BOOK REVIEW | Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Victor Mancini, a medical-school dropout, is an antihero for our deranged times. Needing to pay elder care for his mother, Victor has devised an ingenious scam: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants. He then allows himself to be “saved” by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor’s life, go on to send checks to support him. When he’s not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. His creator, Chuck Palahniuk, is the visionary we need and the satirist we deserve.

My thoughts:
On the surface, Choke is a seedy look into the world of a sexual compulsive. Our central character, Victor, is a sex addict and we follow him through his many explicitly detailed trysts.

However, it becomes quickly apparent that Victor is lost: a self-proclaimed “doormat” who works as a historical interpreter and caretaker to his sick mother, Victor’s sexual deviance is the more or less his only selfish endeavor. He gives his time and money away easily, asking for little in return. His mother seems to be holding onto a family secret, and much of this story is Victor’s journey to uncover the truth. He discovers early in life that if you nearly die by chocking, the person who saves you will want to continue saving you forever. All of this cumulates with an oddly satisfying ending.

Stylistically, this book is unique. Highly satirical with lots of repetition, and strangely poetic prose. This was my first Palahniuk, but I’m curious to read more and see how these elements translate in his other work. Learning Palahniuk’s story and inspiration for this book makes it that much more fascinating – be sure to look it up after you’ve read it!

This book is not going to be for everyone – not by a mile – but for those willing to think outside of the box, or those who are interested in the darker side of things, this is definitely worth the read.

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BOOK REVIEW | You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
A woman known only by the letter A lives in an unnamed American city with her roommate, B, and boyfriend, C, who wants her to join him on a reality show called That’s My Partner! A eats (or doesn’t) the right things, watches endless amounts of television, often just for the commercials—particularly the recurring cartoon escapades of Kandy Kat, the mascot for an entirely chemical dessert—and models herself on a standard of beauty that only exists in such advertising. She fixates on the fifteen minutes of fame a news-celebrity named Michael has earned after buying up his local Wally Supermarket’s entire, and increasingly ample, supply of veal.

Meanwhile B is attempting to make herself a twin of A, who hungers for something to give meaning to her life, something aside from C’s pornography addiction, and becomes indoctrinated by a new religion spread throughout a web of corporate franchises, which moves her closer to the decoys that populate her television world, but no closer to her true nature.

My thoughts:
What occurred to me then…was that living wasn’t a matter of right or wrong or ethics or self-expression. There was no better way to live, or worse. It was all terrible, and you had to do it constantly.

Bleak? Maybe. Relatable? Definitely.

Alexandra Keleeman’s satire is a bold statement on modern life. She tackles consumerism, conformity, and the importance of the individual in an over-marketed world.

The premise is tricky to describe, but here’s my best shot. Our central character, A, has a roommate named B and a boyfriend named C. A eats popsicles and oranges, and is infatuated with Kandy Kakes – an artificial treat that she lusts after while obsessively watching their colourful commercials. A notices strange behaviour from her neighbours, that B is starting to assume physical similarities to herself, and C suddenly disappears. What follows is an examination of the self, or lack of self, in an overly consumptive society.

I enjoyed taking a peek into Keleeman’s world as this book is full of provocative and insightful moments. I’m the same age as the author, and can relate to her take on the obsessions endured by women today. This is a a bizarre, dystopian satire and will not appeal to everyone’s tastes. If you’re a fan of postmodern literature, this is definitely one to read.

BOOK REVIEW | White Noise by Don DeLillo

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America where his colleagues include New York expatriates who want to immerse themselves in “American magic and dread.” Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, bound by their love, fear of death, and four ultramodern offspring, navigate the usual rocky passage of family life to the background babble of brand-name consumerism.

Then a lethal black chemical cloud floats over their lives, an “airborne toxic event” unleashed by an industrial accident. The menacing cloud is a more urgent and visible version of the “white noise” engulfing the Gladney family—radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, ultrasonic appliances, and TV murmurings—pulsing with life, yet suggesting something ominous.

My thoughts:
I can’t recall the last time that I was deeply affected by a book; shaken to the core, forced to analyze my beliefs, and profoundly changed on the other end of reading it. I just put White Noise down, and am wondering how I’ll be able to read anything else going forward. I haven’t had time to process all of my thoughts coherently, and am not sure I ever will, but I know that I didn’t want this book to end. There are so many layers to this book that I could talk about, but its most overt commentary – an incapacitating fear of death – hit me at the right time.

Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.

There is nothing dated about this work from 1985; the underlying themes feel relevant in our modern world, overrun by technology. This story is told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, patriarch to a blended family and teacher of Hitler Studies, but is very much about all of the members of his family. His kids are unique and represent many viewpoints, and his wife, Babette, provides powerful insight into the feeling of nothingness experienced by so many. These characters busy themselves with the white noise of life and are so consumed with the fear of death, that they ultimately fail to live meaningfully while they have the chance.

How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while?

Yes, this book is nihilistic. It’s over the top and fantastical, yet somehow completely realistic. While I don’t fear death in such an extreme way as these characters, I do fear it for my loved ones. I can barely handle the thought that my kids are mortal beings, and at times it overwhelms me. Yet, I manage to function, because that’s what people do.

Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry a final line, a border or limit. 

 

BOOK REVIEW | The Sellout by Paul Beatty | Man Booker 2016 Shortlist Selection

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

My thoughts:
I sit in a thickly padded chair that, not unlike this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks. 

I hated this book. I mean, I did initially. The entire first chapter was just too much for me: outrageous and over the top, and I couldn’t yet see it’s purpose. Who does Paul Beatty think he is? This book is ridiculous! After all, this is a story about a black man reinstating slavery to save his home town.

I continued reading, however, and then I got angry. When the narrator’s father dies at the hands of the police, I let out the long breath I had been holding. This book is so important and so relevant to what is going in America right now. I’m half black and a very proud Canadian, but I have black relatives living in American that I worry about. Whenever I turn on the news to see a young black man lying dead in the streets I think about my cousin, my uncle. Something must change.

While this book is mean to provoke, to engage, to enrage, it also contains moments of clarity and joy. These two quotes made me laugh out loud:

How come there aren’t any African-American mermaids?  Because black women hate to get their hair wet.

I’m so fucking tied of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!

There isn’t much I can say about this The Sellout that hasn’t already been said, and it’s incredibly difficult to comment on satire, but this book worked for me. Paul Beatty has an MFA in creative writing and a MA in psychology, and I can feel the depth of his education in these pages. The Sellout is both wildly imaginative and incredibly smart.

If you’re struggling to get into this book, try it out on audio! The audio helped me get into it, and I picked up the book shortly after.