By Shalom Auslander
320 pages, $24.95
It’s possible that one of the 613 commandments in the Torah is "Thou shall not read Foreskin’s Lament." Which of course means read it. If you’ve got the time, read it twice, once from right to left. You’ll still laugh. It’s that funny.
Shalom Auslander’s memoir of life as a black sheep in a black hat picks up where his first book, the short-story collection Beware of God (Simon and Schuster, 2005), left off, taking a well-hewed ax to the image of the Almighty. But unlike God bashers du jour Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, Auslander believes in the pie maker in the sky. And as his worn punch line goes, it’s been a real problem for him.
It was a problem while he was growing up in the Orthodox community of Monsey, NY, where he developed a penchant for pornography and junk food. It was a problem throughout his teens, as he padded his résumé of sin with lots of pot smoking and shoplifting. And it was even more of a problem, years later, after his wife became pregnant with their first child, a son no less. Having a family aggravated Auslander’s deep-seated religious paranoia. God, the wrathful stalker who smites first and asks questions later, was surely going to murder his family. It would be payback for years of vioutf8g the laws of Judaism. As his second-most-tired punch line goes, that would be so God.
Auslander plays the alienation and theological abuse (his wife’s words, not mine) for laughs, defiling his religious upbringing in ways that will win him friends and enemies in equal measure. But his paranoia the idea that God will get him and his family casts some very dark shadows over the book, not so dismal as to ruin a good time, but grave enough to bring the story to its supplicant knees. Still, Foreskin’s Lament is a romp relentlessly unrepentant and irreverent. Auslander may be a weak man and a bad Jew, tempted by tits and traif, but he’s a better writer for it. Here’s hoping he has enough raw material for future laments over other parts of the body. (Scott Steinberg)
With Steve Almond
SF Jewish BookFest
Sun/4, 12:452 p.m., free
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Kanbar Hall
3200 California, SF
(415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org
SENTENCES: THE LIFE OF MF GRIMM
Written by Percy Carey; illustrated by Ronald Wimberly
128 pages, $19.99
While reading Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm, Percy Carey’s graphic-memoir debut, it comes in handy to know a bit of the backstory such as the recent controversy surrounding Carey, a.k.a. MF Grimm, and his former artistic partner MF Doom, onetime tight collaborators who have fallen out publicly through dis tracks. Familiarity with the innovative rapper’s street lifemeetstranscendence flows is also a plus. Readers who come to Sentences fresh may be taken aback by Carey’s grittiness and what seems to be an argument that people don’t really change they either calm down or die.
And yet Sentences, more HBO drama than MTV interview, will get you in the end. As we follow Carey, a gifted rapper but a natural fighter, from a rebellious Upper West Side youth through drug dealing, a paralyzing gunshot attack, and harsh jail time, he never stops believing that hip-hop is the most positive outlet for his particular type of raucous energy. And when he finally makes it albeit in a wheelchair starting multimedia label Day by Day Entertainment, we are right there with him.
Ronald Wimberly’s black-and-white artwork calls to mind Paul Chadwick’s careful inkings in Concrete (Dark Horse), with its use of shadows and silhouettes to emphasize emotional relationships. Although Wimberly has worked on fanciful Vertigo titles such as Swamp Thing and Lucifer, Sentences proves he has a knack for human antiheroics. Carey’s wandering storytelling style fits perfectly with the fluid, figurative scenes, which depict an urban reality full of countless ups and downs: watching a friend get set up by the cops; losing at the MC Battle for World Supremacy; standing face-to-face with Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, laying dreams on the table. When Carey presents his journal-style thoughts, the result is weirdly intimate, as when he admits that "in the end, it was my own stupidity that sent me to prison." Carey is usually less gushy, but be prepared: even the shoot-outs are heartfelt. (Ari Messer)
HONORABLE BANDIT: A WALK ACROSS CORSICA
By Brian Bouldrey
Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
296 pages, $26.95
If narratives are like hikes, best begun in lighthearted whimsy before the climb to bleak summits and bracing vistas both earned and unexpected, then Brian Bouldrey’s narrative of a hike, Honorable Bandit: A Walk across Corsica, could well be a model of its kind. The book recounts a journey by foot that Bouldrey and a friend made a few years ago across the enchanted Mediterranean island (ethnically Italian but politically part of France) where Napoleon was born. And while the tale is full of vivid detail about the expedition’s joys and travails (soaked shoes, crowded tents, sharp rocks, bad weather, wild boar, comically strange fellow travelers, the occasional glass of local wine), it also becomes, through a series of interpolated "why I walk" personal essays, a meditation on its author’s life.
Bouldrey (a former Guardian contributor) spent his young adulthood in the plague-ridden San Francisco of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the loss of a beloved to AIDS plainly still aches. Serious walking, then, is an occasion for remembering and reflecting and also, in its very meanderingness, a form of redemption: we save ourselves simply by making the effort to do so. Although most pilgrimages end up at some holy site, the literary value and interest of any pilgrimage has less to do with the destination than with the getting there, and in this sense Honorable Bandit joins a long line that begins with The Canterbury Tales.
Bouldrey has for some time been among our cheeriest bards of sorrow. As in an earlier collection of essays, Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books, 2001), he is candid about his griefs and losses without descending into self-pity over them, and his sense of the ridiculous never fails him. He is especially sensitive about his Americanness, to his being "a representative of the prevailing power" in a restive Europe. He doesn’t want to be outed as a Yank, and at the same time he is impatient with his native land and its bizarre Francophobia: "And you Americans," he thinks, "you have only one kind of mustard and you call it French’s!" Vive les moutards. (Paul Reidinger)
READING WITH SLIDE SHOW
Nov. 13, 7 p.m., free
Get Lost Travel Books
1825 Market, SF
(415) 437-0529, www.getlostbooks.com
By Adrian Tomine
Drawn and Quarterly
112 pages, $19.95
Ben Tanaka, the protagonist of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, is an ambitionless Berkeley cinema manager who attributes his outsider status not to race but to his being "a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills"; his girlfriend, Miko, is a successful organizer of an Asian American film festival who resents Ben’s attraction to Caucasian women. Every conversation between the two becomes an argument, and Ben sees every argument as a personal attack on him. So it’s with some relief that the two "take a break" while Miko’s in New York, leaving Ben free to pursue a pair of blonds.
But the girls he idealizes turn out to be just as flawed as he is, as revealed by one’s earnest but ridiculous art projects and the other’s passive-aggressive cruelty. Even Miko proves to be a hypocrite, shacking up with a "rice king" designer in Manhattan.
Compiled from the past three issues of Tomine’s Optic Nerve comic, Shortcomings isn’t all heartache and betrayal. There’s subtle comedy in small details like Crepe Expectations, the name of the café where Ben holds venting sessions with his friend Alice, a wisecracking womanizer, as well as moments of outright hilarity, as when Miko’s new white boyfriend (sorry, I mean half Jewish, half Native American) busts out a defensive karate stance when confronted by Ben on the street. And Ben’s recurring tirades about how shitty a place New York is (Tomine recently moved from the Bay Area to Brooklyn) might even be a nod to Woody Allen, the ultimate geek-cum-lothario whose wit, charm, and, above all, ability to laugh at himself are passable currency for his own shortcomings.
The thing is, Ben doesn’t seem to possess these qualities, except perhaps when courting the ladies, and we don’t get to see what he was like before his relationship went sour. So is he a sarcastic but sweet loner in need of understanding, or is he a superficial, insensitive creep who deserves a life of rejection and loneliness? Ultimately, Shortcomings is an honestly told story about the ugly end to a relationship that isn’t that black and white. (Hane C. Lee)
Conversation with Glen David Gold
Nov. 14, 7 p.m., free
1644 Haight, SF
(415) 863-8688, www.booksmith.com
Visual presentation and signing
Nov. 15, 7 p.m., free
1730 Fourth St., Berk.
(510) 559-9500, www.codysbooks.com
TWO HISTORIES OF ENGLAND
By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens
192 pages, $16.95
Jane Austen wrote her History of England when she was 16, in 1791, and she intended it to be read aloud at home. Her sister, Cassandra, drew pictures for it. These have not been reproduced in Ecco’s new edition of the history, one of several odd choices here. Various collections of Austen juvenilia include this work, and Algonquin Books published a facsimile and transcription in 1993. Why wouldn’t her fans just buy one of those? And why is her history twinned with an excerpt from Charles Dickens’s 185153 A Child’s History of England?
Austen’s recent pop-cultural upsurge no doubt explains this volume’s publication. And David Starkey makes a plausible case for reading both histories in his introduction, an apologia that’s longer than Austen’s entry. But he’s less convincing regarding their appearance in one volume, and Dickens’s inclusion calls to mind the useless (but equally space-consuming) footnotes T.S. Eliot provided to make The Waste Land book length. His contribution here covers a shorter period than Austen’s (although they both end with Charles I’s reign), and it’s hard to imagine Dickens devotees not searching out the complete text.
This book, then, seems suited primarily for the dabbler in English literature or history. Austen ascribes her work to "a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian"; the first two adjectives certainly apply to Dickens. The description is tongue-in-cheek, but the approach it suggests does allow these authors to write with, as Starkey says, "freshness and wit," producing unforgettable scenes and characters. Although Austen’s work is a satire of boring contemporary histories, it is amusing enough to spark the interest of a modern reader in the period she covers; meanwhile, Dickens’s was written for his Household Words journal and was meant to appeal to a broad audience and was used in British schools until the 1950s. These writings make history interesting and even entertaining, and whatever they lack in scholarship can be picked up elsewhere. Whatever its failings, Two Histories has the potential to be an excellent gateway drug. (Juliana Froggatt)