Wednesday, February 29, 2012

PBR Book Club's March Selection: Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You

First off, our Absurdistan discussion fast approaches: next Monday evening at the Tap!

Second, after much Twitter banter, the March selection has been officially selected! Just when I was poised to inflict a profound month-long inquiry into Jewish cultural memory on you fine folks (with Nathan Englander's much-praised new collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank), a vocal contingent of local scenesters rose up and said, Nah, let's get twee with Miranda July instead.

So we'll be reading No One Belongs Here More Than You. Yes, it's a collection of short stories, which is a first for PBR Book Club (but likely well-suited to our habits: aim for at least one beer per story).

I recommend you also read this New York Times Magazine profile of July, and make sure to watch her two films prior to the March meeting as well (since I want to talk A LOT about that damnable kittycat narrator of The Future).

And please visit the website for No One Belongs Here and click through the messages using the red arrow in bottom right corner. If you stick it out without finding it insufferable, you're probably ready to embark on this journey with us.

And also ponder these thoughts on short stories (which comes from a review of the Englander book that we are not reading):

"A short story is by definition an odder, more eccentric creature than a novel: a trailer, a fling, a warm-up act, a bouillon cube, a championship game in one inning. Irresolution and ambiguity become it; it’s a first date rather than a marriage. When is it mightier than the novel? When its elisions speak as loudly as its lines."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Richard on Flight, Freedom, and Fatness in Absurdistan

Since our book club blog has been silent for far too long, I'll offer up a quick one (and word on the street is that Steve and Courtney have full "book reports" on the way). Next meeting is still scheduled for the Tap on Monday March 5.

[No major spoilers]

Absurdistan's prologue ends with images of flight, of Misha sailing "like a fat beam of light" over his beloved, multi-cultural New York neighborhoods. It's a lovely moment of freedom ("The city rushes out to locate and affirm me."), but of course most of the book is about the difficulty of obtaining such moments. As Misha tells us from the outset, we are reading not just a love story but "a book about geography," and it is one which reveals that the borders of the modern world are not so porous as one might assume. Misha spends the first half of the novel trapped in Russia. Then he's trapped in Absurdistan, deprived of even "mobilnik" service in a world that's half lavish and built on American oil money, the other half mired in poverty and war: "Respected mobile phone user...your attempt to make a connection has failed." Modern literature is nothing if not failed connections, and it's easy to feel for poor obese Misha, whose largeness seems both a symbol of his cultural appetites and also a storehouse for all his frustrated desires: he describes the "toxic hump" on his back as "a repository for all my anger, a kind of anti-heart on the back of me that keeps the sadness pumping."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Special Valentine's Edition from Karen: Absurdistan

More Romantic Love

Warning: Major Spoilers

I finished Absurdistan around Valentine’s Day.  How appropriate.  After reading the epilogue, one is reminded that among other things, Absurdistan is a book about enduring romantic love;  Misha loves New York, and he loves Rouenna.

It is argued that romantic love as we know it is a relatively modern and western notion. Although French troubadours wrote about courtly love, and Shakespeare included romantic love in his plays, the notion of romance as a prelude to marriage started in the late 17th century.  At this time, the rise in the middle class with its disposable income allowed for a market of romance novels and magazines. Romance novels, by definition, have conflict and climax, and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Today, romance novels are the most popular genre of literature in North America, comprising of almost 55% of  paperbacks sold in 2004 (according to wiki, my beloved resource).

The romantic ending in Absurdistan in the form of hopes and dreams may be an additional stereotype or satire, both of which saturate the book. However, are we cynics? Is it absurd to think that these two people could live blissfully in domesticity in a row house near 175th street in New York, happily folding socks together?  Knowing the romantic inclinations of my fellow bookclubbers, I would guess that we will agree that the ending to this book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic; …in other words, very romantic. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Richard Laughs Along with a Few Passages From Absurdistan

[No serious spoilers, all quotes taken from first 50 pages or so]

Sure, there's going to be plenty of serious business to discuss with Absurdistan, if we're so inclined, but I suspect most of our next meeting will consist of laughing loudly (and drunkenly) at various passages.

There are a lot of different kinds of humor at work here, and most of it is pretty successful so far, it seems to me.

You've got the absurdity of bizarre and tragic situations presented in a deadpan fashion, as in the mutilation of poor teenage Misha's "khui" in a traveling circumsion-mobile, or the murder of Misha's father: "Who murdered the 1, 238th richest man in Russia?...I'll tell you who: Oleg the Moose and his syphilitic cousin Zhora."

You've got the merciless satire of social class/caste systems in both America and Russia. Here's Misha describing why he's popular among the barmaids in his favorite lower Manhattan dive bar: "I was known as a very generous tipper and would occasionally spring for an abortion."

But my personal favorite passages work in a lower-key register that's more wistful, illustrating Misha's longing for an America that's perpetually out of his grasp:

"Life for young American college graduates is a festive affair. Free of having to support their families, they mostly have gay parties on rooftops where they reflect at length upon their quirky electronic childhoods and sometimes kiss each other on the lips and neck."

The one recurring (meta) joke that's not working so well for me (at this point, anyway) is Shteyngart writing himself into the novel as Misha's foil, Jerry Shyteynfarb, a pompous professor who "managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process" and who won acclaim for his debut novel which Misha calls The Russian Arriveste's Hand Job (a reference to Shteyngart's own debut The Russian Debutante's Handbook...get it?). It's playful and humorous, no doubt, but comes off to me as too showy somehow. Is our author insecure or defensive about his well-earned literary reputation? Perhaps he'll answer these questions in person at our next meeting if Courtneybelle and B-Suit keep tweeting him! We'd certainly enjoy buying a PBR for the funny son-of-a-bitch!