Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Half Empty

David Rakoff

The grizzled, cigar chewing editor, who bore a striking resemblance to Parry White, as played by John Hamilton in the 1960's TV series The Adventures of Superman, slammed his hand down on his desk and groweled "Rakoff, go find me another David Sedaris!" Young David Rakoff spent the next month hiding behind stacks of over the transom manuscripts, for which it was his job to write polite rejection letters, wondering where he could find another diminutive, gay, jewish writer of amusing vignettes, who arrived in New York from the boonies with stars in his eyes, only to find himself cleaning houses for a living.

As the deadline approached he grew ever more desperate. Finally one Thursday night, Rakoff, who was cleaning his closet, rediscovered a manuscript which he had written himself, when he first arrived in New York from his native Canada. "Hey, I'm short, gay and Canadian. Why can't I be the next David Sedaris?" he thought to himself. He had been so hopeful, expecting to make it big as a writer, just like Garrison Keillor, except short, gay, Canadian and without a radio show. The next day he slipped his manuscript into the middle of a pile of mediocre over the transoms, and brought them to Parry's office. Take a look at these, chief. I think there might be a Sedaris in this stack.

On Monday morning Rakoff crept into the office, filled with trepidation.  "Great Caesar's Ghost!" Cried the editor, "Bring me the author of this piece at once!" He was holding David Rakoff's manuscript in his huge, ham-like fist. "That's my work sir," said Rakoff.  "Well son, you're fired! And now you are an author. Here's your $100,000 advance," said the editor with a smile.

This is not how David Rakoff became a published author, as far as I know. At any rate Half Empty is his third book, he did labor in the vineyards of publishing for several years and he now claims to make his living by sitting up in his room scribbling away with a no. 2 pencil.

David Rakoff's philosophy of life, main source of comedic material and raison d'etre appears to be the power of negative thinking. This despite surviving a childhood as a "big fag" and two (or was it three?) bouts with cancer as an adult. He says that being kvetchingly funny was, and is, a survival mechanism. Now he gets paid for it, just like Woody Allen.

Half Empty is a series of stories from Rakoff's life, or a very small volume in a long autobiography, built on the new Mark Twain plan, in which the author goes off on whatever topic strikes his fancy until exhausted and then takes another tack. I found it to be quietly chuckling funny in many places and soberingly touching in others. His stories are both tongue in cheek and sincerely real.

As to the question of whether he is another David Sedaris I can only quote the elf in the Christmas gift factory at the North Pole, in The Polar Express, which I watched with my daughter over the weekend: "What are they, mishugenah?"

This post is in the 60th
Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at Atticus Books.

keywords: memoir, David Rakoff, non-fiction

Friday, December 24, 2010

A little known work of literature

At the Blue Bookcase the question of the week is:

 What literary title (fiction or non-fiction) do you love that has been under-appreciated?  We all know about the latest Dan Brown, and James Patterson isn't hurting for publicity.  What quiet masterpiece do you want more readers to know?

The most under-appreciated literary title I know of is  Princess, by Joe Richards.This is a memoir by an artist, who quit his job on Madison Avenue, where he designed newspaper advertising, in order to sail a friendship sloop, restored by his own hands, away from New York, to find an island where he could live happily ever after. By the end of the book he is married with children and living in Florida, still sailing and still fixing his boat. This, to me, is a metaphor for modern life. How many of us have run away from our mundane lives to live a fantasy and found our fantasy to be, perhaps more interesting, but still a mundane, existence.

You can read more about Joe and see some of his art at the website his daughter has set up. She has reissued the book as well.

Literary Blog Hop

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project
The complete and authoritative edition
Volume one

The long awaited first volume of Mark Twain's unabridged autobiography is a great fat doorstop of a book that the casual reader might avoid trying to tackle. In fact more than a third of the volume is taken up by various editorial introductions and explanatory notes that can be safely ignored in favor of the actual words of the great man. This makes it a much easier read than it, at first, appears.

Twain's plan for this autobiography was to dictate his reminiscences to a shorthand secretary. He allowed himself to talk about whatever subject came to his mind at the moment and put it into the book in just that order. It is just the plan that you use when you go after your grandfather with a tape recorder and demand that he say something for posterity. If you keep at it long enough you will have a vast collection of anecdotes which cover a good part of the old man's life and some of it will be true.  This is a good plan, a reasonable plan, which saved a great deal of effort on the part of the author. It makes it a bit hard for the reader, but if you've already read Albert Bigelow Paine's biography, Charles Neider's version of the autobiography or the new one by Fred Kaplan, or even Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It, you will get along just fine.
Twain says that he would like future autobiographies to follow the format that he has created for his. We may have to wait another hundred years to see if his advice will be taken.

The point of waiting a hundred years for the publication of this tome is to allow Twain to say what he really thought on any subject or about any person without fear of offending someone he knows. He must have thought it would take a century to cool down the public reaction to his views on religion, although there is nothing in this volume of the autobiography that comes close to what appeared in Letters From the Earth, which was published soon after his death.

I would like to quote Twain on the subject of Book Reviewers: "A generation ago, I found out that the latest review of a book was pretty sure to be a reflection of the earliest review of it; that whatever the first reviewer found to praise or censure in the book would be repeated in the latest reviewer's report, with nothing fresh added.  . . .  I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades and that it has no real value - certainly no large value." I came to the same conclusion about my second year as an English major. Somehow I persevered long enough to get a BA.

Now that I have written my piece I can go read Garrison Kiellor's pan of the autobiography in the New York Times. My policy is never to be influenced by other reviewers by the simple device of not reading them until it's too late.

This post is in the 59th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at Colloquium.


News has reached me that NewSouth Books, a publishing house in Alabama is bringing out new sanitized editions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the long controversial word "nigger" will be replaced with "slave" and in which Injun Joe will be referred to as "Indian Joe." The publisher's stated goal is to get the books back into classrooms in which they have been dropped from the curriculum due to complaints about the use of those terms.

I know that this has been an issue decades. I have always thought that those who wanted to ban the books were ignorant people who had never read them or who were incapable of understanding what they read. I'm sure that am Clemens is spinning in his grave over this bowdlerization of his work. What do you think?

P.S. Do you suppose that this is where George Lucas go the idea for Indiana Jones?

Note: Even though this was posted in December of 2010, I cheated just a little bit and submitted this as my "best of 2011" blog post in the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup. Click the link and see what a lot of bloggers think was their best post of the year.
keywords Mark Twain, autobiography, memoir

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dissing Dan Brown for a Meme

I have dropped everything else while I read volume one of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. It's a big fat 700 page annotated scholarly work that somehow got filled with folksy anecdotes and irreverencies, vignettes about people like General Grant and Horace Greeley. I'm waiting for some shocking anti-religious diatribes but haven't found any yet.

In the meme-time here is the latest question from Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

"What very popular and hyped book in the blogosphere did you NOT enjoy and how did you feel about posting your review?"

That would have to be The Lost Symbol. I rather enjoyed reading The Davinci Code, but Dan Brown had jumped the shark in the sequel. I rather enjoyed skewering it in my review.