Thursday, April 30, 2020

In The Land Of Men: Dating David Foster Wallace During the Golden Age of Magazines

Adrienne Miller had the toughest easiest dream job ever: She was the fiction editor for Esquire in the late 1990s, which I don't know about you, but I think that sounds awesome. The late 1990s were the last gasp of the golden age of print magazines, but also the last hold out for the 'ol boys club that was the magazine industry. And nowhere exemplified that more than Esquire, the long-time publisher of dudes like Norman Mailer and John Updike, not exactly known for their progressive stances on women.

In the Land of Men is Miller's memoir of her time first at GQ, then at Esquire. It's really two books in one — the first half is about her career in the magazine field, and it's fascinating. But then the bomb: She meets, forms a friendship, and then begins dating the one and only, the mercurial, the brilliant David Foster Wallace. 

Miller discusses the first time she met DFW, at the launch party for Infinite Jest, which, just reading that bit made quake with jealousy. But then, seemingly overwhelmed by all the attention, he sort of snubs her and her boss, and she thinks he's kind of a jerk. But soon, she and DFW begin working together on a story, and he calls her (he doesn't do email) all the time, even during non-work hours. Their conversations quickly crossover from the practicalities of editing his story to the more personal.

He's living in Bloomington, Illinois, at the time, but comes to NYC periodically for publishing things, and they make a "date" for the next time he's there. They're supposed to play tennis, but the courts are booked solid, so they just walk and talk and have a picnic. He's supposed to go to a dinner that night, and asks her to come with him back to his hotel room to hang out while he gets ready. Then, one of my absolute favorite details of the whole book: He's showering and leaves the door half open, which she thinks is odd. But then she writes that he tells her later he did that because he was hoping she'd join him in the shower. Ah, the male mind: Infinitely optimistic, against all reason. 

So their relationship continues, long-distance and once-in-awhile-in-person. She likes him, despite his insecurity and his penchant for being distant and emotionally detached (and sometimes even cruel). He genuinely respects her as a reader and editor — which she doesn't get quite often as a young woman in a male-dominated field. (There is a lot in this memoir about the horrendous sexism she had to deal with. It's really saddening.) But because she's unwilling to move to Bloomington and he's unwilling to move to New York City, their relationship begins fading, and then bombs out in dramatic fashion.

When this book first crossed my radar (it came out earlier this year), and I realized it's a memoir about magazine editing, with new details about David Foster Wallace, my first thought was "Wow! This might be the perfect book for me." I wouldn't say it was a perfect reading experience — Miller is a good writer, but man, there are a lot of darlings here that should've been murdered (what's the saying about how editors never follow their own advice when they're writing themselves). But I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Though you take most of the insight into DFW with a grain of salt, it's still a fascinating new angle.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Your House Will Pay: Race and Justice in Modern Los Angeles

The overwhelming sentiment regarding Steph Cha's fantastic literary thriller Your House Will Pay about race and justice in modern Los Angeles is "Why isn't this novel a HUGE hit?!" That's what two booksellers I work with have said, and it's the reason I picked it up....and they're right! This novel should be a smash, and maybe it still will be, but it's definitely flying under the radar right now.

Though it has only 2,600 ratings on Goodreads (that's a tiny number for a book with as much pre-pub buzz as this one had), it still has an impressive 4.1 average rating. It also recently won the Los Angeles Times 2020 Book Prize for best Thriller. Hopefully that's a sign that this book is starting to gain momentum. (It was published in October, 2019.)

With commentary on police violence, racism, Black Lives Matter, viral videos, and more, it's a novel of our times, for sure. But it's based on an actual crime that happened in 1991 — except, to tell you what that is gives away a major plot point you should read to discover yourself.

The first scene in the novel, though, is a riot due to a Los Angeles movie theater showing New Jack City denying entry to some African Americans who had already bought tickets. This, which mirrors real-life violence around the movie's opening, was only a few days after the widely viewed Rodney King beating, so tensions were already high.

Then, we fast-forward to modern Los Angeles, and the story of two families, one Korean, one African American. Grace Park is 27, a pharmacist at her family's store, and still living at home. Grace is fairly sheltered, so when the big reveal of the novel happens, she's not really equipped to deal with everything that happens as a result.

Shawn, however, present as a 12-year-old kid at the opening 1991 riot scene, is picking up his cousin Ray from jail — Ray's just finished a 10-year stint. Shawn is a former gangster himself, but has gotten his life together, and now lives with his girlfriend and her young daughter. Shawn has helped raise Ray's two kids while he was in jail, as well.

The fates of these two families will soon collide in the present, just as they did in the past. The collision, then as now, is because of an act of violence. And Cha deals skillfully with all the moral complexity presented in the conflict between these two families.

Despite covering 28 years, this is a taut, tense thriller. There is certainly a lot going on here, but Cha deftly handles these several threads of story, weaving them into a ball seething with racial tension, family strife, and so much more. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Ducks, Newburyport: The Most Unique Novel I've Ever Read

Well, this sure was a doozy -- though of course that was fully expected. I picked up Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, a thousand-plus-page, dense-as-hell, stream-of-consciousness experimental novel, with full knowledge of what I was in for. Still, 50 pages in, my only thought was "Wow, is she really going to keep this up for another 950 pages?" And she did! But once I found my footing, I thoroughly enjoyed every word. It's the most unique thing I've ever read, and every ounce of effort I put into this book was rewarded.

See, books teach you how to read them. And for this book, learning how to read it early on is crucial. Soon, once you find your rhythm, and realize each "the fact that" is the start of a new "sentence," your mind starts conflating that phrase with a break, and pretty soon, you just blur right past it and read like normal. Also, for me, it was important to take this book in slow gulps, only a few pages at a time. I just did my best to concentrate and not space out, and when I found myself starting to space out, that's when I knew it was time to put it down for the day. You have to be in the right mind to read this book. I did best when I was well caffeinated. All this is basically why it took me more than two months to read. But also one of the reasons I enjoyed it, and now miss my daily 20 pages or so.

So what is this thing, exactly? Essentially, it's a thousand pages of musings and word associations narrated by an Ohio housewife who is busy baking pies. She offers thoughts on pollution in rivers, Trump's narcissism, her kids, her mother's illness, her own illness, Ohio history, her childhood, her husband who is an engineer for bridges, and about a million other things. Along the way, periodically, micro-stories emerge — she gets stranded with a flat tire on a very cold day, there's a MAGA guy named Ronny who delivers her chicken feed who constantly makes her nervous, her oldest daughter briefly runs away from home. And there are many more. And about every 100 pages or so, there's a short snippet of story about a mountain lion roaming around Ohio — this story eventually intersects with the main story, too.

So why read this wall of words? Why "torture" myself? The hipster in me would say I've always enjoyed difficult, against-the-grain novels — it gives you a sense of accomplishment (and superiority?), etc. But I wanted to read this because it was just so different. Many reviewers have pointed out that it's a near-perfect finger-on-the-pulse-of-our-modern-times. And that's certainly true, too.

If you're up for a challenge, give it a try. But understand you're going to need some patience. This won't be a book you fly through in a week. Just relax and enjoy it for what it is.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Last Couple Standing: How (Not) To Save a Marriage?

All your friends are getting divorced. You want to prevent a similar fate from befalling your own marriage. So what do you do? Naturally, you start sleeping with other people! Makes perfect sense! You want to "inoculate" your marriage against infidelity, so you go ahead and preemptively inject it with the cheating "vaccine."  (I may be watching waaaaay too much CNN these days.)

Committing adultery to save a marriage may sound crazy, but it sure makes for a great novel. Matthew Norman's fantastic new literary rom-com, Last Couple Standing, is about Jessica and Mitch, an early-40s suburban Baltimore couple with two kids — as average as average can be. But they're reeling from the fact that their three best-couple-friends (best-friend-couples?), with whom they've been close since college, have all recently split. So Jessica and Mitch take a serious look at their own ostensibly happy marriage to try to head off divorce at the pass.

What they decide is that wanting to have sex with other people, but not being able to, but then doing it anyway, is what breaks a marriage. So they come up with an agreement with some very specific rules that will allow them to pursue objects of their individual affections without blowing up their happy marriage.

Think about that Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine come up with rules to sleep with each other, but remain friends. This is a little like that. But then cue Costanza, as the voice of reason: "Where are you living? Are you here? Are you on this planet? It's impossible. It can't be done. Thousands of years people have been trying to have their cake and eat it too. So all of a sudden the two of you are going to come along and do it. Where do you get the ego? No one can do it. It can't be done."

So, yep, naturally things go a bit awry. The couple consummate their new agreement to varying degrees of success...and failure...and hilarity. As jealousy and bad feelings begin to emerge, the question becomes: Will this treatment be successful? Or will the attempt at prevention accelerate the disease?

This is a really funny novel — a hip, hilarious tale of contemporary marriage; another terrific entry into the "dude lit with heart" genre. And, for what it's worth, the last scene of this novel is one of the funniest I've read in a long time.

One of things I appreciated most about this novel is that it departs from the standard "sad, self-deprecating guy" as the narrator that seems to be the storytelling mode for a majority of dude lit. Don't get me wrong, I like that, too, but it was nice to see a different approach here. If you've read and enjoyed writers like Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, or Norman's first two novels, Domestic Violets and We're All Damaged, you will love this too.