Book Review: ‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion

Dear Shevaun,

You left a self-addressed envelope, the size of a note card, in the Duluth Public Library’s copy of The White Album, a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Your name as both the sender and receiver. Both address labels indicate an association with the University of Florida. One is decorated with a UF, the other a cartoonish profile of a cartoon gator, its snout hanging out of a decorative oval. Neither label is very artistic minded, not the finest work of a graphic designer. I doubt this is your fault, that you are the graphic designer in question, though you might have selected these two designs from eight other versions and you most certainly were the one to decide they were at least good enough to stick to this envelope.

I assumed, Shevaun, that you were older. Perhaps of the same generation as Didion. That you had checked out The White Album for the same reason I might revisit the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” or Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.” A nostalgia for the late 1960s in California. The Manson era. Black Panthers. The Doors, sans Morrison, trying to record an album without the vocalist known for wearing black leather pants without underwear. I imagined you looked like Didion, whom Michiko Kakutani ofThe New York Times once described — using Didion’s own words from A Book of Common Prayer — as possessing “an extreme and volatile thinness. . . she was a woman. . . with a body that masqueraded as that of a young girl.” I imagined you as widowed and crafty. A woman keeping the same strict schedule for almost half a century. A woman who could write a recipe book filled with meals starring Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. A woman with things that went in certain places.

I was wrong. I Googled you. You are maybe in your mid-30s or en route. And your education is of a certain level that damn-near paralyzes me when I consider the quagmire of student loan debt you must be seeped in. My wallet weeps for you, Shevaun, and it’s weeping louder than my admiration for your commitment to furthering your education.

Did you finish The White Album? Or did the envelope mark the spot where you said: “I’m feeling you, Joan. But I just can’t, right now, give a shit about water treatment and highway systems. I was with you through the piece on the end of the 1960s. And if I’d gotten there, I might have enjoyed the one about your migraines and how you’ve learned that suffering through them is like a form of yoga.” Then the book was due and you just didn’t renew it?

Or maybe that envelope marks the point where you said: “Screw this rental. I’m buying!” I don’t remember where you parked your envelope, but if this is the case I bet it is where Didion says:

“I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.”

That’s the sentence I read over and over again while sitting at a tall top table at Subway, unsure of why it snagged my attention. It’s an easy sentence. A descriptive sentence. The sentences around it provide perspective: her marriage is on a precipice. There have been tidal wave warnings. Literally. They are in Hawaii. Her daughter wanted to go for a swim. Maybe it’s just the idea of picturing Didion as a thirty-four-year-old when for all of my life she has been post-thirty-four. And maybe it’s because I have a fortune teller’s view of her future.

Many decades later the tidal wave will come and that tidal wave is The Year of Magical Thinking. Writing, Shevaun, is a weird thing. I’m cooking up a theory on Didion as the OG blogger.

I can give or take Joan Didion. Her curiosities aren’t necessarily mine — the essays on water treatment and the the highway system. But when she turns an eye on herself, buying a dress for Linda Kasabian, witness in the prosecution of Charles Manson or on her first book tour and ordering a Shirley Temple from room service for her daughter, I take her. I take her like the Lothario on the cover of a bodice ripper, chest like fine leather upholstery and hair like a windsock.

Best Wishes,

This review was originally posted on October 17, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Medium Raw’ by Anthony Bourdain

Food writers, especially good ones, are at such an advantage. They have every sense available to them, and if they know what they are doing, they have the opportunity to make a reader cavort and drool with their words.

Midway through the first chapter of the rock and roll food writer Anthony Bourdain’s super visceral Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People who Cook, I had a startling revelation:

It is possible that this droll former addict, he of the well-documented self-combustion, a man who has bitten into a dish on “Top Chef” and critiqued it as tasting like “doll heads,” is one of the — if not THE — best writers on the planet right now.

“I bring my molars slowly down and through my bird’s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. …With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which until now had been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.”

His 10-years-later followup to the hugely popular Kitchen Confidental is a “what happens in the 10 years after a book is hugely popular” collection of, well, stuff. Part memoir, part essay, part fuck you, part trade magazine, part journalism, part rolling credits that say: Remember this character from my first book, well he (fill in the blank) now.

And there is the rub. Everything but the memoir, essay, and journalism is a lot too inside baseball. The best writer ever is also wildly inconsistent.

I’m curious about who he believes is his audience at this point. If it is the celebrity chef-bangers who coo over his raspy wit and salt-n-pepper hair, the nitty gritty about the heroes and villains of the food world just simply isn’t interesting. Sure, I can Google Alice Waters to see which pole I side with on this controversial character. Or I can skim my way through that chapter and silently plead that he tells another story about being stranded on an island with some entitled princess with expensive taste and $1,000 T-shirts. Or his suicidal whims, dictated by what song is playing on the radio when he drunk drives home.

If he’s writing for the line cooks who left grease marks and cigarette ash in the margins of a borrowed copy of Kitchen Confidential, I’m not sure that an essay on the meat industry is any more interesting to them than the half journalism/half first-person profile on David Chang of Momofuku is to the legions of men and women who just want to bone Bourdain.

He must be writing for the serious foodies, right? The one’s who are dying to hear about eating a specially prepared endangered bird. An illegal delicacy, set on fire seconds before it is served, and the way that eating it burns the mouth with drops of bird fat, the tiny bones making one’s tongue bleed.

But then, why not stick to that instead of all the other filler? Why a chapter titled “Alan Richman is a douchebag.”

I’m not sure where I fall. Wanna-be foodie, Bourdain fan-girl, aficionado of well-crafted sentences, mostly. And this self-described “bloody Valentine” opens with a scene akin to something out of “The Godfather.” A collection of heavies from the food underground have met for a super-secret meal of Ortolan, a finch-like bird and a protected species. He spends pages describing the bird, the ritual, the “just-fucked” look on the faces of the foodists who have shared the experience.

He follows it up with the tales of a newly-divorced bad ass subsisting on weed and booze on a tourist-free island. Every night on his way home, as he rounds a certain spot in the road, he makes the decision to live or to die based on what is on the radio. Spoiler alert: He does not kill himself.

When the writing bucks, the story soars and vice versa — although not always. When Bourdain gets into the rants and senseless “fuck yous” flung at people in the industry, it’s a little “Why don’t you just blog this shit instead of publishing it”-ish. It’s all a little disjointed, scattered, ADHD-erific. I’m gonna write about this! Now I’m going to write about this. Look! Fish! Why not make the Bourdain book about Bourdain? It worked the first time, right? And that’s the reason he even got the chance to write this one.

Originally posted on October 3, 2010, at Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘How Did You Get This Number’ by Sloane Crosley

I am going to write something here that applies to Sloane Crosley and only Sloane Crosley, and God help us all — please don’t let anyone else take this bit of advice and apply it:

Sloane, you need to write more about your personal life. Dates and dudes. Relationships that lean horizontal. Getting dumped and squeezing the living shit out of a bunch of oranges. I know this is problematic: You live in New York, and when a young woman lives in New York and writes essays she gets Carrie Bradshaw’ed into a little pink box. Even if the writer spends 200-plus pages riffing on everything but shoes. But I believe in you, Sloane. I think you can do it in a respectable way, and never have to say the words: “Hm … I guess we should go with the lipstick font for this book. Is there any way to make it look like I’m lounging in a martini glass?”

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Review: ‘And the Heart Says Whatever’ by Emily Gould

At some point we all sat around and wondered what the hell personal blogging would mean, ultimately, for the good old-fashioned world of the printed word. The kind that comes on paper, bound, with a flattering author portrait and blurbs from friends.

As an anecdote to that, I present Emily Gould’s book of personal essays And the Heart Says Whatever. The former go-go Gawker girl’s collection includes vignettes of being a sexually aware high school student wrist-deep in the trousers of an underclassman, to feeling like a freak-show at her college in the Midwest, to navigating the streets of the Lower East Side en route to gigs as a publishing assistant/hostess/shot girl. It is all tinged with the sort of romantic mooniness that comes with having an ex-boyfriend and/or making a self-destructive decision or two.

Gould, one of many young women living a certain intriguing lifestyle in the early aughts in NYC — in Gould’s case hipster! — was among the first to earn the title of “oversharer,” which is to mean that she occasionally mentioned her sex life in a public forum. Like most people who commit a word to the internet, then get addicted and commit more and more, there comes an illusion that you don’t have to have something to say. That if you write it, the audience will come because they, for instance, like your tattoos. With this comes the power to post “grilled cheese sandwich” accounts. This is what I had for lunch. And you should be fascinated by it because you are fascinated by me, dear audience.

And thus, Gould has written a book filled with the grilled cheese moments of her life — although instead of “what I had for lunch” it is “what I thought as I revisited my family’s beach house after my boyfriend and I broke up.”

These 11 essays are fine. They don’t take you by the hair and yank. And in fact, looking back at the titles it’s hard to define where one memory ends and another begins, what any one of them was about. Break ups, hook ups, jobs … very little about her experiences with Gawker — and admittedly, she wrote for the site when it still had headlines that rivaled The Onion. Nothing about her literati boyfriend Keith Gessen who wrote the great snooze-fest of 2008 All the Sad Literary Men.  Plenty of metaphorical mirror gazing and second guessing.

Emily Gould is not the greatest writer in the world. But she’s spare and competent, and frequently houses a nice idea in a paragraph. And, frankly, she made enough words to turn them into a book, so she has that over millions of bloggers holding onto some sort of “Stephanie Klein and the magic book deal” syndrome. Gould is pleasant and likable. Her stories are are relate-able, but are in dire need of a bit of literary risk. This reminded me a bit of Sloane Crosley’s recyclable book of essays I Was Told There Would Be Cake, which is awfully boring, but garnered better reviews because of some sort of injustice in the universe.

Originally published June 6, 2010 on Minnesota Reads.