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LitMonkey – November 2012

December 3, 2012

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

If you’re familiar with a certain one of the books above – More Baths, Less Talking – you know very well where the idea for this column originated.  If not, rest assured that it is all my brainchild and mine alone.

In More Baths, Hornby’s 4th collection of columns originally published in the Believer magazine (more on them later), the author takes us on a tour of his reading life in monthly installments, which is exactly what I intend to do here.  While I’ve only just begun the book, reading 5 or so installments, I’ve already highlighted numerous of Hornby’s suggestions for my own future reading, though I fear that in many instances his animated account of the book will surpass the work itself.  Regardless, Hornby has quickly become one of my favorite authors and this charming collection will not disappoint, even if I never read a single one of his suggestions.

Completely unintentionally[1], I picked up 2 books from the Believer on a single visit (my first) to PowerHouse Books – an elegant independent bookstore in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  PowerHouse more closely resembles an art house than a bookstore (and not surprisingly art books dominate) with its stark whiteness, bright lighting, high ceilings, and books laid out on tables instead of arranged on shelves.  For such a small space, I spent quite a lot of time there and could have lingered longer.  Eventually, I picked up the two Believer books despite never having seen a copy of the magazine in my life.[2]  The first I bought solely on the Hornby name recognition; the second I bought based on the list of hilarious contributors that was simply too good to pass up.  The roster of “advice-givers” is staggering: Aziz Ansari, Judd Apatow, Michael Ian Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Mindy Kaling, Marc Maron, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman … just to name a few.  Unfortunately, the whole is not as good as the sum of its named contributors.  Don’t get me wrong – the book is funny.  But it was not what I expected.[3]  Instead of short 3-5 page essays from each writer, we get 5-7 Dear Abbey style questions addressed to and answered by each writer, in varying degrees of hilarity (though all are meant to be funny).  All told, the book is a fine way to pass the time on a morning subway ride but I didn’t laugh out loud more than a handful of times.

I don’t want to give the impression that all I read are short story / essay books, though it’s true that this month featured three (normally 1 out of every 5-10 books I read will be of that type).  I picked up Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk as a way of introducing myself to David Sedaris, an author I’ve often flirted with but never enough to push forward and take the plunge.  And really, this time, how could I resist?  A collection of short stories featuring anthropomorphic animal characters? Each one a dark, deeply cynical take on one of society’s many ills?  Mr. Sedaris, you had me at hello. At a time in my life when it seems like I’m constantly reading cliched children’s stories (Nemo found his Dad and learned a lesson too!), a little casual racism from my turtle, toad and duck was long overdue.  And maybe it’s just my dark and cynical nature (or my love of anthropomorphic wise-ass animals) but I found this book to be utterly hilarious.  Adultery! Cruelty! Literal bloody murder!  So brilliant in its morbid comedy, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was not the “true” Sedaris (no one is themselves on a first date I suppose).  Palahniuk maybe.  But if this was Sedaris, he would have been my soul mate from long ago.  This was a question only the reviewers on Amazon could answer.[4]

The reviewers of Squirrel on Amazon are obviously fans of Sedaris – and not of this book.  More than a third of the reviews gave it one star.  More tellingly, here are some choice adjectives just from page one of the reviews: “brutal”, “vulgar”, “hateful”, “disturbing”, and “disgustingly violent.”  Nevertheless, I could not possibly recommend it more, so long as you have the mindset that one (obviously brilliant) woman espouses: “I’m too much of a delicate flower for this kind of book, but I still enjoyed it a lot. If you’ve got a strong stomach and [could not] care less about all the sweet little creatures, then you will adore this book and will make your spouse come into the room so you can read parts out loud. It’s that well crafted.”  Or as I’d put it: Come on people of Amazon … they’re talking cartoon animals for f**k’s sake!

The last book I want to cover here is Dr. Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind.[5]  This is a fascinating memoir written by a woman who has lived her entire life with manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder, yet is also one of the world’s foremost experts on that illness.  Dr. Jamison’s candid story is surreal.  Had I not read it myself, I wouldn’t believe that anyone suffering through such a difficult emotional and mental disorder could not only recount it in such vivid detail, but also effectively convey the strong temptation to stay within the manic world.  It would not be hyperbole to say that this is the most moving book I have read in a long time, and that it is critical reading for anyone who has, or is close to someone who has, a mood disorder.  And since I cannot do this book the justice it requires in praising it, I’ll stop trying right there.

November was a month for comedy and darkness, and a healthy mixing of the two.  It was also a month for inspiration.  And so my little writing experiment begins.

[1] By unintentionally, I mean that I had no intention going-in of choosing two books derived from this particular magazine.  I do not mean that I walked aimlessly through the store and randomly chose books as if blindfolded.  Hope that clears up any confusion.

[2] With that statement I probably just lost a few readers while gaining a few others, if it’s possible to gain readers midway through a column.

[3] Note to self: Next time, open the book in the store! Flip through it! It’s the one advantage of buying in a physical bookstore.

[4] Not true.

[5] Don’t worry fans of the 33-1/3 series, I’ll be touching on You’re Living All Over Me in another entry.

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