I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t going to like Bossypants. Chmon. I pre-ordered this book the minute I heard about its existence, as I’ve spent the better part of the last few years idolizing Tina Fey as both creator and star of 30 Rock. Friends of mine know I’ve long felt a kinship with Liz Lemon. Frumpy dresser? Check. Devoted fan of junk food, with an emphasis on items whose key ingredient is cheese or cheese-flavored? Check. Inability to translate motivated responsible work persona into personal life? Check. Unabashed fan of reality television? Double freaking check.
So I was a little surprised when about 50 pages into Bossypants, a subtle theme was emerging. This book was…kind of about being a woman. About being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field (comedy, not television) a theme I’ve only recently read about in another enjoyable lady memoir: Kathy Griffin’s (who, ironically, is given a bit of a shout-out in Bossypants: “If you could turn gay from being around gay people, wouldn’t Kathy Griffin be Rosie O’Donnell by now?”) Yes, this book was just a little bit about how even the suggestion that Tina Fey being a successful boss is something worth highlighting inadvertently separates her from the legions of unhighlighted male bosses who have come before her, as though signing paychecks with a vagina is like a dog walking on its hind legs.
Now I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’ve never really heard the policy on judging one by a randomly selected page, so for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s an improvement.
One of many neurotic tendencies I have when it comes to books—other examples: always buying the second or third book back on the shelf, never lending books I haven’t read yet, dog-earing the tops of pages to mark my place and the bottom to mark favorite quotes—is reading a random page from a book I’m considering buying, and basing my decision almost entirely on that page.
Now I realize this isn’t entirely fair; every author is entitled to a decent amount of exposition, and certainly to a fair shake at having their words consumed in the context of…all the other words. But given my extreme inability to not buy at least three books a month, cuts have to be made somewhere, and I’ve found that one can tell a lot about a book by picking it up in the middle, if only for a few paragraphs.
Which brings me to my point. In developing this bizarre little habit, I’ve found that some of the best books—certainly not all, but some—are good on every single page. Some books are so beautifully written that even though it’s obviously advisable to start from the beginning and end with the end, any glimpse, however brief, into the title’s center, offers a preview of the greatness. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, well, it’s that kind of book.
(Sidebar: Not to make it seem as though Smith is more of a writer than a creator, it’s worth noting that some of the best books are also very “book”ish, which is to say that even as you appreciate the depth of their characters and sincerity of their scenes, you’re hard-pressed to envision a movie or other visual adaptation that would even hold a candle to the hundreds of pages of text. White Teeth is that kind of book as well. …It’s a really fucking good book).
Here’s the thing about David Foster Wallace, and the main reason I’m having such a hard time reviewing this book. In my experience, people either love, hate, or haven’t yet read anything by DFW. If they love him, it’s most likely for all the reasons I do—his unique outlook, his superb vocabulary, his singular writing style, his ability to pair poignant observation with subtle humor—and if they hate him, well it’s probably for those exact same reasons. So the only scenario I can really think of to address is the one where you, as a reader, have against all odds managed to dodge his work. In the interest of providing some sort of service to my three-person audience, copied below is a passage from one essay in Consider the Lobster, which gives a fair (though woefully inadequate, in the grand scheme of things) idea of what exactly it is to read an entire book of words written by DFW. (This particular essay, for reference, is an extremely detailed evaluation of Standard Written English, and the merits or disadvantages of enforcing its use).
“When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (i.e., the verbal information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It’s a function of the fact that there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. “I was attached by a bear!” to “Goddamn bear tried to kill me!” to “That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person!” and so on. Add the Saussurian/Chomskian consideration that many grammatically ill-formed sentences can also get the propositional content across—”Bear attack Tonto, Tonto heap scared!”—and the number of subliminal options we’re scanning/sorting/interpreting as we communicate with one another goes transfinite very quickly.
And different levels of diction and formality are only the simplest kinds of distinction; things get way more complicated in the sorts of interpersonal communication where social relations and feelings and moods come into play. Here’s a familiar kind of example. Suppose that you and I are acquaintances and we’re in my apartment having a conversation and that at some point I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore. Very delicate social moment. Think of all the different ways I can try to handle it: “Wow, look at the time”; “Could we finish up later?”; “Could you please leave now?”; “Go”; “Get out”; “Get the hell out of here”; “Didn’t you say you had to be someplace?”; “Time for you to hit the dusty trail, my friend”; “Off you go then, love”; or that sly old telephone-conversation-ender: “Well, I’m going to let you go now”; etc. etc. And then think of all the different factors and implications of each option.*
*(Footnote) To be honest, the example here has a special personal resonance for this reviewer because in real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking someone to leave, and sometimes the moment becomes so delicate and fraught with social complexity that I’ll get overwhelmed trying to sort out all the different possible ways of saying it and all the different implications of each option and will just sort of blank out and do it totally straight — “I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore” — which evidently makes me look either as if I’m very rude and abrupt or as if I’m semi-autistic and have no sense of how to wind up a conversation gracefully. Somehow, in other words, my reducing the statement to its bare propositional content “sends a message” that is itself scanned, sifted, interpreted, and judged by my auditor, who then sometimes never comes back. I’ve actually lost friends this way.”
Bottom line: If you didn’t like the above (excluding a lost-in-translation element that comes with taking an excerpt from a fairly long and involved essay), then DFW is not the man for you. And if you did like it, well hey, I’ve just introduced you to some of the best shit you’ll ever read.
Well as I suspected, Too Big to Fail was, appropriately, too big. Even after several days of dedicated reading, I’m still barely past page 200 and although I find myself riveted by the story–riveting financial news, who knew–today I made an executive decision and I’ve spent the better part of the last eight hours reading The Hunger Games, the first in Suzanne Collins’ much-acclaimed young-adult trilogy.
For those who don’t follow the incredibly important happenings in teen fiction, The Hunger Games is something like a modern-day 1984: The story is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, now known as Panem, where a Capitol city rules over 12 distinct districts. So as to remind the districts of their impotence, every year one boy and one girl from each is chosen at random (though, without going into too much detail, poverty plays a role in one’s chances of being picked) to participate in The Hunger Games, a fight to the death broadcast on live television throughout the country. Yeah, it’s pretty grim reading for the weekend before Christmas.
I’ll say off the bat that the book is incredible, even considering it’s geared at young adults. I haven’t devoured 350 pages in a sitting since the last Harry Potter, which I distinctly remember reading in full on a similarly lazy Sunday, sustaining myself on takeout Chinese since I couldn’t be bothered to leave the apartment. The comparison to 1984 is fair, and the writing itself is suspenseful and accessible without feeling dumbed-down. Unlike the Twilight saga, which I never quite liked reading on the train, no adult would or should feel silly for reading this book (and I assume the rest in the trilogy).
This may very well the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read.
See, when I mentioned to friends that I was reading “The Devil in the White City,” I heard some resounding praise, but at least two people admitted they’d liked the book but never finished it. As someone who loathes not finishing books—even before this endeavor, I’d convinced myself that none of my half-read novels were abandoned so much as on hold—the possibility that I was about to embark upon a journey of which I’d grow bored halfway through was distressing. I pictured myself falling asleep to in-depth descriptions of 1890s Chicago, and waking up at 3 a.m. with drool on my glasses.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
The details of “Devil” simultaneously are and aren’t important. As a potential reader, you should know it follows two people during the time around Chicago’s 1893 hosting of the World’s Fair: the architect mastermind behind almost the entire event, and a serial killer who masqueraded as a businessman while preying on women in the same city. If you have some sort of niche affinity for Chicago history, this is definitely the book for you, but I would be remiss to pretend any interest in Chicago, architecture or history itself is a prerequisite for enjoying “The Devil in the White City.” Rather, the details are important only insomuch as there are tons of them. Every scene of every chapter is researched with such stunning thoroughness that “Devil” reads like a novel, and I found myself more than once stopping to consider the amount of research that must have gone into this book. (It doesn’t take much imagination: “Devil” has 390 endnotes, and its bibliography lists more than 130 sources). Perhaps the biggest testament to this breadth of work is the dichotomy between the two stories, which intersect only indirectly. Given America’s interest in true crime and the minds of criminals, I thought the story of H.H. Holmes, the killer, would be by far the more compelling of the two. Gas chambers, dissection, secret cellars full of mad scientist paraphernalia—this is the stuff of “Law & Order.” And indeed, Holmes’ story, phenomenally bolstered by excerpts from his own half-fabricated memoir, is riveting. Today, the idea of serial murder simply for the thrill of it seems borderline mundane, but in the late 1800s it was almost unheard of; Jack the Ripper had only recently made headlines. Perhaps this is why Holmes managed to dispose of nearly a dozen of his closer acquaintances without the police catching on (it was pursuit of insurance fraud that ultimately led authorities to discover his more heinous crimes).