One-Man Book Club: Now where were we?

Arlo & Janis

(“Arlo & Janis“: Not only is it America’s most marital-relations-positive — and cat-positive, and power-walk positive — comic strip, it also honors old, analog media every now and again. I never miss a day of “A&J” — it’s the only comic strip I read.)

All right, Tonsilites, at last, another session of the One-Man Book Club. It’s been so long since the club met to discuss recent reads that EVERY MEMBER has completely forgotten the smartest thing he had to say about each book. (On the plus side, that also means every member has also forgotten his most biting criticism of each of the books. )

Let’s get to it — books that I’ve read since October or so.

First up is the broodingly intelligent, howlingly funny Half Empty, a new book of essays by the one and only David Rakoff — among my favorite books of 2010. To disclose, yes, Rakoff has done a few things that could be construed as Stuever-supportive.

So what? I consider him an acquaintance-type friend only and one of enviable, multifaceted brilliance at that. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure he considers me a WHO? Oh, right, HIM. Here’s how you know you aren’t truly friends with someone, at least not in meatspace: While cackling and admiring how he weaved together this book of gloomy, frank misanthropy and spot-on cultural criticism, we  learn that he almost got his arm and shoulder amputated because of cancer.

Oh. (And this was probably going on while I was annoyingly pelting with him with e-mails to pretty-please read and blurb my book. And he kept politely replying that now was not such a great time, to which I kept begging, seeing as there would likely not be another time I would be needing book blurbs, etc., until he finally, wonderfully relented. Do I feel bad about that?  Naw.)

(Well, maybe, a little.)

This is a book for people who just cannot pretend to look on the sunny side of the street yet sometimes enjoy actual and verifiable sunshine, which is not at all the same thing. You know who are. “I like everything,” Rakoff tells a cheerfully minded inquisitor. “I don’t hate the world. I’m scared of it. There’s a difference.”

What I love about Rakoff is how well he masters the tangential, in a way that never makes it seem digressive. In the middle of a very good chapter about what’s really wrong with the musical Rent:

“… New York was becoming far too expensive and criminally inhospitable to young people who tried to come here with dreams of making art, and how regrettable that the town’s vibrancy and authenticity were being replaced by a culture-free, high-end-retail-cluster-fuck of luxury condo buildings whose all-glass walls essentially require a populace that doesn’t own bookshelves or, consequently, books. A metropolis of streets once thriving with local businesses and services now consisting of nothing but Marc Jacobs store after Marc Jacobs store and cupcake purveyors (is there anything more blandly sweet, less evocative of this great city, and more goyish than any other baked good with the possible exception of Eucharist wafers than the cupcake?). And even though Jonathan Larson’s musical was meant in its own ham-fisted, undergraduate way to be a call to arms against this very turn of events, was it just me, or was this middlebrow lie a symptom posing as an antidote, like watching a sex-ed film narrated by gonorrhea? Were others also leaving the theater rooting for the landlords?”

* * *

Next, the club dove into the irresistible Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, by Justin Spring. Now THIS was my favorite book of 2010. It’s a deeply-researched, heartbreaking, even-handed biography of someone we’d probably otherwise never know of, a gay university professor and novelist named Sam Steward, who taught in Chicago in the mid-20th century and was a friend (of sorts) to such writers as Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.

Steward was also, from a very young age, a sex enthusiast. By modern terms, he’d probably be diagnosed as a sex addict and would have to tell his story to a 12-step group; in his time, though, he merely risked his livelihood, possible jail time and personal safety to pursue illicit pleasures. Steward kept meticulous records of hundreds of consensual encounters he had with other men over many decades, sometimes at great personal risk, years before the so-called sexual revolution. He carefully noted and described each encounter in what he called his “Stud File,” a card catalog. In fact, he kept records and observations to such a degree that he became one of Alfred Kinsey’s favorite (and beyond willing) research subjects.

After some near-misses with scandal and arrest, Steward left academia behind to focus on becoming a tattoo artist of some renown, which is where Secret Historian becomes a much broader exploration of someone who followed wherever his psyche and desires led him. He later became a writer of gay pornographic novels, under the name Phil Andros.

I’ve promised to absolve myself of the chore of summarizing books at the One-Man Book Club. You can find out everything you’d want to know by reading other, much more carefully crafted reviews of the book, which heap deserved praise upon Spring’s book. (Including a nomination for the National Book Award.)

Sam Steward's "stud file" (Photo by Ruth Fremson, The New York Times)

Instead, I’m more interested in the miracle that Secret Historian exists at all. Had it not been for the hoarder-like instincts of one of Steward’s friends, who, after Steward died in 1993, kept the Stud Files and other numerous boxes of his old papers and materials (they had become literally filthy) hidden away in an attic, this magnificent and important book simply never would have been possible. That thought — which occurred to me only as I neared the end of the book — terrifies me in a way that’s difficult to describe, but it must be the same sort of terror that historians and biographers feel when they learn that entire archives went off to the landfill years ago. It also makes me nervous all over again for how we’ve come to rely on the electronic archive — the cloud — to preserve the very marginalia of our lives that will comprise “the good stuff” to future historians and journalists:  the e-mail, the tweets, the texts. Something tells me whole chunks of our manic 21st-century existence will not make the journey into scholarship and permanent history.

After locating Steward’s papers, artwork and other ephemera and recognizing their potential importance; and after winning the trust of the man who held them, it took Justin Spring a decade to go through them all with the hopes of discovering (as well as corroborating) Steward’s life story. Then, of course, nobody wanted to publish it.

Though the subject matter is dark — to say the least — it is also undeniably alluring, and a fascinating glimpse at a side of gay life, pre-Stonewall, that never shows up in tame portrayals of gay history. Strike that. This is a book that should be fascinating and even dangerously appealing to anyone who has ever had or desired sex, regardless of their orientation or proclivities; for anyone who can privately recall for you (in verbal or diary form) the basic outlines of their own sexual histories, down to details about who with and how many times, etc. I dare someone (HBO? Scott Rudin?) to make a movie of this book. Secret Historian is that rare biography that becomes a true page-turner, without becoming illicit or dirty. I admire the way Spring keeps his book on track, making it accessible to casual readers who might otherwise blanch at reading about such a life. It’s one of those books that I feel lucky to have read.

* * *

Next up is Infidel, photographer Tim Hetherington’s beautifully haunting book about the men of the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade, who fought battles in Afghanistan’s treacherous Korengal Valley in 2009. Hetherington made these pictures around the same time that he and Sebastian Junger were embedded with the 173rd, on reporting trips that became their documentary film, Restrepo, and Junger’s nonfiction book, War.

I haven’t seen Restrepo or read War, but my boyfriend, Michael (who works as a photo editor), and I went to the Corcoran Gallery last fall to hear Hetherington speak about the pictures and work in Infidel, which, as far as I’m concerned, ranks up there with David Finkel’s Iraq book, The Good Soldiers, for helping me understand our current wars — and the Americans who actually fight them — more than any straightforward news accounts.

A good bit of Infidel is preoccupied with the tattoos the soldiers acquire while out in the field (applied by other soldiers), as a way of more deeply understanding who they are — their vulnerabilities and worldviews. It’s a classic example of how the most powerful pieces of journalism are often found in the mundane events and situations. There is such wonder and trust in these pictures, as well as menace and grief. The most talked-about photos in Infidel are the images of the soldiers when they are asleep.

(c) Tim Hetherington, from "Infidel"

That’s what I mean about journalistic trust. People in the audience didn’t ask much about this during the Q&A — they were all more obsessed about war correspondence and his take on matters of war policy — but I was dying to know more about how these sleeping-beauty pictures were made: Did he ask the subjects if he could take them while they slept? Or did he just tell the men later that he had done it? Did it no longer matter, since he’d been with them for so long, confined in bleak circumstances, and they became so used to his presence? Were they so exhausted that the shutter’s click — so much softer than mortar fire and helicopters — acted as a reassuring whisper, maybe a kind of lullaby?

* * *

Yes, the Club also totally realizes (now) that these books are sort of going together in a lovely way — Rakoff’s pessimism and dark tendencies, Sam Steward’s preoccupation with the flesh, and the tattoos on the dozing American infidels in the middle of a terrible war.

I think Patti Smith fits right in there, don’t you?

What else is there to say about Just Kids that hasn’t been said? I finished it on an airplane, in tears.

Like me, you may have thought you wouldn’t be interested in her memoir, perhaps because the music hasn’t interested you enough, or for whatever reason. Like me, the National Book Award that Just Kids won may have convinced you to give it a try. I think you should read it.

Granted, even when you fall into the melody of her prose, there’s something affected about it. Or is there? I think it’s the very quality that most readers found mightily, irrefutably genuine — but no matter. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about the pain and delusions and actualities of trying to be an artist, and having someone in your life who mutually wants it for you as well as for himself. It’s also a pretty powerful work on the subject of friendship. And love. I gave a copy, signed by Patti herself, to Michael for his birthday, because I felt that for once someone had told the inner struggle of art and artists in a whole new way.

Only weeks later — and after a trusted good friend had a reaction to the book that was the complete opposite to mine — do I wonder if there wasn’t something more … cockamamie about Just Kids? Something suspect, detectable only in the light of day after a candlelight wine binge?

Well, as Robert Mapplethorpe would have said: shove it up your ass. For a few days I was held in the grip of Just Kids, and it was like my brain had been delivered roses, with petals ready to press between parchment pages. Whatever she was trying to do here, she nailed it. And that’s all I have to add.

* * *

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The book of the fall, until Freedom came along. Turned out to be sort of a slog to get through — a book that gives off a whiff of being way too pleased with itself and its inventions. This is a dystopic (yet depressingly, probably spot-on) novel about two lovers caught up in the further intellectual and organizational collapse of America in the not-too-distant future. It has been read (and praised) by everyone who would probably bother to read it. Written for people with advanced literature (preferably Russian literature) degrees who can also keep up their end of an “American Idol” conversation and are already tired of the bands who got the most buzz at last year’s SXSW.

In other words, certain people. (Population, what, 11,000?)

There was something just too high/low about this book. Lenny and Eunice are star-crossed, well, lovers is not quite the right word. She sleeps with him mainly for a place to live in New York while she figures out her life; he disgusts her with his passion for actual books, which nobody reads anymore. The sections about Lenny, written as a diary, get tedious; Eunice’s sections, written (improbably) as long, first-person social network messages to her friends and relatives, of a depth at which nobody is supposed to write in the future, are what keep the narrative moving.

Super Sad True Love Story‘s strongest moment comes fairly early, in a scene set in a trendy bar where everyone’s smartphones (now called äppäräts) provide a constant “fuckability” update on everyone else in the bar (including other up-to-the-moment stats and indexes, such as their income and credit rating).

Chilling, funny, but unsustainable. I made it through, and there was a nice twist at the end, but I can barely remember what it was. Oh wait, now I remember. I won’t tell.

* * *

From too smart for its own good, to too sweet for its own good …

At last, Jeanketeers, there is a Jean Teasdale book! It’s called A Book of Jean’s Own and it turns out, sadly, to be entirely too much Jean, too much of a good thing disguised as a bad thing disguised as a good thing.

I overdosed, like eating an entire tray of brownies. This is for hardcore fans of her longtime Onion column only. And maybe not even them.

* * *

Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor, is New Yorker writer Tad Friend’s absorbing, acerbic, yet tremendously honest and even tender memoir of his family — actual East Coast Wasps who lived the Wasp life long before cultural anthropologists (chiefly, The Official Preppy Handbook) came along and named it, tagged it and chased it into the fatal, harsh light of modern American diversity. This is a broad epic about one family, yes, but also a thoroughly-researched and even indispensable take on a particular kind of upper-class American.

The first 2/3 of the book is skillfully woven and well-written, as fans of Friend’s New Yorker profiles would expect. Though the author is never entirely likable, he does create in the reader great fondness for the characters who populate his family. He frankly explores the moments at which it begins to dawn on everyone that the money — fortunes made in steel in the 19th and 20th century — has mostly dried up. He also does something these sorts of memoirs never do: he provides some actual dollar amounts here and there, in terms of his own inheritance and the degree to which his family helped him get started in life. (In money memoirs, I’d probably only ever be fully satisfied with an online appendix made up of computer scans of old checkbook ledgers and ATM receipts.)

Cheerful Money is about as close as most of us will ever get to these sort of people, as we are all regrettably NOCD. And something falls apart in the book’s final third. Near the end of the journey, when the new generation has worked through significant emotional issues and come to terms with the remaining real estate; after mumsy has died (as have most of the elders), Friend seems to believe that he’s won the readers over and it will now be impossible for him to seem smug and self-absorbed.

Think again.

Still, that’s what makes Cheerful Money succeed — the author is true to his story and true to himself. One of the saddest and wittiest books I’ve read in a while.

* * *

Cripes, are we done? We would be, except for the part where we bow our heads and make very quiet tsk-tsk noises for the books that failed to pass the FIFTY-PAGE TEST. Stick a pitchfork in ’em — they were either too dull or too … “something” for me to get much further than page 50.

Without further comment, they are:

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis

<<– Grant Wood: A Life, by R. Tripp Evans

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky

1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan

Life in Year One, What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, by Scott Korb

In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, by Peter Lovenheim

* * *

Now we’re done. Will the One-Man Book Club ever meet again? I hope so — but if so, it’s clear we need to have our meetings before the content of the books slips sadly away from the addled mind. Also we need better snacks. Til then…


  1. Derba on March 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Never fear. I have all of your “index cards” in a Fed Ex box, in our extra closet.

  2. Teddy on March 31, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Rakoff’s book is the only one I read in 2010 that was also thrown across the room several times. He’s a clever man, but he cannot stop himself from turning a good idea in to a gurningly overwritten mess. His essay on writing is one of the worst steaming piles I have read.

    • Hank Stuever on April 4, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      Teddy, as a fan of throwing a book I can’t stand across the room (–cough– “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata — cough-cough–) and then retrieving it and reading it further so that I may hurl it once more, I can certainly relate.

      I’ll keep your comment here, and I’m always happy to read a dissenting view, but I wonder (once again, always) why people don’t put their full names on opinions like this. I never leave a comment anywhere online without my full name attached. (I mean, it’s not like David Rakoff is going to hunt you down and kick your ass, right?)

      I know that I’m in the minority on this issue — the web is a place where the chickenshitted have the right to roam free and say what they like, with the scrim of usernames and initials or simply going as “anonymous” for protection. I get it, but I don’t understand why we conduct all conversation online with the equivalent of CB handles instead of our real names.

  3. Ben F Noviello on April 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    I just finished “Half Empty” and found it darkly funny and thoroughly brilliant. I, literally, had to stop reading every once and a while just to absorb what I had just read. And having recently read (or listened to) Rakoff’s earlier compilations I found it interesting how much more mature and, well, passionate these essays were.

  4. Hank Stuever on April 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Update, 4/22/11: Ugh. Tim Hetherington (and another photog, Chris Hondros) were killed in Libya yesterday, while working. It’s sad beyond words. It makes me even more glad we went to hear Hetherington’s talk last fall. Such a loss.

Leave a Comment