Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

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The 150-word Review: The average reader doesn’t have the stomach for “Choke.” Palahniuk’s a guilty pleasure, not you-just-watched-another-episode-of- The-Hills guilty, but more like you-just- jerked-off-in-your-friend’s-shower guilty, a shameful weight of self-loathing mixed with the secret glee that, no, this won’t be the last time you do something like this. It is this specific feeling Chuck Palahniuk’s after, because he’s in on the secret; he knows you can’t help yourself.

Victor Mancini warns you on the first page: his story’s just going to “piss you off.” Victor is a med-school dropout who can only picture disease on everyone around him, a sex-addict who cruises recovery meetings for action, a con man who fakes choking at upscale restaurants, and an emotional weakling who pretends he’s someone else when he visits his senile and dying mother. Victor is an unredeemable mess, but somehow, reading Palahniuk’s exhilaratingly unfettered prose, I find myself giving a damn about him.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: Fight Club, repeated literary memes (See Also: stylistic trademarks, See Also: stuff that will sound cool as a voiceover), outsiders and deviants, messianic delusions, anarchic and morally inventive parents, satirical pornography, and reality’s fragile dependence on one’s perceptions.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, the film adaptation for “Choke” will be released this September, with Sam Rockwell as Victor Mancini. (When I read the book, I could only picture Sam Rockwell as Victor. This is a perfect role for him.)

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Book Pairing: “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman and “Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart

A year or so ago, I read “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman in an attempt to get my head around the endless conflagrations that dominate the Middle East. At the same time, I was also reading “Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart, a comic satire about a former-Soviet state that fakes a civil war in an attempt to capture the West’s attention and, more importantly, its money. The result was an odd convergence; Shteyngart’s cartoonish satire seemed to cherry-pick, but amplify, the most salient revelations from Freidman’s nuanced consideration of the political and social climate in the region.

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“From Beirut to Jerusalem” is the culmination of the ten years Freidman spent in the Middle East, first as a correspondent in Beirut, then in Jerusalem. The book is a document of Freidman’s Middle East education: from a zealous pro-Israeli Jewish teenager in Minnesota to an awestruck journalist in Beirut to a grizzled Middle East observer in Jerusalem. Freidman offers a crystalline analysis of the chaos in the region, perpetuated by “Hama rules,” a reference to a small town in Syria leveled by its own leaders in a brutal display of power. Tribal rivalries and brutal sectarianism have always ruled in Lebanon, trumping peace at every turn. For Freidman, “Hama rules” illustrated his personal “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. The irony of Friedman’s education is the fact that, despite its success, Israel suffers from similar problems as Lebanon, mainly a political paralysis caused, at its root, by tribalism. The result, in his opinion, is that a silent majority, in both countries, whose call for moderation and compromise is drowned out by the shouts of zealots on both sides. Friedman concludes, “in Lebanon they called the paralysis ‘anarchy’ and in Israel they called it ‘national unity,’ but the effect was the same: political gridlock.”

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To include the word “absurd” in the title of one’s novel would seem a bit on the nose. It has all the subtlety of being slapped in the face by a sturgeon. And that’s the effect Gary Shteyngart is going for in his satirical novel, “Absurdistan.” It’s the story of Misha Vainberg, a gluttonous man-child (aka Snack-Daddy), the only son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, living in a state of arrested development, pining for all things American in Russia’s post-Soviet capitalist carnival. To avoid his father’s enemies, Misha tries to circumvent diplomatic roadblocks and buy his way to America via the tiny Caspian oil-republic of Absurdistan. In Absurdistan, Misha is embroiled in a simmering feud between two ethnic groups, the Sevo and the Svanï, who have fought for centuries over which direction Christ’s footrest tilted on the cross. When American multi-nationals (“Golly Burton, Golly Burton”) arrive with chants of “LOGCAP and cost-plus contracts” their schism threatens to explode into a full-blown mediagenic civil war, proving that the only thing more lucrative in the 21st century than oil… is conflict.

Many times, the joy of reading is discovering the serendipitous connections between one book and another. Paired together, Thomas L. Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan,” offer a vivid portrait of political (and tribal) conflicts and capture the passion, bad faith, and human folly that usually lie at their heart.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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The 150-word Review: If you find Thomas Pynchon intimidating, you’re not alone. Back when my literary pretensions were fresh (and sincere), my goal was to read “Gravity’s Rainbow” and claim it as a “trophy”–a bright shiny medal that I could pin to my chest and be the envy of bookish-types everywhere. Only to fail. Twice. (I have read “Mason & Dixon.” So there. Praise me. )

“The Crying of Lot 49” is a more accessible introduction to Pynchon. Consider it a 10K in comparison to the ultra-marathon of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” It has everything Pynchonites (Pynchonians? Pynchonese?) obsess over and provides a primer for tropes that Pynchon will eventually crank to eleven in later novels. When Oedipa Maas becomes the “executrix” of her ex-boyfriend’s estate, she embarks on a surreal Californian adventure, encountering wacky musicians, esoteric tech weenies, and the Tristero: a sinister, centuries-old society, whose underground mail service may still exist today.

Having this book on your shelf will impress: fans of inventive character names and silly song lyrics, conspiracy theorists, Harold Bloom, auctioneers, Lisa Simpson (Are you reading “Gravity’s Rainbow?” “Well, re-reading.”), Thurn und Taxis, boorish North Beach tourists, and nascent computer hackers.

This book will go great with: Paulaner Hefe-weizen

Set the mood with: Mr. Postman (Beatles cover)

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Thomas Pynchon may have modeled the fictional “Yoyodyne” corporation after Boeing, where he worked as a technical writer in the early ‘60’s.