Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 Year-in Review

Here are some books I read this year so as to avoid reading something else. Say, Donald Rumsfeld's memoirs. 

Dow, David R. The Autobiography of an Execution. Remember when I read John Grisham's The Confession and made the assumption that this book would have been more worthwhile? I was right. David R. Dow is a Houston-based lawyer who represents people on death-row, which, as one can imagine, keeps him pretty busy. This is the account of a man Dow represented who was falsely found guilty of the murder of his young family and Dow's efforts to exonerate him. This being Texas we're talking about, he fails. And while this is a damn interesting story, I think Dow's is one of the most intriguing voices I've seen since, say, Albert Camus' L'etranger. And before you accuse me of being flip, let's not forget that Camus was also a staunch advocate for the abolition of execution.

Maupassant, Guy de. Huit contes choisis. This is one of those little books we all have lying around that look unappetizing, but which we read anyway out of guilt, thinking "Why buy a new book when I haven't actually read this one?" Let me define unappetizing. Although in the original French, this is actually an American school book published in 1900 by D.C. Heath and Company, and full of notes and vocabulary to aide while simultaneously turning off the reader from wanting to keep going. Good thing there are only eight stories, including some of Maupassant's best. We all know the story of "La parure," about an Emma Bovary-type who loses a borrowed necklace. Hilarity ensues.

Eliot, George. Silas Marner. I believe that George Eliot is like pizza. Even when she's not good, she's still pretty good. Some people would beg to differ. For example, Dad claims to have used Middlemarch as a sleeping drug in law school. Blasphemy! I say. Anyway, Silas Marner is a simple country tale of greed and honor and child-rearing, and I only recommend it to the other Eliot suckers who also liken her to pizza.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. I know. I know. I'm behind the times. Reading Atonement was in vogue in, like, 2005, and it's already 2011! But I did it anyway. A good yarn. Would it be humiliating to admit that I was a lot like Briony Tallis when I was a lass, except without the authorial talent? And how does McEwan write little girls so well? Are we really so transparent?

Achebe, Chinua. The Education of a British-Protected Child. This was a Christmas gift that I read without having actually read anything else by Achebe. Probably not a good idea. It's been a year since I finished it, but I do remember that, it being a compilation of previously published essays and speeches, there is quite a bit of repetition that I imagine a more masterful editor could have sorted out.

Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker. I think I've written enough about this one.

More later?

Friday, December 16, 2011


I said something I'm not proud of and ever since I've been trying to gather evidence to back myself up.

Circumstances: Driving home with Koch, talking about work. I had just finished cataloging a massive French literature collection and was back to the dregs of a collection of books about cows and grass.

The Criminal Thing I said: "I think I actually prefer working with books about cows and grass because it involves more imagination than cataloging literature."

There is only one thing you need to know before I present the evidence to support the above statement. (I'm sorry, this is not very interesting, but it is relevant.) Following the Library of Congress call number system (and I'm sure it's the same with Dewey, but Dewey is for babies), fiction is cataloged according to author; non-fiction is cataloged according to subject. Got that? Good.

Here's what I mean by "imagination". It's a book called The Burning of Dead Animals by R.H. McDowell. This crumbling pamphlet is bulletin no. 53 published by the University of Nevada's Agricultural Experiment Station in 1902. It's about the burning of dead animals. That's the subject. Officially, we'll call it "Dead animal disposal". Simple enough. Unfortunately, the fewer books there are about a given subject, the harder it is to find a corresponding call number. Library of Congress doesn't have any books about dead animal disposal, and the only book I did find in our library system was actually about animal waste disposal. And I'm not going to put a book about cremation next to one about plumbing. That would be, like, sacrilegious. So what next? Well, speaking of cremation, let's look up cremation. Burning dead animals, that's like cremation, right? I hit a dead end here, since books cataloged under "cremation" involve manners and customs and/or humans. Neither apply. Well shit. Let's try carcasses of the horse, animal, or cattle variety. Or dead animals? Bio-degradation? All of these are valid subjects. They lead me to two books, Live animal carcass evaluation and selection manual and Structure and development of meat animals. Not really the same as burning dead animals. More books should be written on the subject. By now, believe it or not, I've probably wasted half an hour. Mostly because I'm thinking about how "meat animals" is kind of redundant. I eventually stumble upon livestock carcasses: call number SF140.C37. Good enough. I'm not going to get any closer than that, not until the Library of Congress get their act together and create a call number specifically for dead animal burning.

Oh man, I don't even know if I should publish this post. I fell asleep writing it. Here's a picture I got from Googling "cataloging".  Like staring into my future.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I have never been tempted to read a book whose title starts with "The Portable". These two words, side by side at the head of a book cover, conjure up memories of assigned reading. Besides, I'm not gonna let some expert tell me which Walt Whitman poems to read! If I want to read Leaves of Grass cover to cover, by gad I will! (I haven't and probably won't.) Still, two months ago I made an exception. Partly because of my natural sympathy towards saucy broads and partly (mostly) because of the gorgeous jacket art by the graphic novelist Seth. Also, as far as I can tell, and I'm basing this statement on no research whatsoever, there don't seem to be any other books by Dorothy Parker in print other than the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker. Baby, I make rules to break 'em.

Anyway, I did what most readers dare not do. I read the whole damn thing. (I think that may have become the motto of this blog: I finish books no one else is dumb enough to.) And having done so, I'm pretty sure even the editors at Penguin didn't bother to do so either. I'm pretty sure the intern was assigned the task of putting together the last, and therefore least important, section of the book, "Letters, 1905-1962". No research was done, unless a name could easily be found on Wikipedia (i.e. F. Scott Fitzgerald gets a footnote). No thought was put into whether or not a letter was actually worth publishing. Dates are omitted, context completely overlooked. Who the hell are Betty and Tony? Who the hell cares? said the intern. No one's going to get this far anyway. My favorite example of editorial laziness (ever, not just here) is the inclusion of this note, probably written in Kahlua on a cocktail napkin, if I know my Parker. The letter is to Harold Ross, founder and editor of The New Yorker. "Ah, look, Harold. Isn't it cute?" A footnote indicates that "it" refers to a "cartoon illustration of novelist Edna Ferber, drawn in pencil by Parker". The cartoon itself is not shown. Just those boozy words. And somehow that made the cut. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I read a lot of self-help this past year for the blog and I lost some weight (which I'm pretty sure I've gained back by now) and I learned what my love language is (housekeeping) and how to save money on things I don't need but the only book I really wished I'd had to read, but which just never made it to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, is the 1845 tract by Edward Everett Hale, "How to Conquer Texas, Before Texas Conquers Us". It holds the answers to all my questions and it only costs three cents. I just learned of this gem's existence last week when it made its way into my cubicle for immediate perusal I mean cataloging.

I didn't have time to read it until today and had my pad and pencil at the ready to copy down all the steps it would require of me to conquer this place. Obviously, having been written in 1845, "How to Conquer Texas" doesn't really apply to this modern gal's situation. After all, back then, Texas was an empty, uncultured wasteland. Ah, how far we've come.

First, Hale sets up the dangers of the annexation of Texas. The big ones come last and are aptly named:

"V.  The introduction into the Union of an unprincipled population of adventurers, with all the privileges of a State of naturalized citizens.
VI. The creation of an enormous State, in time to become the real Empire State of the country. Texas, with three hundred and ten thousand square miles of territory, is admitted as one  State, into the Union. If she remains such, she will prove the Austria of the confederacy, to overrule all opposition." [I might add that I have advised Austria to sue Hale's estate for slander.]

So here I learned where Texans got the idea that having more land equals better. Which is why they have boasted so many times to me that you can fit France into Texas. Yeah, well you can fit the United States into Siberia, but you don't hear the Siberians blowharding about it.

Hale's advice is simple: Are you an abolitionist New Englander thinking about emigrating? Hows about Texas? It's supposed to be nicer than Wisconsin. All right, Hale. Here I am. Can I have my three cents back?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Today's mail

Somewhere in the middle of the long list of things I don't like about living in Texas is the postal service. If I remember correctly from my days growing up in the Northeast, mail would come every day except Sundays and certain holidays. In Texas, the mail only comes once or twice a week. You may argue that this is because Koch and I don't get a lot of mail. Wrong. Usually we have four or five dry days, during which the spider that lives in our mailbox builds a home, then suddenly all bills, coupons, magazines, journals and junk arrive and destroy it. Today happened to be such a day.

On this particular day of plenty, along with the usual bills, were the latest (for a Texan) New Yorker and New York Times Book Review. In the first I found an essay by James Wood called "Shelf Life: Packing up my father-in-law's library," which was illustrated with a photograph, "Agnon's Library," by Yuval Yairi. Underneath the picture was a caption, a quote from the piece, "Our libraries may say less about us than we imagine". Then I turned to the table of contents of the New York Times Book Review. The end-piece essay, "The Subconscious Shelf" by Leah Price, features a quote from the piece itself: "Our bookshelves reveal at once our most private selves and our most public personas [sic]".

Clearly my mail was sending me mixed messages, although when I returned to the pile, I didn't find an envelope telling me that I didn't actually have to pay my bills either. Damn.

I read both pieces back to back. I found Wood's essay appalling, a man airing his resentment towards his late father-in-law in published format, to be read by, well, a lot of people. (We should all be so lucky, right?) I found what he had to say about packing up and getting rid of a man's library of 4,000 volumes unreasonable and unfair, signaling that dying before ridding oneself of one's library is a contemptible act of selfishness.

In some ways, Leah Price's essay says a lot of the same things, about how personal libraries can often be a front or misleading. After all, who has read everything they own? As Wood argues, one's library is usually smarter than oneself.

[Usually. My library, and by library I mean the particle board bookcase I bought at Walmart that houses all the books I've read since moving to Texas, is decidedly NOT smarter than I. For one thing, it holds every volume I read for this blog. When people who don't know me well come by (that one time), I immediately have to explain to them why the hell I have George W. Bush's memoir and the latest Grisham, Koontz, Roberts, and those three damn Pattersons.]

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bad Names, part 1

I'm pretty sure the first Joe Baker was a baker and the first John Smith was a blacksmith and the first Jean le Gros was a fat-ass, but eventually people's names stopped referring to their occupation or their bearing and that's how we got people of average weight named Le Gros and that's how we got bankers named Baker. Occasionally you'll still see someone who fits his name, like Bernie Madoff, who made off with a lot of other people's money. But not often.

There are also people who should consider changing their names, if only for the advancement of their careers. For example, I probably wouldn't take Rat Girl and Claudius to a vet named Philip Catskinner. Actually, I probably would, if he was good and lived nearby, but for argument's sake I won't.

A couple days ago, while cataloging books that, once shelved, will never see the light of day again so obscure and musty are they, I came across a collection of sermons dating from the 1790s and with forbidding headings such as "On the true nature, extent, and perpetual operation of divine grace" and "General proofs that the second advent of the Lord hath taken place" (1792); all or most of which were preached to the New Jerusalem Temple in Birmingham (the English one, not any of the ones in the United States). What struck me is the name of the speaker, Joseph Proud. Obviously, "proud" is the adjectival variant of "pride," one of the seven deadly sins. Flipping to his short sermon "On humility," an antonym or pride I believe, I noticed that, at least in the first paragraph (who's got time to read this stuff anyway? Besides, I'm not actually allowed to read on the job unless necessary, which, in this case, it wasn't), the word "pride" never figures. Is that because Proud didn't think of it? Or is it because he didn't want to draw the comparison? Instead, he employs every other way of evoking pride, without actually using that word: "Self-exaltation is the child of self-love: it is a disposition opposite to the good of mankind...and the happiness of our souls; but such is the depravity of human nature, that every man inherits such a principle--is prone to the indulgence of it..." I'm sorry, Joe, I didn't catch that. Indulgence of what? Come on, say it. I'll give you a hint: It starts with a "p"... I especially enjoyed noticing that half of these sermons were published by a certain "J. Belcher." Belching, the call of the gluttonous, another deadly sin.

Later that day I came across a short biography of Pope Pius IX. The memoir, being French, was titled Pie IX and showed a crude portrait of the subject, whose long jowls betrayed what is almost certainly a love of pie. Here is a portrait of the man, in all his flakey, fruit-filled glory:

 Interestingly in this portrait, he is asking the bishop for just a tiny slice, although we all know he doesn't really mean it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Oscar Wilde

And by Oscar Wilde I mean Dorothy Parker.

Banal anecdote: The first time I heard the pun "You can lead a horticulture but you cannot make her think," this juicy bon mot was attributed to the king (or should I say queen?) of bons mots, Oscar Wilde. Ten years later, I heard the pun again, but this time the speaker was not Wilde but (correctly) Dorothy Parker. Not very interesting, right? Now read this poem, also by Parker:

"Oscar Wilde"

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

There are only two possibilities: Either Dorothy Parker traveled into the future, infiltrated my sophomore English class on the day that Mr. White told us the pun, then traveled back and wrote that poem.

Or: Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker are one and the same person:

Uncanny, no? Same hair. Same sad eyes. Same round chin. Same appreciation for handsome young men.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Old Yeller

It's been over a year since I started this venture and I think it's time to veer in a new direction. And by new direction, I mean that I think I'm going to go back to reading what I enjoy reading full time. But that doesn't mean I'm going to take the blog out back and shoot it in the back of the head. I might just break one of its legs. So I've put Jackie O. on my shelf next to the Geoge W. Bush memoir and I've returned the Nicholas Sparks romance that I was supposed to read next. And I feel relieved, like I've alleviated a wounded animal's suffering. I'm not sure if I or the blog is the wounded animal in that metaphor. Doesn't matter.

I also think I may change the format a bit. Instead of one longish post a week, I'll post (or try to post) every night. Which means I'm off the hook for now.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kill Me If You Can

PATTERSON, JAMES and MARSHALL KARP. Kill Me If You Can. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-316-09754-3. Pp. 361. $27.99.

I'm disappointed in, you James Patterson. No lovely bikini-clad blond on the cover of this, your latest novel, Kill Me If You Can. Just some bro leaning in for a kiss from his lovely girlfriend, who, by the way, is a brunette. The bro, I presume, is the "Me" from the title, an ex-Marine/struggling artist named Matthew Bannon. The brunette would be his girlfriend/art professor Katherine Sanborne. (He gets an "A" in her class and she doesn't get fired for diddling one of her students. Win-win.) Another, and more dynamic character, is a big ol' bag o' diamonds Bannon stumbles upon in a locker at Grand Central Station. He keeps it and mayhem ensues. Katherine's life is put into danger. Paris. Amsterdam. A lot of badasses come into play. It's all a big jumble, and a month from now I won't be able to distinguish this book from the other two Patterson novels I've read for this blog. The only thing that will always stand out is how ho-hum the cover is. I guess I can still say I like Now You See Her best, and not just because of the cover.

I made mention of a medley of badasses and that's actually not my word choice, but Patterson's (and presumably Karp's). As Bannon's father tells him, "Badasses are badasses". Badasses referring to anyone who kills people, whether for fun or for hire, and I realize now that this is exactly how Patterson feels about them. You can tell from the way he writes about serial killers and assassins, no matter how perfidious--actually, the more so the better--that he finds his subjects incredibly awesome. There is nothing in the world more awesome than a gorgeous babe who knows how to wield a Beretta better than a barrette. One such babe features here, an Aryan goddess named Marta Krall who specializes in killing and then resuscitating her victims over and over again because she loves to kill so goddamn much. For example, "She had once put eighteen bullets into an undercover DEA agent over the course of three days. The man died from shock and blood loss four times, but Krall revived him each time with a makeshift crash cart to keep the party going". This sounds utterly outlandish to me, even for a Patterson novel. Unless she's giving out blood transfusions and topnotch medical care, I can't see how someone can be shot and killed four times over the course of a few days, but this kind of pornographic violence is a Patterson trademark and I get the feeling he does find Krall an arousing figure. After all, he gives her great T and A.

The problem with reviewing another Patterson novel so soon (I think I reviewed Now You See Her in July) is the risk of repeating myself. I've already raised the different issues that I don't approve of--the smugly snappy dialogue, the lack of average-looking characters, the world's infestation of ruthless killing machines. Kill Me If You Can has all of these attributes. Naturally the bad guys get killed in one way or another, never surviving to be tried in a court of law, but that's okay because they're the "bad guys". The "good guys" who kill them don't face any judicial repercussions. It's almost like America is living under martial law. After all, post-9/11 New York City, where this story occurs, is a simple place, as simple as war-torn Iraq, where Bannon did two (or was it three?) tours of duty. The goal is to kill as many baddies as possible with minimal civilian deaths, which, as Bannon matter-of-factly informs us, "was our biggest challenge--collateral damage. You do your best to minimize it, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Innocent people getting killed is part of the reality of war". Never mind whether it's a justified or legal war, and never mind if it's Iraq and Afghanistan or just Grand Central Station at 10:00 on a weekday night. The world is our battlefield, according to Patterson, whether war has been declared or no. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Next week

Next week: James Patterson (yeah, that's right) and Marshall Karp's Kill Me if You Can.

The Book Thief

ZUSAK, MARKUS. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-375-84220-7. Pp. 552. $12.99.

I think I owe an explanation for why I'm predisposed to dislike Markus Zusak's widely acclaimed young adult novel The Book Thief. As I mentioned to my mother on the phone last week, I don't see the point of writing a book for the "14 and older" set, namely because once a child is old enough to read The Book Thief, he should, I presume, be old enough to read "real" literature. My mother wisely reminded me that I may not be a fair judge, given that I went to a school where the reading list went something like this. Fourth grade: Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. Fifth grade: Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sixth grade: Brave New World. The latter I remember very clearly because of one particular scene in which a man playfully fondles a woman's breasts during a helicopter ride and I found this terribly presumptuous on his part. I also didn't know how sex worked and what, exactly, it entailed, even though the book is brimful of it. I should mention that when my sixth grade English teacher walked into the bookstore where I was working, ten years later, I wasn't sure if I should kick him in the groin or seduce him. (Answer: neither. I sold him a book.)

What I'm trying to say is, my educational background is completely lacking in YA experience and The Book Thief, like all YA I assume, just seems like a stunted adult novel. It's too sophisticated for the pre-teen set, but too naive for a high-schooler. Fortunately, there is an underground movement that is threatening daily to rise to the surface and become the "norm". The members of this movement are adults (real ones, with credit cards and spouses and mortgages, adults who aren't children's librarians) who swear by the literary value of YA. In fact, Gretchen Rubin is one such adult, but never mind that. These, I believe, are the dedicated readers of The Book Thief. Real fourteen-year-olds, I hope, are too busy discovering Ernest Hemingway and Robert Graves to bother with this kids' stuff. Call me a snob and an elitist. It's true. But I'd rather blame it on St. Anne's and Mr. D.

Nevertheless, (yes, nevertheless!) The Book Thief does have literary value. It is a (mostly) beautifully-written piece of poetic prose, which only occasionally smacks too much of writerly effort. For example, "They cupped their genitals in their hands and shivered like the future." What does that mean? And am I supposed to ignore it out of embarrassment over the mention of genitalia earlier on in the sentence? Or should I ignore it because the narrator is Death and therefore infallible? I make these complaints despite the fact that Death, the narrator, really is the best part of the novel. His is the most singular voice and the most intriguing character. If anything, Zusak is so swept up in perfecting his narration of the story (if there were a story, but alas, there isn't) that he all but forgets to pump any life into the figures that populate the novel. The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, doesn't hold a candle to her earlier counterpart, Roald Dahl's Mathilda, and a week from now, when I hear the name "Liesel," I'll still just think of the hot one from "The Sound of Music".

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Book Thief

I have, in fact, finished Markus Zusak's hugely acclaimed YA novel The Book Thief. Given the nature of the material, I do think I would like an extra week to mull it over and, additionally, read some more recently-published YA. Thanks. Here's a picture of Rat Girl when she was a kitten. At that age she was more of an undiscriminating destroyer of things, as you can clearly see. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Next Week

Next week: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief.

Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean Times

HOWARD, CLARK with MARK MELTZER and THEO THIMOU. Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean Times. New York: Avery, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-58333-433-1. Pp. 258. $18.00.

I'll make this short and sweet. This was the hardest (i.e. brought me the least pleasure, even less than George W. Bush's lame Texan quips and Nora Roberts's gender-bending misogyny) book I've had to read for the blog thus far. I was elbow-deep into a chapter on mortgages and actually found myself aching for my high school statistics text book. It was rough. I have nothing against Clark Howard, I don't think. But he has written a book for people in debt, who are also paying a mortgage on their homes and want to buy a car and a new phone. I'm not in debt, a don't own a home, I don't own a car nor do I plan on buying one any time soon. As for my phone, well, I let Mom and Dad take care of that. In return, I use a gadget that's turning six years old this year. That's right. It's old enough to start school.  Granted, if I ever were to take on any of these things--debt, a home, a car, a new phone, a credit card...--this would be a good reference book. What I suggest you do is go to your local bookstore, find the chapter that you're interested in and read it there. You'd be saving money, which would make Howard proud. I had no idea, until this week, that a man could be so passionate about saving money. I felt a bit sad. He should read Balzac.

Another reason to keep this review short is that my overly astute cat Rat Girl, sensing my displeasure over reading this book, tore it up for me. It's still in readable condition, but it would be rude to ignore her hard work. She's already ripped it apart, so why should I have to?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Next week

Next week: Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean Times.

5 Love Languages

CHAPMAN, GARY. 5 Love Languages. Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-8024-7315-8. Pp. 201. $14.99.

I was wrong. There really are only five love languages: Words of affirmation ("You look great in that stained wife-beater"); quality time ("Let's drink a handle of whiskey together tonight"); gifts ("Here's a bag of Cheetos, Merry Christmas!"); acts of service ("Could you clean up the cat vomit?"); and physical touch ("I'm bored. Sex?"). These are all valid expressions of post-nuptial love, I suppose, but according to Dr. Chapman, we each have our own special "love language," one that takes precedent over the other four. There's a poorly constructed survey at the end of the book for husbands and wives to take in order to figure out what one's love language is. Apparently, the most romantic day Koch and I could spend together would involve him cleaning the kitchen for me followed by some heavy Risk-playing.

I think I would have appreciated Dr. Chapman's book a bit more if he weren't so...old-fashioned. Granted, this book was first published almost twenty years ago, but apparently 1992 was actually 1952. Of course, how would I know? I was only five years old in 1992. All the real-life couples Chapman has helped over the years and have made their way into his book are uncompromisingly preachy and "gender-normative". The wives don't have jobs because they have to stay home and clean house, raise children, and cook. The men work hard, hunt, and do the yard work on the weekends. Sunday is for church. The perfect wife "would be a wife who would come home in the afternoon and fix dinner for me. I would be working in the yard, and she would call me in to eat. After dinner, she would wash the dishes. I would probably help her some, but she would take the responsibility. She would sew the buttons on my shirt when they fall off." Dream big. Women, naturally, are more interested in gifts and having their husbands' attention.

The fixity of gender roles pervades even the more abstract passages of the book. For example, "love touches may be implicit and require only a moment, such as putting your hand on his shoulder as you pour a cup of coffee." Notice that, in this hypothetical situation, it is the wife who is serving her husband coffee. On the following page Chapman suggests "Hugging your spouse before she goes shopping may not only express love, it may bring her home sooner". Again, Chapman automatically assigns the wife the task (or hobby) of shopping. And, when death comes to the family, "nothing is more important than holding her as she cries". Women, I should add, cry a lot in this book. The husbands keep it all inside. Tears, we all know, are unmanly and betray weakness.

Still, I was glad to learn, upon administering the survey to Koch while he was playing video games, that his primary love language is "Quality time" (a womanly love language, mind you). This requires of me quite a bit of effort, given that I'm a terrible conversationalist, and talking plays a large role in Chapman's definition of "Quality time". I, on the other hand, favor "Acts of service," (a more manly love language) which will be harder to wheedle out of Koch, since our respective chores have been rigidly established since we started living together two years ago. Still, yesterday he offered to make me lunch. (Unfortunately, I had leftovers to finish and had to turn down the offer.) Nevertheless, that's a nice little victory. Thank you, Dr. Chapman.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Next week

Next week: Gary Chapman's The 5 Love Languages.

The 17 Day Diet

MORENO, MIKE. The 17 Day Diet. New York: Free Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4516-4865-2. Pp. 243. $25.00.

Call me naive, but when I read a book about a diet called The 17 Day Diet, I expect the diet to last 17 days. That's not so naive, you say? Well, then, we've all been duped. Because this diet lasts 17 days. Plus another 17. And another. And then for all eternity. Next week I will be reviewing Gary Chapman's The 5 Love Languages. I expect there are, in fact, nineteen, but we'll have to wait and see.

Unlike my experiment on the Dukan diet, I decided not to adhere to Dr. Mike Moreno's prescribed regime. First, because it seems like a bad idea to go on two different diets so close together; secondly because I don't need to go on another diet...yet. And lastly, I just don't trust any man over the age of forty who gels his hair.* Instead, I just enjoyed this read like I would any bestseller, that is, with the dust jacket removed and surreptitiously held under the table when in a public place.

The 17 day diet is less well-defined than the Dukan diet, whose guidelines are rigid and relentless. Dr. Moreno is much more laid back. What he calls a diet is really more like common sense. No, one should not eat fast/junk food. Yes, one should eat lots of fruits and vegetables and lean protein. No, one should not eat until one's stomach explodes à la Monty Python, leaving one's rib cage and pounding heart exposed. Yes, one should exercise. Yes, one should stay hydrated. Yes, one should limit one's alcohol intake to one drink a day (although what would be the point, eh?).

There are some commendable qualities here that I found lacking in the Dukan Diet, namely the citation of various scientific research papers. My one complaint is that Moreno doesn't actually say what the statistical findings are, only that most subjects felt better/worse after they did/did not do something. I could have used a little more raw data.

I remember believing that Pierre Dukan was overly blunt about his overweight readers and assumed this was just the French way, given that obesity in France is fairly new and alarming and probably thanks to the importation of American fast-food chains. It turns out that Dr. Mike Moreno is also a bit rude. But it's fun to read a book for overweight women that was written by a fit and sexist man. Here are two of my favorite quotes and then let's call it a day.

"Women, I'm sure you're happy and well-adjusted...until a few days before your period, when you turn into Attila the Hun and snap at everyone for no apparent reason. Your family and friends avoid you. And who would blame them? Next comes the physical stuff, like your body being so bloated that it should be listed on MapQuest."

"Are you newly married? Some newlyweds are surprised to find out that not only do their new husbands own Bart Simpson bubble bath, but also that they love junk food, and lots of it. Ice cream. Potato chips. Foods that you may have forgot existed, because as a single gal, you often subsisted on the four basic food groups: Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice and Slim-Fast."

Maybe it's the PMS talking, but I would so jam my fist clean through his spiky head.

*I know I've already mentioned this in an earlier post, one which, under the guidance of my writing manager/editor/future wife Iosef Markovitch, I have deleted. Nevertheless, here's the hair I was referring to:

Here's who I thought of when I saw that picture :

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Go the Fuck to Sleep

MANSBACH, ADAM. Go the Fuck to Sleep. New York: Akashic Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-61775-025-0. Unpaged. $14.95.

What is the purpose of a book like Adam Mansbach's Go the Fuck to Sleep? It's good for a laugh, I suppose, but I could have gotten my laugh at the bookstore without actually dropping $14.95 plus tax. I suppose this could make a good gag gift for the parents of a juvenile insomniac, but it's only funny the first time and it's actually only funny for the first page, given that it's got the same punch line at the end of every one after. And you can't read it to your kids unless you want them calling you a "fuck" by their third birthday, so...Why are people buying this?

Probably because this book was written for a certain kind of parent, one who enjoys a laugh at the expense of their small child and who also happens to have money to burn. This hypothetical parent probably lives in Park Slope and, upon seeing that Jonathan Lethem wrote the blurb on the cover ("Total genius"), thought it would make a good  addition to their collection of, what? overpriced gimmicks? This book is truly a mystery to me. I laughed out loud once. But mostly I was dumbfounded and not a little creeped out by Ricardo Cortés's illustrations, which include fuzzy, sleeping animals, and frighteningly proportioned toddlers. Or maybe this is just a manifestation of my fear of small children. 

A Stolen Life

DUGARD, JAYCEE. A Stolen Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4516-2918-7. Pp. 273. $24.99.

In 1991, Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped one morning on her way to the school bus stop in Tahoe, California when she was eleven years old. She spent eighteen years living with her captives, married couple Phillip and Nancy Garrido, during which she gave birth to two daughters, the first when she was fourteen. She was discovered in 2009 during a visit with Phillip to the Berkeley police station. When her relationship to Phillip and her two daughters, who seemed too old to be hers, raised suspicions, she tried to hide her identity before finally agreeing to write her name, having been forbidden to speak it for almost two decades. When the police asked for her mother's name, she asked, incredulous, "I can see my mom?" That the authorities would reunite her with her mother had not occurred to her. Worse, she feared that her mother would reject her and her children. For an outsider, these concerns seem irrational. How could she not know the police would reunite her with her mother? How could she possibly believe her mother might not accept her and her children? Of course, Dugard's experiences lie far beyond what we would consider to be "normal", and her thoughts and assumptions can only follow suit. A Stolen Life is the result of a stunted childhood: Dugard may be over thirty now, but she is still, in more ways than one, still eleven.

I'm not sure Jaycee Dugard suffered from Stockholm syndrome. Having read her memoir and excerpts of her diary during her captivity, one does not get the sense that she was fond of her kidnappers, although she desperately wanted them to like her. The word she uses to describe her situation is "conditioned". Phillip and Nancy Garrido had conditioned her to believe that the only place in the world where she and her two daughters would be safe was in the Garrido's hidden back yard. When she was allowed to venture outside these narrow confines, always with Nancy or Phillip as chaperon, what Dugard experienced was not a sense of freedom but of fear. People, Phillip kept reminding her, were evil. What Dugard was incapable of understanding was the reality that she was, in fact, living with two people who had done one of the most evil things one human can do to another. Two adults knowingly took an eleven-year-old child from her mother and sister and used her as a sex slave. By the time Dugard had her children, whose safety was her greatest concern, staying with the Garridos seemed her only option.

A Stolen Life is not an enjoyable read. Many have found it a riveting one, of course, and it's reassuring knowing that Dugard, who has two adolescent daughters to care for, is going to make pretty good bank on this bestseller. Nevertheless, I failed to see the purpose of the book, other than as fodder for the tabloid junkies, and the prose is too poor for A Stolen Life to have any literary value. I'm not chiding Dugard; she only has a fifth-grade education. What I do find commendable is Dugard's stoicism. I was most moved when watching a interview she gave with Diane Sawyer, whose theatricality and attempts to get some kind of emotional rise out of Dugard go unrewarded. Dugard is lovely and soft-spoken and honest. Her responses to Sawyer's bait are abrupt but sincere. She rightly explains to Sawyer that no one can imagine something like this happening to them, but "you just do what you have to do to survive". End of story, Sawyer. It may not be the most exciting or insightful answer, but given that no one can know how to act in such a situation, I find it is a just one. In all, I felt I learned more about her from that one minute of conversation than throughout the whole of her book.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Next week

Next week: Double hitter! (Although I make no promises.)

Jaycee Dugard's A Stolen Life and Adam Mansbach's Go the Fuck to Sleep.

Now You See Her

PATTERSON, JAMES and MICHAEL LEDWIDGE. Now You See Her. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-316-03621-4. Pp. 383. $27.99.

That's odd. Wasn't I just reading a James Patterson novel whose cover is adorned with a blond woman in a bikini?* I'm referring, of course, to the unimaginatively named novel Swimsuit, which I reviewed here back in February. This week's Patterson novel is totally different. First of all, it's co-written by Michael Ledwidge instead of Maxine Paetro. Secondly, the bikini-clad woman on the cover of the earlier novel is facing the reader, her face obscured by bad lighting. In the latter, the woman has her back to us. I think our inability to see their faces is supposed to indicate that something awful is going to happen to both of them. Something awful happens to both of them.

I enjoyed Now You See Her better than Swimsuit. The heroine, Jeanine/Nina, is ditsy and charming, although her ethical judgment (and, I'm guessing, Patterson's) is appalling. The novel begins with her getting into a drunk driving accident in which she runs over a man walking his dog. The man, we are told, was a drug addict recently released from jail. So when the cop lets Jeanine off the hook, we don't have to feel bad. The man deserved to die anyway, right? At least, that's the reasoning we are given and are obligated to accept. But just in case we can't, however, Jeanine gets off the hook at the very end of the novel, eighteen years later. She didn't kill the drug addict/ex-con after all. He had already been fatally shot by the time she hit him. Problem solved!

As far as a bestselling novel goes, Now You See Her isn't too terrible, perhaps because Patterson borrows so many plots and tropes from other, more masterful, sources. The base of the narrative is akin to the 1991 film "Sleeping with the Enemy," (starring Julia Roberts' hair) in which a woman fakes her death to escape her marriage to a murderously violent husband. There's also a wink to John Grisham's The Confession (which in turn was based on the memoir of David R. Dow, The Autobiography of an Execution). There are also elements taken from "The Shining" ("Heeeere's Johnny!" to be exact), "Psycho," and "American Psycho". All in all a good puzzle of mismatched horror and thriller references to put together. Patterson makes it easy in that he mentions almost every source he uses. Jeanine is a Hitchcock fan; her friend Charlie wants to be the next John Grisham, etc etc. I had fun putting the pieces together.  Now that I've given you the parts, I won't need to sum up the plot. You can figure it out on your own!

So, for his next novel, I suggest Patterson incorporate these sources: James Joyce's Ulysses; Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, all of William Shakespeare's historical plays, and, finally, the masterpiece science-fiction film "Soylent Green". 


Monday, August 1, 2011

Jet lag

I'm succumbing to jet lag before I can write my review. Expect a post on James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge's Now You See Her next Sunday.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Help

STOCKETT, KATHRYN. The Help. New York: Berkley Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-425-23220-0. Pp. 534. $16.00.

The cover of Kathryn Stockett's first novel keeps reminding me that this is one of the most important books since To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes: The Help does discuss relations between the blacks and the whites. Yes: It was written by a white lady. Yes: It does make references to Mockingbird on numerous occasions. And yes: They did make a movie out of it. BUT: Let's not forget that the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird was contemporary with the Civil Rights movement, written when segregation and racial prejudice were the norm and not what we would simply call today, "racist". We all know that Mockingbird's contents were so inflammatory as to have been banned in certain states, including Mississippi, where The Help takes place. Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s and deals with a fictitious trial in which a black male defendant was accused of raping a white woman. The exonerating evidence is overwhelming, but to acquit him would be to admit the guilt of a white man, the victim's father. In the end, the jury find him guilty of the crime, but only after hours of deliberation. At the time, this was considered a small victory.

The Help, on the other hand, takes place entirely within the domestic realm of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of a courtroom drama, this is a bathroom drama: most of what's at stake seems to be who gets to go to the bathroom where. Obviously bathroom segregation stands in for a much greater social issue, but Stockett doesn't really "go there". At one point I thought she would, when a black maid is sent to prison for four years for stealing a worthless bauble. The question of whether her twin sons would be able to go to college (the reason why she stole from "her white lady" in the first place) is never answered. Instead, back to the toilet we go.

Three women narrate the novel--there are almost no men to speak of here, which will greatly hurt Stockett's chance of reaching a male readership. Aibileen is the maternal black maid who has raised seventeen white children in her lifetime, oftentimes loving them more than their own mothers can. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the short, fat, sassy maid who can't stop getting fired for talking back. She has six and a half children and a husband who beats her. Finally, there's Skeeter, a fairly prominent member of the young, white, upper class female community who was herself raised by a black maid. The only one of her social group to have finished college, Skeeter has greater aspirations than just getting married and raising white children. Do these three women seem familiar to anyone else? Other cast members include the awful white alpha-female and her entourage of yes-women, and a kindly, color-blind (figuratively, that is) Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. Stockett is an excellent writer of dialogue, and she even writes a Southern black woman's voice without making you too uncomfortable. But her characters aren't so much people as they are types.

The plot, although slow to get started, is intriguing and there are enough loose ends to give the reader a sense of urgency and suspense. What happened to Skeeter's childhood maid Constantine? What did Minny do to her former boss that was so awful? [Hint: John Waters could have written that bit.] But there are also details driving the plot that are too unrealistic, too obviously there only to keep things going. When Skeeter applies for a job at Harper & Row, a position for which she is grossly under-qualified, the editor actually writes to her a letter of encouragement. I've applied to plenty of jobs I wasn't qualified for. Where are all my mentors? Eventually a book idea (and possible book deal) comes from all this and Skeeter sets about stealthily interviewing blacks maids around town about what it's like to be a black maid around town. The result is a mix between a sociological study and a vehicle for revenge. In the end, as in Mockingbird, things are still the same, and yet somehow a little bit better.

Unlike Mockingbird, The Help, which deals with the evils of the now-defunct segregation laws, seems less to be an advocate for change than it does a pat on our white backs, as if to say "Look how bad it used to be. Isn't everything all better now?" It should be saying, "Yes, it used to be a lot worse, but how can we make it better?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Next week

Next week: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

Against All Enemies

CLANCY, TOM AND PETER TELEP. Against All Enemies. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-399-15730-1. Pp. 756. $28.95.

I guess I'll start with an easy one: this book is too long. Especially given that it involves two plots that are only tangentially connected, but both involving wicked groups of brown people--the Mexican drug cartels and the Taliban. (Clancy also mentions al-Qaida, apparently unaware that it is not a terrorist organization like the Taliban). Also, Against All Enemies is not going to be a stand-alone book, but is the first of a new military thriller series featuring generic killing machine Max Moore. So why the need to cram two installations into one giant book?

Tom Clancy's name has already been put on a series of video games, and I would argue that Against All Enemies would be a lot more enjoyable as an RPG, what with all the missions, weapons, and information gathering. Besides, if AAE had been made into a video game instead of a book, I would have been spared all the pornographic descriptions of weapons ("He had also been given the choice of an AK-103, an M16A2, or an M4 carbine...Of course he chose the M4A1 with SOPMOD package, including Rail Interface System.., flip-up rear sight, and Trijicon ACOG 4x scope"); ill-gotten wealth; and gore.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

One more day!!

Tom Clancy's Against All Enemies (except for that one enemy, we got nothing against him) is a whopping 756 pages. Expect my review tomorrow when I've managed to recover. To tide you over, here's a picture of a cat (this is an old photo, but I'm pretty sure that's Koch on the left, playing video games without his shirt on):

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Next week

Next week: Tom Clancy and Peter Telep's Against All Enemies.

The Greater Journey

MCCULLOUGH, DAVID. The Greater Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4165-7176-6. Pp. 558. $37.50.

Popular historian David McCullough took on an enormous undertaking when he decided to write a book about Americans in Paris, beginning with the medical students, writers, and painters of the 1830s, all the way through 1901. That's three generations and never mind how many changes in French regime (I lost count, but I think it's somewhere between three and four). That's a lot of ground to cover, enough material with which to write fifty books. Instead, McCullough has no choice but to race through dozens of biographies and three quarters of a century in less than 500 pages (unless you're also reading his source notes, bibliography, and index, in which case it's 558 pages).

As a result, too much becomes too little. The Greater Journey is an excellent introduction to 19th century Paris, but of all the Americans mentioned, only three are given due notice: popular author James Fenimore Cooper; American minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, Elihu B. Washburne; and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent figure fairly prominently, but I might just be saying that because I just finished reading about them thirteen minutes ago. Everyone from the beginning of the work are already long-forgotten. Samuel F.B. Morse is easy to remember because he invented the telegraph and was a fanatical nativist.

McCullough is the first author I've had to read for this blog who has received a Pulitzer Prize (actually, make that two Pulitzer Prizes). I'm saying this without actually double checking, but I'm pretty sure I'm right. The Greater Journey is exemplary for the obviously vast amount of research the author undertook in writing it. McCullough relies heavily on primary resources, which becomes especially apparent when the paucity of letters leaves McCullough blindly conjecturing about what "may or may not" have happened, but "doubtlessly" did or did not. I could get a bit impatient when an event would be mentioned solely because there are no sources pertaining to said event.

And while McCullough is a talented popular historian, he has a repetitive writing style that taxes the quality of such a lengthy work. Here is a short paragraph that exemplifies his authorial foibles: "Meanwhile, happily, the work [John Singer Sargent] was engaged in, another ambitious portrait, offered a perfect chance to paint as freely and as much from the heart as he ever had". Notice, first of all, the pointless and awkwardly placed adverb. One doesn't need to be an adamant advocate for Strunk and White's Elements of Style to argue that this one word quickly and needlessly interrupts the rhythm of an already awkward sentence. Secondly, the sentence is again interrupted by the mentioning of the as yet unidentified "ambitious portrait". Given that most of Sargent's works were "ambitious portraits," this could easily have been stricken from the record. Or, McCullough could have specified that Sargent was working on a portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Lastly, I cannot stress how many times (200? 250?) McCullough employs "" usually for the effect and little else. ("[A] show many visitors enjoyed as much as anything"; "as beautiful as any bridge in Paris".) I got as exasperated as I'd ever been. Whatever that means. I think it may go hand-in-hand with McCullough's equally overabundant use of superlatives. So, if we were to go back and rewrite the sentence above mentioned, it should go something like this: "Meanwhile, the work Sargent was engaged in, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, offered a perfect chance to paint freely and from the heart". Or, even better. "Meanwhile, Sargent was painting Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth". Or, even better, strike the whole thing. An entire page will be devoted to this painting anyway.

Still, The Greater Journey is an excellent and interesting and different approach to the amateur's study of Paris during an undeniably tumultuous century. It's a bit of a slog, but McCullough has an expert eye for interesting anecdotes and writes with outright joy and genuine admiration for all of his plentiful subjects.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My bad

I didn't read David McCullough's book this week. Conferences in Baton Rouge are surprisingly action-packed.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Next week

Next week: David McCullough's The Greater Journey.

The Dukan Diet part 2

It's been about 25 days since I started the Dukan Diet. Tomorrow will mark the day I graduate to the 4th and final, for-the-rest-of-my-life phase. It involves a lot of oat bran and one protein-only day a week. Other than these two requirements, and always taking the stairs, that's it. But the diet is tough. You have to be prepared to be stranded in the middle of Texas with nothing acceptable to eat for an entire afternoon. I'm telling you, it got pretty hairy at times. But you do get used to it. After all, I did manage to give up the ol' cheese brick diet. I relied quite a bit on lime-flavored seltzer water and coffee. Most of my day was spent traveling to the bathroom from my cubicle and back. I started thinking with my bladder, not my brain.

The good news is, even if it is terrible for you, it does work. My muscles don't seem to have atrophied and I managed to lose a total of eight pounds. I'll let you know when I gain it all back.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I forgot that I wrote a review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for another publication, "979 Represent" about two months ago. Here's the link to the pdf file of the paper edition.

In the Garden of Beasts

LARSON, ERIK. In the Garden of Beasts. New York: Crown, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-307-40884-6. Pp. 448. $26.00.

In 1933 FDR was having a hell of a time filling the position of ambassador to Germany. No one really wanted the position and after offering the job to a handful of candidates, the President turned to William E. Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago. Dodd was already looking for a new post that would allow him enough free time to write his projected four-volume history titled The Rise and Fall of the Old South. Assuming the ambassadorial post in Berlin to be a relatively light one, Dodd accepted Roosevelt's petition, traveling to Berlin with his wife and two grown children, Martha and Bill Jr. Unsurprisingly, he never finished the Old South.

Dodd is a strange choice of subject for what is supposed to be, I believe, a riveting history on the rise of Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of an American family. In some ways, Dodd is worth the effort: he provides a valuable American perspective in his many letters and diaries. On the other hand, Dodd is a great bore on two levels: he thought everyone was a bore, and everyone felt the same about him. Which is why so much of this book is about Dodd's twenty something daughter, Martha. Martha and her father seemed to have shared no character traits, other than a dose of light antisemitism. Dodd père was austere, niggardly, and fairly antisocial. Martha was the opposite. I can't remember how many lovers (Nazis, princes, communists, Americans, French, German, blond, dark, scarred, cherubic, etc.) she had while living in Berlin. I think the number hovered close to a lot. But her promiscuity, while comical, does not add much substance to Larson's history. After finishing the book I came to realize that none of Martha's sexual escapades had anything to do with the overall narrative, other than to sexify what would otherwise have been a plodding description of Dodd's muted, grudging ambassadorship. Martha's significance to this history has nothing to do with her sex life. Rather, she is important because her reaction to the nascent Nazi regime was so demonstrative of what was happening all over the world during Hitler's rise to absolute power.

Nevertheless, Larson fails in one significant respect. In writing a history of an American family in Berlin during the 1930s, Larson only once, and too briefly at that, mentions any similarities that Nazi Germany and the American South might have had. He captures Dodd's reaction to the new segregation of park benches in the Tiergarten, but does not mention the same racial segregation that was present all over Dodd's own homeland. After the ghastly events of the Night of the Long Knives, Larson describes how Dodd "devoted two quiet hours to his Old South, losing himself in another, more chivalrous age". I should mention that I wrote "Excuse me?" in the margins. The old American South was chivalrous to a point. But the same can be said of Nazi Germany. The white Christian men and women of both milieus treated one another pretty well. But an age that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and mob lynchings and slavery is not chivalrous, even in comparison to Nazi Germany. For shame, Larson.

In the Garden of Beasts ends on a dreary, noncommittal note. Larson introduced so many episodes of little import to this history that I didn't catch sight of a thesis until the last page: "In the end, of course, neither Dodd's nor Wilson's approach mattered very much". (The Wilson mentioned here is Dodd's successor in Berlin, a more traditional [i.e. less stingy] ambassador.) This is an unwelcome conclusion. Surely Dodd played some kind of role in the events leading to the second World War. But taking a step back, and thinking of the number of times he chose to "do nothing," one can't help but feel a little bit short changed.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Next week

Next week: Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts.

Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me

HANDLER, CHELSEA. Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me. New York: Chelsea Handler Book, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-446-58471-5. Pp. 292. $24.99.

Chelsea Handler's newest book isn't actually by her, but is comprised of recollections by different people in her life. The theme is in the title. Here's what I learned: If you are (sort of) famous and a lavish spender, you can get away with being a genuinely bad person. Of course, you have to surround yourself with the right kind of entourage (yes, Handler has one of those), which would consist of people who would drown their neighbor's near-sighted son if it could them into Time magazine. As I was reading, I couldn't help but fondly remember Keith Richards's gentle antics as a traveling minstrel, recounted in his sweet memoir, Life. I'd choose his mushy brain and scary tan over Handler any day.

It may be because of my youthful age, but I think our country has gotten into the habit of glamorizing bitchiness over the past decade. I think I can pinpoint it to the moment when "Sex and the City" was first being aired on HBO. Being spoiled and over-sexed became not just okay, but kind of cool. A woman's preoccupation with expensive shoes was romanticized, while finding love was cheapened. I know the show was a parody, but its philosophy was not. The four main characters are all essentially good people with flawed priorities, and their sort-of goodness justifies all else.

Things have gotten worse. Now our tweens are reading the "Clique" and "Gossip Girl" series and our pre-tweens are playing with Bratz. Now, underlying goodness does not even fit into the equation at all. Enter comedian Chelsea Handler, a woman with no comedic talent, unless it is at the expense of someone else. This "insult humor" the lowest form of stand-up because anyone can do it. And everyone does it every day. The difference is that most of us do it behind closed doors at the office or at home and not on basic cable television. I watched a couple of clips from Handler's show, Chelsea Lately. She was doing a bit on the failed arrival of the rapture from a couple weeks ago. A more talented comedian could make this funny without actually being an asshole. Handler, on the other hand, just called the false prophet an "idiot" and that was it. She wasn't funny, and she was rude. What a package! After reading Lies, I realized that there is a reasonable explanation for the awfulness of the show: its writers aren't funny. One of them, Heather McDonald, wrote a chapter for this book. The closest she gets to comedy is calling her office-mate a lesbo. Handler's assistant, Eva Magdalenski, another contributor, is supposedly a "comedy expert". Here's the funniest line in the chapter she wrote: "I like to think [Handler] sits down with them on New Year's Day over a bowl of black-eyed peas, perhaps while listening to the Black Eyed Peas". This, coming from someone who supposedly spends her free time studying the work of comedic greats like Steve Martin.

I suppose I should give an example of the kind of "pranks" Chelsea pulls on the people she "loves" in order to justify my distaste for this work. It seems that one of her favorite lies is telling people, including boyfriends, that she is pregnant. She pulled this one on Heather McDonald, who immediately started daydreaming about getting pregnant too so that her child would be slightly younger than Handler's child and could therefore get all the designer hand-me-downs. A few days into this charade, Heather and the rest of the Handler entourage go out for sushi where Handler proceeds to eat a mountain of raw fish and drink rounds of vodka rocks. All of this dismays McDonald, who follows her into the bathroom to say: "You can't continue to drink unless it's after your fifth month of pregnancy, and only if it's chardonnay. I know because that's what I did, and both the boys seem to be fine". And I'm pretty sure she wasn't trying to be funny. In a later episode from the same chapter, McDonald offers to work on a Sunday for a project Handler had fabricated (it involved making a comedy about the Challenger space shuttle). As a result, McDonald misses out on a Jenner/Kardashian pool party where "[Kris Jenner] has waiters dressed in black, white, and pink, to match her patio furniture, and they walk around with an unlimited amount of Veuve Clicquot. This means you never have to get up off your four-inch heels in your mono-kini to refill your glass yourself". After learning that she missed this fabulous experience for nothing, McDonald throws a fit at her husband (but not at Handler, who is better than a husband because she puts McDonald on TV). Having read this, I felt as hollow as the woman who penned it.

The rest of the book is much in the same vein. Handler ruins honeymoons, marriages, and has a fondness for hacking into other people's e-mail and sending sensitive and humiliating messages ("I'm super duper horny and I'm just gonna say it: my clit is burning for you") to random people. A lesser being would be fired for it, but Handler is rich, blond, and sort-of-famous.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Next week

Next week: Chelsea Handler's Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me.

The Happiness Project

RUBIN, GRETCHEN. The Happiness Project. New York: Harper, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-06-158326-1. Pp. 296. $14.99.

Gretchen Rubin makes a noble effort over the course of one year to be a happier person, and has inspired many others to do the same. Her plan is very meticulous, organized, and well-researched (the lady went to Yale for undergrad and law school, so...). Which may be why I couldn't get into this book. It certainly got me thinking about a lot of things, but I don't think I can make charts and ponder "eternity" (what does that mean?) for an entire month. Which is fine, according to Rubin. Everyone is going to have a different kind of happiness project. What's fun for some, isn't fun for others. Interestingly, Rubin and I do think the same things are fun: reading. I guess that's just one thing, but it's important because we think of reading (and writing) in the same, obsessive way. Nevertheless, Rubin left me cold for one reason. Poor girl doesn't have a sense of humor (she does acknowledge this, but that only adds to the humorlessness of the book). I found her tendency to quote Samuel Johnson, Tolstoy, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux on every page kind of, well, pompous. As the magnificent Keith Richards would put it, "it's all the blah blah blah".

Rubin's Happiness Project is organized into eleven categories, including marriage, parenting, and friendship. The author works on each of these for a month, doing simple, sometimes minuscule chores in order to be a better wife/mother/friend. The twelfth month is a boot-campy, go back and do-it-all-at-once type thing. It's probably the shortest chapter. Maybe she didn't make it. Anyway, for each month, Rubin sets up several small tasks, such as gathering all her friends' birthdays so she can send birthday e-mails. While for many of us, this would only take a minute (who has time for friends anyway?--Hi Joey, I've owed you an e-mail for over a month, probably. I miss you, does this count??), but for Rubin, this is a massive undertaking. She does seem to go to an awful lot of cocktail and dinner parties.

I should really reiterate how much this book can get you thinking. Maybe not on every page, but I think it did make me more thoughtful when it comes to living with Koch. I actually tried one of her suggestions and called him at work to tell him about something stupid I'd done. His response: "So why are you calling to tell me this?" Fail. But that's not the only thing. And I did notice that he cleaned out the cat box even though it wasn't necessarily his turn. But more importantly, I realized that I have been working on my own Happiness Project of sorts without necessarily realizing it, and that is very reassuring.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Next week

Next week: Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.

The Dukan Diet

DUKAN, PIERRE. The Dukan Diet. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-307-88796-2. Pp. 279. $26.00.

To give this diet a proper test-period, I'll have to wait another month before I can officially say that I've lost a good deal of weight by following its guidelines. Because the whole point of the diet, really, is not only to lose weight, but also to keep it off permanently. Let me just say this: I lost five pounds in one day, and have not gained it back yet. That was almost a week ago, and I haven't eaten a proper portion of carbohydrates and Koch made himself a pizza tonight and I had to watch him eat it and then I ate a genetically modified chicken breast that could feed a family of four to compensate and oh dear God kill me.

Here's how the diet works. The "Attack Phase," which is really a purely motivational phase, involves losing an enormous amount of weight in a very short period of time, less than a week. This extreme weight loss then motivates you to continue the diet until the day your previously-over-weight body expires. This initial phase involves eating nothing but protein: low-fat meat, eggs (limiting yourself to two egg yolks a day), and non-fat dairy products. Let me tell you, doing this for one day was rough, given that my meals tend to subsist of a vegetable, some chicken, and a pound of melted cheese. Knowing the strength of my cheese-addiction, I went out and bought a bag of shredded fat-free cheddar cheese, which, when melted, adopts the same consistency and tastelessness as old chewing gum. Unfortunately, I didn't learn this until my lunch hour at work, when I stuffed my face with a quarter pound of turkey topped with this awful stuff. Also, a quarter pound of turkey with a little bit of melted, fat-free cheddar cheese will not provide you with a satisfying meal. You will then wander around the deserted university where you work, looking for something that adheres to the rules. The only thing you will find is a bag of "beef nuggets" in a vending machine. In my case, I chose starvation. Then, five hours later, when you go home, you will throw two eggs, another quarter pound of turkey, and some more fake cheese into a pan and then eat the monstrosity that you've created. I'm telling you all this, because Dr. Dukan does not.

Anyway, the next day I was five pounds lighter than I've been in the last five years. The trick now is to not gain it back. This is hard too. It involves eating only two servings of carbs a week, one serving of cheese a day (that's a third of my usual intake!!), and one serving of fruit a day. It's rough.

As far as reading material goes, this is classiest-looking diet book I've ever seen. It also seems to have been designed to deter male user-ship. Maybe this diet doesn't work well on men? Someone look into that.

And, although too repetitive to be read straight through, which is what I did, this book made me laugh more than Tina Fey's memoir. Dr. Dukan isn't intentionally hilarious, he's just so damn French. The North American edition begins with a special preface thanking America for saving France from the Nazi Occupation, on behalf of Dr. Dukan's Jewish father. Dr. Dukan is thus offering us the Dukan Diet in compensation. Pretty weak. Then, in the preface, he describes the patient who inspire the diet, who was "obese, jovial, and tremendously cultivated" and whose chair "creaked under his weight" when he sat down. I don't think this snide remark would have been acceptable for an American nutritionist to put in his diet book. But coddling his patients isn't Dukan's style. Most people have "found in food an easy 'escape valve' through which they can release excess tension, stress, and life's all too frequent disappointments". Whoa. Also, "People who have lost weight know instrinctively that on their own, and without any support, they will not be able to preserve this victory". Here are some of my other favorite blunt Dukavisms: "too much fat, apart from our inevitable disgust, would pose a major risk to the cardiovascular system"; "To my mind, [chewing gum] is extremely useful in the fight against weight problems...I do not usually chew gum myself, as chewing is inelegant"; "If you have lost [25-35 pounds], you will have to relearn how to use your body, which you once considered, and understandably, as just another weight to carry around and a burden to your freedom".

In a months time, I will let you know if I've regained the weight I lost. I do know that Koch has turned into a giant slice of pizza wearing an orange t-shirt. I may not be able to resist...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chasing Fire

ROBERTS, NORA. Chasing Fire. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011. 978-0-399-15744-8. Pp. 472. $27.95.

I have to admit that I got pretty worked up reading Nora Roberts's latest novel. The woman's oeuvre consists of almost 200 titles, 400 million copies of which are currently in print. God help us all. While Roberts is not the worst author I've had to read for this blog, her values are, to say the very least, misguided.

But first: this is a novel about a fire jumping base. Fire jumping (I'm explaining this because I didn't know it existed until I read this book) is the fire fighting practice of parachuting out an airplane and into a forest fire. It requires extensive training and a great physical condition.

The novel's heroine is fire jumper Rowan Tripp, golden haired, blue eyed, who can clock in a 5k at fifteen minutes, twenty seconds (a time, by the way, that would qualify her for the Olympics). She's tough and smart (I think this is mentions at least 120 times over the course of the novel, in case we dare doubt it's veracity). She's an alpha female. Which means that she's a woman who behaves like a sexist man. Herself a natural blond, she calls another blond she just met "Barbie"; she encourages her trainees by saying things like "you look like a bunch of girls strolling in a park". How does a girl stroll through the park? And how exactly is she different from a man strolling through a park? When "Barbie" struggles on an obstacle course, Rowan taunts her with "Do you want to jump fire or go back home and shop for shoes?" All this, and we're only on page 25. Of course, Rowan's behavior must be deemed acceptable because she's just a woman with an "attitude". Unfortunately, I still managed to be as offended by all this as I would be had Rowan been a man. Readers may be reassured to know that the men in the book are equally chauvinist. "Women suck" is something of a mantra in this novel.

Apart from outright sexism, getting into bar fights is the other half of the novel's honor code. The one night the entire team goes to a bar together, no less than three bar fights break out, leaving a number of the crew members unable to jump fire for the next few days. Do they get fired because of this? Nope, because they were defending their (or a woman's) honor. Apparently, if one's job is heroic and dangerous enough, one can get away with almost anything. Just like what Bush was saying when we invaded Iraq!

Of course, one should give Roberts's readership the benefit of the doubt. People aren't actually going to read Chasing Fire and turn into a hoard of Rowan Tripps. Still, such a widely-read author should refrain from planting the idea that woman-hating and bar fights are a necessary good in American society today.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Next week

Next week: Nora Roberts's Chasing Fire.


FEY, TINA. Bossypants. New York: A Reagan Arthur Book, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-316-05686-1. Pp. 277. $26.99.

"I hope that's not really the cover. That's really going to hurt sales". You said it, Don Fey, Tina Fey's dad. What a sight it is, seeing row upon row of Tina Fey's memoir in the bestseller section, her adorable face staring out at me, her head cradled in those furry manhands. If it weren't for the cover, her book would be number one. Oh wait.

This is how funny Fey's book is: Kris and I sat down to watch Karate Kid 3 in sync with Rifftrax and I ended up reading through the whole thing. By the way, can you believe the kid in KK3 was almost thirty when they made that movie? Did he drink the waters of eternal youth when he was thirteen?

I'm stalling. I set out to write this blog so I could roast books, not drool over them. What's the point of writing a review when everything I have to say is positive, or, at worst, neutral? My one complaint is that Fey mentions her scar (six-year-old Tina, slasher, alley behind family home), saying, "I only bring it up to explain why I'm not going to talk about it". Then she talks about it for two pages. Two hilarious pages, I may add. Then there's my favorite part. A man driving by shouts at thirteen-year-old Tina "Nice tits". Her response? To yell back "Suck my dick". My hero.

Maybe the worst part about reading Fey's memoir was this: When Fey reproduces some of the awful things people say about her on the internet, I literally took them personally. I read that chapter and felt as if someone had just said the exact same things to me. It was creepy. I don't aspire to be Tina Fey, or do what she does. But I immediately assumed that whoever hates Tina Fey hates me. Because, you know, I'm an adorable, hilarious woman with an Emmy-award winning television show in which I star across Alec Baldwin.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Next week

Next week: Tina Fey's Bossypants.


SCHULTZ, HOWARD WITH JOANNE GORDON. Onward. New York: Rodale, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-60529-288-5. Pp. 350. $25.99.

There's a fad rippling through the American publishing industry. Remember when people used to walk around saying, "There is no way I'm reading an entire book about cod"? Or, "Is it really necessary to write the history of plastic bottles?" But nowadays, people are really into reading lengthy tomes encompassing the history, social and anthropological significances, and mythologies surrounding ordinary things. Mark Kurlansky may be the founding father, or at least the ringleader, of this fad. His books Cod and Salt are both hugely acclaimed. I just hope no one steals my idea to write the history of a grain of sand!

In a similar vein, I believe, is the corporate memoir, for which the reader chooses to spend more than twenty dollars and a dozen hours to read a long, and often repetitive, advertisement. Lucky for me, I went to college where a Starbucks was not within walking distance, and therefore I was like totally out of the loop during the coffee company's corporate hardships. As a consequence, much of Onwards was news to me. Of course it seems natural that a pricey coffee shop chain would suffer during the recession, but I didn't know, for example, that 600 stores were closed across the United States, or that they introduced a new brew called Pike's Place. I tried this magical drink for the first time on Friday. It was pretty good. It didn't have that trade-mark burnt taste, which Schultz attributes to the high quality of the bean, rather than to over-zealous roasting plants. I had my tall Pike's Place with a slice of berry coffee cake and a fruit cup. The cost was somewhere between seven and eight dollars. The fruit cup alone was $3.45, although that may have been due to the two slices of mango. How much does a mango cost anyway? But as I was saying, for less than a full meal, I paid for the full meal I could have gotten at the sandwich shop next door. Schultz may deny accusations of selling $4 lattes, but he's cutting it pretty damn close. The cost may also have been due to the faux-handwritten note on the paper bag in which the barista had put my cake. It was apologetic but also kind of mightier-than-thou. Hey Starbucks, what if I want my cake to be filled with artificial flavoring and preservatives? Now excuse me while I finish this Twinkie that I've sandwiched between two Snoballs.

Much of Schultz's work bemoans Starbucks's recent straying away from its rich heritage (shouldn't something be older than 40 to have heritage?) and his return as CEO (which, in Starbucks-speak, is ceo), during which he pulled his company from the brink with innovative coffee tastings and mass firings. I shouldn't actually make fun. I just found it strange to read about the day when 1,000 employees were fired in juxtaposition to the hiring of people from outside the company. And the chapter on the convention held in New Orleans in 2008 was genuinely moving. One of the organizers stayed in New Orleans a few days after the event and learned from a street vendor he was talking to that Starbucks had paid for this man's monthly mortgage. 10,000 employees had gathered in the city for the conference, during which each person was involved with five hours of community service. The amount they must have accomplished in a few days is mind-boggling. Of course, adding Bono to the mix kind of took the punch out of the whole thing, if you ask me.

I won't become a Starbucks regular, much as Schultz will take this personally. There's a cafe in the building attached to the one I work in. But I will say this: back when I worked in a bookstore in Brooklyn, I used to drink Starbucks coffee almost everyday. There was one right next door. Also, everyone who works at Starbucks is really nice. According to Schultz, one barista gave a kidney to a favorite customer. Now that's service. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Next week

Next week: Howard Schultz's Onward.

The Shadow of Your Smile

CLARK, MARY HIGGINS. The Shadow of Your Smile. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4391-7226-1. Pp. 319. $25.00.

Olivia Morrow. Clay Hadley. Monica Farrell. Ryan Jenner. Sally Carter. Sammy Barber. Douglas Langdon. Michael O'Keefe. The Gannons. These are the names of most of the characters in Mary Higgins Clark's thriller. I'm as surprised as you are. I had no idea New York City had such an exclusively Anglo-Saxon population. Of course, there is a driver/waiter named Garcia and a Polish cleaning lady named Rutkowski. Of course, who ever heard of a WASP driving a cab anyway? Although WASP isn't actually the right acronym I'm looking for, since everyone in New York City is Catholic. And takes a cab to work and back. And has a next door neighbor who's a retired detective.

I refrain from identifying this novel as a "mystery," if only because, like James Patterson's Swimsuit, there is no mystery. Unless the mystery is finding out how many people are going to get bumped off before the baddies get caught and face the consequences. I'll just go ahead and tell you now: 3. The conspiracy behind it all is an old-fashioned squabble over inheritance money that's already been squandered by the time the novel takes place. At the end of the novel, when the real heiress discovers that she is, in fact, an heiress, there's no money to inherit. Kind of anticlimactic, if you ask me. Of course, Clark's philosophy is that "blood is thicker than water" (i.e. adopted children aren't as lovable as one's own) and that only children are the saddest kind of children. The rightful heiress may not get any money, but at least she has a family now. Except that the family is murderously greedy. So I guess she doesn't really get anything. 

Maybe it goes without saying, but Mary Higgins Clark has an almost spectacular lack of imagination. I think it's been mathematically proven that the more books one writes, the less creative one is. I believe it was the great horror writer Garth Marenghi who famously said: "I've written more books than I've read". (Note: Garth Marenghi is not a real person.) For example, in The Shadow of Your Smile, Greg Gannon is a descendant of Alex Gannon, whose medical patents provided the family with a vast amount of wealth. Therefore, Greg Gannon is married to Pamela, who likes jewelry, wears "breathtakingly expensive perfume," and is often mistaken for Catherine Zeta-Jones. We all already know that it's a cheap trick to describe a character in a novel in comparison to a celebrity. But to compare a character to a celebrity who also happens to have played the role of said character (see Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty") is pushing the limits of banality. It might not even be worth mentioning that Pamela is a cliched stereotype to begin with.

My other bone that needs picking is Clark's use of frequent and drawn out inner-monologues, from which I've learned that people think very deliberately, and in complete sentences. For example, Monica Farrell, the novel's heroine, has escaped being assassinated once, and is also falling puritanically in love with a fellow doctor, Ryan Jenner. Her inner-workings: "Ryan may call at anytime...I'll keep both phones right next to me and close my eyes. I don't think I'll fall asleep, but if I do I just can't miss his call. I need him". Monica isn't the only one who thinks in whole sentences; these dully drawn out personal musings are everywhere, unnecessary and tedious. Not unlike this book.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Next week

Took the week off to work on another project. Next week: Mary Higgins Clark's The Shadow of your Smile".

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Social Animal

BROOKS, DAVID. The Social Animal. New York: Random House, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6760-2. Pp. 424. $27.00.

On a personal note, I learned from reading David Brooks's The Social Animal that I am living with some kind of psychopath. Earlier this afternoon, during a last-minute reading frenzy to finish the book, I read this paragraph: "Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia provides example after example of this sort of instant moral intuition in action. Imagine a man who buys a chicken from the grocery store, manages to bring himself to orgasm by penetrating it, then cooks and eats the chicken. Imagine eating your dead pet dog. Imagine cleaning your toilet with your nation's flag. Imagine a brother and sister who are on a trip. One night they decide to have protected sex with each other. They enjoy it but decide never to do it again...most people have strong intuitive (and negative) reactions to these scenarios". I read each example with the "natural" reaction of disgust. Except for the one about using a flag to clean my toilet. I honestly see no problem with that. So I said to Koch, "Can you believe this guy compares eating your dead pet dog to cleaning your toilet with the American flag?" To which Koch replied, in earnest, "Yeah! That's preposterous! I don't see anything wrong with eating my dead pet dog." To which I shrieked, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Then I listed the other examples (sex with chicken, incest). To which Koch, who doesn't have a sister, said, "Well, if the brother and sister are into each other and rape isn't involved, what's the big deal?" At which point I think I must have lost consciousness. When I awoke, Koch had prepared a delicious meal of some exotic meat. On an unrelated note, I haven't seen my cat Claudius since this morning...

David Brooks's new book is hard to describe. He claims to have borrowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau's method for writing his work Emile, which employed hypothetical characters in a manual on education. I haven't read Emile, so I don't know to what lengths Brooks's piece emulates this earlier work, but I can't imagine The Social Animal enduring quite as long as its model. Perhaps because this isn't an out-and-out novel, The Social Animal will become dated almost immediately, given that the entire thing is based in the immediate, early twenty-first century present, even as the narrative spans several generations. This is probably a useful trope in describing all the current social stimuli that play a part in our lives, but its heavy reliance on research (psychological, economic, social) means that this piece would potentially need to be updated every few years or so to remain current.

Which isn't to say that this isn't a fascinating study on (strictly American) social trends. Brooks covers most bases, including having one of his two lead characters become an aide to a presidential candidate (and eventual president) in order to explain voter trends. My main problem is that Harold and Erica, the two main players, are only developed to a certain point. Once they reach college and graduate school, Brooks no longer treats them as people. His keenest interest in his subjects endures from the mapping of their disparate childhoods to young adulthood. Then he loses interest, moving away from them as players, and leaning more and more heavily on the hundreds of studies cited in this book. Fortunately, Brooks is incredibly good at recapitulating research, and while Harold and Erica become less dynamic, the author deftly manages to compensate this one deflation by the zest he uses in describing research studies. Such as, did you know that if you remind an Asian American woman that she is Asian American, she will do better on a math test? But if you remind her that she is a woman she will do worse? Or that Southern states are twice as likely to have the word "gun" in the name of a town, and that Northern states are twice as likely to have the word "joy"? Similarly, Southern men experience an aggressive hormonal surge when you bump into them in the street. Northern men don't.

The problem that eventually arises from this book is the amount of success both Harold and Erica experience. Erica comes from an unstable background: Hers are a bipolar Asian mother and an inconsistently present Mexican father, neither of whom are terribly good at holding down a job. Erica's childhood housing and economic status vacillates between lower-middle-class and poverty, but she manages to overcome these setbacks and eventually marries Harold, a white, upper-middle-class male, and becomes the organizer of a successful presidential campaign that leads to tenure in the White House. Before her success, Brooks spends an acceptable amount of time on the failure of her parents, but once Erica goes off to college, failure is never really touched upon again. Although the consulting company Erica founded eventually went under, she got a job as a higher-up at a cable company, eventually becoming CEO. According to Brooks, all failures are just stepping stones on the road to success. Somehow this seems a little unrealistic, given that earlier on in the book, the author was contemplating the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. People fail. Just not as much in Brooks's hypothetical world. As he says in the introduction: "This is the happiest story you've ever read." Not so, though it is one of the most optimistic.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Next week

Next week: David Brooks's The Social Animal.

Tell to Win

GUBER, PETER. Tell to Win. New York: Crown Business, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-307-58795-4. Pp. 255. $26.00.

Probably the most astute piece of wisdom I pulled from Guber's how-to-succeed book was not actually in the book, but one of the promotional blurbs on the back: "If anyone knows how to survive business, it's Peter. This book is a manual for that. It gives you the two keys to success--first, everything starts with a good story, and second, don't drop names (actually, Frank Sinatra told me that)". George Clooney's words. I can't tell if Guber and his publishers decided to include this quote because they have a sense of humor or because they're incredibly thick. I say this because at the beginning of the book is a glossary of sorts called "Voices". It includes, among others, sixteen CEOs, one mayor, one king, three former presidents (of the United States, South Africa and Cuba--can you guess which one?), and the fourteenth Dalai Lama. It also includes Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Gene Simmons, Alice Walker, Larry King, Tim Burton, Tom Cruise, George Lopez, Nora Roberts, Anderson Cooper, Carl Sagan, Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg, and Sidney Poitier. I don't know if Guber does much name-dropping in real life. He probably doesn't need to. But his tactic for convincing the reader to trust his authority is through compulsive name-dropping. As Guber tells us on page 15, "My personal and professional network spans a wide variety of industries and academic fields, and includes many of the most successful people in America". Shouldn't this be attributed, at least in part, to his success? And how, by the way, did he get to where he can say this?

The main problem with this book is that all of the examples Guber uses to demonstrate how he succeeded through story-telling date from after the man became a young studio chief, then a film producer, a CEO of Sony Entertainment, and now a professor and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group. That Guber might be successful in his ventures because he's a powerful and wealthy man and not because he's a so-so story teller never comes up. I say so-so because a number of times the stories he tells to win over investors or movie-makers are mediocre movies like Field of Dreams or the classic but dreadfully dull Lawrence of Arabia. My main complaint with the former is that it's fictional. Could a major business deal really come to fruition because someone remembered the plot of a mediocre baseball movie? (As Guber said to Dayton, Ohio's officials when convincing them to build a minor-league baseball field, "If we build it...they will come". Hey, those are the lines from the movie!) My complaint for the latter is that the story Guber told to his team was not the true story of T. E. Lawrence, but the movie based on these real events. This makes Guber's version twice removed from the original, historical events. Instead of speaking of the inspiring actions of T.E. Lawrence, Guber speaks of the inspiring actions of Peter O'Toole playing T.E. Lawrence.

Guber's prose is also part of the problem with Tell to Win's ultimate failure as an inspiration/informative work. The world the author inhabits is a world of superlatives: everyone's the most, the best, the hardest working, the greatest, the toughest. Worse, Guber's enthusiasm is most often forced and unconvincing. At one point, while dining at a Border Grill, Guber is regaled with this story about the Grill's owners' trip to Mexico: "'The [taco] stand was closed, but just for them [the owner] made this amazing stew of red beans and salsa...They spent the whole afternoon with this family in Mexico!' I felt as if I'd just had my own global culinary adventure without even leaving the table". To be honest, I found the story kind of uninteresting, if only because I'm hearing it from Guber, who heard it from a waiter, who heard it from his manager, the owner of the restaurant. The story wasn't told to inspire Guber to do anything but order the stew with beans and salsa. Maybe I would feel satisfied if I too could order the beans and salsa. But I wouldn't call this story particularly moving, especially not moving enough to transport me to Mexico.

Lastly, Guber employs preposterously awful metaphors that last for paragraphs and don't really correspond to the point he's trying to make. Here's is a metaphor he got from Jack Warner, founder of Warner Bros. when Guber was a young studio chief in the 1970s: "You're the zookeeper, and every single person that comes in the office comes with a monkey. That monkey is their problem. They're trying to leave it with you. Your job is to discover where the monkey is. They'll hide it, or dress it up, but remember you're the zookeeper. You've got to keep the place clean. So make sure when you walk them to the door, they've got their monkey by the hand. Don't let them leave without it. Don't let them come back until it's trained and they have solutions to their problem. Otherwise at the end of the day, you'll have an office full of screaming, jumping animals and monkey shit all over the floor". Laughably, a little further down the page, Guber writes, "The beauty of metaphors and analogies when used as story material is their economy". The metaphor about the monkeys and the zookeeper and the monkey shit seems to me anything but beautiful, economic, or, to be honest, relevant. What's more, the lesson Jack Warner was teaching young Guber was to ignore any problems that presented themselves to him. Let whoever has the problem fix it. Wouldn't that, technically that is, mean that the monkey shit would find itself somewhere else, if not in Guber's office? I don't work in a Hollywood studio, but I know enough that when my manager ignores all of his employee's problems, it lowers morale and leaves people terribly disgruntled. If someone goes to the manager with a problem, chances are they're coming to him as a last resort, as the only person who can solve the problem.

I'm not sure for whom this book was written. Small businessmen and women I suppose. But it's hard to trust the success of a man who is, realistically, in the top .0001 percentile of successful people. I've learned from reading Peace from Broken Pieces and Tell to Win not to put too much confidence in self-help books, but at least Vanzant's was an interesting rags-to-riches story. Guber's is a riches-to-more-riches story, and it's not as fascinating as it might sound. All the Michael Jacksons and Bill Clintons in the world couldn't change that.