Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Truth Lenders: A Multimedia Novel by Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen

The Truth Lenders: A Multimedia Novel
by Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen

2510: After the wars, science progressed to the point where other species live and work among the reduced human population. A pharmaceutical news conglomerate called News Now! Corporation controls much of this post-progress society, in which anti-establishment, anti-corporate critics are regularly persecuted and atomically rearranged into more useful items — say, vegetables or water for a struggling third world nation. The island of Manhattan no longer exists; in its place is the undercity Atlas, domed beneath the ocean, climate controlled and accessible by the subway-like trundcar. Children are taught The New Language Model in their Zen English classes, with hopes of phasing out language in order to attain enlightenment. Reading has fallen out of favor with so many voice-activated devices and there are only two remaining independent bands on the planet. Amidst all this is a news anchor, Sammy, a beautiful woman who the entire world has come to know and trust.

Architect and designer Peter Scharber, along with his colleague Donaldson West, are part of the team testing News Now! Corporation’s latest venture — a pill that takes subscribers inside any news story while they sleep. Sammy guides them as the story appears to happen in real time, and by the time a person wakes, they are informed. Before long Peter and Donaldson begin suspect that the company is up to something far more sinister than the easy distribution of information.

In her first novel, Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen (pronounced Twee Zoh Win) has created an entire world where she explores creativity, realism and metaphysics. Much in the same way one has to adjust to reading works written hundreds of years ago, there is a lot of new information to absorb. Realizing this, the book is peppered with footnotes to provide a greater sense of place. Early on Peter and Donaldson discuss the Sammy Brain Project:

“Right now they’re injecting nanosensors into her skin, and it doesn’t hurt because they’re so nano from the shrinking algorithms (18).”

Rather than have the characters reveal information that they would already know, the reader jumps to the bottom of the page for an explanation:

18 Atoms, theoretically, are mostly empty. The nucleus of any particular atom is a volumetrically small fraction of the atom, while the electron cloud is a tiny fraction of both mass and volume. Scientists went and compressed that wasted space in the development of shrinking technology. As a side benefit, no more jail overcrowding.

The story has a subtle, meta humor, one that calls attention the fact that it is indeed a book with a reader, and that the writer and reader have present-day knowledge. There are jokes about fonts, picas, books and culture that are especially funny if one has ever worked in the publications industry. Broadsheet newspapers are considered rude in this world because they take up so much space, therefore interfering with the personal space of others. Instead, Atlas has a more “acceptable” newspaper (knowingly called The Atlas Shrug), which comes in a width of 46 pica — roughly the same width as the human headspan. All of its stories are corporation and government approved. In opposition is an underground form of journalism, operating in basements and printing stories about corruption, all while planning a creative uprising, the Nostalgia Movement. They want to show the value of the history, justice and free-thinking, for “There is nothing more valuable than something true and authentic.”

What makes the novel multimedia? Beyond textual footnotes is an enclosed CD that is referenced throughout the story. When the mainstream and publically-traded band SpynSpeck [Spine-Speck]’s trademark song, “Duck Wave Function,” is mentioned, a footnote directs the reader to the appropriate track. There, one can hear just what a deconstructural, robo-rock pop band sounds like and how they recycle small fractions of existing songs into new ones. “They contributed to a post-post-postmodern musical movement in which new styles challenged what people classified as true music,” a footnote informs.

Telegrams, news broadcasts, and single lines of dialogue are also represented on the CD, and while it might be occasionally cumbersome to have the CD queued up while reading, it does add a certain level of engagement to the experience. Whole essays and articles have been written about the trouble with writing about fictional music, about how the reader interprets a audible medium by absorbing it visually instead, but Thuy saves the reader the trouble.

Of course, this begs the question: Is the Footnotes CD a mere bonus feature, or is it like the News Now! pills, “helpfully” informing the reader without that pesky burden of self-interpretation? Perhaps it is just one more meta moment in a meta-futuristic novel, a wink towards the plot itself.

The Truth Lenders also acknowledges that no creative work is a one-(wo)man show. Thuy self-published the novel with the help of other designers, musicians and artists who live in and around the Spokane, Washington area. The Footnotes CD was produced, mixed and mastered by Joe Varela of Black Lab Recording Studios in San Francisco, a man who gets a nod within the story itself every time “Varela University” is mentioned. There are extensive credits as to who did what at the back of the book, as well as a list of recommended reading that informed the story. Musicians Kevin Long, Dane Ueland, Ross Robinette contribute their fictional selves to the CD, as well as Spokane writers Kurt Olson and Isamu Jordan. No person pulls all their ideas from the ether after all, so even the sources for jokes receive credit.

The end result of all this collaboration is an entire world which takes some time to acclimate, but provides plenty of thought-provoking ideas. And while, yes, the story is more concept-over-character, the characters are rendered clearly. Their history unfolds gradually as society begins to value the past again. While there’s a lot going on and infinite details to digest, it’s helpful to just keep going, trusting that all will align in the end. The Truth Lenders is possibly a one-of-a-kind effort, original both in its content and delivery, and for that, Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen deserves utmost praise.

Friday, April 30, 2010, Empyrean Coffeehouse (171 S. Washington, Spokane, WA) will host the Truth Lenders release party, from 7-10pm. Musicians featured in the book will play as their fictional selves, and all people involved will be available for signing. $5 gets you in the door, with the book available at the discounted rate of $12 (regularly $17). RSVP on Facebook here.

For those interested in purchasing the book outside of the release party, contact Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen at truthlenders [at ] gmail [dot] com or visit truthlenders.com

Note: Since the release of the event poster, Dane Ueland has since had to cancel his appearance. Book layout and design, as well as the event poster design, by Chris Dreyer of Dreyer Press.

EDIT 1-24-11: This review now also appears on Used Furniture Review.

Book #26/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Excerpt from Hollywood Expatriate

(This is what I read during the Olive It Cafe Reading IV, April 16th. Since I'm more actively working on this story now, this will likely be the last excerpt I'll post. What I read is a moderately poked at first draft effort, so of course this is all subject to change. For other excerpts, just click on the 'fiction' label at the end of this post.)

Excerpt from Hollywood Expatriate
by Sara Habein

Before I could bring my head out from beneath the covers, I already knew my ex-girlfriend, Cal, sat in the chair across from my bed. Her fresh from the shower and caffeinated presence remained an unmistakable cloud.

“Your phone is ringing,” she said.

Why are you here?” I patted around on the table next to me in search of my glasses.

“Answer your phone. It’s annoying.”

I groaned and reached for my shirt on the floor before taking a look at her. She had on a giant brown sweater and jeans, one riding boot perched against my bed post. She tossed the phone at me. “It can’t possibly be that important,” I said, but not wanting to give her any more attention, I answered without looking at the number.

My mother didn’t bother to return my hello before she launched into it. “Dominic, darling, did you watch the nominations this morning? Two for me, can you believe it? Of course, I knew the Andrew Jackson miniseries would come out to something because those things always do, not that I did it for that reason, but the other? No one thinks twenty minutes of screen time in a comedy gets nominated. So did you watch?”

I looked at the clock and saw that it was not quite seven in the morning. “No, Mom, sorry I missed it. But congratulations all the same.”

“Thank you, darling. I’ve already called your sisters, and Rebekah said that she’d sent flowers as soon as she heard. You know she’s starting previews tonight.” I heard some shuffling of papers and then her voice shifted away from the phone. “Oh and here they are! Andre, you can put them by the window there.” Then, back into the phone, “He had an event in Las Vegas and they’ve comped him the most beautiful suite.”

Andre’s my mother’s boyfriend. French. Former teenage model, now thirty something “actor.” We’re close enough in age to where we could have graduated high school together, had he finished. But she’s happy, and so I pretended to listen and stay interested in whatever this event was. Not until she said, “I had no idea your friend Steven was a screenwriter,” did I snap back into the conversation.

“Wait, what?” I stood up and pushed Cal’s foot out of the way so I could step out into the hall. I didn’t like the way she stared at me, mouth at half-smile and half-scheme. Like she already knew both ends of the conversation.

“Your friend Steven. Andre was just sent his script and I think it’s just perfect for him, even though he’ll have to learn to play tennis. Some of the dialogue is very funny. Have you read it?”

Tennis? Tennis? Hang on. “I haven’t talked to him in about six months. Not since he moved out,” I said. Steven is the last person I’d call a friend. What do you call a guy who crashed at your house, slept during all daylight hours and stiffed you two months share of rent? “Tell me about this screenplay.”

“Oh, it’s about a retired tennis pro — No, wait, I’m sorry, a tennis pro that everyone thinks should retire who gets wrapped up in the Miami mob after he saves the mob boss’s daughter from drowning — ”

“In his pool,” I said. That lying sack of shit. Turning back around for the bedroom, I had to move Cal’s foot yet again in order to get to the box beneath my desk.

“Oh! You’ve read it then?”

“A version of it.” Eight hundred dollars, friend, where is it?

“Well I think it will be a good thing for Andre, and I’m sorry, darling, the room service is here. I have to go, but you call your sister and say something nice about her show tonight.”

She hung up without saying good-bye, and I tossed the phone and the box onto the bed. Cursing, I flung open the lid and dug to the bottom. Nothing but papers and folders, and no sight of my blue binder.

“What’s wrong?” Cal asked, and I kept scanning the papers, thinking maybe my work sat in there loose, that maybe I reused the binder for something else, but I knew I hadn’t and that I was definitely going to knock him out the next time I saw him. If I ever saw him again. “What is it?” Cal tried again through a slurp of coffee.

“Steven stole my novel and sold it as a fucking film.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t very good.”

“It’s not.” Throwing everything back into the box, I tried to remember if I knew anyone who might have his phone number. The bed still felt warm, so I laid back on the sheets and sighed.

“So if it’s bad, what’s the big deal?”

“I didn’t say it was bad, I just said it wasn’t very good. But it could’ve been good, and I was going to make it good, but now he’s very well screwed me over, hasn’t he?” I stared up at the ceiling. There was no way I’d get back to sleep at this point, even if she went away and I got back into my cocoon. Wake me up from a perfectly nice dream with all this bullshit, one that involved skin and hallucinogens and guys that looked like James Dean and Johnny Depp. The kind of dream where you walk around the rest of the day still high on all that great subconscious swirl. Reason enough to be pissed at them all, regardless of the news, or in Cal’s case, as yet unmentioned motives.

“You will have other ideas.” Cal moved from the chair and sat on the bed next to me. Her warm hand landed on my stomach. “Nice underwear. Man, can’t tell you live alone.”

Not at all surprised by her unsympathetic reaction, I moved her hand off my stomach and away from my admittedly ragged pair. “All right, all right. Are you here bothering me this early for any real reason or is this just for fun?”

“What, now you have a problem with an attractive woman turning up unannounced?” Her raspberry stained lips curved upwards. “I need a favor.”

“I thought as much.” She could just tell me and the sooner we could sort it out, the faster she could leave. Cal and I have a tenuous post-breakup friendship. She’s the only person I’ve ever dated who is still involved in my life in any way, but I don’t think I had much choice in the matter. Her level of sanity varied day by day, and I supposed I’d rather be on her good side. Mostly. “You know, it’s less attractive to call yourself so.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She laughed and reached over for the last of her coffee. “Can I borrow your car for a couple of days?”

“A couple of days? What the hell for?”

“I need to go with a friend to Seattle.”

“Take the train.”

She shook her head. “Won’t work. She’s picking up the last of her things from her ex’s place, and we can’t haul all that to the train station. She’s got, like, boxes of shoes and junk. I don’t know. I said I’d help her out.”

“Cal, come on. I’ve got to go grocery shopping and it’s been snowing off and on all week.” She put on a faux pouty face and I sighed again. “How many days are we talking here?”

“Two nights. I’ll have it back to you by Thursday afternoon. I promise.”

I decided to believer her. “Fine. But I want it filled back up when you give it back to me.”

She grinned and kissed my forehead. “Excellent, Dom, thank you,” she said. “And how is your mother?”

“Newly award nominated, apparently.” Now that I’d laid down for more than a minute, maybe sleep wasn’t such an unreasonable hope anymore.

“Oh! I saw her in Terry Gets Married. She was really funny.” Cal brushed a few curls out of her face. She’s always had a mountain of hair as long as I’ve known her. She used to keep it red, but lately has let it go back to its own dark brown. “You didn’t just have one copy of that book lying around, did you?”

“No, it’s on my computer, but he didn’t have access to that,” I said. “I’d printed out awhile ago so I could see the horror in a new way.”

“I’m not sure what you could do about it anyway. I mean, would you want your name on it?”

“I don’t know. Probably not. Who knows what he did to it. I didn’t know he was ever sober enough to figure out how to do anything,” I said. “My keys are in my jeans over there. Go help your friend.”

“You’re a star, Dom. Thank you.” She bounded up off the bed and walked over to where I had them flung over a chair. Before I could say goodbye, she removed my old Honda key and was out the door. I suppose if I really didn’t want her in my house, I would have changed the locks by now.

Before I could decide on falling back asleep, my phone rang again. This time, I looked at the number. My other sister, Gretchen. Fine. “What’s up, wee sis?” I said. She hates it when I call her that.

“Did you talk to Mom?” Gretchen had to half-shout over the background noise, and before I could say anything, she called to someone, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Just tell her to hurry up when they’re done.”

“She called about half an hour ago,” I said.

“Shit, she must have called me nanoseconds after they announced it, like I’m not up to my eyeballs with work and get fifteen minutes of sleep anyway, but — Jesus, Carlo, I don’t care if her dog needs his blankie — Sorry, Dom, Jess Van de Kamp’s been hungover in her trailer for the whole goddamn morning and is only now seeing about wardrobe.”

“I should let you go,” I said. I don’t know why Gretchen calls me while she’s working. All the conversations are like this.

“No, no, sorry. It’s just one of those days. Anyway, I wanted to know if you’re coming down for Christmas. Mom’ll throw a fit if you don’t.”

“And miss the Andre lovefest? God, who could resist that?”

She laughed. “So? I need to know how much food I’m having Carlo pick up.”

Carlo is her assistant, possibly the most patient man on Earth. “Yeah, I’ll be there. Begrudgingly.”

“Cool. Rebekah and them are at her dad’s this year, so I need you on far-flung relative crew, all right?” And, away from the phone again. “Goddammit, I swear to you all, if I booted her and called Lindsey fucking Lohan, it would be an improvement.”

“Right, I’ll keep Grandma from getting fingerprints on your awards, Miss Indie Spirit.” Standing again, I went back down the hallway and into the kitchen. I needed a pot of coffee if this day was to have any hope at all.

“Don’t be an asshole, Dominic,” Gretchen said, but laughed again. “I gotta go. I hate it when I get talked into these ‘credibility’ cameos. Like that’s going to make us forget about the rehab. See you in two weeks.”

All right, the phone had to stay off for at least a few hours. Rebekah probably wouldn’t call anyway, but I couldn’t take the chance. Maybe I’d call her later. Maybe not. Jesus, I needed this coffee. No matter how far away I moved from Hollywood, and no matter for how long, I couldn’t shake these phone calls. When one is related to crazy prodigies, geography and time will never make a bit of difference.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo

Is it inevitable that we become our parents? How much of that inevitability comes down to genetics or conditioning? In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo ponders the mysteries of family relations, marriage and career. No matter how hard we try to run away from our childhoods, the past continually informs the present, and the conditions of our happiness change in ways we might never expect.

“It’s a shame you can’t say yes to one person without saying no to another.”

Jack Griffin has a life many would envy — a beautiful New England home, a wife of over thirty years, a happy grown-up daughter and a university professor position that frees his summers. So why does his marriage feel so troubled? And why has he been driving around with his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car for the better part of a year? Now, visiting Cape Cod for his daughter’s friend’s wedding, he can’t help but reflect on his parents’ marriage and the vacations they used to take during his childhood.

His parents, both university professors in the “Mid-fucking-West” (as they always referred to it), had a tempestuous relationship, full of bickering, moving around, affairs and the idea that they were always working well below their deserved station in life. His father, prone to P.G. Wodehouse and pretty graduate students, and his mother, critical of anyone who hadn’t completed graduate work, only seemed to get along during their vacations to the Cape. They would dream aloud of one day owning a place there, but would continually complain that the real estate was either too expensive or “Wouldn’t have it as a gift.”

As an adult, Griffin’s form of rebellion came at first by working as a screenwriter, living in L.A. with his wife, Joy, who never attended graduate school. It is Joy’s dream of having an old house, being closer to her family, and both of them having more serious, steady jobs that bring them back to the East Coast, as per an agreement made on their honeymoon. Griffin is not a fan of her family and finds them overbearing, albeit in a different way than his own parents, but he agrees that this is the best, most responsible decision for them all.

Before he knows it, he’s at his daughter’s wedding in Maine, both he and his wife have brought dates to the occasion, and he’s now hauling around both parents’ ashes in his trunk. Why can’t he let go? And is this what he really wanted?

Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.

I picked up this book mainly because Richard Russo was coming to town for the Get Lit! festival, and he was one of those authors on my “mean to read” list. Though Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Bridge of Sighs were what came to mind first during my library perusal, I discovered the selection understandably picked over in the week leading up to his appearance. That Old Cape Magic is his latest book, which is as good as any place to begin reading.

Russo writes in an honest way, full of detail that captures the beauty of the East Coast, without resorting to flowery, overly romanticized descriptions. Griffin and Joy’s parents are fully rendered nightmare in-laws, and Griffin’s personal crises feel authentic, despite my not being a middle-aged man.

Perhaps my only quibble is with the representation of Griffin’s daughter, Laura. She’s a little too nice, a little too doting for an adult, and Griffin is privy to information about her personal life that doesn’t seem like something a daughter would reveal to her father. I don’t know — maybe some daughters would, but I know my dad and I wouldn’t have conversations regarding virginity and the instant message conversations had with a lovelorn former neighbor.

Still, it’s easy to see why Richard Russo is Pulitzer-worthy. While I may not have fallen in love with the book, I enjoyed it well enough to where I’ll still look out for the other three books for which I originally searched. I’ve been on such a good run with my book choices lately that perhaps it’s only by comparison that I’m more ambivalent towards That Old Cape Magic. Maybe if I’d read this after my painful foray into chick-lit, I’d feel differently.

I happened to briefly run into Richard Russo at the Hotel Lusso last weekend, and I told him I was working on this book. He told me that he hoped I enjoyed it, to which I now respond, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Book #25/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell

A Common Pornography
by Kevin Sampsell

Everyone has stories, brief anecdotes relating to our history. Our memories are at once humorous and heartbreaking, some retold again and again, some kept private forever. In A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell gathers his stories and assembles them into an atypical memoir, and the results are both intimate and intriguing.

Growing up in Kennewick, Washington seemed ideal enough, though “this was before I even saw anywhere else.” Kennewick, along with Pasco and Richland, is part the Tri-Cities, a strange little hub of Northwest desert and chain stores. He has two older half-brothers and a half-sister from his mother’s previous relationships, one brother from her marriage to his father, and another half-brother who came from his mother’s brief relationship with a Ugandan man when she and Sampsell’s father were estranged. It is not until he is a teenager that he gives any thought to his brother being half-black.

When his father dies in 2008, he discovers an entire family history kept quiet over the years — details about his siblings, his mother’s past, and his father’s abuse of his sister that affected her for the rest of her life. The way he presents this information is never from a place of overt shock — though some of it had to be — but rather matter of fact. It’s clear how he feels without having it spelled out, which suits the brief nature of each chapter. Some chapters are barely more than a paragraph long.

Other parts of the book move away from his family and detail his path to adulthood, stories of friends, girls and longing. As a kid, he starts amassing a collection of dirty magazines and hides them above the drop ceiling tiles of his room. Eventually, he grows paranoid about their weight and culls the mass to only choice images.

I could sleep at night now, know that fifty pounds of dirty magazines weren’t going to break through the tiles above me and pummel my face.

With concerns for weight again, the collection moves to an old suitcase. His awkwardness mixed with irrepressible teenage lust leads him to losing his virginity to one of the Tri-Cities prostitutes, an experience that of course disappoints and does nothing to make him feel like less of a virgin. It is only after that night that he begins to have better luck with regular girls.

He and his New Wave friends shop for records at a place called the Licorice Donut — probably one of the better names for a record store I’ve ever heard — and “since we were too young to go to bars,” they hang out at the diner Shari’s after dancing at an all-ages club called the Palace.

Maybe dressing up and dancing to my favorite songs was as close as I would come to being a pop star, so I went for it, and I felt euphoric afterward. I was starting to really feel myself physically in the world, self-conscious in a good way. Living in the moments of the music.

Since I grew up in Great Falls, Montana (a place that gets a brief mention in regards to his sister’s father), I know just the feeling. Being a teenager that’s not so mainstream in an only semi-urban area surrounded by farmland, you have to find your own entertainment. For us, it was all-ages punk shows (even for the not-so-punk kids) and the diners Cattin’s or Tracy’s. Maybe the R&R, if we were in the mood for something different. During those years, nothing was quite as good as the conversations and relationships formed on a Friday night. And living in a place with several Shari’s now, I can confirm that the underage punk and goth kids are still there, dumping creamer pots into their endless cups of coffee.

It’s strange, I’ve lived in the Spokane area for seven years and barely saw it mentioned in anything I watched or read, and now it seems like I’m cramming in all its literary moments right before I leave. It’s not purposeful — I wanted to read this book before I realized it had anything to do with this neck of the woods, but now his upcoming appearance at the Get Lit! festival makes even more sense. In the early 90s, Sampsell moved to Spokane to attend broadcast school and also did some performances at open mics, either poetry, performance art or a few one offs with some bands. And though he knows better, he can’t help but see a few women at once. “I was taking advantage of anyone I thought was as weak as me.”

Ingrid – “a sad and mysterious redhead. The only social thing we did was go to her friend Molly’s apartment and drink beer.”

Lisa – “I knew she was going out with a really dumb bass player and I tried to convince her that writers made better boyfriends.”

Laura – “The only real poet I met in Spokane. She wore stretch pants with skeletons on them and said her favorite bands were T. Rex and the Stones Roses.”

Sarah – “We became friends and confessed guilty pleasures to each other (she liked Seal, I liked Suzanne Vega), her demeanor was never flirty and she became the subject of much unrequited lust poetry.”

Sampsell’s descriptions of the people he encounters are perfect in their spareness. He has a way of making a person clear within two sentences that might take other writers two paragraphs. I also appreciate his candor when it comes to more private moments, moments most people would hesitate to share at all, but still had an effect on their lives. From near-wordless encounters with other men to nights spent alone, he details his search for affection in a very real, honest way.

Like many one-time residents of Spokane, Sampsell now lives in Portland. After the birth of his son, “I knew right away that I was going to do a better job than my own father,” he says. He works at one of the greatest bookstores in the world, Powell’s, a runs his own small press called Future Tense. It publishes chapbooks, poetry and short story collections and some paperback novels. I plan on visiting the small press area of Powell’s when I’m in Portland next month. When you’re in a bookstore of such inclusive scale, it’s probably best to seek out what wouldn’t be at your local Barnes and Noble.

I enjoyed this book immensely and will be seeking out Kevin Sampsell’s other work. This Saturday, he will be participating in two different free talks as part of the Get Lit! festival. The first, “Memories of a Father” is at Hotel Lusso from 11am-noon, where he will speak along with authors Diana Joseph and Maria Spagna. At 1:15, also at Hotel Lusso, he will be part of a panel entitled “How Publishing is Changing.” Throughout the day, Future Tense will be part of the Small Press Fair located within the hotel. For more information on the festival, take a peek at www.ewu.edu/getlit.

Book #24/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review was also published on Pajiba itself on April 22, 2010.

Monday, April 12, 2010

American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson

American on Purpose
by Craig Ferguson

After regularly watching The Late Late Show, following Craig Ferguson on Twitter and reading American on Purpose all at the same time, I started to feel a bit stalker-y. It’s both strange and wonderful how easy it is to connect with the people we enjoy, and while there’s the argument to be made about too much access ruining the mystery, it’s not all bad. In fact, all this compulsive openness can make it easier to see through layers of professional shite. There’s no middleman, no publicist, just one person unloading their brain in whatever way they see fit.

Much like his monologue, and much like his tweets, Craig Ferguson’s memoir is self-deprecating, funny and honest. And unlike the majority of celebrity memoirs out there, I fully believe he wrote it himself – I’ve read his novel, Between the Bridge and the River, and it’s fantastic. With American on Purpose, I sped through the pages so entertained and consumed, I forgot to make any notes as I went along, instead resorting to my usual method of reading funny things — reciting whole paragraphs to my husband while he was trying to read something else. Or sleep. He’s remarkably indulgent, that marvelous man.

Craig begins with his childhood in Cumbernauld, located on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, filled with rows of housing schemes that might generously be called dismal and hardscrabble. Time has not improved the area:

Fairly recently Cumbernauld was named the second-worst town in the United Kingdom, losing worst-of-all honors to the city of Hull, a dowdy seaport on the east coast of England. I dispute the result; I have been to Hull, and while it is undoubtedly a shitheap, it is no match for Cumbernauld.

One of four children, he grew up in a fairly typical Scottish-Protestant household, got into trouble with other kids and had his first drink as a teenager. At 13, he had the opportunity to visit New York City with his father, a trip that would forever change his life.

Now that... that was love at first sight. I loved it then and I love it still. Even now, overloaded with sanitized bullshit Trump glass towers and condo-yuppie pseudoculture, it is still a complete mindfuck. As a Scottish schoolboy that first time, New York City was the Big Rock Candy Mountain. It was smoggy, bright-hot, filthy and wonderful. It was Disneyland, Oz, and fucking Jupiter. It was noise and smell and lights and people looking like they were in a movie.

From then on, Craig knew he would someday live in America. The path to getting there, and getting to where he is now, of course was not so smooth. He’s been very open about being a recovering alcoholic, and he spends a lot of time in the book describing his descent. However, it never comes across as melodramatic, and he does not focus only on the bad times either.

For awhile, he was a drummer in a few different bands, most notably the Dreamboys, who opened for Altered Images during one of their tours. Even in the beginning, it seems like he had a tendency to run into important or about-to-be figures in the UK:

On that same tour we ran into a band at Aylesbury Friars, a biggish venue in Oxfordshire, England. They were a four-piece from Ireland called U2. They seemed like nice fellows and they sounded pretty good, but we didn’t keep in touch. They’re probably taxi drivers and accountants by now.


Telling the story of one’s own life in a clear and concise way is difficult, and trying to summarize and review that story without going on is even more so. The book is filled with so many touching, interesting and funny passages, how does one highlight the best? (Especially when ‘one’ didn’t take notes?)

Without giving everything away, I can say that some of the best moments come when he talks about the people who influenced his life – from his family, to roommates and longtime friends, and especially the women. He reveres them all, speaks glowingly of their skills and their patience with him, even when he did not deserve it. He gives credit to all the people and places that brought him to where he is today, and it’s a fascinating journey to sobriety and success.

I learned that failure is only failure, and that it can be useful, spun into a story that will make people laugh, and maybe every once in a while give a message of hope to others who might need some.

I’m a big believer in the idea that you have to screw up a few times to get it right — be it with jobs, relationships, anything. No one expects a person to pick up a vocation or hobby with perfection the first time out, so why should our lives be any different? Sometimes the more spectacular the failure, the more you learn. That doesn’t make it hurt any less or make life any easier, but a life without adventure will never bring happiness.

Book #23/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review was also published on Pajiba itself on April 14, 2010.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter

War Dances
by Sherman Alexie

Thanks to Sherman Alexie, I will forever be pilfering the phrase “terminally nostalgic.” When I saw him read back in December, I asked him how he felt about seeing the places he has written about disappear over time. He said that he was constantly thinking about what was no more, even down to the now-closed doughnut shop where he worked for three weeks, and that as a Spokane Indian, nostalgia will always be a part of who he is.

Because of this, Alexie’s work is forever filled with a sense of longing — longing for the past, longing for what never was, and longing for connection in the midst of our busy world. War Dances is a collection of short stories, poems and other fiction forms that read as semi-autobiographical, made even more enjoyable if you live in the Spokane area. When he talks about driving up Maple to Francis, I know right where that is. When a woman mentions the story about a man and his children being involved in a horrible accident coming into town, I remember reading about it in the newspaper and it makes the comparison to another man’s loneliness all the more effective.

Sherman Alexie has made me nostalgic for a place I haven’t left yet.

In the title short story, a man watches his father approach death in an area hospital. His father keeps complaining that he is cold, and so he goes in search of a better blanket than the thin hospital ones provided. He spots another Native man and strikes up a conversation:

“I mean,” the guy said. “You should see my dad right now. He’s pretending to go into this, like, fucking trance and is dancing around my sister's bed, and he says he’s trying to, you know, see into her womb, to see who the baby is, to see its true nature so he can give it a name — a protective name — before it’s born.”

The guy laughed and threw his head back and banged it on the wall.


“Nostalgia,” I said to the other Indian man in the hospital.


“Your dad, he sounds like he’s got a bad case of nostalgia.”

“Yeah, I hear you catch that from fucking old high school girlfriends,” the man said. “What the hell you doing here anyway?”

“My dad just got his feet cut off,” I said.


“And vodka.”

“Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?”


“Natural causes for an Indian.”


There wasn’t much to say after that.

I first read this story in the New Yorker, which you can still find here. The whole time, I kept reading parts aloud to my husband, who ended up not having to read the thing himself because I ended up telling him the whole thing. Under the portion of the story called “Exit Interview for My Father,” I laughed knowingly at the following paragraph:

Your son distinctly remembers stopping once or twice a month at that grocery store in Freeman, Washington, where you would buy him a red-white-and-blue rocket popsicle and purchase for yourself a pickled pig foot. Your son distinctly remembers the feet still had their toenails and little tufts of pig fur. Could this be true? Did you actually eat such horrendous food?

I live about 7 miles from that store, and my daughter goes to school just up the road. Most people pass by the store on their way to the Coeur d’Alene Casino. To my knowledge, they do not currently sell pickled pigs feet, but you can buy local beef for about $4/pound and of course, still purchase popsicles.

Alexie also has a way with commenting on the world without coming off as preachy, or even worse, too “concept-over-character.” In “The Senator’s Son,” the title character finds out that his longtime best friend is gay, a conversation that leaves him questioning his flaws and pondering the effect our words have throughout the rest of our lives. Years later, he sees his friend again, who says that he still plans on voting for the Republican senator, saying:

“Anybody who thinks that sex somehow relates to the national debt or terrorism or poverty or crime or moral values or any kind of politics is just an idiot.”

Someone needs to plaster that on the Capitol’s door.

If anything, War Dances presents characters looking for meaning in their lives, and in the process, makes you ponder the meaning within your own. Even apart from the geographical familiarity, some passages had me nodding with the sort of recognition that makes me want to shove this book into the hands of everyone I know.

Despite all the talk of diversity and division — of red and blue states, of black and white and brown people, of rich and poor, gay and straight — Paul believed that Americans were shockingly similar. How can we be so different, thought Paul, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? Paul knew the same lyrics as any random guy from Mobile, Alabama, or a woman from Orono, Maine. Hell, Paul had memorized, without effort or ever purchasing or downloading one of their CDs — or even one of their songs — the complete works of Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, and AC/DC. And if words and music can wind their way into and around our DNA strands — and Paul believed they could — wouldn’t American pop music be passed from generation to generation as easily as blue eyes and baldness?

Honestly, I could keep pulling passages and keep going on about the value of each section (“Ode to Mix Tapes?” Essential), but I’ll have transcribed the whole thing. Just read the book.

Get yourself the hardback edition first though — at that same reading, Alexie also mentioned that he will rewrite the paperback edition into a more straightforward novel. I look forward to seeing how all these stories and characters come together.

Book #22/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review was also published on Pajiba.com on May 24, 2010.