Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

It's not that I didn't like this book... Okay, that's exactly what it is. But the real issue I had with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is this: I've either had every conversation in this book (which I enjoyed more than these essay versions of them) or I've walked away from the conversation because it didn't interest me in the slightest. I can name at least ten people I know who could have written this book (give or take an article or two), and probably could have written it better (including the person whose choice this book is for my book club).

I didn't dislike it all, though. It was amusing in parts. It's just that I didn't find it to be wonderfully clever even though it was clearly trying very hard to be.

I could talk a lot about why I didn't like this book for little reasons, but on the whole, I think my distaste for it was rooted in the fact that I couldn't simply read it at my leisure, picking it up and putting it down to read a single article and then switch to something else, because we're reading this for book club and thus my reading has a deadline. Had I been able to just skip an article (such as the mind-numbing article on basketball) or stop reading one (like when he made repetitive references to Sigur Ros and Devo as though they were symbols of uniqueness, only to make them ordinary by constantly referencing them) so I could move on to something else or read an essay every few days, then I probably would have a kinder outlook on this book.

But here's the kicker as to why I can't simply dismiss this book. Do you know the game "Table Topics"? Or have you read the If...? books? They work on the same premise... posing a "what if" kind of question that you're supposed to then discuss with people. This may seem lame, because it implies that you can't have a natural conversation with your friends without the assistance of cards, but I found them amusing in college... and probably still would, given a particularly creative bunch of friends and a few bottles of wine. "If you could only listen to one album again for the rest of your life, what would it be?" "If you had to kill an innocent person to end world hunger, could you?" "If you were exiled from your current country, what new country would you pick as your new home?" "Which famous dead person would you most want to have a dinner conversation with?" "If you could either sleep with one famous person and never tell anyone or give the impression of a deep and loving relationship to the world but never actually sleep with them... which scenario would you pick?" (I actually think he did pose this question somewhere in the book...)

Anyway... there's one "essay" in this book that's my favorite part, not just because it's funny, but because it seems like it unwittingly captures the whole essence of the other articles -- or at least distills what good this book can accomplish. It's a small section of twenty three questions that the author would pose to a person and their answers would determine whether or not this could be his soulmate. Think of Table Topic and If...? questions (like those above) and multiply them by ten on a specific and weird scale... then you'd get the kind of questions that he asks.

For example, here's a fairly ordinary but still interesting one:

Every person you have ever slept with is invited to a banquet where you are the guest of honor. No one will be in attendance except you, the collection of your former lovers, and the catering service. After the meal, you are asked to give a fifteen-minute speech to the assembly. What do you talk about?

And here's a weird one that I quite enjoy:

Defying all expectation, a group of Scottish marine biologists capture a live Loch Ness Monster. In an almost unbelievable coincidence, a bear hunter in the Pacific Northwest shoots a Sasquatch in the thigh, thereby allowing zoologists to take the furry monster into captivity. These events happen on the same afternoon. That evening, the president announces he may have thyroid cancer and will undergo a biopsy later that week. You are the front page editor of The New York Times: What do you play as the biggest story?

And one more for kicks:

Someone builds and optical portal that allows you to see a vision of your own life in the future (it’s essentially a crystal ball that shows a randomly selected image of what your life will be like in twenty years). You can only see into this portal for thirty seconds. When you finally peer into the crystal, you see yourself in a living room, two decades older than you are today. You are watching a Canadian football game, and you are extremely happy. You are wearing a CFL jersey. Your chair is surrounded by books and magazines that promote the Canadian Football League, and there are CFL pennants covering your walls. You are alone in the room, but you are gleefully muttering about historical moments in Canadian football history. It becomes clear that—for some unknown reason—you have become obsessed with Canadian football. And this future is static and absolute; no matter what you do, this future will happen. The optical portal is never wrong. This destiny cannot be changed. The next day, you are flipping through television channels and randomly come across a pre-season CFL game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Knowing your inevitable future, do you now watch it?

Okay, last one, for real:

Let us assume you met a rudimentary magician. Let us assume he can do five simple tricks--he can pull a rabbit out of his hat, he can make a coin disappear, he can turn the ace of spades into the Joker card, and two others in a similar vein. These are his only tricks and he can't learn any more; he can only do these five. HOWEVER, it turns out he's doing these five tricks with real magic. It's not an illusion; he can actually conjure the bunny out of the ether and he can move the coin through space. He's legitimately magical, but extremely limited in scope and influence. Would this person be more impressive than Albert Einstein?

These make me think that Chuck Klosterman missed his true calling as a "Table Topics for Gen X" writer. ALL of his essays seem to serve one purpose for me: they're mildly interesting, but they make me think of more interesting things that I then actually want to discuss with other people.

Weirdest thing of all, but I actually think this might be a good book for discussion at book club... not for discussing the merits of the book, but because Klosterman's random topics (the true meaning of Saved by the Bell, the weird interest he has in people who have met serial killers and lived, etc.) will hopefully inspire other things we want to talk about in the Table Topics sense of things.

My mother tried to make the point that perhaps Klosterman was really intending to inspire conversation with these topics. At first, I found it hard to believe that Klosterman, who writes about saved by the Bell and cartoon cereal characters, is really trying to inspire discussion... but that's totally it. I might find his writing to be somewhat lacking, but he really is creating a jumping-off-point for people who might find these topics to be of interest.

Oh, and if you don't pick the Loch Ness Monster, then I don't understand what you could possibly be thinking.



I can't remember where I first heard of Fingersmith, but for whatever reason, it has been on my list of books to read for ages. I know that its place was confirmed only after seeing it amongst the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but that wasn't where I first heard of this lesbian Gothic novel set in England, circa 1862. The novel is written in three sections and concerns two young women whose lives are drawn to each other in a strange web of intricate plots, though by my earlier labeling, you might also guess that they feel drawn to the other in more complicated ways, too.

I won't discuss the storyline much, because I don't wish to give away anything about the exact plot. I'll drop a few descriptive topics, though. There's a series of twists (the first of which took me off guard but the next few, I felt more prepared for) and the book is full of the classic Gothic novel staples: dark and isolated country homes, orphans without a clue of their real origins, pickpockets, families of thieves, babies fed on gin, cruel uncles, insane asylums, roguish villains, fortunes, etc.

I think I can say with some assurance that I didn't truly love this book -- that is, I wouldn't give this as a gift to any of my girlfriends (and anyway, they might get the wrong end of the stick with the topic of the novel if I were to tell them they simply must read it) -- but I did quite enjoy the experience of reading it. I suppose my quick pace might even merit the term "devour." It's a very compelling as it twists and turns and then doubles back again. In general, I liked the characters that populated this novel, particularly the two main girls. The roguish Gentleman was one-note, though as a writing technique, one doesn't necessarily mind, as we realize his uses and his fate fairly quickly. There was no real reason for Waters to waste her time developing him when the women in the novel were much more interesting. I'm not entirely convinced of the lesbian coupling, but that does appear to be Sarah Waters' focus with a few of her novels.

On the whole, I find myself pleased. I don't know why I'm drawn to Gothic novels in the summer. All this sunshine must unnerve me, or I need to balance reading in a bright park with reading about dark estates. And I'm not entirely sure that I believe this merits a place on the 1001 list (and perhaps might not have gotten that place had it not been for the lesbian storyline), but it was a good read and I certainly don't regret having had it on my list.