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Books

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas; Bushit!: An A-Z Guide to the Bush Attack on Truth, Justice, Equality, and the American Way by Jack Huberman.

Gilead
by Marilynne Robinson
Picador, January 2006, 256 pages, $14 [paperback]

With that little gold Pulitzer seal now on its cover, Gilead comes with loaded expectations, and while it doesn't disappoint, it doesn't quite satisfy either. Narrating through Reverend John Ames, Marilynne Robinson touches effectively on human relationships with God and with each other. Ames speaks confidently, but he remains full of wonder and open to mystery, allowing for opaque concepts to exist in the midst of his firm theology. Robinson doesn't carry that sort of complexity over to her novel's narrative, which means that while given passages of the book leave emotional prints or theological profundity (disguised as simple country pastoring), as a whole it struggles.

Robinson's failing lies in the book's formal conception. The first half of Gilead serves as a eulogy to existence itself (Ames returns to the word existence throughout his narration). While natural moments and typical personal connections can be messengers of grace or beauty, Robinson dulls the effect by having the dying Ames maintain a consistent level of bittersweet wonder throughout his discourse. He establishes himself and his story for too long, rendering the intended transcendental glimpses just more words in a steady sequences.

The second half of the book gets more into the book's central plot (the first functions most essentially as historical character revelation), but by this point it reads as an epilogue to the initial treatise. Ames works to understand, forgive, and communicate with his best friend's son, whose past and present hold important and hidden details. To make both the narrative and the plot more effective, Robinson should have woven them together, allowing their tones, emotions, and concerns play against each other. As it is, it's a fractured tale that reveals just the wrong amount about its teller without cleanly examining his internal explorations.

Justin Cober-Lake Amazon

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Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood
by Koren Zailckas
Penguin, January 2006, 368 pages, $14 [paperback]

Amid all the brouhaha surrounding James Frey and his imaginative recovery memoir. A Million Little Pieces, the fact that the book is so poorly written is often overlooked. More to the point, Frey's prose reads like third-rate Hemingway with Tourette syndrome. After a while, any reader who isn't a recovering addict looking for inspiration would rather have that root canal sans anesthesia that Frey 'experienced' than continue reading this soft-boiled machismo. Sold to a reading public as a memoir, readers found the book gripping. If it was sold to them as fiction, readers would have found it laughable. The sad truth is that most memoirs of addiction and recovery seem to be held to a lower standard by publishers, diluting their content until they resemble the literary equivalent of an MTV reality show.

Which brings us to Koren Zailckas' Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, which has recently been reissued in paperback, in which the author describes her nine-year love affair with binge drinking. Zailckas recounts one drunken blur after another, from the ages of 14 through 23, until the love of a good man makes her go cold turkey. Zailckas doesn't so much destroy her life as she continually vomits all over it until she builds up enough of a tolerance to simply experience blackouts. Friendships are destroyed, stomachs are pumped. Unfortunately Smashed is mostly one incident of drunken foolishness after anther, punctuated by the slightest of insights and the flimsiest of supporting statistics.

Much of Smashed reads like a first draft. Situations and the language used to describe them are repetitive; with some tropes used so often that a reader could make their own Smashed drinking game. Ipecac may be required if the reader takes a drink every time Zailckas uses an overwrought simile, vomits, mentions a passing statistic on the prevalence of teen drinking or uses the phrase "years later" (a particularly irksome phrase in her hands). The stomach pump may be needed if drinks are taken at every ham-fisted sexual metaphor Zailckas trots out to describe her first drink. Her attempts to equate that first drink to deflowering come across like Lady Chatterley's Lover filtered through an after-school special.

To be fair to the author, she comes across as intelligent and well read; liberally dropping references to freshman-year favorites like Anne Sexton and Rilke. And, as Smashed progresses, her writing improves somewhat. However, what ultimately undermines this memoir is that Zailckas' experiences aren't that unique. In an early chapter, she writes of her mother's obsessive reading of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: "...I cry harder because my private pains are so unoriginal". Writing about the ordinary requires extraordinary talent, and that is not evident in Smashed. Perhaps if I were a young woman in a similar situation, or the parent of one, I might feel differently, but I am not, and a better writer would be able to bridge that gap.

Gerry Donaghy Amazon

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Bushit! An A-Z Guide to the Bush Attack on Truth, Justice, Equality and the American Way
by Jack Huberman
Nation Books, January 2006, 336 pages, $15.95 [paperback]

There isn't anything that can be written in a 300 word review that would convince the skeptical reader that Bushit! is a nuanced portrait of George W. Bush, and that he or she will come away with a deeper understanding of the man, his party and his policies. In fact, Bushit! is quite the opposite and it's as subtle as a brick to your face. If you haven't already learned everything you need to know to hate the guy from various print and Internet sources, this is a book that will fill those voids in a crude yet thorough fashion.

Huberman's writing make no attempts towards civil discourse, taking advantage of every pun, innuendo and portmanteau at his disposal, coming across less like a concerned citizen than a smug git. His attempts to be clever register as mere sarcasm, and Huberman never strives to inspire his readers to action. The author himself describes the book as "´┐Żan opinionated catalog distilled from various news and opinion sources", informing the reader at the outset exactly what they are in for.

The facts in the book are fairly indisputable, and read like the resume of somebody competing to be employee of the century in Hell. And before any conservative or neo-conservative readers begin to type out angry emails accusing me of a liberal bias, let me ask you one question: would you be so defensive of the holder of the office if these offenses were committed by a president whose name was Clinton or Kerry?

However, there are issues that a book like Bushit! can inspire debate over, and while many of them can be found inside, ultimately, the argument becomes about the book as the ding an sich, or the thing in itself. What purpose does a book like Bushit! serve? Does it serve to make converts to the cause, or to re-affirm deeply entrenched beliefs? Sometimes books like this are purchased, but never read. They're like a bumper sticker on your bookshelf: it declares your position, but it doesn't really offer cogent solutions. If Huberman were interested in solutions, he'd focus his attention less on this lame duck, and more on the upcoming midterm elections.

Gerry Donaghy Amazon

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