Monday, December 31, 2007

Holiday reading

I had a little time to kill over the past couple of weeks, and I ended up reading a bunch of books: The Wonder Spot, Melissa Bank's second novel; a couple of books written by Phil Jackson; the Chuck Klosterman pop culture bible Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs; a stupid book about American history written by Dave Barry; and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I haven't written about books in a while, so I figured I should write about the ones that I liked.

The Wonder Spot

I'd originally discovered Melissa Bank on a lark; I was browsing through and ended up buying her first book, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, because of the clever title, chick-lit implications notwithstanding. It wasn't a novel so much as a series of inter-connected stories about a girl's life, and it was so funny and charming and well-written that I ended up giving a copy to a friend for Christmas that year.

A few months later, I read Speaking with an Angel, an anthology of short stories by Nick Hornby. The book included a story by Melissa Bank called The Wonder Spot, which was easily the best in the whole collection, and which was better than anything from her first book. I was delighted to find out later that the story was part of Bank's second book.

I found a copy of the book a few weeks ago, and it lived up to my expectations. Although the rest of the book wasn't really as good as the eponymous story, it was still an awesome read. No one writes about insecurities quite as well and quite as entertainingly as Melissa Bank. Like I did with Girls' Guide, I ended up giving a copy of the book to a friend. In fact, I ended up giving it to the same person I'd given the first book, a couple of years ago.

Afterwards, I was reading reviews of the book, and critics seemed to agree that the label chick-lit didn't do justice to Melissa Bank's work. While I haven't really read Bridget Jones's Diary or other books of that ilk (I just remember Richelle telling me she *hates* Helen Fielding), I'm not surprised; forget chick-lit, there just aren't many books that are as good as Melissa Bank's, period.

(I have this thing about giving books, and how I only give people books when I really, really liked the book and when I think that a person I'd give the book would like it as well. After all, giving a book carries the implicit notion that it'd be worth spending several hours of one's time, so it has to be really worth it, right? Only, no one ever reads the books that I give them. Which is kind of like all my blog entries about books.)

If you I sold you on to Bank well enough, you might want to check out a story from Girls' Guide called The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine . The first chapter from The Wonder Spot is also online, though that's probably the weakest chapter in the whole book.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

I'd been reading Chuck Klosterman for a while now, initially from his Spin Magazine columns (I used to buy lots of back issues from Book Sale), and then later from his work on ESPN's Page 2. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was also prominently featured on The OC as part of the Seth Cohen starter kit, along with Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and records from The Shins and Bright Eyes (I don't really care much for either band, but Kavalier and Clay ranks among my all-time favorites).

Anyway, there are probably very few books that are as right up in my alley as this one. It's a collection of essays that include, among other things, an admission that no one in our generation can ever be truly satisfied because we're all held up against Lloyd Dobler, a deconstruction of Saved by the Bell, the parallels between The Empire Strikes Back and Reality Bites (they're essentially the same movie), how the Celtics-Lakers rivalry define everything that we know about the universe, plus a successful argument that "The Fonz" is a virgin.

There's also an essay about the greatness of Billy Joel, and his patent uncoolness despite his greatness, an uncoolness so plain that he can't even be considered too-uncool-that-he's-actually-cool. Klosterman explains:

To this day, women are touched by the words to Just the Way You Are, a musical love letter that says everything everybody wants to hear: You're not flawless, but you're still what I want. It was written about Joel's wife and manager Elizabeth Weber, and it outlines how he doesn't want his woman to "try some new fashion" or dye her hair blond or work on being witty. He specifically asks that she "don't go changing" in the hopes of pleasing him. The short-term analysis is that this is a criticism of perfection, but in the best possible way; it's like Billy is saying he loves Weber *because* she's not perfect, and that he could never leave her in time of trouble.

The sad irony, of course, is that Joel divorced Elizabeth three years after Just the Way You Are won a Grammy for Song of the Year. Obviously, some would say that cheapens the song and makes it irrelevant. I think the opposite is true. I think the fact that Joel divorced the woman he wrote this song about makes it his single greatest achievement.

When I hear Just the Way You Are, it never makes me think about Joel's broken marriage. It makes me think about all the perfectly scribed love letters and drunken emails I have written over the past twelve years, and about all the various women who received them. I think about how I told them they changed the way I thought about the universe, and that they made every other woman on earth unattractive, and that I would love them unconditionally even if we were never together. I hate that those letters still exist. But I don't hate them because what I said was false; I hate them because what I said was completely true. My convictions could not have been stronger when I wrote those words, and--for whatever reason--they still faded into nothingness. Three times I have been certain that I could never love anyone else, and I was wrong every time. Those old love letters remind me of my emotional failure and my accidental lies, just as Just the Way You Are undoubtedly reminds Joel of his.

Perhaps this is why I can't see Billy Joel as cool. Perhaps it's because all he makes me see is me.

Kinda how I feel about Pancit Canton.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I once read an interview with Nick Hornby where he was talking about why he only wrote funny books. He argued that there was nothing you could write in a serious book that you couldn't write in a funny book as well, and it was much more pleasant to read funny books, so why bother with the serious? A lot of critics lump Hornby together with Douglas Coupland, for capturing the voice of their generation. They do both write about sad people with lots of issues and hang-ups, but the difference between them is that unlike Coupland, Hornby does not depress the living fuck out of his readers, or at least he makes them laugh along the way. Besides, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Milan Kundera write about pretty much the same topics, but wouldn't you rather read Gabo, if only for the funny descriptions of sex between octogenarians?

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a funny book about a sad story. It's written from the point-of-view of Chris, a 15-year-old with autism. He fancies it as a detective novel, where he tries to figure out who stuck a fork in his neighbor's dog, but as the story unfolds, we get a tangential view of the drama surrounding the people around him, as well as their secrets.

That's really all I can say about the plot, because it's supposed to be a surprise. The novel is really quite the powder keg, and it's one of the most emotionally-charged books I'd read in a while. It never feels that way while reading though, because of the light and humorous tone throughout the novel.

I'd actually read a book with a similar approach years before, Steve Martin's (yes, the comedian) second novel The Pleasure of My Company, which also tells the story of an autistic person, and does it surprisingly well. Compared to The Curious Incident, however, that book comes off as merely adequate, while Haddon's work is simply one of the greats.



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i remember telling you that getting through "bridget jones' diary" was unpleasant and that i loved "high fidelity" so much more. (maybe i'd rather listen to a guy whine about his love life than a girl because i used to get daily doses of the latter. *shrugs*)

i loved "girl's guide to hunting and fishing" :) melissa banks' stuff is nothing like standard chick lit. standard chick lit seems to have a "rally the troops and to hell with men" effect. there wasn't much of that in "girls guide.."

as for douglas coupland - you're right. he's very emo - sometimes to the point of "look at me my life sucks but i think deep thoughts. i'm so unique." [egh..] so you shouldn't read his books in succession. remedy coupland induced depression with bret easton ellis or chuck palahniuk :P

speaking of which - how am i going to give you your christmas gift?


for my money, the wonder spot is much better than girls' guide. so if you can find a copy, grab it.

i'll be in iloilo for a while, so baka next month na tayo makapagkita ;)


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