How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

HowToBeAloneHow to Be Alone
written by Jonathan Franzen
read by Jonathan Franzen and Brian d’Arcy James
2002

Franzen starts out introducing this book of essays with some reflection about how angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing he had once been as a younger man, and I’m listening to the remaining essays, glad that he’s found his own sense of self-improvement but also realizing that these essays are the most angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing that I’ve ever read/listened to. In large part because I actively avoid the genre I would normally typify as Guy-in-your-MFA High Literature, but this is a set of nonfiction essays by a literary author and I have a commute, so I might as well listen to this one through to the end. With each successive CD, I had to convince myself anew to complete it if only just to write this review.

He discusses a variety of issues that I actually find moderately interesting, if depressing: the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr-Report scandal, the problems with the Chicago postal service, the internal conflict between research departments and legal departments in the tobacco industry, the for-profit prison industry, the commercialization of sex. However, his essays are like op-ed pieces where he presents himself as speaking for “the silent majority” who all agree with him, and is distraught by the “cheap attacks” of naysayers with their statistics and surveys pointing out that he is, in fact, in the minority. The facts of a given situation are quickly overwhelmed by his personal interpretations. He is the everyman and speaks for everyone.

He states that High Literature = The Social Novel = Tragic Realism, and that all of these are best demonstrated by being about the unmarked straight white male. I generally avoid any modern novel calling itself “Literature” because it seems to me to be a genre made up of unpleasant people living unpleasant lives. Franzen agrees, except he thinks this is a good thing.

In fact, he seems to be carefully cultivating his own dissatisfaction with life. He’s not glorifying the problems of the world, per se, but glorifying his own knowledge of those problems, throwing it in contrast to the bourgeoisie others who “don’t fully understand.”
Part of his unhappiness is based on his apparent belief that being lauded by the masses is his proper default state and thus nothing to take pleasure in, while anyone not actively being impressed by him is taking something away from him. He is insulted that his demands for solitude and privacy are met without demure. He’s bemoaning the loss of his rape fantasy: he wants to be able to say “no” to demands for his opinion and then have that “no” disregarded.

As he bemoans the loss of interest in “real” literature, he remarks without any acknowledged irony, that publishers are instead publishing more works done by women and people of color. These he considers genre rathe than literature, by default. He argues that authors should not pander to the masses while also despairing that the masses do not like his books as much as they should. (Keep in mind that this is the complaint of an award-winning author.)

I can understand, in theory, that it must be very hard for straight, white men who have long been told that their concerns are universal, and that other’s concerns are merely genre issues, to be confronted with the discovery that they are actually just one more demographic. I can understand that it is a hardship for them all, and this author in particular. But I can’t managed to dredge up much actual sympathy.

In contrast, I realize that he is likely creating the background against which hopepunk and solarpunk have developed. And that, I think, is a gift.

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen

By David Clawson

My-Fairy-GodmotherThis showed up on my daily Bookbub email, and I was curious enough to read the excerpted section on Amazon, and that first chapter impressed me. For a modern, queer retelling of Cinderella, the author does a good job of characterizing a stepmother and stepsiblings who are self-centered and incompetent but not wicked, and a protagonist who is enough of an introverted neatnik to fall into a Cinderella role when the family runs into hard times.

Unfortunately, chapter 2 opens with meeting the fairy godmother drag queen, and while the actual sequence of events is clever, I’m not sure David Clawson actually knows any drag queens, and I’m almost positive he doesn’t have any black friends. I’m saying it gets real awkward real fast.

I really wanted to find excuses, so I spent far too much time thinking, oh, the protagonist is just so young and naïve, and perhaps this is just showing his own ignorance before he grows as a person, until I just couldn’t fool myself anymore. The titular drag queen and her friends are the broadest caricatures, vaudevillian even. Which could almost (but not quite) be waved away with the self-aware camp-ness that is built into drag, but meeting the man outside drag was too much. We’re talking 90s-sitcom-level portrayal of a “slightly thuggish-looking black guy in oversized hip-hop clothes” (direct quote from the book, and it gets worse from there).

Finally, just to add insult to injury, in Chapter 3 we meet Prince Charming, who is “the ridiculously handsome, brown-haired, brown-eyed, square-jawed, cleft chinned J. J. Kennerly, the only child of the closest thing America has to royalty,” and I wanted to vomit. While I appreciate the almost-ligature of the r and l, the Kennedy’s are so overblown in my opinion that any attempt to make them (or a facsimile of them) into a romantic lead loses me completely.

So, I was already predisposed to dislike Kennerly when he “ironically” said something incredibly homophobic to the drag queen to shock her for mistaking (?) him for a bigot. So, I’m left side-eying the protagonist, embarrassed by the fairy godmother, and contemptuous of the prince, which is not what I was hoping to get out of a fluffy bit of summer reading.

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

Hit by a Farm by Catherine Friend

hitbyafarmHit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn
written and read by Catherine Friend
2009

I’m a fairly urban/suburban individual, but my aunt recently decided to leave her office job and start a homesteader farm so I wanted to know a little bit more about it. I like the theory of sun and fresh air more than I care for the practice. This book is about a couple who decide to leave their urban life and start a farm as well.

The chapters are all quite short, many of them could even stand alone as short stories, but together they build a sense of a whole life and lifestyle that Friend and her wife were creating. And while the topic is the farm, a lot of the focus is on the relationships that made up what the author refers to as their threesome: her, her wife, and the farm. I came for the stories of animals and plants, not people and relationships, but the stories of physical, mental, and emotional stress were clearly an integral part of starting a farm. There is a steep learning curve and while overall everything works out well, there are some serious set-backs.

While listening to the book, I sometimes found myself mentally criticizing the author for some of her poorer decisions, in the same way one might criticize a professional athlete: I could/would never do any of the thousand things she’s doing but how in the world did she manage to mess that one up! She and I are significantly different people and it occasionally made it hard for me to empathize, but I think that probably says significantly more about me than about either her or the book.

I like it when the author is also the reader of an audiobook, especially when that book is a memoir, since it allows them to add an extra layer of nuance to the stories.

 

The 1619 Project

I wasn’t planning to borrow from Kinsey’s occasional tendency of reviewing something that everyone has already read and talked about, but Rebecca assured me that it hadn’t crossed her path until I told her about it.

So…the 1619 Project:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The more I read as an adult, the more I realize just how sanitized the history I was taught was, and most particularly when it comes to slavery. This project is a collection of writing looking at the history of slavery, how it has roots in every sector of our country, and the ongoing harm it does today. It includes over a dozen pieces – mostly written essays but also poems, short works of fiction, and photo essays. It is large in scope, both in size and range of topics, and it is a daunting read that I honestly wasn’t sure I could manage.*

Then I started seeing some of the buckwild responses from conservatives who very clearly had not read any of it, and decided that I had to read it, out of spite if nothing else (for proof of what I’ll read out of spite, see Atlas Shrugged). And no lie, it is a hard read, though I suspect less difficult for black readers, who may mostly feel relieved to see published acknowledgement of what they already knew. I’ve set myself to read just one of the entries each day, so I’m only four in at the point of this review, but I feel like every sentence hits me like a ton of bricks:

This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin.

— from “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” by Nikole Hannah-Jones

Continue reading

Havana Nocturne by T. J. English

HavanaNocturneHavana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution
by T. J. English
read by Mel Foster
2008

This was another audio book on my commute and it was interesting. It left me both extra cynical and moderately reassured about politics: that politics have always been extremely shady and the extremely wealthy are always trying to take advantage of their positions to make more money while accomplishing less and less with that money.

The book is really like a verbal flow-chart/timeline, describing the people involved in the mob’s financial invasion of Cuba and how they make connections and how those connections changed over time. This is not a negative review — I do love a good flow-chart — but perhaps a bit of a warning to potential readers who don’t. But it’s a fascinating situation and interesting characters and the author does a good job of laying it all out and showing who the players were and how it all came together.

While not a proponent of the time-period, per se, the author is clearly a fan who loves it*, which leads to him using some pretty purple prose and hollywood gangster-slang in an unironic way. English also has a habit of switching up how exactly he refers to a given individual, so it was a bit confusing in the beginning until I’d memorized the various nicknames, for instance, Meyer Lansky = “The little man” = “the Jewish mobster” = “the Jewish mobster from Brooklyn”. When English is feeling particularly dramatic, he stitches them all together: “Meyer Lansky, ‘the little man’, the Jewish mobster from Brooklyn”. The author was having a bit too much fun with all the gangster talk.

He’s also discussing an extremely sexist time period without any particularly acknowledgement of that, so the whole book comes across as sexist. Women and women’s attention are treated as desirable commodities that get bought and sold, both in and out of official prostitution.**

While the focus is on the American mob’s rise and fall in Havana, Cuba, their position was entwined with that of Fulgencio Batista and thus in conflict with Fidel Castro, so that regime and revolution were discussed as well. What I found particularly heartbreaking is how much potential both Batista and Castro had to do amazing amounts of good, that they each threw away in their rise to power, although Batista more than Castro, if only due to the fact that Castro only came into power in the final chapter of the book.

The epilogue discusses how involved the American Mob was with the CIA in their attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and how bitter the mob was about the massive losses they had to the loss of their gambling empire in Cuba. The author seemed moderately sympathetic for the loss. I was less so: they gambled and they lost. That’s part of gambling and they should have known it.

* It would not surprise me at all if he had the entire Godfather trilogy memorized. He certainly references The Godfather, Part II often enough.

** Although it’s kind of amazing how heterosexuality is still the norm (with the acknowledgement that homosexuality exists but to the side) while the main porn star that *everyone* wanted to see was a guy with a massive dick. I’m like: the women are interchangeable but all the guys wants to see this one guy’s dick in action? That’s… something.

 

Nimona

By Noelle Stevenson

NimonaNimona has been highly acclaimed in graphic novel circles for years now, and I don’t know why I resisted it. Sheer contrariness, I guess. But, ah, it is so good! It starts off very Tumblr-y: manic pixie dreamgirl Nimona breaks into the secret lair of a stereotypical villain Ballister Blackheart to insist on becoming his sidekick. He flatly refuses until she reveals she’s a shapeshifter, which he can see would be very useful. It is funny and cleverly written, if not especially original.

Which is the insidiousness…the setup is similar to so many other comics that I’d read that I made assumptions and the heart of the story really caught me off guard. Before I knew it, I adored Nimona and Blackheart, and even felt exasperated affection for their hero foe, Ambrosius Goldenloin (which is rather how Blackheart feels about him, too).

For the simplicity of the illustrations and storytelling, the world building, plotline, and even characters (despite their ridiculous names) are surprisingly complex and nuanced. The ending was a series of reveals that really got me in the feels (to retreat to Tumblrisms, again).

It reminded me just a bit of Carry On, taking archetypal characters and narratives and giving them more depth than they usually get, which makes sense, in that Rainbow Rowell is a prominent blurb on the front cover.

I told Rebecca that she had to read it, and when she started it, she said it was ‘adorable.’ I just agreed, thinking, oh, just you wait…