Literary Review

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan DidionOn December 30, 2003, Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died in her living room. Her only daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized at the time, and several weeks after her apparent recovery, she was once again rushed to the hospital for treatment of a potentially fatal hematoma. She showed signs of recovery, but died in August of 2005. Out of these events, Joan Didion has crafted her memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking.

As in her famous essay "The White Album," which dealt with her own mental breakdown in the context of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Didion applies steady, relentless, dispassionate prose to an agony past imagining.

The First Hippie?

First HippieMy new years resolution, in addition to starting smoking, is to try to review more current, contemporary, hot of the presses, bestsellers. But the new year is still young and I recently finished The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. I don't have to tell you it's a classic. But have you read it? Recently? I didn't see any of the movies of it -- especially the one Bill Murray made before his revival. But I like Maugham's superb short stories. So... 

A quick WIA (what it's about): Rich people in industrial Chicago between the wars. Rich people in Paris. And one broken man's upsetting the apple cart of all his expectations - a "best and brightest of his generation" type guy who decides his goal in life is "loafing." And then watching it morph into a spiritual search -- touched with more than a little magic.

Lenny Bruce Has a Very Bad Cold

Lenny BruceI couldn't believe my luck when I read that Jonathan Goldstein's novella Lenny Bruce is Dead was being published in America (sometime around March, by Perseus Books). Until now, only the Canadians (those lucky Canadians!) had access to it. I had discovered Goldstein's writing in the"Funny Pages" section of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. While I have to admit I found the graphic novel and the serialized story somewhat heavy sledding, Goldstein's two first-person humorous essays were hilarious, fresh, and inspiring. I hoped there was a book by him.

The Voice of the Image

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We’ve recently witnessed the release of two new novels by exciting (and radically different) talents: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, and Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill. On Beauty is a comic, sprawling family novel. It’s also a novel about the pursuit of beauty, which manages to find that virtue in unlikely places. Veronica, on the other hand, is decidedly morose. It deals with the friendship between two women – one a bitter, used-up fashion model, the other a terminally ill office worker – whose faith in beauty fails them while they fail each other. It’s a book about the body, its uses, and its inevitable decay; it has a merciless, almost cruel honesty.

Selling Out and Buying In: The Rise of Fashionista Feminism

Lipstick JungleSex and the City happened the way most pop trends do: slowly at first, and then all at once. One day, Sarah Jessica Parker was just another face on a magazine cover: flat, glossy, and irrelevant, connected in some obscure way to Kim Cattrall (known best – to me, anyway – for her achievements in films such as Baby Geniuses and Mannequin). Then, before you could say “DVD player,” Sex was on every TV in the tri-state area. The show had a certain soothing quality, like a handful of tranquilizers washed down with champagne: Unmarried women, who (as the show never ceased to remind us) had traditionally been portrayed as sexless and sad, were instead painted as the belles of an endless ball.

Pop Goes the Short Story

First & FifteenthFigures vary, but experts (those guys) contend that we are barraged with something on the order of 6,000 signs, messages, and missives a day. The short, punchy, condensed, in-your-face verbal and visual assault that surrounds us beats a non-stop background to our modern urban consciousness, just as twittering birds and babbling brooks once inspired Wordsworth and Longfellow. Artist/writer Steve Powers has noticed our signboard cacophony, and in his surprising, exciting, and totally original new "book," First & Fifteenth, he mines the lingua franca of our cultural garbage to create a completely wonderful reading/seeing/feeling book, although I use the word "book" cautiously.

Wonderland The Beautiful

WonderlandIn case you hadn't noticed, the world itself is reading like a bad Silver Surfer comic book these days. Storms rage, pestilence brews, celebrities change religions like they used to change agents, a team from Chicago - CHICAGO!!! - is in the World Series. (Not that team, the other team - but still!) All that's missing is a superhero to make it all right.

Author and global do-gooder (he helps people write in Missoula and helps people get healthy in Honduras) David Allan Cates has noticed - and he came up with a short, powerful, delightful "Saga" that, while it's not a comic book, is the next best thing - a hilarious, upsetting, uplifting, upbraiding story that's a perfect combination of Vonnegut, Voltaire, and Seinfeld.

Tasty Frieze

FriezeThe literary genre known as narrative non-fiction is all the rage today. Bookstores -- from Barnes and Borders to that place with the cat in window and the door that squeaks out a perfect E-flat -- are stocked to the gills with tomes wherein writers confess, profess, regress, digest, and digress -- all starring the character known as me, myself and I. Even the editor of The New York Times Book Review has opined that we seem to be living in a non-fiction "moment." Having said that, the drive for narrative is so strong, so up to the minute -- whether it's Augusten Burroughs's family moving all their furniture out onto the front lawn or it's the latest "...he/she was an abused child of a drug-loving Hollywood movie star/Supreme Court justice/Senator/news anchor," it seems like these kinds of stories were made for our time.

Boner

BonerI've got a "hard-on" for Seth Greenland's debut novel, The Bones. Although I've got a couple of bones to pick with it -- oh, the hell with my insipid punning. If you really want to delve into a funny one -- one that takes you deep into the heart of sunniness known as Brentwood, the land of cosmetic surgery and people who fly their private jets to Save the Rain Forest benefits, the land of hard-bitten ex-comics who loathe themselves just slightly more than they loathe the rest of us, well, Greenland has it nailed. (Ooops, sorry.) I just finished reading a bunch of Evelyn Waugh -- maybe I'll write about that later -- and I am happy to report that, in a very real way, Greenland does a Waugh to L.A. And that is good. Very good.