Barkan's Briefly Noted
Here are some books to keep an eye on
Last year, I wrote my lament on the lack of book reviews in American newspapers and literary publications. In the twentieth century, many print newspapers employed individuals who wrote about books for a living. To browse blurbs on old paperbacks is to realize, solemnly, how many different newspapers—the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Buffalo News, the New York Daily News—once produced reviews of novels and various nonfiction works. The economic decimation of print newspapers ended this practice because there is nothing particularly lucrative about reviewing books. Reviewing is a cultural service—and when the money was better in media, publishers recognized this well enough. The destruction of magazines and alternative newspapers like the Village Voice, which once produced a well-regarded literary supplement, has only impoverished us further.
There are few conventional publications with large audiences that will review books on a weekly or monthly basis. The New York Times is one of the last newspapers to operate a standalone book review section. The Nation still reviews books in each print issue and has helped revive Bookforum, which remains a vital cultural venue. It has been heartening to see the number of new literary magazines and websites take shape over the last few years, but many of them, at best, will publish lengthy critical essays and mediations about particular books that are already popular and have been reviewed elsewhere. Rare is the singular review, the grappling with one book. I will note that the meditative book essay—I certainly enjoy writing them myself—is far more ameliorative than what a lot of publications do with books today. Rather than offer any kind of critical judgement, these publications do a form of public relations, publishing “best of” or preview lists that are clearly created by people who have not read the books at all. They might do lifestyle coverage, like a soft focus profile of a particular author. Coverage might pertain to a newsy debate in the world of books—Republicans trying to ban them, further consolidation of the Big 5—without wrestling with what’s inside the actual books.
All of this is to say I wish I could remedy the problem myself. Given my prior commitments, I simply can’t write regular book reviews. I would if someone paid me to do them. I would like nothing more. The economics of the media industry, however, keep me off that beat. What I can do is mention books I have read recently and write about them in this newsletter. The New Yorker publishes a “briefly noted” section in every issue that offers capsule-sized reviews of new books. I decided, at the bare minimum, I could do the same here.
Hence, Barkan’s Briefly Noted. Since these are books I am choosing to elevate, the coverage is not going to be scathing. We do need more Kakutani-style takedowns in this Like This or Die culture. In the meantime, I’ll be writing occasionally on books I’ve come across that I believe are notable in some way.
She Calls Me Cinnamon by Lane Chasek (Pski’s Porch Publishing)
Cliff, the protagonist of this unlikely and richly imagined novel, is dead. Rather than rocket off to heaven, hell, or somewhere in between, he exists as a cute corgi named Cinnamon. Cliff happens to belong to his ex-girlfriend, Phoebe, and he is slowly forgetting his life as a human. He’s learning, too, other ex-humans exist as animals, including a priest (now a slobbering, bug-eyed pug) and a squirrel-banker still “screaming about the NASDAQ.” Haunted by the life he once led—Cliff grew up in an affluent section of Lincoln, Nebraska, graduated from business school, and decided he’d rather work late nights at a gas station—he now can’t remember, unlike the other animals, how exactly he died. Can solving this mystery restore his humanity? Is the raven who sings broken pop songs holding all the answers? What about Cliff’s old colleague, who expounds on the psychology of Dilbert and now hovers around Phoebe? Chasek is a deft stylist, and this slim novel is plenty amusing when it doesn’t unsettle. Cliff has learned, well enough, humanity’s unshakeable faith in an everlasting paradise is misplaced. Even the pug priest doesn’t care about God anymore. “Heaven, hell, metempyschosis. It’s all the same for me,” he tells Cliff. “I watch a lot of television now. I can’t believe I neglected television in my past life. Such a waste.”
Stoned by Jill Hoffman (Box Turtle Press)
The poet Maud Diamond is smitten with the much younger Russian, Kazimir, in this riotous send-up of New York bohemia in the bombed out, if lovely, 1970s and 1980s. Kazimir is an artist, theoretically brilliant but doomed by his own instability. Maud has two children from a prior marriage and an all-consuming love of pot. Kazimir, fond of grand gestures like luring a full-grown horse to her apartment, prefers vodka. Her children grow, resentfully, in the shadow of this loving, strange, and absurdly volatile relationship—Lily, as a teenager, turns to a phone sex line to make ends meet—and Hoffman, through Maud’s deadpan first person, keeps the reader locked into each new frenzied episode. Scattered among the novel’s pages are a variety of finely-cut comic gems (“When I was young I was horrified by Eleanor Roosevelt. I thought a woman had to be beautiful.”) and punchy asides that lend the novel its subtle force. The muck and blood of old New York are everywhere, and redemption through art is still somehow possible. Maud, through a windy snowfall, carries a four foot by five foot blank canvas from Pearl Paint (since shuttered). She is like “Odysseus tied to the mast,” now “pirouetting on the sidewalk, trying not to let the thing drag me off my course like sirens’ songs.” Soon she’ll meet another man. He’ll smile at her with “wintery” blue eyes. Another adventure is about to begin.
Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting by Carl Unegbu (Hybrid Global Publishing)
A lawyer and journalist based in New York City, Unegbu came to my attention after I reviewed a book last year on the right-wing comedy complex. Unegbu writes at the fascinating intersection of the comedy and legal worlds, and his book covers terrain I had rarely tackled in my own work. In this book, Unegbu proceeds methodically through past legal cases and episodes in the entertainment industry. He offers a lively introduction to far thornier matters of the law. Can Jay Leno be successfully sued for defamation after he mocked a flight attendant on The Tonight Show? What happens when a Palestinian grocer sues Sacha Baron Cohen for his unflattering appearance in Bruno? Remember when, back in 2013, Donald Trump (then a fading reality TV show host) sued Bill Maher after the Real Time host joked that if Trump could prove he wasn’t the “spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan,” he would give him $5 million? Trump produced his birth certificate (no orangutan listed) and sued Maher in a Los Angeles court for breach of contract. Unegbu, who is adept at distilling legalese into an engaging and fluid prose style, deconstructs why Trump chose to sue over a contract breach rather than defamation, and what safeguards the First Amendment can provide any comedian. On April Fool’s Day, 2013, Trump dropped the lawsuit. All of it may have been amusing except, as Unegbu notes, when such tactics are employed against more vulnerable targets. “Litigation can be a pretty expensive business.”