Archive for October, 2017

Review: Furiously Happy

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

Furiously Happy is Jenny Lawson’s second non-coloring-book. As with her previous work, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, its blog origins are clear in its episodic structure and topical range.  I intend that as a compliment.  Her blog is very popular for many good reasons.

The reasons I find most compelling are Lawson’s charming and effective writing style and bravery in deploying it to share her experiences with mental illness.  Her style is crisp and filled with surprising turns of phrase.  When she is describing a daffy situation or a comical argument, the style carries the reader along as a sprightly passenger – sort of a less repetitive trip through It’s A Small World. When the waters get deeper, her tone keeps readers hopeful and engaged.

And the waters do get deep.  Lawson is bold and unflinching in describing her illness. Mental illness has a stigma.  Even someone who appears to have not only a normal but an extraordinary life, as Lawson does, bears the brunt of that.  She has a powerful capacity to both make the tribulations of her illness clear to those who know the problems in the abstract and to those who have never heard the clinical terms.  Her courage in truth-telling is key to pulling that off.

The work is all personal, and the tone is correspondingly manic.  While I recognize that as an aspect of sharing her illness by sharing her point of view, it does mean I had to step away from the book a few times and cool off.

Overall, strongly recommended.

Review: Bitch Doctrine

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Bitch Doctrine is Laurie Penny’s follow-up to Unspeakable Things, and it has all of the praiseworthy features of that work.  For all of those reasons, it is worth reading.  If nothing else, her comments on the 2016 election are a draw, though she did not include her reluctant and powerful endorsement of Clinton:

Any government leader must be considered an enemy to those who believe in radical change. Hillary Clinton is not yet that enemy but by damn. I hope she gets to be. Hillary Clinton is the sort of enemy I’ve been dreaming of over ten years of political work. She’s the kind of enemy you can respect. I look forward to fighting her on her commitment to climate protection, on workers’ rights, on welfare, on foreign policy. Bring that shit on.

Doctrine has significant structures and bones from Penny’s regular writing gig on the New Statesman (from which I took the quote above) and other places.  Because I follow her writing and social media presence, I’ve seen many of those essays.  My familiarity with them does not dilute their persuasiveness, but does rob some of the more impressive turns of phrase of their surprise.

Her work remains brilliantly composed and thought provoking.  She persuades with remarkable compassion, passion, and eloquence.  And recognizes that people will always disagree.

I found Unspeakable Things to be extremely powerful, but I think a reader can start with Doctrine as well.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: All the Dirty Parts

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Hey, it’s a Daniel Handler book.  This time Handler has metaphorically thumbed through one of his young adult romances and printed all the pages that my horny 17-year-old-self would have memorized the page numbers of.  The trick is that he’s printed only those parts.

His protagonist is a young man (Cole) in the waning years of his high school career who – to be purple about it – is often consumed by passion.  He sleeps around a lot and finds many people willing to do so with him.  Handler inflicts the usual punishment on him: he falls in love. Arguably twice, but not in a Sweet Valley High kind of way.

Handler evokes the witches brew of feelings that love and sex inflame in people in ways that hammer your chest and mist your eyes with a few words.  Cole is real because he’s foolish, wise, callous, and slowly changed.  Watching Handler put him through his paces is intellectually a writing master class and emotionally a fantastic trip.

The trick of doing this by only “turning on the camera” for the dirty parts kept me engaged throughout.  There’s no question about Cole’s unreliability, but trying to piece together missing facts, his deliberate self-deception and his youthful mistakes is a huge chunk of the fun.  That the reader only sees Cole when he’s foaming at the mouth only improves it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Enemies

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Tim Weiner’s Enemies scratched my itch for a well-researched and clear history of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  An unbiased history of such an inflammatory institution is unrealistic, but Weiner does a solid job maintaining a scholarly demeanor as he chronicles the evolution of the institution.

Depending on the context and the audience, the FBI may be a political spy agency, an elite law-enforcement and anti-terrorism unit, a bumbling group of copy trying to learn intelligence work, key federal support in important criminal cases, and a few more things.  Weiner wisely does not lock himself to a perspective or summation of the agency but has clearly dug into the time line of an institution that protects its secrets.  His scholarship includes interviews, documents and the usual broad bases that journalists use in prying these institutions open.

His even handed reportage does not mean he hides embarrassing information or that he makes excuses for the Bureau.  The illegal wiretaps and black bag jobs are all clearly on display and so are the remarkable successes at infiltration and enforcement. While one can guess at Weiner’s sympathies, this reader always had the impression that he was sticking to the facts as much as possible.  The effect is a bit like Jack Webb without the camp factor.

Overall, a remarkably well-executed and comprehensive history.  Strongly Recommended.