Be careful what you read

Whether it's a fortune cookie or a bestseller, Table Talkers discover you might get more -- or less -- than you bargained for.


Salon Staff
September 15, 2006 12:15PM (UTC)

Salon Central

The Boring Thread

Aspidistra - 10:04 am Pacific Time - Sep 12, 2006 - #6057 of 6118

I don't want to leave behind the fortune cookie discussion because I think we can make some boring hay out of this opportunity. I have always wondered whether one is required to eat the fortune cookie in order for the fortune to be true. On the one (boring) hand, it seems like you'd have to. After all, you have to blow out the candles to get your birthday wish and you have to break the chicken bone to get your wishbone wish and you have to throw your penny in the fountain to get your penny-in-the-fountain wish. But then you could game the system with fortune cookies by not eating the ones that came with bad fortunes, and that doesn't seem fair. Also, all those other wish scenarios usually require secret wishes, whereas one typically reads one's fortune to one's tablemates.

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Usually I don't bother myself much about these questions, but there have been a few times in my life when I or another received fortunes of significance, and I'd like to have known whether there was something to do or not to do to affect their probability of coming true. I'll describe two of these cases, to further bore you.

One was a fortune that I received some years ago that said "Good news will soon come to you from a faraway place." At the time I received that fortune, I was expecting some significant news from a faraway place, but I expected it to be bad news. I hoped that my fortune was a sign that it would be good, and I shared my fortune with my tablemates, who were also awaiting the faraway news. Alas, it was not to be. The news was bad, as expected. So what good was the fortune cookie except to get our hopes up? Only maybe I failed in the ritual somehow. There are no instructions on the little cellophane packets.

The other case was not a fortune I received but one received by my Significant Other at the time. We were in the process of deciding the Future of Our Relationship, a more complicated question at this particular juncture than it is for most couples because staying together would require marriage for immigration purposes (to his country or mine). I was not ready to give up on the relationship, but I also didn't think I wanted that kind of commitment at that time. My SO was similarly hesitant, and we had had many talks about it without coming to any conclusion. Time was running out. One night the SO went out for dinner with his best friend, and I knew that he was planning to talk over our situation with the friend. The next morning he stopped by my office, brandishing a fortune cookie fortune that he said had settled the matter. It read "A strong-minded woman is good for any man."

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I was pleased, in a way, that he found this so applicable to me. I liked being thought of as strong-minded. I liked being good for him. But I didn't particularly like that the fortune cookie had a say in it. He should have known all that before he opened the cookie, shouldn't he? More importantly, the cookie only mentioned what was good for him. What about me? I didn't have a matching fortune cookie revelation that said "A man who believes fortune cookies is good for a strong-minded woman." So I wasn't feeling as strongly as he was that the Fates meant us to be together.

We managed to come up with an arrangement that bought us some more time, but in the end the strong-minded woman and the fortune-cookie-believing man went their separate ways. I don't blame the fortune cookie for this. Everything the cookie said was right. It just wasn't enough.

Books

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Books I Hate

David Giltinan - 04:39 pm Pacific Time - Sep 12, 2006 - #706 of 730

Since I'm in this thread, I thought I'd take the opportunity to use it as a vehicle to post about books which may not have risen (or sunk) to the level of earning my hatred, but which I found disappointing, for one reason or another.

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Most common reasons for disappointment/dislike:

Failed to match brilliance of a previously read work by same author
Author appears stuck in a rut ... this book just like previous book, and the one before that etc.
Characters decent but ultimately deathly boring
Characters so appallingly unsympathetic, or plot so miserably depressing that picking up the book is already painful
Rejection of general praise heaped on book out of sheer orneriness
Some particular stylistic tic of the author (e.g., prolixity, excessive dependence on footnotes, overenthusiastic sprinkling of brand names, author's apparent inability to write from any other viewpoint except that of the marginalized outsider, despite enormous commercial success and large rabid fan base among the NPR-listening set rendering marginalized outsider status less and less plausible) gets so out of hand as to be completely distracting
Too. much. fucking. suburban. anomie.
Author's failure to understand that, if you want me to read and care about your deep emotional scars received during your borderline-abused childhood, you have an obligation to write with enough wit to sustain my interest
Pretentious postmodern claptrap, sacrificing plot in favor of stylistic gimmickry of one kind or another
all brain. no heart

Specific examples to follow

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T. Coraghessan Boyle

Dude. You rock! I don't think you are capable of writing a short story that is anything short of awesome. And there are so satisfyingly many of them by now. If I find myself in need of a pick-me-up, all I have to do is reach for any of the several collections of your stories I've accumulated over the years and I'll be chuckling within minutes, probably guffawing. I appreciate the dry humor, the complete absence of cloying sentimentality, the concern for ecology and the environment. "Tortilla Curtain" and "East Is East" and "Budding Prospects" were equally fine.

Only one misstep in my book. That would be "The Road to Wellville," about which the less said, the better.

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I repeat. Dude. You rock!

This next author is a fool, whose work does indeed meet the criterion of "Books You Hate." So listen up, and take care to avoid the interminable scribblings of the following moron, who is dead set on exercising his constitutional right to splatter the Internet with his noxious drivel, much as a particularly pestilent skein of those Canada geese might choose to splatter bomb a suburban office park. Ingesting that goose guano won't do you any good; similarly, even threshold exposure to the inanities perpetrated on an innocent world by one Neal Pollack is likely to kill brain cells. In significant numbers.

The reasons for Neal's inclusion in the pantheon of authors who are not just bad, but detestable and obnoxious to boot, are straightforward:

Neal Pollack is not funny.
Neal Pollack is not clever.
Neal Pollack is delusional; specifically, he apparently believes himself to be both clever and funny.
Neal Pollack writes. More than he should. In an unfortunate quirk of fate, at some point, something moved the folks at McSweeney's (perhaps a desire to burnish their image as "fresh" "risk-takers") to publish a collection of Neal Pollack's scribblings in book form. This single appalling lapse in taste and judgement appears to have spawned the monster that currently goes by the name of Neal Pollack; since the publication of that McSweeney's book, a veritable tsunami of drivel has been unleashed, attributed to Neal Pollack.
None of this material is good. What is hard to convey here is just how bad it is.

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Perhaps the best analogy is Drew Carey -- a "comedian" who not only is incapable of ever being funny, but is guaranteed to suck all possible humour out of any room he infests. Add to the complete absence of wit, the complete absence of even the remotest clue and Neal's apparently boundless self-infatuation and you've got a self-aggrandizing, fatuous buffoon.

To whom I've already devoted more space than he deserves. Sadly, I do not think that Salon is an entirely Pollack-free zone; you may find yourself suddenly face-to-face with a particularly whiningly solipsistic Pollack banality, with no warning whatsoever. This is one of the costs we bear in a healthy democracy.

With respect to the unpleasantness described, the possibility must be acknowledged that "Neal Pollack" is not a real person, but instead represents some kind of overly clever experiment being perpetrated by those brainiacs at McSweeney's. It hardly matters. Drivel is drivel, and if it is some kind of fancy McSweeney's experiment, it would hardly be the first superficially clever notion of theirs to backfire into tedium.

Other McSweeney's recommendations you might want to ignore:

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"Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans" (The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category, Knopf, 2004)

Self-consciously clever? Maybe. Funny? Not even close. Where humor is concerned, there's such a thing as trying too hard. Like way too hard.

If it's a collection of short humor you want, try the "Mirth of a Nation" series, edited by Michael J. Rosen, instead.

I think I need to give Lydia Davis one further chance before making a judgement here. If only because her photo on the dust jacket of "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" is so simpatico.

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Normally I take a dim view of the kind of authorial indulgence which presents the following as a "story" and takes a full page to do so, particularly if I've bought the book in hardback:

Information from the North Concerning the Ice: Each seal uses many blowholes and each blowhole is used by many seals.

But her charming photo has earned Lydia Davis another chance for now.


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