New book review: “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” by David Shields

(Published first by The Seattle Times, Feb. 28, 2010)

As I work my way through a review book, I often stop and picture the sort of people who will fall in love with it. By the end I’ve assembled a roomful of imaginary party guests. Sometimes it’s festive; other times I just want them the hell out of my living room.

The folks conjured up by the writings of Seattle author David Shields are always a smart bunch — funny, tolerably neurotic, well-read. We all like sports, love language and are traditionalists who nonetheless enjoy journalism and other nonfiction that reveal the writer’s opinions. I’ve assumed this crowd to be middle-aged, like me.

When I finished his new book, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” the group defied easy literary profiling: That young rapper in deep conversation with an old guy whose life was revolutionized by Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. A gaggle of elbow-patched Proustniks trading insights with novelists who are grafting paragraphs together on their iPhones.

I figure they share Shields’ fascinations: the evolution of literary genre; curiosity (or skepticism) about the canon that sets down boundaries between memoir and fiction; biography and literary nonfiction; poetry and photo captions. This book doesn’t call for reshaping writing conventions; it insists that they’ve always been protean…

Read the rest of my review in The Seattle Times, here.

(Need more Shields? I was fortunate to also review his last book, “The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.” Click here. And his website is here.)

Note to readers: In the case of paid reviews written for The Seattle Times or any other newspaper, the copy of the review book is provided by the book-page editor. I do not chose the books I review for newspapers; review opportunities are offered to me and I can accept or reject the assignments. Other reviews (unpaid, alas) I write for this blog might result from discovering a book in the library or from a friend’s recommendation. If I know the author personally, I will say so.

Bobsleds over the cliff

Cities want to host Olympic events for the same reasons they crave pro sports teams:

(1) People come and spend money; and

(2) It’s cool.

But the spenders never seem to cover all the costs, and now those practical Canadians are wondering if the cool factor is worth it. Folks, here’s your answer: No, it’s not.

Your suspicions are correct; the winter games are going to leave you with a pile of bills. Every tourist on the planet would need to show up for a night out on the town and a souvenir $30 maple leaf t-shirt to pay for this spectacle.

Ian Austin of The New York Times writes a concise, very readable and sobering piece on this very thing. He points out that the Olympic Village, a development project so ballsy that Donald Trump might not try it, is a tsunami of red ink:

“But cost overruns, combined with the credit crisis in 2008, destroyed the financing. Once in office, [Vancouver, B.C.'s mayor] Mr. Robertson had to obtain special permission from the province to borrow $434 million to complete the village. In all, the city is responsible for about $1 billion in development costs, a situation that lowered its credit rating.”

Remember, this is a city of fewer than 600,000 people who are responsible for that $1 billion debt. And it’s not like things were really solid before Bob Costas showed up.  As Austin points out, the resort hosting Alpine events (Whistler Blackcomb) is set to go on the auction block after the events. The repo guy is probably standing by right now, waiting to tow those courtesy vans with the Olympic logo on the sides.

Other Canadian taxpayers and various Olympic emergency funds can come into play, but the responsibility pretty much sticks to locals.

The notion of permanent Olympic Villages (which gets floated every few years and is now being pushed by some as a greener alternative) seems smart. Building anew each time was never a solid financial move, and the jingoistic pleasure that comes from hosting the games is an expensive indulgence in 21st century economies. Maybe we could even turn this into an urban bail-out strategy. They could get some snow-making equipment in Detroit, couldn’t they?

Gimme five so I can blog faster

Human touch is a powerful language, says a study written about by Ben Carey of The New York Times. The story says a range of emotions can be shown, or triggered, by the most casual interactions, such as a slap on the back or a high-five.

Touch makes people feel better and even excel at things they do. I think back to that boss who often gave me an encouraging shoulder whack on deadline.  I probably worked harder in that job, or at least rose above the chaos with some success.  (I’m not talking about the creepy grabber-boss here, mind you.)

Read Carey’s story; he’s a fine reporter and always a strong writer. This time he slipped in a clever last paragraph, so pay attention.

More less-than-best business practices

I’ve got a new trick to add to the piece I wrote a short time ago, “Businesses behaving badly,” about employers using tough times to take advantage of employees.

The new practice: Instead of typical 30, 60 or even 90-day probationary periods, some employers are trying on six-month probation. This makes it easier to let someone go without documenting any reasons.

Maybe they should just hand the new employee a note that says: Don’t get too comfortable.

I’m proud of him

Many years ago when James was five, his mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas.  He drew himself up, lifted his chin, and answered:

“I would like a striped bathrobe. ” (Long pause.) “With a hood.

By then we were already used to his dramatic presentation and his affinity for things difficult to obtain.  We tended to ignore the former and acquiesce to the latter. That year my sister scoured the retail landscape  until she found the requested article of clothing.

Christmas Day dawned and James was soon sweeping through the house in his hooded robe looking like a small, self-assured Bedouin.

Now nearly 20 years later, he’s a man; one with a past full of roadblocks skirted, challenges faced down, painful losses mourned.  He spends his days doing mysterious things to the faces of women and men who are pursing the Holy Grail of perfect skin. He sells them expensive potions full of botanical rarities and sheep placenta. He’s very good at it all. He hasn’t given up his dream of being an actor; his clients are just audience members lying down with cucumber slices on their eyes. Imagine a deep-cleansing facial from Rex Harrison and you’ve just about got it.

When the poor economy and a layoff swept James into sudden unemployment, he took his salesmanship to the street, in his case, Madison Avenue, and promptly landed another position with an even more exclusive house of epidermis-worship.

He was excited when he called to tell me about his new job. In his telling the interview became a soliloquy, the job-offer a love scene. Knowing there were a hundred more applicants ready to pounce, he coolly requested a bump in salary.  I’m guessing he will get it sooner rather than later.

When we hung up, I sat there for a long time, remembering the small boy standing in that living room, describing exactly what he wanted, confident it would come to him.

A man for all, some, and no seasons

General Alexander Haig was a man of immense contradictions.

The former Secretary of State, who kept the home fires burning while Nixon went down, was an intelligent speaker who fractured the English language; a soldier who eschewed chain-of-command behavior. He was a statesman who alarmed presidents with his Papal devotion and naked ambition to assume the highest secular role in America.

The New York Times obit by Tim Weiner does a masterful job of fitting a biography in a small space. Read it here.

Ears like a dog

As an inveterate eavesdropper, one who likes to eat breakfast or lunch alone in restaurants while hiding behind a book, I hear some good stuff.

The trick is to practice self-control.  To know when to stop listening. When you overhear a particularly good line, time to bail. Whatever follows rarely delivers the promise hinted at by the first sentence.

Recent exception to this rule: Sunny window booth in the pleasantly shabby Cup & Saucer Cafe in Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood. Hevuos Rancheros, hold the sour cream. Several pages into “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout.

The man sitting in the booth behind me says this:

“I had some dreams last night I wasn’t happy with.”

Now, admit it. When a companion begins a sentence about a recent dream, your heart sinks, doesn’t it? Dream narratives are second in tedium only to looking through photos of someone’s trip to the Holy Land. (If something Messianic happens, I’ll catch it on YouTube, thanks.) But this sentence made me want to set the fork and book down, turn around and ask him exactly what he meant.

Alas, the waiter appeared with the couple’s check, she remembered they were due elsewhere, and his next paragraph went out the door with them. Drat.

“Olive Kitteridge,” by the way, is a very, very good book, richly deserving of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize it won for fiction. Thirteen essays about small-town folks, all connected through the title character. Olive is an intelligent, cantankerous, retired math teacher who sees life around her in Crosby, Maine, in sharp–if dark–relief. She was a bad mother, a harsh wife, a scary teacher and now she’s a disgruntled retiree. It’s Strout’s genius that makes us cheer for Olive in spite of all these flaws.

The novel is largely about connections, especially long marriages, and the way they change over time. Strout loves exploring new friendships that sprout in old age. When two of her senior characters begin to get close, they talk of their favorite things:

“She told him about the morning she took a pear from the front yard of Mrs. Kettleworth, and her mother made her take it back, how embarrassed she’d been. He told her about finding the quarter in the mud puddle…She told him her favorite song was “Whenever I Feel Afraid”…He said the first time he heard Elvis on the radio singing “Fools Rush In,” it made him feel like he and Elvis were friends.”

Two gifts in one morning; this engrossing book and the tantalizing, unfinished thought of the dreamer in the next booth. The eggs were good too.


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Brothers under the skin

I’ve just finished two books chosen with my patented speed-browsing library technique (see earlier post) and it was a gratifying, if odd, mix.

One is the autobiography “Black is the New White” by Paul Mooney, a groundbreaking stand-up comedian in his own right, who wrote and inspired much of the late Richard Pryor’s comedic work. The other is “Cheever: A Life” by Blake Bailey, about writer John Cheever. The latter is usually called something along the lines of “the foremost…” or “the defining…” writer of post-World War II America. (Both books were published in 2009.)

On the face of it, these men could not be more different. Yet, as it turns out, there are some real and remarkable similarities.

Mooney is a man of color who refused to knuckle under to white Hollywood and who bulldozed barriers that opened the way for Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes and countless other smart, hilarious, definitely-not-Caucasian performers. Cheever was the ultra-WASP; the suburban family man who went on to craft fiction that won every coveted prize available, and whose novels and short stories changed the way readers read, teachers taught, editors edited and writers wrote.

Both men were ground-breakers, originals. Both were fueled by powerful anger at the so-called ruling class: Mooney versus white America; Cheever against the established squires of society and the educated men of letters he so envied.

Mooney found a way to make his otherness matter; Cheever did the same, although through a much more tortured route. He wrote to keep his demons at bay, hiding behind a Brooks Brothers facade, terrified that his closet bisexuality, alcoholism and various self-identified failings would come to light and ruin him.

I moved between the books depending on my mood. I like to keep a serious book and a lighter one going at the same time. As it turns out, they are both serious books. They are both about men who shaped the culture in ways never imagined before their work came along.

*********************************************************************

Order these or other books from Powell’s using these icons and Type Like The Wind gets a small credit. Which enables me to buy more books. And write about them. We all win.

Simon Spotlight Entertainment., 264 pages, ISBN: 9781416587958

Knopf, 770 pages; ISBN: 9781400043941

Listening in the ‘hood

There’s a woman walking along the sidewalk out front, and she’s yowling. She sounds exactly like an angry tomcat.

I’ve heard her many times before: squeaking, repeating the same odd phrase over and over. One day last month she was cawing like a crow.

In my head I call this woman Maeve, a name I’m shy of trying to pronounce out loud, but one that I’ve always thought looks quite smart in print. Words with an a next to an e have a whiff of the classics. I wonder: Do they still teach students “agricola, agricolae” as the first vocabulary word in Intro Latin? Or maybe someone with pull in the world of language arts has realized that “farmer” is a non-starter as a new noun.

But, back to Maeve.

She’s in her 50s probably. Her light-brown ponytail looks like a clump of dry weeds hanging midway down her back. She’s not heavy, but big-boned and broad of beam. Her face is gaunt in a way that doesn’t match the rest of her. She’s dressed in the same grey-brown-green palette worn by nearly everyone else in Portland. She never carries anything. The first inking that something is off-center about Maeve is the way she holds her arms: stiffly pressed to her sides, fists rapidly opening and closing.

Today I realized something about Maeve’s soundtrack. Hours ago, very early this morning, I heard a cat carrying on–I know it was an actual cat because I could see it, scolding some other animal hiding under the neighbor’s front porch. By afternoon Maeve was replaying the cat’s monologue, pitch-perfect. When I think about it, I recollect crows visiting the street too. Two sets of real sounds recorded in Maeve’s brain and played back.

I’m wondering where the human phrases come from. I’ve not often been able to make them out completely, but these one-liners always seem to end in exclamation points and involve breaches of etiquette: “She didn’t say you could come over today!”

I’m working up the nerve to lean out the window and call out a hello. Then, maybe sometime later, I’ll hear exactly what I sound like.

A hero

I did some work for Portland author Lisa Shannon last year–small organizational tasks as she put together a retreat for writers. So my attention was grabbed by the print and video story on her by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Lisa Shannon

The lives of Congolese women and their children continue to be ones of deep poverty, near-universal rape and other violence, and these documented horrors are ignored by most of us. Lisa, thank God, is constitutionally unable to look away and move on as others do in the face of injustice or tragedy.

Her book about her path to Congo, “A Thousand Sisters” comes out in April, and the few bits of it I read in draft were very good–honest and transporting. I’m watching Powell’s Bookstore’s shelves for it.

Kristof by necessity boils down the reasons Lisa has made this cause her life: An Oprah show on Congo caught her attention; she hosted a fund-raising run that became hugely successful; her dedication to Congo eventually crowded out other work and relationships.

There are , of course, many more complex things that move someone as talented as Lisa Shannon to take on this kind of work, rowing alone against a stiff tide every day to reach such a distant place. I’m grateful that she is so moved, so driven, so tireless.

Judging books by their covers…it works

My local library branch shelves the newly acquired books on a long bookcase right inside the front door. The books are divided into fiction and nonfiction, but otherwise no distinctions are made.

I’ve developed the habit of zipping through the section, picking a few books for late-night recreational reading based on such deep thinking as liking the cover design, typeface, title and story blurb inside the front cover.

I quickly reject any book:

–touted as the tale of a family “torn apart” by a tragic accident;

–about women who triumph after being dumped by their dirtbag husbands; or

–set in the future.

Some things get grabbed without hesitation:

–trashy novels or history set in Great Britain, past or present;

–Cop stories and military memoirs;

–New takes on race relations or the 1960s Civil Rights era;

–Stuff on FDR, Lyndon Johnson or Muhammad Ali.

I confess, and here I reveal myself to be even more…well, mercurial would be kind: I also tend to pull out novels with (1) good titles; and (2) author names that appear to be Jewish or Irish.

The latest great score to come out of this imperfect approach is “Hold Love Strong,” a novel by Matthew Aaron Goodman and published in 2009 by Simon & Schuster. Goodman’s book met a number of my criteria–grabby cover, arresting blurb, likely Jewish author name, good title, race-relations subject matter.

This is a wonderful novel about an African American boy named Abraham Singleton who must navigate his blighted neighborhood, skirt the crackheads, cops and other dangerous types, and sort out the complicated feelings and demands woven into that thing we call family.

The book opens this way:

“The first pain came at noon but she didn’t tell anybody about it. My mother was thirteen and she went about the afternoon being every part of such a precarious age. She watched TV. She popped pimples and studied her face in the bathroom mirror. She listened to the radio, sang along with songs, and laughed along with the afternoon DJs. She wrote in her diary, ‘I still can’t Believe! I’m pregnant…’ “

The word “lyrical” is ubiquitous in blurb copy on new fiction. In this case, it’s accurate. Goodman has a very rare gift for telling harsh truths in beautiful language–without losing veracity, without being sentimental, without straining to take on the voice of a young boy using a strictly vernacular style.

The nimble young human brain, and heart, are capable of such rapid, wild swings and shockingly wise insights. Capturing them is something of a miracle. Goodman does it.

My rec-reading selection system may be a little flimsy, but it worked this time. Check this one out.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010) - by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010) – Cells from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950s, started something that seems more magical than scientific. Johns Hopkins doctors who took the cells from Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa – the “immortal” cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. This is tireless, deep reporting sensitively done and written with unusual clarity. The very talented Skloot erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.