Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In the Valley of the Kings

            When I think of Terrence Holt’s one and only book, In the Valley of the Kings*, I think of someone abandoned at the bottom of a long well, echoing cries into a void. I mean that as a compliment.

            In the Valley of the Kings is a short story collection fraught with enigma and elements of absurdist fiction (i.e., the inevitability of death towers over characters’ actions and renders them meaningless). Some of his stories retain a mystery throughout that requires the reader to rely on self-interpretation. For example, my favorite story, Aurora, involves a reincarnation of a former human’s soul, but the logistics are left to the reader’s imagination. I envision the soul as a semi-conscious satellite cruelly manipulated by earthling scientists. Who knows what Holt meant (but does that really matter?)?

            Junot Díaz praises the work, saying, “There is no one in the wide sea of English who writes like Holt.” He’s correct. I don’t have the language to communicate how Holt uses language. His stories emphasize the power of voice; intonation is important and the manner in which speech is conveyed has a special, inherent power. Silence has its own unique weight. The process of naming things has a Genesis-feel in which letters and sounds wield prophetic meaning.

            Common themes you can find in this bad boy: falling, forgetting/misremembering/re-remembering, darkness, attempts at describing an indescribable despair, chaos.

            I like books that are experimental; they might not be perfect, but they’re different and thought-provoking. Holt brings that in spades. He’s really out there, and I’m into it. Like any collection, some stories are AMAZING, some are fine, and some are not that great. While I think that Holt has some preternatural talent, I understand that his work is not for everyone. Overall, In the Valley of the Kings receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Holt, Terrence. In the Valley of the Kings. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


            As previously established, Nora Ephron was a boss ass bitch. People love her for her screenwriting; trust me, her screenwriting has nothing on her essays. She is a character and her life is rife with material worthy of the written word. Heartburn* is an autobiographical novel, aka it’s a thinly veiled account of her reality. Basically, she takes a true, horrible story and replaces the names.

            I’m not divulging anything that you can’t find on the back cover when I say that Nora Ephron, at seven months pregnant, found out that her high-profile husband, Carl Bernstein, was cheating on her. She got revenge and relief by using her writing skills to publicly embarrass her spouse for his indiscretions. Nora admits the necessity of this work in moving on when she writes, “If I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me” (Ephron, 177).

            Ever heard of Deep Throat? Not that kind of deep throat. The Nixon kind. Carl Bernstein was one of the original reporters on the Watergate scandal, and he used his Deep Throat connection to substantiate his pieces. With a little clever snooping in the aftermath of the affair, Nora was more than happy to screw her husband by revealing Deep Throat’s identity. Read more about her disclosure here. Between her loud mouth and her relentless writing, she gave Bernstein a taste of his own medicine and cracked his case wide open.

            Nora could explain a complex emotional entanglement like no one else. She’s precise—never missing a slice of the complexity and she’s hilarious—never missing a chance to make you laugh at everyone’s pain. She’s brutally honest about others but she doesn’t spare herself any ridicule. Heartburn is another outlet for her unique, irreverent, hilarious voice. The book reads conversationally, as if she’s telling you a story over a few mimosas at brunch. It also doubles as an intermittent recipe book. One minute, she’ll be talking about her post-affair depressive state; the next, she says, “Another thing I like to eat when I’m feeling blue is bacon hash…” and proceeds with a succinct but thorough recipe (Ephron, 42).

            At the time of publication, Nora got some flak for her uncensored candor and Bernstein even threated to sue for libel. Bernstein-- ummm sorry that you did a bunch of shitty things, which caused your talented estranged wife to produce something that would make her feel less like a victim. Five out of 5 camel humps for this gem and one middle finger to Bernstein.

*Ephron, Nora. HeartburnNew York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Print. 

*Ephron Nora. “Deep Throat and Me: Now It Can Be Told, and Not for the First Time Either." The Huffington Post. 31 May 2005. Web. 20 Sept. 2017.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Thank You for Smoking

            Thank You for Smoking* is about cigarettes and the various nefarious institutions that propagated them during the 1990s. The impressive protagonist, Nick Naylor, is one of the main spokesmen for a tobacco lobby. He’s a great mind to peek inside because he’s good at what he does and what he does is “bad”. It’s fun to read his inner thought and outer dialogue because he’s slick, intelligent, and the master of spin. A senator from Vermont wants to slap warning labels on cigarette packs? Well, if you go down that road, you’ll have to label artery-clogging Vermont cheddar cheese as well!

            The author, Christopher Buckley, uses his experience as a speechwriter in Washington to inform his smartly written satire that casts a critical eye on the junction of politics and lobbying. Aside from some of the fantastical plot points, it reads as a factual account of tobacco’s response to increased regulation. The subject matter is, of course, historical, which makes the mockery even more incisive.

            I enjoyed the fast-paced, meaty middle of the book, but towards the end, the plot became over-complicated. As a result, Buckley had to cram a bunch of last-minute poorly fleshed out details in the final 50 pages to be able to address what he’d created. Then, he had to insert a four-page epilogue set in the future to sweepingly acknowledge certain plot-points that should have received more attention. I wish that he’d extended the book because I think that over time, the intricate, messy parts could have been smoothed.  

            Moreover, the ending is as cheesy as Vermont cheddar cheese. I don’t appreciate when all of the wrongs are unrealistically right-ed (for those of you who have seen the movie, apparently the ending is different). Don’t give me a picture-perfect happy ending if the book doesn’t warrant it. Nick Naylor can’t talk his way out of this one-- Thank You for Smoking receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Buckley, Christopher. Thank You for Smoking. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

            I haven’t seen When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, or You’ve Got Mail because I was an uncultured, sheltered child when the films premiered. Actually, I take that back. I saw one scene of You’ve Got Mail three years ago. My roommate was watching and I popped my head around the corner when I heard Dave Chappelle’s voice. You’ve Got Rick James, Bitch.

            Regardless of the fact that I’m a Nora-newb, I picked up her collection of non-fiction essays-- I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman*. Apparently I’m going through a phase in which I favor the weathered rawness of an older New York woman who is well established in the elitist literary and cinematic world. First stop, Joan Didion. Next stop, Nora Ephron. I’m in a mood.

            Most of what she discusses seems superficial, initially. Overflowing purses, expensive neck cream, and bygone Manhattan real estate. Somehow, she manages to plunge readers into something deeper. She speaks with the wittiness that accompanies candor. She’s unapologetic about her good fortune but she’s willing to tell a joke at her own expense. She’s not crazy about this whole “getting older” thing, and she’s not going to lie to you and tell you everything will turn out okay.

            In 2012, Nora Ephron died at age 71 from complications associated with leukemia. Her death reverberated through Hollywood as a shock, because she kept her illness a secret. Reportedly, she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. This book was published in 2006. I could speculate a vague timeline, but it wouldn’t matter much. She felt a certain way about aging, and she wrote about it, informed by her diagnosis or not.

            Still, I can’t stop thinking about her disease and death in conjunction with her book; it haunts me. In reference to the recent passing of her good friend, she writes, “I say the ‘eventuality,’ but that’s one of the oddest things about this whole subject. Death doesn’t really feel eventual or inevitable. It still feels…avoidable somehow” (Ephron, 133). I connect with what she says, as I suspect most people do. The glaring reality that she wasn’t able to avoid the chasm makes vibing with her words all the more unsettling.

            Ephron’s book about death is a guide on how to live. I’ve had her ghost following me around all week, and I haven’t resisted. If you want a laugh with the lingering aftertaste of discomfort, check out I Feel Bad About My Neck. And stock up on fashionable turtlenecks for your mid-fifties. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Ephron, Nora. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.

*Bernstein, Adam. “Nora Ephron, prolific author and screenwriter, dies at age 71.” The Washington Post. 26 June 2012. Web. 5 Sept. 2017.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Yes Please

            Amy Poehler is a funny person. I don’t enjoy every single thing she has done, but she has certainly dished out some gems. She leads an inherently interesting life, so she’ll inevitably have good stories for her autobiography. She’s not a regular mom; she’s a cool mom.

            Yes Please* covers her cool-motherhood and her work. Poehler graces us with UCB-starter stories, juicy SNL tidbits, and insider knowledge on Parks and Recreation. Yes please! Keep those coming.

            I could read hundreds of pages on the above. Sprinkle in some behind the scenes info on Mean Girls and Broad City and you’ve got Poehler perfection. Unfortunately, while Yes Please does partially appease my longing to learn more about her past projects, there’s also a lot of “filler”. I understand that as an autobiography, the book will address her life as a well-rounded woman, not just her film credits. However, there are several chapters that strike me as forced material to fill space. A chapter on how she has semi-weird sleeping habits? Not particularly original, despite the intermittent funny quips. A chapter on how phones and technology are taking over our lives? Not a hot take. 

            The weirdest part about her book is her frequent insistence that “writing a book is awful” (Poehler, 195). You get the impression that she doesn’t like the process and would prefer to be working on a script. Not exactly a welcome wagon for people reading your stuff. 

            I don’t want to hate too hard on her book because my expectation was not that Yes Please is serious literature asking for annotation and deep analysis. It’s a light-hearted book by a self-aware, candid comedian. No, it’s not a contender for the Nobel Prize.

            Amy Poehler is often compared to Tiny Fey, her self-proclaimed comedy wife. In May, I reviewed Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants, which I like slightly more than Yes Please. Fun fact: I read on a very reputable website with a very efficient layout that Tina Fey’s net worth is more than double that of Amy Poehler. Not only is that fact unnecessarily money-grubbing, it also encourages women-on-women hate. This blog is great!
            Overall, Yes Please receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Poehler, Amy. Yes Please. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.