Archive for March, 2011

March 30, 2011

About books about books

I planned to read more Russians this year, and I’m still hoping it will happen. But a number of other factors (including a larger project that I seem to have let myself in for) have coincided to make sure that my reading thus far has had a different theme – that of books about books. I’m not counting literary criticism here (since that is necessarily about books) but I’m thinking of characters in books who read and think about what they read. So far this year these books have included Jo Walton’s Among Others, Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built. I’ve also read the most recent Karen Joy Fowler collection and Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, both of which engage with other works of fiction though not as directly. I’ll certainly soon be rereading Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family. I might even reread Northanger Abbey, since I haven’t visited it in a few years.

But: what next? What am I missing that has a protagonist’s reading as a major part of its plot? I need recommendations, internet.
March 28, 2011

Shatnerquake and Left of Cool

A couple of weeks ago I started writing a new column. Left of Cool will appear in The Sunday Guardian every Sunday. Aadisht Khanna and I (on alternating weekends) will be talking about books that are mildly odd or completely bizarre or just generally obscure and wonderful. This week (most serendipitously the week of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s 80th birthdays) I chose to focus on Jeff Burk’s Shatnerquake.

The review in the paper can be found here; an edited version is below.
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William Shatner fascinates me. Even now, after decades of seeing him in other things and knowing just how far he is from one’s mental picture of what a dashing, heroic space captain ought to look like, it is possible to watch one of the original series episodes of Star Trek and have a crush on Captain Kirk. It makes no sense.

The internet is fond of a certain game. It is called “Who would win in a fight?” Popcultural figures are pitted against each other in imaginary duels, as people conversant with these figures and their skillsets work out what possible strategies and advantages they could possibly deploy against each other. Superman vs Batman? Alien vs Predator? Chacha Chaudhary vs Godzilla? Who would win in a fight between a William Shatner character and another William Shatner character?

Jeff Burk goes a step further in his book Shatnerquake. The question Burk asks is this: who would win in a fight between all the characters Shatner has ever played and Shatner himself?

The story, if you can call it that, is as follows. William Shatner is at a convention for William Shatner fans. Unfortunately, so are a group of Campbellians, fans of Bruce Campbell (who has also had an odd acting career, though not quite as much of one as Shatner). These Campbellians, having infiltrated the convention, set off a “fiction bomb” which brings all the characters Shatner has ever played into this reality, where they cause chaos and destruction.

The result is both less stupid and more awesome (depending on how you the reader feel about very silly books about cultural icons) than it sounds. Every other line is a reference to something or the other that is Shatner related, and it would take a serious connoisseur to unpack the full extent of the book’s allusiveness. As a mere dilettante myself, I suspect I only picked up the most obvious references. So you have Captain Kirk killing innocent fans dressed as Klingons and sexually harassing other innocent fans dressed as Orion slave girls, T.J. Hooker yelling at people, and bewildered bystanders witnessing spoken word performances. When he speaks, Shatner keeps making the random pauses that we know him for. There is a man in a red shirt whose name (it is Stephen) Kirk refuses to know. The plot of Shatnerquake itself might be a reference to the actor’s appearance in a skit on Saturday Night Live, in which he insulted a convention-ful of Star Trek fans. The book even has a two-dimensional animated Shatner, invisible when he turns sideways. And somehow (and I cannot give Burk enough credit for this) it is actually readable.

Perhaps Shatnerquake could not work if it were about almost any other celebrity figure. But as Burk himself points out in a letter to Shatner at the beginning of the book (it ends with the postscript “please don’t sue me”), one is never quite sure whether the actor is acting, when he is parodying himself, when he is serious. Shatner has had quite a bit of success spoofing James T. Kirk, but it’s more than that; as Burk says, “[His] entire life has become an elaborate work of performance art”. The actor has been blurring the lines between actor and character for so long now that it makes perfect sense that they should be completely obscured in this manner; there simply isn’t a Shatner-persona we can take as more ‘real’ than any of the parts he has played. From this perspective the book ties in perfectly with the larger piece of art that is Shatner’s own life.

The first page of the book carries a list of the author’s other works, among them Shatnerquest and Shatnerpocalypse. I suspect that neither of these books exists, but so strange is this actor’s career that I would not be surprised if they did. Or even if he had written them himself.

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March 10, 2011

Jean Webster, Dear Enemy

In my regular column for this month’s Kindle Magazine I talk a bit about my discomfort with Daddy-Long-Legs and conclude that Webster’s Dear Enemy is far better.

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I have a rather complicated relationship with Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs. When I discovered it (I was 11 or 12 at the time, I think) I loved it; it was exactly the sort of thing a girl that age might be expected to love. Brilliant, funny orphan Judy Abbot is sent to college by a mysterious benefactor (an anonymous trustee of the orphanage where she has grown up) on the strength of one humorous essay. Her benefactor’s only condition is that she write to him regularly and she does so, giving him the nickname Daddy-Long-Legs. While at college she meets the gorgeous young uncle of one of her classmates. Gradually she falls in love with him, but hesitates to tell him the secret of her background. Of course it turns out that he is her mysterious benefactor and it all ends happily.

As a grown-up, I find that I have my doubts. It’s difficult to be wholly supportive of a relationship where the (older, richer) man is deliberately manipulating and keeping information from the woman. Not to mention the inherent (and I’m sure unintended) creepiness of Judy’s calling her future partner “Daddy”.

If Daddy-Long-Legs is a teenage girl’s book, its sequel, Dear Enemy (1915), is a book for adults. Dear Enemy tells of the adventures of Sallie, Judy’s college friend, as she attempts to take over and refurbish the orphanage. Like the first book, Dear Enemy is told entirely through letters; Sallie writes to her fiancé Gordon, to Judy, and to the grumpy local doctor who she soon begins to refer to as her “dear enemy”. It is obvious from the beginning, when we learn that Judy and her husband disapprove of Gordon and are hoping Sallie will fall for the doctor, how this is going to go.

But for all its predictability, Dear Enemy is a surprising leap forward from the first book. Daddy-Long-Legs has its moments of seriousness, but Dear Enemy has long conversations about things like whether or not eugenics works, women’s rights, how institutions should function; it’s a book that treats its characters and (more importantly, perhaps) its readers like grown-ups. And unlike a number of other books with similar settings (many of them written much later than this one) it manages not to patronise or romanticise or become twee.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is Gordon. We the readers know how this is supposed to go – the heroine of the last book disapproves of this man, he is a charming politician, surely he will turn out to be a cad and she will turn to the taciturn doctor? And yet this plot, familiar as it is, would have diminished Sallie. Instead we are shown a man who is really quite nice, though he has his flaws, and with whom she could have been happy. The break-up, when it comes, is amicable and blame is not flung around. Readers of romance will know just how rare this is.

Dear Enemy was adapted into a TV series in the 80s so can hardly be called obscure. Still, it’s a lot less famous than the book it follows, and that strikes me as rather unfair.

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March 6, 2011

Nicole Polizzi, A Shore Thing

If I have one regret over writing and reviewing A Shore Thing it is that the sunburn scene did not make it into my review due to lack of space. Gia, the protagonist of the story, gets a job at a tanning salon called Tantastic. An attractive but pale young man comes in for a tan and she gives him a light one (out of consideration for his skin). He invites her to a party at his house. Unfortunately he decides in the intervening time that his tan is not sufficient and takes matters into his own hands; as a result, a couple of days later, Gia arrives to find the young man naked, bright red, and in considerable pain from the sunburn all over his body. Amazingly her presence still manages to excite him enough that they can spend a few minutes chatting about whether his engorged penis most resembles a barbershop pole, a candy cane or a Dr Seuss hat before he begs her to leave because the pain is too much to bear.

Between this and the numerous descriptions of people doing shots out of each other’s navels, I found the book a pleasant and instructive experience.
A version of this review at Guardian20, here.

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If you consider books important at all, it’s easy to believe that the celebrity novel signals the end of literature. These books are generally terrible, the people they are about have lives that manage to be both expensive and uninteresting, and most of them are ghostwritten, so that they don’t even feel like they have basic integrity. And (to rub it in further) most of them are bestsellers.


By any normal standards, therefore, A Shore Thing by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is an abomination. Snooki is known for her work on MTV’s The Jersey Shore, a reality show that apparently features a group of Italian-American housemates spending their summer at Seaside Heights in New Jersey. Snooki is perhaps the best known of the group – though as someone who does not watch the show I cannot really explain why.

A Shore Thing tells the story of the well-meaning but accident-prone Gia Spumanti (based on Snooki herself) who is spending the summer in Seaside Heights with her cousin Bella (based on fellow Jersey Shore star Jenni “JWoww” Farley). While Gia gets a job at a tanning salon, accidentally becomes a YouTube celebrity and attempts to mend her new employer’s broken marriage, Bella works in a gym and makes a series of terrible romantic choices.
In many ways A Shore Thing feels like a rather awkward young adult novel (which makes sense; though it hasn’t been specifically marketed as one the show’s audience would seem to skew that way) with its story of girls Finding Themselves over the course of one summer. It emphasises such important moral lessons as the fact that date rape is bad, that education is good, that eating disorders should be avoided because it’s perfectly okay to love one’s “badonkadonk”. On the other hand, much of the humour seems like it could have come straight out of American Pie. One long and cringeworthy scene involves laxatives and men’s bathrooms; a romantic date ends with a jellyfish sting and the inevitable urination.


However banal and juvenile this may sound, A Shore Thing is bizarrely entertaining. It’s hard to tell how much of this is due to the work of Valerie Frankel, Snooki’s “collaborator” on the book. In the acknowledgements Frankel is thanked for “help[ing] me translate my ideas onto the page”. Yet frequently the book reads more as a parody of The Jersey Shore and Snooki herself than anything else. For example, we see Gia “dancing on the spot to music that, like dolphins and small dogs, only she could hear”. We learn that “[s]he loved dancing and was talented too. Gia won a contest in high school for shaking it the longest and hardest without spilling a drop of her vodka tonic”. And she’d like to wear orange, but “that was too close to her skin tone to pull off”.
When she overhears an acquaintance saying harsh things about her and kicking over a trash can in her rage, Gia’s outrage is entirely for the harm caused to the community. “Go ahead, call me a fat whore, she thought, but for God’s sake don’t litter!”


Gia is not the only character to be the victim of what seems like constant mockery. Linda, a character who once had a party with a friend where “they each ate three cookies” also comes in for some of it. We learn that one of the things she admires about her boyfriend Rocky is that “he loved to fight. When Rocky pounded down some kid because she asked him to, Linda felt loved and treasured.”

A subplot in which two men compete to manipulate, pick up and sleep with women is another clue that this might all be a really bizarre satire. The competition bears a distinct similarity to another reality TV show, the genuinely disturbing Keys to the VIP. Then there’s a gloriously meta moment where an entire, naked, room of spray-tanned women discuss the “bend and snap” seduction technique from Legally Blonde and unleash it on an innocent delivery man.

If it is a spoof the question remains; does Snooki know?

Then there’s the fact that this book is so quotable. A bridesmaid claims that “Nothing says ‘I, like, love you’ like a spray tan. An incident where Gia accidently trips over a shark and finds herself standing rather too close to it gives rise to the greatest line in the book (and I suspect in literature for 2011): “Don’t eat me, bitch”.

All told, for all its banality and lack of depth it’s hard to hate A Shore Thing. There’s something so innocent and earnest about it – this is a world in which date rape can be avenged through a paintball game, where a house burning down is no big deal, and where the guy who stole your car probably only wanted to refurbish it. It is bizarrely appealing. If this is the death of literature it’s a lumbering, adorable puppy of a death.


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