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Riffing on mass-market book titles

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Here at City Paper, we pride ourselves on our highbrow literary tastes -- even in the height of summer. Our beachbags are filled with timeless works of literature: the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, selections from the Gnostic gospels, anthologies of poetry by Jim Morrison -- all the definitive works of the Western canon.

Yet even for us, it's hard to ignore the appeal of more commercial titles. For one thing, book publishers send an armload of them to our office every week. Over the course of a year, we get enough romance novels alone to heat a three-bedroom home -- each book's publisher hoping for that CP review that will vault one of their titles to the top of the bestseller lists.

Usually, we find some sort of use for these books. They make handy doorstops, for one thing, and parents say a book can be a very educational tool -- especially when thrown. But with summer in full swelter, we thought we might try actually reading a few of the titles we found lying around the office, or on the bestseller table of the local bookstore.

Teen novels ... celebrity biographies ... murder mysteries sold by the pound ... what goes on inside those lurid covers? We were by turns bemused, appalled, and sometimes even touched, by what we found. A handful of our selections follows.

 

Elton: The Biography
By David Buckley
Chicago Review Press, 381 pp., $24.95

The big problem with writing a biography of Elton John is that he keeps changing his story. Throughout Elton: The Biography, David Buckley tells then retells anecdotes Elton has told, and that someone else -- or Sir Elton himself -- has later corrected.

Was Elton's relationship with his father awful, or was that an exaggeration? Did Elton really, on a coke binge, ask someone at Hyde Park (or was it somewhere else?) to do something about the winds that had kicked up?

Celeb bios rely on the assumption -- incorrect in most cases -- that a celebrity's life is intriguing enough to sustain an entire book. The result is something like Elton: a bunch of stories, some interesting and some not, hung upon a dramatic structure posited by Gustav Freytag. This is the same structure honed by VH1's Behind the Music: Celeb wallows in obscurity, gets big break, lives large, goes overboard and crashes, then puts the pieces back together.

The book does contain interesting threads. Buckley, a Liverpudlian pop expert, veers at times into a critical retrospective of Elton John's body of work -- something he's clearly capable of producing. At other times, he places John's development as a musician in the context of the larger world of pop music, thus examining cultural development as a whole from the late 1960s onward. There's also, of course, the thread of a famous artist grappling with his sexuality, and how society responds to it.

But in the end, none of these themes is really seized upon. Instead, the book conforms to the mold of celeb nonfiction, the central tenet of which is that people trump ideas. The story it gives of John's life -- the descent into multiple addictions, then his recovery after being scared straight -- sidelines the larger cultural ideas he is uniquely positioned to address.

Buckley's research is exhaustive, and the book came out superbly readable in the end. But because it's established early in the game that we can't always trust Elton, Buckley ends up providing a number of weak anecdotes that illustrate a central theme we've heard before, probably in relation to another celebrity ... or ten.

-- Andy Mulkerin

Beautiful Boy
By David Sheff
Houghton Mifflin, 326 pp., $24

David Sheff's harrowing account of his son Nic's descent from promising, loving kid into meth-addled madness seemed like it would be an easy book to hate. From Sheff's movie-star-handsome author shot to the nonstandard spelling of the malefactor's name -- not to mention that Nic's half-siblings are named freakin' Daisy and Jasper -- this well-to-do family of Marin County neo-hippies seemed a ripe choice for takedown.

I mean, navel-gazing from a journalist about his gorgeous, brilliant and sensitive boy? The granola-chic family collapsing in on itself, with Dad Sheff's head literally exploding in an aneurism from stress? Dad blaming his youthful toking for his son's junkyism by age 21? And all the time they spend in designer therapy?

Sheff's tale begins with Nic's birth, and proceeds into his sainted older-half-brotherhood. Nic is adored by the two wee angels born to Wife No. 2, an earthy painter named Karen who gets through to her stepson in ways few bio-parents can.

Nic's first dabblings with drugs and alcohol are at places like ski vacations and resorts. (Dude, have you never heard of doing bad things in trailer parks with weird older kids with patchy facial hair and names like Kenny?) Meanwhile, indulgent parents sleep in, and assume all the barfing is because of the flu.

From this emerge the practically Shakespearean themes of upper-class families gone awry. Embattled father and self-destructive son. Parents locked in combat for the son's affections. Innocent children in the wake of a life arc that goes far past mere debauchery. Swim meets, for God's sake.

But while I was looking for things to hate -- and reserving the right to sass all the Hawaiian beach reunions and kooky overprotective Montessori-style parenting -- the real bones of the story transcend all of that, and give a great deal of insight into what it is to be a parent or have one, to be an addict or love one. Ultimately, Beautiful Boy is a heart-wrenching description of the hardships that can face families of any stripe or socioeconomic class.

There's no happy ending; the story doesn't really end at all. That lack of resolution forces the reader into the never-safe headspace of anyone touched by the specter of addiction. While this book is likely making the rounds of the beach-blanket set this summer -- along with chick-lit featuring stilettos and pink writing on the cover -- the honest truth is it's a hell of a good read.

-- Melissa Meinzer

Bratfest at Tiffany's
By Lisi Harrison
Poppy, 256 pp., $9.99

There is nothing to spoil in Lisi Harrison's Bratfest at Tiffany's because nothing important happens. The ninth novel in Harrison's Clique series follows the fall from social grace of five whiney middle-school girls -- and their subsequent climb back up to the lofty heights of popularity.

To call this a story of redemption, however, would be misleading. Any character who exhibits moral (or even normal) behavior is ridiculed throughout by the book's quintet, the New Pretty Committee. And in the end, justice is dealt out not on the children of high-fashion snobbery -- who manipulate their teachers and abuse the Losers Beyond Repair they share class with -- but on the very same nerds, geeks and dweebs who foolishly try to assimilate to the NPC way of life.

It's a national embarrassment that, while we've had massive demonstrations to destroy Beatles albums, not a single Clique novel has been torched in a bonfire. Bratfest at Tiffany's is a celebration of American obliviousness, and it revels in the very torments that make adolescence so miserable.

There's loads of enjoyment in watching spoiled, rich brats make complete asses of themselves (see also MTV's My Super Sweet 16), but the act loses its gusto when it abandons its sense of irony. Bratfest at Tiffany's is at best a satire of our self-engrossed society. But if this is satire, it's a decade too late (see also the 1995 film Clueless) and subtle to the point of insignificance.

All of that would be forgivable, if the book were not also painful to read. The pages are cluttered with intolerable Valley Girl speak (OMGs, ehmagawds and puh-leases), and the even more obnoxious product placements: On one page alone Harrison name-drops Starbucks, Poland Spring, Hard Candy and IKEA.

The last defense for the Clique series is that it is purely an escapist fantasy. The readers (presumably mostly pre-teen girls) can distinguish these gross characterizations from acceptable behavior in the real world, much the same way fans of slasher films do. But in both cases, you wonder about that tiny percentage of the audience that can't draw such distinctions, and what real-life horrors these works of fiction may inspire them to commit.

In fact, the next time you're at the mall, surrounded by legions of New Pretty Committee members, ask yourself what you wouldn't do for just one axe murderer.

-- Adam Fleming

The Dark Tide
By Andrew Gross
William Morrow, 438 pp., $25.95

Who doesn't want to make more money -- lots of it, and quickly? In the last couple of decades, I've missed a number of get-obscenely-rich-quick opportunities: junk bonds, cocaine distribution, dot-com IPOs, day-trading, opening a casino, house-flipping and owning an oil company. A lot of these ventures seemed kinda complicated for the layman, and by the time I'd slogged through Frivolous Personal-Injury Lawsuits for Dummies, the bubble had burst.

So I was pumped to discover The Dark Tide, a new thriller from Andrew Gross set in the world of hedge funds, the latest arena for mega-money deals that I don't understand at all.

The press release promised this book would detail the "ruthless financial deals that separate rich from the mega-rich." So I dove in, figuring that after reading a mere 438 "heart-stopping" pages of big print, I'd be primed to start hedging. Or funding hedges, or hedging a fund. Whatever it is they say.

Gross has co-authored five No. 1 best-selling books with James Patterson, himself a veritable one-man beach-book industry. Gross previously ran a sports-apparel firm. (Oh, laugh away -- then try saying "Calvin Klein" or "Ralph Lauren" without adding eight or nine zeroes after their names ...) Gross lives in Westchester County, Conn., where some of the best hedges grow. It all seemed so promising.

The first chapter, though, offered only a few sketchy and not-very-helpful comments about the workings of hedge funds: "large position in Canadian oil sands"; "bet up the six-month natural-gas contracts, at the same time going short against one-years"; and "leveraged up eight to one ... [and] living in high-beta hell." I awaited elucidation. Then -- seriously -- four pages later, Gross' hedge-fund protagonist gets blown up in a terror attack at Grand Central Station.

Readers are left tagging along with his widow, who doesn't know exactly what her husband did except go to Manhattan every day, and a local-yokel cop who ambitiously finesses a hit-and-run into an international conspiracy.

In short, hedging newbies will have to look elsewhere for advice on the sort of financial lift-off that creates "billionaires [ruining] it for millionaires." The book does, however, offer some useful strategies for faking your own death should you defraud your investors.

Apparently, that's not an uncommon tactic among hedgers. Just two weeks ago, a real-life fund manager named Samuel Israel, who racked up 450 million bucks worth of fraud, was re-busted after unsuccessfully faking his own suicide.

But Israel should leave writing to the pros. His farewell note was the deeply unoriginal nugget "suicide is painless" -- better known as the theme song to TV's M*A*S*H*.

-- Al Hoff

Snuff
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 197 pp., $24.95

Six hundred dudes, one woman and a porno flick for the ages ... why wouldn't I recommend this book to City Paper readers?

Because on the whole, author Chuck Palahniuk shoots a blank.

Snuff, the author's ninth novel, revolves around porn goddess Cassie Wright's seemingly impossible feat: a record-setting fuckfest with 600 men. But after starting out as a preposterous, yet relatively humorous, tale about the sex-film industry, the novel morphs into a semi-serious read depicting the horrors of snuff films, the fall of failed actors, and the damage parents can inflict upon their children.

If Palahniuk was trying to translate porno films' miserable script-writing to his novel about the industry, he's succeeded. It's not that he lacks talent: Hell, he wrote Fight Club. His prose here is tight, at times even clever. But by the end of Snuff, it's unclear what greater message Palahniuk is trying to convey.

"This bullshit is worse than the DMV," one of the male actors standing in line complains. So imagine what it's like reading about it.

The story is told through the eyes of four characters: Sheila is the production's coordinator, organizing the chaos of 600 half-naked, erect men waiting their turn to make porno history; Mr. 72 is a barely legal teen convinced that the porn star is his biological mother; Mr. 137 is a former actor trying to rebuild his reputation after word spread about his involvement in a gay-sex scandal; and Mr. 600 is a porn legend who hopes the gang-bang caps off his career.

For much of the story, the four narrators spend their time rambling about their lives, their connections to Wright and their reasons for wanting to be filmed coupling with "a missile crater greased with Vaseline," as Mr. 600, who has starred with Wright before, puts it.

If Palahniuk had simply focused on the absurdity of the porn industry, not to mention the fantasies it often caters to, the book wouldn't seem so disjointed. But it's hard to transition from reading goofily made-up movie titles -- like The Da Vinci Load and Chitty Chitty Gang Bang -- to digesting serious chunks dedicated to the demise of an aspiring actress raped and wasted by the porn industry.

And while the plot has its twists, especially toward the end, even the most surprising are no more creative than the missionary position. For the most part, Snuff is just as forgettable as each of the 600 men Cassie Wright fucks.

-- Chris Young

Somebody's Gotta Say It
By Neal Boortz
Harper, 336 pp., $14.95

Some readers might believe radio talker Boortz's new-in-paperback volume is trying to make the heads of well-informed and thoughtful persons combust in despair. But on closer inspection, Boortz means just the opposite. Like Jonathan Swift's infamous satirical essay "A Modest Proposal" -- in which Swift suggested cannibalizing Irish children to reduce poverty -- Boortz clearly wants to illuminate the absurdities of Libertarian thinking taken to its extreme.

As with Swift's essay, Boortz starts out sounding reasonable: He's pro-choice, pro-evolution and anti-Drug War. Unlike many radio blabbers, he's even fine with gay people. But the fun begins with stuff like Boortz's assault on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Really, who but a satirist would attack the NEA by resurrecting the 20-year-old ghosts of Robert Mapplethorpe, "Piss Christ" and Annie Sprinkle? On foreign policy, who but a die-hard gasbag -- or someone spoofing one! -- would still contend that invading Iraq was about "freedom" ... without even mentioning that country's oil reserves?

But Boortz really flexes his parodic muscles when discussing economics, when he mischievously poses as the kind of half-cocked bloviator who draws a straight line from Hitler speeches to off-the-cuff remarks (about the Super Bowl) by Ted Kennedy.

When Boortz announces that "the very concept of private property is under attack," you'll chuckle. You'll howl when he describes any adult who's earning the minimum wage as "a pathetic loser." But it gets funnier: America's rich are under siege; ensuring that people have food, shelter and health care is slavery; public education is child abuse; and welfare recipients should not be allowed to vote -- while the rich deserve extra votes.

Boortz, 63, writes that he grew up during some of "the best of America's years." Presumably that includes the 1950s and early '60s -- when the top tax rate was more than twice what it is now, and plenty of kids attended public school. Only a real funster, playfully mimicking a right-wing propagandist, would omit such crucial information. And then there are lines like this: "We come into this world with nothing but our bodies and our minds. Those are the assets we bring with us into the marketplace." One can only laughingly imagine Boortz's hard work, in his days as a zygote, to ensure his birth as a middle-class white guy whose main talent is getting people to listen to his radio show.

Of course Boortz is kidding. After all, the "free society" whose absence he laments -- where the rich run everything and most people are out for themselves -- sounds too much like our own to think otherwise.

-- Bill O'Driscoll

How To Be Single
By Liz Tuccillo
Atria, 357 pp., $24.95

From Liz Tuccillo, best-selling co-author of the self-help book He's Just Not That Into You, comes this exploration of sex and cities the world over. The loose, episodic novel centers on a group of five single, professional women in their late 30s and 40s who have started to find dating in New York an impossible task: "just waiting for the fucking needle-in-a-haystack guy who we're going to love, who's going to happen to love us, who we're going to meet just at the time when we're both available and living in the same city."

That premise may sound similar to the HBO series Sex and the City -- of which Tuccillo just happens to have been an executive story editor. But don't mistake this novel for an attempt to cash in on the popular franchise. How To Be Single is totally different. For one thing, it takes place in New York City and elsewhere in the world. (This difference is underscored when a minor character, a young woman in Beijing says, "Do you know that show Sex and the City? I love it so much!")

Our protagonist, Carrie -- sorry, that's "Julie" -- is a single, 38-year-old book publicist who quits her job to travel the world interviewing single women in different cultures for a book. Since the book is to be entitled How To Be Single, you almost feel part of the book's creation. Julie and her close girlfriends bravely battle cellulite, divorce statistics, dead cats, artificial insemination and the underlying paranoia that, by being choosy, you'll realize too late that all the good men are already taken.

Julie's own exploration of singledom is a tale everyone can relate to: a tumultuous, steamy affair with a sensitive, intelligent, fabulously wealthy French businessman whose marriage allows for two-week-long flings on the beaches of Bali. I mean, who hasn't been there?

Additional dilemmas include: whether paying for sex is bad if a woman does it; whether you should quit your job to date full-time; and -- of course -- whether the woman should ever call the man? (The answer: "Don't call him, don't call him, don't call him.")

To be fair, it's not all first-world problems: Beggar children in Mumbai make a brief appearance, as do young Bali men dating older Western women in exchange for financial support.

I won't spoil the ending, but it might have something to do with Iceland's geothermal spas, and discovering your inner Viking.

-- Aaron Jentzen

Summer Reading
By Hilma Wolitzer
Random House, 267 pp., $14.00

The irony of reality TV is that it offers a sort of escape from reality -- the chance to think, "Thank God this is not my life" (or "Oh, how I wish it was"). I myself have mourned countless brain cells lost while mesmerized by The Real World: Hollywood, where cretinism is rewarded with trips to Cancun. Similarly, Hilma Wolitzer's novel Summer Reading is supposed to be a look into the intertwined lives of three women who have more in common than they realize. But really, it's just a literary escapism -- the equivalent of The Real World: The Hamptons.

Summer Reading's connection to literature is as superficial as its characters' connections to each other. Seeking approval from the other trophy wives in her community, Lissy agrees to host the cutely named "Page Turners" book club with some vague hope of making her life better. Her maid, Michelle, picks up a discarded novel while cleaning up after them and, as proof of the power of literature, starts questioning the status quo of her relationship. Meanwhile, old Angela, the hired leader of the club, is cursed with being "bookish," and has always clung to reading. Who can blame her? The characters in her world aren't great company.

But what these women really have in common is an obsession with the idea that "literature teaches us how to live." They hope to define themselves through books instead of through their problems with men and/or women, and yet they manage to do both simultaneously. Angela's still trying to extract excitement from a decades-old adulterous liaison, the defining moment in her life. Meanwhile, Lissy and Michelle are troubled about whether they, like the heroine of Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge, are living "inauthentic lives" with their men. (Which of course, they are.)

All their interest in literature teaches them how to do is ask, "Isn't this stupid problem I'm having like something I heard about in a book I barely managed to read?"

Wolitzer champions reading, but her characters can't seem to stay awake through a full chapter. This book is not without its clever moments, and it's slightly more thought-provoking than reading nothing at all, but its message is dubious at best. Somehow, reading about good books just isn't as good as reading one.

-- Lydia Heyliger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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