“Girls”, “Last Man on Earth”, and the Art of Being Unlikeable

When I was thirteen, I was in love with this girl named (hmm…let’s call her) Jenny. Jenny had no idea who I was, and if she did, she was keeping it way on the down-low. One day, I saw her talking to a boy named Tristan, whom I knew to be a student with special needs (we did not call them that then…).

I saw Tristan as my “in”, and if I could establish some rapport with Tristan, establish some bonafides with Jenny (I’m nice, I talk to “special” kids), then establish that Tristan could go away, I might be able to finagle the situation into something resembling a come-on.


Except, Jenny really had no idea who I was, and when I approached, asked Tristan if I was his “little friend.” Forget that she was patronizing: that’s what cool, pretty, popular junior high school girls did, as far as my thirteen-year-old brain could tell. Hell, the only boys with the stones to approach them without some hare-brained scheme were the kids blessed with lowered faculties for manipulation, abuse, and exploitation (This is, of course, not necessarily true; I’m sure those with different, perhaps even objectively diminished mental faculties are just as capable of manipulation as Mensa-grade diplomats in war-torn Darfur, but it did not seem that way to my thirteen-year-old brain. I chose Tristan because I saw him not as a person but as an opportunity). Anyway, I took her comment as an affront and more importantly a wedge in my genius plan, so I back-pedaled, informed everyone who would listen that Tristan was not my friend because I was not in the same classes as him, because I was not retarded.

Yep. Retarded. Said it at least three times, once in that junior high voice that signified to assholes everywhere the idea of “retarded.”

Jenny and I are Facebook friends now. That’s the extent of our romance. I do not remember one conversation we had after that afternoon that did not begin with “Do you have a pencil?” and end with “Yes/No.” It never occurred to me to apologize to Tristan, which is shameful. He is, as far as I can tell, not on Facebook.

I am tiptoeing like a ballerina on hot coals to distance myself from that disgusting little thirteen-year-old bastard. Except, I still am that disgusting little bastard, in my heart. Insecure, sneaky, manipulative, and consciously striving to approach others with honesty and integrity and without prejudice, especially when I have the opportunity to make someone I perceive as “less-than-I” look dumber, weaker, angrier, or meaner, therefore making me look smarter, stronger, happier, and kinder to someone I want to impress. Especially if I think it’s funny.

I mention this not as some mea culpa (25 years late…) but because the season finale of “Girls” and a particularly gnarly pair of episodes of “Last Man on Earth” aired on Sunday (3/22). The shows could not be more different, except that both have a particularly interesting knack for making the protaganist(s) artfully, if bludgeoningly, unlikeable.

The lack of likeable characters is a knock that’s dogged “Girls” since its premiere–spoiled, entitled, manipulative, bafflingly overconfident (to the point of psychosis–Marnie makes “Eastbound and Down’s” Kenny Powers look almost Buddhist)–and perhaps most damningly “hip to the point of insufferable triviality.” And yet the show leans into these criticisms, which leaves room for grace notes that seem earned. When Jessa surprises herself by taking control of the gonzo water-birth of Adam’s sister, it’s affecting, undercut by her decision later in the episode to become a therapist (she lacks the skill, education, empathy, and rigor to train a pet, let alone become a licensed therapist for other human beings). And yet you pull for her, just as you pull for Hannah and Adam and Ray–whether they’re trying or not, their weaknesses are the same weaknesses I see in myself (pretension, deflection, projection, self-pity, etc.).  Marnie and Desi suck, suck, suck, though.

Sunday’s “The Last Man on Earth” was surprising in its cruelty, even if it knew exactly what it was doing. Phil Miller’s (Will Forte) treatment of the new “last man” is so transparently immature and shitty (he talks of “the Fats” as if they are a racial subset) that it becomes a parody of insecure Alpha-male posturing (and done so ineptly as to be a kind of performance art). I actually think these two episodes could skew viewership, as Phil has become so unsavory, needy, and unlikeable that it transcends satire. It is only pathetic; there is no meta-agenda. I personally think it’s brave–it’s the most daringly awful a purportedly “comedic” show has consciously allowed its main character to act since Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in the British “Office”.

Many people like shows with “likeable” protaganists. What are these shows, objectively speaking? “The Big Bang Theory”? “Friends”? “Mike and Molly”? I’m cherry-picking, of course, and bashing on traditional, laughtrack-based shows of a certain ilk, and yet these shows have terrible human beings at their center. Whiny, unrealistic, grabby, awful people. Chandler Bing is such a profound homophobe he hates his own transgender dad and uses her as a point of ridicule. Ross’s codependency is borderline sociopathic. Rachel is a callow, materialistic man-eater. Joey is a stupid, amoral, gluttonous, womanizing douchebag. Take away the laugh track and it becomes an Andrew Jarecki documentary. The only reason we do not see that is because the conflicts and co-stars are even worse. We root for the protagonists because even though they are ethical monsters, the people they have to deal with and challenges they have to overcome are beyond the pale. The unlikeable is masked by the overall misanthropy of the writers and creators.

I enjoy “Girls” and “Last Man…” because they don’t just needle, they explore. We are asked not just to laugh at the characters, but come to terms with them. It’s the difference between “this is humanity” and “that is humanity”–one points in, the other out. The comedy pricks because the unsavory behavior is rooted in what we (OK…I) feel is endemic to our (my) insecurity, our (my) shitty behavior, our (…my) inept attempts to act like a human being. Which probably makes it that much more human.

Random Recommendation: “Headhunters” (Netflix), Morten Tyldum’s debut, is crazy and fun and risky. Basically everything his solid but staid second film “The Imitation Game” is not. At one point there is a chase involving a forklift, a dead dog, and a very, very dirty outhouse.

Can’t wait for: “Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Graphic novel that explores feminism and patriarchy through a combination of sci-fi and women-in-prison exploitation films of the 1970’s. Basically the weird bastard child of Betty Friedan and Russ Meyer.


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Twenty-One 2014 Moments (10 Weeks Late)

I wanted to work up lists for television, film, music and books. But I also wanted to blog this year, and with coaching baseball and moving that didn’t happen, so completing those lists would’ve just cemented how disconnected I was for most of the year. Instead, here are the twenty-one most profound things I’ve seen, heard, or read this year, in no particular order:

1. Ida

2. “Heal” by Strand of Oaks

3. Madison Bumgarner in the MLB Playoffs and World Series

4. Lego Movie

5. “Lost in a Dream” by The War on Drugs

6. Olive Kitteridge on HBO

7. Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mantel

8. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

9. “The Outsiders” by Eric Church

10. Broadchurch on Netflix

11. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

12. The first hour and forty-five minutes of Django Unchained

13. The Magic Flute by Mozart

14. Jason Isbell

15. Serial and Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcasts

16. Stories of Stefan Zweig

17. Doris Lessing (Specifically The Fifth Child)

18. The Prophet by Michael Koryda

19. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

20. Grandmaster Clash by Seth Stevenson from Slate Magazine

21. Frank Rich’s conversation with Chris Rock

One nice thing about putting this out so late, is I can look at all the award winners and feel unjustifiably pissed-off and maybe a little insecure in my choices. I did not like Foxcatcher, for example. I really, really did not like Birdman, and feel like it is an empty stunt (Mike Myers once said haggis was invented on a dare–Birdman is the haggis of movies). Not sure about the new D’Angelo album.

In 2014, there were a lot of naked emperors. Loads of naked people, as far as I can tell (Boyhood is, at best, Donald-Ducking it).

I have every intention of blogging again. Two or three a week, I hope. I am going to try and keep it focused on something I’ve read, seen, or heard. I might throw in something personal every now and again…

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F Word

My son plays Scribblenauts, this game where you write a word and the cartoon equivalent appears on the screen.  He can battle dragons and zombies, etc.  The game has a remarkable and terrifying vocabulary server, so you type things like “serial killer” or “pedophile” and they appear onscreen, ready to wreak havoc.  Tonight he made a trash can and then trash to throw in it.  He’s prosaic.  I helped him type “paper” and ” tin can” but he wanted “fish skeleton”‘, which pleased me, because it’s nice to know that cartoons still stick to the requisite trash can contents they did when I was a kid. No one has actually seen a fish skeleton in a trashcan, just like we’ve never seen someone carrying a bag of groceries from the market that has a baguette and a head of romaine sticking out the top, even though that’s what everyone in the movies buys, only and always.  Scribblenauts, impossibly, does not have a fish skeleton within its matrix, so it dumped a human skeleton on the screen.  My son threw it in the trash and felt it was a reasonable substitute.

Anyway, I got cussed out at work today in the best way possible.  I don’t normally talk about work, because I don’t want to be unemployed, but today was fun, so I’ll hope for the best.  I was checking my mail during first period and a student walked by, looked at me, and as calmly as she’d be if she was checking the weather said ” I hate the people in the fucking office.”

I said that was too bad because that was where we were going.

She disagreed.

“I’m not fucking going there.”

Twice, so she so was.

“You can’t just say that and go.  Come one.”

And it began.  She looked at me and said “Fuckety-fuck-de-fuckety-fuck-fuck-fuck.”

Earlier in the week, I’d overheard this kid tell another student that it was “Noon-forty,” so I wasn’t really sure what I was dealing with (fun fact, it was actually 10:30 at that point…).  She was walking away.

“What’s your name?” I asked, and I prayed she would say it, knew she would say it.

“My name’s Fuckety Fuck.”


Never did catch her, but she cussed out her first period teacher and he brought her in.

Apparently this is a regular thing.  I never caught her name, but at least I know what she likes to be called.


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Seen: The Place Beyond the Pines (8/7/13)


After we saw The Place Beyond the Pines last night, we flipped through the cableverse for a couple of minutes before landing on Crazy, Stupid, Love, at the point where Ryan Gosling has Emma Stone in his house and is explaining his “Dirty Dancing deal-closing move.”


I thought about a comment a writer at Esquire had made about George Clooney five or six years ago, that George Clooney would never admit and maybe never realize that his work in Ocean’s Eleven was better than his work in Syriana, and he had the Oscar to prove otherwise anyway.

So I’ll say it: Ryan Gosling will never admit that the supposed “fluff” of Crazy, Stupid, Love is more profound that either of his films with Derek Cianfrance (…Pines and Blue Valentine) or Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive and Only God Forgives), or that his performance in CSL is the most enjoyable work he’s done.

That’s not to say he should stick to romantic comedy, one instinct complements the other–his work in the Refn movies is kind of minimalist and almost zombie-like, but it feels dangerous with all the mayhem around it, and that gives his lighter performances a crackle, just as his lighter performances make the heavier stuff easier to comprehend and associate with–it’s only that I fear that Gosling, like Clooney and Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg, tends to take himself and his movies a little too seriously, and tends to gravitate to films by directors who take themselves way too freaking seriously.

Case in point: The Place Beyond the Pines strives for Shakespeare, but in essence is nothing but “soap opera,” according to my wife, and she’s pretty on the nose.  Coincidence piles up, what should be almost Greek in dramatic depth feels like Days of Our Lives.  It’s worth seeing, if only because it’s gripping moment to moment, even if the viewer is constantly making allowances for the storytelling.

For example, the film shifts from Ryan Gosling’s daredevil motorcyclist/bank robber (yes, I just wrote that) to focus on Bradley Cooper’s young hero-cop/aspiring politician (um…yes).  Cooper is in the hospital after a shootout, and The D.A. (Bruce Greenwood) grills him about whether the shooting is justified or not, asking whether the perp pulled first, shot first, etc.  It’s interesting, but implausible: Cooper followed an armed perpetrator into a civilian’s house, the perp had a gun and was waving it around.  This is not the wild west, the shooting was justified.  So why the big question session?  To expose the melodramatic gray area of police and criminal?  To deepen the morally ambiguity of Cooper’s character?

Fine, but it rings false, as when later Ray Liotta takes Cooper to the house of the perpetrator Cooper’s killed and makes him stand there while he and some corrupt cops search the premises for cash they suspect the guy gave his girlfriend before Cooper killed him.  Cooper just got out of the hospital.  He still needs a crutch from where he took a bullet.  Why take him?  Because it’s dramatic.  It’s also hogwash and manipulative and unbelievable.

If you’re going to aspire to visceral and naturalistic filmmaking–and there are scenes–long tracking shots and motorcycle chases, as well as some excellent, subtle camerawork in quieter moments (a bedroom tiff with Rose Byrne and Cooper, lit perfectly, comes to mind, though the film is gorgeous consistently)–that show that Cianfrance has the goods–then you have to have your ducks in a row with the naturalistic details, otherwise it’s jarring.  …Pines reminds me of a couple of films by James Gray–The Yards and We Own the Night–both of which swing for Great American Filmmaking, but stumble under the weight of the storytelling.  Still, it’s a big movie, and I’m interested in other people’s opinions about its ambitions.

Swinging for the fences is never a bad thing.

Case in point, and a good counter example: Rust and Bone.

This movie is ridiculous.  It includes a killer whale trainer who gets her legs bitten off, a MMA fighter who helps her, their eventual love story, and a twist at the end that involves a character having to punch a whole in a frozen lake.

I was reminded of the film because both movies use Bon Iver’s “Wolves pt. I and II” in the closing credits.

The reason Rust and Bone works, aside from the fact that Jacques Audiard, who also made The Beat my Heart Skipped and A Prophet, two of the better films of the past decade, is that the events and characters (not to mention performances, specifically the two leads, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts) are invested with such conviction  that the result is moving and profound in a manner similar to the films of Douglas Sirk or John Stahl.

While …Pines pretends to be something it’s not–a serious, realistic film–Rust and Bone has the temerity to embrace the twists and turns of melodrama for the profundity it offers.  If anything, and for all its brio, what The Place Beyond the Pines suffers from is the slightest bit of trepidation.  Dare we go all out?  It hedges its bets, and hangs them on a police procedural framework that does it no favors.

Rust and Bone, unrestrained by such jitters, is all the stronger for it’s gonzo leanings.


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Done: 8/6/13

So, CrossFit.

Some background: CrossFit is basically regimented, group High Intensity Interval Training with barbell lifts, kettlebells, medicine balls, box jumps, etc.  Every day is different, and you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you get there (or look online, which I tried but it was too early and they hadn’t updated the site). 

It stresses short, high impact workouts (according to Seneca, the guy at CrossFit 1809, as few as five minutes and as many as fifty), with a short warm-up.  

The place is set up like the kind of Russian lifting barn you see shirtless, bullet-headed muscle milling about whenever Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or Van Damme need to discuss something with a Croatian crime lord in the back office.  There were no hissing pipes, and the lighting was flourescent track rather than one single, yellow bulb hanging from an exposed wire (natch)  but because I’m me and always have to pee, I used the restroom before I started and the facilities looked like a kill room, all white tile with a drain in the middle of the floor.  I’m not sure what business occupied the building before CrossFit did, but I’m glad I didn’t work there.


So far so good.  This is what I wanted.  No bullshit, no nautilus, no step machines, just a group of us and some mother-effing iron to throw around.  

Except, it turned out to just be me.  “Slow morning,” Seneca said.  I never caught his last name.  I think it’s on the site.  I wanted to ask if he was named after the famous Stoic essayist, but it didn’t seem to be the time or place.

We started right at eight with the warmup and some instruction.  Big surprise: I wasn’t doing squats correctly.  Another big surprise: I wasn’t doing kettlebell swings correctly either.  I was bending my back and using too much arm and shoulder.  Apparently, a true kettlebell swing relies on your hips and ass a lot more.  You hike it through your legs and then, rather than arcing the weight back up, you clench your ass and basically fuck it forward.  



That’s three years and thousands of reps (in gym parlance) down the toilet.  It’s not like I was completely off base, like swinging the kettlebell with my wiener or something, but it did make me realize why my lower back was always sore.  He said the new form will “utilize my quad power train” which sounds badass except he really means my hips, ass, and hamstrings.

The warmup was four exercises: jumping jacks, body-weight squats, mountain climber stretch, and jump squats.  Fifteen seconds of each, four times, no breaks.  

No problem.

I entertained the idea, driving to CrossFit, that I was basically going to slam dunk the whole workout, throw it down like a pizza crust and ask for more.  The trainer would ask me to train him.  I would start my new career as a CrossFit ambassador, a fitness savant.  


My wife calls this self-inflated egomania.  I call it a healthy growth-mindset.  

I can run eight miles, sprint up hills, bench 200 lbs, and do twenty pull-ups (not in a row, which soon became the problem).  The warm-up, while not grueling, left me short-of-breath and sweating, and the jump-squats–now that I was actually bending my knees like I was supposed to and dropping my ass as low as required–made my legs burn.  Not a good sign.

Next was planks.  No problem.  I began, settling onto my elbows but Seneca told me to get on my hands because it works on “shoulder stabilization.”  These are harder, and I had to really concentrate on the side planks lest I should roll over and lay on his feet like a shot dog.

OK.  Warmup over.  Bring on the meat.

The main workout consisted of three exercises, performed as a circuit, three times, with no breaks.  I was to run 400 meters, swing a 35 lb. kettle bell 50 times, then do something called “wall balls”.

Let’s talk about wall balls.  I hate when you read about or see someone do an exercise, either in a magazine or online, and it looks easy, and you think to yourself “I can do a hundred of those.”  Then you try it and it sucks.  Sucks with the strength of ten-thousand Dysons.  That is a wall ball.

It’s very simple.  You hold a large, twenty pound medicine ball in front of you, do a squat, then explode up and try to push/throw the ball up past a demarcated line (orange) on the wall in front of you.  You stand about a foot away from the wall.  No problem.  Except you don’t have to do it once.  You have to do it twenty times, and the ball comes back down and in one fluid motion you have to catch it, go into your squat, load up, and throw it again.  It’s basically a plyometric thruster, like I do with dumbbells, except I’m not throwing the dumbbells in the air because I work out in my basement and my wife would kill me if I dented the drywall.

I squatted and hurled the ball five times while he watched.  He nodded, told me good work and asked if I was ready.  


The first 400 meter run was easy.  The fifty kettle bell swings kind of kicked my ass, and the wall balls sucked.

“One down,” Seneca said.  Good time so far.  And it was, only three minutes and fifty seconds for the first round.  

The second 400 meters was kind of hairy, as I usually rested a minute or two between hard runs.  Not today.  However, as I rounded the corner to come back into the gym, Seneca was there, cheering me on.  It was sweet.  I am a thirty-six year-old man, alone except for a giant named Seneca who I’ve met exactly zero times before roughly fifteen minutes ago, and at that point his praise suddenly meant more to me than anything my wife has ever said.  I remember his exact words: “Keep it up.  Doing good.”

Fucking nectar.

After the kettle bell, the second time, I set the weight down and watched the clock for fifteen seconds.  No way I was running over to that wall again before I got two or three good breaths in.  At this point, once I made it over and had four or five reps behind me, the orange line was a pipe dream.  Now it was just about getting through the twenty reps.

As I stepped out of the gym for the third  and last time, I looked behind me and realized I was looking to see if Seneca was following me.  Why?  Because I knew if he wasn’t, there was a good chance I was going to run to my car and drive home.  But, there he was, so I ran the 400 again, and if I managed it in 1:40 the first time, this time I was lucky to get there and back in three minutes.  

Kettle bells again.  My ass clenching and unclenching, humping it forward.

And, finally, wall balls.  I stopped at seven and fifteen to breathe, but got through it.  

14:40 total.  The whole thing took less than 15 minutes.  I was sweating like I’d run five miles.  

Seneca was complimentary, and I was the second best time of the day (it’s Tuesday, at 8AM, so I didn’t break my arm patting myself on the back).  I noticed that the guy in front of me had an “RX” by his name.  I asked what it meant.  

“It means he did all of it with good form, and managed to make the prescribed distance on the wall ball every time.”  I nodded, and waited for him to put the letters by my names two.  He capped the marker and put it back on the table.  

Oh well.

We talked for a few minutes afterwards.  He’s training for the CrossFit Games and hopes to make regionals.  He showed me his “WOD” (workout of the day), which was ungodly.  One exercise said “weighted sled.”  Another said “walk on hands.”

He mentioned that he’d been doing this for a few years and started at 260 lbs., completely out-of-shape, but the teamwork and regimented approach was really a great motivator.  I couldn’t tell if that was part of the pitch; a success story is always a nice personal touch, but he didn’t give me any reason to doubt him and he seemed to legitimately enjoy what he does.

So I’m still alive, and because the whole week is free, I’m taking my wife on Thursday.  Is this for me?  I like that it’s only an hour.  I like the intensity.  The price is a bit steep, and will be the deciding factor.  Truth is, I like working out in my basement.  My son plays Wii and my daughter makes fun of me while I exercise.  It’s not CrossFit, but it’s something.

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Heard: 8/5/13

The Civil Wars: Their new album is an improvement over their last, as far as I’m concerned.  Same pretty harmonies, same sad balladry, but there’s so more oomph here, it’s harder, faster (those are relative terms–we’re still talking hipster-country here).  Word is the two principals are on the outs and have been for a awhile.  I thought they were a couple, actually.  They’re not, so the bonds of state and god aren’t present to keep them together.  Oh well, so maybe this is it.  It’s not Shoot Out the Lights, but it’s pretty good.


My favorite new band of the year is The Lone Bellow, who I listened to once in January, didn’t like because I’m a moron (most albums I really like are those I dismiss initially) but kept on my iPod until shuffle convinced me to give them another chance.  Good job, iPod shuffle!  They sound like Fleetwood Mac if Fleetwood Mac grew up in NYC, learned to love bluegrass and western swing, threw all their glitter off an overpass and replaced it with grit and sand.  Does that make sense?  Who cares!


Also listening to:

Daft Punk

Chris Young: Neon

Kanye West: Yeezus

Kasey Chambers: Same Trailer, Different Park

Also, even though I think Prince could’ve written “Blurred Lines” during a particularly productive dump in say, 1986 (around Sign O’ the Times), it’s still a lot of fun.  Can’t get behind Robin Thicke.  He could shit gold bricks and the cure for cancer and I’d still think he looked like a jerk.  Hate the sinner, not the sin?

Tomorrow I will try CrossFit at 8AM.  I’ll report back, if I don’t chicken out.  I’m also going to try to include a recipe each week.  This week will be Hungarian Wild Mushroom Goulash!  My wife and kids will be so pleased.  I can already see their smiles…

I may try some Korean cooking too.  Since I haven’t eaten authentic (or even Ohio-based, pseudo-authentic) Korean food, I imagine the results will be similar to my first experience with Thai Cooking–it will be delicious because I know no better.  Ah, ignorance: you are the last true friend a man has.

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Read: August 4, 2013

Deliverance by James Dickey:


I’ve circled this for a awhile, but figured I’d never actually read it.  I knew the story, though I’ve never seen the film. 


I expected it to be pompous and full of hot air, and it is, with all the trappings of your typical manly survival narrative a la “…Francis Macomber” or Deer Hunter.  However, I didn’t expect Dickey’s novel to be a page-turner.  I assumed I’d pick at it for a few weeks and finally finished it, but a few spare hours later I was halfway done, and I stayed up until early morning polishing it off last Sunday.  It’s rare that a book with a reputation still has the power to carry one along like the best trash does, but there you go. 

 Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison:


Another book by an unrepentant man’s man.  After this week I’d be surprised if I don’t have double the chest hair and three times the pubes.  Three novellas in this one, including the title story.  I saw the movie twenty years ago, in small theater in Bowling Green while I was visiting my wife (then girlfriend) at college.  I remember mainly Brad Pitt’s hair (extraordinary) and Anthony Hopkins’s strange gargle of a voice after his character’s stroke. 


The story is hogwash, honestly, but I read that Harrison’s work should be taken seriously, so I dipped a toe.  “Legends…”  is the weakest of the three.  The first, “Revenge”, was made into a film with Kevin Costner and Madeline Stowe, but I never saw it.  It’s fun, fun, fun.  Bloody and sexy and full of Mexican sand and long comma-less sentences.  The second story, “The Man Who Gave Up his Name” is surprising, in that it’s a gentle story about lost suburban love, acute and affecting and a bit like the parts of John Irving that aren’t about bears, wrestling, and/or missing body parts.

Also Read:

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester

The Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

The Son by Phillipp Meyer

Nos482 by Joe Hill

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I’m going to try CrossFit this week, so this may be my last post.  If I make it, I’ll report back.


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