Category Archives: Satire

Image and Identity: Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (Audio)

Cover image of Look at MeEveryone who liked Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad will probably like Look at Me, a novel published in 2001. Even if you weren’t crazy about A Visit from the Goon Squad because of all the ’70s music references or the disconnectedness of it, you might like this novel of intersecting stories better because the stories are more closely tied together.

Charlotte Swenson, a beautiful model who doesn’t reveal her true age, is getting less and less work through her agent and is firmly in denial that it’s not too late to reach supermodel status, when she is in an accident and has to have facial reconstruction surgery to put her face back together. Her whole life in New York City has been built around how she looks. But, although her face can be fixed and the damage repaired (This is a novel about alteration, not disfigurement), Charlotte becomes unrecognizable to herself and to others.

Charlotte’s is just one story line in the book, but even though Charlotte herself is a loner, an aging party girl, a beauty for hire (one of Jennifer Egan’s recurring images,) her story is the one that connects all the others. There’s Charlotte’s timid sister, Grace; the private detective, Anthony Halliday, wanting to talk with Charlotte about the accident; Charlotte’s childhood best friend, also a beauty, Ellen, with a family of her own now; Moose, Ellen’s brother; Ellen’s daughter, Charlotte, and her son Ricky; a new teacher at their school who says he comes from California; and Irene, a reporter assigned to write a story on Charlotte. In this pre-9/11 novel, the author also imagines the consummate outsider – a man from an unspecified Islamist country who discards and changes identities convincingly, infiltrating and assimilating, while plotting spectacular acts of terrorism and burning with hatred for America and Americans. While bringing out serious themes and ideas, the author can be playful with her characters and treats some of their interactions with light irony.

There is so much to talk about in this novel – beauty, image, media, celebrity, family, class, culture, terrorism – that it could make for a great book discussion book, for a group that wouldn’t get too distracted by Charlotte’s cocaine- and booze-fueled lifestyle and the reckless behavior of many, if not all, of the characters during their individual crises of identity. (A lot of characters go off the rails in this one.) Charlotte herself is fascinating, but not likeable.

This is a wide-ranging novel (20 hours long) and narrator Rachael Warren does an incredible job voicing the thoughts of the mostly female main characters, especially Charlotte. Each character’s story is important, resonating with the other stories and carrying layers of meaning within itself, but the audiobook narrator lightly conveys the different personalities of each character with slight changes in her voice. The only quibble I have with the audio production is that there were errors that weren’t edited out. Not just the many odd pronunciations (which I always figure could actually be me with the incorrect pronunciation) but also a few clear mistakes to the extent that I haven’t heard on audiobooks before. For example, “She twirled her head on a finger” instead of “She twirled her hair on a finger” and “Front Loop” instead of “Froot Loop”. I wondered if they were on the audio edition on CD or only on the Audible download. These occasional errors were surprising and a little distracting, but wouldn’t stop me from recommending this as a very good audiobook.

Disclosure: I received Look at Me by winning a free Audible download of my choice of any book by a female author from audiobook narrator Karen White’s Home Cooked Books blog.

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This One’s a Winner!: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (Audio)

I take back everything I’ve ever said about authors narrating their own audiobooks (don’t, please, don’t!) after listening to Libba Bray‘s incredible performance on Beauty Queens. She brings to life her own satirical look at advertising and news media, corporate ethics, commercialism, and pop culture, through the darkly humorous story of teen beauty pageant contestants who survive a plane crash onto a jungle island. (Only a small percentage of the original fifty states’ contestants survive. Miss Massachusetts is not among them, although her gown does come in handy at one point.) The airline staff, the camera crew…all dead. As if in a reality show without the show, the girls appear to be on their own with only few supplies other than some waterlogged bags of airline pretzels and a surfeit of beauty aids.

With this year her last chance to win before she ages out, the bold and brassy Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, representing Texas, takes charge, insisting that the girls keep up their pageant routines while Adina (Miss New Hampshire) sardonically observes that shelter, food, and water should probably take priority, but is ignored. Each of the main characters has a story that gets revealed as they begin to trust each other, but there’s no time to sentimentalize each girl’s individual discovery of strengths she didn’t know she had, as the author throws the girls into one dangerous situation after another, and not just snakes, tropical storms, slumbering volcanos, or other jungle threats. The author’s wild subplots involving terrorist, politics, reality shows, and more, keep the action and humor going strong. And, yes, some hot boys do eventually come into the picture, so there’s romance too, but with a few twists on the usual YA romance fare.

Like the Miss Teen Dream contestants themselves, who are not all as they present themselves to pageant judges and each other, this young adult novel is more than meets the eye. Under the hilarious satire, skewering everything from product placement to international arms dealing, lie serious themes that readers of both sexes can think about and form opinions on. The salty language, frank talk about sexual desire in teens, left-leaning politics, and the distinctly Sarah-Palin-by-way-of-Tina-Fey voice of Ladybird Hope (former Miss Teen Dream now presidential candidate) might make this book slightly less humorous to social conservatives than to more liberal-leaning readers. But I was impressed by the author’s even-handedness in many parts of the book where she avoided the common pitfall of only being open-minded about opinions that match our own, allowing for the girls from both red and blue states to experience some brief, eye-opening moments of understanding before switching the story over to crazed villains or hot pirates.

The audiobook production – with its distinctive voices for each contestant, sound effects signaling the end of a CD, and Saturday Night Live-worthy “commercial breaks” – is far more than just a reading of the book. It deservedly won this year’s Audie Award for best narration by an author. An interview with Libba Bray at the end of the audiobook is also humorous and enlightening.

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More Than Satire: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Edgar Kellogg, the main character of The New Republic, a novel by Lionel Shriver, is a striver and a fan –the salutatorian instead of the valedictorian, the vice president, the second-place finisher. He’s tired of doing the admiring; he wants to be admired. His place near the top of the legal profession means nothing to him now that he’s made it there, so he throws it all in to take up the calling of his old English public school idol Toby Falconer – foreign correspondent for the National Record.
Author Lionel Shriver (an American woman who lives in England) has expressed some exasperation in the past with publishers who insist on putting “girly” covers on her novels, saying it’s “like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.” They’ve finally listened with the cover of The New Republic, a book that the author finished in 1998 and couldn’t get published. (It’s not that it’s poorly written –Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin got a lot of rejections, too, but when finally published, became a critically acclaimed bestseller – it’s more because of the subject matter, terrorists and their political wing who are more inept than intimidating, and the characters, who are all flawed and unlikeable in various ways.)
The New Republic is set in Barba, an imaginary peninsula of Portugal, where a band of terrorists with the unfortunate name S.O.B. has sprung up, demanding independence for Barba, the most godforsaken province you could ever imagine, and responsible for barbarous acts of terrorism in Europe. Edgar lands his first real gig as a foreign correspondent in Barba, a backwater that only interests the rest of the world when the S.O.B. and its political arm, O Creme de Barbear, make the news after committing some new atrocity.
To his vast annoyance, when he arrives in Barba, Edgar finds himself following in the footsteps of another outsized, charismatic personality like Toby Falconer back in high school. Barrington Saddler’s English accent, animal magnetism, insider’s knowledge, and sparkling repartee, charmed the females in Barba’s journalistic enclave and had the male reporters vying for his approval, until Saddler suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. At first, Saddler’s absence makes more of an impact on the enclave of foreign correspondents than Edgar’s presence, but Edgar is staying in Saddler’s house, eating his leftover food, and becoming attracted to Saddler’s former lover, Nicole. The more Edgar learns about Saddler, Barba and the S.O.B., the more he learns about becoming larger-than-life himself.
Lionel Shriver writes unsettling books. Her characters are always human, rarely heroic. They make mistakes; some are big and disastrous ones. The New Republic is funny, as biting satire should be, but also frightening in how plausible the outrageous scenario she sets up seems.
Not recommended for fans of women’s fiction (!) but if you liked The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, you might also like The New Republic‘s portrayal of foreign journalists.

The New Republic
Shriver, Lionel
HarperCollins
March 2012
978-0-06-210332

Disclosure: I read most of this book as an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley, but it expired before I finished, so I read the ending from a public library copy of the book.
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