Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you..."

Eric B & Rakim quotes aside, I've been reading a great deal since last I posted.  I just finished Michael Chabon's latest, Telegraph Avenue, as well as Per Peterson's It's Fine By Me, both of which I'll write about at length soon enough, however, I've been doing a lot of dipping between a number of books that are well worth their while.  

First off, The Fun of It: Stories from the Talk of the TownEdited by Lillian Ross, who joined the New Yorker in 1945, this chronological collection of "casuals" from the magazine is a delight, especially if you're like me (and I know I am) and enjoy the short, engaging pieces at the front of each issue that leave you wanting more.  Great writing from great writers--James Thurber, Harold Ross, A J Liebling, Joseph Mitchell through the Shawn era staff and onto the current class including David Remnick, Jeffrey Toobin and Rebecca Mead.   

Here's a quote I found especially interesting: "Freshman congressmen come here [to Congress] half persuaded that their constituents' impression of them is true, that they are going to save the country, only to find out that the mechanics don't exist for saving the country through Congress."  That was from Congresswoman Claire Boothe Luce.  In 1943.  Nothing changes.

I'm halfway through Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel by Carlene Bauer.  Thus far I'm intrigued but I'm uncertain I like the characters all that much.  It will be a testament to Bauer's writing to turn my head.  Still, good stuff so far and I have time to form my opinion since the book won't be out until February.

Revisiting A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel and find it just as charming and laugh-out-loud funny as I remember.  This is one of those books I've been lending to friends since it was published in 2001 and not one of them has ever given it back without telling me how much they enjoyed it.  Please read or re-read this memoir about 'growing up small in Mooreland, Indiana' as the sub-title says.  I'm not sure where Kimmel is now but I do hope she's still at the writing game.

Surprisingly, Grove published another collection of Sherman Alexie short stories, this one entitled Blasphemy, which is a mix of old and new.  I thought I remember Alexie leaving Grove and going to another house at the time War Dance was published.  Perhaps I'm mistaken or maybe this is the last of some contractual obligation, a live album or collection of b-sides, if you will.  As an apostle of Alexie, I had to have it (Thanks Jen) and find the book quite satisfying and rife with stories you'd expect from him--some touching, some beautiful, some infuriating.  I was happy to re-read "What You Pawn, I Will Redeem" as well as "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona", the basis for the movie Smoke Signals.  As mentioned before here in my little corner of cyberspace, Alexie is not everyone's cup of YooHoo but I think he is a master. 

Speaking of things cyber, The Movie Uncyclopedia was recently published as an e-book.  I had the great good fortune to be involved promoting both The Football Uncyclopedia and The Baseball Uncyclopedia.  This time around Michael Kun (who is just the nicest fella), Lou Harry (with whom I spent one of the funniest evenings of my life), Eric Feinstein (who I don't know at all), and Theresa Hoiles (who I hears smells nice) skewer the world of film and film fans. Together, they pool their years of movie-watching experience and let 'er rip reminding readers that what you remember and know about your favorite films is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Fat with footnotes and playful in-fighting among each other, they tackle some of the burning issues of filmdom with the grace of a sledgehammer.  Included at no additional charge--THE MOST EXCITING INTRODUCTION EVER!  Funny stuff, as ever, from this bunch. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ten Years After

As mentioned before, this blog started first as a desire to count how many books I read in a year then as a way to inform friends and acquaintances about what to read next. The first list was compiled in 1999 but by 2002 I was adding comments to each entry and emailing them at years' end.  I looked over that first batch yesterday and was struck by what a banner year it was.  That's not to say 2002 wasn't without some dogs and disappointments (and I'm not writing about them today) but, as Frank sang, it was a very good year. 

Two books that jumped out at me have been made into movies that will soon release: Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being A Wallflower and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  Buzz on both films is quite high and I'm anxious to see them.  Best of all, it will cause people to read the books, some for the first time, others again, and I envy them that.  

Perks was new ground for me because I didn't read YA fiction which was just starting to shirk off the taint of being 'crap for kids' and gain an honorable reputation. I wrote: 

Squarely aimed at the young adult market, Wallflower rises well above the typical teen fare even for a cynical former teenager like me.  Consisting of letters written by Charlie to someone whom we never meet, we get a glimpse into those horrible junior/senior high school days when you haven't a clue how to live but have a great need to be loved.  Throughout, it feels as though Chbosky somehow read our diaries and journals as he evokes all those emotions that were then so near the skin.
I remember finishing the book and immediately mailing my copy to my dear friend, Rocky, with whom I had shared so many of those experiences, imploring him to read it.  That the book was set in Pittsburgh further endeared it to me.

To see that ten years later author Chbosky has somehow managed to write and direct the movie version with a major studio and cast Hermione herself as one of the leads, gives me hope the film succeeds and gets this book in the hands of readers again.

An even more striking work, The Life of Pi completely knocked me on my ass.  Deservedly, it went on to win the Booker prize and sold millions.  Now as a big budget movie directed by Ang Lee, the film should lead millions more to read this absolutely remarkable and original work. 

Some of the other notables worth a read or re-read that I wrote about in 2002 include: 
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Wow!  And a debut, too)
Empire Falls by Richard Russo (My first Russo. Hardly my last)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Oh, the ache)
Summerland by Michael Chabon (Proof he can write just about anything)
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (a delight for wordsmiths)
Shopgirl by Steve Martin (Steve proves he's a writer)
Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken (a haunting tale of friendship)

Less acclaimed but still terrific: 
The Half-Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton (where are you now George?  Please write)
Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin (love that man) 
McCarthy's Bar by Peter McCarthy (damned shame he passed away a couple of years later)

To say the least, looking back has been well worth it. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

When Penny met Pepi

Two showbiz memoirs, one with broad appeal, the other strictly for me.

Joseph Schildkraut was a famous stage actor in Europe who had considerable success in Hollywood, including a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.  He also played Otto Frank on Broadway and on film in The Diary of Anne Frank.  His father, Rudolph Schildkraut was an even bigger star in Europe and later a marquee name in the Yiddish theater here in the States.  Josephs' memoir, My Father and I, published in 1959, tells both their stories.  

Rudolphs' was a rags to riches story.  From nothing, he went on to become one of the most acclaimed actors of his time.  He was also a serial womanizer, an egomaniac and lived well beyond his means despite earning vast sums of money.  Put simply, the guy was nuts.

His son, Joseph, studied to be a musician but the lure of the stage drew him into the family business despite his fathers' protests.  Not surprisingly, Joseph had some difficulty getting out from his father's shadow but ultimately succeeded on his own, including work for D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.  An Oscar ain't bad either. 

For a memoir from 1959, Joseph is quite forthright about his own skirt-chasing (though juicy details were omitted) and he is unapologetic about these as well as his failed marriages. 

Perhaps best of all, I was able to glean some important genealogical information from the book that will aid my own research into my family tree.  You see, while not a household name to most, Joseph was an important name in our house because he was my mother's cousin.  She referred to him by his family nickname, Pepi, and always had fond memories of him.  My parents remembered going to see Anne Frank on Broadway and Pepi taking my father's hand and running it over his bald head which he had shaved to make him appear older.  In fact, Pepi's honest portrayal and physical resemblance to Otto Frank led the the two men to become friends in their remaining years. 

Quite different in tone, My Mother Was Nuts is a funny, fast, and often surprising read.

So often, humor is born of pain and that can certainly be said of Marshall.  Her parents' marriage was unhappy at best and her mother made it clear that Penny's birth was neither planned nor wanted.  In fact, the frankness of Mrs. Marshall is alarming and uncomfortable, making it all the more remarkable that Penny didn't end up a basket case.  Instead, she simply stuck her head down and plowed forward.  

Having grown up in her mother's dance studio, she wasn't a shy kid.  She was likable, fun-loving and boy crazy.  While it was never her dream to be on TV, things have a way of happening for Penny Marshall and she was unknowingly wise to take chances since so many of them panned out so well. Laverne & Shirley was a huge success as were films she directed like Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own.  In fact, she was the first woman director to have two films gross over $100 million each.  

Unlike the Schildkraut memoir, My Mother Was Nuts contains lots of juicy stuff--drug trips with Carrie Fisher (no surprise there), benders with Belushi and Aykroyd, her marriage to Rob Reiner (whose success with All In The Family was eclipsed by his wifes' when Laverne & Shirley knocked Reiner's show from the top spot and became the number one comedy in America), her relationship with Art Garfunkel and others.  It is a memoir that is really charming, moving, and unexpected.  

Finally, below is the book trailer for My Mother Was Nuts, which is the funniest I've seen in ages.  


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is a bestselling, award-winning novelist.  As if that weren't enough, she recently became a bookseller.  After Nashville lost its best-loved indie bookstore, Patchett partnered with former BDD sales rep, Karen Hayes, and opened Parnassus Books to fill the void.  (Full disclosure: Karen is a friend of mine and was always one of the most respected and beloved sales reps in the biz.)  Much has been made of her decision to enter into the realm of bookstores at a time when publishing is more uncertain than ever, people read little and buy books even less, and Jeff Bezos continues to create a monolithic retail empire that rivals the ancient pharoahs in scope.  As a result, I feel something special for Ann Patchett and, having never read her work, I was thrilled to find two of her books at the re-sale shop where I often find treasure.  Bel Canto is treasure, indeed.

Here's the set-up: in an unnamed, underdeveloped South American country, a birthday party is being thrown to curry favor with the CEO of a Japanese electronics giant in hopes he will open a much-needed factory.  Mr. Hosokawa is a lover of opera and the administration has hired Roxanne Coss, the reigning queen of sopranos, to entertain him at the vice-presidents house along with a host of international business luminaries.  As the stunning performance comes to an end, the lights go out and from the airshafts emerge revolutionaries whose plan is to kidnap the country's president.  The rub is that the president cancelled at the last minute to stay home and watch his favorite soap opera and so, right off the bat, the situation has gone horribly wrong. 

What unfolds is far more than a tense hostage drama.  It is an examination of how music binds people together, changes them, transforms them, uplifts them, and creates common ground where there is little.  In honesty, I have little appreciation of opera.  What I have heard simply doesn't speak to me but Patchett writes so beautifully about it, it may be necessary for me to rethink this.  However, it was more than just opera itself.  Patchett shows how music can completely remove the terrorist from his tiny backwater village, how the worldly CEO recalls the sense memories of attending his first opera as a child when his family could scarcely afford such a luxury and how even the leaders of the coup respect the soprano for her skill and how her voice could cause men to go into battle just to protect it.  

Patchett peoples the story with characters of great diversity, richness and depth: the isolated Diva is made human, the aloof CEO is made flesh, and Hosokawa's translator, Gen, is the heart and soul of the book.  The interactions between the characters is far more than Stockholm syndrome as this unlikely collection of business types, dignitaries and dirt-poor soldiers unite behind the power of song.  

After reading Bel Canto, my "special feeling" for Ann Patchett has grown considerably.  Please keep fighting the good bookstore fight, Ms. Patchett, and, by all means, keep writing. 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Of Dishonest Schemes and Dreams of Genies

A few weeks ago, there was an unsettling article in the New York Times about a man who created a company to furnish authors, many of them self-published and aspiring, at best, with favorable book reviews, mostly on Amazon and other websites where 5-star reviews are the coin of the realm and the key to successful sales.  The authors paid him, sometimes handsomely, for the privilege (you can read the entire piece here:  As an example, they wrote of an author who has become quite successful utilizing this service, but who also went so far as to give his own work high marks under several pseudonyms while giving low marks to other authors. 

What we learn from this article is what we already suspected: this happens all the time, whether for pay, like this Rutherford fellow whose defunct company, is the meat of the article, or under false pretenses or both as in the case of the aforementioned author, John Locke, whose use of these tactics made him the first self-published author to sell over one million e-books on Amazon.  Locke takes it all in stride, a sign of the times, a legitimate way to distinguish himself among all those books that get published every year, no bad taste in his mouth.  Coming as no surprise, Locke's next work was a non-fiction primer, "How I Sold One Million E-books in Five Months". 

Let me just say how utterly distasteful I find this whole practice, as a book blogger, as a former book publicist, and as a reader.

As a blogger, I am beholden to no one.  There have been times when I disliked a book enough that I simply didn't bother to post about it as it was a waste of my time and yours.  There have also been times when I have received advance copies from friends and industry colleagues whose books could have used a "push".  While there may have been a twinge of remorse on my part that I couldn't help out this friend or colleague, in six years I have remained honest in my assessments of the books I've read--if I liked it or not, I said so.  

As a publicist, you know damn well how cluttered the reviewer's desk is, how little time they have, how little space is available for a book review (of all things!).  Part of your job as a competent flak is your ability to distinguish the book from the pack.  For all your efforts and all your cleverness, sometimes you win. More often you lose but from this you learn that base hits add up and most home run kings often lead the league in strikeouts.

As I've opined in the past, the conceit that "everyone has a story" is one of the inherent dangers of self-publishing because not every story deserves to be published.  The other problem is that once self-published authors actually hold a book, their book, in their own two hands, well I haven't met a one who doesn't think they don't belong in the Times Sunday supplement or on Oprah's settee even though the book is a field guide to the tastiest edible nocturnal plants of southwestern Ohio and how to paint them on rocks with acrylics and then use them to decorate your guest house.

Ultimately, where I take the most offense is as a reader.  I'm no naif, no Polyanna, no Pangloss.  I'll accept hype and buzz, if they're legit-ish (don't get me started on the practice of 'blurbing'), I'll understand if I didn't love the book, if it didn't speak to me, if you've written about events or characters I simply dislike or your style is too fill-in-a-blank-of-your-own here. Just tell me a great story.  Don't bullshit me.  

Yesterday, I saw a small bright spot from our friends at Shelf Awareness: four dozen UK authors have condemned these practices and have pledged not to utilize these tactics (  I hope authors 'round the world will follow suit.  

I suppose committed readers will find all this as tawdry as I do and I suppose I can't expect the casual reader to vet the books and authors they read, given they read so few these days.  However, it does seem that, as in so many other instances in our current society, the social compact is in tatters, honesty is entirely flexible, and success is the only true measure.   Once this door has opened, never to be shut, it seems the only genies that can be put back in their bottles were on 60s sitcoms.

Friday, August 24, 2012

More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby

I've been a devoted fan of Nick Hornby's work for quite a long time.  I remember opening a new bookstore and a friend lending me an early finished copy of High Fidelity and was immediately taken with his prose and his characters.  I knew Rob and Barry and Dick.  They were me and my friends and the dudes from the record store where I shopped and the bookstore where I worked. I, too, made passive/aggressive, not-nearly-so-subtle-as-I-thought-I-was mix tapes for girls I liked.  Hornby nailed it and lad lit was born!  (Cue sunbeams and trumpet fanfare and dropping testicles.) This begat About A Boy, as touching a novel as I'd read and still one of my faves.

Fortunately, Hornby had too much talent to stay too long in the lad lit ghetto and he produced How To Be Good and A Long Way Down and the lovely Juliet, Naked, as well as forays into non-fiction and YA books and screenplays.  Oddly, I didn't follow him into magazine writing because I thought the mag for which he writes, The Believer, all too hipper-than-thou for a dork like me.  With More Baths, Less Talking, I may have to change my thinking.

Sub-titled Notes From the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle With Football, Family and Time Itself, Hornby does what I do with this blog: he writes about what he reads, with plenty of digressions about wife and kids, his outside interests, and his fame, along with gibes and japes at Believer editors and subscribers and a ton of hilarious self-deprecating remarks, albeit far more successfully and entertainingly than do I because he's a celebrated and talented author and I, well, I'm neither celebrated nor particularly talented nor am I an author but more of a lazy schlub with a badly-maintained blog and far too much unqualified opinion.  Go Steelers!  Hurray for Mrs. Next!

That said, Hornby is witty and insightful, his asides are clever and biting, and his reading choices are inspired.  A slim volume at a mere 135 pages, More Baths, Less Talking provided me with lots to consider, plenty to laugh about, and a desire to make this very blog as entertaining as his magazine pieces.  If only I can find the time and acquire the talent.

Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

"Here is what I know:

My name is Budo.
I have been alive for five years.
Five years is a very long time for someone like me to be alive.
Max gave me my name.
Max is the only human person who can see me.
Max's parents call me an imaginary friend.
I love Max's teacher, Mrs. Gosk.
I do not like Max's other teacher, Mrs. Patterson.
I am not imaginary."

So begins Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks' beguiling third novel and it's one hell of a set-up.  What the set-up doesn't mention is that Max appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. He is highly functioning but lacks social skills and is unable to break with routine causing him to get "stuck" as Budo most aptly puts it.  

Though quite different in tone, Memoirs has much of the same charm as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and not simply because of the malady both children suffer.  The authors know how to keep the serious aspects light enough while moving an imaginative story forward.  

Budo loves Max and is his (almost) constant companion but he has learned that, as imaginary friends go, he's a bit different.  Because Budo is as Max "has imagined him" and because Max is a bright boy, aspects of Budo's life are more developed than many of the other imaginary friends Budo has encountered, most of whom sleep when their friends sleep and are practically forgotten when the human friend is off at school.  Budo doesn't need to sleep and often wanders off to explore the outside world at night.  He regards two convenience store employees who work the graveyard shift as his friends even though they can't see him.  He has become pals with another imaginary friend, a girl named Graham, as well as other "imaginaries" (my quotation marks, not the authors') who are nothing more than popsicle sticks or a blob on a wall.  Budo understands their limitations.

Aside from his devotion to Max, Budo is keenly aware and deathly afraid of his inevitable fate--when his human friend will no longer need an imaginary friend.  Budo sees this happen repeatedly and it causes him considerable existential angst so he endeavors to make himself essential to Max in order to live forever.  Heady stuff for an imaginary friend, don't you think?  This is where Dicks shines and the book succeeds.  Throughout the book, I was touched by Budo's obvious love for his friend and his own self-awareness.  Dicks can be wildly funny one moment and achingly tender the next. 

Less successful, though still quite compelling, is the story of Max's disappearance and kidnapping which propels the bulk of the book.  Though I found this arc just a bit too tidy, it wasn't enough to cause me not to enjoy the novel a great deal.  While Max is tucked away in a basement room that looks exactly like his own by a teacher gone rogue, Budo is able to see how Max's absence tears at his parents, his teacher, Mrs. Gosk, and causes him to question his own existence.  Even though Max seems content with his routine, is Budo's desire to save Max merely self-preservation or is it the right thing to do? 

This book just came out this week.  Please go to your nearest indie bookseller or library and treat yourself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Of Anniversaries, Longshots, and Frank Deford

Before I give Mr. Deford's new memoir, Over Time, the once-over, I would like to wish myself a happy anniversary as it was six years ago this week that this blog was hatched.  It has grown some, the look has changed a bit but it is still essentially the same: my thoughts on what I read, like it or lump it.  I remain plagued by my procrastinating, something I still can't explain since I'm always much happier once I have written (perhaps a therapist would be of help here) and, of course, my longwindedness and inability to punctuate correctly.   Still, my belief in the book and my admiration for those who write them, publish them, and read them has never wavered.  If you've spent any time here on this site, read a book because of what I've written, avoided one because of same, or just guffawed a bit, I appreciate it immensely.  There are lots of places to go for book info featuring writers far more accomplished than your ol' pal, Reed Next.  That said, I do hope you'll stay with me.  Eventually, I might even get it write right.

I was terribly happy to see The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce's delightful debut, made the longlist for the Man Booker prize.  Likely a longshot but you never know with awards and with the Britons.  Mrs. Next is enjoying the book very much though Mrs. Next reads quite slowly so if I promised to lend you my copy, perhaps you may wish to hold yourself over with another book or purchase it yourself.  Her schoolmarming is about to begin for the year and that might mean she won't finish Harold until the holiday break in December.

Now, as for Frank Deford, let me just say this book was a joy.  I have long been a fan of his writing and his NPR commentaries.  His tenure has spanned a couple of generations of sportswriters and he has watched as sports became less about sport and more about big business. 

One of the things I have always admired about Deford is his honesty.  He knows college football is a shameless racket, that Americans will never embrace soccer as does the rest of the world, that pro tennis is dead.  He'll tell you so in an elegant but straightforward manner, two things lacking in both sports and sportswriting these days.  

Best of all, Deford is a gunslinger.  His vocabulary, his style, his turns of phrase always make me smile and appreciate how easy he makes it look and how hard it must be to write.  Even better, if you like his NPR commentaries, you will read this book and be able to hear his voice, that cadence, and that wink.  

To that end, I give you a graph from chapter two as a tiny taste of what I'm talking about:

"I have always believed that, ideally, your memoirs should be filled with anecdotes about other, more attractive people so that you might improve on the necessarily duller parts of the narrative, i.e., yourself.  David Niven, for example, wrote memoir after memoir, because he knew all the stylish folk in the world, and wherever they were together, in the Hamptons or Gstaad or on yachts in the Mediterranean, they all had big names and they absolutely adored lunches, so they ate and drank long, languid midday repasts and threw off priceless bons mots, one after the other, for Mr. Niven to dress up his own memoirs with.  Alas, although it was not my life's intention at the time when I chanced to become a sportswriter, I have thereafter mostly remained a sportswriter; and I'm afraid athletes don't traffic in bons mots, whether or not I am in their presence with a notepad."

Mmmm.  Scrumptious. Dooooo go on.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Of Frog Hospitals, Cocktail Waitresses and the Ramones

A number of things to mention:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce has made the Man Booker Prize long list.  This will help it acquire the readership I think it deserves and my hopes are high it will make the short list, to be announced in September.  Mrs. Next is reading it now and is enjoying Harold's exploits immensely.  Go buy a copy.

Recently re-read Ramones: An American Band by Jim Bessman, which I'm happy to see is still in print since it came out in 1993 and thus published well before the deaths of Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny.  Bessman provides a capable chronicle of the band though Peter Guralnick he ain't.  Then again, they weren't the type of band or men who needed a bio that went into the detail that Guralnick did.  He writes in a simple, straightforward manner much like the music of the Ramones.  Best of all, reading it made me re-visit my records.  1-2-3-4!! indeed.

I'm currently reading Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore and I'm perplexed much in the same way I am about Paul Harding's Tinkers: why aren't these books lighting me up?  Both contain captivating stories and sparkling prose but they seem to lack drive.  Perhaps this is by design but I keep waiting for both to really grab me and with only 40 pages left in Moore's book, I'm left wanting.  (I haven't even finished Tinkers and I started that two months ago.)  Will their respective endings be what I'm after or are my expectations wrong?  I'll find out soon enough.

Went to a re-sale shop yesterday where I always find good books on the cheap.  Though pickings were a bit slim, I walked out with an old but intriguing short story collection from 1951, Love In the Time of Cholera, which I'm ashamed to say I've never read, a copy of Russo's brilliant Empire Falls, which I intend to give to a new, young friend, and Illusions by Richard Bach.  Many will poo-poo the Bach book but I'm a fervent fan and re-read it most every summer.  Since I often lend it out or give it away, I found myself without a copy recently so luck was on my side.  Donald Shimoda is a remarkable character and even though Bach is dismissed as mawkish, I just love this story.  Poo-poo all you wish.  Illusions is to me a pleasure for which I feel no guilt.

Once again, I've been the recipient of much book love, this time from my homie, 'Chele, who sent a care package from Random House, et. al.  which contains: 
  • Buddy: How A Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGory,  
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead about which I'm hearing good buzz, 
  • Robin Shulman's Eat the City, which looks absolutely fascinating,  
  • The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu, about which I know nothing so I'm trusting 'Chele, and
  • Giving Up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum.  The caveat here is that it was blurbed by the insufferable Chuck Klosterman who I think is so overrated, his popularity defies all logic, and by Rob Sheffield, whose rock writing credentials are solid but who grossly disappointed me with Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.  It should have been brilliant.  It wasn't.

Most exciting is The Cocktail Waitress, the "lost, final novel" by James M. Cain.  I'm attempting to keep my expectations low since, if it's so good, one wonders why it wasn't found sooner.  Still, if it's half as good as his classic noir tales, it might be a worthy though late addition to his small but influential body of work.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Office Girl by Joe Meno

My college professors often told me and my fellow communications majors how attractive we would be in the job market we were about to enter.  Apparently, employers really didn't wish to hire potential employees who had swallowed a steady diet of courses from the business college but were looking for well-read, well-rounded liberal arts-types who could then be taught what was necessary to succeed in business.  Sounded great to those of us who had spent our undergrad years learning how to speak publicly, argue scientifically, and theorize rhetorically.  Good times were near.

When we matriculated and graduated, we found out the business world really didn't want that at all so we became bartenders and servers and proto-baristas, before that was a common word or job even, and learned we didn't have to give up our garage bands after all.  Young, poor, over-educated and underemployed--that was us.  Worse than that, our birth years placed us squarely in Generation X and we were dubbed 'slackers', a sobriquet that we embraced and rejected, simultaneously, while sporting flannel shirts in mosh pits and making Soundgarden successful.  Ultimately we came around to the idea that without the safety net of college, we had paid too much for school to merely man the copiers at Kinko's.  Quelle dommage! The characters in Joe Meno's new novel find themselves at similar loose ends.

Office Girl, (or Bohemians or Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things) is set during the Chicago blizzard of 1999 and Meno uses this as a metaphor for a number of things: the hard slog toward adulthood, the cold, cruel world out there, the need to dig oneself out, to find oneself under the snow drifts and emerge as someone different.  Perhaps there are more but you can read it for yourself and tell me about it later. 

Jack and Odile want to be artists and fancy themselves as such but they can't seem to commit to the work though they certainly embrace what they perceive as the lifestyle.  They meet at a crappy call-center job.  She is a few credits shy of her BFA, promiscuous and flighty but she is such a winsome character, that like Jack, you can forgive her almost anything.  (Some readers will disagree with me and simply find her to be a giant pain in the ass and will shout "Curse you, Reed Next! You have steered me wrong!"  If so, my apologies but come back soon.  I'm likely to post again by August.  Maybe.)  Jack's youthful marriage has just ended in divorce.  He needs to get on with himself and tries, halfheartedly, but can't quite summon the necessary backbone.  Instead, he stays in Odile's orbit and hopes.  

Regular readers of Reed Next know how much I admire Meno's work.  I think he has a deep sense of compassion for his characters and his ability to portray buoyant happiness alongside aching sadness make me respect him more with each novel. He succeeds here, especially with Odile.  Back in the day, I knew Odile. I chased Odile.  I dated Odile.  I slept with her, too. Odile made me crazy in every sense but you just couldn't live with Odile because Odile couldn't live with herself.  She had one more thing she had to do, one more class to take, one more bad boyfriend and then she could be happy.  She never could as long as I knew her and, much like Jack, that made me sad and sorry for something I thought might be.  Joe Meno manages to capture her essence perfectly if a bit painfully for me as the reader. 
Office Girl lacks the emotional heft of Hairstyles of the Damned and the black humor of The Boy Detective Fails but I believe it is lighter by design and intent.  Where this could be just a hapless, tortured slacker novel, a Coupland throwback, in Meno's savvy hands, it isn't.  It is charming and engaging, infuriating and doomed.  It is a love story that never gets the love part of the relationship right.