Jacob Cerf is a Jew living in eighteenth-century Paris who peddles his wares on the streets for a living. His life is a disaster. He’s been duped into marrying a complete nightmare of a wife, and when the opportunity arises to escape his hellish existence, he’s forced to take it; it seems to be the lesser of two evils. What happened after that is still a bit hazy — he knows he died at some point — but when he wakes up, everything is moving so fast: it’s now the twenty-first century, and for whatever reason, he’s been reincarnated in Long Island…as a fly.
He may have started out as a devout Jew, but by the time Jacob died, he’d long since considered himself to be freed from the bonds of religion and gladly participated in all kinds of debauchery. Unlike most Jews in eighteenth-century Paris, Jacob had managed to achieve unthinkable success and acceptance in French society by the time of his death. Now that he’s been reincarnated, he still harbors a mean streak and a superiority complex. Enter Leslie Senzatimore, a kindhearted volunteer fire fighter, and Masha, a beautiful Orthodox Jew who is struggling with her faith. Jacob is convinced that he has the power to control her and Leslie. What follows is a twisted experiment in change, destiny, and free will.
I feel like I need to say this upfront: I think My Heart is an Idiot is one of those books you’ll either love or hate (and I suspect many of you will fall in the hate category). Because yes, Davy Rothbart’s heart is indeed an idiot. But a lot of times, it’s also an asshole (something I determined by the first essay and confirmed periodically throughout the book). The feminist in me kept going UGH, YOU’RE SUCH A JERK. Which is why, as I turned the last page, no one could have been more shocked than me to find themselves the newest member of the Davy Rothbart fan club. Seriously, who woulda thought?
The book is a collection of sixteen essays, many of which recount Rothbart’s ill-fated romances. He’s someone who falls in — and, we soon discover, out of — love easily, willing to put everything on the line in his search for The One. He’s also kind of a bonehead about it, and his work affords him many opportunities to get carried away. As a contributor to various publications, Rothbart travels a lot. He wears his heart on his sleeve, living life to the fullest and mingling with a fair share of eclectic people along the way.
But the book is called My Heart is an Idiot for a reason. Some of his great loves, no matter how ridiculous or unattainable, will probably always haunt him. One such love is Shade, a character in a movie, of whom he writes, “It’s been seventeen years since I came out of that theater, and I still compare every girl I meet to Shade.” The events in that essay themselves read like scenes from a movie: he finds his Shade and plans a road trip with her, only to dump her a few hours into the trip because she’s not Shade…but maybe that hot Mexican girl he just encountered at Subway is (see where the whole asshole thing comes in?). There’s more to the essay, including a surreal twist of events and a surprise ending, but it’s one of many in the collection that highlights some of Rothbart’s more idiotic moments.
Role Models is the most recent book by John Waters. Marketed as a memoir, it’s really more of a memoirish collection of essays paying homage to the numerous role models Waters has looked up to over the years. Of course, if you’re at all familiar with Waters — a.k.a. the Sultan of Smut/King of Bad Taste/Pope of Trash — you might already have the feeling that his role models aren’t exactly of the Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa variety. No. Instead, Waters’s role models run the range from Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and her Comme des Garçons clothing line to the “freaks” he grew up around in Baltimore. Being a prolific writer in addition to being a filmmaker, Waters has had the chance to meet many of his role models over the years, and it is from these encounters that he culls many of the stories in the book.
In the interest of keeping my word count down (I love Waters and this is still gonna be a long post, y’all) and the review PG-13ish (him being the Sultan of Smut all all), I’m only going to touch on a few of my favorite essays in the collection. Fascinating as I found “Outsider Porn,” that one did not make my cut.
I’ll start with “Little Richard,” which appears in the last half of the book but gives some funny, interesting insight on what Waters was like as a child. He was a handful early on, and Little Richard was an early role model (in fact, that’s who inspired Waters’s trademark pencil mustache). Of all the people Waters has interviewed in his life, Little Richard was one of the people he most wanted to meet since he idolized him growing up. He writes:
I’ve been surprised this week by how little fanfare has been made over Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, Farther Away. Are people still suffering from Freedom overload? Are his fiction offerings the only things people are rabid for? Was his most recent essay on Edith Wharton the last straw? Are people just Franzened out? Who knows. All I know is that I pre-ordered the book over a month ago in anticipation, and it was so worth the wait.
Spanning the years from 1998 through 2011, the book offers a collection of twenty-one essays and speeches. I immediately recognized the first essay, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” which was his 2011 commencement address to Kenyan College graduates. Another one I recognized was “The Greatest Family Ever Storied,” which was originally published in The New York Times in 2010 (and whose title, coincidentally, I spent forever trying to recall about a month ago).
Many of the essays are on themes that fans of Franzen are now long familiar with: birding, environmentalism, and technology. But while these three recurring themes do permeate Farther Away, readers also get to see the more personal side of Franzen. The book is also filled with essays about some of Franzen’s favorite books (and least favorite books: apparently, the man really has it in for American Pastoral).
Those who have read The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History are already privy to some details of his private life, such as the pain of his divorce and the relationship with his family. He opens up a little more in Farther Away in essays like “On Autobiographical Fiction,” which was originally a lecture. I loved this essay, as he addressed some of the more annoying questions that novelists are constantly asked, beginning with “Who are your influences?” and ending with “Is your fiction autobiographical?” It’s a fantastic essay (and honestly not as obnoxious as that last line makes it sound).
At the age of 100, Mathilde Kschessinska sits down to write her memoirs. Now living in Paris, Kschessinska looks back fondly–albeit delusionally–on the prime of her life, when she was the prima ballerina assoluta of the Russian Imperial Ballet. As a talented and scheming girl of seventeen, Mathilde caught the eye of tsarevich Nicholas Romanov, the man who would later become the last tsar of Russia. The two entered a whirlwind romance; as Nicholas’s mistress, Mathilde gained professional opportunities and amassed material possessions. She envisioned herself as the future matriarch of the imperial family, but of course, it was never a possibility: Nicholas went on to marry Alexandra, and Mathilde was left with nothing but an empty home and a name of ill repute. As the years passed and Alexandra gave birth to several daughters but no male heir, Nicholas’s affections began to waver, and Mathilde found a way to capture the tsar’s attention once more. By this time, the revolution that would bring down the imperial family was beginning to foment, and Mathilde’s rekindled relationship with Nicholas would have dark consequences.
I didn’t like The True Memoirs of Little K at first. The first few chapters are devoted extensive descriptions of St. Petersburg at its height, and no detail is spared. Unfortunately, this meant that the beginning of the book is sorely lacking in plot and character development, and I was frequently tempted to stop reading. Once you do start seeing some character development, it becomes apparent that Mathilde is unbelievably vain, and she thinks so highly of herself and her place in history that I often wondered if she was mentally ill. A reliable narrator she is not.