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.