Reviews in 200 Words

Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Brown by Richard Rodriguez

In Nonfiction on December 19, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Brown is a study. It is less of a narrative than it is an image of refracted light, an examination of angles. Not to offend Rodriguez—associating him immediately with an artistic movement pioneered by a Spaniard may concern the author. This concern stems from the tendency, which he argues is particularly American, to evaluate and categorize people by race and color. Brown champions a refreshingly poetic approach to conservative values of individualism and liberty—a kind of thoughtfulness that may disorient rather than provoke those of a more liberal compulsion. Rodriguez’s writing can be acrobatic, and his mind can wander from Toqueville to Nixon, Lucille Ball to Castro, Ralph Lauren to Thoreau, capturing their significance pertaining to the American discussion on race. Do Hispanics exist? The answer is more complex than you might imagine, and it is just this uncertainty, this ambivalence, this mixture of feeling to which the book’s title playfully alludes. This is fine writing, and the author has his experience to thank, whether the memories are of a trip to his blonde friend’s affluent prep school or simply standing in line for a burrito in a Chinese neighborhood. This slipperiness of identity is the point: you can’t pin him down.

-Chris Noel

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Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

In Memoir, Nonfiction on October 24, 2011 at 6:24 pm

One may initially be attracted to Richard Rodriguez’s memoir as the author’s face plastered on the asymmetrical cover looks not to the observer, but to the side, contemplative and anxious, as if wondering if such frank and private thoughts belong in the public sphere at all. Crack it open. Turn that doubting expression to the table. After all, Rodriguez seeks affirmation, whether through his family, his church, his race, his school, and most importantly, through himself. Only a scholarship boy, a term of no endearment for Rodriguez, can adequately and fairly handle a subject which fills even himself with great ambivalence—the mutability of the first generation immigrant. He is constantly torn between his roots and his trajectory in every capacity, and although his struggles as a Mexican boy in California in the middle of the 20th century are enlightening in their specificity, they remain even more so in their universality. Even his words are distinctly conflicted, his crystalline prose unable to dismiss the romanticism and importance of his own family’s language. Trapped between comfort and ambition, privacy and acceptance, the new and the old, Rodriguez finds fulfillment the only way an insecure academic can: writing. He corners his past and allows us to intrude.

-Chris Noel

Four For a Quarter by Michael Martone

In Fiction, Nonfiction on October 11, 2011 at 1:31 am

This is like a Magic Eye poster. Squint or stand back and suddenly you’re blown away (like candles on a cake). Everything fits like a puzzle, with pieces you didn’t know existed. Martone is like a wizard of language. Maybe wizard is the wrong word: it seems offensive; fortune-teller of language? At least that has a “for” in it. It’s like a 7 (or even a 4)-layer dip. It’s like a club sandwich. It’s like a wedding cake. You just can’t believe that it’s so perfectly stacked. But these are more than riddles: they’re more than, “how many 4’s can I fit into this thing?” It’s as tight as Shakespeare’s drama. You won’t get annoyed with 4’s, you’ll realize that, “Holy (four-letter-word), fours really are all around us.” You’ll realize, life is sometimes sad. The world works in a way that has us skipping along not noticing 4’s or anything else. But then something sticks, like the day you broke up–stuck like a photo-booth photo. This is a list that explains everything: the whole history of writing, language, life, loss, an awful lot about nuts, and Susans. It says “Literature/Fiction” on the back of this book, but it’s pretty packed with truth.

-Micah Ling

Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw

In Nonfiction on August 19, 2011 at 3:23 am

Dogs are not wolves. They don’t want to dominate you and your household and every earthly thing. The prevailing wolf-dog theory, Bradshaw says, doesn’t jibe with history. For 100,00 years, the dogs that cuddle, retrieve, protect, and beg the best have been rewarded with spots in our homes. Their progeny thrived and outlasted their ill-mannered cousins. The result? Dogs love us. Hard. Dog Sense cites a growing body of scientific research to support this surprisingly sentimental thesis. And the feeling is mutual. Millennia of companionship distilled a dog-human affection like bourbon, sweet and strong. Among millions of species, only one has crossed into human life so completely that we expose to it our vulnerable selves–and even our children. Dogs love people more than anything else, even other dogs. A dog yelps when his owner leaves for an afternoon, but not when his dog friend dies. This is because dogs’ survival depends on humans, not canines. Their biological imperative is to remain in human custody; and thus they study us, looking for clues about how to win our trust. Hunting and protective skills are now vestigial.  The modern dog earns its keep by stoking the soul and salving the human condition.

-Katy Welter

Bossypants by Tina Fey (audiobook)

In Memoir--Reviewed by Katy Welter, Nonfiction on July 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm

A book containing the words speculum and menarche, unless it’s gynecological, is written for women. Listening to Fey tell about girlhood through motherhood is pure delight: it’s like recounting your most embarrassing moments over a bottle of wine with your sister. You’ll laugh loudly on public transit, nodding yes, yes. But as much as it celebrates women, Bossypants is an homage to men—Lorne Michaels, Alec Baldwin, and one bad motherfucker, Don Fey.  Fey laments women’s low status in show business, and yet repeatedly underestimates herself. Like her famous doppleganger, Sarah Palin, Fey is celebrated in part because her gender is under-represented in her field .  Also like Palin, Fey’s success is indebted to men. Lorne Michaels chose her to be an SNL writer, to co-host Weekend Update, and to pitch a primetime television show of her own. She insists 30 Rock exists because of Alec Baldwin moreso than her. Fey feigns ordinariness and, if you’re still holding out hope for your own launch into stardom, then you might buy her plain Jane routine. Otherwise, you’ll just wish that she, like too many women you know, would own her talent and solemn determination—and bossypants—without qualification or apology.

-Katy Welter

A Brain Wider Than the Sky by Andrew Levy

In Nonfiction on June 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Humans are so fantastically fragile. When things are going the way they should, we’re immortal. But tiny things can go wrong: microscopic brain things that set everything off. Perhaps what’s more remarkable about our fragility, is that we learn to cope–to endure and work around and sometimes cure the tiny things that set our bodies and minds into chaos. We make ritual of pain. The pain is innocent. It can’t help itself. We can only help ourselves–we can only name things and liken them to other things and try to understand them. And the things we don’t understand–the things we have a history of not understanding–those things have a way of not changing. The migraine headache: Levy puts this thing–this ailment–that we haven’t found a way to figure out, into remarkable clarity. He’s a writer, and a thinker. This is like the weather, it’s like fear, and every injury you can imagine. None of this is truth, of course, because none is the absolute experience. But, there’s a great deal of understanding here–a great deal of acceptance–Levy shows us the ropes, and we all hope they never seem familiar.

-Micah Ling

Cultural Encyclopedia of LSD by Wayne Glausser

In Nonfiction on May 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Who doesn’t want to talk about LSD? Whether you’ve dropped acid or not, everyone is generally familiar with the stories and the popular LSD characters (Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hunter). But this drug has quite a history–quite a spectrum of reputation. And there are the lesser-known users (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Phil Jackson, Cary Grant). The drug has done everything from prepare Oscar winning actors for tough roles, to being blamed for the Charles Manson vision; everything from medical aid to CIA experimentation. It is remarkable to go from Zen Buddhist experiences and great influences in the arts to crazed and horrific crimes. During the counterculture psychedelic era, commercials started taking part; McDonald’s, Seven Up, and Campbell’s Soup, among other products, specifically focused their campaigns on “tripping” with certain products. In the 60’s, tests were done on spiders and how LSD affected web building. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was the most popular rock song of the psychedelic era. All of these entries are interesting; in fact, you get kind of addicted to reading them. You get more and more curious. One entry is connected to another, and you’re flipping pages until you feel like you haven’t blinked in quite a long time.

-Micah Ling

Speak My Name edited by Don Belton

In Essay Collections, Nonfiction on April 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Speak Don Belton’s name–say it out loud–today, more than ever. This is about being black. It’s about being a man in America. A collection of first-hand accounts–a collection of voices. This is about Don Belton. Honest, raw, giving what needs to be seen and heard. So, listen to this stuff–this that our nation was tragically built on. Get choked up on the predictions made–a little scared for the way things repeat themselves. There are certain myths and tragedies that seem inescapable. Belton is guide; he wants so badly to understand the circle. He wants so badly to make a difference, maybe change things. There is always violence in being a son and a father and a man. There is always tension and confusion. There are always lessons that just cannot be learned; but at the end of it, does that mean we should stop teaching? This is about oppression, for sure. It’s also about sexuality and dialogue and communication. In retrospect, this book–these lessons–are more true now than ever before. In retrospect, these essays are telling the past, the present and the future.

-Micah Ling

The man who murdered Don Belton was convicted today.

Inferno (a poet’s novel) by Eileen Myles

In Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry on February 18, 2011 at 4:34 am

It’s almost porn. This reads like prose broken into poems. Or a prose poem broken into stanzas.  Or a thing that doesn’t need a definition. This proves that artists just are: unplanned rebellion that seems obvious. This reads like people think: so many quick, witty moments that just get dismissed. And it is rooted in the Inferno; unbelievably, she’s rewritten it all. Re-captured it in an even better version. And she’s hilarious: the writer, the speaker, the fictional real Eileen Myles. Within a description that seems so much like prose, you’re sitting right in the middle of a poem. It’s all over the map. It’s aware of you, reader, and overly aware of writer. It’s better than reality TV; way better. No matter how you feel at the beginning, by the time you finish this, you will be convinced that the very elite on the spectrum of enlightenment, are lesbian poets. What more is there? Rejection abounds; and where there’s rejection, there’s an absolute artistic forte. There’s nothing like this; it’s honest the way a child is: because there’s no point in hiding things. It’ll make you laugh, for sure; it might also tie you up and make demands: submit.

-Micah Ling

The Best American Nonrequired Reading Ed. Dave Eggers

In Fiction, Nonfiction on February 10, 2011 at 3:49 am

Everything about nonrequired is pushing it; nonrequired isn’t even really a word–certainly it’s rebellious. And what we’re reading instead of doing something that we’re supposed to be doing, is very telling. The pieces here are important: more important than mainstream and mediocre. More important than breaking news and bestseller. This is back to the roots of writing: poetry for the sake of escape, reporting for the sake of understanding humanity, photography and graphics for the sake of translating the things that words cannot. Somehow, throughout these things that are so different, there is a common sense of drifting–searching, and moving, and rebelling. At the beginning of it all, David Sedaris questions poetry–wonders why we don’t all acknowledge its power; the rest of the collection questions writing and art in general–how is it that we don’t constantly realize how it’s saving our lives? We have more power than ever on the page: super power, magic power, healing power. Rules are broken here–color is put outside of the lines; and in the end, isn’t that what art is all about? The utter lack of requirement?

-Micah Ling