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

1. MAKE YOUR BOOK CLUB READ IT 
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. 

2. GOOGLE “VIETNAM WAR” FIRST
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

Judd Apatow’s Sick In the Head Is the Ultimate Ode to Comedy

17 Jun

judd-apatow-640x960In an interview on ESPN last week, Jerry Seinfeld became the latest comedian to decry a culture of political correctness that he says is ruining stand-up. “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges,” Seinfeld told ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd. “They’re so PC.”

Seinfeld’s sentiments—which sparked predictable backlash and several op-eds by affronted college students—echoed complaints made by Chris Rock in an interview with New York magazine last year. “I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative,” Rock said. “Not in their political views—not like they’re voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”

The comedian outcry against PC culture—Bill Maher, Jeff Ross, Dave Chappelle and others have publicly empathized with complaints about audience oversensitivity—is predicated on a certain belief about comedy: that it’s an art form worth protecting, even when its practitioners cross traditionally sacrosanct lines. “You don’t want comedy watered down; you want it potent,” Ross said during an appearance on HBO’s Real Time last week. “[Comedians] have a responsibility to shine a light on the darkest aspects of society.” (Incidentally, a Comedy Central special in which Ross “roasted” criminals at a maximum-security Texas jail aired on Saturday.)

Stacked up against the cultural institutions of film, music, literature and art, it’s easy to forget the legacy of comedy, which goes back as far as Ancient Greece—or Lenny Bruce, depending on your perspective. After all, we have roughly 84 reality shows focused on singing, and just one—NBC’s middling Last Comic Standing—devoted to stand-up. That’s as many shows about comedy as there are about dog grooming, diving from extreme heights or dating naked. Continue reading

The Martian Trailer is Here and Yesyesyesyes

8 Jun

Remember a few months ago when I told you Andy Weir’s stranded-in-space sci-fi novel The Martian is amazing and deserves all the great attention it’s getting as well as its Ridley-Scott-directed, Matt-Damon-starring movie adaptation? Well the trailer came out today and it looks GOOD.

If you haven’t read this book yet, jump on it.

Three Books to Make You Uncomfortable

28 May

Tis the season of the beach read, and nothing says beach read like Hitler and slavery.

————————————————————————————————————————–9780804138833

TITLE: Summer House With Swimming Pool
AUTHOR: Herman Koch
PAGES: 387 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Dinner
SORTA LIKE: Tom Perrotta meets Bret Easton Ellis
FIRST LINE: “I am a doctor.”

Summer House With Swimming Pool is Koch’s second novel translated into English from the original Dutch (I reviewed the first, The Dinner, a few weeks ago). Like The Dinner, SHWSP is a creepy suspenseful family drama involving parents’ actions when it comes to their children.

Doctor Marc Schlosser and his family—wife Caroline and daughters Julia and Lisa—find themselves becoming friends with Marc’s patient, famous actor Ralph Meier, and his family, whom the Schlossers ultimately join on a vacation at the Meier’s summer house. While Marc wiles away his vacay passively loathing Ralph (while half-assedly wooing Judith), both families are suddenly affected by a tragic event that forces them to contend with their true feelings about each other. Continue reading

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