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review 2017-10-07 18:29
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello,Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I've been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it's been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both "Bartleby" and Billy Budd.

 

I began with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it's also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he "prefers not to." From this point he "prefers" not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.

 

Why does Bartleby "prefer not" to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.

 

The stories I liked next best were "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England--a lawyer's club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville's own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There's some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work. 

 

There are five other stories, but the last I'll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It's become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a "Handsome Sailor" who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he's pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

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review 2017-07-17 18:35
Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie
Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I'm struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it's packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band's steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It's necessarily sad yet not depressing--there's the humor, and there's wonder and hope. There's not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I've taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

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review 2017-07-12 15:02
The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert
The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She's 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn't have long to live.

 

This is not one of those novels of illness where there's redemption ahead or that's supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say "you can beat this thing" if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it's not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can't.

 

One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it's clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she's plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn't blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she's able to have any agency during her illness.

 

If this sounds grim, it's not, or not only! Dahlia's voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it's about gender.

 

The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I'm always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

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review 2017-02-05 17:54
American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
American Housewife: Stories - Helen Ellis

My first thoroughly enjoyable read of the year. Despite never having been a housewife (or wife, period) myself, I felt like this short story collection's ideal audience. There are plenty of films and books that cover similar ground--the details, drudgery, absurdity, and even darkness of being a housewife--but Ellis manages to make the content fresh through voice and form.

 

All the stories made me laugh out loud or grin sardonically, from the first, brief portrait of a modern housewife, to the email exchange between two passive aggressive--and then just aggressive--ladies occupying the same building (my favorite), to the Dumpster Diving with the Stars reality show. Some stories, like the first, are flash fiction and read like prose poems to me. Others are fuller, like the ending story about contemporary novel writing in the age of sponsorship and social media. In that story and others, the horror of aspects of our culture becomes real.

 

Satisfying and sharp-tongued (without looking down on its characters), this collection completely won me over from the start.

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review 2016-12-08 20:40
Kill the Boy Band, Goldy Moldavsky
Kill the Boy Band - Goldy Moldavsky

What an absolute riot this book was--when it wasn't breaking my heart.

 

If you've ever been a fan of anything (especially a teen girl fan) and participated in fandom, you will recognize these characters and some of their behavior. The lingo, the friendships borne of obsessing over the same band/show/books/whatever, the fanfic, the love-hate relationship between you and the object of your fannish devotion--Moldavsky captures it all in prose that made me laugh hard at least once a page.

 

The book is comic but blackly so. The protagonist (who goes unnamed, though she tells those who ask a variety of names from 80s movies) and her three fellow fans, including her pretty and popular best friend, "accidentally" kidnap the least popular member of fictional British boy band The Ruperts (all named, you guessed it, Rupert). Things quickly spiral out of control, and the protagonist, who's "the sensible one," struggles to get a grip on the situation and defy her friends, about whom she realizes some unsettling things. That's where the heartbreak comes in. She has recently lost her father, and her Ruperts obsession has clearly become her lifeline. By the end of the book she's doubting her own sanity.

 

The author represents fandom lovingly and fairly, including its downsides: using fandom as a crutch, feeding on fame as a fan rather than the object of your devotion, fandom's temporality--some day you won't care or will be embarrassed. As a fan myself, I can't say I was ever offended; I enjoyed the accurate portrayal and the nuances of fan interactions and feelings that the author captures so well. I love that she doesn't define every bit of fannish jargon (e.g. "stans/stanning"), though it's always clear from context. I love that each girl has her favorite Rupert and role as a fan in a group of fannish friends (the leader, the one with connections, the one with money and access), and that The Ruperts feel like a fully realized band and fandom, complete with a secretly gay member who's dating a girl as a beard. Social media plays a central role, but it's not overdone.

 

This book is fun and demented and worth a read even if you don't think of yourself as particularly fannish. Best of all, it doesn't put the girls down for being fans.

 

If nothing else, you will laugh hysterically at what's in Apple's suitcase...

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