Review: Catalina by Liska Jacobs

Catalina


Catalina
by Liska Jacobs
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374119751

By Noah Sanders

Expectation is what dooms Catalina for me as a reviewer. The book trumpets itself as an “LA Noir”—a seedy, white heat sort of genre that proclaims murder and sordidness in equal measures. And yes, Liska Jacob’s book is a tar-black tale of adulthood gone wrong, but it never reaches the fever pitch of what I, or any fan of the genre, would deem “noir.” Instead Catalina bends towards “emotional noir”—all the inner psychological weight and concurrent desperation, the shitty decision-making and save-your-own-ass motivation, without the violent climax. Liska Jacobs propels the reader forward with pithy descriptions and a main character with a set of morals burnt by rejection and rampant pill popping, upping the ante by surrounding her with a cast of supporting roles equally damaged by the inevitable emotional traumas of adulthood. Yet the build—and Jacobs has an enviable skill at creating dramatic tension—amounts to almost nothing, no big finale, no grisly death, just bad people doing bad things.

Elsa Fisher has been fired from her job at as an assistant to the Head Curator of New York’s MoMA. With an enormous severance package in tow, she abandons New York—with a stolen scarf and pharmacy’s worth of pills as her luggage—and returns to the setting of her youth, Los Angeles, for a reunion trip to Catalina Island with long abandoned old friends. Told from Fisher’s perspective, this is a story about being unable to come to grips with the average responsibilities of adulthood. Fisher is many things—a pill-popping alcoholic, a dark and selfish soul, and a woman who buries her pain in the arms of a rotating cast of men—but Jacobs writes her smart and aware of her own undoing. She’s the self-proclaimed black sheep of her friends having divorced Robby—a bitter UX designer jealous of his friend’s riches—and absconded to the coast. Her friends have followed a straighter line—seemingly normal relationships, the hopes of having children, high paying jobs—but Elsa’s inner turmoil seems to draw out their own inadequacies, their own substance abuse issues, their own chafing at the bit of getting older. As the group boards the boat of Tom—a middle aged millionaire who acts as a crystal ball for their own sad, rancorous futures—and heads for Catalina, the booze flows and the tenuous bonds of their lives unravel in tandem.

Elsa starts at the bottom. She’s stumbling through life after an ill-advised affair and her subsequent firing from a dream job, throwing down Vicodin and Xanax like their breath mints and washing them down with booze at all hours of the day. She’s an emotional wreck, but a manipulative one who uses her looks and intelligence to get by. Yet, with Elsa already playing tourist at rock bottom at the beginning of the book, Jacobs really has nowhere to take the character. She drinks and fucks and makes increasingly bad decisions while watching her friends do the same, revealing their true natures aren’t too far off from hers and that’s about all.

Jacobs is trying to make a few points in the book: the affects of life’s tiresome plod, the even shittier effects of the events that shape us, and how all of us, no matter how bright we shine, contain a darkness just waiting to claw its way out. But her characters are thin stereotypes—the predator-like rich guy, the frat-boy turned old and sour, the unhappy mom-to-be and the preening Los Angeles fitness buff—with only Elsa given more than a cursory glance into their motivations. Instead the characters quickly shrug off any defining descriptions and each one—sans Tom, who’s a prick from the get-go, the book’s sole, weak stab at an antagonist—slowly become slight, ill-defined versions of Elsa herself, consumed by the murkiness inside.

The writing in the book screams “noir” with compact, terse language filled with Elsa’s cynical descriptions of her touristy surroundings. “Moms in floral cover-ups watch children with sand toys, digging away,” Jacobs writes of a crowd of tourists on Catalina, “while dads mingle at the tiki bar, watching the many flat-screen TVs.” It isn’t bad writing and it serves the purpose of highlighting the distance Elsa has placed—with drugs and general malaise—between herself and the real world. Like the characters in the book though, it never changes. It’s crackling and weighed down by Elsa’s bleak worldview for the full length of the book and at some point it all just bleeds together into a whirlpool of drugs and poor decision-making.

In the end, Catalina is all forward momentum without any destination. Jacob’s writing—propulsive to say the least—baits the reader with the idea that “something” is going to happen. That these broken souls, scarred by money and life, will go to Catalina and the very worst of their darkest urges will materialize in the violence and death “noir” is famous for providing. Instead, the book floats along on mean-spirited characters sinking lower into themselves with no real climax ever dragging them to the surface. Even Elsa, the horrendous foundation of this collection of awfulness never learns anything about herself other than, “this is who I am and this who’ll I continue to be.” It’s the grimness of noir, without any of the reckoning. Catalina is a frothy tease, a whole lot of bad behavior without anything to be said about any of it.

Review: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

River of Consciousness Cover


The River of Consciousness
By Oliver Sacks
Published 2017 by Knopf Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0385352567

By Wesley Cohen

In January 2015, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Dr. Sacks had already written his memoir On the Move, which was published in April 2015. He shortly finished a book of essays about his thoughts on life and dying, Gratitude—this after twelve previous books on migraines, autism, ferns, phantom limbs, hallucinogens, and music, among other topics. In August 2015, Oliver Sacks passed away, and Gratitude was published posthumously the following November.

And yet, after collecting his life story and his thoughts on living, Sacks chose to write another book, published only now: The River of Consciousness. What subject was so important to Sacks that he couldn’t bear to leave this book unwritten?

As it turns out, everything. The River of Consciousness begins with an essay discussing Darwin’s botanical studies, before moving on to “Speed,” which borrows from H. G. Wells and William James to consider the perception of time in professional athletes, in people with post-encephalopathic catatonia, how time shifts under the influence of drugs, and even the experience of time for insects and plants. Sacks goes on to investigate the consciousness of earthworms and jellyfish, accidental plagiarism, hearing loss, and colorblindness.

Although Gratitude was meant to be Sacks’s final offering, his “posthumous gift” to readers, the dominant sense in The River of Consciousness is that of awe. Sacks approaches his various subjects with obsessive detail and nearly childlike curiosity, laying bare the wonder of each topic. Nothing is too distant, too old, or too small for Sacks’s careful attention. The descriptions here—of a young Oliver borrowing his cousin’s camera to photograph the “time-blurred wing beats” of a bee, of the communication habits of octopi and facial recognition in wasps—are specific and enchanting. Reading these pages feels like an antidote to cynicism and overwhelm, as long as the reader can look away from her Twitter feed long enough to settle in. Again and again, Sacks demonstrates our great fortune to be alive, to explore the natural world, to have sight and memory and health. Even when these fail, there is beauty and mystery to be found: in the book’s most personal essay, “A General Feeling of Disorder,” Sacks describes his brutal recovery from a procedure intended to extend his life by a few months, but also describes his joy when his exhaustion lifts, “a physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania.”

The River of Consciousness also spends time with Sacks’s heroes, mainly Darwin, Freud, and William James. Readers learn of these famous scientists’ less-known pursuits: for Darwin, his decades of botanical study, for Freud, his research in neuroscience. Throughout his career, Sacks was beloved by his readers for his compassion and personality while writing on neurological research and the experiences of his own patients. Whatever the book, Sacks shows up in his own work as a full, complicated, real person, charming readers into following him through hospital wards and into jungles. Here, Darwin and Freud enjoy similar treatment, expanding from archetypes into men with struggles and obsessions and stories. Sacks references other scientists constantly, as well as writers and artists from Wagner to Rebecca Solnit. The bibliography for this book is nine pages long. If The River of Consciousness is to be taken as a message or a gift for Sacks’s readers, then it is an abundant and expansive one, as each essay contains numerous reading suggestions, a road map to future discovery. The world of science, Sacks shows, is not a stodgy institution but a network of hopeful and fallible actors.

Common themes from Sacks’s previous work run through The River of Consciousness: the perception of time, language, creativity, and imitation. But unlike his past books, which often take up a specific topic—say, the intersection of neuroscience and music in Musicophilia—and exhaustively present every side to the reader, these essays explore their subjects and then set them down. There is no one theme or argument in The River of Consciousness, although topics, examples, and quotes may show up in one essay to be repeated in a new context a hundred pages later. In this sense, The River of Consciousness reads as a brief catalogue of its author’s favorite people and ideas, the things Sacks wanted to touch upon a final time before leaving.

The River of Consciousness feels a bit like a goodbye to the world, with all its wonder and history and unanswered questions, and an inheritance for those of us who remain. Perhaps, after making a gift of his gratitude, Sacks wanted to give his readers the gift of his passion as well, to lay these essays out in front of us and say here are the things I loved, here are the things that enchanted me, and to leave them for us to admire, to wonder at, and perhaps to pick up and explore on our own, now that he is gone.

Review: Vacationland by John Hodgman

Vacationland


Vacationland
by John Hodgman
Published 2017 by Viking
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735224803

By Noah Sanders

John Hodgman has always seemed an artist overly consumed with his own fake identity. From his days as a PC to Justin Long’s Mac to his preening caricature on The Daily Show to his three books of fake facts, he’s played the part of an effete, impeccably dressed, highly opinionated nerd to the tee. It isn’t that Hodgman hasn’t nailed the character—one wouldn’t be judged for believing his on-screen persona to be his actual one—more that there has been a distancing lack of substance beneath the bespectacled facade of the character he’d created. Vacationland is a memoir of Hodgman’s past and present life in the overgrown backwaters of western Massachusetts and the windblown coastlines of rural Maine. In writing about his own life, Hodgman relinquishes the hold his self-created character had on him. His laconic musings on his life expose a truer, wiser, more poignant aspect to the author without sacrificing the wry, observational humor he has become so well known for. This is a book ably toeing the line of nerd-laced whimsy and the surprisingly sage wisdom of a mid-40s hipster, a book that hums with the melancholy rhythm of the inherent sadness to be had in the inevitable onset of age.

Vacationland feels as if Hodgman is coming to grips with his own descent into middle age. The first half of the book focuses on Hodgman’s childhood in the small, ramshackle cabin in Western Massachusetts the author and his family inherited when his mother passed, up through his college and post-college existence. Each, slightly self-contained chapter finds Hodgman progressing the narrative of his own existence—an educated, slightly pretentious rule-following nerd turned, well, older, more famous slightly pretentious, rule-following nerd—while exploring the lessons learned in his younger life and how they have affected who he has become. In “Mongering” the author digs into his post-collegiate life working as a temp at a publishing company, tearing the covers off proofs of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Hodgman, as most college grads are, was rife with idealism as he stepped into the real world, stuffed with the belief that regardless of the mundane nature of his life, he was making progress. “As I stamped each page away,” he writes, “a growing sense ate at me that I was no longer becoming something, but ending up as something.” Mixed amongst the humorous asides, fictional conversations and blatant nerdery, Hodgman finds space to convey this sort of everyman wisdom without it ever feeling like he’s spewing platitudes. Instead the wiser, less humorous aspects of the book give the reader a foothold into a rounder, more real, more human version of the author hereto yet revealed.

The essay “Vacationland” finds Hodgman lowering all of his comedic defenses, brushing aside his forays into the nuts-and-bolts facts about boat-building and the history of Maine and discussing his mother’s death. The author’s cynicism never flags in the piece: “What more is there to say than it was traumatic a moment that breaks your life in half? That you never heal from it, and it blankets your life in sadness and fear forever? Not much, except for this little bit.” Hodgman’s mother passed from lung cancer at the age of 59 and “Vacationland” tracks the way her passing altered the course of his life. His descriptions of his last days with his mother are heart-breaking without being mawkish. “Slow death keeps you busy with chores and distractions” he writes of these final months. When she’s gone, he confesses, “There is no peace in dying, but there is peace when it’s done.” At the time of his mother’s passing, Hodgman was concluding his seventh year at a literary agency. His mother’s death pushed him to realize that his latent goals of being an author needed to come to the surface. “After a few weeks of caring for my mother at home,” he writes, “I noticed that none of my clients missed me. I was not essential to their lives at all.” As sad as the short piece is, it also shows what Hodgman is capable of when he abandons his comedic tendencies entirely. This is a heart-wrenching bit of writing, but one that glows with an inspiring warmth learned only from experiencing one of life’s great, inevitable sadnesses and the ability as a writer to pass that warmth forward.

Hodgman is a funny man, and this book is never lacking in humor. It is one of the book’s many charms that Hodgman is able to weave so effortlessly through the darker moments of his life while peppering them with his own gin-fueled adages and his particular brand of self-effacing humor. And it needs to be this way. From reading Vacationland, it’s evident that Hodgman is much more than the character he’s created, the character he’s hidden behind for so much of his professional life. Humor and book smarts are his natural impulses, but beneath this sheen of laughter and intelligence is a deep well of wit and emotion. A well Hodgman is able to tap, to distill into a book that offers advice and history, humor and sadness, poignancy and poise; a book that captures Hodgman in full.

Review: The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name by Philip Harris

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The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name
by Philip Harris
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$12.00 ISBN 978-0-9994471-0-9

By Noah Sanders

The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name—the new chapbook by Bay Area poet Philip Harris—is as much a collection of short poems as it a piece of portraiture. It feels as if Harris is writing himself into existence using the overlapping spillover of moments from his own life, his mother’s life, and her mother’s life before as his medium. The author—half-white, half-Mexican, and gay—uses singular moments of his life, and of those who came before, to showcase his own part in a complicated cultural upbringing and how it birthed the complex human he has become. Named Felipe Juan by his mother’s Mexican side of the family, Harris grows up straddling two different worlds, his footing never solid as he navigates the path forward. His coming to terms with own homosexuality further adds even more to his internal life experiences. As an adult, though, Harris is oftentimes seen as just being white and it isn’t that The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name seeks to refute that, but rather to plunge beneath the surface, exposing the intricacies of Harris himself and of the average human experience.

In the opening section, Harris’ mother asks him if he thinks Gloria Estefan is “cute,” probing her young son to see if he might be gay. Harris writes, “I don’t know yet about systemic racism, internalized homophobia, heteronormativity, internalized racism, oppression, gender politics.” He just wants to be a kid that fits in and to do so he tells his Mexican mother that, no, Estefan has that “ugly Mexican look.” It is a small, uneventful memory, but Harris wields it as a the harbinger for what will come. On the surface this is a simple moment but by pulling it gently apart Harris reveals the want and the need to assimilate ourselves into normative culture and the pain caused in doing so. There is no lack of small pains in the book; a woman at party tells Harris’ mother she’s lucky for marrying a white man, for “marrying up.” “Another offense to file away,” Harris writes, “Another memory to play over and again.” In his own life, Harris recalls the first time someone called him a fag, the loss of his virginity to two men in a public sauna, the dropping of his Mexican surname to appease a pregnancy magazine editor—the through line of pain spiraling from his mother all the way up the generational ladder.

There is a richness to The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name that belies its slim size. The author, in what has to amount to less than 10,000 words, spins not only his own story, but those of the individuals and the culture that formed him. This is Harris’ story, but the only way to tell it is to fill in the detail, to draw the portrait of where and who he came from. Harris writes with a wistful nostalgia at play—these are lyrical explorations of single moments that gently lift from the page—but Harris grounds his more poetic tendencies with the textured grit of reality, simple and small. A ventilator is “loud, breathing God’s wind into” the small lungs of his dying grandmother; he describes his great-uncle Papa Juan as a man who, “hugged hard, his gold jewelry catching the sun as he handed me a twenty dollar bill.” He describes the Mexican spirit La Llorona—a woman who steals children—as a “woman dressed in all white, her hair flowing in the absent winds of Southern California,” seen as he “looked at porn alone in the thin hours of the morning.” In doing so—colliding lyricism and reality—Harris deepens the picture of himself—a poet who grew up eating freshly slaughtered and grilled lamb in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a human being splayed out across a spectrum of varied experiences. The language, rough and delicate within the same sentence, enriches his personal narrative, becoming as much a part of his story as anything else.

In forming a picture of himself far beyond superficial descriptors, one of layered cultural narratives and generational tradition and trauma passed down through the family, Harris seems to be saying that the identities we push forward into public are never so simple. Instead, Harris, and all of us, are layer upon layer of experience, culture and connection pushed outwards through a specific perspective. Regardless of how he is seen, he’s much more than meets the eye. As Harris himself writes, that though his friends see his “passable” whiteness he wonders if they will ever know the person who “listens to mariachi music and cries, or feels at home in mini-mall salons with women speaking only Spanish, or hears his abuelita’s laugh in every crunch of a fried tortilla, or who used to bullied for being gay.” He wonders if they’ll ever know him.

Review: A Natural by Ross Raisin

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A Natural
by Ross Raisin
Published 2017 by Random House
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525508779

By Noah Sanders

It is understandable if a reader is apprehensive of picking up Ross Raisin’s newest novel, A Natural, because of its superficial description as a “sports book.” A Natural sells itself in its first hundred or so pages as a book that in near claustrophobic fashion, details the grinding routine and oppressive masculinity that define professional sports at the bottom of the barrel, specifically the low leagues of professional, English football. This is a world akin to politics, where every word spoke, every seat taken, every conversation kicked up places you in the hierarchy of your team, for better or worse. The more skilled you are, the better you’re loved, but emotional attachment is a flash in a pan, every friendship just injury away from dissolution. Raisin’s novel addresses these issues but his goal as the book stodgily sallies forward isn’t to pull the curtain back on modern, English football. The author picks apart the common perceptions of masculinity—both in sports and in everyday life—using the drab canvas of small town soccer as a launch pad.

Tom Pearman is a talented, 19-year old striker who’s lost out on a contract from his hometown Premiere Academy and drifted South, ending up as a wing for a low-league football outfit struggling to stay relevant. Pearman is skilled but as the book begins he struggles to find his footing or make friends within the tightly knit group of aspiring soccer professionals. He lingers at the edges of social gatherings, avoids his loving family, and on the field shies from using his prodigious talents. His introversion seems warranted. The world of professional soccer in Raisin’s hands is a plodding struggle, a grim injury-laden series of practices and games that brooks no concern for what the future might hold for an individual. The culture inherent in the sport is one of toxic masculinity where nothing is excepted but utmost effort and athleticism wrapped in the traditional stance of tough-guy posturing.

Though A Natural is ostensibly about soccer—and Raisin spends a lot of time describing pitches, matches, the sweaty muscles of young athletes, etc.—it’s more so a coming of age story about a shy introvert with a secret. Pearman’s struggles to “fit in” with his new teammates are heightened by the fact that he’s gay, a one-way ticket to being ousted by the world of professional sports. Pearman isn’t exactly interesting, but it doesn’t seem as if Raisin wants him to be. Instead he seems a product of the football atmosphere—any of his edges worn down to nothing and then buried under a game face and want of being the best. Underneath it though, Pearman’s an emotional mess—struggling to find footing in the inconsistent limbo football manages to push him into while hoping his innate sexual urges, lustily described by Raisin, can be contained, shoved down into the grey morass of his emotions his football life has created.  At 19, Pearman has only really done one thing—play football—and as he begins to mature emotionally, the push and pull of competitive sports doesn’t provide him with the answers to the big questions of his life anymore. When he starts a face with ruddy-faced Liam, the team’s groundskeeper, the urge to play professional ball and the urge to just be who he is collide, spinning him further into his own self. He’s different than the testosterone spewing football dudes he’s spent his entire life with—he’s gay, shy, halfway between traditional sporting masculinity and the emotional security he yearns for—but he’s unable to bring together the quickly dividing strands of his new life.

The book isn’t an easy one to just wander into. Raisin spends the first hundred or so pages flatly laying out the stakes of low-league professional soccer and the portrait he paints is a dreary, even boring one. The beginning of this book is a trudge through quicksand, with Pearman’s severe introversion allowing only a laser-focused view from the cheap seats. Yes, Raisin does spend too long setting the mood and the atmosphere, but when the story starts to pick up, when the secrets are revealed and the cogs of the narrative start turning, the reader, knowingly or not, is immersed in this stolid world. There’s a low-level thrill in seeing Pearman, and his team, succeed (and fail) and even more of a rush to see the main character start to shakily pull himself from his shell.

There’s a real fear as the book nosedives towards the reveal of Pearman’s sexuality and his relationship with Liam that Raisin might dip towards the soap-operatic, but the author never loosens his grip on the narrative. What could be portrayed in dramatic terms instead becomes a textured look at a redefinition of self in a world where redefinitions are rarely allowed. Raisin paints his world in drabs greys and greens and though Pearman’s stab at acceptance of his own sexual orientation flares brightly amidst the somber backdrop, the novel isn’t sidetracked by a need for a theatrical reveal. As the events of the book play out, Raisin keeps to blunt descriptions and a moment-by-moment feel that, though stripping the novel of any high highs or low lows, allows his characters to interact realistically with the events at hand. As the novel begin,s Pearman is a soccer player with a secret and as it lumbers toward a conclusion this doesn’t change—his own true self just becomes more acceptable. If the opening hundred pages seem aimed at the crushing mundanity of barely professional sports, it’s for a reason: Pearman’s self-discovery, his small growth as a human being feels enormous in the world it builds, the shadow it throws. If you’ve come to the book for the glitz and glamour of professional football, you’ll be disappointed. A Natural is a coming-of-age story that comes to fruition on the shadowy edge of a harsh sports culture and as that it succeeds.