The Good People Of New York

First off, I loved Thisbe Nissen’s first effort, a collection of short stories entitled “Out of the Girls Room And Into The Night“. Go buy it. Now. But I’m disappointed to announce that her début novel “The Good People Of New York” just didn’t do it for me. It just fell flat. Glossing over he fact that at least two chapters of this novel were taken nearly straight from her collection of short stories, the story just didn’t seem to work. Thisbe Nissen seems to be long on incident and short on plot so I would suggest sticking to her short stories. Thisbe’s writing remained strong and there are moments of true brilliance, and more rarely, heart felt emotion. But the books downsides outweighed the upsides in my opinion. The pacing seemed strange, granted it’s difficult to encapsulate 20 plus years in less than 300 pages, but the speed was jerky; it slowed and accelerated awkwardly.

For a book that is about relationships, in “The Good People Of New York” Nissen did little to develop the relationship between the main characters Roz and her daughter Miranda. And to further muddle things, several characters created brief emotional relationships with each of the main characters but none of these interactions or affairs were built upon with conviction. Individuals simply breezed in and of the novel making impacts whose craters Thisbe neglected to explore.

The novel, however, was enjoyable and worth my time. I didn’t hate it but I surely didn’t love it. There were sections were Thisbe really shined (see below). I’d recommend this book to those interested in reading about mother/daughter relationships but I definitely won’t be reading it again.
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White Noise

Back in highschool, me and my friend Les would often stand in the hallway near our lockers during passing period and stare out the door. We wouldn’t talk to each other. We were too busy listening and didn’t want to interrupt what we were hearing: the sound of 400 students gossiping, spilling books, taunting, laughing, slamming lockers, eating snacks, chasing each other, smacking gum, copying homework, making out, tearing pages out of notebooks, etc. When we didn’t focus on one sound at a time but the on whole sound: a low penetrating, ominous, rumble would emerge. It was a hum you would hear only if you knew it was there. Soon, we noticed this could be done almost anywhere. It fascinated us, how this sound seemed to stand on its own, beyond the individuals creating it. Les was the only one I had ever told about my listening to this sound. I think because I thought he would be one of the few I knew who could appreciate it. To this day I could walk up behind Les and hum, and he’d know exactly what I was referring to: white noise.

As a close friend of pop culture, it’s very surprising that I thought Don DeLillo’s White Noise was, in a word, boring. At least mostly boring. The novel held some appealing wit. The scene with like the “Most Photographed Barn In America”, the near plane crash, and some of Jack Gladney’s conversations with his family I found really amusing in DeLillo’s dark and dry way. And though at times the novel produced a disturbed chuckle from me, I wouldn’t say that it was hilarious or even funny, really. In fact much of the time it was annoying and tedious. Yes, this novel was clever, but despite having many facets, it was not fascinating.

It’s true that the meat of DeLillo’s White Noise is held in its observations, not in its plot. But the story held almost no plot. The main character in White Noise tells us that all plots move deathward. Is it a valid reason for Delillo not to include a plot in this novel? I don’t think so.

It could very well be that I have become so accustomed to the torrent of information, often useless, swirling around me that I don’t think that the racket that it creates is worthy of a novel itself. Let alone bothering to read that novel. White Noise seems to be just more white noise. It’s not lost on me that may be exactly what DeLillo had intended.

I did enjoy the cultural themes presented in the novel. DeLillo reveals to us how we as participants in American culture are often more interested in the copy than in the original. We as a culture reject the real event in favor of the simulation. Representation supersedes experience. I also enjoyed the idea that death seems to be the only concept that can equal our society’s white noise in sheer force. And despite popular culture using glitz, packaging, and showiness in an attempt to hide death beneath the surface, death is in the end, inevitable. Despite what DeLillo is trying to portray, I don’t think death has disappeared from american culture, my death clock is testimony to that. Maybe I’m missing something. On the other hand, maybe I get it.

Is Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise high-end art? Maybe. Enjoyable? Maybe not.
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The Birth Of Saint Patrick

On the eighth day of March it was, some people say,
That Saint Pathrick at midnight he first saw the day;
While others declare ’twas the ninth he was born,
And ’twas all a mistake between midnight and morn;
For mistakes will occur in a hurry and shock,
And some blam’d the babby and some blam’d the clock
Till with all their cross-questions sure no one could know
If the child was too fast or the clock was too slow.
Now the first faction fight in owld Ireland, they say,
Was all on account of Saint Pathrick’s birthday;
Some fought for the eighth for the ninth more would die,
And who wouldn’t see right, sure they blacken’d his eye!
At last both the factions so positive grew,
That each kept a birthday, so Pat then had two,
Till Father Mulcahy, who showed them their sins,
Said, “No one could have two birthdays, but a twins.”
Says he, “Boys, don’t be fightin’ for eight or for nine,
Don’t be always dividin’ but sometimes combine;
Combine eight with nine, and seventeen is the mark,
So let that be his birthday.” “Amen,” says the clerk.
“If he wasn’t a twins, sure our hist’ry will show
That, at least, he’s worth any two saints that we know!”
Then they all got blind dhrunk which complated their bliss,
And we keep up the practice from that day to this.
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Running With Scissors

Augusten Burrough’s first memoir, Running With Scissors is a paradox. The novel is filled to the brim with the awfulness and horrors of modern life. Pedophilia, excessive drug use, child abuse, rape, animal cruelty, exploitation, abandonment, sexual deviancy, coprophilia, mental illness, and manipulation all have their place in this novel. But somehow, despite all of this dreadfulness and misery, Augusten’s story is heart wrenchingly hilarious. The entire novel is filled with hope and laughs. Any sort of pity for Augustus is always followed by at least a chuckle. And despite all of the abuse, very little of it is done with intentional cruelty. At no time is this book ever boring, it’s simply (or not so simply) intelligently crafted entertainment. But then again, I’m a rubber-necker at train wrecks.

After his insane mom and deadbeat, alcoholic father get divorced, Augusten is sent to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. Living at the Finch’s dilapidated home are a host of Dr. Finch’s patients, children, and “wives”, all providing Augusten with varying degrees of hopefulness and despair. By the end of the novel Burroughs discovers that during adolescence, without an adult around to tell you what not to do, freedom is just like being trapped.

Basically, Burroughs has created a wonderfully entertaining novel. I’d recommend this to everyone but my Grandma. Now, if you’ll excuse I’m gonna go perform some bible dips.
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The Bone Palace Ballet

I was introduced to Charles Bukowski’s writing when I was a sophomore in college. Some hippie from Humbolt County came up to visit a roommate and told me to read him. I’m glad I listened. He is now one of my favorite authors. I fell in love with him almost immediately. That semester my drink, when we went out, was half-and-half whiskey and waters. I found myself going to the bar more, and paying attention to the people who were there. I saw the romance in dark, dingy, rent-by-the-week hotels. I fully realized the allure of the racetrack. I stayed away from the fighting though – I saw no cause to injure myself. I remember I saw a signed copy of his book in the library and schemed out a plan to sneak it past the alarms. However, shortly after I finished the plan and recruited the necessary accomplices, the library flooded and I graduated shortly after that. I still wonder if that book is there.

I’ve read all of his novels but Post Office. This is because I want something to hold onto. Something to read on my death bed. I’ve also read most of his short stories. Over the last few years, I’ve been in the slow process of reading his poems. I keep a book of them in the shitter with me and whenever I have to go bust out a few, I open the current book of poems and bust a few of those out too. A while back I just finished The Bone Palace Ballet, a collection of mostly newer poems that were put together posthumously. It was pretty good. Great shitter reading material. And you know what? I think Bukowski would take that as one of his best compliments.

Charles Bukowski having a nice read on the shitter

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I got an email from a reader offering to send me one of the books on my list. Since I hadn’t read it, I accepted and sent her my home address. A few days later it arrived with a note: “Hi! I hope you enjoy this more than I did. If, not don’t give up on Hemingway, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ was a really great book. Happy reading. Connie.”

Well, Connie, I haven’t given up. A Farewell To Arms was by no means a terrible novel. Nor was it an incredible novel. Mostly, it was just good. I haven’t quite figured out what all the fuss about Hemingway(‘s writing) is. It’s good. It’s got style. It’s poignant yet unemotional. It’s no frills and thus it seems his works may work best under the surface. It is said that Hemingway has done more to change the English-language novel than any other twentieth-century writer. I can vouch for or against that statement, I can only say I enjoy his style. Equally, I enjoyed the novel but it’s not worth all the commotion. I likely will not read it again.

A Farewell To Arms is simply a story of love during war-time (ignoring most of the political complexities, thank god). An overdone idea, but one that is fairly fresh to me, so that aspect didn’t wear on me.

After having read the last word of this novel I thought to myself, “That was just a sad story. A sad and crude story.” And it was. It was unrefined and raw and that’s the way I liked it. However, this sparseness led to little character development. And for much of the story I thought of the two main characters, Henry and Catherine, as shallow and somewhat infantile. Their relationship seemed so lovey-dovey as to be artificial. It seemed phony. But after a while, I realized their love was actually thin only to begin with. He was war-torn and she was damaged. However, the war brought on a healthy co-dependency, between the two. They ended up genuinely needing each other and their conversations became endearing and earnest. And by the end of the novel I was proven wrong.

Thanks Connie.
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Native Son

It has been said that Richard Wright’s writing is like a sledgehammer. If Native Son is a fair representation of the rest of his work, then I’d have to agree. It’s precise, simple, and sends a clear message that is solid, heavy, and hits hard, all with a lack of sentimentality. This is not only true of Richard Wright’s style but of his message. Granted his theory is a little abstract, but his general conception of the truth behind urban American class, race, and social relations is grounded in clear logic – white American society has responsibility for the oppression, racism, and segregation towards blacks, and if nothing is done about it, violent outrage is a definitive result. A result that has proven itself among exceedingly subjugated people the world throughout. It took Wright 391 pages to literally spell it out, but ultimately the story of Bigger Thomas is a story of oppression. The story and nearly all its main characters are aggressive, brutal and destructive each in their own way. The biblical quote at the beginning of Native Son, “Even today is my complaint rebellious, My stroke is heavier than my groaning.” from the book of Job, set the tone for the violence contained there in.

The plot involves itself with the actions of Bigger Thomas. Bigger is a young black man raised and living in Chicago’s black belt during the 1930’s. Bigger lives a life that is weighed down by poverty, racism, and fear. Bigger is a product of the injustices of society. After accepting a job as a driver for an affluent white family, Bigger finds himself in a situation where he feels no other choice but to murder the daughter of his employer. Bigger digs himself larger and larger holes by producing a falsely signed ransom note, and accusing the victims boyfriend, killing his girlfriend so she won’t rat him out (a scene that literally made my stomach drop). Bigger eventually gets found out, captured, brought to jail, and put on trial. Max, a leader in the communist party (and it is not surprising that Max is one of the only characters with any racial clarity considering Richard Wright was an active communist himself), acts as Bigger’s lawyer. It is only after trying to explain his feeling to Max that bigger realizes that his crimes are the only thing that have given meaning and energy to his previously aimless life, and he thus he goes to his trial unrepentant. Bigger believes that if a man were reduced to such a level that his only choice was to kill another, the taking of the life must have been for a valid reason, even if that reason isn’t well understood. Thus he deals with his fate stoically. While Bigger is on trial Max explains to the courtroom that Bigger’s actions were a byproduct of his oppression and ultimate fear. It is understood that despite the horrible oppression that consumed Bigger’s life, we know that he was ultimately the one responsible for his choices. As a result the reader feels little pity for Bigger. Wright’s genius was that, in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness and misery of the society that gave birth to him. It is this part of the book that gets a little caught up with rhetoric. Somewhat like the “radio speech” in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, Richard Wright felt the need to pound the podium in order to drive home his point. Despite having slowed the pace of the novel a bit, it was entirely bearable (unlike Atlas Shrugged) and an important part in the understanding of Wright’s ideas.

An important book and an enjoyable read.

An Underachiever’s Diary

“…I am, in all things, an underachiever, bound by nature to wrestle with the dull unanswerable and then give up, to the benefit of no one…”

A plain white cover with simply the Authors name, Benjamin Anastas, and the words An Underachiever’s Diary on it were so appealing, I bought the book without knowing anything about it. Benjamin Anastasi novella is not an awe-inspiring work of fictional literature, but it is an (deceptively) light, short, enjoyable read – particularly after having just read this behemoth. In fact there are times when the writing is excellent and the story bounces along hitting off of other literary works and social commentaries made by those such as Freud, Dostoevsky (particularly Notes From The Underground), and Thoreau. Anastasi ability to put both humor and humanity into most the sullen of characters can be attributed to his sound writing ability.

William, a self-proclaimed underachiever, gives the first person narration. William’s tale starts at his birth, which is significant because he was born seven minutes before his twin brother Clive, the last time he will ever be first at anything. Clive, is William’s antagonist and opposite. Clive is successful, charming, social skilled and an overachiever. The story continues through William’s childhood where he is slow to learn how to walk, talk, and get potty trained. Through his adolescence he is constantly in poor health with a long series of illnesses and injuries. His Jr. high years bring social awkwardness and the trials of sexual discovery both of which he is a miserable failure, but at this point in his life his begins to accept his calling as an underachiever. He puts himself into boarding school and soon finds himself at a “third rate” college in the Northeast. He spends five years lost in keg beer and failed relationships but he develops a philosophy along with a pride in being an underachiever. He soon relishes his ability to be unsuccessful and actually put himself in situations in order to fail. Eventually William comes to terms with his station in life and learns to cull faith and understanding from his flaws, a characteristic his “perfect” brother was never able to do. He acquires an ability to appreciate the broken and defective nature of humankind. The remainder of the novella that involves his adult life (failing at numerous jobs and eventually joining a cult) I found rather dull and a bit contrived. In addition the book ends somewhat flatly.

Anastas does a great job of describing Williams feelings. So much so that even the most successful will relate to him in some way. And as a thirty-year old myself (Williams age in the novella), I can help but look back on my life on occasion and wonder if I have achieved my potential. Anastas seems to be asking us to evaluate, or reevaluate what it means to be successful in life. All of us have a little underachiever in us somewhere. And I find myself a lot closer to William than Clive these days. Which is better, paltry happiness or sublime suffering?
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