E-mail Update

September 30, 2008

A fast bit of interest: I have now established a specific e-mail address for the blog, so now if any of you:

  • Are published authors and want me to review your book;
  • Have particular praise for/severe issues with my reviews;
  • Wish to chat in a way more extensive than posting comments;

Please direct all requests to thelesseroftwoequals@gmail.com and you’ll get a response as quick as possible.


Book Review: Honorable Bandit

September 25, 2008

Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica

By Brian Bouldrey

Published September 2007

Terrace Books

296 pp.

ISBN 0-299-22320-5

Reviewed September 25, 2008

In the first chapter of Brian Bouldrey’s “Honorable Bandit,” prior to his departure for a hike across the Mediterranean island of Corsica, a friend gives him a leather-bound journal. Bouldrey replies he’s not sure what he’s going to write in it, as he hasn’t learned what’s going to go wrong on the journey, but he knows that he’ll use the pages to press distinct flora as the trek progresses.

In many ways, “Honorable Bandit” feels like a transcription of that finished journal. It captures the walk across Corsica as if Bouldrey was writing it down minute by minute, speckled with random trail observations and going off into the sort of thoughts one gets when moving their feet is all the challenge they need. However, the journal motif extends far enough to leave the book a touch disjointed.

“Honorable Bandit” follows Bouldrey and his friend Petra on the GR20, a hike through the diagonal length of Corsica. As the two go down the path, Bouldrey shares his thoughts on the sweeping or painful mountain ranges, esoteric fellow hikers and the island’s unique customs. He’s certainly chosen the right area to take a walk in: politically French but culturally apart, birthplace of the family vendetta and a history peppered with invasions.

Corsica is certainly overwhelming, but Bouldrey dwells a bit too much on first impressions. The prose feels forced or rough in several areas, such as three consecutive sentences which are all similes describing parts of the trail or a worn fellow hiker. A particular annoyance comes up when, during one leg of the travel, he goes off on a tangent and then says “But I’m getting ahead of myself” no less than three times in a fashion that almost seems designed to annoy a reader.

But this digression is offset with a simple explanation: it is Bouldrey’s intent to disrupt the reader, not to annoy exactly but to replicate his own walking experience. The way he puts it, a walk is “a tramp through landscape carrying a change of clothes and a brainbox full of jostled gears and screws” with “fellow walkers reduced to the role of minor characters.” He seems to want nothing to do with a conventional narrative, but rather to share what gets stirred up as his feet move.

The stirrings of the hike itself are distracting on average, but he gets the book up to its best points when he moves deeper into his thoughts with “Why I Walk” chapters. “Bandit” takes on more of a memoir feel in these chapters, and they seem to show more time and effort on Bouldrey’s part. It’s easy to laugh at a side trip to Michigan where Bouldrey grew up and where a prison is the chief employer, or to cock one’s head as he plays around with words and ponders how they completely change by simply flipping around letters.

Most captivating is when the book goes to San Francisco, a mad and sad swirl through a gay community grown desperate for fun by the onset of AIDS. Bouldrey is at his most heartbreaking in these sections, including an unforgettable passage where his partner’s exact time of death is seen from the grandfather clock he leaned against and stopped the gears.

After his trip is concluded, Bouldrey notes that he began to weep on the plane: “there are dozens of anecdotes, dozens of objects of desire, and yet the trip across Corsica … crumbles into fragments; the only thing that feels whole here is the sense that the entire trip was nothing but a digression.” It may be a digression, but if you walk (or read) long enough “Honorable Bandit” has plenty of interesting thoughts and even a pressed flower or two to give you a deep whiff of Corsica’s spicy atmosphere.

Book Review: When You Have to File for Bankruptcy

September 15, 2008

When You Have To File For Bankruptcy: Step-by-step Instructions to Take Control of Your Financial Future

By Matt Pelc

Published July 2008

Atlantic Publishing Company

288 pp.

ISBN 1-601-38209-X

Reviewed September 15, 2008

Bankruptcy is considered one of the more frightening words in the English language, implying financial ruin and personal failure to an extent that few people would dare to approach it unless they had no other hope. Matt Pelc’s “When You Have to File for Bankruptcy” does a remarkable job of taking that fear away from its readers, working past the mythos of the process and providing some genuinely practical advice.

Pelc’s book is a step-by-step analysis of the bankruptcy proceedings, beginning with a look at how you found yourself in this situation and asking if this is the right course of action. If it is, he then takes you through the paperwork you will need to collect before speaking to an attorney and the extensive forms a case requires. He encourages that you have access to the Internet while reading, and there are several helpful links available if you want to use his book as the manual for your own filing.

The most noticeable aspect of this book is the almost comforting tone Pelc takes. He seems aware that anyone who picks up this book is likely in serious financial trouble, repeatedly assuring them that he is not going to point any fingers at them for being in the situation. He also doesn’t try to overwhelm with the steps for rebuilding your life after the case is complete, breaking it into sections and offering simple suggestions such as changing your grocery habits and charting your daily expenses. Alternatives to bankruptcy are suggested, but he makes sure to point out that nothing is a cure-all and the problems cannot simply disappear by shuffling your assets around.

No one ever wants to go through the bankruptcy procedure, but if you find yourself in a bind “When You Have to File for Bankruptcy” serves as an invaluable reference to get it started. It educates you without making you feel stupid and makes a very conscious effort to separate the process from the natural tension and fear it produces.

Book Review: Your Complete Guide to Leaving an Inheritance For Your Children and Others

September 15, 2008

Your Complete Guide to Leaving an Inheritance for your Children and Others: What You Need To Know Explained Simply

By Michael A. Valles

Published July 2008

Atlantic Publishing Company

288 pp.

ISBN 1-601-38210-3

Reviewed September 15, 2008

“You can’t take it with you” is the first thing you need to remember when planning for your future, so unless you want it to all be bled away in taxes and legal expenses you need a plan. “Your Complete Guide to Leaving an Inheritance for Your Children and Others” by Michael A. Valles provides several key insights and suggestions for putting this plan together, getting you the best bang for your buck and making sure that your funds go to the family members you want.

The guide takes readers through what seems like every option for setting up an inheritance, as Valles breaks down how to calculate exactly what you have and what sort of wills and trusts are necessary to protect specific resources. His arguments are strengthened with various attorney-provided case studies, ranging from clients who relied too heavily on the Internet to clients who knew exactly how much they wanted per year in retirement. Each of his cases also hits upon the main theme that no relationship or law is a constant, so all your wills and plans should be open to change if they aren’t already.

My one complaint was I found the book became a bit abstract and preachy in some areas, particularly when Valles began talking about how it is important to emphasize to whomever you will be leaving the inheritance the values that allowed you to get it. I agree it’s important to make sure your heirs don’t squander what you left them, but it seems more practical to set up conditions in the will rather than lecture to your immediate family.

No one should ever set an inheritance plan without consulting attorneys or other estate planners, but anyone starting to look at their declining years and related expenses would be advised to take a look at “Your Complete Guide to Leaving an Inheritance for Your Children and Others.” Valles collects the essentials of what your future requires and pools it into an accessible text which will point you in the right direction to making sure your loved ones are taken care of.

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Living Trust

September 15, 2008

The Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Living Trust: A Step-by-step Plan to Protect Your Assets, Limit Your Taxes, and Ensure Your Wishes are Fulfilled

By Steven D. Fisher

Published April 2008

Atlantic Publishing Company

288 pp.

ISBN 1-601-38113-2

Reviewed September 15, 2008

In economic times such as these, securing your assets is quickly turning from a good idea to absolutely crucial, as the odds are growing it can all go away between the taxman and rising expenses. One of the more viable options, aptly covered by Steven D. Fisher in his book “The Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Living Trust” is to set that property into a living trust – a legal arrangement that sets property aside to be managed for another’s benefit, with a good share of tax benefits connected.

Trusts can be complex issues, so Fisher keeps the book in order by dividing the sections into concise and readable chapters that answer the main questions you may have if you want to open a trust. He gives the rundown on trusts for (among others) single people, couples, families, the especially wealthy and those who would like to give to charity, setting each one up so the relevant information is easy to find. The book concludes with genuinely practical information, such as a rundown on living trust scams and sample forms to give you a more personal picture of what a living trust agreement will look like.

The strongest part of this book is its accessibility. He lets you know right away if this book is for you (for example, someone young and unmarried like me shouldn’t consider a trust) and walks you through each of the appropriate terms with the acceptance that you may not know any of this to begin with. None of the text is bogged down in enough legalese to be inaccessible, and while some of the information seems excessive– an early section on taxes slows the book considerably – but none of it is ever beyond understanding.

I would certainly not advise anyone to set up a trust without consulting an attorney, but “The Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Living Trust” ensures you will know what you are talking about when you begin the process. Anyone who has a large amount of property and wants to make sure the government doesn’t take the lion’s share of it would be wise to review it, at the very least to see if a trust is the right idea.

Finite Jest: A Eulogy for David Foster Wallace

September 15, 2008

Finite Jest

A Eulogy for David Foster Wallace

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

– “Hamlet,” Shakespeare, Act V, Scene 1

“You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” – “Infinite Jest”

David Foster Wallace was the smartest fiction writer I have ever read – and I don’t make that claim lightly. A philosophy major with a focus on logic and mathematics, he moved on to become a journalist, essayist and fiction writer, most well-known for his magnum opus “Infinite Jest” and a style of writing that was both scientific and ironic. In a review of his short story collection “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” I wrote last year, I made the claim that Norman Mailer’s old quote about William S. Burroughs – “The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius” – was now to be applied to Wallace.

And now, thanks to the slap-in-the-face of this weekend, I can no longer make that claim. Wallace has now given our generation a literary equivalent to Elliot Smith – someone still in the prime of life and talent, cutting their lives short for reasons concocted in minds that operate at least three levels above the normal person.

I’m not going to talk about death or motives or any of that here, as it’s not my job and I don’t want to rub any wounds raw. What I do want to do is take a moment to acknowledge a talent and voice whose absence leaves us much poorer.

As a qualifier, I have to admit that I am not as much of an expert on Wallace as some of my close friends – many of whom have repeatedly hammered to me that “Infinite Jest” is a life-changing experience. I have started reading it on more than one interval and gotten to about 400 pages in, but the fact that I have so many other books to read keeps me from tackling deep into it (that and reasons I’ll get to later on). I’ve read “Brief Interviews” and have one or two of his essay collections in my cue, but compared to other authors he’s not in my roster of being able to talk about at will.

It doesn’t mean I don’t have any experience to talk about him though. For one thing, I loved “Brief Interviews.” I have a fairly low opinion of short stories – partly because I don’t seem to have the ability to write any of my own, but also because it seems like they all have the same voice and deal with the same angst-ridden topics of family, age, love and illness. And then all of a sudden, “Brief Interviews” proceeds to shred up the genre with some of the most surreal writing and clear intellect I’ve ever seen, dealing with some of the same topics but using word combinations I’d never seen before. Even though the review is a year old almost, all conclusions still hold true today.

“Infinite Jest” – at least what I got through – was easily one of the most innovative things I’d ever seen, and one that made me place Wallace as an heir to Kurt Vonnegut’s black satire. The Incandenza clan, a family that makes the Finches or the Sedarises look conventional, ruling over a tennis academy where drug use is rampant and (conveniently) a rehab center is located across the street. Years are now subsidized by corporations, a wheelchair separatist movement is forming in Canada, and a robber traumatizes his victims by sticking their toothbrushes up his ass and sending them photos of it three months later. (One of my favorite lines comes up when one such victim vows revenges, for his wife “who needed Valium just to floss.”) There’s so much going on and it’s all so inventive that I frankly have a hard time keeping it all straight.

That does lead to one or two complaints with his style – Wallace’s sheer intelligence also tends to work against him at some points, sometimes making me feel as if I’m not smart enough to read his work. Added to that, I thought the footnotes of “Infinite Jest” were one of the more frustrating devices used in a book – hilarious though they were – because you can’t expect someone to read a part of a 1,100-page book, skip forward to the last 150 pages to find the relevant footnote and then cut back hundreds of pages to pick up exactly where you left off. He told Charlie Rose in 1997 that this was designed to reflect an altered view of reality, but I just couldn’t get past it for that many pages. (And this is coming from someone who reads “Naked Lunch” start to finish.)

But as I’ve pointed out in my Chuck Palahniuk review, an author’s style is something that has to be viewed and evaluated regardless of personal taste, and Wallace’s style deserved respect and praise. It’s a blend of philosophy and humor, written by someone who has a very particular view of how our culture and media function.

I have yet to read any of his journalism or nonfiction (the last time I randomly open ed one of his essay collections it read like a philosophy textbook) but with this sad advent I expect that his content will be reprinted and made more readily accessible to the masses. I mean, look at what Wikipedia alone can cite as his output: coverage of tennis, David Lynch, special-effects, lobster festivals and John McCain. (I can also imagine a David Lynch-directed film using special effects to have a lobster and John McCain in a tennis match, mostly to inject a slide of humor but also because I’d really like to see that.)

So, for the minimum fourth time in my literate life (Hunter S. Thompson, Mailer and Vonnegut being the first three) I’m left with the bitter loss of an author I deeply respected but comforted slightly with the mammoth output they left behind for me to appreciate. Well, appreciate is too strong a word in Mailer’s case, but that rant will have to wait before this tribute reaches the length of a Wallace novel itself. For now, a removal of my fedora and a nod of respect to an author who is one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.

And after that, you’ll need to excuse me, as there’s something I need to do that involves a month of my time, a really sturdy desk and at least two bookmarks.

“Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?” – DFW, The Atlantic, Nov. 2007, “The Future of the American Idea”

Back Shelf Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

September 15, 2008

(Editor’s note: There’s a reason I’m reprinting this review at this time, even though it’s much shorter and older than my usual works. The reason for reprint is the post immediately following this one.)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

By David Foster Wallace

Published April 2000

Back Bay Books

336 pp.

ISBN 0-316-92519-5

Reviewed September 17, 2007

Originally reviewed at: The Lesser of Two Equals

David Foster Wallace is a rare thing in modern writers – brilliant, incisive and hilarious. He is one of those genuinely gifted writers who is able to not only construct masterful sentences but is able to tell a story with them – or rather, many stories. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” his collection of short stories, is more accessible than his mammoth novel “Infinite Jest” but with that same graceful skill.

Some favorites: “I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” is easily the best story in the collection, a retelling of Greek myths with the world of telecommunications serving as the new setting. “The Depressed Person” is one of the most honest stories ever, and its use of footnotes (thankfully located on the same page as opposed to in the back like “Infinite Jest”) show Wallace has a better angle on his craft than most. The brief interviews, scattered through the book, are hilarious takes on the neuroses of men with different ideas on sex. Wallace’s voice permeates each story, even when he steps into each individual character.

With any great writer there are some flaws – his writing is almost too literate for the typical reader and every character in every story seems to have more neuroses than usual – but that doesn’t change the fact that Wallace is unquestionably a writer of rare skill. He has taken William Burroughs’ role (as Norman Mailer put it) as the only American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius, and these stories serve as an ideal introduction to his work.