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  • Jeff Somers 7:30 pm on 2017/05/24 Permalink
    Tags: book reviews, , , diaries, , , ,   

    10 Hilarious, Remarkable, and Poignant Moments in David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding 

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    The humor of David Sedaris is often so understated it feels perfectly naturalistic, as if he’s simply making up droll anecdotes off the top of his head. But Sedaris worked at his craft for decades, and often despaired of ever succeeding at the writing game.

    This struggle is at the center of Sedaris’ new book, Theft by Finding, a collection literally taken from the diaries he has kept for more than forty years. Unvarnished, these entries offer up plenty of interesting and funny moments, some of which also serve as launchpads for his famous essays. Here are just ten moments in Theft by Finding (which ends in 2002, with a second volume to follow) that are alternatively hilarious, touching, and thought-provoking.

    Rapid-Fire Wit
    In the introduction, Sedaris interrupts a thoughtful rumination on the process of keeping a diary: “The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. That me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated?”

    At the bottom of the page, a footnote addresses what Sedaris hilariously imagines is the gravest sin admitted to in that paragraph: “I do not think The Wire was overrated.”

    The Banality of Evil
    Sedaris encounters all manner of freaks, weirdos, and oddballs, especially during his penniless days working odd jobs and obsessing over money. He never fails to make these moments count by injecting them with sophisticated humor. “Jews in concentration camps had shaved heads and tattoos,” he writes at one point about a skinhead in Chicago, “you’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.”

    Mistakes, He’s Made a Few
    One of the most remarkable aspects of reading Sedaris’ diary entries is how much we already know about his low moments and bad habits. Early on, in one of the first glimpses of his drug-fueled youth, he writes “Todd and I each took three hits of sugar cube acid. Too much. It was a real bad trip, like torture, enough to turn someone into a Christian.”

    The Time Machine
    Another fascinating aspect of Theft by Finding is literally traveling back in time through Sedaris’ writing. This comes through as both throwaway lines that remind us of zeitgeists past (“No matter where you go, you cannot escape the Bee Gees”) and devastating moments that call to mind what we have survived (in July 1981, Sedaris writes, “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard about it on the radio tonight.”)

    The Heartbreak Kid
    Part of Sedaris’ appeal is the sad-sack aspect of his persona; he encounters the sort of terrible people we’re all far too familiar with—and he manages to turn his anger and hurt into savage humor, as in this line about a duplicitous lover named Brant he meets as a young man: “During sex he kept telling me that he loved me and wanted to get married, presumably in the next five weeks before he returns to Norfolk for the Summer.”

    He drops the hammer in the next entry: “I called the number Brant gave me, and it was made up.”

    Self-Awareness for the Win
    While it’s possible these entries have been edited and massaged more than we know, they remain remarkably clear-eyed. After the subject of attempting sobriety after being “drunk every night for the past eighteen years” comes up, Sedaris adds in this two-sentence entry: “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.”

    Days of Future Past
    It’s thrilling when kernels of Sedaris’ formal work pop up in his diaries—you can almost see the wheels turning, as when he alludes to his time at SantaLand: “Yesterday a woman had her son pee into a cup, which of course tipped over. ‛That’s fine,’ I said, ‛but Santa’s also going to need a stool sample.’”

    Substance Humor
    The diary never treats Sedaris’ drinking and drug abuse in a melodramatic way, and it’s often the source of some of the book’s funniest bits, as when he describes the suffering of a hungover friend: “You’d think an adult would know better: beer on wine, you’re fine. Wine on beer, stand clear. But eleven Prosecco cocktails should not precede anything, not even a twelfth.”
    These are, it goes without saying, words to live by.

    Full Heart
    It’s not all jokes and skinheads; Sedaris also celebrates life’s incredible moments along the way, as when he first meets his future husband, Hugh: “I…got him to say that he hated me, which usually means the opposite….When I turned around to look at him, I saw that he’d turned around as well. It was romantic.”

    Simple Hilarity
    No matter how serious life gets, though, Sedaris can’t help but be funny, so let’s just include three random moments of hilarity we loved:

    “Talked to Rodrigo, who uses camebackir as a verb meaning ‛to come back.’ Nosotros comebackamos. ‛We come back.’”

    “Tiffany…is living in Queens and selling cocaine to make money. Before this she worked at Macy’s for a Belgian chocolate company. I think hers is what you call a checkered career.”

    “It turned out they were a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is better than being a pair of thieves, but still.”

    Theft by Finding is a surprising and unique work, the raw experiences of one of our most accomplished humorists and writers laid bare for our amusement and inspection. It’s also almost novelistic in the story of a life that it paints, slowly revealing themes, recurring characters, and a narrative drive that mirrors Sedaris’ development as a human being and an artist. In a word, it’s terrific.

    Shop all literary biography >

    The post 10 Hilarious, Remarkable, and Poignant Moments in David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 1:52 pm on 2017/03/29 Permalink
    Tags: , book reviews, , , , , , truth teller   

    In Nevertheless, Alec Baldwin Makes His Brand Brutal Honesty 

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    On the third page of Alec Baldwin’s unvarnished new memoir, Nevertheless, he startles you with this: “I’m not actually writing this book to discuss my work, my opinions, or my life…I’m writing it because I was paid to write it.” That’s all the heads up you get that this isn’t your typical memoir. Yes, Baldwin does discuss his opinions, his work, and his life, but where memoirs often selectively reveal details designed to support a “branded” version of the author, Baldwin barrels through stories about his life with a raw intensity that really is “warts and all.” It’s a fascinating ride through a fascinating life and brain, and as you read you slowly begin to realize Baldwin isn’t hiding anything—nothing is off limits, even when it doesn’t make the revered actor look great.

    Childhood Miseries
    His statement about writing the book for money prefaces a lengthy section about his childhood growing up on Long Island, where his family’s continual lack of money caused immense stress in his home life. Baldwin’s descriptions of his childhood and teenage years are alternately heartbreaking and surprising. He describes his difficult early relationship with his mother, who struggled to accept the path her life took and an increasingly distant husband, and his complex relationship with his father, who was often shut off from his family emotionally. He talks about his early realization that he needed to earn money in order to do the things he wanted, and how that shaped—and harmed—his acting career. Most remarkably, he talks about going through his teenage years in a sort of haze, with almost zero memory of high school, of football practices, of anything.

    His Career
    Baldwin is compulsively self-deprecating about his skills as an actor. He frequently describes costars as brilliant and awe-inspiring, while considering his own work to be competent at best—and usually elevated by the amazing people around him. His acting career almost seems to have happened largely by accident; he was offered a role in a soap opera without even really trying, got an agent as a result, and within a few years is in California was being offered development deals by TV networks. Baldwin’s open about his insecurities—and about the bad decisions he made, largely for paychecks, that he now believes helped kill his chances to be a leading man. It’s rare for a hugely successful celebrity to admit they have so many regrets, and Baldwin’s honesty is thrilling.

    Inside Baseball
    Baldwin walks us through some of the more exciting moments in his professional career, too. He discusses being pushed out of the Jack Ryan movies after The Hunt for Red October, describing how he was outmaneuvered by a studio that wanted Harrison Ford’s box office pull (and Baldwin’s description of Ford is hilariously insulting). He also discusses the time he was sued by the studio while making the film The Edge with Anthony Hopkins, and his experience at Kim Basinger’s side when she was sued for breach of contract over Boxing Helena. And peppered between those big stories are a hundred smaller anecdotes—about working with specific people and the often dismaying day to day business of working in film, television, and theater. Through it all Baldwin is remarkably generous—most of his collaborators are described in glowing terms, and he falls in love with every other actor, actress, producer, or writer he meets. Baldwin name-checks plenty of below-the-line folks who are often forgotten in memoirs like this one, and doesn’t shy away from telling stories about producers who came on to him when he was a young actor, or giving us a brutally depressing blow-by-blow about the time he overdosed on cocaine and his struggles with sobriety ever since. He digs into his public mistakes, from the infamous voicemail he left his daughter, Ireland, to his often violent run-ins with photographers and tabloid reporters. In each, he offers explanations, but no excuses.

    The Big Picture
    Every life is a matrix of relationships, and Baldwin goes all in on both his marriage to Kim Basinger and where he thinks it went wrong, and touches on the bitter divorce battle that ensued and his positions on father’s rights and how he thinks the modern court system is broken—but only touches on them, because he has gone into much greater (and equally honest) detail on both in his book A Promise to Ourselves. He’s also surprisingly candid about his political stance and aspirations, referring several times to his desire early in life to go into politics, and admitting that he still contemplates running for office and has been approached in the past, most notably about running for mayor of New York City.

    Most remarkably, Baldwin uses one of his book’s last chapters to go into detail about his political beliefs and his experiences as an activist, a fundraiser, and an operative over the last few decades—a chapter that seems to be heading toward a major revelation as he builds the case that he has been plugged-in and politically active. Then he pulls back to ruefully discuss the most recent election and how he reacted to it. His concluding chapters discuss second chances, because Alec Baldwin is clearly a man who understands that he’s made many mistakes, and isn’t completely certain he deserves another shot.

    That sort of brutal honesty makes this one of the most remarkable memoirs you’ll read. Read it for the stories about working with Al Pacino, read it for the observations about the art of acting, or just read it for the hilarious joke that gives the book its title, or to find out what music will be played at Alec Baldwin’s funeral.

    Nevertheless hits shelves April 4, and is available for pre-order now.

    The post In Nevertheless, Alec Baldwin Makes His Brand Brutal Honesty appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ester Bloom 7:15 pm on 2016/11/28 Permalink
    Tags: book reviews, , ,   

    Michael Chabon enchants with Moonglow 

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    It’s unusual for an author to cheerfully refer to his own 400+ page novel as a “pack of lies,” as Chabon does in the Acknowledgements section of his new book Moonglow. But Chabon is an unusual author in many respects. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for propulsive literary epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he has pushed the boundaries of traditional fiction, trying his hand at experiments of genre, voice, and tone. With Moonglow, he attempts something new and possibly even more radical: he creates a work of “fictional nonfiction” out of what purports to be the story of his own family.

    Moonglow takes us back several generations to the so-called “greatest” one. The true-ish story it tells is not about Chabon himself but about his maternal grandfather, who, as the book begins, lies dying of cancer. As author/narrator Chabon feeds the old man Jell-o, he simultaneously pumps him for stories. And so he learns the tale of his grandfather’s remarkable life, starting in a rundown, working-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, ending in a ritzy retiree community in Florida, and ranging through setpieces of war, suburbia, office life, and prison. As you might expect, Chabon learns much more than he expected to about his family, and about himself.

    Are these increasingly baroque details of his past believable? Maybe. Why not? As history never tires of reminding us, truth is stranger than fiction.

    At times while telling his grandfather’s story, Chabon is digressive, and at other times, too enthusiastic; see: his zeal for capturing his grandfather’s sexual feelings towards women in general and Chabon’s grandmother in particular. And he zigzags through time in a way that ignores the wisdom laid out in Alice in Wonderland (“Start at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”).

    Still, the novel is overwhelmingly effective at what it sets out to do. First and foremost, that is to tell the complicated story of a brilliant, introverted engineer who starts out as an odd but well-meaning kid and ends up the adopted father of an odd but well-meaning kid of his own—the daughter of the beautiful, broken European refugee he falls in love with, and shapes the rest of his life around, after World War II.

    Chabon’s grandfather is a magnetic character, and a complicated one. He’s a war hero and a felon. An observer and a brawler. He’s also an obsessive whose life is animated by furious rivalries. Some of these are pedestrian: he feuds with his no-goodnik brother Ray and, later, a pet-eating wild snake in Florida. Others are loftier, even noble: he tracks the Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun across the bombed-out battlegrounds of Germany, only to encounter him decades later, under very different circumstances, near Ft. Lauderdale. But his life is also animated by real tenderness, and not just for the members of his family but for his enemies, too.

    Moonglow‘s other mission is to complicate our relationship to the stories we tell to and about each other and ourselves. At one point during Chabon’s conversations with his grandfather, the old man loses his temper and tells his grandson to stop trying to make an accumulation of “dates, and names, and numbers” add up to a satisfying narrative, one that could help Chabon make sense of their lives. Just as scientists tried and failed to explain the Challenger explosion, Chabon’s grandfather says, “‘The answer was always going to be dates, and names, and numbers….the point was to find out. The meaning was in the inquiry.'”

    Helped out by an unlikely discovery in the flood-damaged boxes in an old therapist’s estate, Chabon does end up with an explanation of sorts for the equivalent of the Challenger explosion in his own history (his grandmother’s madness). It is an explanation fuller than any his grandfather himself ever received; but like many explanations, it still prompts more questions than it answers. That’s okay. The meaning is in the inquiry. Besides, as Chabon has put it together, this inquiry is well-written, engrossing, and emotional. Its professed loyalties may be to the moon, but, like one of his grandfather’s beloved rockets, and like one of his grandmother’s beloved episodes of arson, this story manages to astonish while shedding both light and heat.

    Shop all new releases

    The post Michael Chabon enchants with Moonglow appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 5:00 am on 2016/10/11 Permalink
    Tags: book reviews, , , ,   

    Joel Osteen’s New Book is a Blast of Positivity 

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    Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, is one of the most recognizable—and popular—religious figures in the country today. His “megachurch” in Lakewood attracts more than 50,000 worshippers every weekend, the televised services have audiences of more than 20 million worldwide, and he has already written eight bestselling books. For nearly 20 years, Osteen has forged a unique identity as a Protestant preacher who focuses on optimism and positivity. As Osteen himself put it, “Most people are beaten down enough by life. They already feel guilty enough….So I want them to come to Lakewood or our meetings and be lifted up.”

    That positive message is reinforced in Osteen’s new book, Think Better, Live Better. Osteen offers not just platitudes about our purpose and seeing the bright side of things, but a spiritual roadmap that even those who aren’t particularly religious can use. The most surprising aspect of Osteen’s new book, in fact, is how practical it is. Whether you’re familiar with his preaching style and message or not, whether you consider yourself religious or not, Think Better, Live Better has a simple and effective lesson that’s both refreshing and useful.

    Our Mind is Like a Computer
    The concept of the power of positive thinking isn’t new, and Osteen doesn’t pretend it is. What’s new in his book is the concise way he boils it down. The first line of the book lays it out: “Our mind is like a computer.” Osteen makes the argument that our minds are like software. And just as software can be infected with a virus and “contaminated,” so can our thoughts. We come to accept things like our limitations or our failures, and these negative concepts about ourselves spread until every part of us is bogged down, running slow, crashing.

    Delete the Negatives
    Osteen’s advice here seems simple: delete those negative thoughts—literally, when you find yourself thinking something negative, stop and assert the opposite to yourself. If someone applies a negative label to you, don’t accept it—remove it, mentally, and replace it with something more positive. While Osteen roots all of his advice and insight in scripture, this deceptively simple advice goes beyond religion. What he’s saying, basically, is that we often allow other people to control our “program.” We let what they say about us and do to us affect us far beyond the immediate effect. He cites the example of bullied kids who experience negative effects well into middle age, pointing out that something said to them when they were children still holds them back decades later—when in reality they were just words from other people.

    A Guide
    Osteen doesn’t, however, pretend breaking these patterns and removing these labels and negative thoughts is simple or easy. Part of the appeal and power of his message is the acknowledgement that work must be done. Unlike preachers who tell their followers all they must do is pray, Osteen writes that God has given everyone the “right software,” but it’s up to us to use it properly. The bulk of this book is a guide to deleting these negatives and replacing them with positives, mainly through a series of positive assertions about yourself. Over the course of the book Osteen offers various techniques; for example, he suggests that everything we take in is a seed—some of these seeds will take root and grow into destructive weeds, others into wonderful opportunities. It’s up to us, he says, to choose which ones to water and which to rip out. It’s a simple concept with potentially powerful effects.

    The Cheerleader
    One thing about Joel Osteen that has fueled his success is that he’s not simply blindly cheerful; he uses positivity with skill and purpose. Reading this book could have been like listening to a lecture, a series of admonitions that you’re “doing it wrong.” Osteen avoids this by filling his book with powerful statements of faith—in you. His overall message is that you are amazing, you have all the tools you need to succeed, and you have a great life ahead of you, if only you can get to work deleting negatives and seeing the positives all around you. These bumps of energy encourage you to keep reading, keep working, and keep moving toward your goal.

    The Personal Touch
    Osteen references God and the scripture frequently, but you don’t need to share his faith or specific beliefs to benefit from this book. That’s because he also draws on his own life, and his own failings. Often in the book he’ll illustrate a point by reflecting on an earlier time in his own life and how he could only move past a blockage or a problem when he removed negatives, or realized he already had what he needed to move forward. This gives the book an intimate aspect that anyone, from any background, can identify with.

    The bottom line: Think Better, Live Better is a blast of positivity anyone who finds themselves struggling will benefit from. It not only offers a moment of comfort in the midst of the storm, it also outlines a way forward—and that’s something everyone needs from time to time.

    The post Joel Osteen’s New Book is a Blast of Positivity appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ester Bloom 6:40 pm on 2016/09/13 Permalink
    Tags: book reviews, , , ,   

    Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder Will Make You Believe 

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    As award-winning author Emma Donoghue made clear in her breakthrough novel Roomshe is a master of tight spaces: both the physically cramped confines of a single small area in which a woman and her young child are held prisoner, and the inside of a character’s mind. With her latest novel, The Wonder, set mostly in a small cottage in a rural, poverty-stricken town in 1800s Ireland, Donoghue revisits some of the literal and psychological terrain she has explored in earlier works, with fresh, surprising results.

    Room was noteworthy in part because it so ably captured a child’s point of view without being precious or twee, and, even once its premise was made clear, without piling on salacious detail for the sake of shocking readers. But the book became a hit because, at a time when much of realist literature suffered from an almost fatal self-seriousness, it refused to be cynical, slow-moving, or depressing: Donoghue rewarded readers’ investment in her characters with a thrilling escape attempt and a happy, though still complex and believable, ending.

    Here she takes up that pattern again. Donoghue’s philosophy seems to be that a story does not need to be dour to be important, and that change is always possible. Even within the most desperate situation, if there’s life, there’s hope.

    When The Wonder beginsthat there is life, or rather that it will continue, is by no means certain. English nurse Lib Wright, who trained and served under Florence Nightingale herself, has been called to examine and oversee an Irish girl named Anna O’Donnell, whose family says she has been existing without food. To an effusive local doctor and other residents of her village, who have so recently survived famines and plagues, she is perhaps a saint and certainly an inspiration. To the skeptical Lib, however, Anna’s a pious faker whose deception needs to be uncovered.

    At first, Donoghue deploys the contrasts with a heavy hand. Lib is experienced, while the countryside is provincial. Lib is fixedly secular, the countryside oppressively religious. Lib is pointed forward toward progress and science, the countryside pointed backward toward tradition and superstition. Each entity is as hostile to the other as a cat in an alley. A reader familiar with Diana Gabaldon may half expect the townspeople to start muttering curses at the “Sassenach” in their midst.

    Yet Anna herself, despite being the golden child of her neighborhood—and, as her fame spreads, of Ireland as a whole—is not a distillation of her community’s values. She is her own person, a kindhearted and quick-witted individual who enjoys riddles and the natural world, and, it transpires, Lib’s company. She is artless, and her artlessness disarms even her battle-hardened nurse.

    Anna, Lib realizes, is no Abigail Williams, a young woman intent on destruction because she has nothing to lose, using religious fervor as her tool because she has access to no other. In fact, Anna is neither Lib’s enemy nor the proper target of her investigative powers. Someone else is. But who?

    As Lib delves deeper into the mystery of how and why Anna seems to be existing without food, Anna’s health begins to fail, and Lib realizes she is racing against time as well as a power structure that may not care if one girl dies, so long as certain myths and assumptions are maintained. Lib gets an unlikely assist from a good-natured and intelligent reporter up from Dublin, who represents a more modern Ireland; he helps infuse the last quarter of the book with sexual tension as well as some real momentum.

    Superficially, The Wonder could be read as anti-Catholic, or even perhaps anti-religion in general. Lib arrives impatient with repetitive Latin ritual and with the ineffectual village priest, as well as the nun helping her watch Anna. She only becomes more impatient as Anna declines and people of faith don’t act. But Lib is not always as “right” as her name would suggest: she has a lot to learn, from her charge and about life itself. And whether or not Anna’s interpretation of scripture is misguided, it is earnest, even inspiring.

    Anna’s religiosity also seems, at least in part, to echo the philosophy of the author. Donoghue is well-acquainted with the cruelty of man and the unfairness of fate, but in her wise, humane, and lovely books, as in traditional Catholic belief, the one unforgivable sin is despair.

    The Wonder is on sale September 20, and available for pre-order now.

    The post Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder Will Make You Believe appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

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