo intellectually hugged it out on camera—but even after a decade of half-assed backpedaling, Franzen has struggled (or refused) to shed his reputation as an ungrateful douche. “I think [Oprah] was surprised that I wasn’t moaning with shock and pleasure,” he told Slate of the Corrections debacle in 2013. “I’d been working nine years on the book and FSG had spent a year trying to make a best-seller of it. It was our thing. She was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favor she was bestowing.”

Oprah isn’t Franzen’s only beef. He also has a longstanding feud with author Jennifer Weiner, who has made Franzen the poster child for her crusade against the literary establishment’s gender problem. Weiner says male authors like Franzen get a disproportionate share of attention and review space, while Franzen says that if there is a lit-fiction gender gap, Weiner isn’t a victim of it. “She is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits,” Franzen said in February. “To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically.” Continue reading

Eating Pastries With George Carlin’s Daughter

15 Sep

cover+FINAL+-+A+Carlin+Home+Companion+1-5-15One morning in the mid-1970s, a cocaine-addled George Carlin wakes up and thinks the sun is exploding. “I shake Brenda awake: ‘Get Kelly up! The sun has exploded! We have eight minutes to live!’” Carlin told Tony Hendra for his autobiography Last Words. “I was certain it had exploded and we had eight minutes for the shock wave to get here, which would then be the end of the world.”

Kelly Carlin, George’s daughter, was 11 at the time, but more than 40 years later she still remembers well those panicked minutes. Looking for a second opinion, George calls longtime friend Joe Belardino, who is five hours away in Sacramento. “I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed tensely listening as Dad hurriedly explained to Joe what was going on,” Kelly writes in her memoir, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up With George, which goes on sale this week. “With a look of hope on his face, Dad covered the mouthpiece and said, ‘He’s checking.’”

Joe ultimately confirmed the false alarm—“No, it looks okay up here”—and the story of the exploding sun becomes Carlin family legend, the kind of funny-in-hindsight anecdote that belies how terrifying it would be to have a parent shake you awake with warnings of an imminent doomsday scenario. Continue reading

The Gamers Will Save Us

2 Sep

ZZ48DF98ECFor more than five years—basically since I started living alone—there is a set window of time during which I can watch horror movies: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, and during the week never (unless I feel like some Freddy Krueger before breakfast). Because even as I settle into the throes of adulthood, I am still easily scared. I hate peeking under my bed, or behind the shower curtain, and closing my mirrored medicine cabinet still makes my heart flutter. All of which I credit to a childhood spent watching wildly inappropriate B horror movies rented from the kind of video store that had an adult section. When Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer brought the horror genre back into the mainstream in the late ‘9os, I didn’t know whether to be more excited about my favorite genre’s budding popularity, or Skeet Ulrich.

Scream creator Wes Craven’s death this week is no small loss for scary cinema, and has me reflecting on what it was about Scream that catapulted a silly slasher flick into worldwide popularity. Despite a very of-the-moment cast (did I mention Skeet Ulrich?) and genius mask work, Scream’s true strength was in its wink at the fourth wall—the veil between fiction and reality that has to exist lest we start wondering why everyone in horror movies acts like they’ve never seen one before. Don’t go up the stairs! Don’t look for that laughing child! TURN AROUND!! Scream took cinematic self-awareness to the next level, as its main characters often preempted their own murders with diatribes on the inherent ridiculousness of horror movie tropes. “It was a tactic that made even Scream’s most cliche moments feel ironic and sophisticated,” I wrote in Newsweek. Continue reading

Maggie Nelson Should Explain Everything to Everyone

12 Aug

argoo-e1430933863404Sometimes—often, if you’re lucky—you’ll read a book you want to share with the world, the kind of book whose praises you sing to family, friends and coworkers. The kind of book you gift so indiscriminately come Christmas—”and YOU get a copy! and YOU get a copy!”—that loved ones are convinced you must be making a cut of the proceeds. For me those books come few and far between; in the last 12 months I’d say only The Martian and We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves qualify (and you’re welcome). But it would be a mistake to assume that the accessible books are the most memorable, or the most important. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts isn’t a share-with-the-world type of book, but it’s one of the most elegant and insightful things I’ve read in recent memory.

I should start out by admitting that I am a Nelson virgin, and further that I’m not intellectual or academic or literary enough to know whether that’s something to be, if not ashamed of, then distressed by. But there’s something pure about going into a book as intimate as The Argonauts knowing nothing of its author or her prior work. TA is a love story of sorts, told in snippets of thought and anecdote interspersed with heavy philosophizing—and quoting of philosophers and other intellectuals—on such subjects as love, gender, sexuality, parenting, feminism and identity. If that sounds like a freshman seminar in Women’s Studies, it should—except Nelson does it with such nuance and efficiency that one never feels overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge, or browbeaten by dogma. Her story is personal, which makes her vulnerable in telling it, which makes any invocation of philosophy more inquisitive than pretentious. Continue reading

5 Tips For Reading Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke

22 Jul

Because you know you should. 9780312427740

bought Tree of Smoke at The Strand three years ago and it’s been straight loungin’ in my apartment ever since. Despite loving Jesus’s Son—Johnson’s  1992 short-story collection—I somehow couldn’t muster the energy to dive into TOS until it was selected by my book club last month. This novel is long and about Vietnam and…long, so the bigger your support network the better. After all, book clubs were made for these situations; they’re basically voluntary homework for adults. 

While it’s not strictly necessary, it was hugely helpful for me to read up on Vietnam before getting into TOS. I’m not saying you should do enough research to like… write a thesis or anything. Just take 10 minutes to refresh your memory of the basics, the CliffsNotes—who was fighting whom and why, or, you know, “why.” Then clear your search history.  Continue reading

The Cartel Ruined My Week

30 Jun

51vc-6vtUzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sitting across from crime novelist Don Winslow, I’m finding it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken, bespectacled man of 61 with the scene I keep replaying in my head: a drug kingpin throwing two children off a bridge to send a message to a rival. I’ve had nightmares about this scene.

The kingpin is Adán Barrera, heir to a Mexico-based international drug syndicate and a main character in Winslow’s 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog, which documented the birth of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its much-maligned war on drugs. In The Cartel, the hefty sequel that came out in June, Winslow revisits that war and America’s role in it, while Barrera revives his longtime enmity with DEA maverick Art Keller—the so-called “Border Lord”—and everyone from local dope boys to corrupt police officers to prostitutes-turned-traffickers gets caught up in their blood feud, or killed. Often both.

In the past 25 years, Winslow has written more than a dozen novels, many of them also focused on California, Mexico and the drug trade. The SoCal native specializes in thrillers whose breezy pacing and casual language belie the seriousness of their subject matter. In 1997’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z, a hapless prisoner is asked by the DEA to infiltrate the compound of a deceased drug lord with whom he happens to share a resemblance. In 2006’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, a retired hit man tries to outrun his mob past and a lengthy list of would-be killers. In 2010’s Savages, two best friends and marijuana dealers are recruited by a cartel after their shared girlfriend is kidnapped and held for ransom. Continue reading

E.L. James Human Centipedes Herself With Grey

25 Jun

grey-el-james_0Oh, how I missed Christian Grey. His stoic intensity, his impeccable suit collection, his way with small words. His twisted cliche of a past and complacent cliche of a future. His contempt for normal relationships and yet powerlessness in the face of the most boring woman on earth. His playroom. His NDA. His overtly metaphorical hatred of being touched.

If there’s anything we’ve learned about E.L. James in the four years since the runaway success of Fifty Shades of GreyFifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed—125 million sold and counting!—it’s that there is zero shame in her game. At one point in 2012, James was reportedly making $1.34 million a week from the series, and rumors of her aggressive presence on the set of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie suggest she’s come a long way from the bemused passivity that typified those early days after FSOG took off. James is the repressed housewife’s J.K. Rowling, living proof that in the age of the blockbuster—movie, album, even book—a rising tide lifts all boats. Like, any boat.

Given Fifty Shades’ ascendancy, it’s little surprise that James has revived the now well-worn tale of elusive sadist millionaire Christian Grey and his (spoiler) semi-submissive-turned-wife, Anastasia Steele. That revival comes in the form of Grey, a retelling of the inaugural FSOG from Christian’s perspective (the original, for those of you with better things to do, was from Anastasia’s). In so many ways, Grey was inevitable—as inevitable as Rowling’s The Tales of Beetle the Bard—because when something clicks with the public, we beat it to death with adoration and replication until it becomes banal in the vast landscape of doppelgangers we’ve created. After all, we are the species that created eight Fast & Furious movies.  Continue reading


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