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REVIEW: The Ecstasy of Influence

Author: Jonathan Lethem

2011, Doubleday

Filed Under: Literary, Nonfiction, Memoir, Short Stories, Sci-Fi

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 8

In case you missed it last year, Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, is out in paperback this month. It’s easy to recommend for any fan of Lethem’s work, offering a broad look at his development as a writer and some of his most cherished influences.

But it’s easy to recommend for a few different kinds of readers as well. There’s some interesting music writing in here about Bob Dylan and Rick James, essays about comic books and “Wall Art,” not to mention the Harper’s essay that lends its name to the collection, a surprising meditation on plagarism, copyright, reuse, and creativity. There’s also–and being a fan of Lethem’s fiction, I had not anticipated this–a set of pretty funny stories all featuring Drew Barrymore.

So there’re a lot of reasons you might decide to give this little collection a try, while not forgetting its self-referential structure and its circular conception of itself. Reading the whole thing straight through could be a worthwhile project for the dedicated enthusiast, but cherry picking the bits you find most intriguing is fine too, and probably equally in keeping with the book’s madcap sensibility.

At the very least, you should check out the Harper’s essay, available here or in the heart of this strange survey of the preoccupations of a writer named Jonathan Lethem.

Similar reads: The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, and The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

REVIEW: Ninety Days

Author: Bill Clegg

2012, Little, Brown and Co.

Filed Under: Memoir, Nonfiction

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 3

Ninety Days is Bill Clegg’s follow-up to his 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. While Clegg’s first memoir dealt with his headfirst fall from literary agent to crack addict, his newest purports to follow his slow, capricious path back to sobriety. Its title refers to the first major milestone in a recovering addict’s journey—the first ninety days of sobriety after which a healthy habitual routine stands a fighting chance against the cravings of addiction. As Clegg reports in the book, and as seems to be a standard credo among recovering addicts, the first ninety days of sobriety are the most difficult.

Clegg’s fight against his addiction is definitely arduous. And even though he eventually makes it to the ninety day mark, for most of the book that milestone is lofty and unattainable. He finds himself in a cycle of humility, temptation, and desire that lead to several relapses and oft expressed desires to end it all for good. Even so, I never really cared. As the books action ambles back and forth between attempted recovery and relapse, Clegg fails to evoke any empathy. Yes, I don’t have any idea what it takes to recover from a crack addiction, but when I pick up a memoir about recovery, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little insight into how that recovery feels.


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REVIEW: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Author: Jenny Lawson

2012, Putnam

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Memoir, Humor

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 6

Jenny Lawson is an insane person. It’s a wonder her husband hasn’t drowned himself. Of course, when you’re talking about a memoir by someone who has zero historical impact on the world, insane is good, because insane is entertaining.

Here’s the plot of Lawson’s book: she grew up, went to college, got married, had a kid. She and her husband both work from home in Texas. And occasionally she’ll do weird things like buy a giant metal rooster welded together from oil drums. She’s got a thing for taxidermy (note the dead rat Hamlet on the cover). There aren’t any lessons to be learned from her, or deep insight to be gleaned. Luckily, she is very funny. Lines that seem to come out of left field are plentiful, like this:

I just bought a fifty-year-old Cuban alligator dressed as a pirate.


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REVIEW: Are You My Mother?

[This intimate, intricate graphic memoir is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Alison Bechdel

2012, Houghton Mifflin

Filed under: MemoirGraphic Novel, Literary

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 10

This impressive graphic memoir is a great book, but not in any way I think I’ve read before. The bulk of the novel consists of Bechdel’s therapy-related endeavors. She remembers episodes from her childhood in terms of various infant-development theories, she recounts her own therapy sessions as an adult, she interprets her dreams, she recounts conversations with her mother, and she quotes frequently from academic papers about psychoanalysis. In fact, the act of creating the book itself might have been therapeutic for Bechdel, because, as she says, “for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”

Are You My Mother? is not funny, and the events it recounts are never earth-shattering—especially not compared to the central events of her first book, Fun Home, about her father’s closeted bisexuality and his suicide soon after Bechdel herself came out to her parents.

Instead of relying on these more traditional elements of story, Bechdel indulges her considerable talent for eliciting Nabokov-like patterns from the randomness of the world. She weaves a web of interconnected narrative tidbits—plucked from the entirety of her own life, as well as the lives of her parents, the memoirs and novels of Virginia Woolf, the work and life of Donald Winnicott, and many others—that echo and expand the smallest narrative hiccup until it ripples across the entirety of her existence.
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REVIEW: Out of My League

Author: Dirk Hayhurst

2012, C Hardcover

Filed Under: Memoir, Nonfiction

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 7

Dirk Hayhurst’s previous outing, The Bullpen Gospels, was a success largely due to its ability to relate a deeper life story through the framework of a minor league baseball season. The book was not without its flaws; namely, it didn’t have much of a narrative arc. Still its effortless humor and sentimentality made for a charming memoir that was one of my favorites of last year.

Out of My League, a direct followup, addresses the shortcomings of its predecessor, but falls a little short of recapturing what worked so well before. It’s a very good book, just one that suffers from trying a little too hard.


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REVIEW: West by West

Author: Jerry West

2011, Little, Brown and Co.

Filed Under: Memoir, Nonfiction

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 6

As a player, Jerry West won an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship.He scored more points than any Laker not named Kobe Bryant ever has, and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. As an executive, he put together the “Showtime” Lakers of the 80s, traded for Shaq and Kobe in the 90s, and turned the lowly Memphis Grizzlies into a playoff team in the 00s. He has been immortalized as a bronze statue in both Morgantown, WV (where he played in college) and Los Angeles. His silhouette became the NBA logo.

Despite this long, illustrious, and successful career, West is so emotionally crippled by loss that his autobiography, West by West, reads as if Glass Joe wrote it.
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REVIEW: Five Chiefs

Author: John Paul Stevens

2011, Little, Brown and Co.

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Memoir.

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 9
Informative... 9

In case you hadn’t heard, it’s Supreme Court Season again, which means our nation’s top judges are now hearing cases that will affect your life. Holding top billing, we have The State of Florida (and 26 other co-signing states) v. the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will test the constitutionality of last year’s controversial healthcare overhaul. But this is only one case of many, and, as Atlantic legal correspondent Garrett Epps points out, the majority of the cases the court will hear this session “have huge practical impact but are devoid of drama.”

You might say the same thing about Five Chiefs. Without an ounce of sensationalism or any inflammatory rhetoric, it offers an insider’s perspective on the deliberative processes of our nation’s foremost deliberating body. Stevens presents a historical survey of the Court under each of its seventeen Chief Justices, focusing on the five who sat during the years he was personally associated with the Court, from his clerkship in 1947 until his resignation in 2010.

It’s an eye-opening look at how the Court actually works, from the influence of the Chief’s management style to the long-standing traditions meant to foster cordiality between people who are paid to argue with each other. Five Chiefs won’t keep you up at night, but it will make you think about how we decide some of the most important questions facing the country today… so maybe it will keep a you up at night.
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REVIEW: Open-Eyed Sneeze

Author: Jess Martin

2011

Filed Under: Memoir, Nonfiction, Short-run

Get a copy from Harvard Book Store

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 7

A self-published memoir by a twenty-something detailing that horrible, floaty time between college graduation and embarking on some sort of path into adulthood? You can’t get much lower on the list of books I’d expect to like. Despite that, when Jess Martin released her book through the Harvard Bookstore (where we run the paperback versions of our own literary ventures), I supported a local artist* and read it all the same. I’m really glad that I did. It is, by any measure, a very good read.

The plot, much like the point in her life Martin relates, appears pretty directionless at first. She writes about finishing college and returning home to her parents, where she intended to collect herself before stepping out into the real world. But she finds herself stymied and winds up napping on the couch and emailing the occasional resume.

As the book goes on, Open-Eyed Sneeze reveals a lot of gears turning: it’s at once wacky family drama, a coming of age from a second childhood, and a microcosmic metaphor, all speaking to a generation of talented young adults for whom college degrees are inflated and the job market is deflated.
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REVIEW: Supergods

[This comic book history/treatise/memoir is a C4 Great Read. Find it and other C4 favorites on our Great Reads shelf at Powell's.]

Author: Grant Morrison

2011, Spiegel & Grau

Filed under: Memoir, Nonfiction, Graphic Novel

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

In Supergods, a nonfiction exploration of superheroes as a fictive phenomenon, comic book writer and artist Grant Morrison argues that Superman is humanity’s greatest accomplishment. From anyone else that might be considered a cynical statement; of all the scientific and artistic achievements, across centuries, nothing scores higher than a gaudily costumed, flying strongman born in a medium that’s not even 100 years old?

But Morrison is absolutely sincere—he contends that superhero comics are not just entertainment for children and fodder for blockbuster movie adaptations, but windows into a separate reality populated by gods that fight intensely pitched battles for good, of which Superman is the best and brightest.

Morrison’s is a delightfully optimistic premise, doubly refreshing when considered next to the daily articles and blog posts about the imminent death of the comic book industry. Those writers worry (rightfully so) about relevance, demographics, and market share, while Morrison knows that the stakes are actually much higher. How appropriate that a book about the history and potential of superheroes aims to save the world.
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REVIEW: See a Little Light

Author: Bob Mould

2011 Little, Brown

Filed under: Memoir

Get a copy at Powell’s

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

If you aren’t familiar with Bob Mould, listen to Hüsker Dü’s cover of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”—the breathtaking speed, anger, and emotional muscularity of that performance will give you a good idea of the cultural shorthand that’s been attached to Mould’s name since the mid 80s. Not that he didn’t earn his reputation for peevishness and volatility honestly—he admits as much in this autobiography (note the subtitle: The Trail of Rage and Melody).

Mould and co-writer Michael Azerrad clearly haven’t set out to dispel the image of Mould as a temperamental rocker, but they do argue that the black-and-white image—a 21-year-old wailing his anger and frustration, throttling his guitar as he fronts a legendary post-punk band—that’s just one slide in the carousel. The Bob Mould of See A Little Light is candid and self-effacing, and eager to come to terms with his every incarnation. In fact, Light has more in common with Mould’s songwriting, which is often aggressive but just as likely to be tender and vulnerable.
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