Monday, March 19, 2012

Tina Fey gives me cheap laughs.

Book: Bossypants
Author: Tina Fey
Published: 2011 (Little, Brown)
Pages: 275

"Who doesn't like Tina Fey?" could be the subtitle of this book. Based on the reading I snatched during my lunch breaks by picking this up in the campus bookstore without actually buying it, I will attempt to answer.

  • People who truly believe that women can't be funny. (I picture these guys as old-fashioned clockmakers holding Humor Cogs and shaking their heads regretfully at broken ladies.)
  • People who are disappointed at how normal and good Tina Fey's life has been and are probably just jealous that this disproves the theory that one has to have a shitty life to get any material from it. 
  • People who have refused to watch SNL since the 1970s because they say it went downhill right after that. 
Fey's very good at making fun of herself in a way that brings her down to hardworking everylady level. She loves her life and gets deprecating laughs out of the awesome bits, which makes her more human, and sarcastic enthusiasm about the stressful bits, which show how much she secretly likes them. She's also excellent at inserting one-liners into good advice to break up the earnestness just when it starts to get a little weird.

She is still a TV writer, and that shows in the bounciness of her prose, like it really wants to come out of her mouth instead of stay on the page. That's not a bad thing. In fact, that probably helped me read this faster, an essential part of the stealth read strategy. I feel like Fey would understand the maybe-not-completely-kosher habits of a reader/writer with a day job and make fun of them before joining in with a giant sandwich. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Book: Smile Pretty and Say Jesus: The Last Great Days of PTL
Author: Hunter James
Published: 1993 (University of Georgia Press)
Pages: 210

On the surface, this is a tale of greed and denial and hypocrisy channeled through one of the biggest evangelical Christian empires this side of the Rocky Mountains. Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker start their ministry with coins rattling in their collection cigar box, got on TV through a masterful puppet show that evolved into a gi-fucking-normous media/theme park thing that made them enough money to burn through with Cadillacs and makeup and Kmart shopping sprees until their financial mismanagement and Jim's sexual eccentricities were exposed. Then Jerry Faulwell took over, trip over some of the exact same problems of his own (although on a smaller scale), and the whole shebang ended on a half-finished luxury hotel taken over by Native Americans who now owned the land on which it was getting built. 

I'm pretty sure everybody knows the surface bit of the story, or can at least trace its familiar tropes. That makes it no less enjoyable to read about. Not with a malicious anti-religious smugness, but with a wonder at exactly how much people can trust their leaders and how much these leaders can built on shaky grounds before everything just goes SMASH.

But take a closer look into this, and you'll get the equally interesting and far more worrying glimpse of a newspaper man driven insane by his job.

Late nights, early mornings, no distinguishes between the two, camping out for hours to grab two seconds of a subject's time, chasing phone calls, editors spitting profanity like sparks from blowtorches--these are all pretty standard for an old-school paper journalist. James, who eventually reveals that he's over fifty during his coverage of this scandal, should be used to it if maybe getting tired of all the abuse. Instead, he drops in these stream-of-consciousness lines, even a whole chapter, that drop psychological hints about how much he hates all of this. He misses deadlines, drinks and takes downers, doesn't seem to know how to get out of all of his misery. He doesn't enjoy any of the chase.

And based on his continual failure to get close enough to any of the major people in this to fill out 500-word articles, I really wonder how he managed that for full book.

Somehow he manages to forge a great connection between his personal downfall and the one he's supposed to be covering. It does make me wonder about his career after this, though. Was it his last stand as well as the Bakkers' and Faulwell's? He never says. I hope he retired into one of those "old guy" desk jobs he was talking about by the end. 

Which is sort of a horrible thing to wish on a reporter. But dude was worn OUT. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No big surprises

Book: Feminism in the News: Representatives of the Women's Movement Since the 1960s

Author: Kaitlynn Mendes

Published: 2011 (Palgrave Macmillian)

Pages: 165 (not counting endnotes)

Headline: Feminism Not Taken All That Seriously by Male-Dominated News Industry Unless It Concerns a Court Case or Something Like That.

No big surprises here, except at how fast it read as an academic study. I was thinking it'd take at least a week to slog through, but the newspaper and feminism terminology were both explained clearly enough to not necessitate a lot of paging back to re-read definitions.

The most interesting bits were when she compared British newspaper coverage to American, which revealed both the differences in journalism and the difference in the women's movements in each country. In America, the women's movement was a lot more centralized and media-ready, so it got covered as a sort of institution. In England, where the movement didn't have that kind of bureacratic cohesion, it got covered as an individual issue. Both countries used more of a "soft news" approach to coverage, which while regulating the women's movement largely to what journalists considered a less serious genre, also allowed room for more in-depth analysis of the movement in longer feature stories rather than the tight space regulations of breaking and hard news sections.

Bored yet? Don't be! Come back into the folds of autodidacts! I have 11-year-old British girls talking about how all they want is to be wives and mothers! Black feminists starting their own movements because they don't feel like they belong in the white, middle-class majority of the mainstream movement! Lipstick and miniskirts as expressions of feminism!

Ah well. It's an interesting topic, but the findings didn't surprise me so much as make me extremely glad that I was born after most of this had settled into at least nominal equality.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Self-aware dystopia lives up to hype

Book: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2008 (Scholastic)

Pages: 374

This is how I reacted to reading pressure when my boyfriend said he’s going to see the movie on its opening weekend and would I like to go with him?:

Because it meant I chucked my semi-cherished plans of keeping indie cred by reading Battle Royale instead of this popular series first. And of course I had to read the book before we see the movie, which pushed back my increasingly panicked plans of not adding any new books to the pile I want to get through, dammit.

It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay, because The Hunger Games reads fast and well, and it’ll be at least another year before the second book gets turned into a movie my boyfriend’ll want to go see on opening weekend, and too much indie book cred will make this blog insufferable anyway.

So! Katniss! She’s cool. She’s less the bold new feminist icon that reviews have told me about than an almost gender-neutral kid just focused on survival. That’s a refreshing change. Her skills and interests are presented as completely normal for her age, place, and family social status; she’s equal to Gale’s skills and nobody’s surprised about that. They just tell her to bring more illegal squirrel next week. She’s protective in a non-maternal way that sometimes hurts her own interests. She knows her own strengths and relies on them far more than exploiting her weaknesses to rely on other people. She can hunt and track but good fuck, don’t let her heal or cook anything more complicated than a roasted leg.

She’s cool, but the world building is the real star around here.

Collins is great at letting just the right amount of detail unspool around major events that Katniss knows well but is experiencing in person for the first time. I wonder if all the male tributes have to get waxed down for the presentation, too. All the new terms feel naturally descriptive but still memorable, the history revealed is enough to know reasons for actions but little enough to want to know more, and the action scenes I could totally follow in my head. Brava. 

A few “but…”s, though:

  • I wish the games would’ve been played in a more interesting arena. Of all the landscapes possible, this year’s was the one that sounds the most like the backyard I had before I moved into an apartment.
  • The fuck were those mutts about near the last bit of the games?! Please let there be a science lab raiding/rescuing scene in later plot.
  • I’m dreading reading more about Peeta and Gale and Katniss as a triangle. The love story angle was SO GOOD in this book, meaning it was an ingenious strategy to act like it was an act for the cameras and Peeta’s reveal that he wasn’t acting was, duh, not a surprise to any of us but played as a genuine one to Katniss. That was handled well but I fear it will turn into hormonal teenage angst just as I celebrate how free this series is of that crap.
  • Katniss’s inter musings about strategy got a little circular and reminded me of said teenage angst in books where the girl is worrying about what to do with/about a boy. But the higher stakes here (actual, physical, nobody-will-help-my-family death, as opposed to oh-my-god-I-want-to-die-over-this-socially-embarrassing-situation death) make it tolerable for a far longer time.
  • Now that Collins has built a world, will she be as good at tearing it down? Rebellion to come, I guess. I plan on reading Catching Fire and Mockingjay back to back because my boyfriend says Catching Fire ends on a much more “what the fuck just and is going to happen?” cliffhanger than this one did.   
 Also, a point to remember: this isn’t a hard book. It’s solid YA plotting with fleshed-out characters and that’s a very good, enjoyable thing, but reading the whole triology in two days won’t get you into Harvard or anything. It will merely prepare you for life in a Capitol-controlled wilderness when you have to fight to death. Argue amongst yourselves as to which is more important a skill.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Where are the badgers?

Book: King of the Badgers

Author: Philip Hensher

Published: 2011 (Faber and Faber)

Pages: 436

Where are the badgers? Show me the badgers. I am not reading about any badgers in here.

Also, decide whether the little girl kidnapping story is the backbone event here or just an excuse to show how gossip works in a small English town. Either way is acceptable, I swear, especially considering how well-written both pieces are. But Checkov's gun does not get waved threateningly without being shot, and the driving subject of secrets shouldn't fade away only to flare up again on television and leave again without comment when the six o' clock news ends.

And about those secrets: uh, I'm pretty sure they're not. If they are, only one does any damage, meaning only one causes any conflict both internal and external, meaning only one actually DOES anything, this one that has nothing to do with the little girl kidnapping.

Why the HELL is there nothing else about the schizophrenic couple who have "neighbourhood watch" meetings that are just them and like five imaginary people the husband pretends to chair? WHAT? That was a BIG REVEAL that could've tied in SO WELL.

Typing this review, I've become uncertain as to why I actually like this book a great deal. I guess reading about all the different well-drawn characters was like nibbling on a box of assorted chocolates, offering a different sort of tasty in each bite while keeping a consistent underlying theme. Except a box of Whitman's tends to congeal into one lump that takes an embarrassingly long time to get out of my system, while this book didn't come together at all in the end. I have no idea what the title means or refers to.

But they baited me by watching Doctor Who in the last scene and talking about it so that between their dialogue and the book's publication date, adjusting for writing time and BBC transatlantic jumps, I've figured it's the series four finale. "Parallel worlds" is a dead giveaway. 

(These are the kinds of calculations I do when I finish a book but there's no time to get into another one before a Hunger Games loaner comes through for me to read before the movie comes out.) 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Growing up

Book: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Author: Alison Bechdel

Published: 2006 (Houghton Mifflin)

Pages: 232

I’m calling this a memoir because the author uses her family story and all their real names, including her own. She doesn’t dress it up as fiction, so it’s not, and she focuses way more on a vaguely stream-of-consciousness fixation on her relationship to her dad and how they handled each other’s sexuality than on a chronological run-through of her childhood.

Bechdel and her father are presented as inverts, as in she always wants to be and acts like a stereotypical boy and her father has spent his entire marriage repressing his female urges. This makes him cold and resentful to his family, and her gradually more confused until she finds a section about lesbianism in her university library and starts reading about that instead of her class-assigned Ulysses.

They each deal with their own homosexuality in opposite ways: he buries his under a pile of shame that occasionally explodes and leads to a car accident that might have been suicide; she pulls hers out of its hiding place and makes it a big part of who she is. She comes out as the more adjusted, better-prepared, world-weary second generation worried about but also smug about not making the same mistakes she saw her father go through. Her experience isn’t any less traumatic, but it makes her stronger instead of destroying her. I think she won.

The fluid artwork’s bold lines kept me entirely in her worlds, in her parents’ knick-knack cluttered house that her dad was always improving, in libraries (more than one and they were all drawn differently, not just Building That Was Not My House No. 2!), in her dorm room and the funeral parlor.

OH YEAH. Her dad also inherited a funeral parlor from his parents. It wasn’t a full-time business in their small town, but the whole family worked when the need came along. I wish she would’ve integrated this into more of her general telling, but she left it in one smallish section. By then end of the book I wanted to know more about the funeral home and less about what her father’s death might mean.

That might make me a terrible human being. But your Constant Reader never lets life get in the way of good content.   

Friday, March 2, 2012

You're doing it wrong.

Book: The Book of Tomorrow

Author: Cecelia Ahern

Published: 2011 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 310

Dear diary,

You don't know me, but I'm that insufferable twat who doesn't actually use you as a conceit unless it's convenient to the plot. Sometimes you tell me the future, but I can totally change it, I'm not locked in or anything, I also do that really annoying grammar thing where I string together two full sentences with a comma. Not two clauses, or two sentences that can depend on each other as clauses, I wish they had taught me about that in third grade. 

ANYhoodle, I'm going to use all this fake gravitas that I haven't earned yet (and that in fact makes me sound about as solemn and wise as a wizard on a Disney ride) to put mystery into a story that will basically be me bitching about how lame my new life is, how everyone in my family is keeping secrets from me, and how weird nuns are, mentioned over and over again until the last three chapters, which I guess is some sort of "tension device," or some shit like that. You'll have my like total word about what a bitch or nice kid I am (it's so hard to decide!) without all those stupid "scenes" and "dialogue" to pull you in. Really, exposition is THE thing to have nowadays, along with a mobile library driven by a boy who could care less about reading! But don't worry, I only use him for a statutory rape subplot that is the only possible way my age could be called into question. 

I totally could've done this whole find-out-who's-my-real-dad thing without you, but you know, you're welcome. I'm just a giver. Except when I feel selfish and tell you that for no reason except maybe I'm supposed to be the same bundle of contradiction as every other teenage girl? I don't know. It doesn't work anyway, so I'll let you not work and then un-destroy yourself from a fire without any sort of rules or guidelines on how you actually work because I'm too busy writing third-person fairy-tale wrap-ups for my last chapter. Well, there's my aunt snooping again! Better go sneer at some of her apple pie before she suspects anything! I hope this book doesn't make any young book blogger and writer question what the hell she's doing with all her spare time! Byyyeeee!

--Tamara Goodwin, most irritating diary writer in the history of diary writing. 


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dancing about architecture

Book: A Visit From the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Published: 2010 (Knopf)

Pages: 273

I’ve been staring down this book and its good reviews since it came out, resisting the urge to read it because writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Which is to say, there’s always a gap of interpretation that I’m willing to throw myself across because I love both art forms so much, and I usually end up banging my head a good one against waves of description that, fawning as they may be, don’t actually tell me anything. In my experience as a high school newspaper A&E editor, college radio station CD reviewer, Rolling Stone subscriber for far longer than it deserved, and High Fidelity fan, the better the review the more abstract the descriptions and therefore the more removed from living, breathing, sweating music stand the words.

But that’s not the case here. Actually, this collection of stories and incidents and characters on the New York music scene focuses so much on the people and the human bits of music that it’s really easy to slip into the punk clubs and the record label board rooms and undergraduate couches and start listening without noticing until everybody else turns their attention, too. The music underlines the humanity, the good and bad choices, the way time keeps pulling at everyone and their dreams.

It takes a bit of decoding to figure out everybody’s full individual chronological story arcs, but that’s not super important unless you get bored after you finish reading and want a slideshow project like the one the record label head’s former assistant’s kid makes to chart how her family is unraveling. (That was my favorite bit.)  It’s quieter than I expected, literally and metaphorically. Its last little bit of future predicting edges toward gimmick territory without ever touching down.

I don’t regret waiting to read it, or checking it out of the library instead of buying it, but I’m glad it waited for me to discover its charms.