Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was given to me as part of the Nashville Reads program. I’m supposed to take it, read it, and then pass it on. So far, I’ve taken it and read it. I’m not so sure about step three though. The writing is such a perfect dance of chit-chat, irreverence, and braininess, it had me in literary utopia, and I’m tempted to hoard it. 

The author, Karen Joy Fowler, has created a fascinating protagonist who appeals to every reader’s sense of not quite fitting in. Rosemary Cooke has an unconventional ‒ well, un-human ‒ sister. She tells how her father, a professor of psychology, brought home an infant chimpanzee, Fern, to be raised alongside her as her twin in the 1970s, when such things were trendy and not yet understood to be folly. The primary focus of his research was comparative language development, but the ultimate results went far beyond the plan when, at five years old, Fern became unmanageable and was taken away.

Adult female chimpanzee 
The psychological toll of this experiment courses throughout Rosemary’s now-adult narration of events: How she took on chimpish traits, how she struggled to befriend human peers, how she failed to grasp social norms, how she kept her sister a gnawing secret for years. But these problems were minor compared with her mother’s emotional breakdown and her (human) brother Lowell’s sudden and total abandonment.

The repercussions continue into Rosemary’s young adulthood when she meets Harlow, a reckless fellow student who is arguably chimp-like in her disregard for normal human graces. Rosemary maintains a friendship with Harlow despite the chaos it incites. To anyone else, Rosemary’s tolerance of Harlow seems inexplicable, but the unstated conclusion is glaring: Harlow replaces Fern. But Rosemary pines for her brother as much as for Fern, and when Lowell makes an unexpected visit, he and Harlow form an even more fateful connection, while Rosemary struggles to process it all.

Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an educational read without pedantism. It addresses not only animal experimentation and family trauma, but also language development, psychological theory, and the phenomenon of false memories. The conversation is shrewd, peppered with bits of academic analyses. The story is exceptionally thought provoking, filled with luscious vocabulary, grim humor, and poignant symbolism.

Don’t you wish I were passing it on to you?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Tender Bar (J.R. Moehringer)

Despite the seeming oxymoron, The Tender Bar is perfectly titled. J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age memoir is soft and tough, and so gorgeously written that even the primary setting of Publicans, a raucous New York pub, is a piece of poetry. The story moves along a strong, cohesive chronology, with each chapter descriptive of a formative person, element, or event in J.R.’s development. Like a psychological puzzle, the big picture takes shape as you fit each new piece, gradually adding color or dimension in places you didn’t initially imagine.

Even before Publicans becomes a fixture in his own life, young, anxiety-ridden J.R. lives in the ramshackle world that results from his family’s lifestyle of libations. He and his mother repeatedly move in and out of his grandparents’ overpopulated, chaotic house, which is decaying from abject neglect. In fact, neglect is a recurring characteristic of the men in J.R.’s family. His father is a deadbeat disk-jockey, whom J.R. knows only by his on-air voice. His grandfather is an emotional batterer, and his uncle is an alcoholic and gambling addict. But as a strange counterpart to the abuses, the family is also proficient in sacrificial love. The innate literary talent among them is the unexpected cherry on top.

Edison's Ale House, formerly Publicans
(photo from
As J.R. grows, the men of Publicans become his surrogate fathers, and he loves them arguably more than he ought. His relationship with them morphs into a relationship with the bar itself, and his relationship with the bar becomes the linchpin of his life, profoundly directing the course of his education, his career, and, most sentimentally, his fate with Sidney, his movie-star gorgeous, heart-breaking, man-eating girlfriend.

Moehringer’s treatment of the barfly lifestyle is respectful and sensitive. He portrays the sweeping diversity, surprising comradery, and occasional combat among the customers with lavish heart and color. But it’s simultaneously depressing to watch these lovely humans sink into such destructive dependency. It’s an existential dilemma. The relationships are priceless, but the repercussions are exorbitant.

J.R. Moehringer (photo from
While the story starts with great hope for a bright, sensitive, underdog kid, it spirals downward into the depressing depths of addiction. But J.R. finally wields his incredible gift with words to recover from a bad turn ⎼ well, several bad turns ⎼ and the story ends optimistically. You’ll close the back cover with a good feeling for his future and a great fondness for his writing.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Stieg Larsson)

The Girl Who Played with Fire, as you may know, is the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s another murder mystery, which isn’t typically my preferred genre. But, like Tattoo, it grabbed my attention and earned my admiration. In fact, I liked it even better.

Here’s the spoiler-free nutshell: In The Girl Who Played with Fire, the celebrated journalist Mikael Blomkvist is preparing to publish a highly incriminating exposé of the illegal sex trade, but just before it hits the presses, a horrific double homicide rocks the investigation. Lisbeth Salander, the maverick hacking genius, is - of course - involved, but this time, she’s not tasked with solving the murder. Instead, she’s the primary suspect. Mikael staunchly asserts Lisbeth’s innocence despite hard core evidence against her, and in his truth-hound style, he battles to clear her name and bring down the real killer. Lisbeth, on the other hand, does not defend herself. Instead, she hides and hacks out an investigation of her own.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander (from
The book continues the theme of misogynism that Larsson began in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For the sake of a good story, the situations may be exaggerated, but the sexism is not. Along those lines, Larsson introduces some scary new antagonists (including a super-sized man who can’t feel pain) and surprising protagonists (such as a world-renowned professional boxer). Larsson also unveils some of Lisbeth’s tragic history, explaining much of the psychological idiosyncrasy that makes her such a brilliant antihero. The story’s inconclusive ending builds suspense for the third and final book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

This story is better than the first for a couple of reasons. First, since fewer pages are devoted to character development and setup, the action starts immediately. Also, Lisbeth’s backstory builds empathy; she’s no longer just a freaky chick who’s great with computers.

Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Played with Fire was translated from Larsson’s original Swedish by Reg Keeland, the same translator as its predecessor, so the linguistic style is the same: Smart, but not showy. Direct, but not terse. Plainspoken, but not bland. For pop literature, it’s about as good as you should expect. The art isn’t in the prose. Instead, it’s in the plot construction and robust characterization. Larsson’s got me now. Before long, I’m sure to pick up Hornet’s Nest, and I’m confident that I’ll love it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (Nora Ephron)

Crazy Salad is a collection of twenty-five articles Nora Ephron wrote for her Esquire magazine column in the early 1970s, when she was actively involved in the second-wave feminist movement. A few of the articles are light, but most are not so much. She covers an expansive array of topics such as body image, health, porn stars, politics, business, marriage, and other social mechanisms. Ephron’s style, as usual, is honest and witty, and sometimes ruthless, but not quite as artistically expressive as her later works (for example, I Remember Nothing). She might have been more moderate in her approach since she was writing as an employee rather than an independent author. But this was relatively early in her career. Maybe her lyrical genius was still under construction.

By now, the content of Crazy Salad is historical original-source documentation. Even at the risk of diminishing her treasured cause, Ephron candidly exposes some basic weaknesses within the women’s movement, particularly how cattiness among the leaders resulted in lack of clarity in strategy and direction. But, looking back, her articles also prove American women’s progress as generally valued members of society. Some of the feminist events Ephron reports on would currently be considered radical expressions: onstage, do-it-yourself abortion demonstrations, public vaginal exploratory sessions with a speculum, and such things. If these kinds of events still occur, I’m unaware of them. Hopefully, American women are no longer compelled to such drama in order to make their point.

Despite its silly title, Crazy Salad is not one of Ephron’s comic collections. The most amusing article is a bittersweet monologue on breast size obsession. Another piece on feminine deodorant spray has a few chuckles, but it also criticizes the manufactured demand for such unnecessary and potentially harmful products. While product testing is probably better these days, marketing tactics don’t seem to have changed much. Women are still prime targets for oft-futile promises to correct our perceived imperfections, as evidenced by the ubiquity of beauty potions, cosmetic surgeries, and fad diets.
President Nixon and his daughter Julie (
Of course, Ephron addresses the political maneuverings of the feminist movement, but that’s not the only place Washington shenanigans make an appearance. Ephron talks about the wives of politicians, whose job was to practice longsuffering and make their husbands look good. She writes about President Nixon’s daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, whose Mickey-Mousish idealism smacked of stupidity, and Nixon’s personal secretary, Rosemary Woods, who was implicated in the alleged deletion of a swath of tape-recorded evidence in the Watergate scandal. Ephron describes how Woods and other political secretaries devoted themselves to their statesmen employers, sacrificing their own opportunities for families or personal realization, and how these women received precious little loyalty in return.

Per my standard preferences, I found the political pieces kind of snoozy, but I got through them without too much pain thanks to Nora’s deft pen, and I considered myself better educated in American feminist history. I was expecting something lighter and was therefore disappointed only in that respect. Being what it is, I recommend Crazy Salad for a great first-person look at women’s issues, succinctly written despite the intrinsic complexities, with Ephron’s famous blend of brutal honesty and easy grace.
Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
Note: My edition of Crazy Salad is part of a bound two-book set also including Scribble Scrabble: Notes on Media, a title that sounds forebodingly political to me. Since I was ready for something big on adventure and light on politics, I decided to save the reading and review of Scribble Scrabble for later.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Big Brother (Lionel Shriver)

Lionel Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, tells the story of a forty-something woman, Pandora, whose brother, Edison, has recently grown grotesquely obese. Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, on the other hand, is a fitness fiend and nutrition nazi. When Edison comes for an extended visit, Pandora is distraught by his dramatic upsizing, and she determines to help him lose weight. In the endeavor, her marriage is compromised, and therein lies the story.

I bought Big Brother after hearing an interview with Shriver (also the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin) on NPR. Having read Kevin, I already admired her work, and the concept of this new novel captured my acute attention. As expected, the actual reading was excellent. The story is intellectual and psychological. Shriver’s prose, as in Kevin, is rich with observation, analysis, and intent, as she addresses the base human drives of food, love, power, and ego. The primary plot is simple, but because the key elements are so universally experienced, it’s surprisingly alluring. 

Big Brother’s characters are multidimensional and believable. You’ll root for each of them and shake your head at them in turn. Pandora, who narrates the story, is the wallflower type. She rose to national notoriety somewhat accidentally with the surprise success of her custom doll business. Since she’s uncomfortable in the limelight, she takes deliberate steps to maintain her humility and normalcy. Conversely, her brother is a self-important, unctuous, jargon-spouting jazz pianist who left home straight out of high school and flourished on the New York music scene. In his middle age, his career deflated, but his ego ‒ and his body ‒ did not.

Obesity in America (from
While the primary plot centers on Edison’s food issues, Pandora and Edison also reminisce about their unconventional upbringing, each from their own contrasting perspectives. Their mother’s tragic death was a suspected suicide, and their father, a Hollywood television actor, was more attached to his onscreen children than his biological progeny. Throughout the pages, Shriver deconstructs these complexities without the coldness of an overt psychoanalysis. Instead, it’s a show-and-tell of dysfunction, and Pandora is, mostly, the voice of reason.

The surprise ending isn’t ‒ obviously ‒ what you’ll be expecting. But it isn’t even what you’d expect for a surprise ending. It’s strangely settling and unsettling at once.My only criticisms of Big Brother tie back to We Need to Talk about Kevin. First, Pandora’s narrative style is identical to Eva’s (the protagonist in Kevin). Although Pandora’s characteristics and circumstances are effectively differentiated from Eva’s, both women are hyperanalytical intellectualizers with expansive vocabularies, which probably means that Shriver is too. Shriver’s mind and lexicon impress me, but if she can’t find unique voices for her first-person narrators, she might consider writing in third-person next time. Also, and mainly, Kevin is still Shriver’s masterpiece. The characters in Big Brother aren’t quite as gripping, the development not quite as driving, the climax not quite as spectacular.

Lionel Shriver (from
Nevertheless, Big Brother is a great psychological drama, and because of the subjects it addresses ‒ overeating and extreme dieting, marital power balances, family dysfunction ‒ it will easily appeal to most thoughtful readers. It certainly held my attention, exercised my mind, and earned my heartfelt recommendation.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Einstein: His Life and Universe (Walter Isaacson)

This book took me so long to get through. Sometimes I loved it. Sometimes I dreaded it. I mean, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein is comprehensive and often captivating, but for liberal-artsy me, the science stuff was agonizing. Because I wanted to offer you a decent review, I read the (many) physics-centric pages closely enough to get the general gist, but not, I’m afraid, a thorough understanding.

On the other hand, the chapters on his life, his family, his personality, are great. Einstein often comes off as an average schmo, which makes me love him more. I also love him more for his nonconformism and nonchalance, his maverick approach to his work, faith, and politics.

Per the author’s modus operandi, the book includes a cast of characters, extensive endnotes, and an index. He details Einstein’s childhood, education, and coming of age, his scientific pursuits, his shifting perspectives on politics and religion, but most interestingly to me, his tumultuous personal and professional relationships.

For example, it’s clear throughout the book that Einstein was generally good-humored, but he also had a special gift for making the wrong enemies. As a young adult, he sometimes thumbed his nose at the established academic leaders, provoking their uglier sentiments. Consequently, he struggled to land even a low-end academic job. Instead, he worked as an assistant in a Swiss patent office from 1902-1909. Years later, his professional relationships hadn’t improved much. He was passed over for the Nobel Prize several times due to ill will, and although he was eventually awarded the prize in 1921 after significant political maneuvering, it wasn’t for his famous relativity theories. Instead, it was for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, an almost insulting token distinction.

Einstein’s closest personal relationships weren’t much cozier. He had a mysterious illegitimate daughter whom he quietly abandoned, a hostile first marriage, strained relationships with his two legitimate sons, and multiple affairs which he barely bothered to hide from his second wife, Elsa. He openly believed in and operated on the principle that monogamy is unnatural.

Einstein's Princeton home (from
But in less intimate contexts, his geniality shined. My favorite anecdotes occurred at his Princeton home, where he cheerfully helped neighborhood children with their math homework, and where he brought out his violin and accompanied carolers who came to his door. He was also a press favorite. While Einstein claimed to dislike media attention, his actions demonstrated otherwise: He accepted most opportunities for publicity and sprinkled the interviews with pithy witticisms.

The description of Einstein’s intellectual evolution shows how fundamentally human he was. As he aged, he followed the same pattern of spunk-to-funk that most of us do. Early in his career, Einstein’s theories were considered audacious and rebellious, and he criticized the closed-mindedness of his scientific elders. But he himself settled into stubborn conservatism later in life, refusing to work with the hypotheses of younger physicists, especially regarding the random aspects quantum mechanics. He believed in a meticulously ordered universe designed by an inscrutably intelligent (but not personally relational) God who would not “play dice.” So Einstein sought a unified field theory until his death. He never discovered that theory, nor has anyone else. Even though his creative productivity was diminished in that pursuit, he significantly - although unintentionally - contributed toward the advancement of quantum mechanics: By arguing against it, he forced the young physicists to prove him wrong, and they did, thus strengthening their new theories.

Isaacson also demonstrates how Einstein’s sociopolitical shift followed scientific process: When presented with hard evidence that he was wrong, he changed his position. Before the war, Einstein supported pure pacifism and total disarmament, but after the Nazis came to power, and then in light of Russia’s brutal post-war policies, his stance became more mixed and unorthodox. He supported some armed defense but disdained nationalism. He favored social welfare but preached for personal responsibility. These seemingly contradictory opinions prompted criticism about his political naivete.

Einstein and his violin (from
Einstein fervently supported intellectual freedom and was repulsed by Americans’ mindless communist witch hunts. And, in the spirit of those witch hunts, he was consequently suspected of communism. Although the FBI compiled a large dossier of allegations against him, they never found anything incriminating. But he wasn’t altogether disrespected for his politics. In 1952, the new-ish nation of Israel offered Einstein the presidency. He declined. He was a great physicist, but not a great politician or manager, and he knew it.

Einstein died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in a Princeton hospital at age 76, but the book continues because, well, the story doesn’t end. He was cremated per his wishes, except for his brain, which was - without Einstein’s permission or his family’s - commandeered by the pathologist who performed his autopsy, sliced up, and rather indiscriminately distributed among various neurologists for what turned out to be mainly haphazard research, very little of which proved beneficial for scientific purposes. Because of the method the pathologist used to preserve the brain, DNA cannot even be extracted from it.

Walter Isaacson
From Einstein’s birth to his traveling brain, Walter Isaacson has constructed another thorough biography - a little too thorough for my preferences this time. I can’t criticize though. Physics isn’t my passion, but it was Einstein’s, and after all, this is his story. Space-time-energy lovers will be all over this book. But if you’re more poetry-and-ice-cream like me, skim through that shiz, and eat up the descriptions of Einstein’s character - his optimism, determination, conviction, nonconformity. Celebrate his curiosity, which was his master, and he its happy servant. I wish I had passion like that.