Tuesday, 08 February 2022 15:33

I love ‘The Nineties’

Chuck Klosterman is arguably the preeminent writer of pop culture commentary of the past 20 years. I say “arguably” only for the sake of others – to my mind, it’s him and then everyone else. No one else has come close to putting together his combination of wry observation, pop expertise, humor and sheer flat-out writing ability.

So to say that I was enthusiastic to get my hands on a book where Klosterman deconstructs the 1990s – the decade where I too came of age with regard to cultural understanding – would be an undersell. My expectations were sky high – so high that I wondered if I had put the bar out of reach.

My concerns were utterly unfounded.

In “The Nineties” (Penguin Press, $28), Klosterman turns loose his considerable powers on a singular decade, one that marked a significant turning point in the direction our culture has taken. It is a thoughtful and engaging trip down the Gen-X rabbit hole, exploring a variety of impactful moments and events of that timeframe both in terms of what happened and – most importantly – the differences between that reality and our memories of it.

Despite what you may think, this is not a nostalgic book. In so many ways, the fog of nostalgia clouds our perspective on the past. Klosterman not only steers clear of that impulse, he pushes in a direction that is more straightforwardly analytical. This is a book that explores what happened and the subsequent consequences, and along the way, he breaks down the difference between the truth of the moment and the fictionalized stories we tell ourselves.

Published in Buzz

One of the things that the pandemic has taken from us is our ability to travel freely. It has kept us close to home in so many ways, leaving us to remember wistfully past journeys to other places.

But what if you could see the world … without leaving the comfort of your favorite reading nook?

That’s what David Damrosch offers with “Around the World in 80 Books” (Penguin Press, $30). The decorated comparative literature professor has assembled a selection of works that originated all over the globe. Some of these books are ancient classics, others are more contemporary offerings, but through each one, Damrosch takes the reader a new more steps on this Phileas Fogg-inspired journey around the world.

It’s a thoughtful work of nonfiction, one that is unafraid of its own intelligence while also never deigning to condescend to its reader. That’s not an easy balance to strike, especially when one considers the massive range of the canon Damrosch has assembled.

It’s worth noting too that you don’t actually have to have read all the books discussed within. In truth, unless you yourself are a scholar of comparative literature, the odds are pretty good that you have not – as I said, it is a vast array of wildly disparate work. But thanks to Damrosch’s insightful breakdowns, the context is clear even if you yourself have never consumed the actual text.

Published in Buzz

There’s a certain flavor of nonfiction – I call it stunt nonfiction, but your mileage may vary – that is built around a particular gimmick. It’s tough to articulate what it is specifically, considering how many different ways one might partake, but generally, you know it if you see it.

Maybe it’s a book about making every recipe in a single cookbook or committing to saying “yes” to everything. Maybe it’s about taking the field with a professional football team as a rank amateur or tracking down everyone you find in a random pack of baseball cards. Maybe it’s about trying to follow the Bible or Oprah as closely and as literally as possible for one year.

Or maybe, if you’re Douglas Wolk, it’s about reading every single Marvel comic and considering it as one expansive story.

That’s what Wolk did with his new book “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told” (Penguin Press, $28). In an effort to demonstrate the comprehensive nature of the Marvel meta-arc over the course of the decades, Wolk read every single comic Marvel published from 1961 (considered to be the start of the true Marvel Age) through 2017, when he first decided to undertake the massive project.

Published in Style

Ever since we became aware of there being something beyond the confines of our world, we have been fascinated by the idea of aliens. We are compelled by these thoughts of life on other planets, and in an infinite universe, that life is almost certainly out there.

But what form will that life take?

We have no way of knowing the specifics – the universe is too vast and varied for that – but one scientist argues that what we know about our own world can give us some general ideas about the life that may exist on others.

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum’s “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves” (Penguin Press, $28) is an attempt to use what we understand about the rules of this planet and apply that understanding to the potentialities of alien life. He does so through simple extrapolation, taking into account fundamental laws of nature and spinning them forward into general theories about the life that might be found elsewhere.

Published in Tekk
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:39

The many faces of war – ‘Missionaries’

Ever since there has been warfare, there has been art about warfare. The visceral nature and high stakes of combat are fertile ground for creative expression, providing the backdrop for uncountable stories and images that attempt to convey the violent eternal present of war.

Most of the time, the art that comes from wars is born after the conflict concludes. However, that isn’t the case with the creations inspired by this country’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – those fights remain ongoing, but artists have nevertheless mined them for inspiration.

Author Phil Klay made a massive splash on the literary scene with his debut book “Redeployment” in 2014 – it won the National Book Award that year, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, awarded for a best first book in any genre (as a member in good standing of NBCC, I actually cast my vote for “Redeployment” to win the John Leonard).

Klay is back with his first novel. “Missionaries” (Penguin Press, $28) is a look at the global war machine, the world-spanning business of warfare writ large and small. Through interconnected perspectives and narrators, it’s a look at the many ways in which the horrors of war can impact those who participate – willingly or otherwise.

Spanning decades of time and thousands of miles, “Missionaries” is a tale of the damage war can do and the influence it can have on the choices that those involved ultimately make. It’s also about the high cost, in money and in blood, exacted by the act. And it’s a tacit admission that if you’re in it, you’re in it – all are complicit, regardless of what they might tell themselves.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 23 June 2020 12:07

‘The Biggest Bluff’ is the nuts

Play the man, not the cards. It’s an adage that has been circulating in the poker world since there has been a poker world in which it could circulate. But how true is it?

That’s one of the fundamental questions explored in Maria Konnikova’s new book “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” (Penguin Press, $28). Konnikova is the perfect person to explore such a question, combining a longtime study of psychology and human behavior and a complete lack of knowledge regarding poker. Through answering that question, she sought to get a firmer grasp on the role of chance in the way our worlds operate.

She gained that understanding, to be sure, but that was far from all.

The pitch was simple – go from utter neophyte to the World Series of Poker in one year. But while she achieved her goal, Konnikova also wound up completely changing the trajectory of her life, both personally and professionally. Her voyage through the poker world opened her eyes to a number of truths about herself and her perceptions and proclivities.

It also turned her into a hell of a player. A good player … and a surprisingly successful one.

Published in Sports

I love crossword puzzles. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found real joy in solving those black-and-white grids. From the daily newspaper to collections in books to online sources, I’ve been a cruciverbalist for most of my life.

But I’m far from the only person out there with a devotion to the joyous wordplay that comes with crosswords, spending a portion of just about every day working my way across and down, filling in the blanks and feeling the satisfaction of a finished puzzle. Millions of people engage with crosswords every day, though we all have our routines – some solve at breakfast, others as a break during the day; some solve on their commutes, others in the evening to bring their day to an end. Maybe it’s intellectual engagement they seek. Perhaps a competitive thrill. Regardless, it ultimately boils down to love of the game.

Adrienne Raphel loves crosswords as well. She loves them so much, in fact, that she went ahead and wrote a book about them. “Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them” (Penguin Press, $27) is a thoughtful and in-depth look at a hobby that has been occupying minds for over a century. Through a combination of historical research and first-person experience, Raphel takes the reader on an engaging and entertaining stroll across and down the cross-world.

Published in Style

True literary excellence is rare. At any given time, there exists a relative handful of writers capable of creating legitimately exceptional prose. There are plenty of GOOD writers out there (though perhaps not as many as we might like), but scant few GREAT ones.

The truly excellent are the ones who are not only capable of crafting greatness, but are also willing to push boundaries – both the establishment’s and their own. These are the writers who, in continuing to challenge themselves, burst through the literary ionosphere and hurtle toward undiscovered realms.

Zadie Smith is one such writer.

Published in Buzz

There are those who will rail against the world, who will do everything in their power to strike back against any real or imagined powers that hold them down. And there are others who want nothing more than to simply remove themselves from the fight, to check out until such time as their problems have somehow miraculously solved themselves.

The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (Penguin Press, $26) falls very much into the latter category; she’s a young woman who on the surface appears to have it all, yet desires to completely ignore the world as it rolls on around her … and is willing to go to some extreme measures to achieve that ignorance.

Published in Buzz


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