Reviews of books by Joshua Whitehead, Mel Brooks, Gary Shteyngart, and Virginia Woolf
To The Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
A classic, short and simple. I listened to the audiobook and let it wash over me, the characters, the prose, the jumping from one idea to another, one setting to another, one time frame to another. Stream of consciousness maybe enters the ear better than through the eye? Not sure, but the experience was transcendent.
I didn’t approach this book with any fore knowledge. I didn’t know what happened, though it wasn’t my first Woolf book, so I anticipated her approach, her style, her voice, the atmosphere created and explored. Still, by the end I was shook. The shift from pre-war to post-war and the attendant consequences struck deeper than any battle sequence I’d ever read. People simply disappeared, hopes, dreams, expectant narratives vanished.
It is a monument to the idiocy of the 20th century, published in only its third decade (1927). Of course, there is a class snobbery and more than the whiff of English imperial garbage here that rankled, but it is mostly a study of individuals making do, attempting to survive and accommodate pressures greater than themselves. Told with exquisite language and intelligence.
All About Me!
by Mel Brooks
Being a little less than half the age of Mel Brooks (he was born in 1926), my first exposure to his unmistakable voice was his performance as a bald baby in Free To Be You and Me (1972), a routine I can still remember vividly nearly 50 years later. Brooks has been providing memorable comic moments since the 1930s, and approaching 100 he hasn’t stopped yet.
I listened to Brooks narrate his memoir via audio book, which is surely the best way to “read” this material. The verve, the personality, the charisma infuse every moment. Brooks has had a long and packed life, yet one must be honest and say this book may be all about him, but it isn’t all of him. It’s his professional life, with small dips into his private life. Fair enough. There’s a lot to go through none-the-less.
Anything critical to say? I can only recount one sour note. He mentions DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) as one of the sweeping epic films that inspired the style of his own History of the World, Part I (1981) without following the reference with “that racist piece of shit.” Actually, I don’t think Brooks has a negative thing to say about anyone in his entire life. Which is really quite nice. His kind of comic generosity should never go out of style.
For a slightly different take on Brooks’ work, see - https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/mel-brooks-boomers-comedian/
Our Country Friends
by Gary Shteyngart
This was my first Gary Shteyngart book, and though I’d heard him interviewed a couple of times on the New York Times Book Review podcast, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I listened to the audio book, and it was a bit of everything. Funny, sad, touching, philosophical, steeped in literary allusions, and chock-a-block with up-to-the-minute cultural anxieties—including COVID!
I recommend the audiobook experience. The writing has a comic’s timing, which is pleasant on the ear. Judged as a book, I waffled in my conclusions. It was enjoyable, it was sometimes stupid, it was often heartfelt, it was definitely smarty pants clever. But did it work? Did it speak to the moment? I read this as Omicron took off. The book didn’t speak to the arrival of Omicron and the longer term questions, like will this ever end?
I considered three stars, but gave it four, ultimately because it’s a good book. It’s an artistic achievement. I have my doubts about it’s staying power. In the future, it may read like alternate history. What might have been. What we might have hoped could have happened. I liked it enough to be curious about other Shteyngart titles. I’m not giving a plot summary here. Look it up yourself!
by Joshua Whitehead
I read this book as an audiobook and finished it over six months ago. The plot has faded in my memory, but the powerful charisma of the protagonist and his driving self-determination has not. The Goodreads plot summary says ‘Jonny has one week before he must return to the “rez” to attend the funeral of his step-father.‘ Jonny must conquer a series of obstacles to achieve his goal.
For the reader, the outcome is never in doubt. The obstacles, on the other hand, are harrowing, sad, challenging, and ultimately enable Jonny to provide a full-scale portrait of his life—and foreground his life-affirming character in the face of all that must be overcome.
Though, like I said, I don’t remember too many specifics about that. There was lots of sex, though, and drugs, I think, and the need to collect enough money to make the trip. A gritty and explosive tale of the contemporary told by a memorable character, a storyteller, a survivor.