Today, book reviews.
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
You know when you buy a book on Amazon.com, how they always suggest you buy something additional right before you press the "buy NOW" button? That's how I got this book. I don't even remember what the other book was. I bought it and read it over a year ago. But when I bought it with Amazon one click the little thing came up and said, "Readers who bought book 'X' also bought 'You Shall Know Our Velocity'. Buy 'X' and 'You Shall Know Our Velocity' and save!"
Who doesn't want to save? Saving is the core of the American economy. Saving is wise fiscal policy. I want to save! Yes, Amazon.com send me book 'X' and You Shall Know Our Velocity even though I've never heard of it and don't know what the fuck it is. Save I shall!
Am I the only creature on earth who has realized the purpose of life is consumerism?
When the box came with the Amazon trademark "swoosh" I opened it with excitement. There was book 'X' that I had been wanting to read, and in fact read and probably reported to you, fair reader, in one or another daylog. There went You Shall Know Our Velocity, the savings book, out in the trash with the swoosh box, the packing material, and fifteen fliers to accept an Amazon.com Visa card with a pre-approved $15,000 credit limit.
I had settled in to read book 'X' when the thought hit me: some vagrant could root through my recyclables, find the credit card fliers, and apply for numerous Visa cards in my name. I could not live with that thought in my head. These things come to me when I settle down to read. I've also thought things like, "I wonder if the metal filings in my engine oil are causing premature wear," and, "I sure hope I don't get salmonella from those raw quail eggs they put on the sushi I had for lunch." But those things were not immediately alterable.
The fliers had to be shredded, and it was in the going through the box to shred the fliers that I came upon You Shall Know Our Velocity, the savings book itself, all set to be recycled.
I put the book on the shelf in the living room, and left it for roughly 18 months. I ran across it while replacing a book I'd just finished, and figured, well, my new order from Amazon hasn't arrived yet, and as the savings have already been realized, it can't hurt to try to read "Y.S.K.O.V.", as Dave likes to call it.
Y.S.K.O.V. is a funny road trip story of the ilk of Hunter Thompson. Think: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without the drugs and guns, and you have the book's pastiche. The substance. The style. The whatever.
If you ask me, Dave's is an H.S.T. rip-off at worst. At best, he's a fine young writer who will discover his own voice, and make certain it becomes something that doesn't sound like Curse of Lono.
Now, I'm not meaning to suggest pulling off an H.S.T. sound alike book is bad or anything. It's that the whole "two-paranoid-guys-in-a-car-on-a-wholly-ambiguous-yet-unalterable-quest" thing has been done. Lots of times. I'm sure Dave has read all the books.
Still, I was loving it till about 70% of the way through when the story takes an abrupt right-hand turn, and one of the road trippers jumps in, nearly non-sequitur, to let you know the whole book is the flawed memoir of the other road tripper. He attempts to explain the symbolism being used, what's true and what's hyperbole. Etc.
Of course, you have been warned of this ninety-degree turn in the story because the cover of the book says, "NEW UPDATED EDITION!" which is part of the story, as well.
Ok, so I'm not literary and a book of my life didn't nearly win a Pulitzer. But hey. Here's the story of a guy and his best friend, on the day after a mutual friend's funeral, deciding they have to roam the earth and give away $32,000 in cash to needy people.
The book was decent. I got irked by the midflow course correction but I think I laughed in all the right places. It's not going to win any prizes.
The thing that makes me happiest about reading this book is knowing I could have written it. Frankly, it's probably slightly less good than my best stuff. So it gives me hope.
When I finished You Shall Know Our Velocity I decided to read Egger's first book.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Also known as A.H.W.O.S.G.
This is the book of Dave's life that almost won the Pulitzer. It even says on the cover, "Almost Won the Pulitzer!" which I think should be the title (A.W.T.P.).
No story of my life will win the Pulitzer. I simply have not suffered enough. Guys like Frank McCourt have suffered enough. Guys like Dave Eggers, have suffered enough. I have not experienced enough abuse or harrowing escapes for me to create a Pulitzer prize winning memoir.
My memoir would follow an outline that went something like:
- I am born (trauma!)
- I am forced to eat strained peas (parental malfeasence!)
- I get swatted by my father for losing the pair of pliers he used to change the channels on the B&W T.V. (abuse!)
- I go to school and my teacher is really mean(mental anguish!)
- I crash my Honda CT-70 and break my wrist (more trauma!)
- I ask Kathy Murphy to the Homecoming dance and she says, "Oh yeah. Sure. Like with you."(rejection!)
- I have to get up at 3AM to work at the Chicago Tribune circulation office at the age of 13 (child labor!)
- etc. (endless rejection!)
Dave Eggers lost both his parents to cancer during a five week period over the Christmas holidays. He had two brothers and a sister. Suddenly orphaned in their early 20's he and his older brother and sister had to figure out how to survive and raise their 7-year old brother. The way the arrangements work out, the oldest Eggers brother moves to L.A. to work in the entertainment industry. Dave's older sister goes to U.C. Berkeley to law school. And at the age of 23, Dave is left to figure out how to make a living and raise his little brother.
A.H.W.O.S.G. is hardly a Hunter S. Thompson rip-off. Here, we can see Eggers's originality. His stream of consciousness has been called "Joycian" by reviewers. People said he was, indeed, a genius.
I found this a captivating book by a young author. The reason, I presume, book editors love to publish stuff like this by young authors is because the rest of us take delight in stories of young people making all the common life mistakes everyone five years older knows how to avoid. As someone 15 years older than Dave, I read his book thinking: "Yah, and you expected THAT to work?"
No matter. There are parts of this journal that absolutely "soar" in terms of wit and intelligence. Lots of heart. Etc. etc. So forth.
Reviews I read suggested that the most heartwrenching scene in A.H.W.O.S.G.. is one in which Dave spreads his mother's ashes over Lake Michigan. Several suggested tears were in order.
I did not find that to be the case. However, I believe the entire book leads to a particular moment in Catholic Church, where Eggers stands to give his eulogy for his mom and turns to see a sparse audience. And that scene did indeed bring a little excess moisture to my eye sockets. But that's probably because I'm not 21 years old. Otherwise I might have thought the ash-flinging scene better.
Now Dave appears on T.V. His books are optioned for movies and he's been asked to direct. Because his parents left him financially stable, he donates all the money he makes on his writing to several charitable concerns involved with teaching young people to write well (or write at all). He founded McSweeney's literary magazine, which comes in web, magazine, and book form.
He's successful and after reading his books I think he deserves to be.
Go Dave, go.
Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin
I turned the last page before bed last night. This morning I have decided this is the best novel I have ever read.
Those of you who have trusted my judgment on literature before have now slotted Mark Helprin's latest into the cubby bearing the peeling dymo label: "dreck". And I really don't care if you do. I can't remember when a book has given me this much enjoyment since his "Winter's Tale". I have read his others and until now "Winter's Tale" was his best. But "Freddy and Fredericka" is magnificent. I'm putting that in capitals so you quote me:
And I don't believe I've said that about any other novel in my life. On a scale of one to ten I give it a 9.7, deducting 0.3 for my perception that it's about 30 pages too long, though even that can be dismissed because they're beautiful pages. Never before have I considered calling in sick in order to stay home and finish a book.
Here is a political farce of the genre of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Here is a love story as tender as Camelot served up by a wandering troupe of middle-aged thespians from Siliphant, Nebraska. Surely the book has been optioned to movie makers by now. (One imagines the young John Cleese and Carol Cleveland in the roles of the Prince and Princess of Wales. It would have to be, had the novel come out 20 years ago. Now a days, who -- Hugh Grant and, I dunno...)
All of the characters in "Freddy and Fredericka" are entirely fictional/farcical, however enough similarities have been sketched in that every one can be identified as a person in the 20th/21st century limelight. Clearly, Freddy is Prince Charles and Fredericka is Princess Diana, but just as clearly they're not. These are the distilled essences of those living humans, packaged in literary flesh and taken to their illogical absurdity.
The premise is that Prince Freddy has proven to be politically troublesome. He's irratic and bumbling and he provides plenty of material for the press on a weekly basis. He launches into presumptious psychedelic speeches on camera. He trips into vats of tar. He wrestles vagrants for clothing. And yet for all his outward clumsiness he embodies a heart of pure gold which the world, so distracted by his constant flailing, never sees.
Likewise, Fredericka is his trophy wife. She's interested mainly in her wardrobe and maintaining a constant presense on the cover of "She" magazine. She gives dedication speeches at orphanages and hospitals. Her mental prowess is enigmatic. At the dedication of the new Samuel Pepys wing of the London Museum she proclaims in her speech,
"No one is more appreciative than am I of the efforts made by Sir Samuel Peppies, who sacrificed himself for his naitive Australia, for its women, for its men, and for the twin causes of Acute Reticular Self Esteem Syndrome -- ARSES -- education, Aboriginal art, and Gandhian self-violence and masturbation."
Several paragraphs prior, she had simply and correctly blurted the Cauchy Integral in an off-hand manner.
Given the possibility of the duo leveling the monarchy, the royal family, through a series of Arthurian sci-fi events causes the prince and princess, naked but for their hracneets -- tiny triangles of golden rabbit's fur worn to preserve modesty -- to be parachute-dropped from a Royal Air Force C-130 over Bayonne, New Jersey with the quest of reunifying the colonies with the mother country.
Yeah, as I wrote that I realized it sounds very strange. How can a book be any good that contains scenes of the Prince and Princess of Wales disguising themselves as Jamaicans and becoming art thieves? Driving at 160MPH on a stolen Harley the wrong way down the New Jersey Turnpike toward Philly. Hopping freight trains and serving tables in cheezy diners. Yes. This happens. And it is funny.
And it just never stops being funny. To me, anyway. Sure, there were longish, 50-page passages where Helprin dove back into the brilliant exposition that made me adore "Winter's Tale". And for all the slapstick and stupidity, he never deals his characters an unkind turn. Though, his satire is most biting when dealing with American politicians. He chooses the Republican presidential primary that brought Bob Dole (Dewey Knott) to challenge Bill Clinton (President Self) to bring contrast to the concept that the grail and the king are one.
Dewey Knott is trailing President Self in the polls by 40 points. In frustration, his handlers suggest he change his name to Alice, Betsy, or Frieda to gain the woman's vote. One enterprising young aide suggests he change his name to "George Washington".
Dewey: "You polled?"
Aide: " Yes, sir?"
"How much did it cost us?"
"A hundred and fifty thousand."
"It better be good."
"It is good. It's very good...when asked, 'For whom would you vote if your first consideration were integrity, trust, and honesty. . .the president or George Washington?' ninety-eight percent chose you."
"Chose me, or George Washington?"
"This is assuming you change your name to George Washington."
"Did you tell them I was going to do that?"
"The people you polled."
"No, we had to maintain absolute secrecy..."
And so on for 550 pages.
Helprin is perhaps a controversial figure in his politics. His missives appear regularly on the right-wing editoral pages of the Wall Street Journal even though he seems, in my opinion, to slather his contempt equally on the right and left. In general, he rails against politicans's self-interest and blatant exhibition of dearth of intelligence. And one can presume from "Freddy and Frederica" that the idea of a brilliantly-educated, physically fit monarch whose entire existence is truely dedicated to the service of country is a mightier and holier force than can be summoned by any American showman politician.
He stops just short of suggesting America could use a king to get out from under the likes of the Clintons and the Bushes, but the implication is there. If you could find the man or woman with a heart of gold who was ready to sacrifice himself for the idea that the land and the people are one -- the Gabriel would instantly descend from the heavens and bless the union between the people and their king.
This is a kind book. It is a sweet book.
For a couple days I read "Freddy and Fredericka" as slowly as I could. Laughing at the jokes ten pages at a time. Loving that by the last page I could cry for the idea that in some universe each of us is embued with the same heart, the same ability to know and deliver true love beneath the cacophony of civilization, and that given the right quest, every one of us has ability to use our strength and find the courage to become king.