Shock and Pa

[A reblog of a review I wrote in 2011 about Carrie Fisher’s memoir, Shockaholic. Like so many others, I am in disbelief at her passing, and as noted in the piece, was always struck by her laconic, laser-like perspectives on her life and the circumstances surrounding it, her unparalleled sense of biting humor, and indefatigable perseverance regardless of whatever hit her way. She’ll be so very missed.]

CARRIE FISHER’S LATEST OFFERING, the cleverly titled Shockaholic, is a markedly similar follow-up to her Wishful Drinking, which was released in 2008 and eventually parlayed into a successful one-woman show on Broadway. For those who are partial to Fisher’s sharp and acerbic take on things, her sense of the absurd clearly derived from first-hand experience, Shockaholic (if not exactly shocking) doesn’t disappoint.

In this slim and admittedly self-indulgent collection, the novelist/actress (Princess Leia in a long-ago and far-away Star Wars incarnation), reprises her riff on an often surreal life as child of Hollywood stars, ‘50s sweethearts Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, in an anecdotal memoir that could have been titled “Before I Forget.” (For the majority of those too young to remember, her parents’ marriage ended when her father ran off with screen siren Elizabeth Taylor, quite the scandal in those days.)

The name of the book is a play on her recent experiences with electroshock therapy, a treatment that has proven successful in her ongoing struggle with bipolar disorder (a subject covered in her novel, The Best Awful).  It comprises the opening chapter, where Fisher goes on the record about the amnesiacal after-effects of ECT, as it’s called, which results in loss of short-term memory. (She admits to “blanks” at various stages throughout the volume.)

In typical Fisher fashion, she finds humor in the madness: ”One could argue that by having regular ECT treatments, I’m paying two – that’s right, two – electric bills. One for the house and one for my head.” But on a more serious note, she adds that it “punched the dark lights” out of her depression.

“Wishful Shrinking” is about her battle with the weight issues that led to a high-profile rescue by the “S.S. Jenny Craig.” (“Being the poster girl for enormousness is not anything any kid grows up aspiring to.”) To her credit, she admits to the commercialism of her gig as a JC spokesperson, with the apologia that, “I mean, there’s a lot of other things I could do for money. I could sell autographed ECT machines or rhinestoned mood stabilizers or even Star Wars scented laxatives.”

The best piece is tagged “The Senator,” about a decades-old dinner engagement that Fisher shared with her date (and later lover), Connecticut lawmaker Chris Dodd, and that icon of American politics, Ted Kennedy. Colorful and well-written (she alludes to Kennedy’s “alert and aristocratic eyes”), she describes a memorable evening that turned into a bit of a showdown, triggered by the senator’s more than subtly salacious and unexpectedly inappropriate questions after having a bit too much to drink.

With “Pa-Pa” Eddie, circa 1990s

If a lot of the previous Wishful Drinking was about Fisher’s mother, the chipper kewpie-doll actress Debbie Reynolds, who’s mostly absent here, Shockaholic is at the end a wistful tribute to father Eddie, who passed away in the fall of 2010. “Puff Daddy,” as she nicknamed him (Fisher had an affinity for marijuana, and a photo of him lighting up is classic), reentered his daughter’s life late in the game, and she paints a picaresque portrait of the man she never got to know as a child, but with whom she developed a close relationship in his declining years:

“Near the end, he was doing all he could to get to know me, everything from hugging me tighter than any man had hugged me in my life to calling me fifteen times a week. I mean, if when I was young, I had gotten even one of those calls a month, I would have been over the moon.”

When he told her in his last months that he “wished he had her life,” the daughter replied, “You did, Daddy. That’s why you’re in bed.”

Another great Fisher line, one amongst many in this short but lively compilation that displays much of her characteristically biting wit.

[First published as Book Review: Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher, on Blogcritics.org.]

‘String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis’

art string theory
WITH WIMBLEDON, that most venerated of competitions now in full swing at London’s All-England Club, those with a love for literature as well as tennis can feast on a compilation that combines some of the most magnificent writing on the subject from one of the greatest writers of his generation. String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis by David Foster Wallace is important enough that the Library of America recently published it as a special edition, which in physical form looks and feels like a classic textbook – appropriate, as there’s so much to learn within its pages.

David Foster Wallace (who left us far too early, at the age of 46 in 2008) was best known for his novel, Infinite Jest, which sparked an uproar when it failed to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996. It was a tour-de-force opus (1,100 pages long) that cemented his reputation as a fresh and consummately creative voice in the literary stratosphere.

Infinite Jest, not surprisingly, involved tennis amongst its several themes. Since his days as a junior player in the heart of the Midwest, Wallace’s relationship with the sport was deep and all-involving, and led to some of the most insightful essays ever produced on the topic, with the New York Times ultimately calling him “The greatest tennis writer ever.”

For Wallace, tennis was somewhat akin to a trigonometric puzzle that he spent his whole life trying to figure out. “I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding,” he writes. Both the physics and geometry of what takes place within the 78’x27’ confines of a tennis court long consumed his astonishingly analytical eye. Consider the following, from “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” describing his early years in the junior leagues:

“We were doing butterfly drills – my crosscourt forehand is transferred back down the line to [his] backhand, he crosscourts it to my backhand, I send it down the line to his forehand, four 45° angles, though the intersection of just his crosscourts make an X, which is four 90°s and also a crucifix rotated the same quarter-turn that a swastika (which involves eight 90° angles) is rotated on Hitlerian bunting. This was the sort of stuff that went through my head when I drilled.”

Whew. Definitely not the “sort of stuff” that would cross the mind of the average weekend player. In an excellent foreword, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that tennis “draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games…[and] the perfect game for Wallace.” That obsessive quality is very much on display here, and Wallace’s dissections of what would be considered minutiae by a casual observer are turned into stream-of-consciousness discourses of razor-sharp perception. Brilliant throwaway lines like “he rushes the net like it owes him money” are peppered throughout. (This extends, also, to the book’s voluminous footnotes, a technique that Wallace was known for ubiquitously employing in his fiction as well; I found it best to read those after finishing with the main text.)

book cover string theoryWallace’s exalted views about the essence of the sport – “There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man” – were sometimes challenged, and his disappointment is nowhere more keenly expressed than in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In the piece written about the tennis prodigy’s autobiography released in 1992, Austin, who won the U.S. Open at the tender age of 16, and whom Wallace had placed on a pedestal, came quickly back down to earth as he realized that, “Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.”

In wickedly incisive form, he writes that “This is for me, the real mystery – whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.” Elsewhere, he describes the brash and grungy Andres Agassi — “whom I loathe with a passion” – as “amazingly devoid of finesse, with movements that look more like a Heavy Metal musician’s than an athlete’s.” Ouch!

But there was a certain icon about whom Wallace harbored no qualms. In an essay that has since reached near mythic proportions and was originally published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times in 2006, Wallace’s sublime observations reached a zenith of perfection. Reprinted here as “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” it’s a must-read for even those with just a passing interest in tennis, a heady amalgamation of both intellectual pyrotechnics and plain fan-boy praise from a clearly besotted Wallace:

“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

Even more to the point is Wallace’s uncanny analysis of what constituted the maestro’s greatness:

There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.

Could he have imagined that here we would be, a decade later, with Federer playing at his 17th Wimbledon, after already winning seven titles there? One is struck by a simple phrase that Wallace used to describe his idol, but which can be just as much said about his chronicler: “Genius is not replicable.”

[First published as Book Review: ‘String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis’ by David Foster Wallace at Blogcritics.org]

Carly Close Up

boys-in-the-trees-cover
“Boys in the Trees: A Memoir”

FANS OF CARLY SIMON are probably over the moon that the quintessential ‘70s singer/songwriter has finally gotten around to penning her long-awaited autobiography, about a third of which lays bare her marriage to another rock legend, James Taylor, in vivid detail. Along the way in this intensely self-searching, if sometimes overwrought, memoir are plenty of scintillating tidbits about other celebrated male figures who intersected with her life — Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, Cat Stevens, and Sean Connery among them.

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

In the Still of the Now

tolle stillnessStillness is the only thing in this world that has no form.
But then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world.
— Eckhart Tolle

Those familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle have often referred to the transformative effect of his dual bestsellers, The Power of Now and A New Earth. Consider me a convert.

Having read more than my share of books devoted to the journey of self-discovery (often convoluted offerings that may inspire initially but whose impact soon dissipates once you’ve finished reading them), both Power of Now and New Earth are works you actually return to – over and over – as boosters to a philosophy that is both amazing in its simplicity, as well as its depth.

I recently learned of the Tolle books, first published in 1999 and 2005 respectively, thanks to my “Irish-twin” brother (we’re less than a year apart), not expecting the profound effect that they would have on my approach to life and insights into areas that previously defied answers. I realized there was something very different going on here, as I encountered paragraphs that would stop me in my tracks, demanding to be pondered, asking questions that I never realized lay just beneath the surface.

Tolle’s belief is that everything converges in the moment, in the Now, and that understanding this lies at the core of “consciousness,” and more specifically the “presence” that is necessary to free oneself of old hurts (what he calls the “pain-body”) as well as those obsessions about the future that keep us from realizing our truest potential. I’d venture to say Tolle’s discussions of the ever-hungry pain-body, which feeds on destructive emotion – anger, resentment, regret — are infinitely more perceptive than years of therapy.

Perhaps most transcendent are his thoughts on “stillness,” and the idea that the ineffable center that lies at the core of our being is actually at the very essence of the cosmos itself:

“And the greatest miracle is this: That stillness and vastness that enables the universe to be is not just out there in space – it is also within you. When you are utterly and totally present, you encounter it as the still inner space of no-mind.”

It is the pesky mind — with its intrusive thoughts and rigid form structures that make-up what Tolle terms our “egoic” selves — which requires constant vigilance if one is to forge a path towards the ultimate goal of inner nonresistance.

There’s an absolutely wonderful anecdote about how Tolle was once sitting in a park watching ducks on a lake when a fight broke out between two of the creatures (territorial encroachment or what not). When it was (quickly) over, they both vigorously flapped their wings, as if to shake off any remaining negative energy, then serenely glided off in separate directions as if nothing had happened.ducks

“If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making,” Tolle writes. “This would probably be the duck’s story: ‘I don’t believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space. I’ll never trust him again. Next time he’ll try something else just to annoy me. I’m sure he’s plotting something already…’ And on and on the mind spins its tales, still thinking and talking about it days, months, or years later.

“You can see how problematic the duck’s life would become if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all of the time. No situation or event is ever really finished. The mind and the mind-made ‘me and my story’ keep it going.”

It’s a powerful example taken from nature, which Tolle often alludes to as a guidepost to understanding the Now in action, and the quiet force of stillness in all its manifestations.

Time to heed those ducks.

Photo/top: Gladys Triana

Fateful Voyage

dead-wake Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most famous maritime disasters Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania features Erik Larson’s typically thrilling you-are-there narrative style, adding to his noteworthy list of previous bestsellers that includes Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm.

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Review: ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

beingmortalimage2I was surprised to see Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End near the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list – not because it’s not an excellent book (which it is), but because the subject matter is not, shall we say, easily approachable. (Discussions about death and dying rarely are.)

Then I thought of the number of Baby Boomers now struggling for answers as they deal with aging and incapacitated parents, looking for pathways to follow as they wrestle with an issue deeply affecting their own lives, and it’s no wonder Being Mortal strikes such a major chord.
Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Scratch the E!

letter-e-scratched outTalk about a writing challenge: I’d say constructing a 300-page novel without the most commonly used letter in the English language would definitely rank right up there. For two relatively obscure novelists, Georges Perec (1936-1982) and Ernest Vincent Wright (1872-1939), it was the ultimate word game, with the added demands of forging a plot and a story as well.

Perec and Wright were both masters of the lipogram, an aspect of language known as “constrained” writing, where the use of a letter – often “e” — or a series of letters, is not allowed. (As if writing weren’t hard work enough.) The self-imposed rules force a limiting of literary possibilities, and conjures the metaphorical example of a runner attempting a marathon without the use of a leg.perec la disparition

Perec’s book, La Disparition, originally published in French, was later released in English with the title, A Void, and its translation also held to the lipogramic standard. In a postscript to the English version, Perec remembers his mind traversing “down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways.” Rather than restrictive, he found the trip a creatively liberating experience.

Ernest Vincent Wright preceded Perec (whose Void was published in 1969), with a novel called Gadsby ( yes, that’s with a “d”) from 1939, a 50,000-word tome that he wrote in about six months — with the letter “e” tied down on his typewriter. (A feat that would have taken most of us six years.) Now viewed as an oddity, the book is rarely found these days, and the few copies still floating around can be worth in the thousands.

Gadsby is more than just a curio piece, however, and actually rather remarkable. (The complete book is archived for the public gadsby novelhere.) In the introduction, Wright makes an intriguing point about the difficulties of attempting a story without the use of that invaluable vowel: “The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, all of which end with ‘_ed,’” he wrote. “Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few,” he emphasized.

And in a quaint nod to the innocence – or shall we say provincialism – of the times:

“The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?”

A quick perusal brings home Gadsby‘s sleight-of-hand. If you weren’t aware of their absence, you’d never notice that a “whole army of little E’s all eagerly expected to be called upon,” as Wright called them, were missing in action.

I’ll finish by stating my distinct fascination with this highly idiosyncratic form of linguistic wordplay. (Look, no E’s!)