Books Are Pretty

Saturday, August 30, 2008

When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot.

"Wow," said my friend Char, as she slouched on my sofa, flipping idly through the pages of this book, "this is a really offensive story. Have you read it? It's about having sex with a fat woman."

"Oh, god. I haven't read it yet," I said, "it's next on my list of books to review."

"Huh," she said, putting the book face down on the floor, where I picked it up later and read the story in question, "Peggy."

If I was the cynical type, I thought, I'd think this was going to be a string of sentences all run together, all unified by the same centuries-old joke, "FAT WOMEN! BWAAA HA HA HA HA! SEX WITH FAT WOMEN IS HILARIOUS!" and feeling that that was enough to make the story funny and brilliant.

At her hotel, to which we necessarily took separate cabs, the first thing Peggie did was crack open, and inhale, the complete contents of a package of Mallomars. Then, from a utility-kitchen refrigerator, she retrieved and devoured (in exactly what order I don't recall) a container of chicken wings, a combo plate of tacos and an economy-size tub of Velveeta.)

Sigh. This is why cynics insist that they're not really cynics, they're just realists. It's less the subject matter that annoys me, although it's casual cruelty definitely does, and more the fact that I'm supposed to find the punchline hilarious even after I've heard it a million times. It's like The Aristocrats joke - the punchline isn't funny, so the set-up better be unique. It isn't. "Peggy," reads like a blog entry that's good enough to attract a decent amount of d00ds, but not good enough to be in book form. Think of Levin as a senior citizen version of Tucker Max, and that's pretty much what you get.

The title story is another womanizer who capitalizes on his vague resemblance to Dustin Hoffman and/or Al Pacino in order to pick up women. A short, dark haired guy with that nebulous ethnic look, he acquires a girlfriend with an IQ that hovers around room temperature who adores him. The girlfriend, who is saddled with the unfortunate name of Roger, speaks almost entirely in malapropisms.

Her father, she said, had been a profligator of languigistics at a presticated universalment but had quit his tender position and dissipated.

And so on.

Judging from other reviews I've read, men find these short stories side-splitting, but the sancimonious women's studies set has always been a tougher crowd, so what can I tell you? Other reviewers also found the story "Spinning on the Meat Wheel of Conception" - great title, by the way - to be one of the weaker entries, but I'm going to disagree again, because I think it was pretty strong. "Spinning" focuses on male anxiety regarding conception, again asking the age-old questions both men and women ask themselves, "Am I ready?", "Is this really what I want?", "Is my sex life going to be ruined?" These questions grow heavier in the nebbish-y Steve's mind, and at last his nerves are shot, resulting in a total ability to perform. This continues unabated until his wife, Connie, creatively solves the problem by making the night of contraception a night to remember by being unspeakably filthy. The yin and yang between the two, her strength when his is lost, his caution when she is reckless, form a perfect circle on which new life can begin.

And that's how you write a story. Having a fat woman eat Velveeta isn't enough.

"Spinning" made for a good lead-in to Levin's essays, which made up the second half of the book.

The essays raise the caliber of the book considerably. His theories regarding the ways religion and politics are used to ward off the fear of death have a strong ring of originality and genuine passion, making them more interesting by far. Others, in particular "Recycle This!" where he describes his aggravation with recycling and the absurdity of washing one's garbage, is a must-read. Also essential reading is Levin's 2003 essay "Redefining Insurance Fraud," where Levin battles insurance companies.

...most of the 45 million-plus Americans who go without insurance because they can't afford the premiums oppose the alternative of a not-for-profit system. It apparently hasn't occurred to them that there'd be no significant risk to capitalism in this solution. We've already got "socialized" institutions in this country - fire departments, for example - that hardly infringe on our freedom to take advantage of one another. A few more would still leave us with plenty of opportunities to exploit our fellow man.

(And speaking of a not-for-profit health care system, does anyone seriously think that dealing with a government bureaucracy would somehow be more brutal than dealing with Aetna, Prudential, or Oxford?)

Well, yeah. That's pretty much it.

When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot is a somewhat erratic collection, lending some truth to the title. When Levin's Hot, He's Hot. But when he's not, he's not.


by Robert Levin
January, 2008 by Drill Press LLC
Paperback, 109pp
ISBN: 061518765X

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china. He had china arms and china legs, china paws and a china head, a china torso and a china nose. His arms and legs were jointed and joined by wire so that his china elbows and china knees could be bent, giving him much freedom of movement.
His ears were made of real rabbit fur, and beneath the fur, there were strong, bendable wires, which allowed the ears to be arranged into poses that reflected the rabbit’s mood — jaunty, tired, full of ennui. His tail, too, was made of real rabbit fur and was fluffy and soft and well shaped.
The rabbit’s name was Edward Tulane, and he was tall. He measured almost three feet from the tip of his ears to the tip of his feet; his eyes were painted a penetrating and intelligent blue.
In all, Edward Tulane felt himself to be an exceptional specimen. Only his whiskers gave him pause. They were long and elegant (as they should be), but they were of uncertain origin. Edward felt quite strongly that they were not the whiskers of a rabbit. Whom the whiskers had belonged to initially — what unsavory animal — was a question that Edward could not bear to consider for too long. And so he did not. He preferred, as a rule, not to think unpleasant thoughts.
Edward’s mistress was a ten-year-old, dark-haired girl named Abilene Tulane, who thought almost as highly of Edward as Edward thought of himself.

Reader, did you know that The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is the newest book by Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn Dixie and the 2004 Newbery Award winner Despereaux?*

I’m starting to think this Kate person has a knack for writing children’s books or something.

I didn’t think she would be able to top Despereaux, and maybe Edward Tulane is better and maybe it isn’t, but Despereaux, for whatever reason, didn’t kick my ass as hard as Edward Tulane did.

Edward Tulane, as you may have surmised from the above excerpt, is a large china rabbit, a toy handcrafted especially for a wealthy little girl, Abilene. Abilene is very proud of Edward, and loves him with all her heart. Edward, however, does not feel the same way about her. In fact, he considers her expressions of love to be pointless and annoying, as it gets in the way of his narcissism. However, Abilene’s grandmother, Pelligrina, is onto him, and does not like the way he takes her granddaughter’s love for granted.

On the night before the Tulane family takes a voyage on the Queen Mary, Pelligrina tells Abilene and Edward a bedtime story about a princess who cannot love. The princess encounters a witch, who, after speaking with the princess for awhile, remarks, “You disappoint me.”

At the story’s conclusion, Pelligrina tucks Edward into bed, and whispers ominously into his large floppy ear, “You disappoint me.”

“I think that Grandma’s up to something,” remarked Christopher last night, and indeed she was. Edward ends up flying overboard the Queen Mary on the second day of their ocean voyage, and sinks to the bottom of the sea, where he remains for almost a year.

I usually read about three chapters of a book a night to Christopher, depending on the length of the chapters. One chapter for the Harry Potter books, as many as five for Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones. That night, we read ten chapters of Edward Tulane. Christopher fell asleep in the middle of chapter ten, but I left the light on and kept reading. Reader, I have never done this before.

After Christopher fell asleep, a storm stirred up the bottom of the ocean floor, and lifted Edward to the surface, where he was caught in a fisherman’s net. The fisherman takes the rabbit home and gives him to his wife, Nellie. Although Nellie mistakes Edward for a girl, renaming him Susannah, and sews him several pretty pink dresses, Edward surprises himself by not caring. Anything is better than being at the bottom of the ocean, he thinks. He stays with the elderly couple for a long time, sitting in a wooden high chair at the dinner table, looking up at the night sky with the fisherman, sitting on the kitchen counter with Nellie while she bakes, and begins to feel affection for them in his little china heart. But this idyllic time cannot last, and one day their brassy daughter Lolly comes to visit. Lolly is angered by the affection her parents are showing Edward, and throws him in the garbage.

He is taken to the city dump, and lies under a pile of garbage for 40 days, thinking about love, and repeating the names of the people who have loved him: Abilene, Nellie, Lawrence, Abilene, Nellie, Lawrence. Finally, he is dug up by a dog, Lucy, and dropped at the feet of her owner, a homeless man named Bull. Bull keeps Edward and renames him Malone, and soon Edward learns to ride the rails with the pair. When Bull and Lucy first show up at the hobo camps with Edward, the other hoboes make fun of Bull and his “dolly,” but when Bull doesn’t seem to mind the teasing, the hoboes begin to feel drawn to Edward.

Finally, one of the hoboes, Jack, asks if he can hold Edward. When Bull passes Edward over to Jack’s lap, Jack leans forward and whispers into Edward’s ear: “Helen...and Jack Junior and Taffy - she's the baby. Those are my kids' names. They are all in North Carolina. You ever been to North Carolina? It's a pretty state. That's where the are. Helen. Jack Junior. Taffy. You remember their names, okay, Malone?"

Soon all the hoboes are whispering the names of their children into his ears, and Edward understands, because he knows what it is like to repeat the names of the people in your life who have loved you and whom you have loved. Edward has become a very different sort of rabbit from the haughty and vain creature who once lived in the house on Egypt Street.

Here is where I started to cry, and I cried through every chapter and every new situation Edward found himself in. By the end, I was choking back sobs so loud I can’t believe I didn’t wake Christopher up. I have to tell you I’m sitting here at my desk at work typing this and I have big fat tears rolling down my cheeks right now! It’s horrible! I can’t help it! This book is killing me!

I finally turned off the light and tiptoed out of his room and downstairs. When I walked into the family room, Steve looked over at me and said with concern, “What’s wrong?!”

When I told him, he gave me the look you give people who have suddenly announced that they’re Napolean Bonaparte, and “What’s wrong?” became “What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to get through this story with the boys,” I sobbed, “I think you’re going to have to take over. We’re on Chapter 10.”

“I can’t believe,” he said, after I’d tearfully recapped the story for him, choking up so badly at parts I couldn’t even get the words out, “that after all the books you’ve read, you’re getting this upset about such a straightforward, old-fashioned story.”

He’s right, it is old-fashioned and straightforward. It's an old-fashioned book with beautifully old-fashioned illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, that are laid out in an old-fashioned way. It's just an old tale of a heartless little prince who goes on a grand journey and learns the importance of love. But as the poet says, it’s not the tale; it’s the way it’s told, and Kate DiCamillo told it in a way that broke my little china heart.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
By Kate DiCamillo
December, 2007 by Candlewick Press
228 pages, paperback
ISBN: 0763639877

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Sephora: The Ultimate Guide to Makeup, Skin, and Hair from the Beauty Authority

I don’t know what got into me. I begged the publicist to send me this book. It was like I was possessed by the spirit of some makeup obsessed teenager. Sephora!!!!!!!! Yay!!!!! Many emoticons of joy!!!!!! LOL!!!!

I don’t even wear makeup, really, and here I was doing backflips over this book like Santa Claus was going to bring me a giant box full of Sephora Products.

And then I finally got it, and I was all, Huh? What am I supposed to do with this?

It’s a giant ad for items sold by Sephora, with “tips from the pros” inserted between lovingly photographed bottles of tanning bronzer (a section to which the book devotes quite a bit of time.)

I’ve been taking it back and forth to work with me, staring at it and trying to come up with something to say about it that has any sort of meaning whatsoever, and I just can’t do it. However, the 25-year-old who sits in the cubicle next to me has been panting hot breath down the back of my neck for two weeks now, because she knows I bring duplicate copies of books I’ve been sent, or unsolicited books I’ve received that I know I won’t review, and I give them away.

I have the book sitting on my desk right now, with a Post-It with her name on it stuck to the cover. I’m going to put it on her desk before I leave and put us both out of our respective miseries. At least now the book can be with someone who will be all “Sephora!!!!!!!! Yay!!!!! Many emoticons of joy!!!!!! LOL!!!!” and really mean it.

Sephora: The Ultimate Guide to Makeup, Skin, and Hair from the Beauty Authority
By Melissa Schweiger
April, 2008 by Collins Living
Hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-146640-3

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