So I wasn’t blown away by this list if I’m honest. I’m not eager to buy any of these titles though I do own Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’ (it was a free book acquired during an internship; can’t say no to a free book). The only books from this year that I’m eager to read are ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach and ‘This Is How You Lose Her’ by Junot Diaz. What have been your favourite books of this year (if any)? Or like me, do you find that you read random and sometimes obscure books from any time period?
I finally got round to reading a book by David Sedaris and I think I’m now a bit of a convert. He is funny. That’s all there is to it. It’s a very subtle, arrogant and perhaps even slightly sinister type of humour; definitely dark, but funny nonetheless.
This is a collection of random short stories, scenes from his childhood growing up in a quirkily dysfunctional family and then later, how this family interacts and functions in the present day. As odd as it may sound, he writes with a subtle hilariousness, and it’s irresistible. It’s not the obvious slapstick kind of humour, but more of a ‘this is somewhat inappropriate and probably politically incorrect, but I’m gonna say it, and it doesn’t stop it from being funny’ kind of humour.
The book opens with a story (‘Us and Them‘) about the Tomkeys, a family who lived on David’s street growing up and who didn’t believe in TV and therefore did not own one. David believed this to be a handicap that prevented the family from being able to function normally, hence why the Tomkeys were away on Halloween weekend and thought it ok for trick-or-treating to take place on another day:
‘Asking for candy on Halloween was called trick-or-treating, but asking for candy on November first was called begging, and it made people uncomfortable. This was one of those things you were supposed to learn simply by being alive, and it angered me that the Tomkeys did not understand it.’
What I’ve come to realise makes David Sedaris so popular is that you can relate to him. While I’m not a gay man who’s up in the early hours of the morning trying to drown a mouse in a bucket, with a sister who retrieves and eats food from the trash, living in the French countryside, seeing all my real estate needs met through Anne Frank’s attic (mentally redecorating the space); I see a lot of his thought process in me. I find I can relate to the minute details as it’s in the observation of the little quirks in human behaviour and motivations that Sedaris excels.
In the story entitled ‘The End of the Affair‘, Sedaris goes to see the movie of the same name with his partner and explains why seeing romance on the big screen can make him feel insecure in his own relationship as he feels it reminds his partner that he has other options. This bit in particular made me chuckle:
‘Hugh and I have been together for so long that in order to arouse extraordinary passion, we need to engage in physical combat. Once, he hit me on the back of the head with a broken wineglass, and I fell to the floor pretending to be unconscious. That was romantic, or would have been had he rushed to my side rather than stepping over my body to fetch the dustpan.’
He captures the essence of his characters so well (like the man whose house he goes to clean but who unfortunately mistakes him for someone from the erotic house cleaning service he has also booked an appointment with) with alarmingly peculiar details that I can’t believe are actually real. As corny as it sounds, however, underneath all the funny and in the midst of all the detail is genuine love, warmth and concern.
I kind of understand why Augusten Burroughs is compared to him a lot. They are scarily similar: both gay, both have quirky/eccentric families, and both have this hilarious arrogance to their humour. I don’t think I’m doing this book much justice in this review, but it’s really difficult to pull out funny bits as it has to be understood within the framework and context of the entire story. While there are admittedly some stories in this collection that I wasn’t too keen on, and that weren’t particularly memorable, I think the collection overall is worth a read. Especially if, like me, you’ve never read any Sedaris before and have even a remote sense of humour.
I’ve randomly stumbled upon this amazing book trailer. It’s interactive in that you have to click to keep the story moving, but it slowly (or quickly, depending on how fast you click/read) reveals the heard-before tale of aspiring writers arriving in New York filled with excitement, ambition and a little bit of naivety, only to soon be downtrodden by all the other ‘Been There’ writers out there. This trailer reminds writers to WRITE YOUR STORY, to keep a fierce hold of your naivety, and to ignore all those intent on bringing you down.
Failing that, just murder them.
It turns out that this trailer is for a book called Judging a Book by its Lover which has now been put on the top of my Amazon Wishlist and which I hope someone buys me real soon.
This book can only be described as beautiful. The words heart-breaking, the sentences haunting, the image built washed in sadness, but also with a precise understanding of human emotion. If there’s any book that forces you to think about your place in this world in relation to others, to think of life and death, of grief and loss, of happiness and contentment; it is this one written by Emmanuel Carrère (and translated by Linda Coverdale).
Other Lives But Mine is a creative non-fiction novel, and I’ll let Carrère tell you in his own words what it’s about:
Every day for six months I deliberately spent several hours at the computer writing about what frightens me the most on this earth: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children. Life made me a witness to those two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me – at least that’s how I understood it – to tell that story.
I was instantly drawn in by the first part of the book which takes place in December 2004. Carrère and his girlfriend Hélène are on holiday in Sri Lanka with their respective sons. By sheer chance, on the catastrophic morning of the now infamous tsunami, they decide to remain at their cliff-top hotel instead of going down to the beach. A halfhearted decision that saves their lives. Juliette, the four year old daughter of a young couple they had recently befriended, was playing at the water’s edge when the wave hit.
Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.
Her death and those of thousands around them is a highly sobering event, causing Carrère to reflect on his own life (the night before the wave, he and Hélène had talked about separating). The cold stare of death and the courage of others through adversity allows them to find a new, deeper appreciation for one another. His description of the chaos that ensued and of the conflicting yet honest human emotions experienced post-disaster is truly mesmerising:
Shortly after their return from Sri Lanka, Carrère is once again witness to death; this time, of his girlfriend’s sister (also Juliette) to cancer. At just 32, she left behind a husband and three small children. Juliette had already suffered from cancer as a teenager, the treatment leaving her with one paralysed leg and the other partially so. Despite this setback she went on to succeed, graduating from law school to become a ‘good’ judge on a defiant pursuit of justice.
Juliette and her family live in a small French town called Rosier, living a life that is stripped back to basics. A life in Rosier was ‘life as it appeared in TV ads, average in all things, devoid not only of style but also of the sense that style might be something to strive for.’ It is a life that Carrère readily admits he does not want but recognises that choosing to live there is to choose love.
It is after her death that Carrère decides to start writing this book, first interviewing her close friend and fellow judge, Étienne (who has also lost a leg to cancer), and then her husband, Patrice. This is the part where I felt the book faltered. We spend a lot of time focusing on Étienne’s life and work and in trying to explain how together they were greats judges, I felt Carrère focused too much on the legal details and duly got bored. That’s the only time that I put the book down.
It’s probably worth mentioning that this book can be classed as metafiction because quite a bit of space is spent discussing the writing process and the actual text itself, almost as if to justify its authenticity or indeed Carrère’s credibility as a narrator. He is incredibly open about bits of the book that he considered leaving out or sought approval from his subjects before publishing. This whole project appears to be almost cathartic.
Juliette’s courage in the face of death and the courage of little Juliette’s parents to go on after the tsunami gives a real insight into human resilience and into the nature of love and acceptance. Carrère always found himself lacking and I suppose what he is ultimately trying to explain to us is that these two deaths have taught him how to love and be loved in return. Seeing Juliette on her death bed in Patrice’s arms is enough for him to know that her life has been a success.
This book is a contemplation on mortality and by extension, the strength of the connections we make with other humans while we are alive. There’s a line that Carrère reads from his hotel magazine in the aftermath of the tsunami that stuck with me: “If we knew how vulnerable it makes us, we’d never dare to be happy”, a sentiment he says does not concern him as he has never dared to be happy. Makes you think…
Although distracting in sections there are parts of this book that are, to quote a reviewer, ‘sheer brilliance’. The writing is unadorned, simple; yet it is searing. Carrère is certainly one to look out for. Will definitely look to reading some of his other titles.
The award for the most self-centred, arrogant **** (I realise there are numerous four letter insults out there, so feel free to insert as you feel appropriate) must certainly go to Truman Capote. I suppose we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but, having watched Capote (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman) the other night, I was really repulsed by the picture that was built of this legendary writer.
I read In Cold Blood almost ten years ago, randomly picking it off the library shelves without being fully aware of who Capote was and that this specific title is considered to be one of the American Greats. I just thought the story was quite interesting and was going through a ‘criminal minds’ phase. I should probably clarify that my mid teenage years were not spent devouring Great Novels and philosophising about the morals associated with obtaining a Subject for one’s next work of literature over a glass of red. I drank coke and watched The OC all day (Seth and Summer 4eva, haha).
I’m sure you all know the story surrounding In Cold Blood so I’m not going to dwell on that, except to say that Capote chose to write a non-fiction novel based on the murder of a family in a small Kansas town. He soon developed a relationship with the two murderers (Perry Smith and Richard Hickock) once they were caught ( I, personally, don’t believe all that nonsense about Capote having a romantic/sexual relationship with Perry), and proceeded to plow them for information so that he could write his book. The book was not completed until after the killers had been executed; their death necessary for a tidy finish to a book that took years of research to complete.
Is the sacrifice of a human life required for the next Great American Novel to be written? I mean, how far can writers be allowed to go in order to produce good work? I’m probably being a little overdramatic, but when someone’s death is required for you to satisfactorily complete your novel, then surely something is not quite right. To allow these people to trust you and then swiftly deceive them, purely as a means to your own end, does not sit right with me. But where do writers go for story ideas these days? (We know journalists in the UK hack phones, haha).
The killers were indeed killers, there’s no mistaking this, so should I be overly concerned about their well-being or the way in which they were treated when they obviously had little concern for the well-being of the Clutter family when they murdered them?
The years surrounding In Cold Blood were arguably the most important in Capote’s life. It’s difficult to determine what led to his alcoholism and eventual demise. Why was In Cold Blood the last piece of good work he produced?
Ultimately, I appreciate that Capote is indeed a film, that there’s obviously creative licence and it makes for a better film if he’s portrayed as an a**hole. I haven’t carried out extensive research to establish what is true and what isn’t, but what I did find was not conclusive. I did, however, find this interesting interview with The New York Times where Capote talks about his writing process, how he defined a new genre, and how amazing he generally is. He will probably always be a mysterious character and will be talked about for years to come. I just needed to vent because that film just made me so angry, but the truth will hopefully be clarified one day so I can determine whether he really was either the unintrusive author or the manipulative opportunist. Or both.
I’ve never actively thought about ketchup. I frequently put some on my burgers, less frequently so on my fries (more of a ‘on the side’ kinda girl when it comes to fries or better yet, just plain salted), have maybe moved into the more complex world of barbeque sauce in recent years just to switch things up a bit, but have never really sat down to think exclusively about ketchup. It is just ketchup after all. And I can honestly say I never buy ketchup for at-home use. But then Malcolm Gladwell can really get you thinking about things that you wouldn’t normally spend more than a minute (if even that) contemplating otherwise.
I bought a copy of his book, What the Dog Saw, from a second hand bookstore a while back and have dipped into it on occasion, randomly reading one of his many essays originally seen in The New Yorker.
In his essay titled ‘The Ketchup Conundrum’ he states how mustard now comes in dozens of varieties and asks why ketchup has stayed the same. He tells the story of Grey Poupon mustard and how it managed to claim a large segment of the market from French’s through clever advertising, thereby opening the door to variety in the mustard market.
He then tells us about Jim Wigon, an entrepreneur peddling his World’s Best Ketchup brand, hoping to achieve what Grey Poupon did. His aim was to build a better ketchup and he attempted to do so with six different flavours. Sounds good in theory, not so hot in practice.
Gladwell then gives us some background information in the form of a food tester and market researcher called Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz conducted some ground-breaking research for the food industry back in the 70s. When working with Pepsi and Campbell’s, he discovered ‘the plural nature of perfection’. By this he meant that there was no one perfect spaghetti sauce, for example, that would appeal to everyone. Diversification was the answer, a way to cater to different tastes. This might not sound particularly ground-breaking to you and I today, but back then, the food industry worked around the idea that there was a single product that tasted perfect.
Another thing that Gladwell talks about that I found particularly interesting was that information collected from regular focus groups where consumers are asked what it is they want from a particular type of product, is not to be trusted: ‘Moskowitz does not believe that consumers[…]know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist.’ Apparently our minds are limited and we have to be told what we like, or maybe we’re just dishonest. Gladwell illustrates this idea with a very good coffee example in the video I’ve posted below.
So when we come back to Wigon and his World’s Best, we see that he was ultimately exercising the Moskowitz theory but not selling enough to make even a marginal difference. World’s Best is one of dozens of gourmet ketchup brands that struggle. Yet Heinz Tomato Ketchup continues to grow year after year, never really tampering with their formula or bothering to experiment much (I’m not going to go into depth about taste perception: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami because that’ll prove to be rather lengthy). I found these two taste tests that were conducted between American ketchup brands and interestingly, Hunt’s and America’s Choice came out on top. Never tried Hunt’s so can’t really comment, but they still trail way behind Heinz in terms of market share. What is it about ketchup that makes it an exception to the Moskowitz rule that we now see being used for pretty much everything that can be bought in a supermarket?
I don’t know how long ago this article was written, but thought, surely things have changed now. Actually, I’ve just checked, it was 2004, and I’d like to think that consumers are now more sophisticated and more willing to experiment with different flavours etc. The emphasis on food has changed; it plays a much bigger part in our lives than it used to. The abundance of cooking shows and different dining experiences have turned every John and Jane Smith into a food critic. Food has become an entirely sophisticated affair and people are more discerning.
I’m not quite sure when this shift occurred, but I remember something a friend of mine was telling me earlier this year. She was saying how her priorities had changed quite a bit in recent years. She’ll go to a restaurant and not think twice about spending £30 on a meal, but a few minutes later, she’ll find herself in a clothing store and spend almost half an hour deliberating on whether to spend £10 on a top before ultimately deciding it wasn’t worth it. And as she was saying this, I realised how true this was for me too. I’d mindlessly spend £20 on a gourmet burger and sides (served with a slightly advanced ketchup, I’m sure, haha), and then agonise over a £4 necklace. Food has become more important to us. No more shopaholics, but foodaholics. I realise that there are still a very large number of people out there with a shopping problem, but I’d like to think that the Food Phenomenon is slowly catching up.
So what was my point again? Yes, the ketchup. To introduce an element of luxury to the most unsuspecting things has become very common now. The most basic food items have been spruced up and so ketchup must follow. And it has. Sort of. This obviously meant that I had to now find out what ketchup flavours were out there. Not an awful lot of variation from Heinz in the UK (they have chili/fiery chili, Indian spices, and balsamic vinegar) and no other brands came up when I Googled ‘gourmet ketchup’. So it seems when push comes to shove, people will always opt for plain old ketchup, plain old Heinz. But WHY??
The essay concludes by quoting Moskowitz: “I guess ketchup is ketchup.” Do you agree? Like coke is coke (Pepsi is just NOT the same, do not even get me started!)? And can you think of anymore ketchup flavours that have made it into the mainstream?
If you’d rather listen to Malcolm talking about some of these ideas, I found this video equivalent on Ted.com. He’s a really engaging speaker.
So it’s nice to occasionally stray from fiction. And it turns out you don’t even need to buy the book because the article can be found on his website.
This book will make you laugh. A lot. This is a guarantee. So if you want to laugh, buy this book. Or the ebook. Simple.
What isn’t quite as simple are the ideas explored in this book. It looks at the notion of ‘blackness’ and how these perceptions are formed. These concepts are essentially rooted in stereotypes (mostly negative), and ‘are limiting and simply inadequate to the task of capturing the reality of blackness. The ideas of blackness that make it into mainstream thought exclude too much of the full range of who black people are.’
For someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into this stereotypical mould, this book was comforting as I’ve grown up with my ‘authentic blackness’ constantly being questioned. I wrote about my experiences on the How To Be Black blog a few weeks ago, check it out here.
Through reading this book, I re-evaluated my sense of self and grew more comfortable with the notion of creating one’s own identity. Don’t get me wrong, this book is very much tongue in cheek and effing hilarious, but ultimately, it goes one step further and looks at what it means to be an individual, irrespective of your race. I believe Derrick Ashong, (musician, entrepreneur, TV host), explains this perfectly:
“People will always find ways to determine who is in and a part of us, and who’s an outsider. And part of that is because…I define me to some degree in the context of you. I’m not just me existing in the world. I am, in part, me because I’m not you. We are part we because we’re not y’all.”
And failing that, you can always read this book to learn how to be the Black Friend, how to speak for all Black People, how to be the Black Employee, and of course, how to be the Angry Negro. Skills that are important for everyone to have.
And p.s., this book is for all races.
If you’ve read this book, get involved in the conversation! Let me know what you learnt (if anything) from reading it, or even just share your experiences with identity (we all have a story!). Go to http://howtobeblack.me/ for more.