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I loved Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and I revere his own series, Master of None. The "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None is one of the best things I have ever seen on television. So I picked up Modern Romance with some enthusiasm.

In a classic Tom Haverford move, rather than just write the obligatory you-have-succeeded-as-a-comedian-on-TV book (Bossypants, Girl Walks Into a Bar, I'm Just a Person, Paddle Your Own Canoe, Self-Inflicted Wounds, The Bedwetter, Yes Please... yeah, it's a genre), Ansari teamed up with Stanford sociologist Eric Klinenberg to figure out both why technologically-mediated dating is such an unrelieved horror show and, reading between the lines, why Ansari was finding it difficult to meet a nice woman.

The resulting book reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in that it's as curious and interesting as it is funny. Ansari's quizzical sweetness shines especially in his reporting on the specific dating scenes in Buenos Aires, Doha, Paris and Tokyo.
In Japan, posting any pictures of yourself, especially selfie-style photos, comes off as really douchey. Kana, an attractive, single twenty-nine-year-old, remarked: “All the foreign people who use selfies on their profile pic? The Japanese feel like that’s so narcissistic.” In her experience, pictures on dating sites would generally include more than two people. Sometimes the person wouldn’t be in the photo at all. I asked what they would post instead.

“A lot of Japanese use their cats,” she said.

“They’re not in the photo with the cat?” I asked.

“Nope. Just the cat. Or their rice cooker.”

“I once saw a guy posted a funny street sign,” volunteered Rinko, thirty-three. “I felt like I could tell a lot about the guy from looking at it.”

This kind of made sense to me. If you post a photo of something interesting, maybe it gives some sense of your personality? I showed a photo of a bowl of ramen I had taken earlier in the day and asked what she thought of that as a profile picture. She just shook her head. OH, I GUESS I CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE TO THAT STREET SIGN DUDE, HUH?

For me, the most engaging part of the book was seeing insights that later ended up as jokes in Master of None. I endorse and seek to emulate this kind of creative reuse! As for meeting a nice woman, the gossip rags tell me that Ansari was in a relationship with pastrychef Courtney McBloom for a while, but they parted amicably last year. So it goes.
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(Content warning for child sexual abuse)

Samantha Irby is seriously funny in a way that, ironically, makes me frown and try to analyze exactly how she's pulling it off in such a sustained way. Part of it is that she is hashtag relatable as heck:

What I really wanted to do was pull a blanket over my head and listen to Pearl Jam’s No Code on repeat while eating snacks and pretending to be searching for myself all day (fuck, that’s all I want to fucking do now), but I couldn’t find anyone willing to pay for that shit.

Fifty out of the 168 hours of my week are spent mad because work is interfering with all the Internet articles I’m trying to read

Part of it is sheer discipline: tight writing with a point so sharp you almost won't feel it slide in.

You could tell how much the bride’s parents loved her by the quality of the food.

My parents, as I can’t stop reminding people, ARE DEAD.

So yeah, dizzying technical prowess and ferocious wit, but that's not even the thing. It's the writing on the deaths of her parents - unsparing, un-self-pitying - that will stay with you long after the last page. Get into Samantha Irby now, so that when she blows up into the megastar she's destined to be, you can say you knew her when.
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I loved the first essay in White Girls so much that I fully became that obnoxious person monologue-ing about the book I was reading while my poor friends were just trying to drink their pinot grigio in peace. Hilton Als is a staff writer and theatre critic at the New Yorker, and I think I was expecting an ironic, distanced New-Yorker-contributor voice like Peter Hessler's in River Town or Katherine Boo's in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, both of which I enjoyed very much. But Als writes like a man in love, about being a man in love, and that first essay especially just destroyed me.

By the time I met him and longed to be his wife, SL sometimes described himself as a lesbian separatist. No man could have him.... His gifts were road maps to our love, the valley of the unconditional.

The conceit of the title is that queer Black men are like white girls in all our fucked-up-ness and yearning for the full citizenship we are never granted. Ever since my first 50books challenge in 2009, it's been an article of faith for me that Black men and white women and people of color generally and queers of all stripes and all the others have no chance unless we make common cause, in the deep sense of seeking to understand one another's inner lives. To have that conviction reflected back to me is a true gift. I am inexpressibly grateful to this book and I press it into your hands.
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I am coming to the conclusion that I am a sucker for food in my young adult fantasy. Every time it turns up, I know I'm going to really like the book, and Tantalize was no exception.

This is an awesome novel - it's a fantastic blend of horror, romance, comedy, and also features some brilliant brilliant descriptions of Italian food, all set in Austin, Texas, which is where the author is from, I believe, and certainly she gives the book a real sense of place. The supernatural world she's created is also a little quirky, a bit different, but definitely holds together. Mild spoilers beneath the cut )

It's the first book in a sort of trilogy - Eternal and Blessed are set to follow - and I'm looking forward to reading them as well. This isn't deep literature, and I'm not sure if it counts as urban fantasy, young adult or paranormal romance, but it's a really fun, frothy, bouncy read and I'd totally recommend it.
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
I'm officially in love with Percival Everett, I think.

It started when I learned that he'd written a book called A History of the African American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told To Percival Everett and James Kincaid. My sense of humor is too cocked for me to not be drawn to such a long and ridiculous title. Benjamin Rosenbaum's similarly titled "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes', by Benjamin Rosenbaum" is among my favorite short stories, after all.

While I waited for that to arrive on Amazon, I picked another of his books up at the library.

35) I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett.

The title, in addition to being a strikingly on-the-nose sentiment, is possibly a spoof on Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, as the novel is also concerned in some sense with the evolving cultural mores of today's youth culture. The novel's title character is named Not Sidney Poitier, a curious moniker his mentally ill mother assigned to him for no clear reason we're ever given. It turns out that as he grows up, he begins to closely resemble his non-namesake, and Everett has Not Sidney endure a series of adventures that more or less directly parody famous Poitier movies.

The novel begins Shandyan, with a very funny and very peculiar narration of the narrator's birth. It ends Borgesian, with the lines between Not Sidney and Sidney blurring in almost ecstatic ways. And on almost any other book I was writing up for this community I would hesitate to make those comparisons, because I'm growing wary of making naive comparisons to white authors on this community, wary of slotting them into a paradigm where they're considered second class citizens. But among the questions Everett seems to be asking, particularly in a central passage where Not Sidney experiences Not Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, is what makes a particular narrative "white" or "black". What separates Dick from Delany, what separates Baldwin from Hemingway, what separates Sidney Poitier from Not Sidney Poitier, and what separates Not Sidney Poitier from billionaire Ted Turner, who has a hysterical turn here as Not Sidney's eccentric adoptive father figure. So it's vitally important that Everett run his novel up against Tristram Shandy and David Copperfield and The Metamorphosis, in addition to the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Sidney Poitier and the rest of his "black narratives". The result of this mishmash is a literature of suffering and hope, joyously combined.

36)Erasure by Percival Everett

All three novels of Everett's that I've read feature some form of self-insertion. In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett is a Morehouse professor who teaches a course on the Philosophy of Nonsense and offers Not Sidney all manner of entirely unhelpful and nonsensical advice. In A History of the African American People, Everett is a Berkeley professor contracted by Strom Thurmond to help set his thoughts down on paper. In Erasure, Thelonious Ellison (a name which in a way is the same as Not Sidney) is a middle class novelist and teacher who has just published a novel that parodies the post-modern literary establishment and is recognizably similar to Everett's Glyph in form and content.

Ellison takes a leave of absence from his teaching job at Berkeley after his sister is shot and he is left to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. In the interim, he sits down and writes a parody of one of the "ghetto novels" that has become so popular lately as epitomized by Push. Everett sets down 60 pages of the novel within the novel, an ebonics-laden tale of violence and drugs titled My Pafology.

The novel poses fascinating questions about authenticity as "My Pafology", retitled "Fuck", becomes a best-seller and wins the National Book Award. Everett is brutal and funny as he mocks Oprah, the literary establishment, liberal guilt, and our desire to find a fiction that somehow communicates the truth of human suffering.

37) A History of the African American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told To Percival Everett and James Kincaid by Percival Everett (and James Kincaid? I'm honestly not sure what Kincaid's contributions were, which is part of the point)

An epistolary narrative tracing the development of the titular historical memoir, from its conception in the blurry mind of a Thurmond aide through its development by a desperate Simon and Schuster editor and the bewildered ghostwriting undertaken by the team of Everett and Kincaid, writers in the Berkeley English department, one white and one black.

Unlike a lot of such parody novels, Everett doesn't supply you with any sort of anchoring character. Everyone you meet is just as poorly adjusted to society. They let their perversions, their foibles, their weaknesses drive them. Thurmond's aide misrepresents his relationship with his boss. The editor abuses his position of authority to make sexual advances on his assistant. Kincaid is obnoxiously overcareful to avoid offending his black colleague, while Everett abuses this deference for amusement and personal benefit.

And somehow, amid a cast of misshapen lunatics, serious thoughts begin to emerge about the nature of history and narrative, about the way we read the world around us. Somehow, misguided as he is, Strom Thurmond's insistence that he is more responsible for the history of the African-American people than anyone begins to teach us how to ask the right questions about who writes history and how they interpret it. The book shows when and how to question the historical canon, when and how to embrace minority opinions, asks whether it's ever necessary to decide on a definitive answer. And I have no idea how Everett does this. It's magic, how he finds form in his chaos.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
4. Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them

Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American woman who wants to grow up to become a writer, instead somehow finds herself getting a PhD in Russian literature. This collection of essays is about her graduate school experience (including endless questions on why she studies Russian literature instead of Turkish). Each of the essays focus on a particular moment in her studies: the trauma of attempting to help step up and run a conference, attending the quite strange International Tolstoy Conference in Russia despite the airline having lost her luggage, writing a paper on an ice palace in St. Petersburg, her relationship with another student. It's a very funny book, although unfortunately the essays don't hang together very well, and there's no sort of overall narrative. My favorite parts were the strange people she had to deal with, many of whom will probably sound familiar to anyone who has had to deal with academics.

In my opinion, the best essays were those dealing with the summer Batuman lived in Uzbekistan, in order to learn the language. You see, at her school PhD students are required to teach Russian 101 to undergraduates. However, as one of the few students who is not a native Russian speaker, Batuman is afraid to take on teaching this class, convinced that she'll make too many mistakes. So when she hears about an opportunity to teach Uzbek instead, she goes for it. Of course, she doesn't speak Uzbek, but neither does anyone else at the school, so they won't know if she messes up. And so she heads off to Uzbekistan for the summer. As you could probably guess, it does not work out as she expected.

A very funny book, although fairly forgettable. A fun read.
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
I'm on a bit of a post-modernism kick. These books are both very, very funny and very, very different.

33. The Last Days of Louisana Red by Ishmael Reed is an abstruse and yet very nasty piece of fiction. At its surface level, it's about a black family in Berkeley navigating the turmoil of the '60s. The four children of a divorced businessman find different paths to adulthood: ultimately, the story ends in over the top tragedy for three of them. Beneath this surface layer, there are metanarratives about white-black relations, male-female relations, what it means to be authentically black in America, the function and evolution of drama, and an assortment of other topics. The titular Louisana Red becomes, in Reed's hands, a powerful metaphor for black rage.

Reed throws around a lot of offensive language. There are a number of misogynistic rants that I found stomach-churning, and as a Jew I was thrown out of the book for a moment by one of his anti-semitic screeds, where the narrator labels the Jews "Pyramid Rock Toters" and accuses them of oppressing the blacks. I paused, closed the book, and debated whether I was willing to endure potentially more of the same, and eventually decided to continue. I'm still not sure this was the right decision. Reed's undeniably a gifted writer who has something to say. I'm just not sure I'm equipped to hear it.

34. Don Dimaio of La Plata by Robert Arellano (sometimes Roberto Arellano)

A mashup of Don Quixote and the story of corrupt former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, and it's even stranger than that sounds. Important characters in the novel include a cocaine-addicted gibbon on the lam and a talking toupee that navigates the astral plane.

The novel is full of sex, drugs, vulgarity, violence, abuse, and it's saved from all of that by a powerful sense of whimsy. Each section of the novel's narrative about Don "Pally" Dimaio, mayor of La Plata, is preceded by a punning reinterpretation of a passage from the Quixote. Sancho Panza becomes Pancho Sanchez, Dimaio's policeman chauffeur and bodyguard. The windmill turns into a a billboard that a cocaine-addled Dimaio insists is full of " 'ginas ". Dulcinella becomes a porn star named Dolly Dellabutta that Dimaio fantasizes about. It turns the whole affair deeply silly, and had me giggling hysterically through the whole thing.

Frankly, though, the book is worth it for the beautiful cover alone.

a: reed ishmael, a: arellano robert,
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
14) The Vendor of Sweets by R.K. Narayan is pretty cool. I picked it up because I realized I know less than nothing about Indian literature and now seems a good time to try to start fixing that. Any recommendations would be appreciated.

The Vendor of Sweets is about a father and a son, trying to bridge an impossible generational gap. The father, in his youth one of Gandhi's Satyagrahi, is the titular vendor of sweets, a man who in his post-rebellion years has become a moderately successful businessman by refusing to acknowledge the contradictions between his Gandhian ideals and his desire to succeed in his community. The son, alienated from his community by aspirations of greatness, seeks to become first a novelist and then, after a sojourn in America, a manufacturer.

The novel is short, simple, and affecting. At first. It presents itself sentimentally, but then resolves instead in a surprising and farcical finale, after dabbling in Marquez-style magical realism in the middle. It is a book that appears to be one thing on first glance but which quickly unfolds confusing new layers.

I'm not sure how happy I am with that farce ending. In reflecting, I think it's the most honest ending the book could have, but one doesn't go to literature for the purest honesty. Generally, I want my literature to be aspirational, and The Vendor of Sweets doesn't offer much in that direction, except the invocation of the father's misguided (and therefore gently-mocked) sense of integrity in the novel's last lines.

Then again, if a comedy is supposed to end in a wedding... I definitely don't want this story's proposed wedding to happen. I guess Narayan is better off treating The Vendor of Sweets as that odd sort of comedy that ends in divorce.
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
12) All About H. Hatterr by G. V. Desani

I cannot rave about this book enough. It's absolutely wonderful. It's in the Everyman novel tradition, but there is something unique about Hatterr even within this tradition.

H. Hatterr is half-European, half-Malay and 100% patsy. He grows up in India amidst a mishmash of conflicting ideologies- British colonial influences, Indian traditional influences, garbled influxes of modern philosophies- owning none of them but attempting to grab onto all of them. He always fails miserably and hilariously and pathetically... and gloriously.

Hatterr does not deserve better than he gets. Hatterr is every bit as crass and commercial as those who screw him out of money. Hatterr is every bit as undisciplined as those who best him in the sexual arena. Hatterr is every bit as hypocritical as those who keep him out of the spiritual world. He is one of those fools who need to be protected from themselves. That is the part of ourselves that we see in him, for he is in fact an Everyman.

Modernity is not a comfortable place. All he truly wants is comfort, and that is the one thing he cannot buy no matter how much Tradition he grabs. Hatterr occupies an inherently uncomfortable role, outsider on the edges of European civilization, inheritor of a different cultural strain, trying to figure out how to be true to his heritage without giving up the benefits of Western life.

Hatterr's appeals to the great Occidental wise men Marx and Freud and Locke are hysterical and at the same time tragic. The India we see in Desani's story is an India that will destroy itself and emerge no different from the West it fears and worships.

And Desani's prose!!!!!!! Crazy isn't enough of a word for it. Malapropisms refashioned into something more than malapropisms, the entire English language taken on a tour of the darker corners of its own history. Desani's Hatterr chews up Shakespeare and regurgitates his language into new patterns that retain the Bard's grace and add new levels of meaning and depth.

You ever read a book with language so energetic, so creative, so wildly and powerfully different from anything you've seen before that you just about dance in your seat from excitement as you read? This is that kind of book.

It is filled with powerful formal structures that explode in your hands as you try to read, sabotaging themselves, parodying themselves, refusing to be pinned down or understood in a consistent way. It's a book that is itself alive, and perhaps even human.


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